Interview with Dr. Hauke Ritz: On Eurasia, Culture & Geopolitics

Global Square Magazine

Dr. Hauke Ritz is a recognized German author who lives in Berlin and deals in particular with issues of geopolitics and the history of ideas. His dissertation in philosophy, read at the Free University of Berlin, was entitled The struggle for the interpretation of modern times. The historical-philosophical discussion in Germany from the First World War to the fall of the Berlin Wall (Der Kampf um die Deutung der Neuzeit. Die geschichtsphilosophische Diskussion in Deutschland vom Ersten Weltkrieg bis zum Mauerfall).It was published as a book in 2013 by the Wilhelm Fink Verlag, followed in 2015 by a second edition. He is a prolific author publishing in specialized magazines and is regularly interviewed by international mass media. Our contributor Augusto Soto has met with him and both had an interesting debate about Russia and the future of the West.

AS: You have extensively written about several significant cultural issues. One leitmotiv in your work is the role of culture as a unique or sui generis link in Russian-Western relations. Could you summarize this connection?

HR: You are starting this interview with a fundamental question. To narrow the topic a little,

I would like to start with the observation that the current conflict with Russia is one of the main riddles of our present time. Why does this conflict exist in the first place? We have not a true answer to this question! Instead we have gotten used to this conflict mainly because of its constant presence in the media.

This hinders our seeing the irrationality of the whole issue. The competition between Socialism and Capitalism seems to be over; Russia and even China are more or less capitalistic countries today. And not only that, the Russians had agreed in the late 1980s to give up their own impulse for civilizational independence and were willing to orientate themselves for at least 15 years (namely, from 1989 to the end of the first term of Mr. Putin’s presidency) fully towards the model of Western civilization. The West had a golden moment in its history, an absolutely unique window of opportunity, in which it could easily expand its own model of civilization towards the whole northern hemisphere. The only thing the West had to take into account was the Russian desire to be seen as a true partner and not just as an object for future colonization. Yet, in regard to the overall promise of such an alliance, which would cover the whole northern hemisphere, this was indeed a small price to pay.

However, despite this unparalleled golden opportunity of the 1990s, the Western and especially the American elites opted for another path of development. A developmental trajectory in which Russia had no role of its own to play, in which the country was a target of military encirclement, destabilization and sanctions and therefore pushed into the arms of China. This policy was implemented at a time in which the Western world itself was still carrying the burden of its imperial past. We have to keep in mind that the Western world has inherited from its imperial past a conflicting relationship, not only towards Russia and China, but also towards most other civilizations and cultural areas in the world, be it Iran, Turkey, the Arab world as a whole, Latin America or Africa.

In other words, the golden opportunity of the 1990s, which would have helped the West to reinvent itself by building a relationship with its former antithesis, was deliberately rejected and changed for a constellation, in which the Western world remained in the tracks of its imperial past.

Yet, staying in the tracks of imperialism is a very problematic position in the 21st century. It will be and already is very easy for Russia and China to exploit the worldwide resentment towards Western imperialism and benefit from it. The Western world rejected the golden opportunity of the 1990s and chose instead a world constellation, in which it could only loose.

This raises the question of why this has happened. Of course, it is always possible to explain such failures, even failures of such magnitude, through incompetence.

And of course it is true that the bereavement of humanistic education has increased the number of politicians who have no orientation of their own within history and world affairs and therefore always mirror the zeitgeist.

However, the thesis of incompetence, even if it is partly true, appears a too simple explanation for the mystery of  why the West chose a self-destructive policy –. There must be other causes and other explanations.

And indeed, if one follows the different marks and footprints which can be found not only in recent history, but also in the daily stream of news, it becomes more and more clear and more and more obvious that there exists a deeper reason for the very existence of the new Cold War. The new Cold War is not directly connected to the old competition between socialism and capitalism . If socialism ever returns, it will have another name and another appearance. The new Cold war is instead rooted in the future developmental possibilities of human culture as such. Humanity has hit, when it comes to the future of culture, a fork in the road. Today, Science and Technology have reached a degree of development which confronts us with very serious decisions about the future of human culture, about the question of how human our culture could and will be. I am not only speaking about the competition between two different cultures, which has always existed throughout history.

I am speaking about the fact that we are currently at a point of time, in which not only the content of culture is disputed, but its ontological status. These decisions about the future use of gene technology, artificial intelligence and surveillance in combination with modern psychology will be made in the next two or three decades and once they are made, they will define the 21st century.

