Our holiday from history is over: On Victory and Imagination

Luigi Vitali in conversation with Philipp Blom

If the notion of Victory may appear anachronistic in contemporary warfare, the circumstances of a full-scale invasion of a sovereign nation on Europe’s doorstep have revived the importance of this concept—making Victory an absolute necessity. If, in order to end this conflict and prevent other encroachments, it has become clear that we must support the Ukrainian people in gaining a definitive Victory, what does this actually mean for the future of Europe, Russia, and the understanding of our own agency in history?

Another pressing issue that looms over our generation is the impending disaster of the climate crisis. In light of the limited prospects of reversing the situation, we know that achieving a victory in this regard is no longer feasible. So, how do we navigate the path ahead? What will we find on the other side of the tunnel? And how is our collective mindset evolving and adapting in the face of this imminent catastrophe?

To discuss these topics and more, we met with Philipp Blom, a German author and historian known for his writings on European history, the Enlightenment, and the impact of technology on society. His works, including The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914, A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment and Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present, have been widely translated and celebrated internationally.

LUIGI VITALI – After a year and a half of Russian aggression in Ukraine, what would a Victory look like—a Victory worth celebrating?

Philipp Blom – I believe that we will have to wait for a clear Victory. The apparent aim of the spring offensive will be to push the Russians out of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. In other words, that’s what we could define as a victory for the time being since there won’t be a complete victory as long as Putin remains in power as we know what he intends to do and that he cannot be trusted. Eventually, the state of war will be suspended; UN troops will patrol a demarcation line. As long as the decision is in his hands, I don’t think there will be a peace accord or an end to this war.

For now, it is essential to defeat the Russian army in Ukraine, and if that leads to the end of Putin’s power, so much the better. Even if they are not more likeable, anyone who succeeds Putin won’t have had 20 years to fill their offices with loyalists and will be a less efficient dictator, at least at the beginning. Who knows, perhaps this system can be discredited enough for a different one to rise. But, for now, simply pushing the Russian army out of Ukraine would be a Victory worth celebrating.

L.V. – And what would this Victory–leading to a shift in the EU’s epicentre towards the East—actually mean for Europe?

P.B. – That’s a very interesting question because, for a long time, Europe was fuelled by a friendly rivalry between Germany and France, with Britain also playing an important and questionable role within it. It’s always good to have someone sceptical on board when realising a big project, constantly wondering: “Does this really work?”.

However, admitting a country like Ukraine, with over 40 million people and a recent history of corruption and dictatorship, will undoubtedly bring about a shift in emphasis. The direction of this shift is not yet clear. Will Ukraine align more closely with countries like Poland, or will it lean towards Western nations? It’s difficult to determine at this stage.

Many have remarked on the irony of Putin’s war and how it has achieved the opposite of his intended goals. One of the effects has been to galvanise the European Union. It has invigorated the agenda for energy change and the Green New Deal, emphasising the need for energy independence. Moreover, it has reminded Europeans of something crucial: we have a lot at stake here. 

This is not merely about regulations or trivial matters; it concerns the survival of our democratic system, something the EU hasn’t always been ready to defend.

The events in Ukraine have sharply highlighted that the EU is not just a community focused on harmonising markets but, to use a grand term, a community of shared destiny. It has underlined the fate of European political ideals, social values, and moral principles that, despite past compromises, still have the potential to shine in the world.

We must question whether Europe possesses the strength and determination to be a centre of political influence and projection of power or if we will hand over that role solely to China and the United States.

I hope that Europe will exhibit the strength and determination to do so, but I am not too confident it will.

L.V. – At this critical moment, a united and assertive Europe is more important than ever. This is an occasion to overcome divisions and reclaim a place at the global table.

P.B. – Yes, I believe that Europeans have realised this is a make-or-break issue. Someone else will swoop in and take it if they don’t secure a spot at this table. That whole notion of Europe being a blissful island where conflicts are a thing of the past has turned out to be an illusion. It was always a fabrication propped up by the American military, and it has now been exposed. We must face the fact that our holiday from history is over, and history has come back in all its nastiness and brutality, not just in the farthest corners of Eastern Europe but potentially all across Europe. This changes the whole direction and possibilities for Europe.

