Körber History Forum > 2019 > Keynote Schlögel

A historian’s reflection on Ukraine and Europe

In mid-October 2019, the Körber History Reflection Group convened in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, bringing together an international circle of experts and decision-makers to discuss and debate the current political implications of Eastern Central Europe’s history. The complex and tragic history of the city was both background and point of departure to examine the current position of Ukraine in the region and vis-à-vis Europe. The opening keynote by eminent German publicist and historian of East Central Europe, Karl Schlögel, sets out how the past and present of Ukraine are both inspiration and obligation to European society. 

Lviv/Lemberg: A City in Europe’s Borderland in the Early 21st Century as a Place of Reflection
Keynote on 10th of October 2019

Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am happy to be back in Lviv. I was here some weeks ago during the Lviv International Book Fair, a great event in the city of books, in bibliopolis, as the city was known since Ivan Fyodorov, the man who produced the first book print in Cyrillic. And you will wonder, strolling the city in these days, how many bookstores you will find. Yes, it was a great event: half a million of people in four days, the city buzzing with readings, lectures, public conversations almost 24 hours a day. A city with thousands of tourists strolling the Old Town in a kind of Indian summer and long after midnight. But time is running and a couple of weeks ago I could not imagine that Ukraine would take center stage in American politics in an impeachment process as “the Ukrainian affaire”. I did not have the slightest idea that demonstrations would take place in Ukrainian cities, organized against the “Steinmeier formula” as the formula of surrender and capitulation.

Of course, we are here not as tourists, sightseeing one of the most beautiful cities of East-Central Europe. We came to this city because it is the ideal place to reflect on the fates of East-Central Europe. It is a privilege to be here in order to see and better understand what happened to this historical region, especially in the 20th century, and to look around to see what a city looks like in a country fighting for its independence and modernization under the pressure of aggression from outside. We have a chance to talk to experts, to share our views and doubts, and to reflect on what is going on now. 

I have the honor to say a few words before starting our conference. I am not a diplomat, not a political advisor, I would like to call it: a longtime observer by profession and passion, but without the duties and responsibilities of the former named. I have been to this city before: in the 1960s as a schoolboy, in transit from a Bavarian boarding school on my way to Moscow and back. This was Soviet Lvov, a place grey behind the Iron Curtain. I was here again in the 1980s, in search of Mitteleuropa, discovered at that time by writers like Milan Kundera, Claudio Magris or György Konrad. In search of a world vanished, erased: the complexity of Central Europe before the great disasters of the 20th century, the battles of World War I, the mixed urban fabric of Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian, Armenian, German, Russian communities, the world imagined in the works of Joseph Roth, Karl Emil Franzos, Bruno Schulz, Ivan Franko, described first of all by my colleague and friend Martin Pollack, the city, which ceased to exist after the German occupation and the Holocaust, after the Soviet deportations and the expulsion of the Poles after the end of World War II. And I came back after the end of the Cold War, after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, when Lvov had become Lviv and was no longer the provincial backyard, but the center of movements for national independence and democracy called the Orange revolution, and again after the Maidan revolution in early 2014, when I travelled most of the cities in the East that had been highjacked by Russian special forces and their supporters.

What changes over the years! For people like me who have known the city for 50 years, this is a different place now, this is no longer the metropolis of the European province, as I called it in an essay in the 1980s: flights from and to dozens of international destinations, hundreds of thousands of people commuting to Gdansk, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Naples, waves of SUVs, damaging 100-year-old cobble stone streets of a Central European City or what nostalgia likes to associate with Mitteleuropa. 
Let me share some thoughts which came to my mind when I was invited by the Körber Foundation.

First: The city of Lviv is the place to go when one tries to understand what happened to this historical region, especially in the 20th century. Its topography reflects the triumphs and tragedies of the last century. We have the opportunity “to read” the texture, the layers, the palimpsest of a city. They are the best document to show us what happened and what was and is still at stake. I am here, maybe, we are here, because we have the chance of seeing things we can only see here: a place of unprecedented paradoxes, of unbelievable beauty and unprecedented horror which came over the city again and again, a laboratory of modernity and the scene of genocide and mass deportations. We have come to this place as one of the characteristic, the paradigmatic places of the fate of East-Central Europe in the last century.

