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The Russian invasion of Ukraine as a contestation of the liberal script? - № 10: Ukrainian Refugees and the limits of liberal humanitarianism

by Maximilian Klose

№ 47/2022 from Mar 28, 2022

Germans seem to be more invested in supporting Ukrainian refugees than they have been in those from North African and Middle Eastern states, who have been seeking help since 2015. Does this reveal a latent racism and sexism inherent to western voluntary aid? It is actually more complex than that, argues SCRIPTS alumnus Maximilian Klose. What we are witnessing right now is the liberal script’s defense reaction – and it is not without historical precedent.

The war in Ukraine has come at an enormous cost to the civilian population: In addition to many dead, millions are fleeing.

The war in Ukraine has come at an enormous cost to the civilian population: In addition to many dead, millions are fleeing.
Image Credit: Image Credit: Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Over a month after Vladimir Putin started his war of aggression in Ukraine, German voluntary engagement for incoming refugees remains remarkably high. Especially in Berlin, where thousands arrive daily via Poland, the city’s residents flock to the central train station to bring donations, to assist with registration, or to offer a bed for the night. Already on March 6, less than two weeks into the conflict, Germany’s national railway company Deutsche Bahn thanked all those who dedicated their time and resources but also urged people to refrain from coming because the train station had simply reached its maximum capacity of volunteers and donations.

In a recent commentary for the news portal ZEIT Online [1], Austro-Afghan journalist and writer Emran Feroz argued that this level of engagement, while certainly admirable, reveals an underlying racism and sexism which had already informed German and European responses to the refugee crisis of 2015. Back then, those coming across the Mediterranean Sea or via the Balkans were considered “bad refugees”, meaning mostly young men whose skin tones, religious beliefs, and supposed sexual appetites were hardly compatible with the lifestyle of a German majority society. In the Ukrainians, the West now finds its “good refugees”. Most Ukrainians are white and of Christian belief (hence no threat to the arriving society’s ethnic and cultural integrity), Feroz continues, and refugees are predominantly women and children (hence no potential sexual predators).

Feroz’ analysis is certainly not without merit – the rise of right-wing populism across Europe in the past years is a testimonial to that. But simply comparing 2022 and 2015 does not suffice to explain the current western climate of compassion. Rather, we need to understand factors such as racial, religious, and sexual discrimination within a larger conceptual and historical framework of humanitarian engagement in liberal societies. What we find is a tendency to get involved not necessarily when and where it is most needed but rather when the liberal social order itself seems at stake. This tendency not only tells us much about the liberal script’s logics of inclusion and exclusion, it also reveals the inadequacy of our idealized understanding of voluntary aid.

We can find a historical precedent that helps to explain the liberal script’s uneven distribution of compassion in the years immediately following World War II. As the European continent struggled with the consequences of total war, it was the United States, the emerging herald of the liberal world order, which did the giving. Interestingly, US-Americans dedicated most of their private humanitarian activity to the recently defeated German enemy, rather than to their former war allies or to the victims of Nazi aggression. Why was that so? We cannot explain this discrepancy as a matter of religion or ethnicity, as almost all European countries shared certain racial and cultural similarities with the United States. Had a feeling of closeness been the decisive factor, France or Great Britain, with their own fair share of postwar distress, should have enjoyed much more support. The disproportionate dedication to Germany was informed by the feeling that something fundamental was at stake. Had the western allies allowed the country to succumb to totalitarian ideologies once more, be it fascism or the lure of the emerging Soviet enemy, the entire liberal experiment could have failed. Material aid was not unconditional support given in the spirit of a universal humanity. It was a way to ideologically strengthen the liberal social order against potential threats. What postwar Germany was to US-Americans, today’s Ukraine is to Germans.

