War in Europe
Prof. Dr. Peter Imbusch
Sociology of Politics
Photo: UniService Transfer

"We had become accustomed to peace".

Sociologist Prof. Dr. Peter Imbusch on a "total social phenomenon": war

Mr. Imbusch, at your Chair of Political Sociology you deal with conflict and violence research and, among other things, with the possible explanatory patterns for macro-violence such as terrorism, genocides and wars. The Ukraine conflict has been simmering for years, and diplomats also warned of escalation. Why didn't Europe react sooner?

Imbusch: The perception that Europe reacted too late refers to Russia's current war of aggression against Ukraine. There were certainly reactions to the civil war-like conditions in eastern Ukraine and to Russia's annexation of Crimea. However, the current war has obviously been the straw that broke the camel's back and led to a different assessment of the situation in the West and to the realization that the previous commitment with sanctions is no longer sufficient. At the same time, this led to a different assessment of the potential threat posed by Russia to Europe. Given Russia's comparatively low-level interventions prior to the outbreak of the current conflict, a more severe reaction by the West would also have been difficult under international law. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the West (i.e., primarily Western Europe, the EU and the United States) has always supported the pro-Western political forces in Ukraine since the 2010s, in some cases massively.

Actually, we should learn from history. But wars cannot be directed. Are there ways to stop the spiral of violence?

Imbusch: Yes, I believe we can and should learn from history. Perhaps the first and most important lesson would be to realize that war always means death, destruction, suffering, annihilation or mutilation of people and property, and that this has considerable political, social and economic consequences. With the current debates in Germany and the recurring astonishment that people are killed in wars, one can see very well how much we have become accustomed to peace and have regarded it as the normal thing, so to speak. And this despite the fact that there have been many wars over the past decades - only they were geographically more distant and were accompanied by less empathy and consternation in this country. However, these were not so much classic wars as conflicts between states fought by armed units against other armed units, but rather civil wars. Sociologically speaking, war is a "total social phenomenon" (Émile Durkheim). Despite all the 'civilization' of wars through the international law of war, war has remained a scourge of humanity; human civilizational advances have remained modest in this regard, or at least they can be quickly reversed.

The second lesson is that wars do not occur in a vacuum, but have a history that is identifiable; wars are avoidable and not something natural, but they are waged because of certain interests or ideologies, they produce images of the enemy and reinforce perceptions of threat. This, too, can be seen very clearly in the Ukraine conflict, how we drift into rhetoric of the Cold War that was thought to be outdated, how easily old friend-foe schemes can be revived, how dichotomous and Manichean thinking spreads again - and how quickly old certainties crumble under the impression of war. All of this is accompanied by considerable perceptual distortions of the respective opposing side, which become even more acute as the war progresses. We know who the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys' are, although this is not easily ascertainable and the contours in this regard are quite blurred. Thinking about the question of which side we should be on, with which goals the West, Ukraine and Russia are each on their way, and what exactly led to Russia's attack on Ukraine - i.e. classic research into the causes of war - is, after all, immediately counteracted by Putin's war of aggression and the victim status of the Ukrainians.

The third lesson is that wars unleash unprecedented potentials for violence, they have inherent escalation processes and spirals of violence that can hardly be controlled, and they are difficult to stop once they have been started - especially when war is again seen as a means of politics. However, this does not mean that it is not possible to stop war. Georg Simmel, in his Sociology of Conflict, already pointed out the various ways in which wars can be ended. Whether wars are really ended, however, depends on numerous factors and the assessments and calculations of the parties to the conflict, the war aims pursued and the willingness of the warring parties to negotiate. The longer a war progresses and the more brutally it is waged, the less prospects there are for peace negotiations or subsequent reconciliation. And supplying weapons of all kinds, as the West is doing at the moment, may help the Ukrainian military, which is hopelessly outgunned in itself, to defend itself, but at the same time it prolongs the warfare and the suffering associated with it. However, as the duration of the war and the massive arms deliveries by the West progress, the war perceptions and the war goals of the parties involved change, and in time realism about the possibilities also gives way, so that wars can also be unnecessarily prolonged for this reason.

Everyone talks about peace all the time, but we experience violence and "small wars" every day. Is man perhaps not made for peace?

Imbusch: I wouldn't say that. People are not by nature equally peaceful beings, but when violence takes place, it usually has specific causes that have been quite reliably researched. However, the process of civilization so far, which Norbert Elias has impressively described in his main work, has not led to the fact that violence no longer takes place in society. In general, the varnish of civilization seems to me to be thin, and I believe that under certain conditions every human being could be or become violent. Violence can only be largely avoided if the political, socio-cultural, economic and institutional constellations of a society are such that violence is contained and not rewarded. In contrast to these forms of micro-violence, however, wars are forms of macro-violence that have quite different characteristics and operating principles. Sociology has largely neglected the subject of war and dreamed the "dream of violence-free modernity" (Hans Joas), that is, it has given itself over to the idea that modernization and civilization will take care of it and make violence superfluous. As is well known, this is a fairy tale and has not happened - especially when one thinks of the warlike forms of violence. However, it is probably also certain that man is not made for waging war. For killing in war, the natural inhibition to kill other people must first be overcome, which is not very easy. On the one hand, special institutions such as the military serve this purpose, and on the other hand, depending on the situation, further ideological elements are needed to turn people into opponents and opponents into enemies, whom one is then prepared to kill for whatever reason.

