OLIVIER ZAHM — Philosophers are not known for putting themselves in contact with war. It is quite rare. With the exception of war reporters, people run away from war. And you run toward it. Why, as a philosopher, do you have this inclination to go into the field and become engaged in conflicts? Because it is indeed for engagement; it is not simply journalism.
BERNARD HENRI LÉVY — First, why do I go into the field? By temperament, no doubt. But also because I was trained in a school of philosophical thought — phenomenology, Husserl, etc. — that has as one of its commandments the need to return to the essence, the thing. This philosophical practice par excellence was the encounter between the concept and the thing; one could not ignore the relationship with what Michel Foucault called “the great anger of things.” Conceptual rigor, fine. But directly facing the anger of things. For me, that is fundamental. And even when I was a young Althusserian philosopher in the 1960s, even when I was mired in the most radical theoricity, when I idolized the concept, and so on, I missed things.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it your Marxist heritage?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Marxist but Althusserian. Meaning ultra-theoretical, conceptual, the belief that philosophy should not venture beyond philosophy, living in a hall of mirrors that led from concept to concept without ever passing through the thing — but with remorse; I believe that is the right word: remorse, regret. I missed things. That’s why, as a 23-year-old graduate of the École Normale with a degree in philosophy, my first serious philosophical act was to leave the Rue d’Ulm and go to Bangladesh to report on the war of liberation raging there, to advise the first president of the emerging nation, and to work humbly toward an event that, in the timeline of that young nation, and in my own inner development, was very important: to ensure that the women raped during the war would no longer be seen as disgraced women but instead as war heroines. There you have it; that is what making contact meant.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Making contact with things … including human things.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — That is the only kind that matters. Because this is where everything gets complicated, where I realize that the Althusserianism of my youth left its mark, and where you are going to think that I am contradicting myself. I still have trouble believing completely in things; I do not believe that things exist except in human thought.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You are not a materialist?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I am, but I think that true matter, the matter from which things derive their form, their face, is human matter. There is no thing without the human. There is no space without the human. There is no time without the human. Things are given form, shaped, and sculpted by people’s gaze, by their actions, their time, their pain, their work. Men are workers of things, if you will. Without people, no things. Poets like Francis Ponge and Roger Caillois said the same thing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In an at- tempt to find the primordial thing.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — No. There are no primordial things. There is no nature. There is no thing in itself. Speaking now like Kant, everything is phenomenon. And like Heidegger: everything is History.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Absolutely.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes. And all actions are historialized.
OLIVIER ZAHM– Why are you a philosopher who takes an interest in war?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I was getting to that. I told you that I was an Althusserian. That is, an anti-Hegelian, in the last analysis. And I remain one. But there is one Hegelian idea that I particularly dislike. It is the depiction of the philosopher as “Minerva’s owl,” who awakens only after nightfall. That is the principle of Hegelian philosophy. The approach and the relationship to History. You wait for the disorder of things to die down. You wait for the war between men and things to reach a truce. Then you swoop into the arena, look around, and think. Minerva’s owl arises at dusk, when everything is finished, when the conflict is settled. There you have it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, but even Hegel is historicizing the concept… He was the first to introduce History into the story of the concept.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Absolutely, but the philosopher takes the floor when the concept is approaching its conclusion, when the synthesis is on the verge of coming together, certainly not when the concept is in turmoil. Hegel is great for telling us the moment when Greece changed into Rome, the Enlightenment into Romanticism, and so on. But Minerva’s owl does not get up until night falls, and in the meantime we wait.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For the storm to pass!
