Adriano Sofri. Alexander Langer, Travelling Light
Jul 11, 1995, This text was read at the commemoration ceremony at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, on July 11th, 1995.The trip to Libya was one of the most bizarre, fifteen years ago. A group of pacifists and North European Greens had taken part, and Alex had invited me, most of all, in order to write about it: a sort of precautionary measure.
I thus learnt, through a number of northern Greens, of a particular attention to the North-South conflict (which was always and would always be central to Alex’s vision), and even a naive temptation to find some anti-imperialist worth in nationalistic, despotic and anti-Semite regimes. I learnt about the methodical attachment to consultation and democratic decision, and even reluctance to irony and an obsessive Respect of the Rules. We met Gaddafi. He angelically explained that his own Little Green Book was an anticipation of the ecological green. A cockroach moved towards him, from the sand on the carpet of the tent in which he was hosting us: with a lithe and sudden movement, the Colonel held the roach between the toes of his foot and threw it back in the sand.
It was the only ecological instance in an alarming meeting, although it did not seem like that to some of our travelling companions. I was slightly worried, even if I knew that sticking to the rule was also the key to the greatness of Don Quixote. Alexander stuck scrupulously to the rules, in order to explain to his friends and persuade them about what he deemed right; and he explained to me, in an equally patient manner, the usefulness of endless discussion, in the same way as one teaches the rudiments of a foreign language. He always worked this way, with his minority intelligence.
Alex was the son of a doctor, a Viennese non-practicing Jew, and a rigorously lay mother, and as a kid, he turned out into “a sort of self taught Catholic”. He studied at the Franciscans in Bolzano, then law in Florence, where he met Don Milani and his school for the exiled, and then sociology in Bonn and Trento. After a local militancy in Catholic activism, and then in the “informal left”, Alex joined the extra parliamentary left of Lotta Continua.
But even in that immensely important experience, he assumed a personal and “regional” autonomy. Never did he succumb to centralist temptations, which regarded his ideological projections or his daily praxis. Rather than reservations - unthinkable due to the intransigence and frankness that animated him - Alexander’s were carefully dosed antidotes. His first one was an attention towards conserving the closest links with the South Tyrol - Alto Adige, and with the people with whom he shared his formation. A sort of federalism which distinguished him from hurried assimilation, or even just from the distraction, with which most of us tended to move on in the name of the Great Cause.
His second antidote was the decision to keep for himself a definite job, a personal environment, a room for himself, separated and independent from the common rooms of a politics which tended to burn everything within it. Many years later, he said: “I looked for, together with others, a political attitude which could allow me to remain faithful to my community (or even not to be rejected by it) and at the same time not make me an enemy of the other. In order not to exhaust myself through the identification with one particular faction or situation: to be “elsewhere”. Even later, when I worked with Lotta Continua, and I had moved to Rome, I was happy to have another job, teaching, and another district, far away from Trastevere, not to always be only there, as it seemed to me that happened to others. Even if I may have envied them, because they were ‘in there’, day and night, no residual hang-ups, excuses, justifications”. Being able to speak different languages is a practical and metaphorical condition of being able to be here and elsewhere.
So now, thinking about Alex - and many others, too many, who stayed together at the time and are now nor longer among us - it seems to me that that conserved distance, that ability to be oneself notwithstanding the push towards fusion and anonymity, are the clue which reveals an involuntary quality, among many obstinate defects, of Lotta Continua. All along the many successive happenings of groupings and political hues, Alexander precociously reached a fixed point towards which he would not cease to return. It was something more unusual than choosing to stay on the side of the underdog, or the minority and the closer dimensions, or the diffidence towards all that is too big or too heavy. It was the planned result of these fundamental choices, a method.
Those who followed what I’d call Alex’s heroic effort on Yugoslavia in the last four years will not hesitate to recognise the crystal-clear inspiration, at times even striking, of the definitions he described in a talk ten years ago:
“We can call ‘realism’ that space between a particular discourse and a given situation. The principal case is the relationship between pacifism and political and diplomatic negotiation. Even here, I would try and extract a few modest tiny rules from the circumscribed experienece of ‘ethnic blocs’. The first one is that there is the need that from the bottom, from the ranks, of many traitors of their very own bloc who don’t move to the other part, who do not just simply become escapees.
