By Sam Hamad
Since I was introduced to the concept now, quite astonishingly, over two decades ago, I’ve always had some sympathy for the postwar conception of ‘sonderweg’ and the idea of it as being both a product of something essentially wrong with German national self-conception and a kind of metapolitical driving force that defined the nature of the product.
The idea of a ‘special German mission’ in history, and a special fate for the Germanic peoples, was I think fully realised in the establishment of the Third Reich and the birth of Nazi terror, culminating in the Holocaust and the complete destruction of Germany and, in a sense, world order with it.
But it’s focussing on the destruction of Germany that perhaps gives historians and political scientists the willies. There are many, many things wrong with Daniel Goldhagen’s ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’, but what I think is powerful about the work is that it takes seriously the interplay between material conditions and ideological realities – the exceptionally nuanced and complex manner in which notions of culture and nation are not merely formed but practiced and concretely constructed.
Were the Germans doomed to become the perpetrators of arguably the greatest crime in human history? One doesn’t want to talk about ‘fate’ or get drawn into arguments about free will, but with ‘sonderweg’, the question is less about fatalism and free will and more about the, at least to me, more disconcerting idea that though nothing in history can be taken as a given (history doesn’t unfold according to the structure of ‘science’), there can be a slow drip of cultural poison that consciously and unconsciously poisons a civilisation.
In order for Germany to become modern Germany, it had to be destroyed. That centuries-long molding of superiority, and its many different manifestation (from the ‘Prussian military tradition’ of never accepting defeat to the idea of the eternal German, which so easily became synonymous with Aryan), could only be rescinded by Germany if it was literally disproved, which included not attempts to curtail Germany (as Versailles did, and which only fuelled German ressentiment) but the destruction of the German nation. It was only through that process, via WWII, that Germany could settle down in modernity and that the self-conception produced by ‘sonderweg’ was buried under the rubble of destroyed cities.
It seems to me that one can only conclude the same about Russia. Fukuyama, going much beyond Nazi Germany and looking at the urge for totalitarianism, thought that the fall of the USSR was actually a more powerful rebuttal of totalitarianism than the destruction of Germany because it involved no external forces destroying the USSR. The USSR collapsed due to its own essential inferiorities as both a ‘world system’ and a domestic state – its collapse was an ideological triumph, which had not happened with Nazi Germany, which had to be destroyed by external invasion and literal destruction.
I think Fukuyama was obviously wrong (not about the objective preferability of liberal democracy over Marxism-Leninism and totalitarianism), as you have to step inwards to look outwards. Though the analogy isn’t perfect, Fukuyama ought to have saw in the collapse of the USSR not the pacification of Russian imperialism and mastery but something akin to WWI – the humiliation of Russia and then its contradictory resentful fortification of its own unique mission in history, as the conqueror and the master.
You have to look at the historical-ideological self-conception of ‘Russia’. You have to look at the complex and often contradictory shaping of the modern national mindset of Russia and you have to conclude that it, like Germany before it, has geared its entire national and cultural machinery towards its own destruction. The major problem is that such destruction now carries unconventional connotations, with the nuclear question being unavoidable, but what else can one conclude about Russia? The problem with nuclear weapons, for me, is not that they are ineffective but that they are in a sense too effective – they let tensions that build up and would usually lead to conventional war remain in stasis. Confrontation can only ever go so far before the potential of a nuclear holocaust hits home – fears are aroused and the war continues.
One could easily retire behind cosy fantasies of coups and some spontaneous outburst of objective progress in Russia, but its actions over the past couple of decades, and since 2007 in particular, have been geared towards confrontation with the world. The cosiest and most moronic of all these fantasies is that Russia isn’t at war with the liberal democratic world, whether established or nascent – whether it’s the European Union or pro-democracy protesters in Kazakhstan, or rebels in Syria.
Russia needs to be knocked on the head. It needs its skull cracked open. Its will for supremacy, its national self-conception that is a reification of the idea, borne since the time of Peter the Great, of a Russia that stands alone against, or that towers spiritually and culturally above, the West and the rest of the world, has to be destroyed from without. I said it during the worst of its genocidal intervention in Syria and my conviction then has only been reinforced by increasingly unfettered Russian aggression in the name of mastery.
Even if Russia retreated tomorrow from Ukraine, it would come again soon with a vengeance. There is, in my opinion, more chance of Russia using a tactical nuclear strike against Ukraine, provoked only by its own battlefield inadequacies against an enemy that it believes to be its essential and eternal inferior, than there is if forces that could actually militarily crush Russia entered into this already-occurring war.