Second. Since I am not here as a tourist, looking in nostalgia for Hapsburg boulevards, art nouveau buildings and legendary hotels like the George, since I am not only a historian by profession, most of my life dealing with urban culture in Eastern and Central Europe, but also a contemporary, an eyewitness of a “history of presence”, I am interested to get to know more about the ongoing events in the country that is forced to cope with unbelievably great challenges: to come to terms with the Soviet legacy which lies like a heavy burden on a state and society trying to leave behind the Soviet World.

Finally: Our talk is – in my view – not only about the past, about commemoration and history politics, not only about Ukraine or Lviv, but about us. De te fabula narratur. About Europe, about the West, about Russia, about a Germany after the end of the Cold War, after the falling apart of the old world order, and what “we” – in the West, in Germany or in any other country are challenged to do concerning Ukraine.

The Körber Foundation has made a proper decision to bring the Reflection Group to Lviv, especially in troublesome days, as the public debate around the Steinmeier formula and demonstrations in some Ukrainian cities show. We have the chance to enlarge and intensify our knowledge of the European borderland. Lviv is a place to go for rethinking and reconceptualizing. Lviv is a place that challenges the complexities, antinomies of societies of the 20th century. A place of reflection as I understand it means to have a chance for exploring, for opening one’s mind beyond already given answers, an open space and a place for brainstorming, rather than drawing lessons from history which in Hegel’s view is an empty undertaking. 

First: The place contains all the questions that are raised in the program for the next two days. Quite often the story of the city is told along the lines of the biographies of its citizens. One could stay in a city but change citizenship several times: being a citizen of almost a dozen different empires, states, administrations, regimes. In the case of Lemberg/Lwów/Lvov/Lviv this means: A person who was born, let’s say, in the 1910s, during his or her lifetime would first be a citizen of the Habsburg empire, experiencing the short period of Russian occupation during World War I, living in the short-lived West Ukrainian People‘s Republic of 1918, became a citizen of the Second Polish Republic afterwards, became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic exactly 80 years ago, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, part of the District Galicia in the General Government after the invasion of the Wehrmacht in July 1941 and finally, after the reconquest by the Red Army in 1944, part of the Soviet Union up to the end of the USSR in 1991.

So, one individual could have eight or so citizenships during his or her lifetime. This is unique in many regards but also characteristic of regions, cities in the Land of Between in East-Central Europe. And, of course, this was not just a series of formal changes. It coincided with the change of the dominating language, transforming institutions, renaming streets and squares, defining the public space, and first and foremost it was: a question of life and death, a question of survival. The city, which survived in physical terms, was almost untouched by military actions, but ceased to exist in terms of its social, religious, ethnic composition. When the war came to an end – and by the way: the war in Western Ukraine did not end before the mid-1950s – the city of the prewar time, in its physical outlook entirely intact, prewar Lviv in its human substance did not exist anymore. The Jewish population, which was about 40 percent in prewar time, had vanished, decimated in the ghetto, starved to death and murdered in the death camp of Janowska and deported to the gas chambers in Belzec.

The Polish population, which accounted for more than half of the city’s prewar population, was “evacuated” following the agreements of Tehran and Lublin. Polish Lwów was forcibly moved to Breslau/Wroclaw, which was emptied from its German citizens. The small minority of the Galizien-Deutsche disappeared. Thousands of Ukrainians were deported during the Soviet occupations in 1939-1941 and after the reconquest in 1944. The citadel in German occupied Lemberg was the death camp and mass grave of more than 100,000 Soviet prisoners of war. So the more or less international, mixed urban society was, as Lord Curzon liked to formulate: unmixed, de-polonized, de-judaized, and it was the influx of Ukrainians and Russians from the central and eastern regions which made the city of Soviet Lvov a Ukrainian city with all the typical features of Soviet hyper-urbanization and ruralization (Moshe Lewin), but at the same time – in ethnic, linguistic, cultural terms – irreversibly Ukrainian (the same process took place in cities like Wilno/Vilnius, Minsk and others).

