In memoriam Yevhen, a soldier of Ukraine
Plus NYRB essay, 'Scholzing' and the spectre of President le Pen
History of the Present (fortnight ending 4 February 2023)
In memoriam Yevhen Hulevych, a soldier of Ukraine
In the essay on 'Ukraine in Our Future' I just published in the New York Review of Books, a prominent part is taken by Yevhen, a wounded soldier I met in Lviv last December. An examplar of the extraordinary courage being shown by Ukrainians, he had been wounded, returned to active service, been seriously wounded a second time, and, when I met him, was determined to return to the front again. 'I really want to see if I will be lucky,' he told me, '… to see what this country will be like after the war.'
Yevhen was not lucky and will not see that future.
I was deeply shocked and saddened to learn from a writer in Lviv that Yevhen was killed on the very last day of 2022, apparently by a Russian sniper's bullet at the front. All the details are still unconfirmed, but from one tweet (reproduced above) it appears this may have been in the battle for Bahmut, which seems increasingly to resemble nothing so much as the battle of Passchendaele in World War I.
Yevhen Hulevych was an editor, translator and cultural critic, a highly educated and thoughtful man. I still know much too little about him to give any rounded account of his life, but his publicly available Good Reads shelf includes Michel Foucault's Fearless Speech, Jacques Rancière's Hatred of Democracy and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (the Ukrainian translation of which he oversaw). Something very wicked his way came, and one of its poisonous roots was Vladimir Putin's hatred of democracy.
I want to pay tribute to Yevhen’s extraordinary courage in the defence of Ukraine's freedom, and dedicate the essay below posthumously to him.
Ukraine in our future
This essay is a kind of interim summa of my thinking about, reading on and reporting from Ukraine over the last year. You can read it here (paywall, I’m afraid).
Also in this fortnight I got somewhat inadvertently caught up in a discussion about the Ukrainian neologism 'Scholzing'. I tried to clarify this not terribly serious story, and what are – thinking very much of Yevhen – the real, deadly serious issues at stake, in this article in the Guardian, which appeared online on 3 February. (Please use this Guardian link if sharing on social media.)
A couple of weeks ago, at a moment of huge frustration over Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s foot-dragging on allowing Europe’s German-made Leopard tanks to go to Ukraine, a Ukrainian friend WhatsApped me a satirical mockup on “Scholzing”. Next to a photograph of the chancellor, it defined Scholzing, dictionary-style, as: “verb: communicating good intentions only to use/find/invent any reason imaginable to delay these and/or prevent them from happening”. I found this sharp and amusing, quickly retweeted it, and thought no more about it. My Twitter account seemed to be buzzing, but then I’d been writing a lot about the issue myself.
Six days later, I was watching an interview with Scholz on Germany’s ZDF television channel when the interviewer confronted him with “Scholzing”, attributing the coinage to “a British historian”. I went back to my Twitter feed to find that this one quick tweet had been viewed 1.1m times. In German and international media, the definition was being widely quoted as mine. Since, as we all know, the internet never lies, it has now become a historical fact that I thus defined “Scholzing”. (I had incautiously tweeted the meme directly from WhatsApp, so it didn’t show up as something sent from Ukraine. I subsequently clarified this on Twitter, but of course no one reads the clarification.)
I asked my Ukrainian friend if he knew who was actually behind this satirical mockup. He didn’t, but Ukrainians have been using the word for months. Already last June, a tweet from @biz_ukraine_mag reported that “to ‘Scholz’ is now an accepted term in Ukraine meaning to continually promise something without ever actually having any intention of doing it”.