These deserters must be able to count on their like in the other bloc for their credibility to grow, and for a reciprocal maturity. At a certain point, it is possible to associate, reach a high level of integration and effective unity - but on condition that a sense of belonging is still retained. To build peace someone must, without being a hero, show it’s possible and in some way experiment with the conditions for it beforehand, crossing the bridge that he struggled to build between the two parts”.
If I ask myself what made Alex so precociously and deeply sensitive to the defence of the nature we belong to, I can give two explanations. One is borne of the scenery of his homeland, the small beauty of his hometown and the massive beauty of the surrounding mountains and forests, of the tradition of respect that one can sense around there, and of the family house that Alex used to guard in a near to solemn manner.
That Tyrolese environment, which can become jealous and closed, was carried throughout Alexander’s travels like a spirit of pure air and open skies. The second explanation can be found in Alex’s religiosity, his compassion with the world, strong as only can be found in certain poets or saints. To be more precise, Alex’s burning desire, typical of all true religiosity, for conversion, metanoia, changing one’s life. Like or even more than those who loved the revolution, the ecologists, when not simply officials or experts, can recognise the call for conversion: and even the ecological jargon echoes this need, from economic reconversion to recycling.
In Alexander, this was extreme, and accompanied his political struggle, often inspiring him, other times distancing and suggesting abandonment, giving up, escaping. Alexander was attracted by the monastic lifestyle, and his private itineraries frequently included places like the San Miniato Abbey and its beautiful cemetery which he had visited the day before his death, a stone’s throw away from his Florentine home and the garden where he chose to rest for ever. There was a time when the monastic model seemed to be a precious paradigm for Green choices, and I remember the attention Alex had devoted to listening to Rudolf Bahro’s Benedictine proposal, only to choose the least conventual vocation, the one of the Barefoot Franciscans and their sandals: Alex loved sandals.
These two reasons - the love for beauty and the respect for nature, the desire for conversion - give me a painfully reversed sign when thinking about Alexander’s last night. In the field he chose to hang himself, amongst the trees, his bare feet, and even the mountain rope purchased in the most unlikely of places, a Florentine shop. And mostly in the need to convert, the desire for another life, another place, suffocated and postponed until it could be realised through a step taken towards a land from which there’ll be no return.
It would be easy, following the link between the nostalgia of conversion and the suicide, to read in Alex’s death the sign of a common political destiny. But one must shy away from such an easy conclusion. At least as much as Alex kept himself away from it, as can be seen in his last notes, and mostly where he says his desperation is without escape, but even so, it does not take away anything from what was and remains good, and from his wish that others carry on.
Alex’s suicide is his, as was particularly his own the impulse for sympathy and sharing and, to say the real word, for love, made vulnerable by that unlimited fervour, and finally maybe it fell back on itself. Alex tried to give the widest answer to the evangelical question “Who is my neighbour?”, wishing a love which could not be divisible, which would not be reduced because it had been given, except maybe having been consumed by it himself, and feeling that he was succumbing under its weight, he who seemed to come and go with the lightest of footsteps. “The light footed Empedocles”, was how Peter Kammerer saluted him yesterday at the Badia Fiesolana.
In his discussions and writings, a recurrent figure is the Traghettatore, the gigantic Saint Christopher, who carries on his shoulders the divine child and falls under his weight: the weight which is apparently light and joyful, but turns out to be unbearable.
“Dear Saint Christopher... I was a child who used to see you painted outside many small churches in the mountains... I used to tell my mother to tell me the story... Your renouncement of force and your decision to be at the service of the child offers us a beautiful parable of the ‘ecological conversion’ which is necessary today’ (1990).
