How Germany sees UkraineGermany is Western Europe‘s demographically and economically most significant country while Ukraine has, in the post-Soviet period, becomea geopolitical pivot state of Eastern Europe as well as the territorially largest exclusively European country (Russia and Turkey have parts of their territories in Europe, but most of them in Asia). There are deep historical links between Ukrainian and Germans. One of many such connections was the adoption of the famous Magdeburg Town Law, during the 15th-19th centuries by several Ukrainian cities including Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital that features today a monument to the Magdeburg Law. During the post-Soviet period, a multitude of close Ukrainian-German cooperation schemes in such fields as business, development, science, education and culture have been and are being implemented. For these and many other reasons, it is surprising how little attention the nature of the relationship, linksand feelings between the two large European nations have received so far, in the study of European history and international relations. 

While Ukrainian interest in Germany has always been very high, in Germany, interest in and information on Ukraine has only recently started to grow. In 2006, the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen started to publish its regular German-language electronic bulletin Ukraine-Analysen – with so far 201 issues. Two further specialized German-language websites, Ukraine-Nachrichten (News on Ukraine), founded in 2007, and Ukraine verstehen (Understanding Ukraine), founded in 2017, are today improving German understanding of Ukraine. Systematic reflection on German-Ukrainian relations too has been improving – though more slowly. In 2010, the Hamburg historian Frank Golczewski published a large volume on German-Ukrainian relations in the inter-war period (Deutsche und Ukrainer 1914-1939. Paderborn: Schöningh, 1058 pp.). A number essays and papers have since explored Ukraine’s presentation and misrepresentation in German media, as well as Germany’s involvement in Ukraine’s ongoing transformation. 

With its new study Ukraine in Germany’s Eyes: Pictures and Perceptions of a Land in Transition, the Ukrainian program of the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) provides an extremely informative and partly revealing documentation of German views on today Ukraine. The investigation follows the methodology of an earlier GIZ project on the perception of Germany across the world which asked international experts on Germany how the German nationis perceived in their home countries. The GIZ’s 2017 Ukraine study too is not abroad statistical survey of German attitudes towards Ukraine, but a deep qualitative survey of German images, interpretations, opinions, evaluations, stereotypes, knowledge and expectations related to Ukraine. These features are drawn from 1014 statements made by 44 Germans who are, to one degree or another, especially familiar with, or interested in, Ukraine. They comprise – partly, prominent – scholars, entrepreneurs, civic activists, journalists, artists and politicians, among the latter, for instance, the Green Member of European Parliament Rebecca Harms or the former Minister-President of Saxony and current G7 envoy to Ukraine Professor Georg Milbradt.

As the project’s initiator and supervisor Andreas von Schumann makes clear in his introduction, the purposes of this investigation was not to “search for [objective] truth” about Ukraine. Rather, “[w]e wanted to distil the commonalities that can be established in various perceptions [about Ukraine] among different persons [in Germany], which contours these pictures of Ukraine have, [and] what kind of profile as well as distortions are recognizable.” Von Schumann extracts two fundamental features in the evaluations of the 44 German specialized interview partners. The consulted German experts, first,perceivethe German “view on Ukraine as being too narrow, the knowledge [in Germany about Ukraine] as too sketchy, and[Germans’] attention to [Ukrainian developments] as too volatile as well as their evaluations [of Ukrainian matters] as too slimly grounded.”The surveyed German specialists, second, express, according to von Schumann,

“a deep desire that Germany and the Germans would engage, with Ukraine, more frequently and intensely. This hope is grounded on several motifs: historic responsibility of the Germans, the cultural diversity of Ukraine, the economic potential of the country, the necessity to provide for stability in Europe’s East and the possible impulses [of this engagement] for the further development of the EU. Yet the most obvious motif, among our conversation partners, was their excitement about their own rapprochement with Ukraine. Independently of the concrete occasion that let them make Ukraine their central interest, most of [the interviewees] emphasized the ‘clean sheet’ at the beginning which was to quickly transform into a ‘colourful canvas’.” (p. 7)

Since 2014, the German view on Ukraine, the study documents, has become dominated by three negatives “K’s” – Krieg, Krise, Krim (war, crisis, Crimea).This image is only marginally improved by two older positive “K’s” for the once celebrated football team “Dynamo Kyiv” and for Klitschko, the surname of the two famous box world champions Viktor and Volodymyr who used to live and are still popular in Germany. Apart from reporting common German stereotypes, such as these, about Ukraine, the GIZ study offers a multitude of insights into the scale of different German perceptions of such topics as Ukraine’s regime changes, reforms, corruption, nationalism, foreign affairs, European aspirations, cultural divisions, relations with Russia, and relevance to Germany. 

Thus the study, for instance, finds that, in German assessments of today’s Ukrainian changes, “hardly any other sector is mentioned as many times as an example for lacking reform efforts as the justice system. This is because a reform of the electoral law and the creation of an anti-corruption court – both major demands of the reformers – will decide the future division of power in the country. It is crucial that the rule of law is implemented in all public affairs.” (pp. 58-59)

With regard to foreign affairs, the answers of the various experts are more diverse and partly contradictory. One interviewee cited in the study asserts that “To join NATO is not a good idea for Ukraine because this means the formation of new blocks. Ukraine has to behave neutrally and try to find a common language with Russia.” A respondent assesses that “NATO cannot fulfil the role of guarantee power for Ukraine.” Yet, the conclusion from this is that “the EU has to get ‘teeth’ and become a security actor, on the European continent. The EU and Germany, to be sure, have through negotiation of the Minsk Agreements already taken upon themselves considerable responsibility, and the German government supports ‘resolutely’ the [Ukrainian] reform process. ‘But’ – asks a respondent rhetorically – ‘does this solve the conflict – especially if Russia plays upon time?’” (p. 76)

The study is not only valuable in that it illustrates well various German interpretations of these themes. By documenting the views of many of Germany’s leading experts on Ukraine and how they talk about their country of interest, the booklet also provides insights in how the German public will be informed about future developments in and around Ukraine. In view of Germany’s importance to the course of EU foreign affairs, in general, and policies towards Kyiv, in particular, this dense investigation of German interpretations of Ukrainian matters will become essential reading for everybody interested in Ukraine’s current and future international relations and gradual European integration.

 

For an older German-language outline of the variety post-Soviet German-Ukrainian relations, institutions and perceptions until 2011 and further literature on this theme, see the text and footnotes of: “Weißer Fleck: Die Ukraine in der deutschen Öffentlichkeit [A Blank Spot: Ukraine in the German Public Realm],” Osteuropa, vol. 62, no. 9 (2012), pp. 127-133. www.academia.edu/2068774/Weißer_Fleck_Die_Ukraine_in_der_deutschen_Öffentlichkeit 


About the author:

Andreas Umland is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and editor of the ibidem Press book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society.”