Baby boomers who grew up under the threat of nuclear armageddon warn against a nuclear escalation of the war in Ukraine. But the younger generations are not cowed by Putin's blackmail. And that’s a very good thing.
BERLIN — It is a sentence that no German Chancellor had ever had to utter before. “I am doing everything I can to prevent an escalation that would lead to World War III. There must not be a nuclear war,” said Olaf Scholz.
For decades, that was a given. It simply didn't need to be said.
But now Vladimir Putin has opened Pandora’s Box, which many assumed would remain closed forever. It is no longer a question of achieving stability through two superpowers balancing each other out, as in the Cold War. Now the question is whether we, the free world, will allow ourselves to be held to ransom, whether we will let an unpredictable dictator simply take whatever he wants if he threatens to use nuclear weapons.
Post-war generation fears
Olaf Scholz is 63 years old. Unlike his parents’ generation, he never saw his homeland reduced to rubble. But his entire generation grew up in the shadow of one overwhelming fear: that the world would be destroyed by nuclear warfare. The open letter written to Scholz (one day too late) to persuade him not to act too rashly — signed largely by over-65-year-old veterans of the pacifist movement, led by Alice Schwarzer, editor-in-chief of the German political magazine EMMA — was motivated by this same fear.
This fear is so great that it makes all values fall by the wayside; it pushes politicians towards a “compromise” with the contemptible aggressor Putin, who wants his brutal invasion to be seen as a legitimate, unavoidable political action.
Those who were driven by fear of nuclear war have always capitulated in this way: by appeasing the aggressor, by expressing anti-American sentiment and painting the protective superpower as the threat, by showing moral cowardice. During the Cold War, this kind of thinking was confined to woolly-sock-wearing lefties, but now it is far more widespread – on both the left and right wings, but above all among baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964.
A "no nuclear war" placard during a protest against the war in Ukraine, the expansion of Nato and nuclear weapons in London, UK, in March 2022.
The second "never again"
Scholz’s declaration was the second “Never again” of his generation. “Never again Auschwitz” was the first, of course. Now “Never again Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” But can we really compare the two? Putin is not Hitler. The Holocaust is a unique event in history. Is it possible to stop a country from being destroyed if we refuse to offer any direct help because we are afraid of the consequences? The simpler answer is no.
Putin’s threat to use his nuclear arsenal unleashes a flood of images, which have been lodged in our minds since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Real images mix with scenes from post-apocalyptic films: The Day After, When the Wind Blows, Miracle Mile. We remember the shock of Chernobyl. Three years after the accident, I visited the region, as well as Kyiv. The streets were full of cruelly disfigured people who were wasting away. It was a place of death. The nearer you came to the ruins, the more strongly you felt the sheer absence of life.
But life returned – in Japan and in Chernobyl. A huge price was paid, but now people live near Chernobyl, and the sites in Japan are modern cities. That is the world in which millennials and their children have grown up, the generations who travel the world and seek out new experiences, for whom borders are a thing of the past and wars are consigned to the history books, for whom personal and societal freedom is a given.
Scholz has now changed his mind on the question of sending heavy weapons to Ukraine. His decision to do so went against the wishes of his party, which was voted in by mainly the older generation: only 12% of his SPD party were in favour. The Chancellor only got the measure through the Reichstag with support from the opposition and his coalition partners.
It was the liberal Free Democratic Party’s commitment to freedom and the Green Party’s strong values that came through for him – and that means it was the younger generation, because those parties’ support is mainly among those under 35 years old. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, of the Green Party, is the German politician who has argued most vociferously in favor of supporting Ukraine. At 41, she is a symbol of the transformation her party is undergoing: from naïve dancing around serious issues to the clearest advocates for geopolitical responsibility. Among the junior coalition partners, votes in favor of sending heavy weapons to Ukraine were 20% higher than in the SPD.
We must also remember it is not in our power to stop it.
It is the generation that didn’t experience the greatest moments of fear of nuclear war that has prevailed in the question of how to respond to the invasion of Ukraine. They are unmoved by Putin’s attempt at blackmail.
From Porto to Vladivostok
Of course we should try to avoid nuclear war. But we must also remember it is not in our power to stop it. Even Scholz admitted that. If Putin finds himself cornered, he will use anything and everything as justification for a nuclear attack.
That would cause infinite suffering, perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions of deaths, and it would reduce entire regions to wastelands for many years afterwards.
But what would a victory for Putin look like? Would that not also mean the end of civilization? The neo-Soviet empire he would like to establish from Porto to Vladivostok would be barbaric. We can see that from the war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, the violated children, the civilians shot while fleeing in their cars, the attempt to wipe out an entire nation.
Victory for Putin would also mean infinite suffering, hundreds of thousands or even millions of deaths, and a region drenched in blood. There is no alternative to defending ourselves and the Ukrainians. And the younger generation knows it.
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