Barbarians are Coming from the East:
Laibach in Trbovlje
When I’ve tried to describe Laibach to the uninitiated, the best analogy I’ve come up with is, “Laibach is what would emerge if you were to take a group of industrial musicians and a group of political scientists and lock them in a gallery containing nothing but fascist, Communist, and modernist art for a year and then released them.” But this is also inadequate, since Laibach has changed their musical style every few years since they first began, and have touched nearly every musical genre at some point in their history – always marked by their own unique interpretation, of course. Even calling Laibach a “band” is rather misleading, since it suggests that they have something in common with the likes of Beyoncé and Justin Bieber. Apart from the difference in aesthetics, Laibach has always presented itself in a manner that is the polar opposite of the usual way a pop band is presented – namely by fetishizing the lifestyles and personalities of its members. Laibach has always represented itself as a collective, and in the days before Wikipedia, even discovering the names of its members – their lineup has changed multiple times over the years – took a bit of effort, let alone anything about their private lives.
Attempting to present a brief history of Laibach is rather challenging, although I’ll try to provide the highlights – this documentary also relates quite a bit of it. The significance of the name Laibach is derived from the fact that it was the original German name of Slovenia’s capital, today known as Ljubljana, and its use persisted from the Middle Ages up until 1918, and significantly, the city was known this way again when it was under German occupation during the Second World War. The band Laibach was founded in the Slovene coal mining town of Trbovlje in 1980. They courted controversy from their earliest days, adopting a fascistic style which alarmed the Communist authorities, and their early music, which was as much noise as recognizable tunes, was extremely brutal and militaristic. The art they developed to accompany their activities also occasionally took elements from fascist and National Socialist sources and combined them with the slogans and symbolism of the Yugoslavian Communist regime – and the way in which the two seamlessly blended together embarrassed the Communist authorities.
All of these factors led to Laibach being banned in Slovenia for several years during the mid-1980s, although they continued to develop their work and tour in other countries. In 1984, Laibach also gave rise to an affiliated art movement, Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK, German for “New Slovene Art”), which included departments devoted to painting, theater, dance, film, and philosophy. In the early 1990s, NSK proclaimed itself a “virtual state in time,” a sovereign state with no physical territory, and began issuing passports to anyone who wanted to become a citizen. (Friend of Counter-Currents Charles Krafft, who was Laibach’s official photographer during their 1995 NSK consulate event and concert in Sarajevo, has told me that his passport was seized at the airport upon his return to the US for being a fraudulent document, but that it was ultimately returned to him when he made the case that it was a work of art.) NSK continues to this day, and still issues passports on demand for 24 euros, although Laibach has since left the movement and now conducts its artistic endeavors under the Laibach Kunst moniker.
By the late 1980s, after extensive touring, Laibach had developed a following across both Eastern and Western Europe, as well as in the United States. Their early music, which was highly abstract and industrial, gradually gave way in the mid-1980s to covers of songs by other bands, invariably redone in the totalitarian style that Laibach had been honing from its beginnings. The first such example, and the most fascistic of all their work (the LP itself was adorned with a swastika designed by the German anti-fascist artist John Heartfield), was the 1987 album Opus Dei, which included fascist renderings, sometimes translated into German, of songs from Queen and the Austrian europop band Opus. They went on to cover the entire Beatles album, Let It Be, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” as well as the musical Jesus Christ Superstars. In the 1990s Laibach also ventured into techno territory with their album Kapital. Since their 2003 entry, WAT, Laibach has been producing mostly original work in their own unique, dark style, which, like their earlier work, draws equally from both pop and high cultural references. Indeed, the only consistent thing about the band throughout the years besides its Slovene flavor has been their totalitarian aesthetic – sometimes done with deadly seriousness, other times in a manner that seems to be bordering on parody, but which never quite goes over that line. It is thus perhaps quite fitting that in 2015 Laibach became the first Western band to ever play in North Korea, a feat they repeated earlier this year.