Russia has a very specific position in this competition. I am not referring to the serious military power of Russia, or her decisive geographic position, or the commodities the country possesses. No, the specific position of Russia in international relations results not only from these known strong points. In my view, it is also affected by its own past as a superpower, from the knowledge which this country has accumulated during the Cold War, but also from specific traits of its own culture and history, which are seldom truly understood in Western Europe. Russia has – at least since Peter the Great, but maybe even since its Christianization – been connected with Europe, related to its ancient origins and bound to the European destiny. Having said this, however, I must add that the European Identity of Russia is sundered in a way that an influential part of Russian intellectuals have over the centuries struggled with their European identity and therefore connected themselves with those trends in Europe, which belong there to the opposition. That is the reason why Russia became and stayed an Orthodox country, that is why the Renaissance culture had only little influence on Russia, that is why Russia chose the socialist and not the liberal version of modernity and that is also why the majority of the Russian society today opposes the postmodern interpretation of European culture and prefers to stay within the realm of modernity.

This paradoxical combination of belonging and distance towards Europe gives Russia an irreplaceable position within the realm of European culture and is the most important factor for the existence of the so-called New Cold War.

Russia’s position within the new Cold War cannot be understood if one looks only at its GDP and the size of its population. However, in regard to its diplomatic traditions and experience, its participation in European culture and history, its independent analysis of recent history and its orientation within the flow of time, not to mention its military possibilities, in regard to all those factors, which are for most Western politicians and political experts simply out of their conceptual horizon, Russia is indeed a strong power. And that means it can and will participate in the future definition of European civilization.

AS: Last October the forum entitled: “Understanding in Europe: what can the German-Russian civil dialogue bring about?” took place in Berlin. Can civil society really make a meaningful contribution for a better understanding in times sometimes resembling the Cold War?

HR: The conference you are mentioning was organized at a grassroots level and was a reaction to the overall situation we are in. If we analyze our current situation, we must acknowledge that the chances that human civilization will continue for the next hundred years are quite slim. On a collective level, as a human species, we might have already lost our future. And this already very difficult situation becomes even more problematic given the fact that our main institutions have become corrupted in recent decades. Our universities for example no longer offer an honest intellectual orientation for the younger generations; they no longer publish groundbreaking works which analyze the established order of power. Instead they are confusing the young generation through theories which appear to offer insights into reality which seem progressive, while they are in fact rationalizing and whitewashing the contradictions of modern civilization.

The situation in contemporary journalism is even worse, as exemplified by the recent scandal regarding the German journalist Claas Relotius at Spiegel Magazine. Relotius’ fake reports, which were simply products of his fantasy, were taken as serious journalism and even rewarded with eleven different prizes, because modern journalism has become used to a writing style which is obtuse to reality and instead conforms strictly to established expectations. This has led to a situation in which most Western societies have simply lost their ability to self-correct.

The conference you just mentioned was a small and maybe powerless attempt to counter the ongoing crisis of our institutions. To establish at least for one day in one conference hall a setting in which Russians and Germans can indeed speak and listen to each other. And also to provide a forum for those within German society who are called by our mainstream media contemptuously “Russlandversteher” (people who understand Russia) and who are normally excluded from any public debate.

AS: For several years (and decades) there has been an open debate about Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, understood as a basic cultural, economic and geopolitical space. You have also reflected about this subject. Is this still an important question today? Where does the fundamental basis for such an assumption lie?

HR: This has something to do with the nature of European culture as such. And I will now say something that may appear for some people to be politically incorrect. World history, as we are witnessing it today, has been initiated by European countries at the beginning of the modern age. Before the expansion of Europe in the 16th century, history was mostly regional history, the history of specific cultural areas which only had periodical influence on each other. The expansion of Europe started with Portugal and Spain and continued with the United Netherlands, France, Britain till finally in the 20th century the Western and Eastern Wings of Europe, namely the United States and the Soviet Union, took over this historic role.

I am a critic of the European tradition of imperialism and I am aware of all the suffering and cruelty which went hand in hand with it. However, that does not change the fact that European culture has become world culture during the last 400 years. World culture in the sense that the European model of modernity has influenced and is still influencing cultural developments in other continents.

Of course a lot of people criticise this leading role of European culture in the world. But this does not change the fact that whatever happens in Europe has global consequences. I do not exclude and would welcome the possibility that China or in the long run even Latin America or India transform their culture into a world culture as well. Yet even if other cultural areas develop their own model of modernity, this will be a long and complicated process. Such a task will take at least several generations. The philosophy, the literature, the music, the art, as well as the order of values these art forms express, all these things cannot be invented within a short period of time. It also cannot simply reinvigorate the past.

For the time being European culture is the only world culture. And that means that the critical question of the 21st  century, how an equilibrium between the values of culture and the consequences of technology can be reached, will be fought over within European culture. That is why the future of Europe is not only important for Europeans, but for the world as a whole.