Vladimir Putin has been considered evil par excellence since February 24 at the latest. Is it even possible to negotiate with such a person?

Imbusch: We will have to, if Putin doesn't meet a different fate first. And whether things would get better after Putin cannot be said with certainty. But for peace negotiations or the achievement of a cease-fire, ideological disarmament would definitely be advantageous and desirable. As a sociologist, one is inherently skeptical of demonizations or pathologizations of politicians, which are preferably applied to autocrats or dictators, because they do not actually explain anything, but are intended to stigmatize and devalue. They are intended to make the opposing person appear great and to generate and legitimize resistance against him and his machinations. They belong to the fixed repertoire of the ideological toolbox in conflict situations. These are attributions that usually do not get you very far. A sober analysis of Putin as a person, as recently presented by Helmut König, for example, is more helpful. On the one hand, one encounters a notorious liar who delights in misleading and confusing other politicians and destabilizing the West, who will stop at nothing politically and has political opponents killed elsewhere, or at least tries to do so. On the other hand, one also encounters a cool and rational power politician who, due to political circumstances and experience, relies on certain strategies of power in order to secure geostrategic spheres of influence, and whose word can sometimes even be relied upon (e.g. with regard to the consequences of the eastward expansion of NATO and with regard to the eastward expansion of the EU). Putin has not always been the personified evil in the past, but he was once a cooperation partner of the West, he was part of the summit meetings, one wanted to shape Europe with him and not against him. Ideological disarmament is also necessary because after the end of the war - however it ends - we will have to come to terms somehow with Putin, in any case with Russia, and we will not be able to do this successfully in armed hostility, but best in a kind of trusting cooperative relationship. However, it is very questionable at present what this relationship will look like after the war in Ukraine.

For there to be peace in Ukraine again, the aggressor would have to be able to save face in order to be accepted back into the community of states. How can such a thing happen?

Imbusch: That will depend to a large extent on the course of the war and what happens to it. If the accusations leveled at Russia by the Ukrainians and the West are true, it will be difficult. Waging wars of aggression is prohibited under international law; the use of certain types of ammunition is outlawed; attacks on the civilian population are out of the question; committing war crimes goes far beyond normal war violence. However, wars do not only consist of manifest combat operations and hybrid warfare; wars are always also information and propaganda wars. It is often the images of war, or rather the war of images, that helps to decide wars. That is why wars are always about the interpretive sovereignty of events. In this respect, we will have to wait until the fog of war has lifted to see what really happened where and how serious the attacks really were. Putin will probably only be able to save face if he stops the war relatively quickly, leaves the territories in eastern Ukraine that have been conquered so far and returns the annexed Crimea to Ukraine. But that is a highly unlikely eventuality. Even Western military experts assume that even in the best-case scenario there will be some 'territorial compromise' on the part of Ukraine. That also seems likely to me, given the complicated identity issues in parts of Ukraine. Whether Putin cares at all about being accepted back into the 'international community of states' is yet another question. On the one hand, the international community has already digested other autocrats, and on the other hand, it should not be overlooked that Putin's war actually only arouses such great resistance in the West, whereas for most states of the Global South Ukraine is plenty far away and good economic relations with Russia are much more important. For Ukraine, on the other hand, there will probably only be a fragile peace.

Can there be any understandable justice at all after such an act of war?

Imbusch: What can justice mean after a war of aggression? Since the attack itself was contrary to international law and motivated by the restoration of old and lost greatness or the securing of spheres of influence, the question arises as to what could be considered justice at all in this situation. Peace in any case presupposes a fair resolution of the conflict, which would also have to acknowledge wrongs committed. Justice would also presuppose some kind of reparation that would have to be worked out in small ways: this could mean compensation, reparations, reconstruction aid, recognition of guilt or asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness. Given the current situation, this is quite inconceivable at the moment. The many dead will not come back to life through justice; perhaps some of them died for a just cause - if one wants to speak of that at all in relation to the horrors of war. Atonement for possible war crimes would certainly be an important step toward establishing justice; so would sanctioning those responsible for this war. International politics and international relations are, after all, less about morality than about interests, influence, and security. The experience of the Yugoslavia conflict in the 1990s is a perfect example of the difficulty of dealing with questions of justice.

Uwe Blass

Prof. Dr. Peter Imbusch studied sociology, political science, social and economic history, and economics, and earned his doctorate with a dissertation on the social structure analysis of Latin America. He habilitated in 2001 with a thesis on "Modernity and Violence." Since 2011, he has taught as a professor of political sociology at Bergische Universität.

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