Alexander’s pages on Petra Kelly and Gert Bastian, written the day after their death, in October 1992, and reiterated the year after in June 1993, when it was proposed that there had not been a double suicide, seem to us nowadays as the best description of his own desperation, and they confirm that his unexpected harrowing end had been coming from so far away. “Maybe it is too arduous for any individual to be a “Hoffnungsträger”, that is someone who raises hopes. Too great the expectations you feel around you, too many the failures and disappointments that inevitably build up, too much the envy and jealousy of which you become the target, too great the weight of love for humanity and earthly love that get intertwined and can’t be unravelled, too great the distance between that which you say and that which you manage to do”.
Nevertheless, we should neither lengthen the shadow of Alex’s death backwards, crying over a double life of his. That lightness which we knew of him was true: nor does lightness come along without effort. The fervent, enthusiastic and infinitely curious way with which Alex approached persons and things was his, even if it could prove tiring for him. They really were his, those little pieces of paper passed around during meetings, ironic, acute, or sarcastic. Alexander had strong writing qualities and sentiments, and he did leave something behind: but, like for other things, he did not have the time.
He wrote everywhere, mostly on trains, sleeping little, and was always late, always in a hurry, and with an urgent destination. As far as calm and disinterested writing is concerned, he always postponed it, like for that other life he promised to himself and to the ones he loved: at the same time, however, taking care of his writing style, such as in his letters to newspapers. I think Alexander was the best Italian political practitioner: still, the way with which he used to transmit something to the media about his incessant activities was through letters to the editor. I remember the punctilious attitude with which he would record his revenue and expenditure, and I suppose he was considered extravagant and eccentric by those newsrooms that for years headlined about the heroes and the antiheroes of corruption.
Alex was, and many of you know this from experience, a postcard writer. Writing postcards is an anticonformist literary genre, and Alex used to compensate for the hurriedness of the message by his particular attention to placing words, choosing the right image and even, time permitting, adapting the stamps to the image: and the postal systems slowness helped this greatly. I remember that Alex had also studied shorthand on his own when he was young: an intense attention and interest which makes us note Alex’s passion for things that can be translated into other things. And this made him, even in meetings he organised and chaired, a voluntary interpreter, giving a break to admirable persons who translated for a living. He also used to buy antique books: even for these, he did not wait for the time to come.
In these last days, I’ve met many friends, including Peter Schneider. We were fascinated by that image, Der Mauerspringer, “The Wall Vaulter”. Alex jumped over walls, from the most dangerous and unpredictable side. Yesterday, a factory worker from Friuli was telling the story of when, during the earthquake in Friuli, an exasperated village had sent away the careless rescuers, and Alex had decided to go there, even if advised not to. In a few days he was loved by the whole village, a and everyone was asking about him. “Where’s the German guy? Where’s the German guy?” Thus, German at home, Italian in Frankfurt, European in the Europe of citizens. Alex crossed borders. As a youngster, he was a leader, in his own way, not authoritarian but kind, trustful, nearly feminine, and he had founded his first magazine Offenes Wort, “Open Word”, and then his first group, Die Brucke, “The Bridge”.
At the end of his life, his and our scenery is dominated by the destroyed walls in Bosnia Herzegovina, the bridge in Mostar, hammered until it heaves under its weight and falls down... One must also add that in Italy, the official Italy that refuses to mirror itself in the tragedy of its neighbours, there are flags demagogically flown in the name of secession; there’s a law, in the civilized South Tyrol, a law that prevented Alexander Langer from running for office as mayor of Bolzano because he had not participated in the Ethnic Census.
Many years before the Yugoslav tragedy, Alex had paid for that refusal by being deprived of his post as professor - gained after years of legal wrangling; he had paid for it now with the outrageous exclusion from a post which he deserved most. The reaction to this outrageous episode was ridiculous, especially when compared to the grief that accompanied Alex’s death. For many, a sincere grief which broke into tears, embarrassed and hypocritical for others. The crocodile tears, in their own way, are sincere and revealing. They show that even those who tried to ignore him or silence him knew that Alex was, after all, so much better. That one can say the truth about people like him when they’re not overshadowing anyone anymore.
