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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 "Tanz 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 Slovene 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 as Trst--passed 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 pluralism.

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 Yugoslavism convincingly suggest.

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 Ljubljana University, in the ranks of the Communist Party, in Slovenian society at large--was taking Slovenia society away from Titoism.

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 described 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, Slovenia's German and Italian 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 states.

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 out,

[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 seriousness.

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 authority."

Laibach's skepticism towards Communist Yugoslavia was evidenced as early as 1983, just three years after their foundation, in an interview 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 individual members.

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.

Laibach later 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 Trbovlje.

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 partners:

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 Christian legacy.

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 that it did:

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 specificity.

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 Randy McDonald. Edited March 2005.)