In the early 1990s, Eastern Europe entered the list of expatriate wonderlands, like the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s or Tokyo of the 1980s. Prague was the most powerful magnet: Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution was relatively cheap, jobs teaching English were plentiful, and the city was full of beautiful buildings and creative energy. Caleb Crain’s new novel Necessary Errors chronicles the lives of the young and the restless who flocked to Prague in that early post-revolutionary period. Even the characters in Prague, the novel by Arthur Phillips, who lived in Budapest at that time, were all convinced that the real excitement was taking place in the magical city of the book’s title.
But Prague was not the only magical place. The journalist Paul Hockenos was living in the region at this magical time. He freelanced for a number of publications, and his first book, Free to Hate, was the first full-length examination of the rise of nationalist extremists in the region. Like the characters in Prague, he lived in Budapest in the early 1990s; unlike those characters, he was delighted to be where he was. He arrived not long before the Berlin Wall fell.
“The bars were full of people, East Germans coming through, just everybody from all over,” he told me in an interview at a restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin in February. “It was just then incredibly vibrant and everybody was alive, and everybody was talking. You would have these conversations like, ‘Tell me about second grade in Hungary!’ And then they would say, ‘You tell me about second grade in the United States!’ Everything just seemed infinitely interesting: to talk to these people about the minutiae of their lives.”
After a couple years in Hungary, Hockenos moved to east Berlin where “there was still a lot of magic going on,” he continued. “It was after unification, but still. You could walk down the street that Tacheles was on and there were four bars. You could get a beer at Tacheles, at a place called Obst und Gemuse, another place called Ansel. There were also places on the side streets, and they were absolutely fantastic, places you could go in and just talk with anybody all night long. Everything was still cheap. There were still East prices for a lot of things.”
It’s no longer cheap in that part of Berlin. Prenzlauer Berg is like an up-and-coming Brooklyn, bursting with bookstores and baby strollers and trendy bistros. There are still significant expat communities throughout Eastern Europe. But it’s not like the early 1990s when everyone, east and west, was in wide-eyed discovery mode.
And it’s not as easy to cover Eastern Europe any longer as a freelance journalist. Editors are no longer falling over themselves to solicit articles. “I’ve abandoned Eastern Europe and Central Europe, for the most part,” Hockenos confessed. “On the one hand there’s no interest anymore. With the Balkans, no one really wanted to understand the place, and when it was off the map they were glad they didn’t have to try anymore. That was true also among Germans. On the other hand, the situation has stabilized. Some of these countries aren’t doing so badly at all. Some of them are in the European Union. None of them is at war. The motor of change in Southeastern Europe is European integration. There’s less interest in reading about it. But it’s also less interesting. It’s also less interesting for me. I’ll read an article about Croatia on the most recent elections or how many chapters of the Acquis Communautaire they’ve made it through. I can read those articles once, but the second time the topic comes up I might not.”
We talked about the exciting new trends in East European culture, the trajectory of eastern Germany’s economy, and what it means to be a realo these days.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I most certainly do. I was in Budapest. It was kind of strange: I was in Budapest when the Wall fell, and I was in East Berlin when the Romanian Revolution happened. When the Wall fell, we were preparing for a trip to Romania, which was one of the hairiest and most incredible trips I have ever taken, and it was at the height of the Ceaușescu dictatorship. That night I was in Buda, the first place where my friend Maggie and I were living when we arrived in Budapest. We had hitchhiked down from Berlin via Vienna, showing up in Budapest in late September, early October. When we saw the East German refugees coming through, I decided to stay, and well, she didn’t have anything to do either, so she also decided to stay. We put up an ad: “two journalists, one from America and one from Wales, need a place to live.” This young woman who today remains a very close friend of mine—she came to my wedding and everything—called us up. She lived with her mother in the Buda hills. Her mother was a seamstress and eventually threw us out. One of the things that actually distressed her as much as anything was our reaction when the Wall came down. My mother called me and said she was watching it on the news. We were getting ready to go to bed, but we flipped on the news – me, my friend Maggie, and this woman Dorothea — and we said, “Oh my God, the Wall fell, it’s incredible! Let’s break out some beers!” or something like that.
Dorothea’s mother was sleeping in the next room over. She opened the door and said, “What the hell is going on here?”