Still and all, the reactions have been interesting. One of the editors of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s leading conservative paper, wrote a semi-humorous editorial commentary in which he said that “our English-speaking friends” would be better advised to reflect first on “Bidening, Trumping, Trussing and Johnsoning, not to mention Harrying and Meghaning”. The clear implication, albeit lightly expressed, was that we Anglo-Saxons should mind our own business. (By contrast, I would welcome any German satirical swipe at Johnsoning, although support for Ukraine happens to be the one and only issue on which Boris Johnson deserves respect.) Since, however, the coinage comes from Ukraine, not the UK, this little German-Anglosphere sideswipe need bother us no longer.Much more significant was Scholz’s own response on ZDF’s What now …? programme. Having dilated on the amount of support Germany has given to Ukraine, he said, in what had every appearance of being a line prepared with his spin doctor, “the translation of Scholzing is ‘Germany is doing the most’”. It’s true that German support for Ukraine has indeed been very considerable, as you would hope from the democracy with the biggest economy in the EU and the most extensive ties to eastern Europe. Yet to say “Germany is doing the most” is not merely self-satisfied, even self-righteous, but also self-evidently false.
It’s the United States that has done the most. Indeed, for all the amazing courage and skill of the Ukrainian armed forces, were it not for the scale and speed of US military support much more of Ukraine might today be occupied by Russia. So really we Europeans – all of us, Brits very much included – should be reflecting on why it is that, nearly 80 years after 1945, we still rely on Uncle Sam to defend European soil, European freedom and European security.
Meanwhile, a huge tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. What we – and democratic Germany more than anyone – swore after 1945 would “never again” (Nie Wieder!) happen is happening again: a European country is subjected to a war of terror that has clearly genocidal aspects, including multiple atrocities committed against civilians, dehumanising rhetoric and forced Russification in occupied territories. Some 14 million Ukrainians have fled their homes. I recently attended a funeral of young soldiers in Ukraine, spoke to some of their wounded comrades, heard the wrenching tears of a refugee from Mariupol.
Now a new Russian offensive seems imminent. More people will be killed, maimed, orphaned, marked for an entire lifetime. In such a situation, time is of the essence – and delay makes time work for Putin.
“Scholzing”, in the sense of careful, slow, managerial decision-making, is fine in peacetime economic policymaking, but it gives the other side the advantage in war. (In fairness, one should note that there are a few Scholzers inside the Biden administration, and more in some other European capitals.) It would have been possible to start preparing a European Leopard initiative six months ago. Germany would not have been “going it alone”. It would have been at the heart of a European concert of nations. This would have been true “European sovereignty” in practice – and welcome German leadership.
Nobody knows what will happen on the battlefield this year, but one quite probable result of the slowness and hesitancy exemplified by the German chancellor is a kind of escalating stalemate, with ongoing trench warfare resembling that of the first world war. When the shooting war eventually winds down, there could be a semi-frozen conflict, with Russia hanging on to a significant part of the territory it has occupied by force since 24 February 2022. At home, Putin could then claim a kind of victory, a historic reconquest of at least part of Catherine the Great’s Novorossiya (New Russia), thus also extending the life of his tyranny. His example would encourage Xi Jinping to have a go at Taiwan, driving an even bigger nail into the coffin of a “rules-based international order”. In short, this would be the negation of everything democratic Germany has stood for.
These are the real stakes, the reason “Scholzing” is no laughing matter. I believe passionately that Germany should be in the lead, not the rear, in a shared, Euro-Atlantic effort to end the largest war in Europe since 1945 in the only way that will bring lasting peace. If the term actually came to signify “Germany is doing the most” – meaning also acting fast and decisively – I would be the first to sing hymns of praise to Scholzing. If only it would be true.
(Commentary first published in the Guardian on 3 February 2023.)
....and, to cheer us all up, President le Pen in 2027…?
Of course no one knows what will happen in four days' time, let alone four years' time. But I think it worth noting, for this history of the present, that every single French journalist, intellectual, politician and business person I spoke to at a recent conference thought that Marine le Pen is currently more likely than not to win the French presidential election in 2027. The question would then be: would she turn out as conciliatory in relation to Europe as Giorgia Meloni is proving to be, or more like… herself? Let's hope we never find ourselves in the position of waiting nervously to see…
Homelands: A Personal History of Europe
You can pre-order my Homelands: A Personal History of Europe from amazon.co.uk here. It’s the product of fifty years writing ‘history of the present’, plus many new sources and the benefit of hindsight.
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