I don’t know about you, but most of my basic beliefs seem to be shattered. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022, my life feels totally altered. No day passes without bouts of despair. Of course, my point is not that my despair is anywhere near that of the Ukrainians (it is not), but merely to make sense of my experience. Having grown up during the Cold War with parents who lived through WW II, I feel like I’ve come full circle. The reason I find this noteworthy is that I feel fairly alone when considering many compatriots and people around me. Perhaps I’m mistaken in this, but for me this is a war on Europe and everything I believe in. While many people seem to take the question whether Europe is actually under military attack very seriously (and, of course, we should), my feeling is that “my world” has been invaded already.
Let me get one thing out of the way: If you look for clever analyses, look elsewhere. I have nothing important to say. Being a German citizen, I am deeply ashamed of the government of my country, for it does too little to support the Ukrainian people. (Here is a petition that you should consider signing.) But I happily leave political and strategic analyses to people more competent. All I’m attempting is to share my grief and some impressions – in the hope that this might be soothing or whatever to others.
So what is it that’s getting to me? Somehow there seems to be so much hatred in the world that it might become uninhabitable. What does that mean? Climate change is threatening to make the world uninhabitable in terms of heat etc. But there might also simply be too much hatred. – I come from a working class family in what was called Western Germany. My parents were poor and timid, in the way that refugees from the East seem to feel out of place, but they always inspired love and hope in me. Although I’ve hardly kept contact to family members from Eastern Germany, I always felt a strong bond with them, and when I moved to Hungary in the early 90s, I felt very much at home. The same was true of other European countries: wherever I came I felt at home. Europe was home. And it was, despite all shortcomings, a beacon of hope and progress.
The first time I thought something was off was after people voted for Brexit. (Of course, there are many other events that were bad and sinsister, but for some reason this held a special weight.) From my early days onwards, I grew up with a love for Britain. This love was intensified through music and, later, through briefly joining the academic world there. When I crossed the border, I felt like coming home. Brexit has taken that away. It felt like people were spitting me in the face saying “you were mistaken”. The election of Trump was another such event. Yes, a lot is rotten in the world, but certain places held a promise for me that has been diminished since 2016.
Looking back at this today, these events feel like a preparation for what was to come. People who know me know that I felt and feel a very strong bond to Eastern Europe. I don’t know why, but visiting countries like Hungary and Romania always felt a bit like coming home. Although I was mainly an onlooker at the time, 1989 defined my understanding of my place in the world. In a nutshell, you might say that I experienced 1989 as real progress. Not the end of history, for sure. I am very much aware that much went wrong and that the “former East” was clearly colonised by the West. But still, things seemed to get better.
In 1945, when my mother was five years old, her home was invaded by Russian soldiers. One of them directed his machine gun at the children huddled against a wall, shouting “one, two, three, I shoot you!” My mother never told me what precisely had happened. But whatever else she (or my father for that matter) might have left out of their accounts, I never would have thought that Europe would return to a state of being a source for these kinds of stories. – This dream was shattered, of course, with the war in former Yugoslavia. But, it seemed, this wasn’t fatal for the European idea. Note again please that I’m not trying to diminish anything here. I’m talking about my experience. Not world history.
Anyway, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all these dreams seem shattered. I am grateful that my daughter Hannah, who is five years old now, does not (yet?) have to undergo what my mother might have lived through at the same age. But I begin to realise that her world is very different from the one that I had the privilege to spend the last fifty years in. It is a world where Europe is filled with war and hatred. And now this world is becoming even smaller by the hour. Smaller like eyes narrowed by hatred.
Although I’m suffering from anxiety, it’s strange that the current situation doesn’t instil fear. Rather, it leaves me with a strange and perhaps futile determination. The courage of the Ukrainian people is inspiring, as is – for very different reasons – the spirit of my students. Reading the news these days mainly reduces me to tears. My life and most things that matter to me, it seems, are put on hold until this war will be over. At times it feels like there is nothing left, nothing worth living for, in the face of these atrocities. My hatred for Putin and his supporters seems endless. But then, there is my daughter and all the young people for whom we must remain hopeful.