We said, “The Wall came down!”
And she said, “Be quiet, I have to work tomorrow morning.”
Maybe it was because you hadn’t specified which wall had come down!
“I got to work tomorrow morning”? Give me a break! We were like, “ohh”, and then we went out and had some beers together.
What was your immediate thought? If you could remember back through all the subsequent thoughts you had.
I was of course surprised. But I had been in Leipzig and had been following very closely what was happening. As one Hungarian said to me, “If they don’t let the Wall down, they’re going to push it down.” The demonstrations had become so big in Berlin and other cities and seeing what happened in Hungary, I guess I felt that the Wall’s days were numbered and that the Wall itself, being up or down, wasn’t the primary issue. It was very symbolic, but the transformations that were happening and that would happen afterwards were more than about just travel freedom. In East Germany, there had already been some concessions made, and it was clear that more were going to be made. Then, with what was happening in Hungary, it was just clear that the East German government couldn’t maintain the status quo. Things were going to change. But I certainly didn’t think that things would change as they did, that there wouldn’t be two Germanies. At the time I probably still thought that East Germany would be a socialist Germany with some kind of free elections, like what was happening in Budapest, where the reform wing of the Communist Party had a certain amount of power alongside other elements outside the Party. In Hungary, there were the civil society people, the nationalists, the liberals. In East Germany, it was a little bit different, but these dissidents had what we would’ve at the time thought was a left-wing vision, a radical kind of social democracy.
Were you tempted to call off your trip to Romania and run over to Berlin?
As a freelance journalist, I was always going in a different direction than everybody else. If the “mainstream media” were at the Wall when it was falling, then it would behoove me to be somewhere different. It would have been a lot of fun, but Maggie, the Welsh woman, and I went to Ceaușescu’s Romania, which was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, for different reasons. What we experienced there, I wouldn’t trade for anything. It was the most terrifying, raw, totalitarian regime that I’d ever experienced. It was clearly on edge, and everybody else was as well. The tension in the air, in all of Romania where we were, was just so incredible. If you were living in Budapest, people were going to tell you how bad Romania was, and there was a lot of solidarity with the people of Transylvania, so I’d heard an awful lot of it, but it was even worse than all of that. It was worse than anything we’d expected. By the time we came back, it was almost too much for me. I was 24, 25 years old. I wrote an article about it for In These Times, but I wasn’t even a mature enough writer to be able to tell this story the way it had to be told. To get across this kind of sheer terror, well, you have to see the film 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days. That hits the nail on the head. That’s exactly the way it was. It was that ugly.
Did you get out to Timisoara?
Later, around the time of the revolution or shortly thereafter, I was in Timisoara. We were in Tirgu Mures and then we were in Bucharest. One stop in Transylvania, one stop in Bucharest.
I got there in the early summer. Ceaușescu, of course, was gone, but I found it terrifying even then.
Romania was incredibly grim.
What brought you over in the first place? What was your trajectory?
I had come to West Berlin in 1985 basically to learn German. I also had grand ambitions of reading Hegel and Marx’s Das Kapital in the original. I should have just gone to a language school. But anyways, I was trying with the dictionary to read Das Kapital and The Phenomenology of Mind. I had a really interesting year, including several trips to East Berlin at the time. To be an American at the political science faculty at the Freie Universitat was the uncoolest thing in the world, so very few fellow students really wanted to associate with me. But we would often make trips over to East Berlin, and it was always a great adventure. We would talk about it for years afterwards, how you would have to change this money, and then what would you spend it on? You’re walking around with more money than you could ever spend. You’d get drunk three times in a day, and then buy flags and the collected work of Rosa Luxemburg. We thought it was just hysterical. We were always trying to meet somebody roughly our age — twenties – but it was very difficult to meet anybody. But those trips made a deep impression upon me. Still today, I realize where we were at that time — just over in the Friedrichshain where I take my kid everyday. We were drinking vodka at the hotel Moskva, which is not there anymore.