The important thing to note about Laibach is that, in spite of the fact that their work and aesthetic are saturated with political language, concepts, and imagery, and there are occasional hints at contemporary events (such as 2003’s “Now You Will Pay” from WAT, which is clearly about Islamic terrorism and immigration), they have never explicitly advocated for any particular political ideology or cause. Indeed, in a controversial interview they gave to Slovene television in 1983, they stated, “We are not interested in actual political problems,” which has basically been the stance that they have taken ever since. Laibach has frequently released statements and interviews throughout the years, but when speaking about their political attitudes, they invariably answer in vague, and occasionally humorous, cryptic and often philosophical terms, such as when on one occasion they were asked if they were fascists, and they responded, “We are as much fascists as Hitler was a painter.”
Nevertheless, many critics have attempted to read political meaning into their works, and the inevitable accusations of both fascism and Communism have continued to follow them up to the present day. (Not that the band seems to be bothered by this in the least.) Some of them have claimed that their early merging of Communist slogans with fascist art was an attempt to undermine the Yugoslavian Communist authority in its waning years using irony. The famed Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek, however, who has been a defender and advocate of Laibach’s work from its earliest days, has rejected this interpretation, claiming that it is rather Laibach’s intention to be unironic – in fact, absolutely unironic. In Žižek’s view, every political system inherently contains its own opposite, hidden behind the official state ideology, but which is nonetheless an essential feature of that system and without which it could not operate – in the case of liberal democracy, this being totalitarianism (and a totalitarian approach to ideas veiled in language about “tolerance” and so forth is certainly a vital element of the modern liberal state, as Rightist activists everywhere are painfully aware these days). Thus, for Žižek, Laibach brings this hidden reverse to the fore by uncovering these hidden suppositions and then presenting and embodying them in an absolutely serious manner. As with all art, this is of course only one possible interpretation, but given that Žižek has been invited to participate in many films and events presented by Laibach throughout its history, it is logical to conclude that at the very least the band must be sympathetic to this understanding of their work. Regardless, I do believe that there are reasons to read a certain implicit political – dare I say metapolitical – project into their work, but I will discuss that later.
I first heard about Laibach in 1996, when a friend of mine told me about the documentary on Laibach, Predictions of Fire, which was then airing on the Bravo network, saying that he thought it was the sort of thing that would appeal to me. As I didn’t own a television at the time, and as this was in the days before YouTube, I didn’t see the film until many years later, but I did go to the local music shop (back when such things still existed) and found a number of Laibach’s albums for sale. Fortuitously, as it’s still my favorite, I selected Opus Dei. When I first listened to it, I was both amazed and puzzled at the same time – knowing nothing about the history of the band, it seemed as if it was something that had slipped sideways into our reality from an alternate universe where the Third Reich had won the war. Finding out more about them, and moreover, figuring out what the hell it was they were doing, became a minor obsession. I soon tracked down everything by them, and later from NSK, that I could find, and although I soon realized that Laibach were not in fact fascists or Communists, it was quite evident that they were doing totalitarian art in a way that was superior to how the fascists and Communists themselves had done it. And really, it is the very “mystery” behind the group that is part of the fun in studying them. I’ve been an avid follower of their work ever since, and although I was fortunate enough to see them in concert a number of times, it was long a dream of mine to see them perform in their hometown, Trbovlje. So when not long ago I heard that Laibach was holding a “special event” there for their fans, on October 29, I knew I had to be there. And indeed, as I was to discover, it is impossible to fully understand Laibach without having experienced both Slovenia and Trbovlje.
My Counter-Currents colleague, Michael Polignano, and I set out by train from Budapest to attend the event. I had never been to Slovenia before, so even the journey itself was quite an experience. Eastern Hungary is flat for the most part, as is the westernmost part of Slovenia, both of them being in the Pannonian Basin, but before long one finds oneself in the Alps, amidst scenery that would not be out of place in Austria or Bavaria: tiny villages nestled between rivers, forests, and mountains, in some cases with the villages themselves running up the slopes so that one can occasionally see a church steeple sprouting up from near a mountaintop. We stayed in Ljubljana, which is a charming Austro-Hungarian city also showing Italian influences, and which is absolutely brimming with museums and public art – clearly, art is something very much embedded in the Slovene consciousness.
