Interview with a German Anarchist

This is the second and final installment of a conversation between Konrad, a German anarcho-environmentalist, and Sandpaper's Bill Burns.

Konrad: In Germany in the 1970s, 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 U.S., 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. 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 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. (K 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 across 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, the scene of many tough strikes against working conditions. This guy had a profound affect on me. He traveled all over working in France. 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. . . Then I left the factory for Israel in 1979.

SP: How old were you then?

Konrad: I was 28 and there were several reasons for going to Israel. First of all what had happened in Germany. Our parents did not, would not, talk about the twelve glorious years under Adolf Hitler. And so I wanted to find out about that. I wanted to know more about Fascism and the Holocaust. I thought then that the best way to do that was to go to Israel. Especially because there is a big historical archive in Jerusalem. It is the biggest archive about the Holocaust in the world. They have collected all the documents and so I particularly wanted to study the region I come from and its participation in the Holocaust. At first I lived in a kibbutz and it was kind of a disappointing experience as I expected more of a socialist experience. Then I spent six months in the archive doing research. Of course going to Israel was part of wanting to get as far away from home as possible. On the other hand I was terribly homesick having grown up in a rural, close knit environment with my comrades and family. So it was all very difficult for me but I was so curious. You know I come from a region in Germany where there are a lot of hills and valleys, and we have a saying that there are two different kinds of people, people who stay in the valley and people who want to know what is on the other side of the hill. I must see.

SP: In Israel did you find what you were looking for in the archives?

Konrad: Well it was very important to me but I cannot tell you if I found the answers or not. But what was very important was that for the first time in my life I was confronted with people from a totally different background. I grew up with my family who were all very supportive of whatever I did. Of course I had a lot of problems with my mother with my long hair. But my grandfather said. "leave him alone Jesus had long hair." (They laugh). I moved out when I was 18 but my grandmother had taught me how to cook and take care of myself. Even with the youth movement I was around people just like me. But when I went to Israel I was around people of a totally different religious background, people from all over the world. I was questioned by other people about my values and beliefs and I changed a lot. There was also the confrontation between the Arab culture and the very orthodox Jews in Jerusalem where all the religions from the entire world come; it was fascinating. And so I changed a lot. Then when I came home I realized that my friends had continued life without changing and I got very arrogant because I got very angry with them. And they got angry with me and I had to leave because I could not live there anymore. It all was too narrow. I went to Paris.

SP: Did you know someone in Paris?

Konrad: [Laughing] No, I didn't know anyone and I did not know how to speak French either. That was a very hard time. But after my experience in Israel I knew there were things that I could do. It was especially hard because the French let you die.They are not like the Americans; if you don't speak the language they just let you die--especially in Paris. I knew English, but they won't speak English. So I had to learn their language and that was very difficult and I am not very apt at learning languages; I am very slow. I have to write it down and learn it bit by bit.

SP: What kind of work did you do there?

Konrad: When you go abroad you work at everything. I worked as a mechanic, as a carpenter, whatever they needed. Often I worked in these kind of interim companies.

SP: Were these the kind of jobs that we have in this country? Were they sweatshop kinds of places?

Konrad: No. In France at that time it was Mitterand and a socialist government. In France you don't have that kind of rude capitalism that you have here in the States. Everything is organized. They have to pay you holidays and an extra ten per cent on your whole salary when you leave. And after three months in an interim company you earned the right to an apprenticeship. It's changing now but in that time you did not have that kind of rude capitalism. What was different in France from Germany was a kind of class-consciousness. In Germany class-consciousness is not very developed because of the partnership between the corporations and unions. In France you had that old kind of capitalism, you know, where I say how things go and you have to obey. In Germany they listen to you and give you the impression that you have something to say. So France was different. Socialism yes but with some aspects of rude capitalism and that was my first experience of it. In some ways it's good because as a worker you know where you stand under rude capitalism. It's very clear. The French culture was difficult for me because I was used to the Protestant work ethic where you try to improve your work. I had an Arab fellow worker from Algeria who said to me, "Why are you working like that? What are you thinking about?" I told him I was trying to facilitate our work to make it go faster or to invent things to make it easier. He said, "It's the same payment whether you do all this or not." From France I went to Italy and worked there for a small company--mostly in the south of Italy. I was a member of the FAI, which is part of the Anarchist Syndicalist International Worker's Association, which has been around since the early 1920s. In both France and Italy I met old anarchists. And that was a new experience for me.

