The Germans are waging a war of open letters against Ukraine and Russia

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Debates among German intellectuals are generally so vapid, pretentious and painful to watch that I hesitate to wish the experience even on my worst enemies. But I make an exception for a phenomenon that I will call the open letter war.

This ongoing philosophical conflict concerns Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine and the appropriate response by Germany and, implicitly, the Western alliance. To my surprise, the controversy has the potential to become enlightening.

It all began, as such things are wont to do in the “land of poets and thinkers”, with a verbose treatise by a philosopher – one of Germany’s best known and most overrated, Juergen Habermas . Even a brave attempt to translate it into English doesn’t do justice to the convoluted pomposity of the original text’s runtime sentences, seemingly designed to guard against any criticism resulting from accidental clarity.

In a nutshell, Habermas argues that critics of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are wrong to demand clearer communication and bolder action in sending arms to Ukraine. This is because, thinks Habermas, the subject is so complex that it takes philosophers like him to explain it.

Yes, Ukraine has a right to defend itself, he concedes, but if we – Germany and the West – do something that Putin chooses to interpret as participating in war, we could suddenly end up in World War III, and Putin could bomb us. Scholz is therefore right to take small steps and stick to the nuance.

Inspired by Habermas’ verbiage, a group of mostly left-leaning celebrities around Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s most prominent feminist, then published an “open letter” to Scholz. More than 260,000 people had signed it by Tuesday.

Again citing the risk of World War III and nuclear Armageddon, the signatories urge Scholz to return to his original policy of not sending arms to Ukraine lest it provoke Putin. They add that the responsibility for nuclear escalation would lie not only with “the original aggressor” (i.e. Putin) but also with “those who, eyes wide open, provide him with motive”. It would be us, presumably, for helping the Ukrainians defend themselves.

It’s getting worse. The authors believe that decisions on the cost of Ukrainian lives are not “exclusively” Ukrainian, but “universal”. Apparently, we will all have the right to vote when enough is enough and it is time for Ukraine to capitulate. The signatories conclude by urging Scholz to negotiate peace – an outcome which they seem to believe no longer belongs to Putin but to the power of a German Chancellor.

Prior to February 2022, such timorous moralizing would have been de rigueur in post-war Germany’s false-pacifist tradition. But after February 27 – when Scholz proclaimed a “decisive turning point” in German policy towards Russia – it seems dissonant. Online, many Germans derided the “couch pacifism” of the open letter.

But to get the first good shot, it took a man who looked and sounded like a real Ukrainian hero. Wladimir Klitschko is – like his brother Vitali, the mayor of kyiv – a former world heavyweight boxing champion. Both are now defending their country. They are also fluent in German. So Wladimir took the Op-Ed pages of a German newspaper and responded to the open letter.

After listing the atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine so far, Klitschko reminded the epistles that the Ukrainians did not start this war; that, yes, they will continue to defend themselves; and that they need guns, duh. And no, they will not give up their existence as a country and as a democracy to please a few “intellectuals, who have lost all sense of reality and reason”.

With that, Germany was ready for the next open letter to Scholz (which already has over 64,000 signatories on Tuesday). This was written by other intellectuals from all walks of life. He praises the new armament policy of Ukraine led by Scholz and advises courage. Then he concentrates on the essentials.

“The threat of nuclear war is part of Russia’s psychological warfare,” the authors write. But “if Putin’s armed revisionism in Ukraine succeeds, the danger grows that the next war will take place on NATO territory.” If he wins now, he will go to Moldova, the Baltic countries and who knows where else. “The danger of nuclear escalation,” they conclude, “must be countered by credible deterrence.”

What they didn’t say but could have added is that Putin isn’t the only one who can use nuclear blackmail in this scary new era. The world currently has nine nuclear-weapon States and is likely to have more. If Putin is deemed victorious by threatening a “tactical strike”, he and others will be tempted to do the same in subsequent conflicts. Giving in to his bullying now wouldn’t keep us safe; it would put us all at even greater risk.

And so the fight continues, as the dueling signers jump from one TV talk show to the next. What began as pompous drivel slowly clarifies into lucid insight, like a lotus flower growing in mud but blossoming when it sees sunlight.

Scholz, the nominal recipient of the letters, remains cautious – as he should – but is now also telling Germans that “we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear” and that Putin must not win. Seventy-seven years after the end of the World War, the Germans caused, he says, this is the meaning of “never again”.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

Putin’s Parades Can’t Hide a Missing Victory: Clara Ferreira Marques

To save democracy and defeat Putin, abandon ‘the West’: Andreas Kluth

Only one thing will help Ukraine now. Arms: Thérèse Raphaël

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.

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