The intellectual revolutionaries of the Age of Enlightenment created a community through the exchange of letters. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, this “republic of letters” created a common intellectual language across countries and, indeed, across the Atlantic between Europe and the United States. This non-territorial republic played a role in various scientific revolutions, not to mention several political revolutions as well.
Beginning in the 1960s, a similar non-territorial republic emerged in Yugoslavia. The geography of the country was complicated enough: six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Macedonia) and two autonomous regions (Vojvodina, Kosovo). But then along came this “republic of rock.” Like the intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment, the participants in this republic of rock created their own milieu, promoted their own values, and challenged the received wisdom of their elders.
They also had influence well beyond their own national borders. Young people all around Europe – and even some in the United States – eagerly joined this exciting new republic. Rüdiger Rossig, who was born in Germany, was also an early recruit. His involvement began in 1985 when he met a Punk from Zagreb who gave him 10 cassette tapes. Rossig contributed to the republic of rock by bringing tape recorders to Yugoslavia. Throughout high school, he took weekend trips to listen to bands all around Yugoslavia.
“After I met that guy at the seaside in 1985, I got interested in Yugoslavia,” he told me in an interview in his apartment in Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin last January. “I listened to the cassettes this guy from Zagreb had given to me again and again and read every piece of information I could get. I was just 18 and recently got my driver’s license. I bought a cheap car and started to drive 1,000 kilometers regularly on the weekend. Instead of going to Heidelberg or Mannheim, where the discotheques cost 50 Marks for the evening, I’d go to Zagreb and pay 20 Marks for everybody. It was pretty cool to come back to school or to the factory, where I was also working at the time, and say, ‘Where have you been?’ One person would say they’d gone to Frankfurt, another to London. And I’d say, ‘I was in Zagreb.’”
Rossig eventually started playing in his own band, which toured both halves of Germany. Throughout he remained connected to Yugoslavia’s republic of rock. Then came the wars of the 1990s, and this republic experienced the same kind of divisions as its territorial cousins.
In Serbia, Rossig told me, “the band Galija was actually quite a nice, soft, rock-ballad sort of band. I liked them – before they started playing for Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia. On the other hand, the anti-war-band Rimtutituki was formed by members of the Partibrejkers, Električni Orgazam, and Ekatarina Velika. ‘Mir Brate Mir’ – ‘Peace, Brothers, Peace’ — was their song, produced by Radio B92. In a way, the music scene survived during the Milošević years better in Serbia than the music scene survived under the regime of Tudjman in Croatia. There you were in a double conflict: attacked by the Chetniks and your own nationalists. In Serbia you could clearly define the enemy – Milošević and his group — and play against this enemy.”
Despite the devastating wars, the republic of rock has endured. “There’s a book called The Seventh Republic by Ante Perković, a Croatian journalist, which is the history of the Yugoslav rock scene in crisis in the 1990s and 2000s,” Rossig said. “The last chapter is called ‘Ona se budi?’ (‘Is she waking up?’). The Yugoslav rock scene has out-survived all state institutions of Yugoslavia and become transformed into a globalized rock scene.”
The Yugoslav rock scene was only one of many topics we discussed in this wide-ranging conversation. Rossig lives in an apartment he squatted in the 1990s, so we talked about how squatting transformed Prenzlauer Berg. He’s written a book about ex-Yugoslavs living in Germany, so we talked about the importance of puncturing German stereotypes of guestworkers. Part of his family was expelled from Poland after the redrawing of borders in the wake of World War II, so we talked about German-Polish relations. He was born in former West Germany and now lives in former East Germany, so we talked about relations between the two Germanies. We even talked about how the founder of Mercedes Benz disappointed his mother.
Do you remember whether where you were, what you were doing, and what you were thinking when the Berlin Wall fell?
Absolutely. I was in my civil service. In Germany, until a few years ago we had this alternative to military service. In my term, 1987-89, I was administering a house for the socialist youth, which sounds more Left than it is. The owner was the Social Democratic Youth Organization “The Falcons” (Sozialistische Jugend Deutschlands – Die Falken) in Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Würtemberg. The house was in the Black Forest, but the administration was in the city. I was in one of those meetings that take forever and you want to have been home already hours ago. You’re hungry and you feel like, “Oh, just finish this talk about administration and somehow solve those problems of yours! Let’s finally go for a beer and then to bed.” It must have finally finished around half-past ten. It was a half-an-hour drive back to my place in the quarter of Bad Cannstatt. I was living with two guys, together in a three-room flat. I opened the door, and only one of my roommates was home. He had one of those loft beds, and he was on the bed watching television.
He said, “Hey, the Berlin Wall came down.”
I said something like, “Yeah, right.” And got myself a beer.
Until I entered my flatmate’s room, I could not understand the words coming from the television, only sounds like “bobble, bobble, bobble, bobble.” Then I had this beer and I joined my flatmate on his loft – and only then I understood that the Berlin Wall had really come down.
My father left East Berlin from the third floor of a building right at the Wall on August 17, 1961. My whole family from my father’s side was actually driven out of today’s Poland, from Silesia, in 1945. They settled in the Soviet Occupation Zone and left the GDR (into which that zone was transformed) between 1955 and 1961. My father was the last one to go. This story has been following me. He got an amnesty in East Germany in the early 1970s for people who had left – as part of Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik — and since then we visited East Germany several times. Besides, I took every opportunity to got there, for instance with the Socialist Youth, but also with the conservative Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. The East was always interesting for me. I was aware of its existence. But the idea that the Wall could simply fall was completely …
We stayed up till three o’clock in the morning: not talking too much; drinking a few beers, and watching on that little television that was 1980s style, like 20 centimeters wide.
Were you thinking,“Gosh, I have to go to Berlin immediately”?
To my utter astonishment: no. Even more astonishing is that that was exactly the right decision, because everyone wanted to go and the motorways were soon overcrowded. Okay, party-wise this could have been interesting to be stuck on a motorway with thousands of people celebrating – but we certainly wouldn’t have made it to Berlin. Besides, I was at the very end of my civil service and had already enrolled at (West) Berlin’s Free University (Freie Universität) because that was the only place in Germany where I could learn Serbo-Croatian without having to learn Russian. Actually, from today’s perspective, I would have loved to learn Russian, but from the perspective of somebody growing up in the West in the 1980s…, I couldn’t learn a language without talking to the people. Getting a Russian visa would have taken three months, and it was always possible you wouldn’t get it. It was not possible to travel there spontaneously. If you had friends there, you couldn’t send them postcards without having them read by the police and so on. Yugoslavia, although a Communist state, was much better: you could go there and then leave again, and the people could come and visit you. But to come back to the point: I knew I would anyway head to Berlin soon, and that explains why I wasn’t in a big hurry in the early morning of November 10, 1989.
Still, with the Wall being open, many questions suddenly came up, like would I now be able to visit my only uncle, who was still living in East Berlin, without the awful controls at the Wall I had gone through so many times? And would it be maybe even possible in some near future to study in West Berlin and live in East Berlin? I was pretty well aware of the fact that in the East I could get a flat for a few Eastern Marks, which would have financially made my studies much easier.
I only made it to Berlin six weeks later. Of course, I had extensive telephone contacts to my mates there before. And the East had already started to travel West: the next morning we woke up and there were two Trabants parked in front of our house in Stuttgart. And in the city, people were applauding on the street when a Trabant drove by.
Why were you interested in Serbo-Croatian at that point?
Years before that, in 1985, I met a punk from Zagreb who let me participate in his record collection by making 10 copy tapes for me. They were first of all astonishing. Of the Socialist countries, I knew East Germany and a bit of Czechoslovakia. Also I knew quite a lot about Poland, because friends of mine were travelling there in the 1980s helping people after the putsch against the Solidarnosc movement.
That’s why I knew that cassette tapes were difficult to obtain in East Europe. In East Berlin you could somehow find them, but in the rest of the GDR not. In Yugoslavia, you could simply go to a shop and buy one. There, the problem was to find a tape recorder. But opposed to East Germany, you could simply let somebody travelling from the West buy it for you and bring it to Yugoslavia. The controls at the East German border were heavy. At the Yugoslav border, nobody would treat you in any comparably bad way, especially not as a German tourist. Yugoslavia had a kind of Communism different from the rest of East Europe. I brought many tape recorders to Yugoslavia.