Alex had always considered life sacred and, with the greatest and most involved respect for women’s right, he tenaciously warned against ‘discussing abortion in a banal manner’. The battle against the arbiters of genetic manipulation and biotechnology, conducted in the European Parliament, was, as you well know, one of his greatest and most effective. Even in this case, Italian newspapers gave him little space except for some letter to the editor.
This public denial was serious when one considers Alexander’s work on Yugoslavia. Alex was a prophet like no-one else: all his civil life he prepared himself to understand and fear what was hidden there and waiting to happen. During his activity, no resource was left aside, be it intellectual, moral or material. From every trip, Alex used to return richer with new addresses, new acquaintances, and real people. In every endeavour, trip, meeting, the Verona Forum and its initiatives, a humble and rigorous persuasion dominated: the wish to let people of good will speak, those coming from the countries destroyed by nationalism and racism, and the wish to keep together, even in a loose way, a living network of relations, direct encounters, discussions. The wish not to accept war and the wish to work for peace.
In these enormous struggles, tenacious and detailed, Alex spent the best part of himself and his last years. His was a courageous challenge, sustained by the hope that brutality would die out and fade away like the apparent fury of certain storms, and that the world’s authorities could at least try to keep it at bay. But brutality has not lost its ferociousness, and has become chronic: and while the world’s authorities did not want and did not know how to realise its deep rootedness, and neither did they want to challenge it, the voices of goodwill, of reciprocal respect and tolerance were becoming weaker and more desperate. In addition, when one practices solidarity with all victims, when one works towards a dignified peace, one can temporarily leave aside questions that one cannot escape from when the reverse question arises as to how to stop a violence which, were it left to itself, would be ready to burst into total destruction.
These questions concern the confusion that arises from the indistinct notion of “war” - regular, civil, what have you -, the clear difference between aggressors and victims, the need for self defence and, on the contrary, the responsibility of not having helped and of not having deployed the efforts of a force which is there to help humanity and maintain international legality. Alex never avoided these questions. Neither did he avoid answering them unequivocally. Even though tormented by the force of a resistance which can only offer non-violent words and actions, and even if he always scrupulously had not wanted to force sentiments, opinions, and prejudices of the people with whom he had chosen to work and whom he felt he was representing.
If I can speak for myself, this meant the separation of our paths, not ideally and surely not on the human level. On the contrary. I chose to spend much of my time in Sarajevo, and to say, wherever I could be heard, what I felt was right and absolutely necessary. But I am and want to be alone, and I don’t need to measure my words according to some common or shared responsibility.
Three years ago, conversely, I hoped I could contribute with others to concretely help the victims in ex Yugoslavia, and to nurture a common solidarity which would lead to the recognition of different responsibilities and the good things that should be done and reclaimed, flying in the face of any ideological prejudice. Then I had launched a fasting dedicated to “all the victims”: a few hundreds endorsed the activity, which had some modest acclaim, and I gave this fasting as a “gift” to Alexander and the Verona Forum, in order to use it in his work.
I still remember the happy and nearly childlike gratitude with which he received this gift, which was both an investment and an absolute proof of trust. I’d also like to add the name of the person who organised together with me this initiative, with the effective dedication that distinguished her, Mariateresa Di Lascia, a radical militant. She died last year after being affected by a tumour, at the age of fourty. You will hear her name again: in the evening, after saluting Alex for the last time in the Abbey of Fiesole, Mariateresa won Italy’s most prestigious literary prize for a most beautiful novel, Passaggio in ombra, a posthumous publication.
I remember that episode above others because in every problem, and mostly in the Bosnian slaughterhouse, nothing is worse than stands and opinions being adopted once and for all (the pacifist litany, as Alex would have said, or the apriori interventionist Machiavellianism; and worse, pacifism of interventionism adopted for reasons of convenience and allegiance). The practical and effective solidarity should have been, and was so for many, the chance to get to know, and decide, on how to struggle in order to contribute towards the end of the massacre. Sarajevo besieged for 39 days, and a tragedy waiting to happen: a horror which to date no-one had even imagined.
