Of Death’s-Head Kvellers and Rosa Luxemburg

January 29, 2023

In Norman Finkelstein

Of Death’s-Head Kvellers and Rosa Luxemburg

By Norman G. Finkelstein


Anatol Lieven is a respected commentator on international affairs.  He is even considered by left wing authorities reliable and reasonable in his opinions.  His pronouncements on the Ukraine conflict, however, cast a dark shadow on this reputation.   In a recent interview, he states—or kvells:


Russia has only managed to capture half of Luhansk and most … of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.   That’s all that Russia has added to what it’s held since 2014—Crimea and the eastern Donbass.  So it does have to be said that Ukraine has—with Western help—already achieved a historic victory.  Remember also that this isn’t just a victory compared to Russian hopes—and Western fears—back in February.  This is a colossal transformation in terms of the past 400 years of Russian domination of Ukraine—I don’t think the West sufficiently recognizes how significant this change is and the true extent of Ukraine’s victory and Russia’s defeat.  (“Stopping the Killing,” January 19, 2023)[1]


In other words, (1) a discrete entity named “Ukraine” has been repressed for four centuries by another discrete entity named “Russia”; (2) Ukraine has finally liberated itself from this timeless Russian oppression; but (3) “the West” hasn’t “sufficiently recognize[d]” this “historic victory,” “colossal transformation,” and “the true extent of Ukraine’s victory and Russia’s defeat.”


It can’t be doubted that this is how a far-right Ukrainian nationalist might apprehend reality, but it is cause for wonder why our urbane man of letters should echo these warped sentiments.  Ukraine has historically been—like most modern nation-states—a patchwork of ever-shifting borders incorporating diverse populations with mutating affiliations and sympathies.  To take the most obvious example, it would be odd in the extreme to describe Crimea as eternal Ukrainian territory suffering under the Russian yoke for four centuries.  Crimea found itself inside Ukraine’s borders by a fluke in 1954; it was bloodlessly reincorporated by Russia in 2014 with the support of a majority of the Crimean population.  The broader point is this.  In 2014, an unelected government came to power, in which the Ukrainian far right soon occupied a conspicuous place. A quasi-civil war broke out between eastern Ukraine, the population of which, in differentiated degrees, identified as both Ukrainian and Russian (armed forces from Russia abetted them), versus western Ukraine, the population of which, in differentiated degrees, loathed all things Russian.  Lieven is either unaware of this cleavage, which would make him a most dubious expert; or he’s just another Western hack opportunistically hewing to the party line; or he’s an Ukrainian-like fanatic who believes that Russia is Ukraine’s eternal oppressor while those eastern Ukrainians who dare to think otherwise are not really Ukrainian.  Whichever it is, it’s not a good look.


Lieven is nonplussed that “the West” hasn’t sufficiently appreciated Ukraine’s “historic victory” and “colossal transformation” into a free country.  Can our expert be so credulous as to believe that Biden and Blinken, the UK’s Boris Johnson and Poland’s Andrezj Duda have stayed up nights worried sick about poor Ukraine’s 400 years under the Russian boot?  To be sure, elsewhere in the interview Lieven does cautiously posit that to the “American establishment … Ukraine offers the chance to degrade—at very low cost to the US—the Russian Armed Forces and Russian power.  And this view doesn’t suggest a great deal of concern about—or attention to—the suffering of the Ukrainian people.”  But doesn’t that clinch why “the West” underappreciates Ukraine’s miraculous rebirth?  To wit, it doesn’t give a shit.


But is it even true that Ukraine now controls its fate and future?  During World War I, Rosa Luxemburg observed that “in the present imperialist milieu there can be no wars of national self-defense.” Even in the case of “small nations” such as Serbia which, “according to formal considerations, had the right of national defense on its side,” this right was in the circumstances a sham:


Serbia is formally engaged in a national war of defense. But its monarchy and its ruling classes are filled with expansionist desires as are the ruling classes in all modern states. They are indifferent to ethnic lines, and thus their warfare assumes an aggressive character. Thus Serbia is today reaching out toward the Adriatic coast where it is fighting out a real imperialistic conflict with Italy on the backs of the Albanians, a conflict whose final outcome will be decided not by either of the powers directly interested, but by the great powers that will speak the last word on terms of peace. But above all this we must not forget: behind Serbian nationalism stands Russian imperialism. Serbia itself is only a pawn in the great game of world politics. A judgment of the war in Serbia from a point of view that fails to take these great relations and the general world political background into account is necessarily without foundation.  (emphases added)