Then, a year later in 1986, I met a woman from Zagreb who was also into Rock and Punk and New Wave. I fell in love with her, and we remained together until 1992 or so (we are still closely associated). I got deeply interested in learning Serbo-Croatian and understanding that country. It was an advantage to live in West Germany as there were masses of Yugoslavs living there as guest workers, so if you wanted to speak Yugoslav you didn’t have to go to Yugoslavia. You basically could go to your local Yugo-inn and talk to the cook or the waitress.
So, I got more and more into Yugo-things, not just into their local Rock culture, but also into history, politics… everything. I eventually did my thesis on the rise of the Yugoslav rock scene from 1961 to 1991. YU-Rock has always been one of my primary topics.
You said you had an uncle who stayed in East Berlin after the wall was built in 1961. Did you have a package relationship with him, where the family sent packages on a regular basis?
Not anymore, because he was a pensioner for years already when the Wall came down. So he was allowed to visit us in the West. Pensioners had a passport, and when they wanted to go to the West, they could. And if they wanted to stay in the West, the Eastern authorities even encouraged them to do so because, after moving. the West German state, not East Germany, had to pay their pension. We had these Western tube lines in Berlin that crossed through the East. Most of them were closed. At the only tube station working there, Friedrichstraße, elderly East Berliners entered the tube to go to the Western part of the city. You would notice them because they were all over 60 years old. They had those strange East German newspapers with only four or six pages and no advertisements in their pockets, and those strange, rather plastic-looking jackets. There was always a certain exchange of people between the East and the West. But of course after the Wall fell, all of that changed completely since it was possible from then on for everybody to go everywhere freely.
At three o’clock in the morning, after you were watching the fall of the Berlin Wall, what did you think was going to happen in terms of the future for East Germany?
For a bit of background, I was already a heavily politicized person at that point. I joined the Socialist Youth when I was 15 and became a member of the Social Democratic Party a year later. That was the 1980s, the time of the peace movement and the ecological movement. I am probably one of those typical red-green people: I see myself as a Socialist, but programmatically I am probably rather green.
In the 1980s, I followed the developments in the East as much as I could. I read the paper. Meanwhile I have been primarily working for 20 years at die tageszeitung (taz),, and that was one of the few journalistic sources that had alternative contacts in the East and was therefore able to report on things the other media wasn’t covering, like the Eastern opposition, alternative movements like “Neues Forum,” and so on. Taz also had a close connection to opposition from Poland and Romania who lived in West Berlin and contributed to our paper. Following their discussions, I was enthusiastic that some kind of democratic, socialist, leftist variant of society would be possible in the East. The idea that a coalition of social democrats and civic activists in the East could win also derived from that perspective.
Democracy was very tangible in the East right after the regime collapsed. During a concert tour of the GDR with my band in early 1990, I saw village people discuss the constitutional draft, which was available at every village state-run shop. My hope was that it would be possible, after toppling the Communist regimes in the East, to restore society to what it legally was already for so long: a democratic socialist society without the control of any party and its repressive apparatus. We would then see how far that would develop and change Germany, Europe, the world.
The tour that you took, when did that take place?
That was late February/early March 1990, right before the first (and last) free elections in the GDR’s history. The funny thing is that tour was already planned in 1988. We were in contact with a Ska band in the GDR and already made arrangements with the Communist youth organization in East Berlin that was responsible for cultural exchange with the West. The original plan was to do it on October 7, 1989: a joint concert of East and West Berlin Ska bands with Ska bands from East Berlin and Leipzig under the name “Berliner Gesamtskafestival” (literally: Berlin Ska United Festival” — that name was meant to play with the word Gesamtberlin that was more or less prohibited in the East as the leaders there insisted on the existence of two German nations). A follow-up concert with the Eastern bands in the West was planned, too. The whole infrastructure already existed – but then, in early October 1989, the East closed its borders. But only a month later, after the Wall had come down, the first independent booking agency of East Germany was immediately founded by Ebi Fischel. He ran “Insel der Jugend” (Island for Youth), a youth club in Treptower Park in Berlin legally owned by the Communist youth, but it was doing its own stuff for some time. Fischel organized this tour, and he must have done the organization in the course of a month. It was perfect.
So you went all over East Germany. You were in a bus with an East German band?
Yes, with the guys from “Michele Baresi” from East Berlin, and with my band, “Blechreiz” from West Berlin. We did 19 gigs in 21 days. We went to Rostock-Lichtenhagen where, later, the first pogroms took place. We played at a youth club, and the audience was this typical European mix of sub-cultures: Hippies, Gothics, a few Punks and Skinheads… and many who tried to look like them. From a Western perspective, they were all dressed in the wrong clothes. I mean, getting brands was difficult. It was even difficult in West Germany, too, because there was no Internet at that time – but still, you could find shops selling Doc Martens boots, Fred Perry shirts, and all the subcultural clothes from England in the big cities. Not so in the East. As well politically, the audiences at our first tour through East Germany were completely mixed: right-wing skinheads, reggae people, new wavers… but literally all were discussing politics. Not just in the big cities like Leipzig or Dresden, but also in Rudolstadt, a shitty little place near the German border, consisting of only a bunch of houses and a youth club.
Who showed up there?
The same mixed bunch I mentioned before, but the countryside version. You could see the same kind of audience even in the Black Valley, in Dresden, where they didn’t have access to Western television. In this Schwarze Tal (Black Valley), you could see Western styles just as good as those people who had access to Western television.
They got a second carbon copy.
Which I found lovely because I was alternative enough not to get myself original Doc Martins but rip-offs. I was very much sympathizing with those people. And I loved their way of talking about politics. People who usually wouldn’t be into anything were deeply interested in what was going on.
Were you shocked at all about the right-wing skinheads?
No, not in early 1990. They were there, but they were not the issue at that point. That changed later that year, when the whole political discussion in East Germany got nationalized – when “We are the people” was changed to “We are one people” — but at that point, no. I would have noticed because, at that time, I was an active member and even a founder of Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) in Germany, an organization that originally came from New York, where there were a lot of Gay skins who later on were very active in the Gay skinhead movement. SHARP came from the US to England via Roddy Moreno, the bass player of The Oppressed who did some gigs in the United States in the mid-1980s. It was 1986-87 when we started hearing about that. Everybody who was into punk or reggae and had short hair and liked boots completely flipped on it. It was an opportunity to clean our scene of right-wingers. When the right-wing skinhead thing became dangerous in the East in the second half of 1990, we already played under the SHARP logo, the Trojan helmet of Trojan Records, the British label that first imported reggae into Europe.
SHARP was, in Germany, a pretty aggressive campaign involving 16-20 bands. The goal was to oust right-wingers from our concerts. The moment any right arm went up, we stopped playing. We didn’t play at all when there were right-wing signs, right-wing clothes or brands, or right-wing behavior. I remember a gig in Rostock where we had fifty of those guys who were constantly provoking. I hate calling those people skinheads, but they call themselves skinheads (people who don’t realize that “skinhead” is a subculture derived from Caribbean immigrants in Britain shouldn’t use that word anyway). I think we stopped the gig 15 times.
And when you stopped the gig, the expectation was that the crowd would eject these people?
Yes. We talked to them and said, “You are the ones who are disturbing this concert. If you want to listen to our music, then stop your behavior.” There were 10 of us in the band, including tattooed skinheads. And whenever a right-wing provocation came up, we simply put our instruments down. After the gig, the fattest of those right-wingers came to the bar where we stood. We thought there could be immediate physical trouble. But instead, he said, in this strange mix of Berlinerisch (Berlin accent) and North German from the coast, “You are leftist parasites, but you’re doing great music.”
It was 1993-94 when we had the scene cleaned up of fascists. I’ve done 10-12 gigs a year in the last few years. There are almost no right-wingers. I haven’t seen a single right-winger at any Ska or Punk concert in the East or in the West for years. They seem to have understood that this is not their music.
And developed their own music…
Yes, they are trying to do hip-hop now. This misunderstanding, using Black culture without understanding that they are doing it, seems to be a continuing pattern with right-wingers. Obviously, they cannot develop their own culture.
This Ska band you traveled with, what was their background? How long had they been around? Did they talk about how hard it was to do gigs in East Germany at that time?
For them, it was relatively easy because the East German state couldn’t really understand what Ska was. It was certainly not negative: it was somehow Black, related to reggae, to Third-World liberation movements, to migration. They also knew that The Specials and bands like that were into unions and stuff. On our side, in Blechreiz, I was the only one with an Eastern background due to my father. The rest were typical Westerners, including West Berliners, who were really poorly informed about what was happening in the East. They were not interested in it. Oliver Frohn, the guitar player of Michele Baresi, told them that they had to play in front of a committee consisting of their music teacher from the grammar school, the local cultural functionary of the Party, somebody from the city administration, and two strange-looking guys who were probably secret service. They had to play three songs. Then they got a certain grade that meant they could play in certain venues for certain money. The astonishment on the Western side was immense .