Today Srebrenica has been abandoned. A few days ago, in our last conversation, Alex talked to me, shocked, about those who, in the name of peace, place Karadzic and Izetbegovic on the same level; those who, on the left we all belong to, refused to publish his positions and his associates’ positions; and he also talked to me about a dramatic exhaustion of his own struggle, in front of the immense and incredible violence of the barbarities being committed. In these years, Alex had fallen in love with Tuzla - every one of us has fallen in love with a suffering and struggling city: Vukovar, Sarajevo, Mostar atrociously split into two. Tuzla, with its circumscribed dimensions - not much bigger than Bolzano - proud of its independence from ethnic labels, had offered Alex a new and moving citizenship. He had told me that Tuzla’s mayor, Selim Beslagic, after his last visit to the European Parliament, organised by the Forum, had just returned to Tuzla, when the most horrendous of attacks had killed the youngsters sitting outside the bar during a summer evening.
Beslagic sent Alex a copy of a the open letters he had faxed to the UN Security Council: “If you remain silent, if even after this you do not use force as the only legal means to protect an innocent population from the crimes of Karadzic’s Serbs, then there’ll be no doubt that you were and will remain on the side of evil, darkness and fascism. You have declared Tuzla and other besieged cities in Bosnia Herzegovina as protected areas. You have exhausted all diplomatic means. Children and innocent persons are being ceaselessly killed. In the name of God and humanity, do use force now”.
Then, 26 th May: “There is only one thing that you can do. You have to bomb the artillery positions on the hills around Tuzla. You have to bomb the positions of the fascist Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia. Otherwise, there will not be any difference between you and our children’s killers. Because even in international law, collaborating with crime is a crime in itself”.
Alex was tormented by these words. He quoted them in his latest written piece. He knew, that even when everyone stops saying, as we had said before: “We are all German Jews” or “Vietnamese”, and, now: “We are all from Sarajevo” - we have not all given up, anyway - and even if we don’t think that the victims of injustice today carry within themselves the promise of salvation from every future injustice, we still cannot morally accept, thus politically, opinions which cannot be decorously sustained and discussed in front of the victims. Alex believed that, whatever the position one had on Bosnia, one must imagine explaining it to an audience in Tuzla, or in a basement in Sarajevo.
I was near him for a long time, much before as a friend rather than by political allegiance. And in a way which makes details even more important than the big issues. Most of all, I followed the long period in which Alexander, in Italy, was offered almost unavoidably the role of leader of the Green movement, when that movement’s horizon was open and promising, when it could have grouped together the good legacy of the politics of confrontation with the need for a politics which is ready to face the world’s agony through the pacific side of humanity, the politics of war and that of claiming the planet back, the politics of the enemy and of universal solidarity, of partial identity and of an attention to the past and to the future... Almost unavoidably, I have said. There were, in fact, two objections to this possible outcome: firstly, the pettiness and envies that found, in this same Green movement, a niche in which they could flourish. Secondly, Alexander’s tendency towards the grand refusal, letting go, the backdoor, going elsewhere. Had he fought, I believe he would have prevailed. I’m not saying that he should have fought.
To the contrary, he should have surrendered other times and maybe in a more radical manner, to the voice that called him elsewhere. He must have felt more than ever, like the Jonas he used to quote, preaching as an imposition, an unwanted and oppressing burden. But throughout this great voyage, Alexander never stopped thinking greater thoughts than those of the here an now, dreaming greater dreams, much larger then the tiny piles of organisational matters and bureaucratic obstacles that wanted to close him in. For a long time, many times, he was near to giving up and losing the strength to carry on. If he did falter, in an arduous moment, that’s a moment which deserves compassion and respect. Just yesterday, the Catholic Church abhorred suicide: in the Franciscan Church of Bolzano, a bishop blessed Alex quoting his last words.
If I were to address an audience of young people, I’d surely show them the beauty, the enviable richness of a life made of travels, encounters and endeavours, the languages heard and spoken, the love that characterised Alexander’s life. May they print his serious and gentle face on their T-shirts. May they meet others with his light step, and may they never lose hope.
This text was read at the commemoration ceremony at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, on July 11th, 1995.