What to do in the face of this unbelievable aggression?

By Cornelie Unger-Leistner, June 2022

Around 5,000 Waldorf upper school pupils in digital conversation with experts on the war in Ukraine.

Until recently, it was unimaginable for most of us that there could be war right on our doorstep in Europe, that one sovereign country could simply be attacked by another and that millions of people would be driven to flee to neighbouring countries within a very short time – predominantly elderly people or mothers with children. With the entry of the Russian armed forces into Ukraine on 24 February, this nightmare has become reality – parents, teachers and nursery teachers are stunned by the news from the war zone. How are we supposed to react to something that we can hardly grasp and cope with ourselves? What do we tell our children and pupils? How does everyone find their bearings in the flood of unbearable images that flicker across the screens every evening or make the rounds on social networks?

In this situation, the upper school teacher Karoline Kopp (Landsberg Free Waldorf School) and Franz Glaw (Mönchengladbach Rudolf Steiner School) have taken a remarkable initiative. Together with pupils, an upper school forum on the war in Ukraine was set up – school classes could connect via Zoom and ask experts questions about the war. People with a Ukrainian background and with relatives in the war zone were also included: Vitalina Korzyukova, a pupil in Mönchengladbach and Igor Ivanov, born in Kiev and husband of a teacher at the same Waldorf school, both in constant contact with the war zone.

The fact that Kopp and Glaw met a broad need in the Waldorf school movement with their idea was shown by the large participation of more than 140 Waldorf schools that joined in – a response that the two had not expected. "We estimate that around 5,000 Waldorf pupils were linked in," said Karoline Kopp after the digital conference.

What does Putin want to achieve with this war? Is there still a way back? Why is there talk of Nazis in Ukraine? What exactly is the geopolitical background of the war? Why do we pay so much attention to it when there is constant war in other parts of the world? What can be done to help the people in Ukraine and: is it of any use to counter the violence with peace demonstrations? These were questions that the students had formulated for the experts in the chat. They were summarised and presented by Noel Norbron, board member of WaldorfSV. The experts also included Prof M Michael Zech, historian and political scientist from Alanus University and Lukas Mall, emergency educator from the Friends of Waldorf Education. He is currently deployed on the Polish-Ukrainian border.

The Zoom conference started with a minute of silence to commemorate the victims of the war. Vitalina Korzyukova and Igor Ivanov described how – even though it was to be expected in view of the Russian troop concentration at the border – the invasion had put them in a deep state of shock, triggered by information from friends and acquaintances who could not leave the country. "I couldn't work for two days, my thoughts were only with my compatriots," Igor Ivanov described his state of mind. "Most of my family is still there, uncles, aunts, grandma – they can't leave. There is help in the cities, but in the villages it is very difficult," Vitalina described the situation. So far, everyone had been lucky not to have been hit by the air strikes. Igor Ivanov overcame his shock by organising an aid transport that also took refugees to Poland on the way back.

In an introductory contribution, Prof M Michael Zech gave an overview of the history of Ukraine and its close interconnection with Russia and Belarus in a cultural space. However, to deduce from this that Ukraine has no right to statehood is a thought from the past. Today's Ukraine was a "very complex entity" with a contrast even between the east and west of the country, a diverse country with seven languages and 23 different language groups. Many families were characterised by different cultural affiliations. Until 2014, Zech says, he had always experienced this diversity as unproblematic: "Common songs were sung at the Waldorf training courses I attended, the Russian language served as a means of communication for everyone". With the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the war in the Donbas, everything then changed, and the nationalities also became tangible in the Waldorf school movement in Eastern Europe.

It also became clear at the Zoom event that the Ukraine war is not just about two peoples fighting each other, but also about far-reaching socio-political objectives. "Putin is fighting on two fronts, including against his own people," says Karoline Kopp. Zech also underlined this aspect: on the one hand Ukraine with its diversity, its striving for openness, pluralism and democracy, and on the other Russia, where Putin has systematically suppressed these aspirations in recent decades. "That's also what touches us so much about this war: it's about the idea of an open pluralistic society, which we also have, and the question: are you allowed to be what you want?"

Zech explained that this common idea was also the strength of Ukraine's defence: "The invaders have no idea, they are sent by an elite that rules with an incredible amount of power". Even if past mistakes on the part of NATO or the EU could be identified: "There is no justification for this unbelievable aggression," Zech stressed. He also referred to the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons dating back to the times of the Soviet Union and the state parties, including Russia, guaranteed the country its territorial integrity in return.

In this respect, it was also quite possible to form a judgement about the Ukraine war: "You can make judgements and think". When using the reports of individuals on YouTube, for example, one should always question whether this also applied in general. In this respect, the reporting of the public service media should also be taken into account. There, it was always pointed out when certain reports about events of the war could not be verified. Franz Glaw, who also teaches media education at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy, saw an important task of Waldorf schools in the teaching of discernment.

Regarding the Russian argument that it was Nazis in Ukraine who were being fought, Prof Zech explained that the Maidan protests in Kiev in 2014 had also involved combat units of neo-Nazis, which still existed in Ukraine. "But they never received any votes in an election in Ukraine, Ukraine is in no way determined by them". The fight against the Nazis had been an important identifying feature in Russian history since the Second World War, which is why Putin was now using the denazification argument. "It is a battle cry with which the Russian side is trying to justify its actions," Zech stressed.

Lukas Mall from the Friends of Waldorf Education reported on the emergency education deployment at the Polish-Ukrainian border, which is intended to help refugee families cope with traumatic experiences. He explained how emergency education works; the "Friends" also offer further training on this for the helpers on site. He had "never experienced such a willingness to help" as could be seen there at the border and in western Ukraine. Aid deliveries from Germany were important, but care must be taken to ensure that there was always a concrete contact person in Ukraine: "Ask someone you know what the concrete need is, for what, and where exactly".

In view of the huge response to the Zoom event on 15 March, the initiators have been thinking about a follow up event – also in view of the fact that there had not been enough time for very far-reaching questions such as about the effects of the peace demonstrations against violence or about the wars in the rest of the world. The inter-school upper school forum is an initiative of Karoline Kopp (Landsberg Free Waldorf School) and Franz Glaw (Mönchengladbach Rudolf Steiner School), the German Association of Waldorf Schools has taken over as sponsor.

Author: Dr Cornelie Unger-Leistner is a freelance writer. Her main topics are migration and education, poverty and social inequality, peace policy, history of the National Socialist era and Holocaust education. She is a qualified sociologist and obtained der doctorate in the subject of social education.

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