You mentioned that the elections in March 1990 were a complete surprise to you. You thought that Neues Forum and Buendnis (Bündnis) 90 would do much better, and then they got almost no votes.
The people voted for the bananas. They even voted for the promise of the bananas, which I don’t mean to sound as bitter as what part of the West German Left meant by it. The arrogance toward the East Germans, and not only by Leftists in West Germany following 1990, was racist, if you can call that racism. Contrary to my Western mates, I pretty much understood what happened with the East Germans. If you deprive people of wealth and then, out of a sudden, show them the wealth of other people, for understandable reasons they will react differently than people who grew up with the means to consume whatever they want whenever they want. The Western side pretty much ignored this lack of wealth, of consumer goods like tape cassettes, records, blue jeans in the East.
My father was probably a good teacher in that respect. When I was a “leftist hotshot” at like 16 or 17, he asked me, “Son, have you ever lived in a dictatorship?” I had to admit, “No, father, I haven’t.” And then he said, “Shut up if you haven’t lived through that. And watch closely how people behave who grew up and socialized in such surroundings because you can’t really judge that from the inside.” That really made me think.
Yes, we were shocked when the conservatives won the elections in GDR in 1990. Believe me or not, this democratic civil society, street-mass feeling was really tangible in the East, and it was not just in the alternative circles. There was a window of opportunity — that’s probably the term they would use now — for something different in the East.
When do you think that window closed?
Probably around the elections. If West Germany had accepted the East German passport, it basically would have meant closing the border to immigrants from the East. It would also have meant saying that “you’re a country, we’re a country, and now we’ll start talking as Europeans.” Maybe the East would have had another chance to be well off, and maybe that wasn’t possible because of nationalism (I don’t mean nationalism in the most negative sense, but the feeling that you belong to each other because you’re somehow called German). Obviously the Austrians and the Swiss also speak German. Fortunately for the Swiss, nobody for ages got the idea that they should be incorporated into a German state. And with the Austrians we had this experience from 1938 to 1945 that didn’t really work out! Today most people in Germany and Austria are of the opinion that it’s quite nice to share parts of culture and one language – but we don’t have to make one state, and it would be easier if we all lived in one state called the European Union.
It would have been an interesting project to accept that East Germany, due to occupation and the Communist regime, had developed in a different way than the West. This would have made it possible to openly talk about similarities and differences – and avoid many of the misunderstandings that are now still playing a certain role in today’s German discussions. In 1989-90, we could have approached things from another angle, from the angle of accepting the differences amongst people from the East and the West rather than simply incorporating them into our own Western way of doing things.
In the United States, reunification is portrayed as inevitable – the national sentiment expressed from moving from “we are the people” to “we are one people” on the one hand and a desire for consumer goods immediately on the other hand. This inevitability papers over all the interesting alternatives of 1989. But I hear from you that unification as it happened wasn’t necessarily inevitable…
I would certainly go with the second point. Showing people wealth the whole time without letting them have a share in it has effects, and that was the point when the people transformed into one people. Besides that, East Germany is in very many historical aspects not a part of West Germany. One could now discuss Thuringia as a special case, or Saxony as a special case. But before the creation of the GDR, people from Prussia, Brandenberg, and so on lived differently than people in Bayern or Baden-Würtemberg. Prussia was a state much longer than any united Germany, and it formed people long before 1948 when the GDR was founded. It’s not only due to 40 years of communism that East Germans on up until today know that they are not south-west Germans and that they are not from Hamburg. Ostalgie is still a mass movement: it is rather cultural than political, but it shows there are still many differences. If you go to the countryside around Stuttgart, if you go the countryside around Berlin, you feel those differences and you see those differences. For the latter, you don’t even have to leave your car.
If someone developed the ability to give the Easterners access to consumer goods without destroying the East’s economies, East Germany would not be deindustrialized today. The “Treuhand” — the Western state institution to privatize the GDR’s economy after unification in 1990 — closed down many firms that absolutely had a chance on the market. The first eco-fridge was produced in East Berlin, and promoted by Greenpeace. It was developed in the early 1990s by an East Berlin company, and Greenpeace tried to make a national campaign to make people buy it. But Treuhand didn’t go for that: They closed down the firm that had just made a major development that is the technical basis for all the eco-fridges on this planet. NARVA bulb production absolutely had a chance. Treuhand closed down an enormous factory that had, to that point, successfully produced and sold bulbs for 80 years. NARVA was basically crushed by its West German competitors. Many economic mistakes were actually made because of this thinking that we were one people. But one part of those people were profiting from that fact and the other not.
What about all the abandoned buildings and cars in East Germany because many people just voted with their feet by leaving.
Many came back after 1990. Coming from our alternative cultural and political circles, I would have left East Germany as long as the Communists were in power because it was absolutely senseless trying to discuss anything with them. The people in power in the East til 1989 were, from my Left perspective, the worst thing that could have happened to any progressive movement. The terrorists of the 1970s in the West (like the Red Army Faction) and the regimes of the Communists in the East were the worst possible things that could have possibly happened to the West German Left, of which I supposed myself to be a part. Well, worse is always possible, but that was bad enough. When the Communist regime fell, and in this short spring of democracy in East Germany, there were many people going back to their Leipzig and Dresden places. I keep meeting, especially in Saxony, people who went back and are still over there. Very nice people, very interesting. They’ve got loads of stories to tell. And some of them are still very active.
This voting with their feet: I’d be the last person to defend East Germany as a system, but as a country…
What has been preserved? What is left from East Germany as a separate tradition?
That is really a subject of research. You’ve got this whole Ostalgie, and there’s a certain amount of prejudice left on both sides. I think I read that some 40 percent of West Berliners still don’t go to the East – and vice-versa. Each year they come out with research on this, and every time it’s absolutely shocking. The westerners still think that the East is somehow a strange place.
My daughter is 20. She went to school in one of the richest parts of West Berlin, in Zehlendorf. She had classmates, children born in 1993-94, who said that they would never go to East Berlin – but they were constantly going to Friedrichshain, Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg without knowing that these were former parts of East Berlin. They never looked at the map. For them, East Berlin was the skyscrapers of Hellersdorf and the tenement houses of the upper parts of Pankow. And there are quite a lot of Easterners who don’t go to the West and who think Westerners are greedy and too consumption-oriented. Some former East Germans will also tell you that it was possible to travel everywhere in Communist times and even drive a BMW. A few years ago, an elderly person really made me angry with this kind of insanity. At a certain point, I said, “Are you actually telling me that my whole East German family was too stupid to understand how the system was actually functioning so they left either because of a misunderstanding or because of their own stupidity?”
There’s a revival of East German products, which is partly done by Western firms who buy the brands, like washing powder, and basically put two brands on the market that are exactly the same product. But they sell it on the eastern market under the old Spee brand while in the west they sell it under Persil or something like that. There are still two kinds of traditional hand creams: Nivea and Florena. My sister, like me, was born and grew up in southwest Germany with an East German father. She has lived now in Brandenburg for 10 years. She still talks about the fact that in southwest Germany every village has like seven bakeries, and usually there are 12 kinds of bread. In Brandenburg, 24 years after the Wall came down and 23 years after reunification, they still have only two or three kinds of bread, she says.
Now, that is due to a tradition that’s probably older than East and West Germany – but my sister says as well that people in the Eastern region where she now lives are not as friendly as the people where we are from. The Saxonians are an exception: they behave like south Germans. But Brandenburgers? You know what’s the greatest compliment a Brandenburger can give? “Not bad.” I remember Bosnian refugees living in Brandenburg villages in the 1990s. Bosnians lived in Yugoslavia, a Communist country like GDR – but they are are south Europeans and when they have a drink and the music is playing they hug each other. Brandenburgers drink, too – but they don’t hug. They even do a handshake from a distance. Culturally, areas east of the Elbe didn’t belong to medieval Germany but were incorporated and Germanized in a process called “east colonization.” This border is much older. People here became Protestant much earlier than in West Germany. There’s almost no Catholic element. In the area where I grew up near Heidelberg, every second village is Catholic. There are loads of synagogues still standing in the villages, and the guestworkers have a strong influence. So I’m used to being surrounded by Spaniards, Portuguese, Yugoslavs, Turks, and so on. In East Germany, it was unusual to even have a Bulgarian or Polish neighbor, although Bulgaria and Poland were also in the Eastern bloc for 40 years before 1989. Not to mention having a Vietnamese friend…
There are many places connected to East German history here, from really stupid to really interesting. There’s Hohenschönhausen, the prison of Stasi, and the Stasi museum where their central headquarters were located. There’s also some kind of GDR consumers museum where you can see all of the East German brands being presented in a pretty positive way. At the time, of course, consumers of those brands before 1989 would have rather bought different Western brands. They became interesting only when alternatives also came on the market.
