Slovenia and Laibach
by Randy McDonald
April 05, 2004: Dragan
Antulov --SHWI’s most prominent Croatian poster--has
recently provided his readership with links to an English-language
weblog from Slovenia, The
Glory of Carniola. I’m rather unnaturally excited
about this news, mainly because since I was 10 I’ve had an unnaturally
strong interest in Slovenia. You can blame the 1990 article
in National Geographic on Yugoslavia, then still a united state.
The Socialist Republic of Slovenia wasn’t the focus of the article
by any means, being explored by the writers mainly as an exemplar
of political pluralism (the Slovenian Communist party had opened
up to become more a traditional political party in a democratic
framework) and as a highly economically developed region (there
was one fetching photo of two Slovenian technicians working
behind a circuitry board). I cheered Slovenia as it almost bloodlessly
won its independence from the disintegrating Yugoslav federation,
and have followed its struggles and successes thereafter.
I don’t think that my fondness for Laibach
comes from this Slovenophilia. I first remember reading about
Laibach in my copy of the Rough
Guide to Rock Music, which painted a fascinating
portrait of a rock group that was also a performance group,
and which incidentally had a hugely disproportionate effect
on the culture of its nation of origin. That fascinated me profoundly,
not least because I wanted--and, I admit, still want in a more
restrained fashion--to leave a similarly profound and broad
influence. It was a chance link to this parody music video for
mit Laibach" which got me excited
about that group, making me order
their latest album and download some more Laibach mp3s.
I warn my readers in advance that this will be a thematically
incoherent posting. It will deal with the history of a small
European nation, come late to the community of nations. It will
explore the flexible frontiers of that nebulous concept "Europe,"
either encompassing the Slovenes again after a half-century’s
lacuna or expanding to include Slovenia for the first time.
It will explore the question of Slovenia’s relationships with
its neighbours and their changing dynamics, particularly in
relationship to the former Yugoslavia. It will explore the ways
in which Laibach has reinforced, or contradicted, Slovenia's
historical trajectory over the past quarter-century. Perhaps
Slovenia's particular experience, taken generally and taken
through the prism of Laibach, has some broader resonance, relating
perhaps to central Europeans' contributions to the greater European
Union? One could convincingly argue that Slovenia's relatively
long history of integration with western Europe, its historical
and cultural similarities with Austria in particular, and its
wealth, situate it as a prototype for the other seven central
and northern European countries joining the European Union in
a month's time.
Laibach takes its name from the German name for Slovenia’s capital
of Ljubljana. Until 1918, Slovenia had been part of the Austrian-Hapsburg
empire, though not as a single unit. The Slovene ethnic nucleus
was located in the province of Carniola,
but there were also important Slovene populations in Lower
Styria and Carinthia,
and smaller Slovene populations in the minute
districts scattered along the northeasternmost portion
of the Adriatic coast and even in the Prekomurje
district of western Hungary. Like the Czechs, the Slovene territories
fell into Cisleithenia,
that is, in the Austrian half of the empire outside of Hungary;
accordingly, like the Czechs the Slovenes were strongly Germanized.
Nonetheless, over the 19th century Slovenia emerged as a nation,
as the Slovene
language was standardized and a coherent sense of
collective identity emerged. By the early 20th century,
disputes with neighbouring Teutophones over Slovene language
rights--in school instruction and in government interaction--had
prepared Slovenes for the vacuum left by the collapse of Austria-Hungary.
Modern Slovenia couldn’t have taken shape as it did without
Yugoslavia. Take Slovenia’s territory, for instance. The Republic
of Slovenia does not include the southern portion of the Austrian
state of Carinthia, for instance, which had
a Slovene majority in 1920 and still has a sizable
(if occasionally abused) Slovene
minority, while the city of Trieste--known in Slovene
to Italy after the First World War and remained Italian after
the Second World War. After the First World War, though, without
Yugoslavia to support Slovene
claims in Lower Styria, a "non-historical" Slovene
nation closely associated with the Austrians might not have
been able to support those claims, being doomed to landlocked
statehood on a small fraction of its territory (or perhaps even
to partition between Italy and Austria). In the aftermath of
the Second World War, if Tito as head of state of an assertive
Yugoslav state hadn’t taken the offensive against Italy, the
transfer of Primorska--the western third of modern-day Slovenia,
under Italian rule between the world wars and harshly Italianized--to
a fragile and marginal Slovenia would have been is fairly unlikely.
In the interwar Yugoslav kingdom, Slovenia completed its development
as a nation, with national institutions and a revived language;
in the post-war Communist state, Slovenia consolidated its earlier
gains and pressed further still.