Having said that, it makes a great difference if this Europe – which has been the fabric of world culture for at least 400 years – is sovereign or dependent, if it can take its fate into its own hands or if it is subject to and tributary of another power. And this question is in turn connected to the question about whether or not Europe is united or divided. The vision of Greater Europe is not only a vision of our present time. During most of its history, Europe was at least culturally united. The unity was first established through the Roman Empire and its civilizational influence. Then in medieval times for the second time through the influence of the Catholic Church. This unity was later weakened by the two fundamental schisms between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in 1054 and the later schism between Catholicism and Protestantism in the late 16th and early 17th century. Yet, as precarious as the cultural unity of Europe was at the beginning of the modern age, it was nevertheless able to recreate it from the 18th to the 19th century through the Enlightenment. The philosophy of the Enlightenment had established an public intellectual sphere. The new discoveries in philosophy and science as well as the new works of literature were quickly translated into the most important European languages.

The European humanistic culture of the modern age was a transboundary phenomenon with a universal understanding of the dignity of man and his responsibility in the course of history.

This became the basis for the third cultural unification of Europe which even partly survived the First World War. This third cultural unity of Europe has only broken apart in the 20thcentury, through the rise of fascism and finally the Cold War, which divided the European continent between two empires and pushed Europe for over 70 years into a quasi-colonial status.

AS: In some articles you contend that the Western world went through a huge cultural transformation during the Cold War. Could you give us a description of this process?

HR: Today, we tend to remember the Cold War mainly as a confrontation with a military and maybe also economic dimension. Yet we often overlook that the Cold War also had a cultural dimension.

Looking back on the period of the Cold War, we have to admit that its cultural dimension was the most important one.

The transformation of the socialist camp took not place because of a military defeat or an irreversible economic decline, but because the capitalistic system had gained a kind of cultural attraction and therefore hegemony at the end of the Cold War. Thousands of citizens of the former GDR left their country in 1989 because they felt attracted by Western consumer culture, by Rock and Pop music and jeans as a symbol of individualism and were willing to sacrifice all socialist achievements and hopes for those items.

The cultural policy of both superpowers during the Cold War was quite different. The Soviet Union was very strict in regard to the political system and they intervened if a reform of socialism went too far. Yet at the same time they had respect for the cultural heritage of the different Eastern European countries. That is one of the reasons why the Soviet Union offered the unification to Germany already in 1952. They did not try to transform the East-Germans or the Czechs or the Polish people into Soviet citizens because it was a long-standing tradition of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union to create support for the Union through acceptance and even promotion of local cultural heritage.

The United States in turn had a totally different strategy. From the first moment they set their foot on European soil, they tried to influence European culture. Maybe they feared, if they would not do that, the Europeans would in the long run reject them. And this fear was not unfounded because there were indeed many partly arrogant prejudices from European diplomats towards their American colleagues in the 1950s. The United States tried to present itself as a nation of culture, yet those attempts had little success. Finally they understood that the prejudices of the older generation towards the US could not be overcome, but that it was still possible to influence the younger generation. Over many decades American culture was spread within the young generation of Europeans which had a huge impact and finally transformed European culture from within. This cultural policy was combined with a systematic analysis of the cultural foundations of socialism. Those elements within European culture which were related to socialism, for example, the standing of the intellectual within European societies, or the historical awareness of Europeans and especially the tradition of philosophy of history, were – as it was called in postmodern terms – “deconstructed”.

It is not exaggerated to say that today’s postmodern culture, which has gained hegemony in Western Europe, can be seen as the American interpretation of European culture, in so far as it is built on strong influences from the American civil rights movement.

That is also why many postmodern values like political correctness and multiculturalism are more and more rejected in former socialist countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. For those Eastern European societies the postmodern system of values appears strange because it only has a very superficial connection to the cultural heritage of Europe.

AS: In a broad sense, which intellectual do you think summarizes best in the arts or humanities the destiny of Russia in the 20thcentury, philosophers like Nikolai Berdiayev or Alezander Zinoviev, historian Lev Gumilyov, filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky?

HR: The work of those philosophers and artists has several sources. One of them is of course the specific elements of Russian culture, the relationship to Byzantium, the specificity of Orthodox Christianity in comparison to the Western Churches, the influence of Asia, the vastness of the countryside which affects the world view as well as the life of the soul.

Another important influence is an element that is not only characteristic for Russian culture, but for the German culture as well; namely the desire to see and understand reality as a whole. German philosophy had an intensive influence on Russia, not only through Karl Marx, but also through the philosophy of German Idealism, German Romanticism and so forth. And there was a reason why the Russians first tended to look to Germany when they looked to Europe.