A lot of the street names are the same. Was there a campaign to try change any of those?
Many have been changed! For instance, they changed the name of Dimitroffstraße to Danziger Straße, which I find completely idiotic, because Georgi Dimitrov certainly has a story in Berlin. Since he was on trial for burning down the Reichstag in 1933, he’s a part of European, German, and Berlin history. Gdansk is also part of that history but there really was no reason to change the name of that street. On the other hand you’ve got Erich-Weinert-Strasse. Weinert was absolutely discussable: he was a fighter against fascism but a Stalinist and dedicated follower of the Communist regime as well. Ernst Thälmann, whose name is still attached to a park here in Prenzlauer Berg, is actually somebody I don’t like. If he, the boss of the Communist Party before 1933, would have beaten Hitler, he would have become Germany’s Stalin. As well, Thälmann ran this whole idiotic Sozialfaschisten campaign against social democracy and the liberals that eventually led to Hitler taking over power with his right-wing allies. I would have rather left Dimitroffstraße and talked about Weinert and Thälmann. But no discussion of that sort ever happened.
Dimitrov is Bulgarian, so he’s easy to get rid of. The others are German.
That would be a completely wrong approach to European history. How about “Clayallee,” named after U.S. General Lucuis D. Clay, the former commander of the U.S. forces in West Berlin, or “Besarinplatz,” which got its name from former Soviet commander Nikolai Bersarin? To make somebody more important because he’s called Schmidt, although that Schmidt hasn’t done anything interesting but to forget about the guy with the “ov” at the end who’s been more important? It would be pretty anti-Prussian as well, because the Prussians were pretty flexible on that point. Hallesches Tor in Prussian times was called Belle-Alliance-Platz. Französische Vorstadt is not just called “French suburb” because of some joke but because it was full of Frenchies at some point in history – French Protestants, Huguenots. I haven’t felt that the discussion of street renamings in the 1990s was driven by nationalism. It was about which Communists we could leave on the street signs and which ones we couldn’t. It was often very illogical.
Who made those decisions?
They were done locally. The street namings are done by the districts and by the communes: neighborhood councils, city councils, or village councils. The outcomes are visible in many places where Social Democrats or Left Party (former Communists) were in power where basically all the Rosa-Luxembourg-Straßen and Karl-Kneiblicht-Straßen are still called the same. In places where conservatives took over, however, they changed things . You can see elements of real German unification as well: there are quite a lot of Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße in West Germany now, but again, in areas where the Left was rather strong.
You mentioned that there was a prevailing West German attitude of arrogance toward East Germany that you pushed back against.
It was an arrogance based on a lack of interest, a lack of empathy and a complete lack of knowledge. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re not interested and if you’re not empathic, you won’t become knowledgeable.
Have you seen any improvements?
Yes, the improvement is that the East Germans have become as stupid as the Westerners. It’s a bit like gender mainstreaming: instead of humanizing us all, it abolishes the female. I just don’t understand why anyone’s in favor of it. To come back to East and West: I have the feeling that East Germans had a very nice, shy approach in the early 1990s, and I really loved them for that. Westerns would go into a room saying aloud, “Here I am, what’s up guys!” That’s not as nice as someone coming in and saying, “Hello, my name is so-and-so, and what are you actually doing here?” Meanwhile, this kind of “Ossi” has become rare. You still find it with people from the civic movements, in the circles of Protestants in East Germany.
I’m a former Protestant and now a free thinker, but in East Germany I probably would have remained a Protestant Christian. My niece was baptized a few years ago in a small place in Brandenburg. The pastor was my age, with longish hair and a guitar under his arm. He’d just come from three other churches where he’d already done services. He was in a great mood. He took out his guitar and started playing. This church was a small, shaggy building, not in good condition, not well-heated. He realized that he’d forgotten to ring the bell outside (the bell tower was actually a building outside with the bell hanging inside because they never had the money to build a real tower). So he asked two of the children to outside and ring the bell. The children were like, “Wow, we don’t know how to do that, but we’re certainly going to try.” It was very human, very warm, very connected to the people. In West Germany, most pastors treat their profession like bureaucrats: they come in and do their services in the morning and then they go home.
Has the West German attitude been passed on to the next generation, or do you see a change in the young people who don’t even think of East-West?
There are a lot of people who are “Wossis,” East-Westerners. My brother-in-law, for instance: his mother comes from today’s Poland, from Katowice, but his father is a complete south West German from Palatine. He was not in touch with any Eastern things until the early 1990s. But he’s an engineer and he got a job early on in Chemnitz, former Karl-Marx-Stadt, which qualifies him as one of my informers. For instance, on Fridays, if you go from the East to the West that’s cool – but if you go from the West to the East you’re fucked, because there are too many commuters, Easterners working in the West who go home for the weekend. On Sunday evenings, it’s the other ways around. People who commute for years can often name East-West differences very clearly. These differences can be disturbing or they can be useful. If you know that the milk is cheaper or the food is better in a certain place, you get them there, and if the beer is cheaper in the other place then you get it there. Commuters also know differences that are are not necessarily East Germany versus West Germany but Mecklenburg as opposed to Brandenburg or Schleswig-Holstein.
There’s the expression that West Germany was an “elbow society,” where people used their elbows to get ahead. Is eastern Germany becoming an elbow society itself?
Yes, but the assumption that West Germany was an elbow society is wrong. West Germany was actually a pretty social capitalist society: Rheinischer Kapitalismus they called it. Now the whole of Germany is developing, at least partly, in the direction of an elbow society. This is a process that we have in all of Europe and worldwide. I’m a West German in the end, and I’m aware that I was born and grew up in the richest country in Western Europe. When I was a teenager we went on small motorbikes to France to buy cigarettes because a packet cost 1.5 Marks in France compared to 4 Marks in Germany. Today nobody in my area buys anything in France – but the French buy things in Germany since it’s now cheaper here. Basically, the money of the rich West has been invested in East Germany. In 1990, both Germanys ceased to exist. That’s something that West Germans probably didn’t understand at all. Most of them, up until today, think they are the winners. But since 1990 West Germany is no more. And the new, united Germany has been transforming ever since then.
We brought a delegation of western and eastern Germans to South Korea to talk about the social consequences of reunification. The western Germans were so arrogant. On a panel, the West Germans would say something about East Germany, and the East Germans would say, “That’s not the way it was.” And the West Germans would say, “Yes it is, we have friends in East Germany who told us so.” And the East Germans were sitting right there!
West German arrogance: it still exists in that awful form where you can’t tell the difference between arrogance and sheer stupidity. Maybe you presented to the South Koreans exactly what you wanted to show. But next time perhaps you could bring different West Germans.
And these West Germans were specialists in conflict resolution!
Occupying a country and forbidding the occupied to talk about themselves is also a form of conflict resolution.
You said your family originally came from Silesia. When was the first time you visited Poland?
I visited Poland for the first time in 1988 with a delegation of Socialist Youth tour going to Auschwitz. By accident, we stayed a night in Wroclaw. That’s where my grandfather went to school, and the village my family is from is 18 kilometers away from the city. Now I’m going to Wroclaw twice a year. I know the family that lives in the house of my great grandfather, in a place now called Czarnow and used to be called Zaumgarten, nearby a small place called Kobierzyce, which used to be called Koberwitz. The family who moved into “our” house after 1945 had been itself expelled from Ukraine by Stalin. Our communication is easy because even though I don’t speak Polish, people who originally come from Ukraine usually understand Serbo-Croatian. Besides, my father learned Russian in school, so when we go together, he uses Russian and I speak Croat. One woman in the village worked as a nurse in West Germany for 20 years so her German is pretty stable. She helps when the communication gets stuck.