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes. That is the principle. And that idea always disgusted me. I think that is a philosophy…
OLIVIER ZAHM — You spotted this early on?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — This is a lazy philosophy, one that takes no risks. It is a philosophy that, where war is concerned, waits for weapons to have their say, waits until the battlefields are littered with bodies and the guns have gone silent. And then, the philosopher arrives and counts the dead, tallies up the score, looks at what has happened, and makes the final decisions. I find that idea lazy, unworthy of philosophy, empty. And I find it terribly “collaborationist.” It collaborates with History, offering no resistance, arriving on the scene once the trains have passed; it does the housekeeping, in a way, cleans up the scene of History.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What is, to you, the responsibility of philosophy?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Since I was young, I have thought that the nobility of philosophy — its greatness and, of course, its danger — was instead to enter in media res, into the middle of things, before the game was over, before the outcome is known, when one is still uncertain, still in chaos, when one can be wrong. First, you have to take risks. And second, philosophy must weigh in the balance of the event.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The weight being the authority of the philosopher?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — No, not the authority of the philosopher but the strength of the concept. Concepts have a strength. Things, too, of course. But concepts have immense strength, they can drive things…
OLIVIER ZAHM — As can words.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Indeed. Philosophy is worth bothering with as long as one retains the ambition of entering into the mêlée, of taking a certain side and running the accompanying risk. When I do war reporting, for example, or reporting in general, I always make it clear that I am a philosopher, not a journalist. When I go into Ukraine, Libya, Nigeria, or wherever, I do so as a philosopher. What does that mean? It means that I do not have the Hegelian attitude we were just talking about. Nor does it mean that I lack the objectivity of the journalist.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How is the position of journalism different from that of philosophy?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — There is an ideology of journalism. What is it? It is an ideology contemporaneous with the appearance of modern science at the end of the 19th century. And it says, as does the logic of science, that the observer, when in the laboratory, must not get involved in the experiment — he must allow the experiment to unfold, taking care not to interfere with it. The great danger, according to this ideology, is that merely looking interferes, that it modifies the conditions of the experiment. And as soon as the thinker, or the journalist, senses that his attention risks altering the experimental conditions, he censors himself. That is the ideology of Albert Londres and the first journalists. They go in media res, of course. They go when things are still up in the air. But the rule is not to interfere. My view is the opposite…
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there is no neutrality in your view?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — There can be. And that is completely respectable, but it is not for me. Allow me to return to your first question. Why am I a philosopher who takes an interest in war? Because in the midst of war, the midst of things, I want ideas to have every chance. I want to take sides, to choose my camp, and to get results. For me, reporting means seeing a lot of things, gathering a lot of eyewitness accounts, compiling a fair account. But it is only truly finished when I feel it has produced, or may produce, a real effect — that is, when I have changed the conditions of the experiment. Bringing the Kurds to Paris… Enabling the recognition of the transitional power in Libya by the international community… Or, meeting the Ukrainians in the Maidan in 2014, bringing them to the Élysée Palace to talk with François Hollande… The point is that, for me, a successful report is a lot of observation, a little literature, but also concrete results. Two years ago, I did a report on the Nigerian Christians who were being massacred by affiliates of Boko Haram. I felt I had done my work as a philosopher when Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s sec- retary of state, welcomed a delegation to the White House or the State Department, I don’t remember which. That is the idea: to get into the battle, try to have an effect, get results, and reject the attitude of the journalist descendants of Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, and all the great thinkers who were obsessed with the idea that you had to play dead. I am alive. I am rarely so alive as when I am doing a report.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That position is also a commitment, but in the name of what? Human rights? How do you choose sides? Because both sides commit crimes; both are historically entwined.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I chose my side when I was young. Equal rights for men and women. Freedom of speech and mobility. The rejection of tyranny and brutality, of murder as a policy. Democracies commit murder, but it is not a continuation of their policy by other means. The murders may be accidents, mistakes, sins, crimes, but they are not policy. Crime as a policy is not democracy’s policy. I have chosen the camp that sees that and understands it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Whatever the religion, whatever the culture?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Of course. I am Jewish, and I defend, as I just told you, Nigerian Christians. I have spent my life defending Muslim peoples. Seriously, even I am struck by it. When I take stock of my life, when I review the philosophical-political battles I have fought, I realize that I have spent…
OLIVIER ZAHM — As much time with Muslims as with Jews?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Indeed. I witnessed and, to a small extent, participated in the liberation of Bangladesh. I defended Kurds who were being slaughtered. I defended Sarajevo under bombardment by Orthodox Serbs. My immediate instinct when the Arab Spring arrived was to say that there was no reason in the world why Arab peoples should be consigned to tyranny in perpetuity. I pled for Kosovo. For a Palestinian state. I have defended the Afghans against the idiotic western and international view that they were incapable of democracy… I could go on. Truly, when I add up the score…
