What do anarchists in Germany think about the war in Ukraine? Can the left in Western and Eastern Europe work together? Is it possible to fight far-right trends through language? Paul Nagel, a Sorbian activist and musician from Germany, shares his thoughts
Many left groups around the world do not support Ukraine (especially on the issue of military assistance) or support it reluctantly because they are afraid to strengthen NATO. You, however, advocate support for Ukraine. Why?
Let me start by saying a few words about the left movement in Germany. It is not so homogeneous, there are different approaches and discourses. If we look at the European left movement from a historical perspective, it has always been opposed to European and U.S. imperialism. This legacy prevents many from going beyond the usual perception of a common enemy, it is difficult for the left to realize that there can be other imperialisms. And it is quite convenient to live with the idea that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” so many continue to follow this simple formula.
As for the left movement in Germany, it is highly fragmented. Its poles are the Sarah Wagenknecht movement on one side and the anarchist movement on the other. And in between there are many different groups. Even within Wagenknecht’s Party of Democratic Socialism there are different opinions. The Wagenknecht wing makes the mistake of inverting the concepts of “victim” and “aggressor,” but the other wing of the party sidesteps this trap. There are also different poles among the non-institutional left. There are anarchist groups that actively collect aid for their comrades in Ukraine, for example, the Dresden-based Anarchist Black Cross. There is also a movement, which since the 1970s has coalesced around the Grassroots Revolution fanzine, advocating the idea of pacifism as its most important value. Its members support deserters on both sides. In other words, they do not actively support either of the warring sides, opting for anti-war action. They believe we need to do everything we can to keep people from going to war. I find this position appropriate. They are demanding that the German government open the borders to all deserters.
I strongly dislike the Wagenknecht wing because its rhetoric is pseudo-pacifist: these people are deliberately silent about Putin’s authoritarianism and his responsibility for unleashing the war. They are silent about the Russian opposition. Thus, they become Putin’s accomplices in this war. Personally, I find it difficult to resolve all the contradictions revealed by the war in Ukraine.
I have always taken an anti-war stance, and criticized militarism, especially in Germany, because it is my country. I did not serve in the army. It is difficult for me to utter the “Supply weapons!” slogan but, of course, I understand that Ukraine cannot defend itself without military assistance. I still have not been able to resolve this contradiction within myself.
Don’t you think that the position of active anti-war support makes no practical sense? Putin has contractors and the ability to mobilize tens of thousands of people, and the defection of Ukrainians will be perceived by all as betrayal?
I’m not sure that the hope of desertion is absolutely futile. After all, in Russia there have been quite a few arson attacks on military recruitment centers, there has been sabotage on the railroads, and a lot of people have left the country to avoid serving in the army. So there is a certain hope for the pacifist movement in Russia. As for Ukrainians, I do not want to judge, I can hardly imagine myself in their shoes now.
Does the German left understand the monstrosity of Putin’s authoritarianism, are they trying to understand the Russian context where a viewpoint different from the official one is considered criminal? Or are they living by the old mantra that Russia is still creating some kind of second force against U.S. imperialism?
Most of the people on the left understand that Putinism is a monstrous regime. There is the German Communist Party and the leftist newspaper Junge Welt, which sympathize with Putin’s regime because it stands up to American imperialism. But most still understand what Putinism is all about. I myself have long struggled to characterize Putin’s regime. It could, I think, be compared to Stalinism, but with no promise of a bright communist future.
In the German anarchist movement, it is impossible to meet people who, for whatever reason, would support Putinism, because historically anarchists have many connections in Eastern Europe and Russia, they understand what kind of monster it is.
“It could, I think, be compared to Stalinism, but with no promise of a bright communist future”
You are a member of the European anarcho-syndicalist union FAU, what is its take on the war in Ukraine?