This example allows us to draw several conclusions about the different reactions of liberal societies to incoming refugees in the 21st century. Number one: the liberal script is defensive and self-preserving. Before the conflict, many Germans knew rather little about Ukraine and may not have even considered it a truly liberal country. Russia’s blatant disregard of the liberal maxims of national sovereignty, self-determination, and international law has changed this. Almost overnight, Ukraine became a frontier of the liberal social order – and one frighteningly close to home. This idea also informs the rhetoric around voluntary aid. In his speech before the German parliament on March 17th [2], Volodymyr Zelensky frequently referenced the suffering inflicted upon his country by both German and Soviet troops during World War II, hinting at a historic German responsibility to help. But this notion of historic responsibility is conspicuously absent from German public discourse. Rather, politicians, institutions of public life, and voluntary agencies tirelessly summon ideas of solidarity with a fellow democratic people, warning that our way of life is threatened only a ten-hour drive away from Berlin. Helping those who flee from Vladimir Putin’s open contestation of the liberal script is a way to showcase the unity and steadfastness of this script itself.

Number two: this tendency to use aid with an eye to self-interest reveals that, despite its claim to universality, the liberal script remains inherently selective and exclusionary. Civil war in Syria or the Taliban’s 2021 re-conquest of Afghanistan, one might argue, threatened the liberal order no less than the current war. But we need to differentiate between two separate objectives: proliferation and preservation. While the cases of Syria and Afghanistan certainly hinder the script from spreading across the globe, hardly anyone in western liberal societies thinks of them as immediate threats to the West’s social order. Before as well as after the Arab Spring and its consequences, Europeans have criticized the Assad regime, but they never though of the Middle Eastern dictatorship as an immediate threat to their social order. Similarly, and despite former German defense secretary Peter Struck’s famous words to the contrary, few Germans really believed that their freedom was being defended at the Hindukush. Rather, and this is where Feroz’ allegations enter the picture, it was the people fleeing from these conflicts whose difference potentially posed a threat to the liberal script. The apparent racism and sexism seen when one compares 2022 to 2015 is an expression of the liberal script’s defensive self-understanding.

Number three: this “selfishness” of the liberal script exposes the nature of voluntary giving. The humanitarian sector is dedicated to the neutral, apolitical, and impartial distribution of aid. It is informed by the most basic liberal tenet that all people enjoy certain unalienable rights on account of their humanity. But time and again, liberal societies themselves have revealed the utopianism of this idea. People do not always give when necessary, but when they can relate. This is why the aid sector has made the suffering child – a presumably universal epitome of innocence transcending times and regions – an icon of compassion. In the liberal societies of Europe, it seems, relatability stems from a mélange of factors. Yes, it is a feeling of ethnic and cultural similarity. But it is also the belief in a shared political tradition, in a freedom of thought and speech, and in the right to individual self-expression. More specifically, it is the latent conviction that those rights and freedoms are under attack from the outside. Hence, postwar Germans and today’s Ukrainians became symbols of the liberal script’s survival, while the refugees of 2015 were populistically generalized as its potential demise.

None of this means that we should not give the people of Ukraine our full attention and support, just as we should not turn our backs on those Russians fleeing Putin’s oppressive regime. But it shows the distorted relation between the theory and practice of the liberal script. Rather than inclusion and universality, the script uses the exclusion of those who are different and therefore considered as potentially harmful as the basis for its self-identification. Its unity and raison d’être stem from identifying and distrusting everything that is not it. For years, liberal societies have decried Putin’s stereotyping of “Me vs. NATO” or “Me vs. the West” as a demagogue’s paranoia. Our own logics of identification, it turns out, are not that different.

[1] Emran Feroz, „Guter Flüchtling, schlechter Flüchtling“, ZEIT Online, https://www.zeit.de/zett/politik/2022-03/rassismus-ukraine-krieg-fluechtlinge-migration, accessed March 22, 2022.

[2] Zelensky’s speech before the Bundestag, March 17, 2022. https://www.bundestag.de/dokumente/textarchiv/2022/kw11-de-selenskyj-883826, accessed March 22, 2022.

Last edits for this blog entry were on 28 March 2022, 12:30 p.m. CEST.

Dr. Maximilian Klose is a SCRIPTS Alumnus and lecturer in North American History at Freie Universität Berlin. He was a postdoctoral researcher in the Research Project “Gender, Borders, Memory” of the Research Unit “Borders” until December 2021.