Senior Journalism major Holland Cluff is spending the semester studying abroad in Berlin, Germany. Cluff says she is awestruck that she’s living in Germany during a keystone moment in European history.
“I had to learn more about the local opinions, so I attended a peace rally at Brandenburg Gate on Feb. 27 to ask around,” she told us.
Here is a story she wrote about just a few of the people she spoke with that day.
By Holland Cluff
On Sunday, Feb. 27, nearly 100,000 Europeans marched at Brandenburg Tor in Berlin in alliance with Ukraine. The channel between the gate and Siegessäule was flooded with blue and yellow as demonstrators condemned Vladimir Putin, extended empathy to Ukrainians, and called on Germany to act against Russia without instigating further armed conflict.
“War is something that is so unnecessary,” said Jan, a Berliner who attended the demonstration with her hand painted sign. “We should not think in boxes, because the people in Russia tried to go to the streets as well. But the policemen… arrested them in thousands. Most people in Russia want peace, just as we do.”
Jan echoed a common sentiment that surged through the protest: Putin, not Russians as a whole, is the main aggravator thirsty for power. Her sign, titled “End of Life Crisis,” illustrated a small red speck among flames that screams, “I don’t want to die alone!! Y’all have to come with me!” She said that she once saw Putin as a smarter man: evil, but smart. But throughout the previous weeks, her opinion of him deteriorated more than she thought was possible. She was shocked when she saw that Putin was willing to invade Ukraine. She now sees him as a “megalomaniac.”
“I think nobody really knows what this dude is going to do,” Jan said.
As was apparent from the thousands of signs and posters (many even less forgiving than Jan’s), Putin was a very popular target for scorn at the rally. People compared him to Hitler, called him a traitor, and ridiculed his intelligence. The Russian president has never been widely beloved across Europe, but many people still expressed their shock that he would be willing to invade Ukraine. Others grimly admitted that they saw this coming long ago.
Edward, a native Ukrainian who now lives in Berlin, attended the peace protest with his friend Anton. They both scoffed at the idea of being surprised by Russia’s invasion of their homeland. For them, it was apparent that Ukraine was at risk eight years ago after Crimea fell victim to similar tactics. While they both believe that the recent sanctions put in place against Russia should have happened all those years ago, they were still heartened to see so much support for their country.
“The sanctions that are going now should have been put up in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea,” Edward said. “It is clear that Putin is destabilizing Ukraine, trying to make those points of conflict trying to break Ukraine off from joining NATO.” He further expressed his fear that Putin would continue to invade more states, ultimately resulting in a continental war.
“If he gains control in Ukraine probably in the next years, he may try to spread out and eventually he will also attack NATO country members like Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania.”
Like everyone else at the demonstration, Edward and Anton wanted to avoid war at all costs. But even with their peaceful sentiments, Anton stood out among the masses with his blue and yellow sign: “If Russia stops fighting, war stops. If Ukraine stops fighting there will be no Ukraine.” A fellow Ukrainian who studies in Austria, Anton came across several people who had well-meaning opinions that troubled him.
“A lot of people that I know say that Ukraine should just, like, put down their weapons and, I don’t know, flee and to just take their things peacefully,” he said. “But the thing is, it’s not the way you can solve this problem. Because if we don’t fight, we will lose all of our country, we lose our freedom, and we lose our people anyway.”
Luckily, he said, most of his friends and fellow protestors avoid vilifying all forms of combat indiscriminately. But as thousands upon thousands of people flow through the streets, it is clear that one of the greatest fears is the possibility of a Third World War. Across the sea of blue and yellow, there are flecks of other flags representing nations all over Europe. It sends a message of solidarity. “We support you, we are here for you.” But for some nations, such as Lithuania or Georgia, it also represents a kind of empathy. “We’re afraid too. We understand you.”
Adam toted his Hungarian flag to Brandenburg Tor to express support for Ukraine, but also to remind other Europeans what is at stake. As the neighbor-state to Ukraine, many Hungarians are preparing for emergency escapes, including Adam’s boyfriend and family members.
“The illusion of the peaceful safety is just now gone,” he said. “I want this peaceful world back… Fortunately Hungary is a NATO member, so I don’t think something bad will happen. But I still say [to his boyfriend and family members], ‘Please, the petrol has to be full and don’t hesitate to come here.’”
An estimated 100,000 people protested in solidarity with Ukraine.