But even the most dramatic chronological narrative does not cope with the paradoxes of what happened in reality: the interaction of two extremely violent totalitarian regimes and their impact on the urban universe. The violence which destroyed Lvov/Lviv came from outside: first of all from Nazi Germany, but from Stalin’s Soviet Union too. Both regimes unleashed the conflicts and rivalries between social, ethnic, religious groups inside the Lviv universe. Germans and Soviets used the intra-ethnic, social, and cultural contradictions for their own purpose, stimulating mutual hate, vengeance, retaliation on one hand and establishing firm collaboration from below on the other. Total rule, the revolution from abroad and the instigation of internal animosities and rivalries inflamed the social fabric with deadly consequences, symbolized by the mass executions of thousands of citizens by the Soviet NKVD and the horrible anti-Jewish pogroms during the last days of June and first days of July, with thousands of victims, organized by Ukrainian nationalists, taking place under the eyes of bystanders and encouraged by the German Wehrmacht.

For any national movement, the clash of empires was a chance to achieve independence for the suppressed peoples and nations; as we could see during and after World War I, the collapse of the empires paved the way for a new landscape of independent nation states in post-war Europe. But the expectations of the Ukrainian national movement were mistaken: neither the Germans nor the Soviets were interested in an independent Ukraine. When the Soviets came after September 17th, 1939, they organized a number of mass deportations targeting the “ruling elements” – bourgeois, capitalists, landowners, priests, officers, nationalists, the intelligentsia – Ukrainian, Polish, or Jewish. When the Germans took over, this was the beginning of forced labor, mass executions on the spot, establishing death camps and deportations to the gas chambers of nearby Bełżec. The war did not end after liberation but went on in the underground and a civil war with relentless brutality on both sides and with thousands of victims and deportees.  

The entire sequence of violence has left its mark on the urban landscape, and since Lwów/Lviv/Lvov was center stage, the city was full of refugees, writers, journalists, who shed light on what they had seen. There is no lack of eyewitness reports, newsreels, private photographs of soldiers and bystanders, official and unofficial, and some of these documentations gained an iconic status, shaping the image of the city of Lviv way beyond its borders: I have in mind the newsreels of bodies being excavated at the prison on Łącki Street and the Brygidki prison, the photographs of the pogrom of July 1 to 3, 1941, comparable to the documentary images from Kaunas at the same time. 

The traces of these events remain in the texture of the city – some of them visible, some of them still to be discovered. I want to mention only some of them:

The Polish or Yiddish inscriptions on the walls of former shops. The old Jewish cemetery – erased by the Germans. The “Moorish” hospital in Rappoport street, the void left by the Golden Rose Synagogue that was blown up by the Germans, the Jakob Glanzer Shul, transformed and misused as a sports facility for decades, the Piaski execution ground in what is now the industrial neighborhood of Janowska. 
The Lychakiv Cemetery, one of the largest necropolises of a central European metropolis: the tombs of Ukrainians – Ivan Franko, Olha Kobylianska, Salomiya Krushelnytska –, of Polish families and “Polish eagles”, but also of commanders of the Ukrainian Insurgency Army (UPA) like Roman Shukhevych, and the Heavenly Hundreds, fallen on the Maidan and in the Donbas. 
The splendor of the palaces of Polish aristocrats, of Art Nouveau villas of Julian Zacharewicz on Nowy Swiat and the constructivist buildings of the interwar time. 
And, of course, the grandeur of Little Vienna, the Opera House (Zygmunt Gogolewski), the building of the Sejm, today Ivan Franko University. 
The city of German occupation, of hotels, the places of incarceration and entertainment, the Gestapo, the cinemas. 
The city of Sovietization – former Lenin monuments, demolished or transformed now, and industrial sites like the famous Lvov Bus factory with thousands of workers. 