L.V. – From a historical perspective, how has this aggression changed our perception of Europe’s course? In the last few decades, we have been engaged in discussions about contemporary warfare and how asymmetric, low-intensity or cyborg warfare would drastically alter the nature of future conflicts. But then, last year in February, almost overnight, we found ourselves confronted with a 20th-century-style frontal war fought in the most conventional manner, involving artillery, trenches, and tanks along Europe’s borders. We awoke in a different place than we thought we were. How is this changing our understanding of Europe’s historical timeline?

P.B. – That has surprised many people, although most military personnel I’ve talked to weren’t so surprised. We, civilians, got a bit carried away by the enthusiasm for new technologies. But it’s true, we expected, and I expected, a different kind of war. This has brought us back to some very fundamental realities. One of these realities is not just the style of warfare, the technologies, and the machinery used but simply the fact that we live in an illusion. I grew up in a pacifist Germany, and if I had mentioned the idea that a country must be able to defend itself militarily, I would have been labelled almost as a Nazi. It was something that was simply not acceptable. But here we are, realising that if we want successful democracies and liberal societies, these societies must be able to defend themselves not just against occasional far-right or Islamic terrorists, or whichever terrorist group is in the spotlight now but against entire hostile armies. That is terrible news because we had truly hoped to have moved beyond this. We had expected to change the nature of hostile countries through trade. We engaged intensely with Russia, creating a win-win situation for everyone based on classic liberal economic thinking. We believed that economic self-interest would prevail. But it hasn’t. And I think this should be a strong wake-up call for us. It should also serve as a wake-up call to challenge a certain over-theorised way of viewing the world. Look, if human beings were rational actors, there would be no need for an advertising industry. People don’t always act rationally. There are many motives that drive them, and humiliation is one of the most powerful. We are witnessing a humiliated delusional Russia that feels it deserves a much more significant role in the world than it currently has. These irrational motives, which cannot be neatly captured in an economic theory or mathematically modelled, are actually of great importance in politics.

L.V. – Indeed, it is truly mind-boggling to comprehend the motivation behind this impulsive and ill-conceived invasion of a sovereign state, lacking any Casus
and only supported by feeble and incomprehensible narratives. We can delve into discussions about NATO enlargement, red lines being crossed, or even the desperate attempts of an autocrat to keep his hold on power after two decades. Yet, nothing can logically justify this action. It’s as if we are witnessing, as you say, an irrational reaction to unresolved humiliation and fragility. Honour killing is actually the closest parallel I can draw to make sense of it. Just as the tragic murder of a woman by male members of her family, who justify it as a means to ‘protect’ the family’s name, reputation, or, more precisely, their patriarchal power, similarly, we are confronted with a senseless act of masculine violence against a neighbouring country that dared to embrace freedom and democracy instead of succumbing to Russia’s orbit. Should we invent a term for geopolitical honour killings? How do you make sense of it all?

P.B. – I can see similarities, as you point out, because honour—a category that defies rationality—is an essential concept here. And indeed, given their shared history, a democratic Ukraine is perceived as a threat to Putin’s opaque power structure—or, as we should call it, Kleptocracy. What’s most striking to me is the stark contrast between a country that perceives itself as a global powerhouse and its actual GDP, which is, for example, half of California’s. Can you name a Russian product that you or anyone aspires to buy? In the past 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, one would expect Russia to have achieved something commensurate with its self-perception. Instead, a small group of individuals has plundered the country, indulging in expensive mansions and yachts while leaving the nation in desperation. The Soviet Union collapse felt like a catastrophe for Putin, and he probably found himself in a country that he may no longer fully comprehend.

I cannot fathom what kind of humiliation could explain why someone would engage in such a profoundly irrational, poorly planned, and disastrously misinformed course of action. The prevailing interest seems to be the pursuit of reclaiming an empire that Putin and his associates believe Russia is entitled to, solely based on some vague notion of historical agency. And we must all understand that this ambition doesn’t stop in Ukraine.

