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Remembering Alex Langer, a real citizen of Europe

By Roberto Della Seta

It happened twenty years ago, on the 3rd of July 1995: Alexander Langer ended his life by hanging himself from an apricot tree at Pian de’ Giullari, close to Florence. He left a note with the following words: “Don’t be sad, continue doing what is right.”

At the time of his death, at the age of 49, Langer was an Italian Member of the European Parliament, and co-president of the Green Group. He was one of the main protagonists of the social movements of 1968, a renowned journalist, as well as the founder and recognised leader of the Italian Greens. But above all, Langer was an intellectual, as well as an original and surprising politician. He was seldom accommodating, either for his adversaries, or for his comrades.

His persona was first and foremost defined by his life and upbringing. Born in Vipiteno, Bolzano, he was Italian by citizenship but his mother tongue was German (his father was of Austrian of Jewish origin, while his mother was German-Italian from South Tyrol). In his thinking he was well ahead of his time and more progressive than the historical context in which he lived. Already at a very young age, he refused to think according to the logic, still in place today, of the kinds of “ethnic cages” that require the inhabitants of South Tyrol to formally declare their membership of one of three language groups of the province (Italian, German, Ladin) in order to access the rights of citizenship. For this “conscientious objection”, his candidacy for mayor of Bolzano, in early 1995, was rejected.

A champion of cultural identities

In reality, Langer attached great significance to cultural identities, including the feeling of belonging to a group and culture by virtue of language. This he saw as a valuable root, and part of an almost naturalistic relationship that connected each person to his or her homeland. From this point of view his thinking was more German than Italian, but at the same time he has also thought of himself as a citizen of Europe, and was driven by a strong cosmopolitan spirit.

For Langer, a multicultural and multiethnic society was a value in itself for civilisation, and more than just a necessity. According to this vision, which occupied within him a depth comparable to a kind of secular religion, he experienced with increasing pain the drama of the war in the former Yugoslavia, and made every possible effort to convince Europe and its polticians to act quickly and effectively to put an end to the ethnic war ravaging Bosnia.

This episode was quite central for the political biography of Langer, but at the same time it was also a major turning point for him, in the sense that his views led to a conflict between Langer, “the man of peace” and many members of the peace movement who refused – on principle – any use of military intervention in the former Yugoslavia.

Against this fundamental pacifism, Langer set out the necessity – which for him was more a moral imperative than a political choice – of creating, out of this abhorrent massacre taking place the heart of Europe, “a strong international authority capable of threatening as well as using military force, alongside the more significant tools of diplomacy, economic integration and truthful information, in just the same way as the police within each state.”

Langer’s desperate commitment to the idea of humanitarian intervention in the former Yugoslavia, was countered by the cruel irony of fate: Langer committed suicide on July 3rd 1995, and a week later, on July 11, in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica – city that was formally under the protection of the “blue helmet” peacekeepers of the United Nations – thousands of Bosnian Muslims were massacred by the army of the Bosnian Serbs, under the command of General Ratko Mladic.

Exposing the fallacy of politics

It’s hard to tell how Langer would have reacted to the trauma of today’s Europe, torn between the resurgence of nationalism and the “post-democratic” turn of the European institutions. What is certain is that he has always fought for a “post-nationalistic” Europe based on institutions with strong democratic legitimacy.

In his thinking and in his environmental, Green activism, Langer was a pioneer. He was the first elected ecologist in an Italian legislature – the Bolzano provincial council – which he entered in 1978, and a founder of the national list of the Greens for the political elections in 1987, at which they won 15 seats in Parliament. For Langer, his task in order to tackle the environmental crisis was not only to radically challenge many of the principles that formed the basis of all great political traditions of twentieth century Europe – including the myth of unlimited economic growth – but also to the idea of progress and the notions of thinking in terms of left and right politics. In an article in 1985, he wrote: “(…) the Green discourse can expose the fallacy that lies in the ‘conservatism’ of the right and in the ‘progressiveness’ of the left, indicating a truly liberated anachronistic solution of polarisation between the right and left. Therefore it is not necessary for the Greens to be an appendix or a copy-cat of the left, they can be completely autonomous and should strive to connect with elements of tradition and ‘conservation’”.

The ecological transition

The environmentalist thought of Langer upsets the concept of modernity. A few months prior to his death, speaking at a conference in the city of Assisi, he said that there is a passage in the Olympic motto ‘citius, altius, fortius’ (faster, higher stronger), that is crucial for ecological thinking. It symbolises the competitive way of life that has been driving us for centuries. Instead of this we need to follow the opposite maxim ‘lentius, profundius, suavius’ (slower, deeper, milder), which helps us establish a realistic project aimed at reconciliation between humankind and the ecosystems.

In the case of Langer, unlike many other committed intellectuals and also unlike most supporters of ‘deep ecology’, this very radical vision has nothing aristocratic or elitist about it. In this sense, it can be said that Alex Langer was a full-time politician, and we must add that his voluntary and early death was one of the main causes of the political decline of the Italian Greens.

According to Langer, in order to achieve an ecological transformation of society and the economy, the process has to be “socially desirable” for the majority of people. Thus, if environmentalists and Greens want to win their democratic battle, they need to propose solutions built on the model designed by a and concrete changes which are able to meet the needs and aspirations of women and men, outside of any mythology, as illusory as it is unacceptable, of an ecological ‘new man’, build on the model designed by a cenacle of wise people.

Twenty years after the suicide of Alex Langer, the most fundamental question for environmentalists has not changed; as he put it in a speech in 1994: “for us, the main task is not to establish what we should and what we should not do, but to elicit the kinds of motivations and impulses that allow for the necessary changes to be made.” There is of course an alternative to this option: to condemn political ecology to remain merely a symptom of the ills which it rails against without ever becoming the remedy to heal them. Just as the Trappist monks of the Middle Ages would repeat the same transfixing mantra over and over again: “Remember that you will die.”

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