Report from Germany
Imperialist Racism and
the Russia-Ukraine War
Racist imperialist war propaganda: photos of refugees showing “European people with blue eyes and blond hair” fleeing from “relatively civilized, relatively European” Ukraine.
BERLIN, March 16 – Every weekend now, tens and hundreds of thousands of protesters pour into the streets of German cities in “peace” demonstrations supposedly against war in Ukraine. This past Sunday there were, according to the organizers, some 60,000 in Berlin, 35,000 in Stuttgart, 12,000 in Frankfurt, 10,000 in Hamburg (Junge Welt, 14 March). Yet in reality, many if not most of these are pro-war demos in that they are overwhelmingly for support to Ukraine in the reactionary nationalist war with Russia. Blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags are everywhere. Many speakers called for arms deliveries to Ukraine, i.e., by the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) imperialists who provoked this fratricidal war in their escalating war drive against Russia and China. Politicians of the Social Democratic (SPD) and Green/Alliance 90 government parties, who voted to double the German military budget and to deliver arms to Kiev, spoke, as did representatives of the Left Party, which one-sidedly condemned the Russian invasion and (along with the governing militarist parties) supported imperialist sanctions against Russia.
Meanwhile, in stark counterpoint to the chauvinist backlash against refugees from Middle Eastern wars that has been building in the last several years, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees – contributing to aid funds, collecting supplies, offering to take in families, organizing private transport from border regions. The contrast is so striking that the bourgeois media have sought to explain it away. An article on the subject of “Why the War in Ukraine Affects Us So Much,” in the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland (6 March), close to the SPD, resorts to pop psychology. A “trauma specialist” explains that “Our brain is the same as that of someone from the Stone Age”:
“We identify with a situation the closer it is to us. If we see pictures from the jungle or the desert, that creates a different kind of proximity than pictures from a cultural space where we can directly identify with people.
“The apartment complexes in Kiev are just like those in Berlin-Marzahn. People’s clothes are the same, the faces are the same. The scenes in the Kiev train station could be the same here. So we feel much closer to that situation.”
But along with the junk science, at least the “expert” has the rectitude to note other factors. Such as: “The German-Soviet war [i.e., Hitler’s assault on the USSR, which led to 27 million Soviet casualties] is only two generations ago, my uncle fell in the Ukraine, half of all surviving grandfathers fought on the Eastern Front. These fears and experiences are being revived.”
The massive “solidarity with Ukraine” is not just the result of tribal reactions, or memories of the German defeat by the Soviets (“the Russians”) in World War II. Nor is it simply an instinctive response to photos of civilian casualties from Russian bombs and rockets (photos of civilians killed by rockets of the Ukrainian fascists in the Donbass are never shown). These pale in comparison to the indiscriminate bombing by U.S./NATO imperialists from Yugoslavia (1994-99) to Afghanistan (2001-2021), along with the U.S.’ wanton slaughter in the Gulf War (1990-91). And then there are the brutal invasion and occupation of Iraq, the drone killings and massive destruction in Syria, and the mass murder of millions by imperialism in the Vietnam and Korean wars.
The pro-Ukraine popular response is whipped up in an across-the-board campaign of virulent anti-Russian war propaganda in the entire bourgeois media in unison. What we are seeing today is the most recent example of imperialist powers’ molding of “public opinion” as an echo chamber for their geopolitical power moves and military build-up for global war.
The quintessential expression of the outright racist media coverage was a February 26 broadcast by CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata in which he declared that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.” But D’Agata’s Eurochauvinist trope was hardly unique. Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor at Brooklyn College in the City University of New York, cited a number of similarly grotesque paeans to (white) European “civilization.”1 The former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine remarked: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair … being killed every day.” And Daniel Hannan (a/k/a the Baron Hannan of Kingsclere, England) commented in the establishment London press:
“They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.”2
So brutal, bloody war is something that routinely affects economically impoverished “Third World” regions, and thus implicitly not of great concern, but is shocking and worthy of compassion when it affects “civilized” Europe. Even an Al Jazeera anchor opined: “Looking at them, the way they are dressed, these are prosperous … I’m loath to use the expression … middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees looking to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war.” The casual racism was so pervasive that it was repeated on British ITV, on French BFM TV, and even more explicitly on NBC (“They’re Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar”). This worldview is deeply ingrained, and also represents a truly Orwellian forced amnesia as to the brutal imperialist assault in the Balkans in 1999, which was in fact the first major military conflict in Europe since 1945.3
D’Agata’s chauvinist reporting unleashed a Twitter storm of outrage on social media. Postings noted how “a very civilized Germany … sent millions to their deaths on one-way train journeys,” and recalled the mass murders of the Herero and the Nama peoples in Namibia by German colonialism at the turn of the 20th century. One showed photos of the U.S.’ “civilized” torture center at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, while another listed 64 U.S. interventions since 1945. Yet another showed the destruction of Gaza and Beirut by Zionist Israel. Several noted that Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) was the “cradle of civilization” while Europe was in the Stone Age. Still another referred to the murderous war against eastern Ukraine, including a photo of the fascist Azov Brigade with the Wolfsangel Nazi symbol and a portrait of Hitler. And, of course, there were the imperialist World Wars I (14 million dead) and II (70-85 million dead).
D’Agata, of course, “apologized” for his “carefully chosen” words, but only to say he “regretted” having said them on air, not for the racist content. His reference to Ukraine as “relatively civilized” indicates that Slavs and Magyars are not quite up there on the racist scale either (and Russians are being demonized en masse in the U.S. and Western Europe). In Britain, where the Brexit campaign against European Union membership exploited and exacerbated resentment against Eastern Europeans from EU countries, ghoulish interior minister Priti Patel sought to limit Ukrainian refugees to the immediate families of Ukrainians already in the United Kingdom. The scandal-ridden regime of Boris Johnson has even threatened to unleash naval warfare in the English Channel against “illegal” refugees, as a diversion from its failings and crimes.