I was in West Berlin for about a year. I received one of the junior fellowships at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, so I was in Washington for six months at Foreign Policy magazine. Then I was at in New York City for a year at the Guardian Newsweekly. New York City in the 1980s was pretty tough. You had car sirens going night and day, and you couldn’t walk down a city block without being accosted by five homeless people. It was then that I decided that I liked Europe a whole lot more, so I had the more sensible idea to go to England to study German philosophy rather than try and do it in Germany in German. I went to the University of Sussex for about a year and I did the social political thought program there. My mentor was Gilian Rose, and that was really a fantastic year. It was Hegel and Kant through Adorno and Habermas. Then I got a full scholarship to do a Ph.D. at the New School for Social Research in philosophy. Instead of starting in September, I asked them if I could start in January, because I’d just finished and I wanted a little bit of time off. It was a very rigorous program. This woman whom I knew a little bit through some other people, Maggie form Wales, was going to be in Berlin. We decided to meet up in West Berlin. She was a character, and still is a character, and a people person if there ever was one.
We were in some bar one day in West Berlin, and she was like, “Let’s go to Budapest!” She said she knew exactly how much a glass of beer and a glass of wine was — 17 forints and 24 forints — and she knew some great guys there as well that she wanted to meet up with. I said fine. And more or less the next day, we hitchhiked out of West Berlin. It was the easiest place in the world to hitchhike from, because everybody has got to stop at the Wall. You get off the public transportation and then you stand in line very civilly for the next car.
It sounds like a taxi stand, except you’re hitchhiking. It’s very German.
It was very civilized. You could really go anywhere you wanted. We didn’t get the first ride to Budapest, but we got to Vienna that night and slept in one of the parks. Then the next day, we made it to Budapest. All the East German refugees were coming through, so I decided to write about this. We just started talking with them. The bars were full of people, East Germans coming through, just everybody from all over. It was just then incredibly vibrant and everybody was alive, and everybody was talking. You would have these conversations like, “Tell me about second grade in Hungary!” And then they would say, “You tell me about second grade in the United States!” Everything just seemed infinitely interesting: to talk to these people about the minutiae of their lives. We met this one girl, whose place we stayed in for a while, then somehow we met this other guy outside the post office who got me my typewriter. It was a big East German Robotron, but it was a good electric typewriter. He let me borrow it for the whole time I was there. Then we moved from the hills of Buda into a central location Budapest, right along the Danube, and had a flat that will go down in Budapest history because so many people came and went from this flat — from Transylvania, Germany, the United States, Wales — and there was never a dull moment.
Were you speaking any Hungarian going into this situation?
Going into it, none. My friend Maggie is a linguist, and she immediately started to study Hungarian, and picked it up in six months, which almost nobody does. I took lessons, and by the time I left, I could read the newspapers. This was one of my biggest disappointments in Hungary — to realize at what a low level this discourse was going on. When you interview dissidents like Gyorgy Konrad and Miklos Haraszti, or younger university kids who speak English and know something about the world, that was totally different from what the discourse was at this time. I was basically using English and German. You didn’t really need Hungarian as long as you were in Budapest and not in the countryside or a smaller city.
Any regrets about not following up on the New School?
None at all. It was the Hungarians there who were interesting – Agnes Heller, Ferenc Feher, and those people. In the Budapest flat, I had a copy of Dictatorship over Needs by Feher and Heller and Gyorgy Markus. It was one of the things we liked to make jokes about, this over-intellectualizing of what was going on. They were interesting thoughts but kind of missed something. I wrote the New School a letter and said, “I’m not coming.” Those two years in Budapest were incredible. I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world, or do it differently.
Then you went to Berlin…
I still had in my mind this dichotomy between the mainstream media and the alternative media, or the Left and the Right that existed even into the 1990s. For that reason, I wanted to do my own thing and not simply follow the headlines. There were people already writing about the headline issues, they didn’t need me to do that. I wanted to do a feature story that was a follow up, for instance on the differences between conservatism and nationalism. In one way, this extreme conservatism was a backlash against socialism and Communism, and in another way it was a continuation of the national socialism that existed at the time. A couple scholars have kind of gone into this, and the people from Radio Free Europe also had their eye on some of this. You could see this focus on the continuity of authoritarian structures and authoritarian thinking coming from the Frankfurt School, and I had just been doing that and nothing but that. If you’re in Germany, you’re of course going to have some contact with neo-Nazis, and you could read something about that. But that it would be so popular? Nobody was really talking about this, about the fact that this region was jumping into the future rather than dealing with the past. Or, if they were dealing with the past, it was the Communist past first and then maybe they would get around to what came before. Then it turned out that, except for Romania, nationalists won all of the first elections. You could tell that even where these parties, these factions and currents hadn’t yet formed, they would soon, and they’d be very powerful for a long long time to come. I had done a lot of my research anyway, so I went to Berlin to write a book on it.
