Karl Schlögel: A European Intellectual

‘Museums of its kind offered guided tours for groups, often from schools. Devoid of the technologically advanced multimedia and interactive mumbo-jumbo of their Western counterparts, they were also time capsules preserving the history of museum culture. The visitor was left to his own devices and free to take notes.’[i]

These thoughts provoked by a remnant of Soviet Ukraine, the Donbass Regional Museum of Local History, from Karl Schlögel’s Ukraine (2018), point towards Schlögel’s preoccupation with the rôle of the intellectual in the digital era – with how he can exercise cognitive freedom and agency, for example when learning from European history, at a time of growing technological control. For the writer Boris Akunin, quoted by Schlögel, the obfuscations of Putin’s Russia attest to an ‘age of widespread clouded thinking’ (43). When, as Schlögel notes, ‘Russian aggression wraps itself in the mantle of antifascism and a “Revolution of Dignity” [Ukraine’s] is branded as a “fascist coup d’état”’, this is truly an ‘age of purposeful conceptual confusion’ (77).

Schlögel sees how our current global condition of undeclared, hybrid war is maintained by strategies of confusion deployed across online and mass media technologies, ranging from ‘targeted disinformation campaigns on social networks’ to the ‘information war whose masterminds deftly employ the postmodernist rhetoric of the multiplicity of perspectives and the relativity of everything’. He presents a distracted intelligentsia which is either postmodernized and diverted by notions that ‘truth is always somewhere in the middle rather than something that can be determined’ (72), or perhaps locked in a fact-grubbing positivist historicism such as that which ensured that in 2014, ‘academic circles worked themselves into a criminological frenzy over minutiae in their efforts to reconstruct the outbreak of the First World War, while the military conflict [in Ukraine] incubating right before their eyes failed to catch their attention’ (73). This is why Schlögel advises that ‘we must not surrender the distinction between fact and fiction, between truth and lie’ (77). He recalls that it was out of his schoolboy encounters with Russian culture in the early 1960s – such as an Evgenii Evtushenko poetry reading in Munich – that ‘my fascination with the phenomenon known as the “intelligentsia” was born, that small and marginal group of people who believed in their moral right and fought for their convictions, risking to sacrifice everything and bending the course of history’ (26).

Ukraine thus suggests that an exercise of intellectual freedom and agency in the face of today’s technological strategies of confusion, can take the form of an assertion of belief in one’s moral convictions about contemporary Europe. Remembering the distinction ‘between truth and lie’, Schlögel continued, ‘begins with looking around and seeing for ourselves so that we can begin to assess the gravity of the situation and grasp the distress, but also the strength, of a country that is standing its ground’ (77) – Ukraine. Writing in 2015, Schlögel recalled that even in the 1980s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, ‘Ukraine was not altogether beyond the European horizon’ (15). Yet ‘because of the German fixation on Russia, Ukraine, like other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, is always cast as derivative and secondary’ (56). He noted how ‘until recently, Ukraine figured in most Germans’ worldview as mere periphery, a backyard, glacis, sphere of influence or buffer zone’, rather than being viewed as ‘a subject with its own vision of its history and the right to organize its life as it sees fit’ (39). The issue of Ukrainian nation-formation is therefore of particular concern to Schlögel as a (German) European intellectual; as is Russian aggression towards Ukraine, not least because Putin is ‘the great destroyer of the work of reconciliation undertaken by Russians as well as Germans after the catastrophe that arose from German soil’. The intellectual’s exercise of her moral convictions regarding contemporary Europe involves a choice: whether to ‘make common cause with Putin’s Russia’, or instead ‘hold faith with those who, in defending the integrity of Ukraine and the “Revolution of Dignity”, defend also the Russia that will come after Putin’ (46).

Schlögel makes the important observation that ‘the fragmentary, the particular, the regional are the crucial registers in which the specific nature of Ukraine’s emergence as a nation and nation state finds expression’ (15). A focus on the regional relates to the discontinuous nature of Ukraine’s history and its shifting historiography, because ‘the reconstruction of the plural “local histories” may in fact turn out to be an especially helpful way to do justice to the heterogeneity of the skeins of history that are interwoven in Ukraine’ (59). Histories of nation-building and military conflict are intimately bound up with the urban narrative of Lviv, for example. Lviv, Schlögel underlines, was ‘a vital source of the civic energy that propelled Ukraine’s quest for national independence’; more recently the city has become a ‘safe haven’ (249) for those fleeing the war in Eastern Ukraine.