By the time that Laibach had been founded in 1980, Slovenia
had managed to become enormously successful. Yugoslavia’s Communism
did doom the long-term economic prospects of the Yugoslav state;
Yugoslavia’s autonomy vis-á-vis the Soviet Union let it get
close to the West. Croatia prospered from tourism (mainly West
German and Austrian) on its sunny Dalmatian coast; most of Yugoslavia
as a whole derived valuable income from the remittances sent
back by their emigrant workers in central Europe. Slovenia,
perhaps uniquely in all of Communist Europe, developed a modern
export-oriented industrial economy. Rather than exporting
workers, Slovenia imported labourers.
Like the rest of Communist Europe, Slovenia’s GDP per capita
and living standards had still declined relative to the west,
but it remained modern enough to compete internationally. Politically,
too, Slovenia was the most liberal unit of the most liberal
Communist European state, allowing for a certain amount of social
Yugoslavia may not have been dying in the 1980s; or, at least,
Yugoslavia’s condition may not have been terminal.
The idea of a Yugoslav community centered upon the common usage
of Serbo-Croatian (whether as a first language or as a language
of wider communication), a shared historical experience (broadly
defined, at least), and a general commitment to Yugoslavism
seems persisted, as the contributors to the essay collection
In 1980, Slovenia was officially committed towards a Yugoslav
orientation. Only later in the 1980s, with the growth of Serbian
nationalism and the accelerating economic breakdown and political
gridlock of the Yugoslav federation, did Slovenia lose
its Yugoslav orientation. As the popular wisdom went,
the northwestern republics of Yugoslavia--industrialized prosperous
Slovenia and developing labour-exporting Croatia--were the Yugoslav
regions most strongly oriented towards western Europe, most
likely to compare their living standards and political systems
with Europe (and, of necessity, most likely to find both wanting).
The other areas were more introverted, contented with their
own economies’ improvement taken in isolation. Slovenes might
have felt like a Third World nation as economic deterioration
relative to Austria and Italy set in, but they didn’t want to
feel that way at all. At the same time, intellectual ferment--at
University, in the ranks of the Communist Party,
in Slovenian society at large--was taking Slovenia society away
Two major forces were responsible for Slovenia's move away from
Yugoslavia, one attractive and one repulsive, both interacting.
The desire to join a Europe in the process of unification was
quite attractive; the desire to escape a Yugoslavia that seemed
to be both disintegrating into its component districts and regressing
to all manner of aggressive nationalisms was definitely repulsive.
Longinovich, in commenting on Laibach, has commented
pejoratively about Slovenes’ desire to separate themselves
from a Balkan region incarnated in Serbia and seen in terms
of poverty, authoritarianism, and ethnic violence. To be sure,
separating from a destabilizing Yugoslav federation where Serbia's
autonomous provinces saw their
autonomy revoked, often violently,
and were then ruled directly
by Serbia as part of an effort by the largest federal
unit to bring the others under its control, made quite a lot
of sense. (To say nothing of the Yugoslav Army trying
journalists for revealing internal corruption.) Accusations
of Orientalist prejudice only go so far.
Slovenia hasn’t looked back since independence; if anything,
Slovenia has taken great care to distance itself from the other
Yugoslav successor states. Slovenia is by far the richest and
stablest of the Yugoslav successor states; its demographic and
economic structures, if not its cultural and political structures,
are arguably more similar to those of Austria than of the other
Yugoslav states. Slovenia, uniquely among the Yugoslav successor
states, will be joining the European Union this May. Slovenia
will form part of the European Union’s southeastern frontier;
where once it constituted the northwesternmost territory of
southeastern Europe, Slovenia will now by the most southeastern
portion of central Europe. This may change when Croatia
joins, hopefully in a few years. For the time being,
though, Slovenia is set on becoming part of the European core,
complete with hostility
to Muslim immigrants (in Slovenia’s case, mainly
Bosnians and Albanians).
By its very name, Laibach pointed away from South Slavic Yugoslavia
towards Germanic central Europe, towards the post-Hapsburg space
by central European dissidents. The simple choice
of name explains a lot. As I explained above, the modern nation-state
of Slovenia owes its existence to the fact that for eighty years
it was protected by its association with a larger Yugoslav state
capable of protecting the nascent nation's core from Italianization
and Germanization. This was particularly emphasized by Communist
Yugoslavia, which despite its Western leanings was quite determined
to sharply delineate as broad a northwestern frontier for Yugoslavia
as possible, through a tighter state regulation of political
and ethnic frontiers. Immediately after the Second World War,
minorities were deported to their nominal homelands, as retribution
for actual wartime colalboration and a perceived foreign presence.
