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A Life Worth Admiring:
Interview with a German Anarchist


The following interview with Konrad Gerber, conducted by Bill of the Sandpaper Collective and also a long-time Anarchist, took place in early September 1998. We present this interview to our readers because we believe the life Konrad has led is exemplary; he has traveled widely and seen much. Konrad, whose name has been changed for the purposes of this interview, has always been willing to live life on the edge. His Anarchism is very human and warm without a hint of dogmatism, and therefore he makes real friends wherever he goes. We present a valued friend to you.

 

Konrad: I am 44 years old from a small village in southern Germany. We speak a special dialect of German which is called Swabian. I grew up in a Vitner family. My Grandfather makes wine. Our family has made wine since the 1600s. I grew up in a family with three generations under one roof. It determined my life a lot because my Grandfather was a kind of peasant philosopher and he taught me a lot. His openness has made me open to new things always in my life. From an early age I went to the fields to help. As he got older I did more and more of the work. It was hard work but good work. As we walked the fields he would talk and I would listen.


SP: I know the feeling. My Grandfather was not progressive but I hung around him a lot. He was a salesman over the road and I would travel with him. He could talk a storm and I would sit there in awe.


Konrad: Yah well my Grandfather the vitner as a rule was not progressive. He was a traditional man. But an exception in terms of philosophy and his closeness and understanding of nature. He was also a sportsman. A part of the German gymnasium movement where students were skilled in a variety of sports such as weight lifting, gymnastics, et cetera. This is my Grandfather on my mother's side. My father came from another small town. His father was from a working class background and was a member of the U.S.E.D., which was a splinter group that split off from the Social Democratic party. This U.S.E.D. later became the German Communist party.

You know, there is an interesting theory I read two or three years ago that says that Anarchism tends to develop in rural economies. The guy says that when you grow up in a rural environment with big families where the kinship is very important and then industrialization comes in and destroys what you knew. You then try to recreate that kind of community cooperative as part of a revolutionary movement. Look at the rebellion in Mexico with Zapata, the Anarchist movement in Spain, the Diggers in England in the 1600s, and the Mahknovists in the Ukraine and on and on.


SP: Yeah it makes sense.


Konrad: So maybe there is something to it. I came in touch with Anarchism when I was 18 or 19 years old. Because what happened was that industrialization began to destroy the old rural community that I was a part of. So we started then going to nearby towns for high school.


SP: Were you bused?


Konrad: No we went by bike. Ya, this town where I went was near a major town where there were still revolutionary currents flowing left over from 1968. So I began to encounter new ideas such as Anarchism, and even more important for me at that age was the new music. It was the Beat music or as our parents called it monkey music.


SP: Yeah, I think I've heard that a time or two.


Konrad: Or African music they called it. Well they weren't too wrong. They didn't know anything about the roots of rock and roll but they were quite close to the truth. Ya, the problem was we could not hear our music at home. We did not have radios, recorders, or disc players. Unimaginable is it not today. We did not have a TV until 1968 to see the Olympics. My first political memory has to do with the 1968 Olympics. For you see I was very good in sports and I followed the track and field events especially. So when Black athletes from the U.S., Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of Olympic medals in the 200 meters, accepted their medals on the victory stage, they raised their hands in the Black Power salute in protest against racism in the U.S. They Olympic committee then took away their hard-won medals. They were then banned from the Olympics and forced to leave the team. I was so upset at the unfairness of it all. And so I started reading everything that I could get my hands on, about the conditions of Blacks in the U.S. I discovered Black Power, the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, and the Soledad Brothers. And this led me deeper into the music of protest, of Folk and Blues music. I bought all the music of Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie, and Blues singers such as Sonny Terry, Leadbelly, and Brown and McGee.

So I was encountering new ideas and music and my world was changing so quickly. And then we met a young minister, a progressive guy from a Protestant working class background like us, who was going into the factories to assist the workers. He also taught religion in our class at school. And so we talked with him to create a kind of space for us in the church. Where we could listen to our music and dance and do what we called "Standing Blues" to songs like "Hey Jude."
You know we would be standing close and "grinding" for seven and a half minutes.

And ah we met every day and after awhile it got to be self-organized because the Minister left after a year. Seems he got in trouble with the church hierarchies who did not appreciate his organizing efforts.

So that was the beginning in 1968 of a self-organized youth movement which was the first one in Germany, and one of the most important because it was very radical and it was in a rural area and it became quite famous throughout Germany.

That's where I got my political socialization. Ya, we early clashed with the local authorities. As I said we first met in church but then we got problems with the church because of our politics so then we went to the Mayor and asked him to give us a house and first he refused but then we fought for three or four years and so we got our space to play our music and be together...We continued to clash with the local bourgeoisie, the shop owners, and other old-fashioned people. But we also had a lot of support from so-called intellectuals, teachers, and from some of our parents. Interestingly also by our Grandparents who came up in the time of Hitler. And in the time of Hitler, youth were separate and were organizing themselves and so to our Grandparents youth self-organizing was natural...

We also clashed with the local political parties especially the Social Democratic party. That's why our movement never ran the danger of becoming reformist because right away we were seen as a danger by the Social Democratic people who understood immediately that they could not control us or co-opt us. And so they were our worst enemies and that pushed us farther and farther to the "left"....

But in 1975 they took away the house that we had gotten from the village. Because the village wanted us to sign a contract taking away our right to self-organization and we resisted. So we began meeting on the street for half a year and then we organized a squat and we conquered our house in 1977 and it was very spectacular. There were police everywhere and television and radio broadcasts all over.


SP: How many people would you say you had?


