Vergleiche zur NS-Zeit werden aktuell sowohl von Putin gezogen als auch von Menschen, die gegen den von ihm veranlassten Krieg gegen die Ukraine protestieren. Foto: Dea Piratedea

Farewell to democracy? – Blog of the University of Koblenz · Landau

Both Putin and those protesting against the war he launched against Ukraine are currently comparing it to the Nazi era. Photo: Dea Piratedea

The number of autocracies and ruling dictators and despots is increasing worldwide. Democracies seem to be having a tougher time of it. A symbol of this development: the war in Ukraine. On the one hand, a young Ukrainian democracy, on the other, an autocracy with fascist features. The breath of the Cold War is felt again. But, is it really true? To get to the bottom of it, we have a historian Professor Dr. Christian Geulen spoken.

Prof.  Dr.  Christian Geulen in front of the university library on the Koblenz campus.  Photo: Markus Möwis

Christian Geulen deals, among other things, with racist theories and historical semantics. His other publications deal with the history of meaning in the 20th century – including the themes of democracy and the conflict between East and West. Photo: Markus Möwis

In the latest Bertelsmann transformation index the rise of autocracies was noted. Democracies seem to be in decline. Do you agree with this statement?

The rise of autocracies is a fact. This does not mean a decline, but a change in democracy. A few years ago, the current autocracies were only halfway functioning democracies. Formally, Russia and many other countries still are. It is a longer-term process. In the last 200 years, democracy has prevailed almost everywhere, now it is being challenged anew from within and without. We are going through a massive structural change in this regard.

How do you explain this development?

Individual events such as the war in Iraq or Ukraine are only symptoms. The development is more related to the end of the conflict between East and West. There is a vacuum here. In the 1990s, it was predicted that democracy would win everywhere. However, such a bipolar conflict cannot be solved unilaterally. This means that the other side is automatically up for grabs. In the West in particular, democracy was hastily declared supreme in the second half of the 20th century. It is now increasingly clear that it needs reform and has structural weaknesses. It is seen as the last significant and relevant political system. No matter how autocratic some regimes appear from the outside, they describe themselves as democratic. As a value, goal and ideal, this type of system is a worldwide consensus.

In our series Thinking Ahead: Science and Perspective we ask precise questions: about the work, experience and perspective of our researchers.

Are there historical parallels?

Not when it comes to democracy. I get the impression that this system itself is only now being questioned. But in a way there is no alternative. Even his opponents want to establish “real democracy”. It is a long-term structural change that will probably not end with the overthrow of democracy, but with its rediscovery in the 21st century.

Could the Russian system be compared to a monarchy?

Russian oligarchs do not have their position by birth as nobles. oligarchy of this kind a product of capitalism. Under socialism, it was party fanatics who gained wealth and influence through political means. They have been turbo-capitalists since the fall of socialism. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the whole East was swept by the wave of the capitalist free market system. In this process monopolies of individuals or companies were created. Their habit can resemble monarchies. But today’s Russia is more of an autocracy that grew out of democracy.

Until recently, the transatlantic alliance and NATO were under scrutiny. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of a “turning point”. How do you classify the term?

Every event in the last 20 years has been considered a “turning point”. This also applies to the coronavirus pandemic. With all the turning points we’ve had, I think that term is naive. Rather, we are living in a phase of transformation that may turn out to be very radical in 100 years. It is roughly comparable to the 16th or late 18th century. We are also currently experiencing a turning point in Western-Russian relations. Putin always wanted a kind of Soviet Union without socialism. The West simply did not see it that way. I think it would make sense if you mentioned more about the specific conflict. One should not immerse it in historical-philosophical considerations about breaks in time. In the end, they only legitimize 100 billion for the Bundeswehr.

Among others, from the ranks of the SPD Criticism of Olaf Scholz’s update package. Are there parallels to rearmament in the 1950s?

There are fundamental differences, although the debate over new armaments does show parallels. At that time, ten years had passed since World War II and the world was in ruins. Corresponding counter-movements already existed in the 1950s. At the time, rearmament was legitimized by the Russian threat and the Korean War. Since the 1960s, however, it has not been a topic. In a lecture for Bundeswehr officers, Sönke Neitzel (professor of military history at University of Potsdam; Note d. Ed.) recently to change the Bundeswehr into a powerful army or to abolish it. This is a tough looking but smart alternative. The German Bundeswehr has had an identity problem for decades. It’s an army that doesn’t want to be. Apparently that should change. A well-armed, independently functioning Germany is historically problematic.

An EU army is already being considered. Would you say it brings European countries closer together?

At first glance, the argument sounds logical. But the EU is not a nation state and never will be. There is no common European public sphere. To find out what is in other European newspapers, I would have to know the relevant language. We have to come up with new structures that really promote the European. New media offer many opportunities – also in the context of education policy. Once these goals are achieved, a common security policy will pay off.

In your opinion, the current conflict is more of a A Ukrainian defensive war, a Russian offensive war, or perhaps even a war of extermination?

I’m not a military historian. What strikes me, however, is that a new use of language has prevailed. Press reports about past wars said “War in”now it is “War against Ukraine”. These are subtleties of language that affect perception. As for the war itself, I do not see a war of extermination. At first, I expected that the Russian army would overrun Ukraine within a week. This is not the case. Formally, it is an offensive war and it is so in in violation of international law.Partly it is also a civil war that has been going on for about ten years.

Currently, the Russian state is often compared to the Nazi regime. Hitler’s attack on Poland was justified by the defense argument. According to his own statement, Russian President Putin wants to protect Russian citizens from genocide in Ukraine. Are the procedures comparable?

I do not think. Every start of war is justified by defense. Putin and Hitler are not alone in this. In general, I would caution against parallelization. What Hitler wanted could be read. This includes anti-Semitism. Putin is not doing any policy of extermination against a particular race, group or people. For me, the appropriate rhetoric to establish comparability is lacking. Putin clearly wants to restore Russia as a world power in every respect. This is an absurd idea, but different from Hitler’s.

In all comparisons, the “Cold War” is left out. Would you say he never stopped?

It lives on in our perception of such conflicts. We cannot explain and represent it except in the language we have been learning for half a century. Putin definitely wants to revive the Cold War. As a world power, the Soviet Union functions only in bipolar opposition with the “bad West”. This image is captured in the West because it facilitates the organization of the world. In fact, there was never a more peaceful period in Europe than the Cold War. In a strange way, we seem to collectively crave it.

What are your hopes for the future given all the current developments?

I believe that it is necessary to develop an awareness of specific issues and conflicts, as well as the specific culture of the 21st century, such as environmental politics and climate change. With regard to political systems such as democracy and autocracy, the 21st century should look more inward: What are the real structural problems and what challenges, hopes and opportunities arise from them?

Interview: Markus Möwis

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