I’ve been trying for two years already with a bunch of people from Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic – and the famous Youth Initiative for Human Rights from the Western Balkans as our partner — to connect Balkan youth to the reconciliation work in the German-Polish and the German-Czech border areas and eventually, to put this reconciliation work into a larger European frame, to connect to German-French youth work. It’s really astonishing how little people in Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic know about the Balkans, even after this bombardment of media information in the 1990s. It’s even more astonishing how absolutely little the people from the West Balkans know about the history of ethnic cleansing in other parts of Europe . It produces some interesting effects when people with years of experience of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia see that what happened to my great-grandparents and to my grandparents. Actually my great grandparents where killed in 1945 in Western Prussia. They are in some mass grave. My great-grandparents were expelled – just like many ex-Yugoslavs in the 1990s. It’s really a liberating thing for people from the Balkans to show them that they are not alone with their experience of genocidal paranoia but that it has existed in Europe in many places.
What was your experience like in 1988 when you were part of the youth delegation?
We stayed in Wroclaw on our way to Katowice then to Auschwitz and to Krakow. Wroclaw was a dark hole. I knew a bit about opposition movements there, like the Orange Alternative. They noticed that the Communists were very fast to paint over opposition graffiti. So they made stencils with a dwarf on it, which created a huge problem for the Polish police because they couldn’t decipher what it meant, whether it meant something opposing their regime or not. It was absolutely unthinkable for the Communists that something, some symbol, some graffiti simply meant nothing. They had the same problem with rock and roll music. Wop bopaloobop a wop bam boom: it doesn’t mean anything! But the Communist never got that. Wroclaw was a dark place where the only thing you could get to eat were some really fatty sausages that were not tasty at all. Coming from a refugee background, I knew that Polish sausages are supposed to be gorgeous. They are specialists with meat. Later I learned that Communist Poland was exporting all of its pork to finance the army and secret service. That’s why the Polish meat we got in Poland in 1988 was so bad.
Now Wroclaw has become beautiful. Even the skyscrapers in the suburbs today look like something. I love the way Poland has developed in the last 20 years. Whenever I’m depressed by the Euro crisis and the continuing Balkan crisis, I go to Poland and see how people are rebuilding their houses and putting up new roofs. It feels good.
For years already, I’ve regularly worked in Krzyzowa, the former Kreisau, in the German-Polish conciliation center. There, I’ve met quite a lot of these historical actors of the 1980s. As a journalist, I am of course very interested in the whole Gazeta Wyborcza thing. But I also met village people from Krzyzowa, which has only about 90 inhabitants. The local priest was, in the 1980s,one of the central people bringing German alternatives and Polish opposition together with politicians from both sides. That eventually culminated in the Reconciliation Mass that Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Helmut Kohl held in Krzyzowa in 1989.
I’m working on my Polish now. Eventually I want to go to the village my grandparents came from and speak to the people who are living there now in their language. That would be a breakthrough.
I want to understand the connections you had with the music scene in Yugoslavia. You said you started out with a guy you met from Croatia.
For me, he was not from Croatia then, but clearly from Yugoslavia. Even if a lot of people won’t believe it any more, Croatia and Serbia and Bosnia just wasn’t an issue in the 1980s. I don’t remember any discussions about that before 1989/90. After I met that guy at the seaside in 1985, I got interested in Yugoslavia. I listened to the cassettes this guy from Zagreb had given to me again and again and read every piece of information I could get. I was just 18 and recently got my driver’s license. I bought a cheap car and started to drive 1,000 kilometers regularly on the weekend. Instead of going to Heidelberg or Mannheim, where the discotheques cost 50 Marks for the evening, I’d go to Zagreb and pay 20 Marks for everybody. It was pretty cool to come back to school or to the factory, where I was also working at the time, and say, “Where have you been?” One person would say they’d gone to Frankfurt, another to Mannheim. And I’d say, “I was in Zagreb.”
And it wasn’t just Zagreb. Hardcore punk, for instance, has had an extremely good infrastructure throughout Europe. Small hardcore punk bands that have one record with two songs on it would play at youth centers in Vinkovci in Slovenia or Pula on the Istrian coast. And you could really follow them by hitchhiking. By simply following the bands you’d go all over Yugoslavia.
So I wasn’t just saying “I was in Zagreb over the weekend.” I’d say, “I was in Dugo Selo, which is about 50 kilometers from Zagreb in the direction of Belgrade.”
And they’d be like, “Zagreb? Dugo Selo? What the fuck are you talking about?”
People were really astonished. But actually, it was all very easy: After school or after work on Fridays, I would sit in my car with a mate, drive 1,000 kilometers, have a good sleep, go to a bar, come home at 5 in the morning, sleep again, have a great breakfast and drive back. And arrive there right on time to go to school or work.
The nightlife in Zagreb was much better than in Heidelberg or Frankfurt, places nearby where I also could have spend my weekends. But why should I? Yugoslavia was much better until the emergence of nationalism.
Nationalism for me began when I got on a train in winter to visit my girlfriend. I wore a leather jacket, looked like a typical Bierpunk or Dolfpunk (village punk), how we called ourselves then. My parents would never have allowed me to color my hair green or red. So, I l just kept my hair the color it was and wore clothing that you could use at work. We were the kinds of punk that could go to work as well, not the kind with the Mohawks. Skinheads were the Mods who didn’t have the money for cheap clothing so they copied their Black neighbors who didn’t have money either but were cooler than the others.
So, I got on that train and there are a bunch of guys obviously talking Serbo-Croat. I don’t remember when I mentioned that I was going to “Zagreb, Yugoslavia.”
They said, “Zagreb? Then you are going to Croatia, not to Yugoslavia.”
I wasn’t even aware that there was a difference.
“Zagreb is the capital of the Republic of Croatia and that’s a part of the Yugoslav Federation,” they explained. “But only because they force us to.”
I asked, “Who?”
And they answered, “The Serbs and the Communists.”
“Right,” I said. “I’m Badish, but I have to live in the republic of Baden-Wurttemberg because the Swabians forced me to. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t want to be a part of a state that has Stuttgart as the capitol. My capitol is Karlsruhe.”
“No, they didn’t force you,” they said.
“Of course they did,” I said. “First of all, they invaded us twice in the last century.”
“But you can’t compare that!”
“Why can’t I compare that?!”
I haven’t a clue how the scene in the train ended.
The second story involves us and a bunch of Zagreb punks, probably a few from Belgrade because the connection to Belgrade was very close. The bands were basically touring the whole time together, like Električni Orgazam and Prljavo Kazalište. The fans knew each other; the musicians knew each other. Bosnians got introduced later because their scene was functioning differently, which is probably due to the mountainous geography of Bosnia. We were walking around the railway station in Zagreb and an old drunkard was singing a song. My girlfriend says, “He’s singing a fascist song. Why the fuck is the police not arresting him?” I said, “Why the hell should the police be interested in some local drunk idiot. Let the asshole sing. Isn’t it a great development that this fascist drunkard is allowed, in a liberal socialist society, to sing his stupid songs outside and we are allowed to be angry about it? We don’t need the police to handle it. Let’s go and tell him to please stop singing. Let’s sing a partisan song. Let’s be louder.” So I felt this was a part of liberation.
What year was that?
That was in 1989. I was really interested in reading everything I could get about Yugoslavia at that time. I didn’t feel any harassment or danger. I would have thought — and nobody in my circles would have thought — that this would eventually lead to a war, the break-up of the country, and eventually the destruction of our cultural scene.
When did you first get a sense that that might happen?
Probably around 1990. We were following Federal Prime Minister Ante Marković, and we were pretty sure that this government would solve the economic crisis. Milan Kučan, the president of Slovenia, was supposed to be a normal politician, a democratic reformer, a follower of Marković and I’m still angry that he broke Slovenia away from Yugoslavia. But, looking at the aggressive politics Milošević and his bunch in Belgrade and Serbia started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was probably no alternative to that. In 1990 we felt that there was a problem, that Milošević was a problem, but it was more like, “What the fuck is happening over there?!” It was only when Franjo Tudjman and his HDZ came into office in Croatia after the first free elections that it became dangerous. Everyone in my circles was voting for the reformists, so we were completely shocked that the HDZ got nearly 60 percent of the vote in the April 1990 elections in Croatia.
In the summer of 1990, my girlfriend and I were at the Yugoslav seaside. People who were neighbors at camping places and weekend houses for decades, who were barbequing together, whose children grew up together, started quarrelling on the basis of “I am from Croatia, and you are from Serbia.” We just left. We got ourselves an InterRail pass and went to Spain. But we were completely sure that we could go back to the Yugoslav seaside the next summer and this whole problem would have disappeared.
But it just got worse.
Yeah. Worse and worse and worse and worse and worse.
Did it affect the music scene? Did you see bands divide along ethnic lines?