Absent these human links to Slovenia's northern and western
neighbours, Slovenia began to develop separately from its historical
partners, becoming increasingly integrated with the other Yugoslav
At the same time, Laibach did not share in Slovenia’s growing
hostility towards official Yugoslavia’s Third
World orientation in the non-aligned movement and,
indeed, towards the rest of Yugoslavia. Longinovich’s criticism
that Laibach’s cooption of skinhead culture and Nazi cultural
elements in its music and concerts represented an assertion
of Slovenian superiority over the other Yugoslavian peoples
is unfounded, as Inke Arns pointed
[In Laibach's work,] totalitarianism is certainly
not denounced as something 'barbaric', 'culturally inferior',
'eastern', or 'serb', but it is presented, rather, as a universal
form of domination which in certain situations individuals easily
tend to submit to and which, for example, is also at work in
rock concerts. ...
[T]he response to Laibach and NSK amongst youth (sub)cultures
all over Yugoslavia in the 1980s was more than positive.
This certainly would not have been the case had Laibach simply
promoted 'Slovene supremacy' over the other Yugoslav nationalities.
Laibach were positively received because in their performances
of radical 'over-identification' they exactly alluded to the
universal nature of totalitarian forms of domination.
Laibach is profoundly subversive.
As I write these words, I'm listening to their remixed version
of "The Final Countdown," originally a hit the mid-1980's for
Swedish hair-metal band Europe.
Laibach's treatment of "The Final Countdown," and their album
1996 Jesus Christ Superstars, all share in common a willingness
to undercut established images of songs, and concepts, with excessive
Alexei Monroe, writing for Central Europe Review, puts
Laibach's approach best when he
writes that "Laibach grew out of a context in which
the spectacularly complex discourses and institutions of self-management
pervaded all sections of public and private life. Laibach's response
was to incorporate the all-pervasive "noise" of the system into
a traumatic multimedia spectacle that completely disoriented the
Laibach's skepticism towards Communist Yugoslavia was evidenced
as early as 1983, just three years after their foundation, in
on Slovenian television:
PENGOV: So far you have been spreading your ideology,
your ideological provocation in writing and on the rare public
appearances. Was your decision to acquaint some 600,000 to 700,000
members of the public with your ideology by appearing on TV
in any way difficult?
LAIBACH: Apart from the educational system, television has the
leading role in the formation of uniform opinions. The medium
is centralised, with one "transmitter" and a number of "receivers",
while communication between these is impossible. Being aware
of the manipulative capacities the media possess, Laibach is
exploiting the repressive power of media information. In the
present case, it is the TV screen.
PENGOV: You have assumed the role of "Public Enemy No. 1" in
a masochistic way as the proverbial sacrifice, while the number
of your true followers, or at least fans, is very questionable.
In fact, what exactly caused one of your leaders commit suicide?
Was he crushed by the gap between the idea and its alienation
from the people, the masses?
LAIBACH: Art is noble mission that demands fanaticism, and Laibach
is an organism whose goals, life and means are higher - in their
power and duration ? than the goals, lives and means of its
PENGOV: What then is your opinion of Edvard Kardelj's* brilliant
idea that neither the State nor the System nor the Party can
bring happiness to a person ? that one creates one's own fortune?
LAIBACH: Not the State, not the Party, not God, and not Satan;
happines lies in the total denial of one's human identity, in
people consciously waiving their personal tastes, beliefs, judgments,
in their free depersonalisation, in their ability to make sacrifices,
to identify themselves with a higher, superior system, with
the masses, the collective, the ideology.
PENGOV: Can you tell us anything about yourselves? For instance,
who you are, what your professional occupations are, how old
you are; are you all here or are there more of you?
LAIBACH: We are the children of spirit and the brothers of strength,
Whose promises are unfulfilled.
We are the black phantoms of this world,
We sing the mad image of woe.
We are The First TV Generation.
