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Europe

German view of Ukrainian history like a map with blank spots

Germans' view of Ukrainian history often has more to do with Russia than Ukraine, but a new commission aims to change that. Its co-chair fills DW in on what historians have to offer when it comes to the current crisis.

DW: Why do we need a German-Ukrainian commission of historians at all?

Martin Schulze Wessel: We need such a commission in order to broaden the perspectives of writing history. Thus far, we have mainly perceived Ukrainian history through the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. In Germany, we don't have a separate perspective on Ukrainian history. There is, quite simply, far too little knowledge, and a lack of experts.

What is missing, exactly?

It would be desirable to establish a chair for Ukrainian history in Germany. However, to me another thing seems even more important: when jobs in eastern European history are advertised, a focus on Ukrainian history should be taken into consideration, as opposed to focusing on Russian and Soviet history over and over again.

Where do you see blank spots in the main German view of Ukrainian history?

One example is the German occupation of Ukraine from 1941, which is merely regarded by the public as the occupation of the Soviet Union. That Belarusians and Ukrainians were, to a much greater extent than the Russians, the main victims of the Second World War, is something which is completely absent from German historical awareness. This is one area of many where the German-Ukrainian commission of historians should act, providing research and organizing public events.

The commission's Ukrainian co-chairman, historian Jaroslav Hrytsak, has said in the course of the convention that the experiences of German historians in coping with the past could be helpful to Ukraine. What is your view on that?

That is, of course, a huge compliment. But I would like to add that every nation has to develop its own patterns in this respect because circumstances are rather different from one place to another. The German past and the guilt it entails are singular. When it comes to coping with the past in Ukraine, the focus is on addressing its Communist past and also, quite prominently, the Ukrainian-Polish bilateral relationship. Various aspects of our way of dealing with the past could be adopted. But certainly not all of them.

How far does the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict affect historic research? After all, many experts seemed to be caught off-guard and struggled for explanations for the current crisis.

Obviously, we were all taken by surprise by the crisis and its dynamic. No one had taken a war in Europe into consideration, and it is a war. Our first job is to point that out instead of pretending that it is a marginal phenomenon on Europe's periphery. It is something that deeply affects Europe because Europe is at the heart of the matter.

I do believe that we historians are engaging in a deep and controversial debate. The divide, which is noticeable in public opinion, is one which exists among historians, too. There is, therefore, a keen interest in clarifying these matters, and our research will take it from there.

What kind of weight do the voices of historians carry in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine? In a conflict where propaganda is often based on certain interpretations of history.

The primary task of the study of history is deconstruction of historical myths, which are usually mooted by politicians. The public seriously needs orientation. We historians are heard if we make ourselves heard, with the help of the media for instance. So it's all in our own hands.

Martin Schulze Wessel is a professor of eastern European history at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. He is the co-chairman of the newly established German-Ukrainian commission of historians, which is made up of five renowned historians from both Germany and Ukraine.

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