A few. Rock and roll and especially punk rock have proved to be immune to nationalism. But groups like Zabranjeno Pušenje, which is probably the most important Bosnian new wave band from the 1980s, not the biggest but the most important, split in two. Their bass player, Emir Kusturica –
Yes, and one of their singers, Nele Karajlić who is now singing with Kusturica in this goddamn No Smoking Orchestra, which is doing nice songs about Radovan Karadžić! Zabranjeno Pušenje Sarajevo means the guys who stayed, the guys who stayed when the others, who got advanced warning because of their connections to the Yugoslav military, left Bosnia without telling their mates. That would have been for me enough reason not to talk with that person anymore in my life. But the Sarajevans made contact with the assholes in Belgrade again right after war ended in 1996. They’re even inviting them to their concerts now when playing Belgrade.
Most bands didn’t break up. A few got involved playing for their respective governments. On the Croatian side, this was in a way even understandable because in the end, Croatia got attacked. The war was in this country. Quite a lot of bands that I love, like Psihomodo Pop, played really ugly songs like “Croatia has to win” and stuff. On the other hand, as I said, when a war is imposed on your country…
One of my punk pacifist friends from Zagreb joined the army as a volunteer but refused to carry a weapon. He said, “They’re attacking my neighborhood.” I don’t know how I’d react in that situation. I would probably not hate Russians or Poles or Czechs or Chinese if they attacked Prenzlauer Berg, but I would certainly defend my part of the city by my means: social defense. The reason I don’t want to use weapons is not out of principle. I’m not religious, and I’m not a moralist. I simply have noticed that defending Bosnia destroyed 60 percent of the Bosnian houses. Even if they won the war – I don’t suppose this to be any victory. If, instead of fighting, all of Bosnia went on a mass strike in 1991, let the army in but didn’t give them anything — no food, no cunts, no coffee, nothing — that would be my way to defend the country. Turn all of the street signs around. Burn the maps. Make them confused and make them really uncomfortable. That’s the way I would defend my neighborhood.
On the Serbian side, unfortunately there were a few people who really played for the regime. Bora Djordjević , the great cynical rock poet of the late 1970s and 1980s, transformed himself, at least for some time, into a Chetnik. My sources always said that his problem was addiction to heroine and alcohol: he would have probably played for the Tsar or God or Worldwide Anarchy as long as they had yellow powder for him. The band Galija was actually quite a nice, soft, rock-ballad sort of band. I liked them – before they started playing for Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia. On the other hand, the anti-war-band Rimtutituki was formed by members of the Partibrejkers, Električni Orgazam, and Ekatarina Velika. “Mir Brate Mir” – “Peace, Brothers, Peace” — was their song, produced by Radio B92. In a way, the music scene survived during the Milošević years better in Serbia than the music scene survived under the regime of Tudjman in Croatia. There you were in a double conflict: attacked by the Chetniks and your own nationalists. In Serbia you could clearly define the enemy – Milošević and his group — and play against this enemy.
Has the music scene come back together with certain groups playing all around?
Absolutely. It’s the same phenomenon we see in football and other sports. Slovenia and Croatia and Serbia are too small for successful national leagues – and for a rock-and-roll scene. A band singing in Serbo-Croatian will always have to have an audience wherever Serbo-Croatian is spoken. Yugo-Rock was also big in Bulgaria. As the Yugoslavs were listening to Radio Luxembourg, the Bulgarians were listening to Radio Belgrade. So, Yugoslav music – not just rock but folk as well – is also a legend there. On that legend, narratives are built. It’s really funny that in Slovenia, this Yu-rock band Zaklonišče Prepeva is singing in Serbo-Croatian, basically following the lead of Buldožer, the godfathers of Yugoslav punk who where also from Slovenia. In the 1970s it was the only Slovenian band that sang in Serbo-Croatian – and they did it because they wanted to take over the whole Yugoslav market with their music. Even kids from the generation of my daughter or a bit older, as they are getting into that scene, are aware that the great bands played all around the Balkans, whether Macedonian bands like Leb i Sol or Slovenian bands like Pankrti.
I said before that my subculture was destroyed by the war, but that’s not the whole truth. Actually, it got marginalized from the mainstream until, by the end of the 1980s, it was back into subculture. And there, far away from the charts, punk, rock, avant-garde, and so on actually developed pretty well. Yugonostalgija is a reactionary term. I prefer the term Yugo-sphere, which people told me that Tim Judah coined. Have you heard about the band Kultur Shock from Seattle? Their singer is Gino Banana, from Sarajevo, who transformed himself from a handsome pop singer into a tattooed punk and got himself a Bulgarian, a Russian, and a Serb to play crossover Bosnian folk music. They are active worldwide, touring the United States, Europe, Japan… In a way, on the subcultural level, the Yugoslav rock scene is today much more famous than it used to be in the 1980s. Then it was a mass movement on the inside. But with mass refugees, the movement has moved around the world.
Of course, this was only possible thanks to the new technology. I remember carrying records, which I got cheaply in Zagreb or Belgrade because people were selling all kinds of shit for little money in the early 1990s. Carrying 20 LPs is really heavy! Today I’ve got like 8 gigabytes on my smart phone. When I need the second record from Bijelo Dugme in 1975 I send an email to Belgrade and a guy puts the MP3s in my Dropbox. There are YU-Rock Internet radio stations. A friend of mine from Sarajevo who lives in Australia, his hobby is to do a rock radio channel on the Internet for basically 24 hours with his playlists. I listen to Radio Chameleon from Tuzla, a local radio station on a stream here in Berlin.
There’s a book called The Seventh Republic by Ante Perković, a Croatian journalist, which is the history of the Yugoslav rock scene in crisis in the 1990s and 2000s. The last chapter is called “Ona se budi?” (“Is she waking up?”). The Yugoslav rock scene has out-survived all state institutions of Yugoslavia and become transformed into a globalized rock scene. Darko Rundek from Zagreb moved to Paris to escape the war. He is now back in Croatia. He still plays Paris, his record label is in Berlin, and he is performing all over the world. He was always in touch with what was happening in Yugoslavia. He was the musical editor of Radio Brod, an NGO on a boat that traveled around running a radio station. The whole coast from Montenegro up to Slovenia was listening to Radio Brod whenever they could get it. Unfortunately, they only had weak transmitters. Rundek now has a band consisting of Spaniards, Frenchies, and Ex-Yugoslavs. They are called Cargo Orchestra, and they are touring the whole of Europe. He started singing in French as well. This is internationalizing and bridging the European music scenes: the music came into Yugoslavia and now they are giving something back.
What is your connection to the scene these days? Are you playing?
Unfortunately not. My band stopped playing because we were getting older, having children, doing too much work, and so on. We got back together six years ago, did three years of touring through Germany: 12 gigs a year, only the ones we wanted, only one on the weekends, and only when everyone was available. My Yugoslav people were interested in it, but men in their mid-forties are just as neurotic as the way people talk about women. At the moment nothing is functioning. But I hope we play again. Fortunately, there are more and more good festivals and venues in the former Yugoslavia, and my generation is probably not going to die at 50, so we have time.
But I am following everything happening in the Balkans. Everybody who is interesting from former Yugoslavia sooner or later comes by here. My son is half-Bosnian. My neighbor here is from Pula, her daughter is Croat with a Montenegrin grandfather. The language of this house and of my neighborhood is traditionally Serbo-Croat and German, plus English, plus Russian. We were a squat in this building, and during the Balkan wars, there were quite a few deserters living here: one Albanian, two Serbs, we’ve still got one from Bosnia, a Croat. They all left their respective armies or didn’t even join them and came here. Living in a squat was cheap and you were well connected and you could get work and so on. I’m now doing tourist tours through Berlin, showing people the sites of the Yugoslav Berlin. I wrote and published a book, six years ago, about ex-Yugoslavs: painting portraits with the story of Yugoslav pop culture running through it.
My oldest friend is 86 living in Belgrade on the third floor of a skyscraper. She’s originally from Mannheim, West Germany — where I was born, too — and grew up and lived until her fortieth year in Jena, East Germany. Then she got married to a Belgrader and moved there. With her Yugoslav passport, she was, in the 1970s and 1980s, able to access the East as easily as the West. She simply went to the border, showed a red paper, and crossed the border. That woman has seen European history from a perspective few people have had. I did 15 hours of interviews with her, on camera. She’s an old lady. You have to let her talk. It’s an economic catastrophe for a journalist, but I think it will eventually produce a beautiful story with one person at the center who can connect Adolf Hitler to Slobodan Milošević. I don’t like comparing anybody to Adolf Hitler because there are few people who deserve that, including Pol Pot. But the way the Nazis destroyed the ultraliberal culture of the Weimar Republic, as Eric Gordy has pointed out, is very much comparable to the destruction of the cultural alternatives in Serbia during the Milošević era.