And what of Ukraine?  Lieven asserts that “the Ukrainian government isn’t compelled to take Western advice.” But he goes on to say that “the Ukrainian government is—of course overwhelmingly dependent on this Western aid”; “The reality is that Ukraine is a military client state of the US at this point.” One can’t help but then wonder, what substance remains of its vaunted sovereignty?  Although he concedes Ukraine’s abject dependence—which, in light of the hundreds of billions of dollars in postwar reconstruction costs, will leave it in hock to the US unto eternity—Lieven would have the reader believe that Ukraine, not Washington, still calls the shots.  Thus, even if Biden wanted to end the war, “telling the Ukrainians to stop doesn’t guarantee that they will—you hear many messages saying the Ukrainian army is actually determined to go on.”  He has apparently never heard the expression: He who pays the piper calls the tune.  How, it might be asked, could the Ukrainian army “go on” even for one hour if Washington stopped providing weapons?  Indeed, in Lieven’s hack imagination, Ukraine is not only a sovereign power but, to boot, the US is—yet again—the impotent, naive giant:


There seems to be a danger that the Ukrainian military will carry out a coup against Zelensky if Zelensky proposes a serious peace settlement—think about that a second. That means that we say we’re supporting Ukrainian democracy but nationalist extremists in Ukraine are ultimately—through the threat of a military coup against Zelensky—determining our policy. If that threat is real then it means we’re in a very, very dangerous—and also a very, very stupid—position where America and the West have made huge interests dependent not on Ukrainian democracy but on the Armed Forces of Ukraine and their most extreme elements. You do have to think about how often in the past America has allowed local allies—often completely undemocratic ones—to hijack its strategy in various areas.


So there’s the tragedy: on one side, callow do-gooders in Washington have been “supporting Ukrainian democracy” while, on the other side, crafty, ruthless Ukrainian extremists have managed to “hijack its [democratic] strategies.”  Is it impertinent to ask why did Washington provide weapons to these neo-Nazis in the first place if it was so invested in promoting Ukrainian democracy, and why has the compliant media sedulously covered up their presence, deeming it a “slur” and “slander” of Ukraine, a “Putin talking point,” even to mention these homegrown Nazis?  (It should be cause for alarm how these crazies will deploy their US-supplied precision state-of-the art weapons against Russia if the war seems lost.)  Lieven is so obedient a slave to his benefactors that he not only doesn’t ask inconvenient questions that might disrupt the official narrative, but he also massages to the point of distorting the historical record:


I think we can be pretty sure that he [Zelensky] would—if he backed it [a ceasefire]—face really serious opposition within Ukraine just like he did when he proposed peace terms back in March [2022]… There have been opportunities regarding a peace settlement.  We should’ve backed Zelensky before the war—he was ready to offer a treaty of neutrality but Washington wasn’t behind him.  Or we should’ve strongly back Zelensky’s peace proposal in March.


But the hitch wasn’t the sin of omission that Washington failed to back Zelensky’s demarches before the war but, on the contrary, the sin of commission that it resolutely opposed them.  And if Zelensky didn’t pursue his promising negotiations with Russia in March 2022, it wasn’t just—or even primarily—because of “serious opposition within Ukraine” but, on the contrary, because Boris Johnson, almost certainly acting at Washington’s behest, ordered Free Ukraine to nix the peace initiative.  Indeed, if Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande are to be believed, the whole of “the West” has been acting in bad faith since the inception of peace negotiations.[2]  Even if Ukraine is in thrall to Washington, still, wasn’t it a thrill when the Vogue Warrior of Free Ukraine delivered a speech to Congress? Indeed, he even compared Ukraine’s fighting spirit to … the Battle of Saratoga.  Who can doubt that was the first battle that leapt to “his” mind when “Zelensky” was writing “his” speech?[3] Long live Free Ukraine!