The directory for Lemberg/Lwów/Lwow/Lviv is a kind of who’s who in modern Europe, with the addresses of writers like Joseph Roth, of the founder of the Lemberg mathematic school Hugo Steinhaus and Stefan Banach, the internationally renowned economist Ludwig von Mises, writers like Józef Wittlin, poets like Zbigniew Herbert, the memoirist Aleksander Wat, the refined Marxist theoretician Roman Rosdolsky, the symbol of the Jewish internationalist, Karl Radek, the pioneers of international law like Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, the inventor or the term “genocide”, the founding father of modern Ukrainian historiography, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the founder of modern history of epistemology Ludwik Fleck, and last but not least metropolit Andrey Sheptytsky, who saved Jews at a time when others collaborated with the Germans. For both of them – Andrej Sheptytsky and Stepan Bandera – new monuments have been erected in the last decade.

Mapping the layers, reading the who’s who of the city reflects the rise and fall of European civilization in Central Europe’s shatter zones. The stage of what has been called the Lemberg/Lviv modernity and Lemberg/Lviv as the abyss of Europe’s fall. Excavating and collecting the fragments, putting them together to make a mosaic would create a puzzle and a topography, unique but simultaneously quite characteristic of what happened in and to this region. 

Second: Complexity, strength, and vulnerability
Lviv, Galicia, Western Ukraine is only one region in this second largest country in Europe. Ukraine, the borderlands of Europe, is a Europe en miniature. Ukraine comprises perhaps the greatest diversity – in historical, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious terms. Take Odesa, the porto franco on the Black sea, the Greek, Jewish, international communities, Russian speaking. Take Volhyn with its imprint of Ukrainian-Polish relations and the legacy of the civil war during World War II (Alfred Rieber). Take Vinnytsia or Chernihiv, the vast plains of black earth. Take Kharkiv, the first capital of Soviet Ukraine, the center of Ukrainian modernity in the 1920s and a city surrounded by a countryside devastated during Holodomor. Take the heart of industrialization of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Donbas, I guess the most Sovietizised region. Take the steppe along the Dnipro river, the basis of the Cossack hetmanate. Take Uman, which every year anew turns into a center of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of orthodox Jews from all over the world, in a region which, up to the Holocaust, was the homeland of East European Jewry. Take Chernivtsi and the Bukovina region or Transcarpathia with their Rumanian and Hungarian communities.

And last but not least: Take Kyjv, the “city of the cities”, the center of medieval Rus and the center of a new Ukraine beyond the East-West divide. The variety and diversity of cities and regions demonstrates the strength, but also the potential for fragmentation. On the territory of Ukraine, the experiences and traditions of the Polish-Lithuanian Rzeczpospolita, the Russian/Soviet Empire, Habsburg, and the Ottoman empires overlap. The challenge for any Ukrainian government is obvious: to make this rich and diverse ensemble play, to integrate and to include, to do so under the condition of getting rid of the Soviet legacy – politically, economically, culturally, in mentality. Maybe I am too naive, but I do not see really serious minority problems – the Tatars from Crimea were granted cultural autonomy. I do not see serious language problems either – Ukraine is more or less a bilingual country, including a third language – Surzhyk – , which could be an example for other European societies.

In my view, the most urgent problem is – even 30 years after the country gained independence – the impact of Soviet tradition, the de-Sovietization in almost all regards, the evolution and firm establishment of civic institutions and – first of all: civic routines and practices in everyday life. The great divide or even contradiction in my view is not between Ukrainians and Russians or Ukranian-speaking and Russian-speaking people, between East and West, but between Old and New, between the old-new class of a Soviet and post-Soviet form of oligarchy and a society of ordinary citizens who demand no less than “normal life”.

The process of transformation, as such highly complicated, takes place under extremely hard circumstances: the intervention of Russia, a revisionist power that is unable to find a way out of its imperial tradition. Transformation under the condition of war, open or non-declared, with a death toll of more than 12,000 killed in five years, civilians and military personnel, approximately two million of internal refugees, leaving the territory of the most industrialized region in ruins, depopulated and devastated.

