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Why Ukrainians feel betrayed by Germany

Rayna Breuer
June 9, 2022

A German author who lives in Ukraine describes life in the country during the war. Disenchanted about hostilities ending anytime soon, he wonders about the endless debates in his native Germany.

Shelled apartment block
Devastation in eastern Ukraine in JuneImage: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Poltava is a city in eastern Ukraine, about 350 kilometers (217 miles) from Kyiv. It is a region with a history dating back to the Neolithic Trypillia culture (6,000 to 1,000 BC). It is also Christoph Brumme's home.

The East German-born writer is familiar with Eastern Europe: When he was younger, he took several bike trips from Berlin through Poland and Ukraine to the Volga, covering a total of 30,000 kilometers. He described his adventures in articles and books, including the 2009 "On a blue elephant — 8,353 kilometers by bicycle from Berlin to the Volga and back."

He has since settled in Poltava, from where the 59-year-old author reports for various papers, including Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

In his current book, "Im Schatten der Krieges — Tagebuchaufzeichnungen aus der Ukraine" (In the shadow of war — diary entries from Ukraine), he gives a very personal, honest and unambiguous description of life in times of war.

Saving Ukraine's cultural heritage from destruction

New jokes make the rounds

Fear is a constant companion in times of war. But Brumme shows the other side of the coin, too — the desire for freedom, which is stronger than even the slightest hint of fear, the enormous willingness to help and the solidarity of the people, the hopes, and above all the Ukrainians' sense of humor.

"On the street with Oskar, the sun is shining. I sing the chorus of a scouts' song: 'Long live the sun / Long live the sky / Long live mommy / And so do I.' Oskar sings along in Russian. But instead of 'sun' he sings 'vodka,'" Brumme writes, quoting new jokes that emerged after the outbreak of the war.

For example: Leo Tolstoy's famous novel "War and Peace" is now titled "Special Military Operation and Peace" — since Russia has banned the word "war" in reference to Ukraine and its use can land Russians in jail.

"Humor is part of the survival strategy, that is one of the most important national characteristics of Ukrainians, to laugh at themselves, to make jokes about their government or the EU," Brumme told DW. It is, he argues, an expression of sovereignty. In Ukraine, people are free to criticize authorities, unlike in Russia, where a "completely humorless culture" prevails, he said, quoting another new Ukrainian joke:

"You know what? I'm actually afraid to speak Russian on the street now!

— Why? Are you afraid that the nationalists will come and beat you up?

— No, I'm afraid that Putin will come and protect me."

Christoph Brumme
Humor is a Ukrainian survival strategy, says Christoph BrummeImage: privar

Ukrainians feel betrayed

There are however moments the Ukrainians don't find funny, for instance when they follow the debates in Germany: "Germany's image has deteriorated very badly in the last few months of the war," Brumme said, adding that Ukrainians feel betrayed. "They are waiting to see whether words will now finally be followed by deeds."

But in general, people are skeptical concerning Germany, he said. "In times of need, you can see who is providing help and who is actually still hoping, secretly or openly, to do business with Russia and sacrifice the Ukrainians if need be."

When war broke out, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for a "turnaround" in the Bundestag, but resolve was meager and Germany's credibility suffered. The chancellor was hesitant about arms deliveries and did not advocate a comprehensive energy boycott of Russia.

According to an Infratest dimap opinion poll in April, only a slim majority of the German population favored deliveries of heavy weapons to Ukraine.

"German society is deceiving itself," said Brumme. Believing that you can resolve conflicts with Putin and reach agreements he will adhere to "has a delusional quality," he added.

The media is also to blame for how Germany is perceived, he said. He is wary of German reports on Ukraine: "In general, Ukraine coverage has been poor for years. Public broadcasters have an obligation to the general public, but in my opinion they do not fulfill this obligation at all with regard to Ukraine," he said.

He quotes as an example the oft-repeated claim that pro-Russian separatists have been fighting in the Donbas for the past eight years. "Anyone who knows a little bit about the situation is aware of the fact that it's clearly a Russian project with Russian leadership and Russian finances, Russian know-how and Russian technology," he said. "It is how public pressure and public opinion has been generated over years, which in turn leads to political decisions that are incredibly bloody for the Ukrainians and cost an incredible number of victims," said Brumme.

Book cover Im Schatten des Krieges
Cover of Brumme's new book which gives a glimpse of everyday life in the war-torn country

'People just don't know anything about it'

In his book, Brumme said the Russian soul is made up of "delusions of grandeur, self-hatred and feelings of inferiority toward the West." 

Speaking to DW about propaganda broadcasts on Russian television, Brumme wondered how many Germans watch Russian television regularly, and who understands what Russian politicians say. "A survey of 1,000 people might find two who show some competence. In Germany, it's common to talk about things you don't know anything about — and it's all freedom of speech."

Russia's brutal warmongering did not register in the West, he said. "In Germany, the historical dimension of this war and the Ukrainian-Russian relationship is not perceived at all, because people don't know anything about it."

Christoph Brumme does not see the war ending any time soon. Russia has not taken legal or moral responsibility for the mass murder of Ukrainians in the 20th century, he said, adding that eight years of propaganda seem to have worked. "The majority of Russians want this war, and the longer it lasts, the more fanatical they are," he said. "A (temporary) Russian defeat would only make the desire for revenge there grow ad infinitum."

The war will end when the Russian state no longer exists in its present form, the writer concluded. "Russia, too, is actually fighting for its very existence."

This article was originally written in German.