The city portraits assembled in Ukraine follow the spatial archaeology proposed in Schlögel’s earlier book In Space We Read Time (2016) – a method whereby cities ‘reveal themselves to be the points in which the spaces of history and historical experience attain their maximum density’ (14).[ii] Schlögel’s vision of Lviv suggests that it is not just that the more history a place has experienced, the greater the density or accretion of historical experience occupying that place – there is also something about that place that has attracted historical experience to accrete there: Lviv is conceivable as ‘the primal cell of all European cities’ (258). Schlögel reads a quality of organicity into Lviv which, I would like to suggest, relates not only to the growth of history – of the accretion of historical experience – but also to its survival. Schlögel’s understanding of Lviv thus suggests that intellectual agency and moral life can be experienced by establishing a relation to Lviv’s identity as a scene of the survival of history. This survival entails the survival of a space: Central Europe. Already in the mid-1980s, Schlögel writes, the process was underway through which ‘a region resurfaced whose name had ceased to signify for a post-war world cleft into East and West: Central Europe’. Valuing the survival of the history of Lviv enables a legitimation of the survival of ‘that imaginary and yet real Central Europe, which had overwintered the division of the continent and the world during the Cold War’. For ‘Lviv was proof that […] here was an urban body, a text in which one could read the fates of Europe’s provincial heart’ (247).

Schlögel’s use of the adjective ‘provincial’ points to the fact that this is ‘a region that is almost impossible to characterize – it is both the centre of Europe and utterly peripheral’ (254). He can ask whether in fact the journey to Lviv represents ‘a journey to the pole of doubt: is Europe, at its very centre, still conceivable?’ (255) Schlögel enables us to understand that Lviv’s quality of being out of place, at once central and peripheral, derives from the peculiarly traumatized nature of its survival. ‘An erstwhile capital found itself on the margin’, because the region ‘had indeed been ground up between the frontlines of the European civil war; what it had been had perished, its face altered beyond recognition’ (247). Two murderous regimes: it is as if post-Soviet Lviv is a mask over evisceration. ‘It has been infinitely difficult to address this twofold experience of totalitarian violence at the hands of the Nazis as well as Stalin’s henchmen.’ (252) Schlögel perhaps refers to the tortuously slowburn quality of the spiritual consciousness beneath the city’s face – of the intellectual’s miraculous historical and conceptual work of re-cognizing, of learning anew the life which has been lost – when he adds that ‘a journey to Lvov takes the visitor into the forgotten slow-beating heart of Europe’ (254).

Schlögel in fact shows the high-paced surface-world of today’s city politics to supply one ‘altered’ form of a notable lost city tradition. He records how, at the time when he was writing (2015), Lviv’s mayor was Andrii Sadovy – founder of the post-Maidan party Samopomich (Self-Reliance). No oligarch, Sadovy ‘advocates civic involvement, local self-government and decentralization as well as the indivisibility of Ukraine’ (248). It strikes me that with these concerns, Sadovy was attempting to restore the values of urban autonomy and responsibility which historically were fostered across Europe by the assignation to cities of Magdeburg rights. King Casimir the Great of Poland granted Lviv Magdeburg rights in 1356 (260). In his account of the Podil area of Kiev, Schlögel maintains that the granting to Podil of Magdeburg rights from 1494 to 1834 represented ‘a crucial factor in the city’s development that is memorialized by a column down by the river’. Magdeburg law entailed an urban area with ‘the privilege to have its own judiciary, administrative autonomy and the right to elect a mayor’ (89). The ‘forms of self-government made possible by the awarding of town privileges’ are held by Schlögel to be amongst the most important consequences for Ukraine of the union of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with the Kingdom of Poland (59-60).

Schlögel’s historical insight enables us to see that Magdeburg rights constituted an important means of (East) Central European urban defence, of social bonding and survival – the dissolution of which ‘barriers’ as a result of the twentieth-century’s first international catastrophe prepared the ground for the cities’ totalitarian traumas of the Nazi-Soviet period:

‘The few years of the Second World War were the culmination of the drama that cities like Czernowitz lived through, yet that drama goes further back and runs deeper. It begins with the first Great War, which breached the barriers that sheltered the tumultuous process in which an urban culture accumulated. Without them, nothing shielded the city’s civilization against seizure and destruction by order of those above and by the demand of those below who wanted to live better at others’ expense.’ (245-46)

Just as Lviv’s urban autonomy was ‘sheltered’ by civic bonds such as Magdeburg law, for Schlögel, in Czernowitz cultural difference was protected by an intelligentsia discourse which was intrinsically insular. When ‘what was thought and written in Bucharest, Vienna and Berlin was to them the thinking and writing of their peers’, and ‘felt more connatural to them than the chatter of the peasantry in the surrounding countryside’, Czernowitz was marked by an ‘aloofness of an insular urban culture’. Perhaps just such an aloof form of urban discourse could model a way in which a European intellectual today can exercise communicative freedom in the face of our prevailing technological strategies of confusion. For just like every alienated denizen of the global blogosphere, Czernowitzers ‘cast messages in bottles adrift and hoped to receive messages in return’. The communicative efficacy of these ‘residents of a city that stood apart from its environs like an island’, rested precisely on their hope, intent and belief, so that they ‘inevitably formed a particular relationship with their world, which was distant and yet, paradoxically, one in which distances mattered little’ (236).  



[i] Karl Schlögel, Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland, trans. by Gerrit Jackson (London: Reaktion Books, 2018), p. 200 (further references to Ukraine are given after quotations in the text).

[ii] In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics, trans. by Gerrit Jackson (New York: Bard Graduate Centre, 2016).


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