This article first appeared in French in Le Figaro.
KIEV, Ukraine — Europe was born of a bet on the power of ideas and what linguists call their « performative » character. But since Europe has been integrating into a common union, that power has not been evident so often.
In a series of events that has been especially dramatic for my people, the French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has recently offered a significant demonstration of the force of ideas and the power of convictions when these are followed through to their logical conclusion and acted upon.
Against all of the defeatists united in their resignation to retreat before Putin, this European thinker has stepped up to the struggle for the deliverance of the new Ukraine.
From his first speech on the Maidan in Kiev on Feb. 9 through the gathering that he organized on March 7 in a movie theater in Saint-Germain des Prés, and including the meeting that he organized earlier that day between his president, François Hollande, and representatives of Ukraine’s major democratic forces, Bernard-Henri Lévy has been unstinting in giving of his time and effort.
Without mincing words, he reminded us that thought and action are not opposites but can, in exceptional circumstances, combine and reinforce each other.
It was he who, having understood from the outset the situation in Ukraine, extended a fraternal hand to all Ukrainians who dream of a free Ukraine. It was he who relayed, within Europe and in the United States, the words of the major actors of the opposition to the now deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. It was he who, after having convinced the highest authorities of the French Republic to assume a firm stance against Putin and his ally, enabled two candidates for the Ukrainian presidency to have a long discussion in Paris last week with the French president and his minister of foreign affairs, Laurent Fabius.
Our debt to him is considerable.
This man follows in the great tradition of fighters for freedom — the Resistance to the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War, the Prague Spring, and the dissidence in the face of Soviet oppression and lies,among many others.
I would like to repeat here what I expressed to him last week at the Elysée Palace: that the Ukrainian people are grateful; that his determination will prove decisive; that it strengthens our will to hold fast to our positions in the upcoming battle; that, by countering Putin’s propaganda, that determination hindered the evil spirits that otherwise would, in attacking Crimea today and another eastern, Russian-speaking border of the Russian empire tomorrow, tear apart both our nation and, eventually, Europe itself.
But the acts of the man who will henceforth be known to the residents of Kiev simply as « Bernard » moves and binds me for even more intimate reasons.
Like Bernard, I am a disciple of the great European philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), who was Lithuanian by birth, French by citizenship, and profoundly enriched by Russian culture. It is difficult for us not to mention the fact that Levinas studied at the Kharkiv secondary school and lived through the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution in Ukraine.
Like Bernard, I am grateful to Levinas for having made clear to me the twin debt that our civilization owes to the Bible and to the Greeks — to Jerusalem and to Athens, to revelation and reason.
That Levinassian brotherhood of arms is, I believe, the ultimate reason for our shared struggle.
Above and beyond the vicissitudes of the hour and the risks of history, above and beyond the measure of confusion inherent in today’s fight, and above and beyond the eminent clarity of Bernard-Henri Lévy, our common membership in what he once called the « Levinas generation » impels us both to work to build an authentic European republic, one fraternal and confident in its humanist heritage.
I know that Bernard felt the bracing breeze of that heritage in the Maidan during the two speeches that he made to a crowd that was, while weary, delighted to hear an intellectual from the other Europe declare his solidarity with so much force and brilliance.
Bernard sees himself, as do I, as the perpetuator and the witness of a heritage that confers on the strongest nations of the old continent responsibility for and custody of what Milan Kundera, in a famous passage, called the « small nations » — that is, the fragile, vulnerable nations.
That is what we have in common.
It is that cause which, though we did not know each other (he working at his review in Paris, I at my university and affiliated publishing house, The Spirit and the Letter), we carried on in parallel.And we will, I am convinced, carry the fight forward together in the months and years to come through the Europe-Ukraine Forum that we have agreed to establish.
For all of that, I evoke in his honor here, as he did in Kiev, the fraternity of the people of the Maidan and their spirit of freedom.
Photo : Bernard-Henri Lévy à Kiev (c) Alexis Duclos