Ukraine war in the German debate: softening of the terms

Ukraine war in the German debate: softening of the terms

Not every imperialist or colonial war is a war of annihilation. Words are dangerously blurred in the German debate on Ukraine.

A person walks past a ruined house

A woman walks past destroyed buildings in Ukraine, Kupiansk Photo: Vadim Ghirda/ap

The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has now lasted more than a year. For a year we have been talking about a turning point in security policy. February 24, 2022 certainly marks a turning point. Even if the East-West conflict didn’t just begin in 1945 and didn’t end in 1990. It is older, dating from the beginning of the 18th century.

One could say that the entire 19th and 20th centuries lay in the shadow of the conflict between “bear” and “whale”. His focus shifted to Central Europe until 1961 and back to the Eurasian periphery after 1990. After Chechnya, Georgia and Syria, the illegal and criminal war of aggression by Caesaropapist Vladimir Putin against Ukraine is just another chapter in this world-historical history never ending story.

Ideologically, the Ukraine war fits into Western discourse paths that have existed since 1917, sometimes longer: here the transatlantic liberals (and left-wing liberals), who defend liberal (but also capitalist) democracy; there a post-colonial and anti-capitalist left that hates NATO and sees a great delusion in the liberalism of “late capitalism”, but always sees a country of longing in Russia.

So far, so unsurprising. What is surprising, however, is the frightening lack of clarity about basic political and historical concepts, not only among the Wagenknechts and Schwarzers of this world, but also on the other side.

Careless Use of “War of Annihilation”

Immediately after the Russian attack, it was heard that the Russian actions in Ukraine were genocidal and a “war of annihilation”. The writer Carolin Emcke also spoke to the latter in her most recent podcast East European historian Karl Schlögel succinctly from the “Russian war of annihilation in Ukraine”; but these terms should not be used lightly.

What is genocide is legally defined by a 1948 United Nations convention, what is a war of extermination is defined by historical observance. A genocide is the planned and targeted systematic physical Eradication of a specific part of humanity defined by its nationality. As war of annihilation the large-scale command-controlled one can apply physical Destruction in particular of the civilian population of a war enemy in mass killings, also including the targeted destruction of their livelihoods. Both are to be distinguished from mere war crimes.

The war of annihilation is a conscious dissolution of boundaries of the war “cherished” by conventions and law. The “guerre à outrance” or Ludendorff’s “total war” from the First World War were concepts of the dissolution of boundaries, but not necessarily concepts of annihilation war in the sense of modern research. Colonial wars, on the other hand, were often waged as wars of annihilation against the civilian population, such as the German war against the Herero and Nama from 1904 or the Spanish and Italian wars in North Africa in the 20th century.

A shift in terms can be observed that threatens to erase decades of meticulous reappraisal of Nazi crimes

However, not every imperialist or colonial war is a war of annihilation. In particular, the question must be asked whether the criterion of “annihilation” is already met by predominantly military combat operations or whether the “policing” of the civilian population (e.g. through bombing, biological/chemical warfare, mass executions) is also a mandatory condition.

Different concepts of war events

If, after a battle, a company of prisoners of war is not led to the prisoner’s place, but is summarily killed with a weapon, then that is undoubtedly a brutal war crime, but not necessarily embedded in a war of annihilation. The same applies when civilians are “isolated” murdered during the war or airstrikes are also flown on civilian targets and non-combatants are killed in the process.

On the other hand, it is a war of annihilation if, for example, the following is ordered: all Academics, every officer of a certain rank, every adult resident with so-and-so much wealth or property, every engineer or journalist or firefighter will be sought out and killed. Or soldiers who have already surrendered are to be systematically “killed in battle”.

The livelihoods of an area are comprehensively destroyed: Not only are some of the harvest or industrial products withheld, but the soil is made infertile, wells are poisoned and filled in, etc.

When Scipio Africanus the Younger 146 BC. When he defeated Carthage in 300 BC, he not only razed the city to the ground, but also had the soil fertilized with salt: nobody was to be able to feed off this soil anymore.

Wehrmacht in Poland 1939

When the Wehrmacht invaded Poland in 1939, the SS followed them with the “Sonderfahfungsbuch Polen”, which listed members of certain groups of people who were then summarily killed. About 60,000 Poles fell victim to this so-called intelligentsia action. Other similar acts followed; the Polish elite was to be exterminated on a large scale.

In September 1941, the Army Group North of the German Wehrmacht and its subordinate 18th Army received orders from the Army High Command not to storm Leningrad, which they had besieged, nor to accept its surrender, but to seal off the city anyway; the people of Leningrad were planned to starve to death.

For comparison: During the siege of Paris by Prussian-German troops in 1870/71, as Otto von Bismarck writes in his memoirs, “1,500 axes were loaded with food for the Parisians in order to help them quickly if they surrendered”. They wanted to force Paris to give up, at the cost of civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian targets; however, they did not want to starve the population.

The intentional starvation of around 2 million Soviet prisoners of war in Wehrmacht custody around the middle of 1941/42 was clearly part of a war of extermination, as was the so-called hunger plan for the complete exploitation of Soviet agriculture while explicitly accepting a catastrophic famine.

“fighting partisans”

The same applies to the German “fighting of partisans” in the occupied Eastern European territories, which was predominantly neither “regular” reprisals nor isolated war crimes, but only a pretext for systematic murders, which were planned anyway.

The extent to which this also applies to the “fight against partisans” in the rest of Europe is a matter of heated debate in research. Japan’s war against China, with extensive mass killings and mass rapes of civilians, was probably also a war of annihilation.

On the other hand, it is questionable whether Putin’s war against Ukraine already fulfills the criterion of a war of annihilation. On the other hand, the relatively low official figure from the United Nations from March of around 8,200 Ukrainian civilians killed so far, as well as the apparently intact agreements on grain deliveries and the regular exchange of prisoners of war speak against this.

Civilian targets are fired upon, there are massacres like in Butcha, children are kidnapped for the purpose of their “Russification”, which, however, constitutes the offense of ethnocideie the destruction of the ethnic identity of a people without its physical annihilation.

War crimes and international war law

There is rape and torture, and it is likely that combatants are not treated according to the international laws of war, but murdered again and again; and Ukraine is denied its statehood. But apparently the Ukrainian population is not to be murdered as a whole or in significant parts.

A comparison: the inhabitants of Ukrainian territories conquered by Russia are apparently given compulsory Russian citizenship. The German authorities in World War II would have done the devil to collectively grant conquered Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians German Reich citizenship; they should be better slaves.

Why these differentiations? Because a conceptual shift can be observed, which threatens to erase decades of meticulous investigation of Nazi crimes. Right from the start, the argument against Russia had the unpleasant connotation of “stop thief!”: “Look, we Germans are no longer alone, Putin is also waging a war of annihilation and committing genocide.”

The Putin system

This softening of historical, political, and legal terms, whether propagated out of ignorance or on purpose, is problematic. She is doing a good cause a disservice. The Putin system and his foreign policy based on blackmail and violence are quasi-fascist and neo-imperialist, his war a war of conquest in the name of Eurasianism.

However, if an attempt is made to offset Putin against Hitler and the Russian invasion of Ukraine against the German war of annihilation in Eastern Europe (and Russia) and thus, in order to trouble the historians’ dispute of 1986, to clandestinely deal with Germany’s original foreign policy damage in the 20th century, then it is this dubious, forgetful of history and dangerous.

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