And you were focusing on Hungary, the Balkans…?
At first it was Central Europe. It was Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland—where a good friend of mine lived—and East Germany. And then in January 1990, I made my first trip to Kosovo, which was also my first trip to Yugoslavia. I went there alone, knowing next to nothing about it. The New Statesman called me up and said, “Paul, you know, we hear there’s violence in Kosovo.”
“Do you know your way around Kosovo?”
“A thing or two.” So, I just got on a train and went down to Kosovo without a contact and started talking to people. At the time, I thought that a conflict between Romania and Hungary might be more likely than Yugoslavia in 1990. In 1991, that changed. But I was mostly concentrating at first on Central Europe, which of course also included Slovenia.
It must have been challenging at some point to draw the line, because these nationalist movements were starting to spread further east as well.
I was never tempted much further than Moldova, just simply because it was just too much. I already had cut off a huge chunk for the book. I could’ve even kept it smaller. If I would rewrite Free to Hate, I wouldn’t try to do quite so much. I think I pulled it off in the end, but it was just a huge task. I would make it a little bit smaller, like the way Tina Rosenberg brilliantly did The Haunted Land, her book on three countries, which includes the story of Vera Lengsfeld. It took two years, including the research, to finish Free to Hate.
And were you able to observe what was going on in Germany while you were writing the book?
Oh, definitely. I was living here in East Berlin, on Friedrichstraße of all places. Two chapters in the book were also about Germany. Not only was I here, but I was also looking at this phenomenon and being a part of it as well. I returned to Berlin in autumn 1991.
What did you think about the March 1990 elections here in East Germany? Everyone that I talked to in the civic movements thought, “We’re the ones who led the revolution—of course we’re going to get the votes that are commensurate with the sacrifices we made.” But that’s not how the election turned out.
That was rough. I also probably thought that they should. The opinion polls, of course, were showing something different. That was the first major blow to the idea that there would be something different in eastern Germany, something a little bit more left-wing than the Federal Republic. Just something different. For a journalist, different is fine! As long as it’s different, there’s a great story there and something to follow. It was really kind of sobering, if I remember correctly. There was this incredible spirit at the Haus der Demokratie on Friedrichstraße — the hustle and the bustle, the people who had been nobodies and imprisoned or just had it really rough and finally were able to express their ideas and themselves. The thought that East Germany was going in the direction of German nationalism or a united Germany: that didn’t worry me as much as it did other people. I’d lived in Germany and thought the Germans were actually quite progressive, especially after I had just been in Hungary and Romania and places where much of the political culture was retrograde. I thought, “My God! What are people worrying about Germany for?” From the very beginning, I didn’t want unification, but I certainly wasn’t worried about there being a Fourth Reich.
What was it like, living in this part of the city, to see the transformation?
It was utterly incredible, and probably even deeper that you can even imagine. This area around here, there’s probably been a 97% change in population. Every now and again, you might find somebody who was here at that time, like the guy who owns this place, but not very many people.
Where did all those people do?
Some died. Some moved to West Germany. Some have moved to cheaper parts of town. There’s been a complete demographic shift. Also, a lot of the flats here weren’t filled. Especially the back ones, the hinterhof. All of the attic space was attic space, and now they’ve been turned into condos. All of that is extra. You’ve actually probably got twice as many people in Prenzlauer Berg today than there was then.
I came to East Berlin because the magic was gone in Budapest by the time I left. We had been there at such a magical time. Maggie met a Russian musician on the street and then got pregnant, and left about three or four months before I did. She also sensed it. She didn’t want to have a baby or raise a kid there. It was clear that a kind of day-to-day normality had set in in Budapest, in Hungary. A lot of expats started to come over to teach English and drink cheap beer. It was becoming a big drinking scene. The idea then was that if any place was going to make it, it would be Hungary. It had the best shot. Poland was dirt poor and had hyperinflation. Today, of course, it’s the other was around: Poland is doing great and Hungary is in the pits.
