What Heiner Müller already knew

A conversation with medico's new Managing Director Tsafrir Cohen about erroneous East-West dichotomies, lack of historical justice and professional optimism in hard times.

medico: Tsafrir, eight years later you are back at medico, now at the helm as Managing Director. What a lot of people who did not know you before have noticed is your good mood. Is this also a political message: can and is it allowed for working at an aid organisation to be fun?

Tsafrir Cohen: I have to answer that question biographically: I come from an upwardly mobile working-class family in what was at that time a developing country. Life was always hard, but at the same time the world held out a promise. And I believe that you can and should see it that way in an organisation like our's. At medico, we work in crises and tense moments - mass murders in Iraq, the siege of Gaza, throughout the darkest times in Latin America, during the apartheid era in South Africa. We have witnessed a lot of things, most recently in Afghanistan, in Haiti, in unravelling Lebanon. On the other hand, we are an organisation that is more than an organisation. Our visual language also connotes this: we show people who have a vision of the world as it should be. That's why we actually have to be full-time optimists when we work here. By the way: I lived in London until recently and I have to say that this doomsday mood is particularly pronounced here in Germany. It's not the first time I've experienced this. Since 1986, I've been through several apocalypses in Germany that never actually materialised.

People used to say that the Marxists foresaw ten of the last three crises. Now I could counter this by saying: The Germans may have been wrong five times, but now the world really is coming to an end ... The reality of the last few years, Corona, the climate crisis and war, speak volumes.

It is obvious that the crisis is escalating. The issue is not denial of this, but rather about finding a political way of dealing with it. In my opinion, the most important thing is not to forget: These crises have been and still are man-made, so people can therefore also address and cope with them politically. Humanity has all the resources to do so, it just isn't using them.

I have the impression that in many respects the "Global South" continues to be a central category for medicos' work and stance for you. Many people are increasingly questioning this term nowadays. Why are you still clinging to it?

I believe that the Global South still exists in a specific sense. It is even being rediscovered. It is very important to preserve the term because it stands for putting work on and with history at the heart of it all, instead of getting lost in the radical "present-ness" of some debates, which often become platitudinous and shallow as a result. The Global South: These are the countries and regions that still live and suffer under the crime of colonialism today - under its long shadow as well as its continued manifestations. Under a colonialism that not only incorporated countries into an empire and exploited them, but also tried to racially and ethnically define, exclude and destroy the people who lived there. One must simply and repeatedly be aware of this: Large parts of the population of North America, South America, Australia and Africa have been enslaved or annihilated. This is the shadow of the Enlightenment, unparalleled and still largely ignored in the self-image of the "West". These are facts for which no historical justice has been rendered. There is not a single museum on the history of colonialism in the whole world! But today, this question is not only about guilt - it is also an opportunity for a new beginning. The decolonial discourse and new movements like Black Lives Matter are perhaps only a beginning. Incidentally, the fact that many countries of the Global South are refusing to show solidarity with "the West" in the Ukraine war is also in line with this genealogy. There is even a connection between this geopolitical reality and the discussions about the return of looted art and colonial spoils in European museums.

You need to explain that, if you will.

There is a symbolism inherent in this question that stands for the very big political constellation. It has not been simply repaired, no historical justice has been done, no reparations, not even any recognition of the colonial legacy. Development policy, too, often remains mired in a colonial attitude that treats people like children in need of education instead of seeing them as victims and descendants of a crime against humanity. And the fewer answers Europe and the West find to the developing historical consciousness that is spreading above all beyond its borders, the more whole regions will turn away. Many are therefore shifting their gaze to China. Why? This question is more interesting than one might think. Because perhaps the only country that has been able to undermine the world order emerging through colonialism has been the communist People's Republic of China. It lifted several hundred million people out of poverty. This is actually the greatest success story of the last few decades, which makes any development work from the West look ridiculous in a certain way. In view of the simultaneity of progress, authoritarianism and brutality that the modernisation project has meant for its own population, this is of course extremely problematic, but China as a politically unified nation has managed to do something that African countries could not, because the penetration of colonialism in the latter countries was so profound there that no cooperation or development work has been able to change anything. That is why all eyes are on China. Washington, by the way, is observing this very closely and has meanwhile begun reacting to it. The situation is similar in the Middle East. There, people are not looking toward Germany, Brussels, New York or Geneva, but toward Dubai. If we don't want to have authoritarian solutions globally, then we have to change radically and not just muscle our way through the world leveraging military might or economic strength.

What does this mean for the Ukraine question?

The war in Ukraine has been perceived in this country as a watershed event. In fact, the events in Ukraine are already having visible, but sometimes even more profound repercussions on the debate in Germany on such important issues as war and peace and German foreign and security policy. At the same time, the events in Ukraine are also helping us to take a clearer look at discursive and shifts from the perspective of Realpolitik. In the Global South, Russia is seen as an ally since the time of the national liberation struggles, while China, as I said, is the epitome of economic progress considered worthy of emulation. The West, and Europe, too, must ask themselves whether they are stuck in old colonial thought patterns when they declare war on authoritarianism in the name of the free world with a certain self-righteousness and pose as freedom-fighters. We are not witnessing a struggle between a free, democratic, progressive West and an authoritarian, backward East. It is much more complicated: there is an authoritarian promise of progress on one side. On the other side, freedom and democracy are more and more being emptied of any real content. The West has little in the way of credibility because it ignores its own history of violence and has nothing to offer large parts of the world, instead defending its imperial way of life. A world without authoritarianism can only be achieved today by repairing history.

You came back to medico in a politically extraordinary situation. So here are two questions at once: Why did you come back? And how can medico carry on?

The last eight years have shown me that medico was and is a political home for me. There is a special medico ability to connect concrete with general things and the political debate. That is the greatest thing I have learned at medico. We know that we cannot change the world with projects, and yet we need concrete examples that point a way forward above and beyond these projects. What does that mean for the future? medico has grown enormously in recent years thanks to our supporting members and friends and is actually in a better position than ever before. At the same time, it still holds true: Even if we were ten times bigger, we would not change the world through the work of our partner organisations alone. Projects are important, they change people's lives and empower them. But they only have true power if they can create an impetus to change the political framework. That is the way aid can be overcome. And as a professional optimist, I also see positive trends that can further help shape our work. For the younger generation of today, the global perspective has become something taken for granted. I see this in movements such as Black Lives Matter, the global climate movement, feminism and migration. It doesn't have to be a revolution, but these movements are raising fundamental questions.

Heiner Müller once said: "Optimism is only a lack of information". How would you answer him?

I knew Heiner Müller; I visited him at his home a few times for articles or interviews. I always had to bring a bottle of Black Label Johnnie Walker. It cost more than I got for the publication. But it was worth it. And I know from back then: Heiner Müller was a very optimistic man. When the Wall came down, when we all had no answers, when some leftists were taunting East Germans with a banana because they thought they wanted nothing more than to be part of Western consumer culture, and when others were shouting "Never again Germany" because they were afraid of a "Fourth Reich" - that's when Heiner Müller said, "Storm the Kaufhof des Westens department store." I think that's a very optimistic view of the world: that something can be done. When all the other progressive forces had no answer to the question of what was happening, he was already thinking about what emancipation could look like tomorrow.

The interview was conducted by Mario Neumann.

Published: 27. September 2022

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