I have often cynically thought that the idea of progress is a sham. Call me pathetic, but listening to President Biden’s speech and thinking of the wonderful people I know gave me hope.
We must stand with Ukraine. It is not just a manner of speaking when people say that they are defending our freedom.
2 thoughts on “On hope and feelings at war”
This is a thoughtful and (for me) helpful comment on our current situation—that of citizens of countries that are supporting Ukraine in at least a broad sense, but not becoming directly involved in the armed conflict there. I want to respond, in particular, to the current remark of yours: “but for me this is a war on Europe and everything I believe in. While many people seem to take the question whether Europe is actually under military attack very seriously (and, of course, we should), my feeling is that “my world” has been invaded already.” I think you’re correct about this being a war on Europe. More specifically, I think it is precisely aimed at the more recent progress that Ukraine has made toward becoming a more functional democracy, more respectful of basic rights, less vulnerable to a sort of abject corruption by oligarchs who are effectively “above the law”. However imperfect, any of these steps makes Ukraine a very real threat to Putin, and a good number of the Russians who support him. It isn’t an accident that for months, including the recent Russian incursion into Kazakhstan, Putin’s remarks invariably refer to “color” revolutions, among other things. The evident fraying of Putin’s own support, and his participation in events in Belarus over the last couple of years, has (I am guessing) fueled an even deeper paranoia on Putin’s part, and on the part of others whose economic fortunes and legal impunity depend upon his continued rule.
I will confess that at least since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, I’ve been wondering whether EU-Europe and other NATO allies, haven’t failed to respond forcefully enough. In the first days of the invasion, I’ve even found myself wondering whether NATO and Europe haven’t waited too late to take many of the economic measures that are now being taken in response to Russia’s bald aggression. And I’ve even wondered if deferring involvement in the conflict were not at least as dangerous as intervention on Ukraine’s behalf. But I say it with a degree of guilt—recognizing that I was fortunate enough as a U.S. citizen, to have come of age in the era of reaction to the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, and before other clearly less justified interventions in other parts of the world. For the record, I supported the first Gulf war, because I thought that the liberation of Kuwait from “bald aggression” made it an essentially just war, even if the motives of the U.S. and other allies were essentially fueled by economic interests.
Finally though, I was stricken by what you said about hatred. . . .about the sheer force of hatred, and the many ways in which it is expressed in our experience now. It only makes more intense my own struggle with it (that has taken intellectual form in the very focus of my work). But I am now less confident that I have anything genuinely helpful to say about it, or to illuminate it as a tragedy of the moral life in any genuinely insightful way. You: “But there might also simply be too much hatred.”
I’ve always felt so much like traveling to Europe was a sort of coming home. I certainly felt that way about Hungary too, having traveled there as a student back in 1980-81, when I spent a year as a student at Oxford. The difference between the Budapest that I visited in 1980 and that I visited with Markus in 2016 has, up to now, been the one thing that might inspire me to take seriously the idea that there is sometimes, if only by degrees, progress. On the same trip that first took me to Hungary in 1980, I also spent Christmas with a cousin whose husband was stationed, in the U.S. Army, in Bad Hersfeld, near the border fence, which my cousin’s husband took us to see. So when, in 1996-97, I was able to stand in the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and see all the building cranes around Potsdamer Platz, I was very deeply moved by that. In fact, I think it has, as a moment in my life, a definitive status that makes it almost like a religious conversion. This is the Europe we have both been somehow counting upon; and it is still one of the hopes of the world. It was certainly somehow violated by the recklessness of Brexit, and by the aggression and authoritarianism of Russia, and in a lesser but still very real way by the likes of the Orbans and Trumps of this world, who have admired Putin, even emulated him, and certainly accommodated him.
I only wish I could feel that there was some way to understand and overcome so much vexing hatred. One of the appeals of Spinoza as a thinker was his recognition that it could have no place in any meaningful ideal or image of a human life that we could embrace as genuinely good.
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“If you look for clever analyses, look elsewhere.” Sometimes, not aiming for a clever analysis but simply sharing one’s personal impressions and griefs seems like the right thing to do.
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