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Speech by Yevhen Bystrytsky on historical responsibility “Germany and Ukraine in Europe: responsibility for the past – obligation for the future”

21 July 2017

As a representative of the International Renaissance Foundation and the civil society, I am happy that fate brought us together with Marieluise Beck and Ralph Fücks who founded the Center for Liberal Modernity, I would say, modern liberalism. This is an extremely important institution with which our Foundation has started working, and I think we will continue this cooperation. The discussion that is taking place today is one of the first steps in such cooperation. 

During the Bundestag hearing in May dedicated to historical responsibility an issue was raised that I would like us to consider today. When Marieluise Beck and Timothy Snyder talked about the historical responsibility of Germany, one simple thing came to light. And this is not only about the historical fact that all the forces of Nazism were thrown into conquest of Ukraine and about 10% of the Soviet Union territory. The fact is not only that there were losses of Ukrainians - there were many victims among the civilians who died as war victims; there were losses of the military, but also insurgents – those who fought in the end of the war against two armies: both the Soviet Army and German Army. That was the insurgence, in which the number of the perished, according to Timothy Snyder, was greater than that the number of all those who died in the resistance movement throughout Europe. 

But I would like to draw the attention not only to those facts. I would like to draw the attention to the fact that for the first time in the Bundestag, my colleagues and I felt that Germany and German politicians began to consider Ukraine as a politically and culturally self-sufficient entity, as a political and cultural identity. It took 25 years and three years after the Maidan for Ukraine to eventually stand out as an independent political entity, from such a grey zone or a common area of the former Soviet Union. As people love to say in Ukraine, Ukraine became an “actor of international relations”. 

This process of overcoming of the inertia is an extremely important movement. And we owe to our German colleagues for this. More and more we come to realize what Ukraine is. And a simple question which comes out naturally: what can be Ukraine’s own responsibility? If there is responsibility towards Ukraine and for Ukraine, what is our own responsibility? Can we be held responsible? Economically we are weaker than Germany, weaker than the West. In the military we are not that strong either. What our responsibility [towards Germany, towards the European Union] can be?

I think that historians might help us here, but not fully. As a philosopher, I think I can articulate that. Here we need to think not so much in terms of the past, but, perhaps, more in terms of the future and the present. And if we are to talk about the responsibility, first we have to ask: what is the responsibility? I am not going to enumerate all theories of collective and individual responsibility, from Karl Jaspers’ to Hannah Arendt’s theory. One thing is clear: a person is always responsible for himself or herself and for a society, even if he or she does not feel that way. A person is responsible for himself or herself, because he or she has got to live their own lives. And a person feels, if he or she has a sense of morality, when he or she is doing something wrong and must do something right. 

Now there is a feeling of collective responsibility for the preservation of Ukraine, and we all sense that. However, in order to be able to articulate it more clearly, we need to come back to the Maidan events, only three years back. I sensed two spiritual intentions within seven months of the Maidan movement. The first intention is a repetition of what has been already carved by the generation of Ukrainian writers and artists in the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic who were repressed by Stalin's totalitarian regime, the so-called Executed Renaissance. In particular, by Mykola Khvyloviy who urged Ukrainians to "go to Europe, far away from Moscow”. The second intention is as follows: Ukraine must keep its own identity, and strengthen it. Ukraine shall become “Ukrainian”, shall become a political and cultural identity. 

And if we understand these two intentions which are two sides of the same coin, we shalІ understand now what we are responsible for. The time has been telling us. After our neighbor on the North-East reacted to the Maidan events, Ukraine found itself at the frontier, at the front, defending the imagined (but not imaginary) European values that we were striving for during the Maidan: rule of law, universal human rights, and democracy. Ukraine had to become “Ukrainian” just in order to become European.

And when the aggression started, it became clear to all for what Ukraine is responsible. Ukraine is responsible towards Europe, towards the West for the European values. And this needs to be taken into account. Ukraine pays for its responsibility by lives of its soldiers, dozens of thousands of deaths. This is our responsibility. But I would not finish at that, because our responsibility goes beyond that. You see what is happening in front of the Parliament building on the day of our discussion, what is happening? A certain part of the population is not happy with how the Parliament works. The Parliament has lost a great deal of its legitimacy. And the Parliament’s legitimacy is the popular trust. How can the Parliament operate and work honestly under these circumstances? What is going on? How are we, Ukrainians, carrying out our personal and collective responsibility, and what for? 

If we are to sum up that in two words, the answer is: “simply enough”. As a representative of civil society, I understand this clearly. We are responsible for reforms, for the pace of reforms. It appears that we are responsible not only to ourselves. To be responsible before Europe and towards Europe, the West, we must go on with these reforms, so that the frontier, which we are defending, becomes clear and sacred. And in the end, to compel those who do not want it, to be democratic. That is our responsibility.

And against the backdrop of the two intentions of the Maidan which I mentioned, it is yet our responsibility to understand how to combine the traditional values, the national and political identities that are based on universal values, on freedom and human dignity. I think that my colleagues in the Center for Modern Liberalism will speak about that as well. 

We are responsible for combining the national traditions, national spirit, patriotism and nationalism (in the right sense, as strife for building a nation-statehood) with liberal values. In Ukraine, there is now a struggle between them, and there is a great deal of examples of this struggle both in the civil society as well as in politics. That is our responsibility. And I am very grateful to our German colleagues that they have raised this issue [on historical responsibility of nations]. Only together we will address this challenge. And we will become not only responsible in our minds and intentions, but we will become a new democratic Ukraine.

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