YU-Rock!

12/13/2013 11:47 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2014

The intellectual revolutionaries of the Age of Enlightenment created a community through the exchange of letters. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, this "republic of letters" created a common intellectual language across countries and, indeed, across the Atlantic between Europe and the United States. This non-territorial republic played a role in various scientific revolutions, not to mention several political revolutions as well.

Beginning in the 1960s, a similar non-territorial republic emerged in Yugoslavia. The geography of the country was complicated enough: six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Macedonia) and two autonomous regions (Vojvodina, Kosovo). But then along came this "republic of rock." Like the intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment, the participants in this republic of rock created their own milieu, promoted their own values, and challenged the received wisdom of their elders.

They also had influence well beyond their own national borders. Young people all around Europe -- and even some in the United States -- eagerly joined this exciting new republic. Rüdiger Rossig, who was born in Germany, was also an early recruit. His involvement began in 1985 when he met a Punk from Zagreb who gave him 10 cassette tapes. Rossig contributed to the republic of rock by bringing tape recorders to Yugoslavia. Throughout high school, he took weekend trips to listen to bands all around Yugoslavia.

"After I met that guy at the seaside in 1985, I got interested in Yugoslavia," he told me in an interview in his apartment in Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin last January. "I listened to the cassettes this guy from Zagreb had given to me again and again and read every piece of information I could get. I was just 18 and recently got my driver's license. I bought a cheap car and started to drive 1,000 kilometers regularly on the weekend. Instead of going to Heidelberg or Mannheim, where the discotheques cost 50 Marks for the evening, I'd go to Zagreb and pay 20 Marks for everybody. It was pretty cool to come back to school or to the factory, where I was also working at the time, and say, 'Where have you been?' One person would say they'd gone to Frankfurt, another to London. And I'd say, 'I was in Zagreb.'"

Rossig eventually started playing in his own band, which toured both halves of Germany. Throughout he remained connected to Yugoslavia's republic of rock. Then came the wars of the 1990s, and this republic experienced the same kind of divisions as its territorial cousins.

In Serbia, Rossig told me, "the band Galija was actually quite a nice, soft, rock-ballad sort of band. I liked them - before they started playing for Milošević's Socialist Party of Serbia. On the other hand, the anti-war-band Rimtutituki was formed by members of the Partibrejkers, Električni Orgazam, and Ekatarina Velika. 'Mir Brate Mir' - 'Peace, Brothers, Peace' -- was their song, produced by Radio B92. In a way, the music scene survived during the Milošević years better in Serbia than the music scene survived under the regime of Tudjman in Croatia. There you were in a double conflict: attacked by the Chetniks and your own nationalists. In Serbia you could clearly define the enemy -- Milošević and his group -- and play against this enemy."

Despite the devastating wars, the republic of rock has endured. "There's a book called The Seventh Republic by Ante Perković, a Croatian journalist, which is the history of the Yugoslav rock scene in crisis in the 1990s and 2000s," Rossig said. "The last chapter is called 'Ona se budi?' ('Is she waking up?'). The Yugoslav rock scene has out-survived all state institutions of Yugoslavia and become transformed into a globalized rock scene."

The Yugoslav rock scene was only one of many topics we discussed in this wide-ranging conversation. Rossig lives in an apartment he squatted in the 1990s, so we talked about how squatting transformed Prenzlauer Berg. He's written a book about ex-Yugoslavs living in Germany, so we talked about the importance of puncturing German stereotypes of guestworkers. Part of his family was expelled from Poland after the redrawing of borders in the wake of World War II, so we talked about German-Polish relations. He was born in former West Germany and now lives in former East Germany, so we talked about relations between the two Germanies. We even talked about how the founder of Mercedes Benz disappointed his mother.

The Interview

I want to understand the connections you had with the music scene in Yugoslavia. You said you started out with a guy you met from Croatia.