L.V. – Merkel did warn her allies that Putin hated Western democracies and aimed to destroy the European Union. Nevertheless, she continued to sign trade deals with him, hoping to bring Russia to the right side of history. In the last decade of Europe-Russian relations, we had Merkel and Macron’s policy of appeasement on the one hand and, on the other, Poland and the Baltic states’ scepticism, often accused of being ‘Russophobic’—but which actually turned out to be surprisingly accurate. How has this experience informed our approach to dealing with autocratic regimes?

P.B. – We certainly learned we need to take autocrats seriously. Putin wrote a lengthy essay about Ukraine’s historical identity in July 2021, emphasising its past and future as part of Russia. Listening carefully to what autocrats and dictators say is important, as they openly express their ambitions. Engaging and trading with them is not wrong, as it allows people to experience a certain dynamism firsthand that could stimulate social change. However, we should remember that democracy cannot be forced upon a country that rejects it. History has shown us several unsuccessful attempts to bring democracy to unwilling nations, as demonstrated in Iraq. While trade is a viable avenue, if a country engages in clearly illegal and brutal actions, there should be immediate consequences.

We must not forget that Russia has consistently exhibited such behaviour, not only in Ukraine. They actively project force and strive to gain control, using aggressive force, unlike China, which invests heavily and builds infrastructure in various countries to extend its influence. Russia’s approach instead involves military means and the cultivation of loyal alliances with questionable leaders like Assad, whom Putin supported throughout the Syrian war. Should we have paid more attention to Putin’s repression of civil society and the murder or poisoning of political opponents in Russia, the disinformation and corruption and his increasingly evident imperial ambitions? Not to mention the situation in Chechnya, the war with Georgia in 2008, and eight years of proxy war in Donbas. If not at least with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it should have been clear that conducting business with Russia under these circumstances was no longer feasible. Many of us, including myself, haven’t taken to the streets to protest, even if the situation was blatantly evident. But we didn’t, and we ended up complacent with the situation due to our reliance on their affordable gas.

L.V. – Speaking of Assad, Syria was welcomed back to the Arab League this week, despite being expelled in 2011 due to the ongoing civil war and the Syrian government’s violent response to the uprising. After over a decade of war crimes, Assad has maintained his grip on power against all odds. Syria rests in ruins, yet Assad remains its president. What is the risk of facing similar challenges with Putin?

P.B. – I don’t believe Putin would have a way back. He has gone too far. I would be astonished if there were any normalisation between the West and Putin’s Russia. However, I hope normalisation will occur after a regime change since no one will gain from further humiliating Russia. Let’s not forget that one of the most significant instigating factors of the Second World War was the Versailles Treaty and France’s insistence, specifically Clemenceau, on crippling Germany in the long term. One can argue about the moral justification, but destabilising a centrally located country with a major economy was simply foolish. While punishing and humiliating Russia after its withdrawal from Ukraine may be emotionally satisfying, Russia should rejoin the community of nations. No one is interested in seeing the largest country in the world descend into political chaos for decades.

L.V. – Many, though, are hoping for a dissolution of the Russian Federation. 

P.B. – It’s unlikely, even if a break-up in different states might not necessarily be a negative outcome. The reason is that Russia is not a country but an empire encompassing various peoples with distinct histories, ethnicities, languages, religions, and traditions. These groups have little in common beyond their shared Soviet and vague tsarist accounts. As a result, there could be potential benefits in allowing these regions to pursue their own paths and take responsibility for their well-being and future. Still, it’s a problematic scenario to predict. All we know is that Russia, as it is, is a global political threat to the rule-based international order. If Russia is allowed to prevail with its aggression, there won’t be any meaningful rule-based order any longer.

L.V. – Moving to the next subject, we face an even greater threat to the rule-based international order, which is the approaching catastrophe that looms over us: climate change. Your study of Europe’s history focused on a similar precedent, the ‘Little Ice Age’, a period when temperatures dropped by two degrees over several centuries, predominantly between 1500 and 1700. This era of unprecedented cold brought about dire consequences, including increased illness, famine and a profound transformation of Europe’s social and economic fabric. However, you argue that this challenging period ultimately led to the Enlightenment period.