Konrad: We had 20 comrades. It was our second squat. The first had failed because we did not prepare it but this time we used the lessons we had learned and made good preparations. Everything was done clandestinely. We chose 20 reliable people and no talking. It was a difficult decision because we had to leave out some people.

When it became known throughout Germany we began to get a lot of support. We were never able to get a majority of the population of the town behind us, but we did get half and that paralyzed the powers that be. They could not act. So after three months we won!

The squat was such an intensive time. You know the night we did the squat and we were talking to the mayor by phone and the police were on the outside just waiting to storm our house and then after all the negotiations finally the breakthrough and then we – we had survived the most important moment and that was like, you know, an orgasm, it's like a feeling you can't describe, it gives you such a rush. I did not sleep for thre nights, I was on such a high. I only had this feeling one time in my life but I will never forget it. And this squat became famous all over Germany because normally squats are done in cities but ours was the first in a small village.

SP: Tell us about your involvement with the environmental movement in Germany.

Konrad: In Germany, the focus on the environment started in the rural areas because the government wanted to build nuclear power plants there. They figured that in the rural areas they would encounter the least resistance.

SP: Just like the waste disposal plants nowadays in the US that are being put among poor folks and people of color.

Konrad: Yah, Yah, like the landfills that are being put in Indiana, and what they're putting in the Black Hills in lands sacred to the Lakota (Native People). But in Germany the government's plan did not work. The so-called "peasants" organized themselves and along with the Non-Dogmatic Movement prevented the nuclear power plants from being built. There was one famous region in particular where both sides came together in all our battles. We all squatted the grounds where a nuclear power plant was to be built. It was very hard to do and it was only on our third attempt at squatting that we were successful. With precise organization and tactics of non-violence we were finally successful. Our victory had a ripple effect all over the country. From then on no more Nuclear Power plants were built in Germany.

SP: What a tremendous victory.

Konrad: Yah, after this the Ecological Movement became very successful, and the rural communities woke up and got radicalized and politicized. The Green Party was formed in 1976 out of the
combined actions of the rural areas and the Non-Dogmatic Movement.

SP: Did these Nuclear Power plants have U.S. money backing them?

Konrad:Yah. They were all Westinghouse-owned and controlled.

SP: Was your grandfather alive during this struggle? What did he think about the Nuclear Power Plants?

Konrad: For him, this technology was evil. After World War One he had to go work in a Mercedes Benz steel plant and he never forgot it. My grandfather was not a Christian. He was more of an animist; he believed in the soul of nature and that everything was spirit. I'd also like to say something about my Grandmother. She was very Christian but never had time to go to church because she had four children to raise and a farm to run; she worked from sunrise to sunset. She was a deeply religious woman and had the kind of faith that gives you a strong personality. She kept an open house - anyone could come in and she always had something for them to eat. I was so impressed with her as a kid and I have tried to retain her tradition of sharing. It was people like my grandparents; rural people that I believe have given a special strength to the Ecological Movement in Germany.

Now I would like to talk about my work experiences that were taking place in the same period that we were squatting and building the Non Dogmatic movement. I first became politicized as far back as my high school years and began contesting the school authorities. They did not like this and kicked me out of school. I had to find work and so I began an apprenticeship. The system in Germany is a little bit different than in the States. Normally when you work as a craftsman you first do a three-year apprenticeship in a company or in a small shop. During the apprenticeship you work four days and go to school one day. The school is organized by the State but you are also under the control of the company or factory. You are under capitalist rule and you learn how to adjust and how to work and you live under the protestant work ethic from seven o'clock in the morning 'til four o'clock in the afternoon. That was a very hard time for me, you know, to adapt to that kind of rhythm-- especially getting up early. I had to get up at five o'clock in the morning and commute to the factory where I worked with 13,000 other people for an outfit called Bosch, a car supplier.

SP: That must have been a lot different from going to the fields with your grandfather every day and being in nature?

Konrad: Yah, I had a lot of difficulties adapting to the capitalist regime. But they have good methods to break the horses (laughs). You definitely learn discipline as well as another important part of the protestant work ethic: when you do something always plan ahead. I signed up for the metal workers trade. It's different in Germany: one trade, one union. Even if you have metal workers in different factories, they all belong to the same union all across Germany. In my second year at Bosch, I was elected a shop steward.

SP: How old were you?

Konrad: Twenty or twenty-one.

SP: Is that unusual to be elected a shop steward at such a young age?

Konrad: I was the shop steward for the apprentices so it was not unusual. But I made quite a career of it. Bosch had 200,000 employees and about 4,000 apprentices in Germany and I was president of different shop committees across the country. Therefore I dealt with Bosch management regarding the problems of young workers. It was a very interesting experience. You see by law in Germany, unions and management have to work together; on the board of directors of an enterprise there are also workers' representatives, elected by the workers. If the company wanted to change anything for the apprentices they would have to talk to us.

I was a shop steward for four years. And during that time I was part of a nationwide organization that was the left opposition within the metal workers union. We were well organized and we had congresses every three months during which we met with professors and social scientists to discuss social and working conditions. This kind of learning exchange between academics and workers does not exist anymore in this age of neo-liberalism. But at that time there were a lot of leftist academics wanting to meet with militant workers in healthy dialogue. Well sometimes it was difficult. These intellectuals had to learn to speak like normal and we had to learn to overcome our working class prejudices against their kind.

During this time period I met a guy from Italy who worked in a Fiat factory in Turin, Italy the scene of many tough strikes against working conditions. This guy had a profound affect on me. He traveled all over working in France etc. He was an anarchist and also fluent in three languages. He had a lot of knowledge about social conditions and I was so impressed with him that I vowed that I would travel like him and organize. . .

So then I left the factory for Israel in 1979.


The conclusion of this article will appear in our first edition of the new millennium.


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