A shameful fear, devouring and starting to spread.
That depressing and sickening fear, that fear that wishes not for peace but rather to be left in peace, that fear that begs for peace and pleads for peace.
A fear that comes and returns—sometimes like a light tune, sometimes like the “Ride of the Valkyries”—to the most fragile of souls.
A bad fear, in the pit of one’s stomach.
You think of La Fontaine and his plague-stricken animals.
You think of that 1920s writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, who in Terror on the Mountain shows the marriage between the devil and fear, how the pandemonium of humanity’s basest instincts can be multiplied by irrational fear that then leads to communal suicide.
That fear that couldn’t care less, like the one from 1940, that following generations might inherit an even more deadly war, provided that we, here, might taste just five more minutes, or five years, of a terrorized peace, that peace that groaned yesteryear, “Why die for Danzig?” and today cries “Why die for Donbass?”
That is the fear that Putin wishes to inspire and capitalize on.
Paris and London, he carelessly lets drop, are just a click away for a Poseidon missile.
Putin has failed at everything, except inspiring fear.
He was defeated in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lyman, Mykolaiv, Kherson, in short, in every theater where he has faced Ukrainian valor. But he may win this war of fear.
Putin’s dirty bombs.
The vast party of those who are afraid and who, from right to left and from the extreme left to the extreme right, are ready, because of it, to compromise and dishonor, could become, if we’re not vigilant, the largest party in France.
That skillfully distilled fear, growing; this carnival of sweat and panic on a background of collapsology; this transformation of free spirits into curled up creatures shriveled by anxiety is becoming Russia’s master army and Ukraine’s principal enemy.
Now, I’m not saying that there is nothing to fear.
We must take into account the threats and machinations of a sick man, his power in ruins, resentful of his historic reassessment, along with his fantasies about Greater Russia and a new Rome.
But there are only two possibilities: Either we are serious or we aren’t, when we hear him say, “Since the red carpet that was supposed to be rolled out for my entry into Kyiv was pulled out from under me, I’ll head for the Baltics, for the Poles, for others.”
If we are serious, and if we take that statement seriously, then that means, first, that we are dealing with a particularly atrocious kind of dictator, and second, that faced with that kind of character—a tyrant and a strategist who, as Clausewitz would put it, is planning not an “interstate” war but an “absolute” one, then experience teaches or at least should teach us that concessions, treason, retreat are never the solution.
Needless to say, we must act with discernment and prudence. We must keep open—as Presidents Macron and Biden do, even as we work for the enemy’s defeat—the channels that will allow, when the time comes and when the Ukrainians decide to end this war. But we can’t give in to blackmail, nor to the passions of fear.
The first question we should ask ourselves is how we might confront this test. Standing up or lying down?
Should we let ourselves be subjugated by our own hauntings and scamper away like rabbits at the very moment the heir to the darkest parts of the 20th century threatens to ignite, or extinguish, the light? Or should we, in the midst of a war far more “psychological” than any other war, affirm our values and our reasons for action?
The dignity belongs to the Ukrainians, who wish to be European only insomuch as Europe is the country of those who do not wish to live as vassals, trembling, their necks out in offering to the assassins.
The honor is Zelensky’s, the European who defends, with great panache, the achievements of a democratic civilization that is, on three-quarters of the planet, just a painful hope and a dream.
The least we can ask, in France, of the animals sick with fear is to have just a fraction of the courage of Ukraine, and of her president.
Translated from the French by Matthew Fishbane.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His most recent film, Slava Ukraini, will premiere nationwide on May 5, 2023.