Europe’s Mistake | Jürgen Habermas | Granta

Europe’s Mistake

Jürgen Habermas

Translated by Max Pensky

The following interview with Jürgen Habermas was conducted by the editor of Granta on 23 July 2023.


You’ve never shied away from taking positions on the political issues of the day. The Russian attack on Ukraine and the question of how and on what scale the EU states and the United States should support Ukraine is no exception. Last year, you defended Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s position – viewed by many as hesitant and evasive – and explained how complicated the constellation really was. Germans, you argued, could not simply admire and envy the national patriotism of Ukrainians. For post-war Germans pride themselves on having built a society for which the values of national patriotism are already a matter of history.

Jürgen Habermas:

Two months after the outbreak of the war, when I wrote the article for Süddeutsche Zeitung that you refer to, what surprised me – and what I still cannot understand – had nothing to do with the West’s politically required partisanship for Ukraine’s struggle against a murderous aggressor. There was never any doubt about how the Russian invasion should be evaluated in normative terms, and I consider the military and logistical aid to Ukraine to be right. What startled me in those first days and weeks of the war was the thoughtlessness and shortsightedness of the uninhibited emotional identification with the event of war as such. I’ve never been a pacifist. But I experienced the attack on Ukraine as a fateful violation of an inhibition concerning the archaic violence of war, an inhibition that had become uncontroversial in Europe. Yet the outbreak of this war with a nuclear power did not trigger any anguished reflection, but instead immediately prompted a highly emotionalized war mentality, as if the enemy were standing outside our own door. These bellicose reflexes – as though we had not learned in the meantime to see war in Europe as a superseded stage of civilization – really irked me.

However, your question refers to a particular aspect – not the entirely understandable solidarity with Ukraine under invasion, but the lack of psychological distance from the Ukrainians’ inflamed national consciousness. It is not as if the process unfolding before our eyes – that of a far from linguistically, culturally and historically homogeneous population coalescing into a nation, as it were under the pressure of this brutal war of aggression – provides even the slightest ground for criticism. But we should understand it as a historical process. In the Federal Republic of Germany, we needed half a century to achieve the necessary critical distance from our own nationalistic past, extremely burdened as it is by crimes against humanity. I was astounded by the lack of any inkling of recognition of this historically understandable difference in mentalities in the rush to identify with the events of the war.

Quite apart from German sensitivities, I find the historically shaped differences in political mentalities among the three parties involved in the war revealing. After the fall of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires during the First World War, Russia is perhaps arguably the last empire in which the fossilized remnants of an imperial mentality have survived. This mentality is now running up against the nationalism of the Ukrainians inflamed by the war, while in the West, there had been at least the hope, perhaps strongest in Germany and faintest in the United Kingdom, that the post-national spirit that gave rise to the United Nations human-rights order after the Second World War would continue to spread. This political mentality has been of major importance for long-term cooperation and mutual understanding across national borders, at any rate within the EU and especially in the Schengen Area. Having a clear perception of these mentalities is simply a matter of useful information: quite apart from the unambiguous assessment of the war in terms of international law, they give rise to different perspectives on the nature, cause and progress of the conflict.


Do you think that by admitting Ukraine, the European Union would risk promoting the return of older-style nationalism that could marginalize, or at least challenge, the constitutional patriotism to which you have devoted so much of your thought and action?


No, it would not make any difference. On the EU’s eastern flank, we’ve long had member states that insist on upholding the sovereignty they only regained after 1990 more forcefully against Brussels than is sometimes conducive to joint action or even to upholding constitutional principles. A historically informed view of the development of the different mentalities and of the interest positions within Europe and the Western alliance might help to explain the actual reason for my political unease. Under US leadership, the West is in a certain sense keeping the war going – while making no discernible efforts to rein it in. The danger of escalation alone means that Western governments are certainly no longer ‘sleepwalking’, but, quite apart from the danger of escalation, I fear that the conflict is increasingly slipping out of their hands. In any case, as it progresses, it is unfolding a divisive dynamic at the global level that is completely derailing a world society which until now has been at least halfway economically integrated, albeit in an asymmetrical way.

Western governments want to avoid formal participation in the war. What I’ve found disturbing from the very beginning, however, is the lack of perspective; they are providing Ukraine with endless reassurances of unlimited military assistance up to that threshold, but without declaring their own political goals. Officially, they are leaving everything else up to the Ukrainian government and its fortune in the arms of the Ukrainian soldiers. This failure to publicly articulate political goals is all the more incomprehensible the more the course of the war reveals how the geopolitical constellations are changing to the disadvantage of the United States, a superpower in decline, and of the EU, which is incapable of acting internationally. That is why, in the run-up to the Munich Security Conference, I recalled in another article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung – ‘A Plea for Negotiations’ – that, by providing the military aid that ultimately makes the prolongation of the war possible, the West has assumed a shared moral responsibility. Quite apart from the Ukrainians’ determination to resist the invasion, the West’s logistical support and weapons systems mean that it shares moral responsibility for the daily casualties of the war – for all the additional deaths and injuries and all the additional destruction of hospitals and critical infrastructure. It would not be a betrayal of Ukraine, therefore, but a clear normative requirement, if the United States and Europe were to insist on exploring all avenues for a ceasefire and a face-saving compromise for both sides.

Jürgen Habermas

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Translated by Max Pensky

Max Pensky is Professor of Philosophy at Binghamton University. His translations of Jürgen Habermas’s political writings include the collections The Past as Future, The Postnational Constellation and Time of Transitions.

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