In my book about Ex-Yugos, it was most important for me to provide a counterpoint to the usual story of “Gastarbeiter”, migrant workers, which is only black and white: “they had to leave their villages, and they couldn’t leave with their families, and their children had to stay with the grandmothers” and so on. Actually among migrants from Ex-Yugoslavia in German, you find quite a lot of academics, good musicians, painters, people who live an absolutely good middle-class life: bilingual families with children who can learn other languages even faster.
One of my projects is to make a book about Yugo-Celebrities. The actor on German television’s greatest crime story, Miroslav Nemec, has a Yugo-background. Also Stipe Erceg, who played one of the terrorists in the television drama about the Red Army Faction. The president of the largest German NGO dealing with Africa doesn’t speak a word of Serbo-Croat even though his father was a factory worker from Yugoslavia who came to Germany as a guest worker, but he speaks Swahili pretty well. Wolfgang Neskovic, who just left the Left Party, a member of parliament, a former judge at the Constitutional Court who had made a ruling in 2000 that consuming drugs should be the right of every citizen by the constitution and by European law. His father is a construction worker from southern Serbia.
The book I published about Ex-Yugoslavs is built around 18 biographies. The oldest character had her sixtieth birthday when we had our interview. She came to West Berlin in 1968 to work for three months in order to finance her study of linguistics at the University of Zagreb. She’s originally from Split, and her mother is an illiterate from a rural village. She’s now a holder of the German Medal of Honor, has had a German passport for 20 years, and runs one of the most important cultural NGOs in southeast Europe, which does everything from running schools for four generations of Bosnian refugee children to organizing exhibitions of artworks of southeast European musicians, painters, sculptors and so on. She’s an extremely interesting woman, full of wisdom and knowledge, well connected to the refugee center around the corner and the German Federal Government as well. The youngest person I’ve interviewed is a girl from Bugojno who is came to Germany when she was seven as a refugee and only did her A-levels around the time of the interview. She’s very good at school, fluent in French and English and Spanish, somebody with a great career ahead of her. She lived in a hotel for a few years on the Yugoslav coast because that was the only place they could possibly live.
I’m still closely connected to Yugoslavia. My best man lives in Belgrade. I am in the former Yugoslavia at least twice a year. When NGOs and foundations bring groups of students, specialists and diplomats from Ex-Yugoslavia to Berlin, and I’m often invited to take them around the Yugosphere of Berlin and Germany. It’s still my principle interest, and it doesn’t look like I’m getting away from it. My best friends in Poland speak Serbo-Croat because they were anti-war volunteers in Croatia. My entrée into Poland, and my entrée into Spain and Portugal as well, are usually Ex-Yugoslavs who made their homes there and who speak those languages. I find this completely brilliant.
It’s an incredible story of the transformations Europe has gone through over the last 60-70 years that has taken large number of people from one part of Europe to another. In your case, your ancestors came from Poland, and you come back to Poland through Yugoslavia.
If the word “Europe-ize” exists, this is a nice way to Europe-ize.
Europe from below, if you will.
It connects my background in punk rock, which is a grassroots thing, with my political activities and, in the end, with my family, the people I love. That what’s it’s all about, isn’t it?
I’m curious about the mechanism by which people squatted this building and eventually got it legalized.
That was easy in the East. My neighbor is a former West Berlin squatter. If you squatted in West Berlin, you were immediately in trouble with the authorities, especially in the 1980s when Richard von Weizsäcker legalized existing squats but came down heavily on anybody else who occupied a flat or a stable or a doghouse. That was pretty dangerous. In East Berlin the situation was completely different. Every year since the 1960s, the universities of East Berlin, in Dresden or Leipzig, enrolled more students than they had places for the students to live. That included private housing: there was no market for that in the GDR. You either lived with family or you found a place in one of those fucked-up student houses. They were really not nice to live in, and there were few places. Or you organized something yourself. What intelligent people did was simply find an empty flat and move into it.
In the 1980s, with more and more people leaving East Germany, it became even more attractive because many of those who left were good craftsmen. I remember a squat in Dresden: the house was a shithole, completely broken down, not painted for 60 years, no windows. But then you entered the third floor of the third courtyard building – and found a newly built flat, with a great bathroom, everything functioning. You looked out the window and everything was a garbage hole. But the flat was like new. The guy left half-a-year before and left the key with a friend of mine. He said, “I’m probably not coming back. If I don’t come back it’s yours.” This house was actually occupied at one point in 1990 by a few maids from my faculty. Imagine that situation in 1990 – a room in West Berlin cost 400 Marks and a room in East Berlin was nothing. That’s pretty attractive for people who have a bit of courage.
Now, this was not always romantic. Some of the houses people moved into were empty for 10 years because the government had been planning to build a skyscraper there and then didn’t have the money. Everything inside was destroyed – the loos, the ovens, the windows. What I learned then, and this was repeatedly learned in Bosnia after the war, is that you can do a lot of things with a well-built stone building as long as the roof isn’t destroyed. As long as the roof keeps the rain away, the rest can rot as much as it wants but it won’t happen that quickly. If the roof is broken, however, the house falls apart in one winter. You can’t rebuild it. You have to break it down and build a new house.
So, the roof on the building we squatted was okay. The squatting started here and in another house on this street. The whole thing filled up with people in the course of one summer. When I moved in, I first got a letter from the East German Communal Flat Administration asking me to leave immediately. Then, the East German police came by, and told me the same. I had two days and then I’d be kicked out. Then, on the fifth day, a contract came by post. The flat cost 50 East German Marks for 60 square meters – the same size would have cost at least 400 West German Marks in West Berlin. Of course it was cold in the winter. We always had to fix something in winter, and the loos were often malfunctioning because they froze. But we never got into trouble with any authorities, that’s the point. The authorities were even happy with us squatting the house because we saved it. Without our repair work over those eight years, this house probably couldn’t have been renovated with all the money the city invested in the late 1990s.
We all got contracts. Since renovation, the house is owned by a social institution that is doing social work with young people who came in conflict with the law or with their parents. I think they have four or six flats here as well as their little shop of horrors, as we call it, where the social workers have their offices. We still have a Christian base community in the house, which has always been with us. They’ve got four floors in the back yard. They’re fundamentalists but not missionaries.
Social communication has always been a cornerstone of our community here. You can pretty much rely on the neighbors here. If you make a deal with them, the deal is cool. It was great. It’s still great. I do admit that I like the central heating we’ve had since renovation, and I like this beautiful, light-filled roof flat more than the 60 square meters on the third floor looking at the second backyard where I lived before. But what I most like now is that I’m living in a house with people I’ve had as neighbors for 20 years. They have my key, I’ve got their keys, which is practical if you forget to turn the light off or you want the heater to be turned on or someone needs a potato.
Is squatting still going on?
No, to my utter astonishment not at all. Even though the material situation is right for it. There’s quite a lot of empty buildings, especially so-called offices. Obviously quite a lot of the assholes who owe money here thought that we would have some kind of economic boom so they built these office buildings in which eventually nobody moves. At the same time, my daughter is now paying for her little flat in Neukölln, which is not exactly a fancy part of the city, approximately what I paid in West Berlin in the late 1980s. The prices are pretty high. There is not much work, not much paid work, but obviously people don’t have much political consciousness – which is a discussion that is ongoing in my circles at the moment.
Even among young anarchists, punks?
No, nothing is happening.
There must have been an Occupy movement here in Berlin.
Yes, but they only occupied squares and did their actions. Nobody came up with the idea to occupy a flat or an empty office building. It was only a group of senior citizens, who would have been thrown out of their premises in Pankow, that occupied their own senior citizens club. They’re obviously the only intelligent political people around here. Yesterday, I was having a discussion with a Yugoslav friend, a Berlin Gastarbeiter child now with a Croatian passport, and he said that social thinking was much more fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s than it is today. There might be something in that. But I don’t feel that the generation of my daughter is more stupid or anti-social than my generation. I think maybe it’s the older ones who don’t talk enough to the youngsters.
It also just might be changed circumstances and culture. I see that in the United States, for instance. Young people in the United States would rather move to the countryside. Their notion of doing something counter-cultural is often not within the city and abandoned property but rather outside the city.