But enough already!  Don’t be a spoilsport! Away with the trees, time to see the forest! Ukraine has achieved—“with Western help”—a “historic, “colossal” victory, and Russia has suffered—Lieven can barely contain his ejaculatory glee—a “disastrous” defeat, a “catastrophe.” Before Russia’s armed intervention, Ukraine could have peacefully resolved the conflict with its independence fully intact.  Not a jot of Ukraine’s sovereignty would have been impaired if NATO—in the exercise of its prerogative—had simply pledged not to admit Ukraine.  Not a jot of Ukraine’s sovereignty would have been impaired if Ukraine’s eastern citizens had simply been left free to converse in their preferred tongue and to preserve their culture.  So what exactly did Ukraine get “with Western help” that it couldn’t have gotten before the conflagration?  Untold suffering. Untold death. Untold destruction.  And Ukraine reduced to a vassal state.  To be sure, there is cause for good cheer: Russian soldiers have also been killed, while the “murder industries” of the “vultures and hyenas of the battlefield” have made a killing.[4]


When the Death’s-Head Kvellers during World War I sang paeans to “historic,” “colossal” victories, Rosa Luxemburg channeled the plaint of outraged Humanity.  She had been a teacher at the school of Germany’s Social Democratic Party.  It was one of her great joys in life to prepare Germany’s youth for the challenges awaiting them in the socialist future.  But then, they were herded into the charnel house.  Her last intimate, Hans Diefenbach, was killed on the front.  The news of his death shattered her.  Here’s what Rosa had to say of these “historic” and “colossal” victories:


Never before on this scale has a war exterminated whole strata of the population; not for a century have all the great and ancient cultural nations of Europe been attacked. Millions of human lives have been destroyed … Millions have been crippled. But of these millions, nine out of ten are working people from the city and the countryside.  It is our strength, our hope, that is mown down day after day like grass under the sickle. The best, most intelligent, most educated forces of international socialism, the bearers of the holiest traditions and the boldest heroes of the modern workers’ movement, the vanguard of the entire world proletariat, the workers of England, France, Belgium, Germany, Russia—these are the ones now being hamstrung and led to the slaughter. These workers of the leading capitalist countries of Europe are exactly the ones who have the historical mission of carrying out the socialist transformation. Only from out of Europe, only from out of the oldest capitalist countries will the signal be given when the hour is ripe for the liberating social revolution. Only the English, French, Belgian, German, Russian, Italian workers together can lead the army of the exploited and enslaved of the five continents. When the time comes, only they can settle accounts with capitalism’s work of global destruction, with its centuries of crime committed against primitive peoples.  But to push ahead to the victory of socialism we need a strong, activist, educated proletariat, and masses whose power lies in intellectual culture as well as numbers. These masses are being decimated by the world war. The flower of our mature and youthful strength, hundreds of thousands of whom were socialistically schooled in England, France, Belgium, Germany, and Russia, the product of decades of educational and agitational training, and other hundreds of thousands who could be won for socialism tomorrow, fall and molder on the miserable battlefields. The fruits of decades of sacrifice and the efforts of generations are destroyed in a few weeks. The key troops of the international proletariat are torn up by the roots…. What is now occurring is an unprecedented mass slaughter that is reducing the adult working population of all the leading civilized countries to women, old people, and cripples. This blood-letting threatens to bleed the European workers’ movement to death. Another such world war and the outlook for socialism will be buried beneath the rubble heaped up by imperialist barbarism. This is more [significant] than the ruthless destruction of Liege and the Rheims cathedral. This is an assault, not on the bourgeois culture of the past, but on the socialist culture of the future, a lethal blow against that force which carries the future of humanity within itself and which alone can bear the precious treasures of the past into a better society. Here capitalism lays bare its death’s head; here it betrays the fact that its historical rationale is used up; its continued domination is no longer reconcilable to the progress of humanity.


It’s hard not to despair of Humanity when the Death’s-Head Kvellers rejoice at what’s befallen Ukraine and Russia.  This writer, at any rate, can still find consolation and conviction, his soul still shivers, in the knowledge that a Rosa Luxemburg also walked this earth.


January 28, 2023

New York City


Norman G. Finkelstein currently teaches the Laws of War at Hunter College.  His new book, I’ll Burn that Bridge When I Get to It: Heretical Thoughts on Identity Politics, Cancel Culture, and Academic Freedom, has just been published.



[2] Former German chancellor Merkel told a German newspaper that the Minsk agreements had been designed to “give Ukraine time” to build up its defenses. Former French president Hollande subsequently confirmed Merkel’s remarks.

[3] He also invoked the Battle of the Bulge.  Clearly at sea as he read this sentence, Zelensky’s forefinger nervously paused at each word.  Still, he botched it.

[4] Rosa Luxemburg’s phrases.