I can’t speak for the whole FAU, besides I haven’t been an active member in recent years. I can give my personal impression of what’s going on there. Anti-militarism is one of the core tenets of the FAU, and the union now primarily supports its members in Ukraine and Russia. The FAU has been restrained in formulating its position, but it is clear that its members believe Putin started the war and that his regime is a cannibalistic one. There is a heated debate among FAU members as to whether it is even possible to participate in hostilities, since the roots of the union can be traced back to the Spanish Civil War when trade unions fought the Franco regime. Now there are Kurds among FAU members who are actively involved in fighting in Kurdistan. That is, the FAU is debating the idea of anti-militarism, understanding that people, defending themselves and their land, need to take part in military action. The Dresden-based group Anarchist Black Cross, which is friends with the FAU, is raising funds to send medical aid to Ukraine, although there is an opinion that this kind of aid would be more effective if carried out by government agencies. There are also discussions concerning the political system in Ukraine, because nationalistic tendencies are quite strong there. I observed this myself when I was in Ukraine. But when discussing the war, Russia’s aggression and defending Ukraine comes first, other issues are secondary.
You keep in touch with the Ukrainian and Belarusian leftists. I know that the Ukrainian left unites with the right to fight Putin’s army, which is their number one enemy. What do they think about the position of the European left?
I can’t say what the situation in Ukraine looks like from the inside. I only had two musical tours to Ukraine, the first shortly before Maidan, the second right after it. I remember how in Lviv we were invited to a squat. I thought it was left-wing, but it turned out to belong to a nationalist autonomous movement. I met with anarchists in Kiev in their rented premises. Any German anarchist would have made a leftist cafe or club there, while the Ukrainian anarchists had set up a gym there to train in fighting techniques. This shows what a tense situation exists there between the left and the right. I’m more familiar with the Belarusian leftist community, and now I’m just glad that my Belarusian friends aren’t in jail. They managed to get away, and most of them are in Poland now. We used to talk a lot with our Belarusian friends about how the Western left seems to ignore them. Discussions were heated, but the language barrier didn’t allow us to speak for a long time. I used Sorbo-Polish and the Belarusians used Belarusian-Polish phrases. I now try to read for myself what is going on in leftist circles in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. There’s a very good radical-left journal in Germany — Analyse und Kritik. They try to translate texts, because it’s very important to hear the voices of the left from these countries.
Do you agree that it is important for the left to see Ukraine as an independent political actor, rather than viewing this war solely through a geopolitical lens? After all, right now it is easier to fight American imperialism than Putin’s imperialism.
Since they have decided to live in this state, of course I support them. Seeing Ukraine only as a participant in some geopolitical confrontation is wrong and degrading to Ukrainians. It is very important to listen carefully to them. The left must be ready to revise its old strategies, accepted as eternal. New strategies must be developed, based on an understanding of what Ukrainians themselves think and want. In other words, it is impossible to ignore the geopolitical conflict at all, it exists, but we must first and foremost care about the interests of Ukrainians who oppose Putin’s aggression.
“The left must be ready to revise its old strategies, accepted as eternal. New strategies must be developed, based on an understanding of what Ukrainians themselves think and want”
Many of your songs are political. A different project for Eastern Europe is the focus of these songs. What might the project for a different Eastern Europe look like?
In my songs I primarily talk about the transformation processes in East Germany, because I know this region very well. If you look more broadly, the processes of transformation are going on, the question is: What it will look like? It is obvious now that the capitalist system cannot solve many problems, neither environmental nor social. Besides, capitalism has a tendency to make alliances with dictatorial regimes like Russia and Belarus. And there are right-wing trends in Western countries as well: Trumpism, Turkey, Italy. In other words, dictatorships help capitalism to survive.
We all should analyze what happened after the collapse of the socialist bloc in East Germany and Eastern Europe. I think we missed a major chance to transform society. There were some very interesting ideas immediately after the fall of the wall as to how this region could be transformed. Immediately after the fall of the wall, there were very interesting ideas about how the region could be transformed. If you read the Demokratischer Aufbruch Manifesto now, which has now assimilated into the CDU (“Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands”), it sounds like a left-wing pamphlet. We need to revisit these ideas. Back then the main task was to reform socialism. At one of the biggest demonstrations on November 4, 1989, during the peaceful revolution in Germany, the famous German writer Stefan Heim advocated building a socialism worthy of its name. The crowd applauded his speech. It’s hard to imagine such a thing today. We must take a critical look at the socialism of the Eastern bloc, which was not even socialism, it was a lifeless edifice that allowed no deviation to the left or right from the party line. Marxism in the beginning was an aspiration to learn something new, it offered a new revolutionary view of the world, but it turned into a massive granite slab, which just lies there and disturbs everyone. If we want to discuss the ideas of a new socialism and a social state, we need to banish the old monsters.