For me, he was not from Croatia then, but clearly from Yugoslavia. Even if a lot of people won't believe it any more, Croatia and Serbia and Bosnia just wasn't an issue in the 1980s. I don't remember any discussions about that before 1989/90. After I met that guy at the seaside in 1985, I got interested in Yugoslavia. I listened to the cassettes this guy from Zagreb had given to me again and again and read every piece of information I could get. I was just 18 and recently got my driver's license. I bought a cheap car and started to drive 1,000 kilometers regularly on the weekend. Instead of going to Heidelberg or Mannheim, where the discotheques cost 50 Marks for the evening, I'd go to Zagreb and pay 20 Marks for everybody. It was pretty cool to come back to school or to the factory, where I was also working at the time, and say, "Where have you been?" One person would say they'd gone to Frankfurt, another to Mannheim. And I'd say, "I was in Zagreb."

And it wasn't just Zagreb. Hardcore punk, for instance, has had an extremely good infrastructure throughout Europe. Small hardcore punk bands that have one record with two songs on it would play at youth centers in Vinkovci in Slovenia or Pula on the Istrian coast. And you could really follow them by hitchhiking. By simply following the bands you'd go all over Yugoslavia.

So I wasn't just saying "I was in Zagreb over the weekend." I'd say, "I was in Dugo Selo, which is about 50 kilometers from Zagreb in the direction of Belgrade."

And they'd be like, "Zagreb? Dugo Selo? What the fuck are you talking about?"

People were really astonished. But actually, it was all very easy: After school or after work on Fridays, I would sit in my car with a mate, drive 1,000 kilometers, have a good sleep, go to a bar, come home at 5 in the morning, sleep again, have a great breakfast and drive back. And arrive there right on time to go to school or work.

The nightlife in Zagreb was much better than in Heidelberg or Frankfurt, places nearby where I also could have spend my weekends. But why should I? Yugoslavia was much better until the emergence of nationalism.

Nationalism for me began when I got on a train in winter to visit my girlfriend. I wore a leather jacket, looked like a typical Bierpunk or Dolfpunk (village punk), how we called ourselves then. My parents would never have allowed me to color my hair green or red. So, I l just kept my hair the color it was and wore clothing that you could use at work. We were the kinds of punk that could go to work as well, not the kind with the Mohawks. Skinheads were the Mods who didn't have the money for cheap clothing so they copied their Black neighbors who didn't have money either but were cooler than the others.

So, I got on that train and there are a bunch of guys obviously talking Serbo-Croat. I don't remember when I mentioned that I was going to "Zagreb, Yugoslavia."

They said, "Zagreb? Then you are going to Croatia, not to Yugoslavia."

I wasn't even aware that there was a difference.

"Zagreb is the capital of the Republic of Croatia and that's a part of the Yugoslav Federation," they explained. "But only because they force us to."

I asked, "Who?"

And they answered, "The Serbs and the Communists."

"Right," I said. "I'm Badish, but I have to live in the republic of Baden-Wurttemberg because the Swabians forced me to. As far as I'm concerned, I don't want to be a part of a state that has Stuttgart as the capitol. My capitol is Karlsruhe."

"No, they didn't force you," they said.

"Of course they did," I said. "First of all, they invaded us twice in the last century."

"But you can't compare that!"

"Why can't I compare that?!"

I haven't a clue how the scene in the train ended.

The second story involves us and a bunch of Zagreb punks, probably a few from Belgrade because the connection to Belgrade was very close. The bands were basically touring the whole time together, like Električni Orgazam and Prljavo Kazalište. The fans knew each other; the musicians knew each other. Bosnians got introduced later because their scene was functioning differently, which is probably due to the mountainous geography of Bosnia. We were walking around the railway station in Zagreb and an old drunkard was singing a song. My girlfriend says, "He's singing a fascist song. Why the fuck is the police not arresting him?" I said, "Why the hell should the police be interested in some local drunk idiot. Let the asshole sing. Isn't it a great development that this fascist drunkard is allowed, in a liberal socialist society, to sing his stupid songs outside and we are allowed to be angry about it? We don't need the police to handle it. Let's go and tell him to please stop singing. Let's sing a partisan song. Let's be louder." So I felt this was a part of liberation.

What year was that?

That was in 1989. I was really interested in reading everything I could get about Yugoslavia at that time. I didn't feel any harassment or danger. I would have thought -- and nobody in my circles would have thought -- that this would eventually lead to a war, the break-up of the country, and eventually the destruction of our cultural scene.

When did you first get a sense that that might happen?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.