Euro 2012: are Ukrainians still Untermenschen?

Once, it was the ideology of racism that depicted the Slavs as an inferior people. Now the ideology of ‘anti-racism’ does the same thing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Isn’t there something uncomfortably familiar in the Western media hysteria about allegedly racist Ukraine?

In the run-up to the Euro 2012 football championships, which are taking place in Ukraine and Poland this month, we Western Europeans have been bombarded with media stories about how uncultured and uncouth Ukrainians in particular are. In that strange Eastern land, ‘notorious for its extremist yobs’, stupid racial thinking is ‘socially endemic’, we are told, which isn’t surprising considering that, in the words of one British academic, Ukraine lacks the ‘cosmopolitan atmospheres’ of Western Europe. Something fantastically ironic is taking place here: under the banner of ‘anti-racism’, the presumed cultural superiority of Western Europe over backward, brutal Slavs is being loudly asserted, just as the racial superiority of Western Europe was asserted over the Slavs in the past.

For the past two weeks, you couldn’t open a British newspaper or switch on the radio without reading/hearing titillating tales about what a peculiar and prejudiced people the Ukrainians are. Virtually every tabloid has sent a reporter to that wild Eastern land, where they have encountered weird men in forests being ‘drilled in unarmed combat, knife-fighting and use of rifles and pistols’ so that they can ‘wreak havoc’ during Euro 2012. Under the headline ‘Anarchy in the Ukraine’, the Sun, putting on its best Victorian colonialist voice, told us it had found numerous ‘thugs’ amid the ‘ruined buildings and weed-covered parade grounds’ of Ukraine, who are putting the finishing touches to their plans to ‘fight our fans’.

And the problem isn’t just a few Nazi wannabes. Western observers constantly tell us that racism is sewn into the social fabric of Ukraine; it is a part of Ukrainian culture. It is ‘an endemic social problem’, said the director of the Football Supporters’ Federation. There is ‘endemic racism’ said the Daily Mail. (It is worth noting that ‘endemic’ is most often used to describe a disease that is prevalent among a particular people. That is just how racism in Ukraine is viewed: a malady, a virus, which infects the whole population.) The real problem, says one respectable commentator, is ‘Ukraine’s messed-up ethnic dynamics’, which means all non-white attendees of Euro 2012 are ‘at risk for racial targeting’. In a BBC documentary heavy on hysteria and light on facts, former England player Sol Campbell said black and Asian England fans should think twice before going to Ukraine, because ‘you could end up coming back in a coffin’.

Deeply ironically – indeed, disturbingly so – the thread running through all this Ukraine-slating commentary is that They, the unenlightened Slavs, are inferior to Us, the racially aware West. So one British sports academic, in a report for the London School of Economics, said the reason ‘racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism’ are so widespread in Ukraine is because that country has a ‘limited history of… multiculture’. Where us Western Europeans have embraced multiculturalism, and in the process created ‘cosmopolitan atmospheres’, Ukraine apparently remains a scarily monocultural society, with its ‘overt display and celebrating of white supremacist iconography’.

No wonder UEFA is helping to transport anti-racist officials and activists from around Europe to Ukraine, where they plan to run a campaign called ‘Respect Diversity’ designed to teach Ukrainians that ‘football can be used as a tool for social acceptance, integration and the promotion of multiculturalism’. The UEFA-backed campaign aims ‘not only [to] minimise incidents of racist behaviour’ in Ukrainian stadiums, but also ‘to leave a lasting legacy beyond 2012’. That is, it is about delivering Ukraine from childish ignorance. Echoing the Bible-bashers who once went to Africa to open the eyes of strange tribes to The Truth, Euro 2012 is being turned into an opportunity for decent Western Europeans to bring the gospel of multiculturalism to the ‘thugs’ in Slavic parts of Europe.

The media treatment of Ukraine as a strange place inhabited by peoples less sussed and less cultured than us echoes the way Slavs have long been viewed by Western elitists. As one study of Western attitudes says, there has been a tendency to look upon the Slav, particularly the Slav of the Ukrainian variety, as ‘a comic or uncouth personage, unworthy of elevation’ (1). In his classic eighteenth-century study of the Fall of Rome, Edward Gibbon promoted the then widely accepted idea that Slavic people were ‘racially inferior’, particularly to the Germans, in the sense that they were ‘less lofty, less fair’ (2). The idea that Slavs are ‘uncouth’, and ‘less lofty’ than Western Europeans, is now being rehabilitated under the guise, bizarrely, of anti-racism.

Anti-Slav sentiment was most pronounced under the Nazis, of course. To the Nazis, Slavs were Untermenschen (subhumans), racially and culturally inferior to the Aryan race. One of the key components of Nazi propaganda on the Slavic people was the idea that Slavs’ ignorance meant they were incapable of governing themselves. Their ‘hereditary racial inferiority incapacitated them for state building’; they were ‘incapable of organising a state or developing a culture’ (3). And so it fell to the Nazis to rule over these barbaric peoples, and eventually to annihilate them, like the Jews, since they were part of Eastern Europe’s surplus population.

Of course, the Euro 2012 racism panic merchants, for all their non-stop scare stories about crazy Ukrainians, are not Nazis or fascists and are not proposing to invade Slavic lands, far less to enslave or kill their inhabitants. But the current cultural assault on Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe does echo, sometimes explicitly, sometimes faintly, earlier instances of anti-Slav sentiment. In the idea that the Ukrainians have failed to create a satisfactory political culture, and therefore need Western academics, UEFA officials and the European Union itself to educate them about the importance of ‘social acceptance’ and ‘integration’, we can see the rehabilitation of the old idea that Slavs are incapable of ‘developing a culture’, certainly not without the input of enlightened Westerners.

What the great Ukraine racism panic reveals is the extent to which official anti-racism has replaced racism as the means through which the elite asserts its authority over allegedly backward peoples. Where once the ideology of racism was used to depict Slavs as inferior, now the ideology of ‘anti-racism’ is used to do something frighteningly similar. The only difference is that where earlier generations of Western elitists argued that Slavs were racially inferior, today’s elitists claim they are culturally inferior, that there is an endemic cultural problem rather than a hereditary problem. Yet all that this reveals is that, in an era when racial thinking has been well and truly discredited, talk of problematic ‘cultural traits’ has replaced talk of backward ‘racial traits’ as the preferred method of asserting one’s moral authority over strange, uneducated tribes Over There. Today, weirdly, a people like the Ukrainians is branded inferior not because of its racial traits but because of its alleged racialist thinking.

Here in Britain, we have already witnessed the use of the new ideology of official ‘anti-racism’ to depict working-class communities, particularly those who follow football, as culturally inferior to the elite. Indeed, often under the banner of ‘anti-racism’, observers have, again ironically, described white working-class football fans as ‘hollering like apes’, being ‘primitive and tribal’, and behaving like ‘Pavlov’s foaming dogs’. Now, such racially tinged ‘anti-racism’ is being deployed on an international level, with Western observers looking down their noses at insufficiently PC, uncultured Easterners. One possible end result of this relentless cultural assault on Eastern Europeans, the depiction of them as racist lowlifes and savages, is that they will respond in kind, kicking against their Western haters by causing some trouble for Euro 2012.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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