In East Berlin, there was still a lot of magic going on. It was after unification, but still. You could walk down the street that Tacheles was on and there were four bars. You could get a beer at Tacheles, at a place called Obst und Gemuse, another place called Ansel. There were also places on the side streets, and they were absolutely fantastic, places you could go in and just talk with anybody all night long. Everything was still cheap. There were still East prices for a lot of things. And the apartment that I got, I just happened to answer an ad in the newspaper. It was Friedrichstraße, but it was in the back, a place called the Hugenottenveirtel. It was founded by the Huguenots, as the Charite hospital was. It bordered the Charite veterinarian center, so at night you’d hear hippopotamuses and giraffes. I had this lovely balcony that looked out into this wild garden, and beyond that was the Charite, and God knows what kind of wild animals. It was such a lovely place to live that it was where the GDR put their cultural elite: John Heartfield, Ernst Bloch, various high-profile antifascists. Probably by 1985, they started letting normal people in. The guy who owned my flat was an engineer who got a job in the West and left. It was a good place to write. After writing a full day, I would go out to some of these places and they were basically squats! They might have rented that space or not. They’d put a flyer on the wall: “There’s going to be a party here, bring some wine.”
There were all different kinds of squats. The apartment that I live in right now was basically squatted by young medical students, some of whom now are quite well-off doctors. It was just empty. They didn’t squat it. It was empty, and they moved in and started paying the rent. There was a huge amount of space to do whatever you wanted, and the way that space was used then was really still fascinating. And the Germans, being Germans, were way out ahead. There was nothing like that in Budapest, no quarter in Budapest like that, not like what was happening in Berlin. In Berlin, new people were coming in and saying, “We’re going to do something completely different here!” It was very rare for a Hungarian to do this. Germans would, and that’s why it was an exciting year.
How much of that magic was generational? When I think back to that time for me, a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was in my twenties and my own life was kind of up in the air, and I was open to lots of different things.
The twenties’ crowd was very involved on a certain level, but you also had people in their early thirties, people coming over from West Germany, the “nothing to lose, why not” crowd. There was a lot of youthful energy, but I wouldn’t have called it a generational thing. It was more than that. The difference wasn’t so much between the generations—although this was part of it as well—but between the huge mass of conformists and those trying to do something different. You already had people of the latter group here in Prenzlauer Berg to begin with, and in Mitte and Friedrichshain. Many of the people coming from the West tended to be young, but not all of them were. The older ones were more politically involved or, like this psychiatrist I knew, involved in completely rethinking their own professions. There was another woman who just took it upon herself to do an exhibition on East German antifascism in some building that no one was in, just more or less on her own, taking these different kind of symbols and posters of antifascism and deconstructing them. She’s a well-known historian now and doesn’t live very far from here.
With its tension between conformity and non-conformity, Germany strikes me as this kind of California, with Orange County and the Castro pushed up against each other in a struggle for dominance.
The East-West thing was incredibly stark at that point. I had a lot of friends in West Berlin who relished and prospered living on a West German island in the middle of East Germany. They didn’t even know the name of the East German district over the wall from them: people in Kreuzberg didn’t know what Friedrichshain was. People at the Tageszeitung [West German Left newspaper] told me that when the Wall came down that night, there were East Germans who came by to see who was at this newspaper. The people at the Tageszeitung didn’t know how to speak to the people in East Germany. It was the same with friends of mine as well. It was a culture clash. A lot of the West Germans were unable to see that what was going on here was interesting. These Kreuzbergers, they had done so much – in comparison to some of the people from the East, naive and inexperienced and coming almost from nowhere.
Yes, hopeful! And the West Germans were just like, “Bah!” So a lot of those people from Kreuzberg moved over and had their own squats. That’s why Schreinerstrasse was so interesting, because it was 100% East (although Dirk Moldt might correct me). That made it a whole lot different.
Did you observe any of the carpet-bagging phenomenon that people have remarked on?