Individually or collectively?
Sometimes collectively, but less so than say the 1960s. But there was a large squat movement in the 1980s in the United States, for instance in Philadelphia where I lived. It’s just not as strong today.
Same here. This is one of those rubber terms, individualization, but there is something in it. The idea that you can change your life together with other people seems to be more difficult to imagine than ever before. My daughter moves to Neukölln and notices that she’s got five Internet networks around her. We are using one Internet network here for 15 people, which means that I’m paying some 3 euros per month for DSL internet connection. Five networks in one house implies that those people are paying individually at least 20 euros for their flat rate alone. You don’t have to be a socialist to work together on this. On the contrary, a bit of economical thinking absolutely does it. But people are not able to communicate with each other. I’ve been sharing my car with my neighbor for eight years, and I shared with another colleague for ten years prior to that. All you have to do is talk to your neighbors and try to find sources you can share.
What once had been a collective enterprise is now seen as an entrepreneurial opportunity.
I even have a totally different concept of what entrepreneurship is. I had this great discussion with my band about why people do things. Our saxophone player, who did only ten years of school then worked all around the world carrying his saxophone with him. He eventually ended up as a truck driver in Argentina, falling in love with tango music and building up the first tango studio in Berlin. He’s been doing the Berlin tango festival every year, which always makes him bankrupt because he invites 78-year-old coke addicts from Buenos Aires who are the greatest tango musicians and dancers on the planet, but getting them here is actually far too expensive for the audience. He does it again and again anyway, so he must know how to finance it.
And this guy comes up to me and tells me that people basically do things because they think they can profit from it.
“In what terms do you mean?” I ask.
He says, “Well, materially.”
And I answer, astonished: “But you’ve been doing stuff for 25 years for exactly the opposite reason!”
Then I tell him about Karl Benz, the guy who invented the car. He actually did it in a garage near the village where I grew up. It’s now a museum. Benz’s father was a locomotive driver in the 1840s. Locomotive drivers in the 1840s didn’t get old. They usually died from lung infections because they were working in the open and you had to shovel coal and work hard and sweat a lot. The train was moving at 35 kilometers per hour, which was very fast for that time. The wind was blowing, and you got a cold and you died. The widow, Benz’s mother, worked as a cleaner in bourgeois households to finance her son’s schooling for 10 years at the gymnasium, which was the highest level of schooling you could get from that social background.
Ms. Benz’s plan was to get the boy into some state employee position: as a lawyer for the duke of Baden, for instance. But what did the asshole do? He went to engineering school. Engineers in the middle of the 19th century had the status of painters and sculptors today or people who do experimental music. Benz’s mother thought her son would never make any money. At least, after finishing that school, he could have gotten himself a job in some kind of manufacturing, something he could count on. But what does the asshole do? He starts constructing strange things. Then he developed the car and became a multimillionaire.
What seems to drive people is enthusiasm, their complete madness to want to do something. Occasionally, afterwards, that materializes into something you can make money on. Of course there’s Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but how many of those people have never become multimillionaires even though they’ve done similar things and come from a similar culture?
When I was here in 1990, I visited a huge squat in a former department store called “Tacheles”. What happened to that?
It became a famous flagship tourist spot. In the Café Zapata downstairs they had great bands from Buena Vista Social Club to Dr. Feelgood. But there were great conflicts between the people because one part wanted to commercialize it, another to keep it completely alternative, a third part only wanted to live their lives. Eventually it got privatized. The building is still there. The garden was taken away from them already a few years ago, which was basically the beginning of the end. In the late 1990s, the garden was a big space with sculptures made out of old East German cars. They had a Russian airplane, a MiG, standing in that garden along with illegally run coffee shops. It was very, very nice. First the garden was taken away from them, which basically destroyed the atmosphere. Then the project got ruined.
The building was once the local department store called Wertheim. The whole change in that part of the city around Oranienburger Tor is very, very interesting. It became really bourgeoisie. Fortunately we don’t have much of a bourgeoisie in Berlin because it’s too dirty for the real bourgeoisie here. I’ve done some travel reports for the economy daily Handelsblatt. Even editors from such bourgeois papers don’t go to Berlin. We have dog shit on the streets here, you know. And you can’t just go with your car to the department store and somebody opens your door and carries your stuff: you have to do everything yourself. So the real bourgeoisie doesn’t like us. Still, look at this Oranienburger Tor. In 1884, right before the revolution, it used to be a slum, basically a favela. Now it is pretty fancy.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t even find that process too bad. In my neighborhood, in a way, I miss the squatter times. On the other hand, especially when my son who’s now 13 was small and we were on the playground, I didn’t miss the needles of the junkies at all. I do find it great that we still have tramps and alcoholics in Helmholtzplatz, and that clochards from Paris or London come here for summer holiday to drink with their mates. It’s great that they still have their place. Also, it’s great that they are not occupying the whole place anymore. I’m with Plato: everything should be within certain limits.
When you think back to 1989-90, have you had any major second thoughts about what you used to think in those days: about politics, economics, the world?
I completely misunderstood the power of nationalism or the powers behind the nationalist movement in former Yugoslavia. I understand why the reunification of Germany went the way it went, but I would have preferred another way and I don’t find it completely absurd that I would have wanted that. I like alternative history — Robert Harris’ Fatherland, Philip Roth’s The Plot against America, and those books. It’s good for our brains to think about how things could have gone differently. I think a confederation between East and West Germany in the early 1990s would have done better, but that is not really a second thought because I already thought that in the early 1990s.
I thought that the soft version of Western capitalism — the social, Christian, democratic West German one — had really transformed the culture of the people who own the money and the wealth here and made them understand long-term that it is better to share what they have. A Roosevelt kind of approach, or even a Henry Fordish one. If social peace is such an important good then you should simply pay 50-70 percent of your income as taxes in order not to be forced to build a wall around your house or employ people from the lower classes and give them guns to protect yourself. Here I was obviously wrong. Or I should say that they, the ones who prevailed, were obviously wrong, because I think my thinking is still right.
When you think back to 1989 and everything has changed since then, how would you evaluate that here in Berlin and Germany, on a scale of 1 to 10?
Same scale, same period of time, but your own personal life.
That’s why I don’t like marks at schools, they don’t really say too much. As well 5-6.
Looking into the near future, the next couple of years, how would you evaluate the prospects?
Even more difficult. Probably we always are, but now I think we really are at a turning point. We must as a society make the decision whether we want to consume even more and eventually die in our own plastic garbage, or whether we want to find a more intelligent approach that involves taking care of our resources and the surrounding environment. I’d put it probably right at the 5: both can happen.
Strangely enough, while witnessing the change of Yugoslavia from a normal European country into a madhouse, I’ve become pretty German, in the sense that I understand German history now much better than I did before. Today I think that people are still able to be manipulated, modern people, especially if they think they can’t be manipulated. It was probably much clearer for people in the Middle Ages that it was possible to be manipulated than it is today.
In my paranoid fantasies of national populism in Europe, I look at the xenophobia we have here toward Roma. Until a few years ago, this minority was only a topic for some specialists. Now they are a “problem” almost everywhere in Europe. The number of Roma actually coming to Germany or France does not play any role in this. Rather, it’s up to politicians and media people to make Roma an issue in the sense of a “problem” – or not. Just like this, nationalism can, in Europe, be as easily invoked as the Serbo-Croat thing in former Yugoslavia. And I bear in mind that the usual Yugoslav military unit in those wars had one-fifteenth the firepower of an average NATO unit. Those units destroyed 60 percent of Bosnian houses in the course of four years. Can you imagine a European city after a conflict with fifteen times the firepower?
On the other side, you mentioned Occupy. The members of this movement obviously are undecided about what they want – but there are a lot of them. If they stabilize into political groups that keep discussing along the same lines, they will develop a perspective. There are other reasons not to lose hope as well. Look at the election results in the United States: Obviously not all Americans are stupid! I’m not too satisfied with Mr. Obama, but I’m obviously more satisfied than I was with Mr. Bush and I’m certainly more satisfied than I would have been with Mitt Romney.
Also on the positive side is Latin America. When I was a kid, that was a part of the world you could not move in without getting into deep trouble. Now you can sleep soundly in most South American countries where the war on drugs is not being waged. You can sleep drunk on the street and the worst thing that can happen to you is that someone moves you because he wants to get by. In the 1980s, Southeast Europe was the same, but it changed. Things are constantly changing, and it’s up to us people to decide in which direction they change.
Berlin, January 29, 2013, John Feffer Interview