SP: An experience I have never had.

Konrad: And I talked quite a bit with them and did interviews with those who were most interesting. The anarchist movement in Italy as in France with its long history is very traditional. At a meeting men talk and women make the coffee. Although they have very good women anarchists, it's a very male culture. And they mainly focus as a group on anti-clerical issues (against the Catholic church) which is understandable in Italy, and also anti military issues. They were not so much into the ecological movement.

SP: How about on-the-job kinds of things?

Konrad: They had a very small anarchist union in Italy but with only 200 members. I was a member of this union but also of the mainstream one where I was a shop steward. But then after two years I got fired. I clashed with my boss when he realized that I was agitating among the workers.

SP: How long were you in France and Italy?

Konrad: Well I spent two years in France, then two years in Italy. Then six months in the Basque country and then I went to Africa for three months. And then I went back home. I went to work for a large company in Germany and I tried to build up a union in this factory. And I did that for five years and then I got laid off because they downsized.

SP: So all through the '80s you were travelling.

Konrad: Yes I came back in 1987 and then by 1994 I was downsized and they offered me some money and I did not resist much. I was approaching forty years of age and thinking I should do something else with my life. This was the last push. First I wrote two books about our youth movement, together with a friend of mine. (Author's note: these books are in German and can be found in the Autonomous Zone library in Chicago). That was a two or three year project. I did a lot of research and extensive interviews with all the people involved, including the other side, like our ex-mayor. It was all very interesting. And then I started studying in 1994 in Hamburg, Germany, because in Hamburg there is a special university for people like me. Normally you can study in Germany only when you have a high school diploma. But in the university I went to they let you take an exam; if you pass you can study. It was very very difficult for me because I had to do basic studies like mathematics. Many times I was close to giving up but I guess the discipline I learned in studying languages carried me through. I also went to that university because they have a very good exchange program with universities all over the world, in Tanzania, in Australia, in Malaysia, and in the U.S., and I already knew that I wanted to go to the United States. America was an old dream of mine, because I was very socialized by American culture: the music, the movies, reading about the American Indians in books by James Fenimore Cooper when I was young. The books were romanticized but they awakened in me an interest in native peoples. And then when all the political movements started with the American Indian Movement, and Wounded Knee and things like that, my interest grew. We had delegations of native peoples come to Europe. They went to Geneva, Switzerland and we organized their tours through Germany. So I understood the American dream but on the other hand America was the enemy: the beast, the capitalist beast. There were a lot of resentments and prejudices in regards to going to America. You know I was always kind of ambivalent. And finally I told myself you have to go. You have to find out what America is. Also I met a lot of Americans on my travels around the world. And you know the Americans that go abroad are bourgeois kids. And they behave like that. So I had a lot of prejudices formed. The American soldiers were enclosed in their army camps, they did not go out. So there was no occasion to meet proletariat Americans. So in 1996 I went to New York City for one week and I was fascinated. It was the first time in my life I saw such skyscrapers. I went to Central Park at five in the morning because with the jet lag I could not sleep. I went running, thinking I would be the only one and then I met hundreds of crazy Americans running at five a.m. with all kinds of bikes and roller blades and children in special jogger strollers. I just never had seen all this before. It's a crazy town. I went to Washington D.C. too and saw the Holocaust Museum; it's the best that I've ever seen. I am so impressed with American museums. They are the best. So after seeing all this on my visit I had to come to the States and Hamburg has its university here and that's how I ended up here.

SP: Did you know anything about Chicago before you came here?

Konrad: Well I had read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and I read about the German anarchists in Chicago with the Haymarket executions. And, of course, I knew the Chicago blues scene. I came to Chicago and I was fascinated. I say to everybody Chicago is the most fascinating city in the world. At least among the cities I know, Paris, New York, Berlin and Rome. It's because Chicago is the heart and soul of capitalism. What you can see here is the rude capitalism. It's unlike New York, which is a very European city, and with its culture covers up things.

SP: Yup Chicago's like the hub of the Midwest. Many of my relatives were born here but grew up in different places.