The British and the French Enlightenment defined itself through a competition against the Church. The philosophical tradition especially of the Anglo-Saxon world was always fearful of falling back into an analogy-based world view of the Middle Ages. To resist this fear, they developed a methodology which tried to analyze reality only on the basis of a strict definition of its individual components. In contrast, the German Enlightenment tried the opposite and merged the desire for a metaphysical explanation with scientific and logical aspirations. The result was that German philosophy absorbed the heritage of Greek Metaphysics and of Christian theology and translated it into a systematic and logical meditation about world, civilization and history, while the Western European Enlightenment limited itself artificially, for fear of a return to medieval times.

The philosophers you mentioned, namely Nikolai Berdiayev, Lev Gumilyov and to some extent also Alexander Zinoviev, have in common with the German tradition that they do not shy away from analyzing the whole of our reality and trying to overcome pure atomistic, positivistic definitions.

Just like many German philosophers, they developed a complex world view, which stretches from Religion, to Art, to Politics and History. Like the philosophers of German idealism they believed that reality is more than the sum of its individual parts.

Generally speaking, there is a strange correspondence between German and Russian culture, which is difficult to explain after both countries have fought out two world wars. However,

I think that the cultural affinity between Russia and Germany bears in itself a far reaching possibility, the possibility for example of redefining Europe’s cultural heritage once America retreats from its engagement in European affairs.

AS: 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s birth. He was a powerful voice in times of the Soviet Union and then in the West. He also had strong views about culture and geopolitics. Can we rescue some aspects of his views now?

HR: Solzhenitsyn understood that the Western world had cultivated only a different version of the same atheism, against which he had fought in the Soviet Union. In his famous 1978 Harvard address he especially criticized the role of the legal regime in the Western world, which in his view made people blind to the difference between jurisprudence and justice. He was bewildered by how Western people could see in the worldly mechanism of the different branches of the government system a guarantor of  higher justice.

And indeed, still today it is a cultural feature of Western Europe that people put a high emphasis on the mechanism of the government structure. For them the question of how a decision has been made is far more important than its actual content, whereas in Russia the overall spirit of a decision is far more important than the way it was actually achieved.

We have to keep in mind that the legal culture of the Roman Empire had a profound influence on Western Europe, namely France, Britain and through them on the United States. The civilizational concept of the traditional West in general is mostly orientated towards ancient Rome and tries to repeat it. However, this Western self-understanding appears strange in large parts of Europe. Russia for example is connected to the legacy of Byzantium, with a strong emphasis on the eschatological tradition of European culture, while the German philosophy felt connected to the heritage of Athens.

There are other ways of  interpreting our culture. Solzhenitsyn’s distant view of our European civilisation should remind us that the true sources of this civilisation can be rediscovered.

AS: Kiev and Moscow are connected no longer either by a security treaty (the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation was denounced by Kiev) or by the Orthodox church (the Ukrainian Orthodox church has been granted independence from the Russian church), and additional bridges for understanding seem irretrievably broken. In your view, how should we analyse the Ukrainian-Russian conflict?

HR: There will come a time in the future when most of Ukraine will once again be part of the Russian cultural sphere, because with the exception of the region around Lviv most of Ukraine is part of the Russian cultural realm. We have to consider that the belonging of a society to a specific cultural area has its own longevity and cannot be changed through measures of propaganda and re-education within a few years. I would like to give you an example.

The Roman Empire conquered only the Southern and Western regions of Germany with the Danube and Rhine Rivers and later the Main and the Rhine Rivers as borders. Some of those territories were occupied by Rome for nearly 400 years. Approximately 1200 years later the Thirty Years’ War created a new border within German, namely between Catholic and Protestant territories. When the war finally came to an end, the border between both confessions almost repeated once again the border between the once Roman occupied part of Germany and non occupied territories. The former Roman areas stayed mostly Catholic, while the formally non occupied territories in the north and the east became nearly all Protestant. This is an example of how persistent cultural borders can be.

During the Ukraine crisis the United States and the EU tried to expand their zone of influence permanently onto the territory of Ukraine, an old project which was tried before by the German Kaiserreich in World War I and later by the Wehrmacht in World War II. Both attempts failed and the third attempt under the guidance of Washington, Brussels, Berlin and Warsaw will fail as well, because all those attempts are driven by hubris. They all underestimate the persistence of cultural borders. Finally it is an old Russian strategy to use the vastness of the Russian space to defeat the aggressor. The average Western experts on foreign policy, who are mostly not educated in the humanistic tradition, thought that they had won when they organized the regime change in Kiev between February 21st and 22nd of 2014, exactly 72 years and 8 months after the surprise attack of Nazi Germany on the Soviet Union.

Yet the Russians, who can look further into the future, may have already known back then that the Western world had indeed conducted a decisive move towards its own downfall.