P.B. – In the study, you are referring to I discuss that there is a causal albeit indirect, connection between the period historians refer to as the ‘Little Ice Age’ and the Enlightenment. Agriculture faced a crisis during that time, markets and trade underwent drastic changes, and the urban middle classes emerged. Suddenly, you had all the ingredients to make Enlightenment happen. If religious authorities initially blamed witches for the long winters, people soon realised that witch burnings did not really help with the climate and started looking for new approaches. They began to observe nature and look for different solutions. The harsh condition led to different trading methods and a new market economy, empowering the urban middle classes who sought political participation. Concepts like equality became important in challenging the power structures dominated by the Church and monarchs. The idea that all are equal before the law—just as in trade—started to spread.

L.V. – And it was a seemingly minor shift in temperature that altered the course of human history.

P.B. – You can understand what a two-degree difference means if you think that during the 30 Years War, which took place from 1618 to 1648, entire armies could ride across the frozen Rhine and Danube rivers, winter after winter. Wagons, cannons, horses, and battalions could walk across the ice. To give you an idea, the last time the Danube froze was in the 1960s, which was a rare occurrence. This illustrates the impact of such seemingly small temperature changes in nature. An average two-degree increase would mean that our cities would be eight degrees hotter in the summer, with all the implications for living beings and infrastructure. These changes are not trivial; but systematic. We know that natural systems operate through interconnected networks and interdependencies. When some links in this chain break, the entire system is at risk of collapse. The consequences will be vast.

Understanding that climate change during the ‘Little Ice Age’ was not caused by humans is important. It was likely the result of a combination of solar activity changes and the Earth’s axis wobbling. The temperatures gradually warmed over two or three centuries. Nonetheless, the present scenario is distinct; human activities cause it, and its global consequences are evident on a daily basis, with no possibility of reverting back. Just one among many examples: the global corn belt is moving away from the equator by 20 kilometres each year. People who have always lived in these areas will have to relocate. Where will they go? How much pressure will there be on arable land? How many conflicts will arise over resources, including water? If an entire region is in conflict, can global trade continue unaffected? Certainly not. Every minute, we lose an area of rainforest equivalent to about 30 football pitches. And every minute, a million tons of ice melt off the Arctic and enter the sea.

These significant systemic changes cannot be reversed simply through carbon capture technology or green-friendly policies. The next few decades will be catastrophic, and we are all aware of it.

L.V. – As we face the devastating effects of a potential two-degree increase in global temperatures, can we speculate whether a new kind of Enlightenment awaits us at the end of this dark tunnel?

P.B. – I am firmly convinced that we are standing on the verge of a profound philosophicaltransformation in the human perception of the world. This shift extends far beyond the realm of academic philosophy; it is unfolding within the hearts and minds of individuals across the globe.

For centuries, stretching back to Mesopotamia and finding significant resonance in the Bible’s Adam and Eve, Western societies have held dear to the notion that humans were uniquely created and distinct from other animals and were granted a special place in creation. In this narrative, God instructed them to subdue the Earth and nature, exercising dominion over it. Remarkably, this notion has persisted stubbornly throughout history.

Even in contemporary phenomena like neoclassical economic theory, which no one would consider rooted in Bronze Age beliefs, there is an underlying assumption that human beings are rational individuals who primarily seek to optimise their own economic gains. However, if you encounter someone who genuinely embodies this ideal, I would advise seeking professional help, as such behaviour would align more closely with the characteristics of a psychopath. In reality, humans are deeply intertwined with social structures and driven by various motivations, such as personal well-being, familial interests, vanity, and even fear. The notion of humans purely and rationally self-optimising is absurd.

This economic theory highlights the essential elements needed to establish a factory, including capital, raw materials, logistics, machinery, advertising, and marketing. However, it never considers that clean water, biodiversity, and breathable air are also essential prerequisites. These vital elements are treated as externalities and overlooked in economic calculations.

The time has come for us to confront these long-held assumptions and reassess our perspectives.

