Baerbock meets citizens: war and peace in Chemnitz


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DOf course, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and the Ukrainian ex-boxing world champion Wladimir Klitschko could easily have had this conversation in Berlin-Mitte. But the 90-minute discussion about war, peace and what is right or wrong since the Russian invasion of Ukraine more than 500 days ago is not taking place in the German government district. But in Chemnitz, formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt.

More eastern threats are hardly possible in Germany. Since the far right Riots in the summer of 2018 the city has the reputation of being the sleazy corner of Saxony. Perhaps that’s why the daily newspaper “Freie Presse Chemnitz” regularly invites political figures from Berlin to a dialogue with the citizens of Chemnitz. In autumn 2018, for example, former Chancellor Angela Merkel was there, and around 400 demonstrators greeted her with “Get lost, get lost!”

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There were also calls to show the visitors from Berlin that they were “undesirable” in Chemnitz. But the appeals of the far-right “Free Saxony” largely went unheeded. Only a few dozen with Russian flags and drums had approached the “Kraftverkehr” event center located almost on the outskirts of the city. On the other hand, more than 1000 people from Chemnitz had registered for the discussion; 300 were drawn and listened to the boxer and the minister. And no, there was no scandal.

The first question was how they deal with the fact that skepticism about the Ukraine war is significantly greater in the east than in the west. The Foreign Minister actually already gave the answer with her presence, because she knows that the echo chamber for her policy is different in Chemnitz than in Berlin, Munich or Hamburg. Just a few hours ago, at an appointment at the German-Czech border, she was insulted as a “warmonger,” she says.

Baerbock in May 2022 during a visit to the Kiev suburb of Bucha, which was temporarily occupied by Russian troops

Baerbock in May 2022 during a visit to the Kiev suburb of Bucha, which was temporarily occupied by Russian troops

Quelle: pa/photothek/Florian Gaertner

Nobody looks at this war without emotion. But Putin wants to destroy Ukraine and destroy the European peace order. Without the Germans weapons shipments, without tanks, air defense and ammunition, there would have been “much more suffering”, says Baerbock, Kiev looks like the maltreated Bucha today. A warmonger? “Nobody wanted this war. Someone pulled him off the fence and every day we do everything we can to ensure that the people of Ukraine can live in peace again.” Friendly applause follows.

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Bahnhofsstrasse in Bucha in April 2022 (left) after the Russian army left and today (right)

Wladimir Klitschko, who lived in Hamburg for a long time, greets the people of Chemnitz with “Moin” in a somewhat unstylish manner. Then he goes far and talks about the war. It’s closer than you think here in Germany. “I was in Ukraine six hours ago,” he says.

Six hours away, “women, children, civilians die every day,” says Klitschko, “you get used to it, to the images, the death, the explosions.” And then? “You live on”.

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Here in Germany, his second home, people would plan their lives. The summer vacation, for example. That doesn’t work in Ukraine. “We go from day to day. Today I am in Chemnitz. Chemnitz is Germany, we are on the side of democracy”. Klitschko thanks “the German people” several times for their help. He talks for a long time, but it doesn’t bother anyone, on the contrary. When he talks about how war feels, it gets very quiet.

As a mother from Kiev, she would have expected European help, says Baerbock

Baerbock is asked whether she can sleep well at night, a question about inner doubts. “The nights when I often didn’t sleep well drove me to make decisions that will secure our common homeland of Europe,” she replies somewhat woodenly. She leaves more of an impression when she breaks down the war into private matters. Baerbock has two daughters, most of the refugees from Ukraine in Germany are women and children. As a mother from Kiev, she would have expected help from her European neighbors, she says.

Then she talks about a little Ukrainian refugee boy who asked her to talk to the Ukrainian president. “You know him. Why don’t you ask him if he can send my dad home again.” Dad is apparently fighting at the front.

A Chemnitz resident asks after the cluster bombs: “And what comes after that?” Baerbock makes it clear that Germany has signed the Oslo Convention banning cluster munitions. “That applies to our country.” It is not up to Ukraine to evaluate the decisions that it makes itself. “That is the task of the people of Ukraine.”

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Klitschko then makes it very specific. “Weapons should kill,” he says. And the weapons from Germany “protect our lives, the sky above our heads”. It took a long time for Germany to bring itself to “recognize where the evil is”. Of course he means Russia. Not everyone in the hall sees it that way, some of them you can tell that they don’t agree with Baerbock’s and Klitschko’s stories at all. But they don’t say anything, they just shift uncomfortably in their chairs. The majority applauds, friendly.

How long will all this take? “Endurance beats class and talent,” says the boxer. Putin’s Russia is big – and weak. 500 days, maybe as many more will come. But “we are on the right side of history”. And: “We’ll do the job ourselves” – with the help of German arms.

At the end, Baerbock expressly defends it again. “Every single human life that we could save was worth these arms shipments. The goal, she says, is “peace in Europe”.

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