Racist Selection at the Ukrainian Border
African refugees from Ukraine at Medyka, Poland, February 27. Refugees from Africa, Middle East and India were subjected to mistreatment at the border.
This imperialist racism is not just a media or Internet phenomenon, it reflects official policy, both in East and West Europe. This was reflected in numerous stories of the sharply contrasting treatment at the border of white refugees fleeing Ukraine and those considered non-white:
“‘We entered the train last,’ Kass says, describing how she and other African women were forced to wait outside as snow was falling, while white women and children were allowed to board before them. She believes her gender is the only reason she was spared being beaten.” (Grace Kass from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Time magazine, 1 March)
“The Ukrainian border guards were not letting us through. They were beating people up with sticks.... They would slap them, beat them and push them to the end of the queue. It was awful.” (Nigerian doctor Chineye Mbagwu to The New York Times, 1 March)
“They acted like we are criminals. They forced their guns in front of our faces. After we were walking for almost three days continuously, we reached the border and they treated us like animals.” (Ahmed, a Yemeni language student in Odesa, to the Financial Times, March 4)
Amid the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women, children and elderly fleeing westwards (Ukrainian men from ages 18 to 60 are subject to conscription) were thousands of students as well as professionals from Asia and Africa. It soon became obvious that those non-Ukrainians classified as non-white were being singled out for abuse. Despite initial attempts by Ukrainian politicians to dismiss it all as pro-Russian “fake news,” it was clearly widespread, and drew rebukes from various governments and the African Union.
The willingness of almost all Eastern European regimes to take in Ukrainian refugees is in sharp contrast to their equally universal opposition to refugees from the Middle East and Africa – a refusal which reached a crisis point last year when Poland militarized its border against refugees coming through Belarus. Ukraine hosted more than 76,000 foreign students as of 2020, a quarter of them from Africa – mainly Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt, but with the largest single contingent being 20,000 Indians. They were drawn by a high standard of education, particularly in the field of medicine, combined with low fees and living costs. This is a not insignificant element in the Ukrainian economy. Time quoted one medical student: “‘Ukrainians treated us alright as they saw us as money,’ said Ashraf Muslim, a 23-year-old from Morocco, sitting on the curbside with his wife, dentistry student Lina Kuretta” in the Polish border village of Medyka. “‘The moment we became useless to them, they turned us into bums,’ he said.”
After eyewitness testimony and footage of the racist attacks spread rapidly around the world, the Western media took up the matter – so embarrassing for their crusade to depict the Ukraine as the champion of “democracy” – in order to depict it all as a series of disconnected individual dramas. Why the border guards/police/vigilantes were doing this was not examined. In line with this, to “answer” references to the fascist infestation in Ukraine, the media make much of the fact that Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. Yet they assiduously try to hide or deny the fact that he sits atop a state apparatus shot through with actual fascists and Nazis glorifying collaborators with Hitler’s Third Reich. These forces have been integrated into the core of Ukraine’s armed forces and paramilitary outfits, and are surely well-represented among those harassing and attacking refugees. They have likewise attacked Jews and Jewish institutions, and have launched ferocious attacks on the Roma people, as in Kiev in April 2018, and driven them out of several cities.
Meanwhile there are reports from the German-Polish border that German police are boarding trains from Warsaw and singling out dark-skinned people for checking, detaining some – there might be some “free riders” who are only “pretending” to be fleeing the war in the Ukraine! But in the viciously anti-refugee and anti-immigrant repressive system of “Fortress Europe,” it is the Balkan countries, and especially Greece that are on the front lines of keeping out refugees so the core imperialist states can pretend to have clean hands. These are the structures behind the hypocritical utterances of the imperialist media and the brutal action of the thugs – uniformed or otherwise – who do the dirty work.
On the eve of World War II, after Cuban and U.S. authorities refused to let a ship (the S.S. St. Louis) dock that was carrying 937 refugees from Nazi Germany, almost all of them Jews, revolutionary Marxist Leon Trotsky noted sarcastically, “The world of decaying capitalism is overcrowded. The question of admitting a hundred extra refugees becomes a major problem for such a world power as the United States. … Amid the vast expanses of land and the marvels of technology, which has also conquered the skies for man as well as the earth, the bourgeoisie has managed to convert our planet into a foul prison” (Manifesto of the Fourth International on Imperialist War and the Imperialist War, May 1939).
Today, as almost 3 million Ukrainians (so far) have fled the war, European governments are welcoming them, while erecting massive fences to keep out refugees from the Middle East and Africa and letting over 15,000 drown in the Mediterranean since 2014 – and that’s just according to official statistics. Germany, with its low birth rate may accept a substantial number, at first. But as economic crisis spreads, even the white, European, Christian refugees from Ukraine could well be forced out in large numbers. Against the all-sided pro-imperialist “solidarity with Ukraine” war propaganda, the League for the Fourth International calls for revolutionary defeatism on both sides of the reactionary nationalist Russia-Ukraine war, for revolutionary struggle against the capitalist rulers in Moscow and Kiev, and to defeat the U.S./NATO war drive pointing to World War III against Russia and China. ■
- 1. “They are ‘civilised’ and ‘look like us’: the racist coverage of Ukraine,” The Guardian, 2 March.
- 2. “Vladimir Putin’s monstrous invasion is an attack on civilization itself,” The Telegraph, 26 February.
- 3. See “Defend Yugoslavia – Defeat the Imperialist Attack” and “German Fourth Reich: Back in the Balkans,” The Internationalist No. 7, April-May 1999.