Our understanding of the world necessitates a different paradigm that transcends the archaic notions of human dominion and self-centred optimisation. We’ll soon learn in a harsh way that we are part of nature, and what we do is part of nature.

L.V. – What a twist of fate, enduring such unimaginable devastation just to learn something so basic.

P.B. – As long as we continue to believe that we are separate from nature and act accordingly, we will not find a way out. As a species, we still perceive ourselves as somewhat distinct from the environment. And when you see the mess we’ve made of this planet, it’s obvious it has to do with that assumption. If we all could realise a straightforward thought that we are primates, that we are inescapably part of nature in our functioning, our ambitions, and our fate, I think our society would change radically. How can a biblical idea still lead to economic theory in the 21st century, parroting those assumptions without ever questioning them? Our politics and economy would undergo radical changes if we truly grasped that we are an integral part of this vast system, interconnected with everything else, and that there is no place outside of it. It seems simple and banal, but that would be a philosophical revolution. With the explosion of the internet and the online world, we witness a tremendous acceleration of technologies, possibilities, and scientific advancements. Yet, we find ourselves grappling with these advancements using our primitive brains that haven’t evolved in thousands of years. It is puzzling that we still hold onto Bronze Age notions that humans are meant to dominate and control nature. While this may have been acceptable in Mesopotamia 4000 years ago, it has now become absurd. A profound philosophical revolution awaits us on the horizon, and its scope is immense. However, this revolution may take considerable time to permeate and become the foundation of a renewed society. Meanwhile, competing narratives will clash, each attempting to define the world’s true nature and how we should navigate it. There will be a battle of stories.

L.V. – If, as you mentioned, the ‘Little Ice Age’ marked the end of the contract between God and a superstitious population, as well as the end of the idea of a God-like Man at the centre of the universe, in favour of a more self-made and individualistic subject: can we argue that we may now be facing an opposite turning point? With this generation’s renewed interest in spirituality—alongside scientific intuitions and an understanding of the world as a whole—we’re confronted with a different way to experience our place in the universe. It is through a spiritual understanding of the universe that Man could return to the centre, not as a sovereign figure this time, but as a responsible individual for himself, the environment, the community, and a sustainable way of living. Can we imagine this new Enlightenment being a new ‘contract between God and Man’ because we can better understand this universal energy operating within everything in the cosmos and within us? While spirituality may not be your field as a historian, what more powerful narratives can we explore to experience our integration within nature and comprehend our responsibility?

P.B. – I can see it as a powerful tool if you mean that spirituality entails reconnecting with the natural systems in which we exist and recognising that they are our masters, our faith, and perhaps even our source of health and happiness. When we share this fundamental understanding, the specific system of images, metaphors, or rituals we employ may not matter significantly. In that sense, spirituality will always hold an anti-system value because a consumer society is configured to provide us with its kind of ‘spiritual’ experience: our destiny is to inhabit a supermarket. Therefore, if spirituality involves breaking free from the confines of the supermarket and immersing yourself in the land, understanding that you are composed of the same elements and that you will flourish and eventually perish, and so will your children and their children, then this is what I’m calling for. However, nowadays, spirituality has become often commodified, resembling a supermarket concept itself, where customers cobble together scented candles, incense, and inspirational ideas to fit into their life. When approached differently, spirituality is always a transformative journey of discovery that leads to an uncertain and often uncomfortable place—like taking magic mushrooms, I suppose. This ‘trip’ is not to be confused with superficial means of escaping problems nor with vague utopian ideals based on the assumption that everyone is inherently good and desires what is best for one another. I am unfamiliar with such a society, and I don’t believe such a society has ever existed. A society must grapple with the reality that individuals are randomly born into it, each with their ideas and desire to pursue their own path. 

A society must embrace pluralism and acknowledge the existence of people that challenge our individual agendas or views. Whether they pertain to spirituality or not, the narratives that interest me revolve around a future where conflicts and disagreements can be handled more effectively. 