Konrad: I was thinking just two months ago about how cruel the conditions were among the workers in The Jungle and you know great cruelty still exists. But on the other side you also have that tradition in Chicago of resistance. Starting in the last century with the Pullman strikes, Haymarket, and Mother Jones up until recently with the UPS strike and many forms of resistance from strikes, anti war marches, the Panthers and on and on. The other thing about Chicago is how segregated it is. This was a surprise because I had heard that the US was a melting pot. It is not that way in Chicago. Everything is so labeled here. I have never been in a society in which everything is so labeled. And I had difficulties with that. But people insist on that. And I continue to be so fascinated by Chicago. To me it's like Alice in Wonderland. Every time I ride my bike after midnight and I see all the lights that make up the skyline, and the lake shimmering in the moonlight for me it's magical. But then there are all the contradictions not only in Chicago but the US. This TV culture, Monica Lewinsky, and the air attacks on Iraq. There is such an arrogance and yet ignorance that the U.S. has. Sometimes I don't think I can stand it any more. People believe that the CIA gives them the right information and yet for years and years it has lied to them.

SP: Yep that sums it up, the ignorance and arrogance.

Konrad: The CIA assassinates leaders around the world and they keep doing it and getting away with it. When you begin to understand a society - its structures and how it works - that's hard.

SP: It's the belly of the beast and it controls the whole world.

Konrad: And what is fascinating and what is part of the beast is how Chicago is ruled: by the machine of the old Daley and now the young Daley and they have co-opted various ethnic groups. And then by good luck I met you and other Chicago anarchists.

SP: How did you find out about us?

Konrad: Well we had a professor at the university and we were talking politics and he told us about a Marxist bookstore, the New World Resource Center, and we were talking to a guy there and he told us there was also an Anarchist bookstore called the Autonomous Zone. And so I met you and the other people and you were sitting outside the Autonomous Zone having a collective meeting and you all were very open and invited me and that's how I met all of you and eventually over time I became more involved and began to organize different events. I have found it very easy to get in contact with people here. People are less formal than they are in Germany. I just felt very comfortable with you all. It was very important to me to see that there were people living against the mainstream. Because the mainstream here is very strong.

SP: Yes it is, very seductive.

Konrad: It's stronger than it is in Germany. Then step by step I learned that there is a lot of resistance in Chicago. Not only Anarchists but various community organizations and people from the churches and Food Not Bombs, and there are a lot of things going on. But the difficulty is in getting the information. In terms of the Autonomous Zone, I was very much impressed with your welcome and also with the kind of meetings that you have. I liked the way you started your meetings with check-in where you talked about how you were doing and feeling. But I only discovered after four or five months that you had consensus. And I have to say I am not a big fan of consensus. We tried that out when I was a part of the youth movement in Germany. Buy my experience is that consensus is leveling down. There are differences and you can't get over that and if you want to find consensus you have to find the lowest common denominator. My experience in Germany is that we denied leadership. Being German we were particularly concerned about the question of authority. Leaders grew out of the movement and egos or co-opting distanced them from it. Our first principal in the squatting movement was to fight against leadership. Anyone who tried to stick out from the mass was brought back. We cut our leaders off. It's a good thing on the one hand but it's also bad because it cuts off initiative and creativity. And I think you cut off a kind of leadership that is necessary to bring forward a movement. You need those people who are good organizers to push things forward. And you also have people who have intuition and who are aware of where political movements are and are going. So if you depend too much on consensus and keep people from sticking out, you kill that kind of sensitivity. I am not saying that you have to go back to the traditional kind of leadership that the communists had. It's just that sticking to consensus like at the A-Zone can become too fundamentalist. Because we are still learning the process there is a tendency to stick to the letter of the law instead of being flexible. Sometimes things did not really have heat and passion - heating is important to make positions clear. The anarchist movement is badly organized. As anarchists, we sell ourselves badly. Maybe it sounds bad to say so but we are all part of a market and we have to sell ourselves to let people know we exist.

SP: Yes there has been a tendency in Chicago for the anarchist movement to ghettoize itself, and we have to find a way to reach a lot of different kinds of folks.