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you say to people who argue that we perceive these conflicts with a value system different from that of the population in war? What do you say to people who state that human rights are not universal and therefore cannot be applied to cultures that have different traditions?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I think that saying there are cultures that have no idea of human rights is a racist idea.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Don’t you think that some cultures do not welcome human rights because they have different traditions and value systems?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — If you think that a culture can’t aspire to human rights, that is called racism. Or colonialism. Up through the first half of the 20th century, there were people who thought that sub-Saharan Africans were very happy just as they were, that they had no need for democracy, that the Arabs of Algeria were very happy under French colonial rule, and that we certainly should not place on their shoulders the burden of…
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you reject the criticism because differentialism would tend to say that democracy has a colonial tinge when one seeks to impose it on cultures that operate otherwise?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I have never thought that we had to impose democracy. I believe we must support democrats, which is very different. When we encounter democrats, we should extend our hand. I have never considered democracy as an export product. But I do believe we have a duty of solidarity when and where we find democrats. The task of a citizen of a country that is in overall agreement with democracy is to try to welcome those who want to join the club, not slam the door on them. Take Russia, for example. This is important because the fight is gathering steam again. I did not say in the 1970s that democracy had to be imposed. I said that there were people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, and Vladimir Bukovsky. Maybe they were doomed to be forever in the minority. Maybe they were the salt of the Russian earth. But we had to support them. We owed them our assistance. I began my life as an intellectual by welcoming dissidents to Paris, by beating down the doors of the Élysée for them, by sending them messages of support, hosting their friends, and so on. I was not exporting anything! I was simply acting on my duty of fraternity, my duty as a democrat. Along the way, it turns out that they were right because, a few years later, they overthrew tyranny. What a kick in the teeth to those who said that the Russians, the Poles, the Czechs were not made for that!
OLIVIER ZAHM — As a philosopher, what is your idea of war? Is war fundamentally human? Is man, in the end, a wolf who hunts man? Or is there still hope of eradicating war?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — No. Alas, no. It would be wonderful, but… Polemos is part of our makeup… The death drive, the equal of the pleasure principle, is one of the constitutive elements of the human condition. The death drive, the will to destruction, envy, hate for the other, all of these murderous passions… Reread the preface of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents… It is all there. There is a thin veneer of civilization below which simmer death drives and hatreds. What do we need to cope with that? We need laws, institutions…
OLIVIER ZAHM — And armies, too, to prevent war.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, we need weapons and armies. To prevent the strong from taking advantage of the weak and crushing them. The weak must be strengthened.
ALEPH MOLINARI — The problem is that there is a double narrative, there is hypocrisy, because those who want to preserve the world order are the same as those who sell arms to others, those who take part in the distribution of weapons to conduct wars, because doing so is very profitable!
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Less and less. Without going into the details, there is today a legislative arsenal of global scale that makes selling arms to just anybody more and more difficult. I am not saying that those laws are not circumvented, but it is not as common as it was before.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Not as easy.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — No. There are embargoes, sanctions. Today, it is easy to sell arms to Ukraine. But it is less easy to sell them to Russia.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Still, the market is enormous. And there is also the question of technological supremacy because all sorts of arms are sold, from AK-47s to nuclear weapons. So, the types of arms depend on the system of power they are intended to influence.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Of course. Obviously, I agree. The world is caught in a sort of infernal logic… And we are not even talking about nuclear weapons, which have acquired an absolutely inhuman power, the capacity to destroy the planet a hundred times over.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And even to knock the planet off its gravitational axis.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Probably. And here, we are putting our finger on a possibility that was considered unthinkable until just recently. And by that I mean until Vladimir Putin came around. Up until now, the world was living in the belief that nuclear weapons were…
OLIVIER ZAHM — For deterrence.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — And that they were the prerogative of a club of reasonable people who were holding on to them as a deterrent, but with an absolute taboo against their use. On this front, however, something happened on December 17 of last year… An ultimatum laid down to the West by Russia for the first time since…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Before the war?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Before the current war, yes. On December 17, 2021, Putin delivered an ultimatum as he was planning the invasion of Ukraine. There was a communication from the Kremlin that began to build on the language that we see unfolding today: “Russia is surrounded, humiliated, and if the West continues to treat us badly, we can unleash a nuclear war.”