In my view it is surprising how Ukraine, despite these destructive conditions, was and is able to proceed in putting the great reforms into practice. Despite and against corruption: the great project of land reform to make Ukraine the breadbasket not only of Europe again. The construction boom – as I can observe, not only in the big cities – is impressive and sometimes has already done a lot of damage to the old urban architecture and the skylines (Kyjv for instance). The boom of the IT industry. And visibly: the move of migrants, millions of people crossing the border every year, making money abroad, but simultaneously there is a workforce missing at home, where qualified people and expertise for modernization are on great demand; you can call it a Europeization on a mass scale and everyday basis, but with very negative side effects. I want to mention this in order to it make clear that when we discuss problems of the past in East-Central Europe and Ukraine, we do not ignore the “history of the present”. 

Third: Reflection and Self-Reflection
Ukraine will go its way, with or without our advice. But do we know where we, the Europeans outside, are going to go? There is a kind of Ukrainian fatigue across Europe. Europe seems to be preoccupied by other, seemingly more relevant problems: global warming, diesel affairs, immigration, Syria. For many people, Ukraine makes a lot of trouble, unable to solve her own problems and provoking problems for others. Many have forgotten or ignore the fact that the Orange Revolution and the Maidan were the continuation of a movement, the 30th anniversary of which we are celebrating these days – especially in Germany.

The temptation to ignore the new realities is overwhelming, and the desire to remain in the comfort zone and go on dreaming the dream of Europe beyond the new realities is sometimes alarming. Reality means: Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, the occupation and annexation of Ukrainian territory, destabilizing activities, supporting all tendencies and parties to dissolve the European Union. Russia declared the European Union and the West as enemies and is acting accordingly: cyberwarfare, meddling in the political process, physical assaults on people in foreign countries, military pressure and provocations. Europe, or more generally speaking: the West, is in a very bad shape. There is fear in the air.

The tendency to make compromises and “deals” is growing – of course in the name of Realpolitik. In the context of German history that means to once again come to terms with Russia, not taking the interests of Germany’s neighbors seriously. There is a long tradition from Bismarck to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The danger of the sanctions against the aggressor state of Russia being lifted is increasing, the credibility of Germany’s loyalty to Ukraine is disputed and in doubt, since the Federal government has held the position that the North Stream 2 pipeline is a “purely commercial venture”, which is obviously wrong, misleading and demoralizes the united front of states supporting the sanctions. That a former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Putin’s man in Germany, is the main lobbyist for Russia’s state corporation and connects his personal advancement with high politics in favor of Putin’s Russia, is a scandal, but has been without consequences up to now. North Stream 2 will be opened soon – and how do you call it? A deal, Realpolitik or treason? Germany seems to be stable, but in fact the Russian factor is active and working: Across the party divides, there is a majority in favor of “peace and reconciliation with Russia” at any cost. The lifting of the sanctions is supported by the right wing party AfD as well as by Die Linke on the left, by Minister-Presidents of some federal states (Christian Democrats and Social Democrats alike) and, of course, the financial and business world which desires to return to “business as usual”. We should not forget the Russian-speaking community in Germany, quite a lot with Russian passports and demonstrating that they feel more loyal towards Putin than Merkel (like German-Turk citizens who, in elections, are more in favor of Erdogan).

In my view it is an illusion to hope that Putin, a man whose personal and political success and fate is tied to aggression in order to remain in power, will be able to withdraw and to open a road to peace. In this context, I am convinced that the so-called “Steinmeier formula” as well as the Minsk II agreement are traps that do not open any ways for the solution of the so-called “Ukrainian crisis”. Opening up new ways depends on what will happen in Moscow, that means: when will Russian society find a way out of the imperial tradition, out of isolation, and become a modern nation – a process which, as we know from the Ukrainian case, will be even more complicated, harmful and not without backlashes. All will depend on what is going on on the ground – in Moscow as well as in Kyiv. We have to wait, we have to be loyal to the Ukrainians, because in defending their own freedom they also stand for our freedom. To make sure that Ukraine will not disappear from the mental map of Europeans again, will be one of the most urgent tasks of a European public sphere, in order to protect not only Ukraine, but ourselves too. 

Karl Schlögel, Berlin in October 2019 

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