Konrad: Yah, that's the problem. When you stay in your own ghetto, you only get confirmation. It's been my experience during my world travels that it's important to build alliances, appreciate differences and learn to build connections with people. And sometimes to win certain battles, you have to ally yourself with people who are very different from you. Especially as an anarchist oftentimes you are the only one; you have to know how to work with others. The danger is that you'll lose your beliefs, that you'll be co-opted.

SP: What, if anything, surprised you about your experiences in the U.S.?

Konrad: I was surprised that I did not find the melting pot of peoples--such separation. Also, the capitalist system is so rude here. What's going on now is that they are selling the American capitalist system in Germany. They're selling the idea that America is the land of opportunity and everyone can make a living. But when you look closer and see how it works here, you know it is an evil system. And they are selling this particular capitalism--with its attack on unions and the slashing of social services--all over the world. You see the reality of people needing three or four jobs to make a living and the working conditions and the number of workers that die every day on construction sites. Then you understand how it really works and how rude capitalism is. What really surprised me is that there is no real big resistance to this capitalism because most people still believe in this fucking "american dream." People believe that you can make it if you work hard enough even though all the evidence disproves it; all the statistics and sociological research shows that you can't leave your class.

SP: Would you say that the resistance movement in the U.S. is comparable to other places in the world? Would you say that people in other parts of the world are more aware of the oppression that they face?

Konrad: That's a very interesting question because the strikes that are going on against neo-liberalism in Europe are among workers employed by the State. There are no large segments of the industrial sector going on strike against downsizing and neoliberal politics. The only people going on strike are people in secure jobs--when you work for the state or some transport companies you can't lose your job; the same is true for teachers. What is of note, something that captured the entire world's attention, was the private sector strike, among UPS workers. Everyone in Europe was talking about the UPS strike.

SP: I think we live in a world in which at a very early age, people are exposed to TV and all kinds of technology that really put them in a different way of looking at the world. It's almost like we are detached from reality when reality could be staring us right in the face. As far as most people are concerned the real world is right there in that TV box, and the chasing of commodities and whatever. It's almost like people have gone to a different place in their heads. I really think that is what has occurred. There is a detachment that has taken place. And unfortunately, the technology is being exported worldwide and it's fragmenting and destroying cultures that have existed for thousands of years.

Konrad: Well I am ambivalent about what you say because I am a big fan of popular culture, the movies, the music and yet I see also the dangers you are talking about. But on the other side it's a kind of fascinating thing, TV, etc. It provides fairy tales and people need that. And I think in our political movements we are concentrated too much on the rational side and not enough on irrational. When I look at the Autonomous Zone we don't talk about our personal lives. We still have that split between the personal and the political. We don't talk about our relationship problems or our sexuality. That's taboo. I was not used to that. In Germany because of our links to the feminist movement these things were talked about more openly. We questioned our relationships, our sexuality, and we talked about these things for hours.

SP: Well you and I are of a particular generation; when I came up in the late '60s and early '70s these kinds of things were talked about. But this is a different generation.

Konrad: Yah but I think they have the same problems that we have. So there is very much a need to talk about these things. But it is difficult. It requires trust.

SP: What do you see yourself doing when you go back to Germany? And what are some of the things you have missed about your homeland?

Konrad: Well I don't know yet what I will be doing in the future because I have to graduate first and then I have to think about what to do with the next 20 years of my wage-earning future. Sometimes I think about going back to the factory because I do not like the intellectual world of the university. But I am too old to go back to the factory. I have a lot of experience but it doesn't count anymore. They want 25-year-old people. So I don't know. I am an organizer you know. I must get things done. So theoretical and intellectual work is not for me. But I don't know which field I can do that in. My experience is that whenever I went to other countries, I was very afraid in the beginning about where to find a job and being able to live in a different culture. But I found that even in the most desperate situation something always comes up.

SP: Well maybe you'll make a circle and come right back to Chicago.

Konrad: [Laughing] I would like to stay in Chicago very much but that's very difficult because of the fucking green card. We'll see. My experience in traveling around the world is that there exists a spirit of liberty and rebelliousness among all kinds of people, not just Anarchists. A small child, an older person, among all classes a desire to find truth and meaning and it enables you to communicate with them regardless of their class, ethnicity or language. And this I have done.

SP: Thank you Konrad for sharing your life with us.

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