ALEPH MOLINARI — Apropos, Chekhov said that the minute a weapon is introduced into a play, you know it will be used, so we have to take the nuclear threat seriously.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It is a possibility for them.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — It has been a possibility since Hiroshima! The nuclear age began then and there. Except that afterward, after Hiroshima, the weapons were reshelved. But, yes, Hiroshima happened. And Hiroshima could happen again. A Russian Hiroshima. Personally, I do not believe it will. That is not where I am placing my bet. I think that a man who is as afraid of dying as Vladimir Putin was during Covid… You saw him during Covid, right? He spent two years terrorized by death, isolated in a bubble, seeing no one, quarantining his advisers for a week before see- ing them… This man does not want to die in a thunderous nuclear response. He is not crazy, he is not suicidal, and I cannot see him seriously entering into this power struggle.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, in a way, his own life preserves ours.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, and the life of some of those around him.
ALEPH MOLINARI — So, what does he want?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — To indulge his hatred for freedom, democracy, and the western way of life. He wants to fulfill the messianic designs that came to him late in life. He believes Moscow is the third Rome. He believes Russian Orthodoxy can save the world…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Or is it a power trip?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I had a debate — it is available on YouTube, and you can direct your readers to it — with Alexander Dugin, the man considered to be one of Vladimir Putin’s key ideologues. I debated him publicly in Amsterdam and spent an hour and a half with him on camera. What I saw was a fascist, antisemitic intellectual expressing his hatred for Europe and his plan for a grand alliance between radical Orthodoxy and radical Islam to bring down the West. That is Dugin’s program — to build a Eurasian ideology that is, in his mind, and probably in Putin’s, an alternative to European ideology, human rights, and democracy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Since we are talking about this terrifying war in Ukraine, that would mean — listening to you describe this ideologue — that this is a disguised war of religion?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — A war between civilizations, yes, perhaps. Democracy versus tyranny. Champions of freedom against Eurasian neofascists.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It is simply an imperial impulse.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — OK. But who is the imperialist? Putin! Russia! And as for this business about religious wars… Nietzsche put it very well in a passage from Aurora: the 20th century, and the 21st, will experience only wars of religion. Territorial wars, he says, are evanescent. Wars for territory sort themselves out; they are negotiated. You see who is the strongest, and you deal. The terrible wars are religious wars. Nazism was one. The true design, the real aim of Nazism, was to create a new religion. The same goes for the Stalinists. And with Putin, in fact, there is…
OLIVIER ZAHM — …something Orthodox?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, mingled with a lot of other stuff. But he thinks it is a matter of civilization. And since he believes that, we have no choice but to listen.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it goes beyond questions of economics, access to the sea…
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Certainly. Territorial wars exist, naturally, but they are secondary. And they are not the continuation of policy by other means, either. The really serious wars, for those who start them, involve matters of civilization. The war against Ukraine is hatred for democracy, hatred for a country on Russia’s border that is determined to move toward becoming a non-corrupt state, achieving the rule of law, getting closer to Europe, wanting a free press… That is what drives Putin crazy. When you think about it, this invasion of Ukraine is absurd. Moreover, it is an enormous blunder because Putin will end up losing. But we are not dealing with logic here.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You think he will lose?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — He is losing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Putin has lost his international reputation.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Not only that. He is losing battles. I just got back from Kyiv. Kyiv is liberated, as are all of the cities in the north. At a terrible price, of course, the price of carnage. But they won back their freedom. The same is true of Odessa, where I was a month ago, which had been under threat from the guns of the cruiser Moskva and that the Russians will now have increasing difficulty invading by sea. Even around Kherson, which is the only city of the region that the Russians conquered, the Ukrainians are resisting. And then there is Mariupol, which will be the shame of the 21st century, the symbol of absolute disaster for our generation… But even there, 2,000 soldiers in the Azovstal steel complex put up incredible resistance. When all is said and done, you will see: Vladimir Putin will lose.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Except if he decides on a nuclear strike.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — If he decides on a nuclear strike, he will be… The logic of nuclear war is that the second strike is the worst…
OLIVIER ZAHM — And he will be hit with a response.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — He will not take the risk.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you believe that the West will intervene?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — If there is a nuclear attack where? On a NATO country?