New narratives mean new perspectives and interconnections. To give an example of what this could mean, I’m thinking about a book by Lewis Hyde titled The
, which elucidates how in traditional societies, receiving a gift was not meant to enrich oneself, but rather, it obligated the recipient to either pass it on to someone else or give something of equivalent value in return. The gift does not belong to you alone; it has been entrusted to you to participate in a cycle. On the other hand, capitalism tends to operate in the opposite manner, as money cuts all connections. When you purchase something at a supermarket, you no longer owe anything to the seller on a personal level; you are not obliged or indebted to him for his work or to nature itself. It is a convenient way of living, but it may also be one we are not evolutionarily equipped for and may contradict our nature. In a world grappling with the current state of affairs, including climate catastrophe, dwindling resources, and where consumption can no longer define our identities to the same extent, we need a more realistic image and narrative of ourselves, whatever it may be.

L.V. – In this sense, what are your thoughts on artificial intelligence in this war of narratives and clashing images? Do you perceive A.I. as a further threat or a potential ally to break out of this downward spiral?

P.B. – I think it could be an ally under the best circumstances. However, we must remember that our track record of dealing with powerful technologies is not particularly good. Our tendency is always strongly inclined towards assuming linear development, expecting the future to be more or less an extension of what we have today. We struggle to grasp that things will be genuinely different, requiring new words and concepts to discuss them.

A.I. can learn and find solutions for any problem it is applied to, often surpassing the understanding of even the engineers themselves. The decision paths and trees it follows are veiled from us due to the immense volume of calculations involved, and these systems can even reprogram themselves. But they do not start from neutral ground. Biases of the programmers and the data sets used can become inherent biases of these powerful tools. These outputs are typically based on classical societal biases such as race, gender, biological sex, nationality, or age. More serious than that is the emergence of technologies like deepfakes as an example of how A.I. can significantly disrupt our democracies. The distinction between real and false is becoming increasingly blurred. The implications of A.I. are vast and far-reaching, extending beyond the replacement of boring jobs by automated systems.

The advancement of A.I. represents the next step in the evolution of complex intelligence, transitioning from carbon-based life forms to silicon-based forms of intelligence that can surpass the capabilities of their carbon prototypes. As a result, carbon-based life forms could become insignificant—and that is us!

We are humans composed of chains of carbon atoms that should understand how to value our human uniqueness and our natural environment in the face of an increasingly automated reality.

L.V. – Even in light of these developments, it seems that the democratic model is becoming increasingly ineffective in governing society amidst these transformative changes. Could it be that the autocrats, in their claims of autocracy being the most effective form of governance in our era, have a point? How can we counter that?

P.B. – No, autocracy as a model doesn’t, I think, work. Democracy may be the worst of all forms of the state, apart from all the others. It is always imperfect. It may be very problematic in times of climate catastrophe because it favours slow and compromised change. It doesn’t prioritise big, bold actions, which may have valid reasons but can be highly inconvenient at certain times. Still, it’s the only model based on freedom and justice. It can be true that we may be attached to the wrong form of democracy for these changing circumstances. Democracies with four-year electoral cycles are heavily biased against long-term decisions because they prioritise decisions and dividends for the immediate next election. Consider, for instance, people’s councils, where individuals deliberate on various matters without turning it into a career but rather deciding for their lives. There are perfectly democratic ways of making better long-term decisions, more than what our current systems allow. Our systems were visionary for a post-war era but are no longer as effective now. The model of democracy we currently apply may have indeed outlived its usefulness. It is necessary to strive to give a new form and life to the concept of democracy.

L.V. – And what can we do to ensure a Victory for democracy?

P.B. – Let me tell you something:

Living without fossil fuels is possible, but living without imagination is not. Part of the dire situation we find ourselves in is simply a failure of imagination, a reluctance to dare to envision alternative possibilities, to envision a better life.

What would that better life look like? It’s crucial to instil these questions in our children and create spaces in society where we can openly discuss and dream up alternative futures and engage in meaningful debates. This, I believe, would be a true triumph of democracy. Strengthening democratic values, universalism, and imagination can have a cascading effect, permeating society from the bottom up. It is possible. For me, this is perhaps the most remarkable Victory
I can envision.

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Luigi Vitali in conversation with Philipp Blom