That was happening at a macro-level. The first move was the changeover to the West Mark. You know the story: the industry here just kind of collapsed. The firms and the companies in the West prospered by meeting this huge new demand that couldn’t be met in the East. So in terms of actual carpet-bagging, no, it wasn’t happening at first in the East. It really happened a lot later. There wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made at the beginning. Then there was the Treuhand process. The reason the Treuhand sold things for so cheap was because they couldn’t get people to take them. Sure, there were bad deals, but these things were up for sale and no one was offering any more money. And those western entrepreneurs who actually did buy a factory took a huge risk. It wasn’t like they could turn them into prosperous models overnight. It wasn’t really until, believe or not, this new legislation on alternative energy that the East started to pick up around 2002-2003. The wind business in Brandenburg is huge, and so are the energy crops in Sachsen-Anhalt.
Some people complain here that none of the promising alternatives of those earlier days took hold – the round table, the more generous social welfare state, the more solidaristic relationships. It was just a kind of imposition of a West German model. Could a different path have realistically been taken?
That’s always a hard one: “Could it all have been different?” One of the reasons Prenzlauer Berg is so attractive now is not just because of the buildings. It’s because it is different than Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg — before the Wall fell, after the Wall fell, and even today — can be incredibly narrow. In the old days, you couldn’t walk into certain bars if you didn’t have the right shoelaces to say nothing of haircuts and leather jackets and politics. There were very narrow and very deep niches. They’re still there, although they’re a little bit less narrow and a little less deep. In Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte and Friedrichshain, after the Wall fell, and still today, anybody can walk into anywhere. You can bring your American grandmother to most places. It’s flatter, socially, and less hierarchical, so it’s more welcoming, more open. You can come up with all kinds of examples where that’s really not the case, but still, that holds. It’s hard to say if it’s in the East or if it’s just in East Berlin. But there was all kinds of potential and some people did use it, and some were successful, and some not. Like the Kulturbrauerei, you had to be financially successful in order to make it successful. But that has worked. Some things are just simply good, and people will pay for them as well.
As for like a bigger alternative, I don’t know. Counterfactuals in history don’t interest me that much. What happened happened. It wasn’t really like, “A whole lot more could’ve happened if the West didn’t roll over the East.” The fact of the matter is that most people here weren’t interested in doing something creative and innovative. That wasn’t their socialization, and you couldn’t expect that of them. It was just a very few. But there was a kind of openness here that wasn’t like this West German attitude of “We know everything you know, plus we know everything we know. You as an American can’t tell us any of this.” The Ossis were like, “We don’t know what America is like, go ahead and tell us, and we’ll tell you what East Germany is like.” A West German would never have said anything like that.
The same way you had those discussions at the bar in Budapest about secondary school.
Yes, right, the same thing! It was just, “Tell us about your life, almost anything is interesting.” That’s why there was an openness between people like myself and people from the East. Whereas in the West it was a super-cool etiquette and ethic. As fascinated as I was by West Berlin in the 1980s, I also thought it was really kind of a grim place. I didn’t have a lot of German friends. When I came back, I definitely wanted to live in the East and I still do live in the East.
Someone told me that there’s been a study—I can’t remember the exact percentages—of the patterns of people living in Berlin, and whether they’ve traveled between East and West Berlin. And a huge number of people just never went out of the East. They stayed in the East, and a huge number of people stayed in the West. They could go anywhere in the city, but basically a large majority of the population from the eastern side and the western side stayed on their side of the city.
Two things about that. Number one: the way Berlin is structured, these districts are like their own kind of village, and a lot of life takes place in that area, which also makes them very familiar. I know people here. I walk in and the waitress knows me and some other guy knows me. A second thing is: it was a huge pain to get from the East to the West for a long time. Now they’ve got the Ring Bahn and things like that. But still, for me to get from Prenzlauer Berg to Kreuzberg by public transportation is 45 minutes. By bicycle, it’s 20 minutes and downhill.
I know a lot of people coming from West Berlin who said, “I’m going to make East Berlin part of my life. I’m going to try to go in there, or go through there everyday, or once a week or something more.” And then it just doesn’t work out that way. There was also a lack—particularly on the West German side—of interest. People just didn’t find it as interesting as I did, which I couldn’t understand.
I also remember a woman from the Tageszeitung coming to Budapest in spring 1990. We’re sitting around at a bar that was cool in many different ways, and everything about it was interesting.
