Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Krieg, Krise, Krim vs. Dynamo Kyiv and the Klitschkos

A German study tries to determine which perception of Ukraine is prevailing in German society
11 June, 2018 - 16:34
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

The new German study “Die Ukraine in den Augen Deutschlands. Bilder und Wahrnehmungen eines Landes im Umbruch” (Kyiv: Buero fuer politische Kommunikation, GIZ GmbH, 2018. 111 pp.) carefully reflects a wide range of opinions held by German experts on the state of affairs in Ukraine and issues of its description, perception, understanding and misunderstanding in today’s Germany.

Population and economy-wise, Germany is the most significant country in Central and Western Europe, while Ukraine, which has the largest area among exclusively European countries (some parts of Russia and Turkey lie in Europe, but most of them are in Asia), has turned into a geopolitically key state of East-Central Europe in the post-Soviet period. The Ukrainians and Germans have deep-rooted historical connections. One of such connections was the adoption of the famed Magdeburg Law by several Ukrainian cities in the 15th-19th-century period. One of these cities, namely Kyiv, hosts a monument to the Magdeburg Law. In the post-Soviet period, Ukrainian-German cooperation in various fields of business, science, education, and culture has developed and continues to develop in a great variety of forms. In view of these and many other circumstances, it is surprising how little attention has been paid so far to the study of the relations and connections between the two major European peoples in the context of the study of European history and international relations.

While the interest of Ukrainians in Germany has always been high, Germans have only recently begun to exhibit growing interest in Ukraine and information about it. In 2006, the Research Center for East European Studies at the University of Bremen began publishing a periodic electronic bulletin called Ukraine-Analysen, which has had 201 issues so far. At present, two specialized German-language websites – Ukraine-Nachrichten (News about Ukraine, founded in Dresden in 2007) and Ukraine verstehen (Understanding Ukraine, launched in Berlin in 2017) – are also improving the understanding of Ukraine in Germany. The work on systematic interpretation of the history of German-Ukrainian relations is progressing as well, albeit at a slower pace. In 2010, Hamburg-based historian Frank Golczewski published a major work on German-Ukrainian relations in the interwar period (Deutsche und Ukrainer 1914-1939, Paderborn: Schoeningh, 1,058 p.). Since then, there have been several studies and papers on the presentation of Ukraine in the German media (including distortions in it), as well as Germany’s participation in the transformations in post-Soviet Ukraine.

The Ukrainian program of the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) offers an extremely informative and illuminating description of the German perspectives on today’s Ukraine in their new study “Ukraine through the German Eyes: Representations and Perceptions of a Country in the Transition Period.” The study is based on the methodology of the GIZ’s previous project of studying the perception of Germany in the world, during which international experts on Germany were asked to answer the question of how the German state was perceived in their homeland. The study of Ukraine conducted by the GIZ in 2017 is also not a statistical study of the Germans’ attitude towards Ukraine, but a deep qualitative exploration of the impressions, interpretations, opinions, perspectives, assessments, stereotypes, knowledge and expectations that exist in Germany regarding Ukraine. This analysis is based on 1,014 statements by 44 German citizens who are more or less familiar with Ukraine or are interested in it for various professional reasons. The respondents include researchers, businesspeople, civic activists, journalists as well as cultural and political figures. The latter category encompasses some well-known individuals, such as the Green Party’s Member of the European Parliament Rebecca Harms or former Prime Minister of Saxony and serving Ambassador of the G7 in Ukraine, Professor Georg Milbradt.

As initiator and immediate leader of the project Andreas von Schumann clearly points out in his opening remarks, the objective of the study was not “to search for [objective] truth” about Ukraine. Rather, “[we] wanted to isolate the similarities that can be revealed in different views [on Ukraine] of different people [from Germany], to discover the outlines of these perceptions [and] recognizable features of both the real and distorted portrait of the country.” Von Schumann points out two fundamental trends in the assessments given by 44 German participants in specialized interviews: firstly, the German experts questioned believe that the German “perspective on Ukraine is too narrow, the knowledge [of Ukraine in Germany] is too unsystematic, the attention of [the Germans] [to events in Ukraine] is too fickle, and assessments [of Ukrainian topics] are built on too shallow foundations.” Secondly, the German experts interviewed, according to von Schumann, expressed “a deep desire that Germany and the Germans find a common language with Ukraine more often and more actively.” This desire is based on several motives: the historical responsibility of the German people, the cultural diversity of Ukraine, the economic potential of the country, the need to ensure stability in eastern Europe and the possible incentives [flowing from such involvement] for the further development of the EU. And yet, as the respondents noted, the most obvious incentive for them was admiration brought by their own closer encounter with Ukraine. Regardless of the specific reason that put Ukraine forward as their principal interest, most [of the interviewees] stressed that the “clean sheet” of perception that had existed at first had quickly turned into a “colorful canvas” (page 7).

As shown by the study, three negative ‘K’s have dominated the German perception of Ukraine since 2014: Krieg, Krise, Krim – i.e., the [military] conflict, crisis, Crimea. Two other ‘K’s with positive connotations, which are the once famous soccer team Dynamo Kyiv and the name Klitschko, borne by Vladimir and Vitalii, two famous world boxing champions who lived in Germany for a long time and are still popular in that country, have only slightly improved this image. The GIZ study not only presents widespread German stereotypes about Ukraine, similar to those described above, but also offers numerous in-depth assessments of the scope of various perceptions in Germany of such Ukrainian topics as the 2014 regime change, reforms, corruption, nationalism, external relations, European aspirations, cultural differences, relations with Russia, and the nation’s significance for Germany.

The value of this study is not only in illustrating well the various German interpretations of these topics. Besides presenting the views of many leading German experts on Ukraine and their perspectives on the country they take interest in, the brochure also offers an in-depth presentation of how the German public should be informed in the future about the history and events in and around Ukraine. From the point of view of Germany’s importance for the EU’s foreign policy in general and for the Union’s policy towards Ukraine in particular, this study of the German thinking on various Ukrainian issues, which is now being translated into English and Ukrainian, will become mandatory reading for all those interested in the present and future of international relations of Ukraine, as well as its gradual European integration.

Andreas UMLAND is an expert at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation (Kyiv)

By Andreas UMLAND