commented on this interview, stating that "LAIBACH,
through television perception, by provoking collective emotions
and automatic associations, serves as a reorganizational spiritual
principle and as a means of work incentive: by destroying every
trace of individuality (critical judgment) it blends individuals
into a mass and the mass into a single humble collective, responsible
to its own status in the system of production." And yet, on the
page linked to in this paragraph, they explore the origins of
Laibach in true Marxist fashion, drawing a direct link between
the working-class nature of their mining district hometown of
Laibach is equally iconoclastic regarding Europe. Longinovich
voices a certain degree of skepticism regarding the rejection
by Laibach (and of Slavoj Zizek) of an exclusively Yugoslav orientation,
suggesting that Slovenes can only fit into Europe as subordinate
While accusing the ex-Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica
of "reflective racism" for calling the Slovenes a nation of
"Viennese stable boys", Zizek assumes the defensive position
typical of a classical nationalist: "Slovenia is most exposed
to this displaced racism [supposedly of the West] since it is
closest to Western Europe". Apart from the absurdity of this
statement after Western misreadings of the Balkans and the horrors
of NATO's intervention and non-interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia,
Zizek's slight mistranslation of Kusturica's words is also symptomatic
of the cultural rigidity and incompetence which characterizes
Zizek's latest books. "Viennnese stable boys" is a much more
playful characterization of the Slovene desire to find their
proper place within the symbolic realm of the West than "Austrian
grooms," which actually activates a certain post-colonial layer
within the Slovene identity and provides for a possibility of
resistance to the uncritical glorification of Europe and its
Kusturica's reference to "stable boys" or "grooms" refers to the
fact that Slovenia is the homeland of the
famous Lipizzaner horses, closely associated with Austria
but from the Slovenian community of Lipica. The Slovenes have
traditionally been subordinated to Germanic powers, this subordination
reaching its unrestrained pitch in the Second World War when Slovenia
was partitioned between Italy and Germany and the Slovene province
of Lower Styria was fully
incorporated into the Reich. Even today, relations
between Austria and Slovenia can
be tense. That Laibach often sang in German, and co-opted
Nazi German music forms, presentation styles, and uniforms, could
be taken as a sign that their ironic distance didn't exist. Except
The album "Opus Dei" is released the following
month [February 1987] and brought more controversy when the
inner sleeve artwork revealed a large swastika until some of
the more astute observers pointed out the Laibach version, constituted
from four bound, bloodied axes, was, in fact, the work of the
famous German anti-nazi photomontage artist John Heartfield.
Laibach's uniform turned out to be traditional Slovene hunting
clothes the Germanic similarities relates back to the time when
Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Their identification of Germans as "an
inferior sort of Slovenes" nicely inverses traditional
Slovene stereotypes of passivity and victimhood. Munroe also observes
how, "[i]n the wider Yugoslav context, Laibach became a source
of fear and fascination, radically transforming (though also conforming
to) stereotypical images of Slovenes, often seen by fellow Yugoslavs
as both cold, Germanic, inward-looking and provincial. The advent
of Laibach and Slovene alternative culture directly challenged
the self-proclaimed cultural supremacy of Zagreb and Belgrade.
Slovenia, and Laibach as the most extreme Slovene phenomenon,
shifted from quaint irrelevance to a force of threat in the Serb
and Croatian popular media."
Alexei Munroe says it best.
Laibach completely eradicated the stereotypical
image of culture from Slovenia and Central Europe (which has,
in any case, traditionally been dominated by Czech, Austrian,
Polish and Hungarian figures).
Central European culture is still often associated with traditional
and even nostalgic forms of culture (literature and classical
music) and a pervasive melancholy. The contrast with Laibach
and other representatives of the alternative culture produced
in the Central Europe of the 1980s could not have been more
acute. Laibach achieved success through a militant, defiantly
unapologetic style that arguably has done far more to expose
Slovenia and the region than the traditional comfortable forms
of Central European culture.
Not only did Laibach challenge (largely Western) ideals about
a polite and sensitive Central European culture, it consciously
manipulated both romantic and negative Western preconceptions
about the region, playing as much upon Western fears of a demonic
Slav as upon expectations of a docile nostalgic culture.
Above all, their music directly challenged Western assumptions
about the backwardness and irrelevance of pop culture in Central
and Eastern Europe. When they were tolerated it was often for
political as much as aesthetic reasons (as with the Czech dissident
band Plastic People of the Universe) and were not seen as a
competitor to Western bands. Whilst Laibach have never explicitly
referred to Central Europe as a concept and would not wish to
limit themselves in this way, their success across the region
and beyond has demonstrated the potential of the region to produce
dynamic art and popular culture without relinquishing its local
Let's say that Slovenia, and Slovenia's evolution over the past
two decades, broadly prefigure future developments elsewhere
in the new European Union member-states, as convergence
with western Europe proceeds apace. The specific pressures applied
to Slovenia--the breakdown of an struggling multinational federation,
the transition to a pluralistic society and polity--won't apply
in the Czech Republic, Poland, or Lithuania, of course. Still,
Slovenia's dynamism was manifested under more difficult conditions
than those prevailing now throughout central Europe. Why shouldn't
observers expect the rest of the belt of European Union member-states
stretching from Hungary north to Estonia and west to Prague
to exhibit similar dynamism on a per capita basis?
I really have to get to central Europe one of these days.
(The content of this article is abstracted from Randy
McDonald's Livejournal, written and maintained by
McDonald. Edited March 2005.)