She’s like, “This is what you guys do?”
“So this is what you do on Friday night?”
“Well, actually we do this every night, but…”
“Is this all there is?”
“Yeah, I guess this is it.” She didn’t see it. She didn’t think it was very interesting.
Maybe if she were to live there…
Yes, if she had spent a little more time. She also wrote some things for the Tageszeitung afterwards, which were terrible, about Budapest, about Hungary. The only thing I remember is that she visited the Greens and wrote, “The Greens are arguing among themselves, just like they do in Germany.” In other words, she was saying that basically the Greens in West Germany are the Greens in Hungary, and they do the same thing instead of realizing that it was completely different! They have come from a completely different background, they were completely different, and it was just completely different!
She must have been particularly stupid, but then they ran it as well. Some editor also didn’t catch it.
But those days are in the past. It’s mixed around here now. You don’t know who’s an Ossi and who’s a Wessi. Of course now my focus group is the daycare, and I know all of the parents, and I do my own covert research.
Other than the obvious question of where you were born, is there some more subtle way of teasing out that information?
For me there is. Even for people who are in their thirties, you can tell by how good their English is. West Germans these days, their English is damned good. And the Easterners are still, well, you never quite know. But that’s just about it. For somebody under 30, or even 35, it just doesn’t matter anymore. Really! My wife is from West Germany, and she in general can’t deal with East Germans. She thinks they’re just unbelievably not cool, and when she stumbles across these types, she’s just like, “Agh! How could someone be on this earth and be so cluelessly uncool?” But where we are right now, it’s so mixed, with lots of people from abroad and lots of marriages between people from different countries, with lots of bilingual daycare and kindergartens and schools. It’s a very kind of cosmopolitan mix. There’s recently been a big discussion about whether Swabians have taken over Prenzlauer Berg, and I think they’re wrong. I think it’s much more heterogeneous, and much more interesting. It’s mostly middle class/upper middle class, but people are coming from very different places.
For the people who were born in eastern Germany who are now in their twenties, do they have any of those features you mentioned: not know-it-all, more open, more interested in the world?
No, it’s not part of their identity either. One difference might still be provincialism: a little bit more clueless. The cream of the crop emigrated, so in a lot of these places in East Germany, the only people who didn’t leave are the people who couldn’t. But then there’s been a boom in places like Leipzig and Dresden. There are areas that have been very successful and then there are areas that are like no-man-wastelands.
In the early 1990s, Eastern Europe was the story, and you had a lot of work to do, even if you were going in the opposite direction of the press corps. What about today?
I’ve abandoned Eastern Europe and Central Europe, for the most part. On the one hand there’s no interest anymore. With the Balkans, no one really wanted to understand the place, and when it was off the map they were glad they didn’t have to try anymore. That was true also among Germans. On the other hand, the situation has stabilized. Some of these countries aren’t doing so badly at all. Some of them are in the European Union. None of them is at war. The motor of change in Southeastern Europe is European integration. There’s less interest in reading about it. But it’s also less interesting. It’s also less interesting for me. I’ll read an article about Croatia on the most recent elections or how many chapters of the Acquis Communautaire they’ve made it through. I can read those articles once, but the second time the topic comes up I might not.
In that sense, Croatia is not that different from Denmark, for instance.
Especially since it’s part of the European Union. Of course there’s the Orban phenomenon in Hungary. And there’s this political showdown between the two jerks pissing on each other’s legs in Romania. It’s hugely important for Romania, but who could tell you the difference between one and the other? Nobody. Of course, for me, there are still some interesting things going on, for instance, on the level of culture. The Serbian movie The Parade is the best example. There’s also Romanian New Wave cinema, which is just fantastic. Lots of interesting questions are being dealt with at the level of culture, and the fact that these cultures are accessible from abroad, that’s what I most like to write about.
So, politics and economics in some sense have become conventional, but there’s still is a spark in the culture that makes it different and interesting.
Most definitely. And nowhere is that more obvious than Romania. There are a lot of young and creative people acting out of different motives and bringing it to bear at the cultural level one way or another. A lot of it is ashes, but there’s some diamonds in it as well. The same applies to music. Last weekend there was this great band, Rotfront that does what it calls “emigrantski ragamuffin.” It’s a mixture of klezmer, polka, and punk. Everybody loves it. It’s like the Balkan Beats night, which Rudiger Rossig was one of the initiators of. You can’t have more fun anywhere in Berlin than when they play at this one club. Everybody can access it on their own level. You don’t have to know anything about the region! It’s just fun.