Can you give specific examples of ideas we should develop?
My roots are in anarcho-syndicalism, and I believe that you should progress by small steps and work with people, rather than coming up with a large general design. For example, the idea of affordable housing for all. It’s a concrete social goal we need to achieve together. That’s a good place to start. As a result of success on a small level, there may be motivation for something bigger. It’s not right to offer people some all-powerful plan when you’re not capable of solving small issues. You have to grow along the way and keep going. And it is important in doing so to analyze history and talk about it, to talk about the responsibility of certain parties. The social revolution of 1917 in Russia eventually degenerated into a monstrous system, you can’t keep quiet about that either. Otherwise people will not believe you. It must be a simultaneous process. On the one hand, it is necessary to take a critical approach to the history of socialism and, on the other hand, to move forward constructively by small steps, to learn by doing. No one can say what future socialism might exactly look like. And the situation in East Germany is rather sad regarding these goals. The so-called “assholes for Germany,” the AfD party can boast up to 40% of the population’s support in some East German regions [Note: Nagel uses“Arschlöcher für Deutschland” instead of “Alternative für Deutschland”]. And these are the biggest Putin fans in Germany. AfD refers to the time before the wall collapsed to prove its legitimacy. There was a period in 1989 when the key to change was in the hands of the people. It was a short but intense period with many exciting utopias and ideas.
“If we want to discuss the ideas of a new socialism and a social state, we need to banish the old monsters”
For example, my family had discussions about what we wanted — capitalism, socialism, communism. Workers set up independent trade unions and expelled managers to decide the future of their enterprises. Everything was possible. This situation is hard to imagine today; capitalism is perceived as a law of nature. Back then, people gave up the key to change; they did not seize the moment. They simply applied the West German system to East Germany. And many East Germans were left disappointed; they lost their jobs, no one wanted them. They are the ones addressed by AfD. They are trying to prove to everyone that they want to finish what was started then, which is absurd because the ideas of the opposition in East Germany have nothing to do with AfD. AfD will be very upset when they find out they must build ecosocialism.
“There was a period in 1989 when the key to change was in the hands of the people. It was a short but intense period with many exciting utopias and ideas”
How do you see the situation of the left in Eastern Europe, where right-wing views were in high demand after the collapse of the Eastern bloc?
Leftist ideas have a heavy burden of failed experimentation in the post-Soviet space. For instance, people are suspicious of the property redistribution rhetoric. But there are also other examples. In Poland, there is the anarchist trade union “Inicjatywa Pracownicza” (“Workers’ Initiative”), which organizes successful strikes at Amazon logistics centers. This success is due to the situation in Poland, where the Solidarity trade union played a prominent role in changing the socialist system. The union is not associated with the former socialist power as it is in East Germany today.
You perform songs in the Sorbian language, a Slavic language of the Lusatia region of Eastern Germany. Is this a political gesture?
Yes, Sorbian is a bridge to Eastern Europe, though I started organically using it for my songs. I come from a family that is half Sorbian. I remember family gatherings when they sang songs in Sorbian, a liturgical language. That sound was in my head. I met a girl from a Catholic Sorbian village, an indigenous Sorbian area. We started to perform in Sorbian in Berlin. Hardly anyone understood us, so we decided to play our music in the Sorbian regions of East Germany. And then, the way to Eastern Europe opened up because Sorbian is a Slavic language. We were invited to festivals and went on tour there. The language became the key to Eastern Europe. It would be unfortunate if Sorbian became extinct. You could get a beating at school for speaking Sorbian. The Germanization of the eastern parts of Germany had this brutal expression for several generations. It is essential to show that Germany has not always been homogeneous, there are different people. And in a sense, Sorbian could be used to oppose the fascist nationalist ideas widespread in East Germany.
“Germany has not always been homogeneous, there are different people. And in a sense, Sorbian could be used to oppose the fascist nationalist ideas widespread in East Germany”