OLIVIER ZAHM — No, on Ukraine.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I do not know. No one knows. And talking like this, in this tone, I fear we are participating in the trivialization of these matters…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your position is that the western countries are not backing Ukraine sufficiently? Not doing enough?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — My position is that we must hope for and work toward a situation where Vladimir Putin gives up. In 1943-44, we were not looking for exit ramps for Hitler. We did not allow him to save face. No compromises were made. No one said, “Maybe we should let him keep Poland or the Sudetenland.” We were not trying to soothe the beast. We wanted to rescue Europe and Germany. And today that is the only worthy position for a western — European, American, and so on — head of state to take. The position must be that the Russian army should pull out of Ukraine and the Russian people freed from dictatorship. The last day of the war in Ukraine will be the first day of the liberation of Russia. I believe that deeply.
ALEPH MOLINARI — In a revolution.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — The day Ukraine is liberated, Putin will fall.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it will be the birth of the Ukrainian nation totally separate, this time, from Russia.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — The Ukrainian nation has already been born. It existed, by the way, before the Russian nation came together. No. What will be born is another Russia that finally fulfills the promise of 1989. It will be the Russia of liberty, law, and Dmitry Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To end our interview, since we have talked about Ukraine, let’s review all the wars covered in your film, The Will to See. There are seven or eight that you documented. The experience of all these wars shows us a world increasingly torn apart by war, does it not?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — No, things have always been this way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it that the forms of war are different? Watching your documentary, they seem more and more inhumane… Their terrain is no longer defined. Civilians are caught up in the turmoil…
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — That is not new, either. That dates back to 1914 — civilians systematically targeted… That was when civilian deaths first exceeded military deaths. Until then, the proportion was the opposite. In wars, even awful ones, soldiers, not civilians, bore the brunt. Today, there are military wars, civilian wars, and wars against civilians. And, increasingly, modern wars may be wars against civilians.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you think war has changed with technology and cyber action?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — There was a time when war was—I do not know which is better, actually — but war was a relationship between humans, between bodies, it was hand to hand, you made contact. Today, war has been dehumanized. And the war that the Russians are waging against the Ukrainians goes to the extreme of that dehumanization. They make contact with civilians, yes. They slaughter them. I saw Bucha, saw the bodies of murdered civilians; I know what I am talking about. But the Russians do not confront the Ukrainian army.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They shoot missiles from aircraft.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Or drones. The monstrosity squared that is drone warfare!\
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you say that these are “forgotten” or “hidden” wars, does that mean, to your mind, that they are forgotten by the West? That is, that we, the nations of the West, have shirked our responsibility?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — They are forgotten by those who claim to be the guardians…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Of an idea of peace.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, of an idea of peace, an idea of law, and an idea of equality. That the people of Central Africa should forget the war in Nigeria is not that surprising. It is not a total scandal. On the other hand, that the United States or France should be blind to the slaughter of Christians in Nigeria is a real problem because the Americans, French, and British consider themselves, often rightly, to be the guardians of law and the idea of universality.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And your experience of all that… How do you manage to come back into a setting of privilege without nightmares and other troubles?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I have nightmares. Fears. Rattled nerves.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like a soldier.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — No. Because I am not a soldier. I don’t carry a weapon. Just a pen. But I have seen so many things over the past 50 years…
ALEPH MOLINARI — You live in nonstop PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — No. I am a happy person. I love life. I live surrounded by wonderful people. But I also have ghosts in my head. Always have. At the age of 22, in Bangladesh, I saw things that a young man should not have to see. There was a people, the Bengalis, being massacred. There was an army of brutes using rape as a weapon of war. And I saw an old writer, André Malraux, calling for the formation of an international brigade to liberate these women and men. I signed up. I went abroad. But, once again, war was not what I was after. I detest war; I find it disgusting. With very few exceptions, one being Volodymyr Zelensky, it reveals none of the greatness in man.