When you think back to that time, have you had any major second thoughts in terms of your worldview?
Yes, sure. In my book Free to Hate, I was one of the first people to look at nationalism at that level, and I was very worried about war breaking out. When that first ethnic violence happened in Tirgu Mures in Transylvania, in spring 1990, a lot of people were worried. If you lived in Hungary at that time and you heard all these prejudices, the nationalism, the discussion of the maps, you were like, “Aw man, things could go a very very very bad way.”
They did, but it was in Yugoslavia. As I was traveling around there, I realized that the internal borders of Yugoslavia were not really as set as they were in Central Europe. I mean, there were borders changed in Germany and then Czechoslovakia, and it wasn’t until 1995 or 1996 that Hungary and Romania signed a certain EU-pushed agreement that recognized those borders. So, in a way, Central Europe’s joining the EU and entering this mainstream has been a more benevolent scenario of what I envisioned at the time. I was obviously right that conservatism of a different kind would emerge that wasn’t informed by decades of democracy or a student movement or anything like that. And then of course in Yugoslavia, nobody ever would have imagined it would become as bad as it did. Nobody’s worst most pessimistic scenario was that. Hanging out in Belgrade in 1990: they were so far beyond the Hungarians and the Poles and the Czechs, with their stonewashed jeans, their Converse All Stars, their Laibach and the whole new wave scene.
They were ahead of a lot of Western European countries.
Oh yeah! Belgrade, 1990. I was like, “I’ll come back and live here.” In fact, if I hadn’t written a book, I would have. I’ve always liked that urbanism in Belgrade. I was also in Bosnia, in Sarajevo in 1990 and, I don’t know, maybe I talked with the wrong people but I didn’t get a sense of nationalism among the three peoples who lived there. So I would say with Central Europe, it turned out a little bit better than I might have thought, and Yugoslavia worse.
At one point earlier on you talked about having a different style of reporting from the mainstream mass media. I thought you were going to bring that to the present, that you had a different conception of the media today or…
No, it’s definitely changed. The most recent reason is that Republicans in the United States have changed, and so has the political middle. Until the radicalization of the Republican Party, you didn’t know that there could be worse, that there was something way to the right of the Republicans that was territory that people could still step onto. You really thought that had become impossible after the Nazi era, that extreme nationalism had been so discredited that it was no longer possible.
It was like your discussions in Sarajevo. You didn’t think that there was anything out there. It’s because we don’t talk to those folks, so we don’t know. Then they appear and it’s a surprise.
Another thing that happened was the intervention issue. With Yugoslavia, I became an advocate of intervention. It didn’t matter if you were a Republican or a Democrat. There was a lot more difference on this issue between me and Diana Johnstone – we were both writing for In These Times – than between me and some hardcore Republicans. The intervention issue mixed it all up. Also, writing the book about Joschka Fischer changed me a bit that I became more convinced of the Realo line in the Green Party, that it’s more effective to be part of the mainstream debate and modify your views a little bit in order to make some headway where it counts. Fischer once said, “Sitting on the edge of the parliament, with your legs crossed, smoking a big joint and saying, ‘Fuck you!’ — where does that get anybody? You’ve just marginalized yourself. You’ve confined yourself to a ghetto.” If anything has shown that perspective to be correct, it’s been the Greens and this huge influence they’ve had in Germany.
For instance, on energy policy.
This is the best possible example. So, I am much more of a Realo now. Maybe in 1987 in New York City, I could have worked for The New York Times and not The Guardian. At the time I thought, “No way I could do that,” but actually I think maybe I could have. Of course, I wouldn’t have been national editor and wouldn’t have done all these great things I did at The Guardian with all these incredible people. I would have been a very low level editorial assistant at The Times. But if I had risen up in those structures, I would have had more influence than The Guardian, which was zero. Or mostly zero. We always thought we were writing for the activists and providing a service that nobody else did. But ultimately, I’m not sure.
Berlin, February 1, 2013