Trbovlje itself, which is about an hour’s train ride from Ljubljana, seems to be the Slovene equivalent of West Virginia, being known primarily for coal mining and heavy industry. One of my Slovene identitarian friends warned me that we were going to “one of the worst places in Slovenia,” but when we got off at the station, it didn’t seem all that terrible. We were greeted by the sight of many factories and power plants (some of which I recognized from Laibach’s concert videos), but also more breathtaking vistas of mountains and forests of trees in autumn colors – something which still astounds me, as someone who grew up on flat, featureless Long Island. While much of Trbovlje consists of the sort of anonymous, block-style apartment buildings that are a legacy of Communism all over Eastern Europe, it certainly didn’t seem to be as unpleasant as the Slovenes seem to think it is.
We headed into town and enjoyed a lunch of Ćevapcici – a traditionally Balkan dish, but commonly found in Slovenia as well, consisting of veal sausages served with flatbread, onions, and ajvar (a red pepper sauce) – and then headed over to Delavski Dom, where a tour of the area was supposed to begin. I could tell we were in the right place by the fact that there was a large group of people dressed all in black (as was I). We were met by Zoran Poznič, a Trbovlje native who had been one of the founding members of Laibach, but who had soon left the group to become a sculptor, while still remaining on friendly terms with the group. A decade ago he returned to the town to convert Delavski Dom, which was then abandoned (more on this site later), into an art museum, which he did, and he remains its director today. Mr. Poznič had a charming, masculine, uninhibited, down-to-earth character of the sort that one frequently comes across in Eastern Europe.
We were first given a bus tour of the town and its surrounding area. Trbovlje was originally established as a mining town in 1804, but in a story that is all too familiar all over the West, all of its mining and industrial operations ceased earlier this year – apparently due to safety concerns pertaining to the potentially explosive gases that are sometimes released in the mines, as well as the danger from flash-floods stemming from underground leaks that can occur suddenly and unexpectedly, although it seemed odd that this would only be deemed a problem after nearly 220 years of successful mining with, according to our tour guides, relatively few accidents.
Mr. Poznič told us much about the town’s history. It has a long tradition of revolutionary activism, as its workers had begun agitating for more rights and better working conditions already in the 1920s. Trbovlje’s people, he said, have always tended to be “socialist anarchists.” This continued even after the introduction of Communism, as the workers of Trbovlje went on strike in 1958 – the first strike ever carried out in Communist Yugoslavia, in fact. It was a town where the workers collaborated on many social construction projects. Mr. Poznič said that, until the announcement that the mines were to be closed, for generations every man had known from birth where he would go to school, where he would work, and where he would ultimately spend his retirement.
The Trbovlje Power Station also has the distinction of being the location of Europe’s tallest chimney at 1,180 feet – or, as Mr. Poznič referred to it, “Europe’s biggest phallic symbol.” The chimney was constructed to solve the problem of the gases from the plant becoming trapped in the town’s valley. Its engineers realized that by building a chimney of such a height, the gases would dissipate into the atmosphere and eventually come down in nearby Italy – which, he said with a smile, was fine by them, since “everybody here hates the Italians,” referring to the problematic relations between Slovenia and Italy throughout history.
In the hills surrounding the town were also apartment blocks for the families of the miners, including where Mr. Poznič himself was born and grew up, but all of them have since been dismantled and have now vanished without a trace, and the grounds themselves have been completely overgrown. In fact, we could only see the area through the bus’ windows, since he explained that it was now forbidden to enter the area on foot due to the hazards resulting from the closed mine shafts.
Trbovlje was still a thriving coal mining area when Laibach was founded in 1980, although Mr. Poznič explained that its decline had already begun by then, as in the 1970s Yugoslavia’s declining economy spurred many of the town’s skilled workers, whose families had lived there for generations, to leave and seek work in Western Europe, and they were replaced by new workers who were in many cases completely unskilled and uneducated. Since that time, he explained, Trbovlje’s industries began to decline, and the town underwent a serious wave of drug and crime problems, but t has since recovered and developed itself into a hub of the tech industry. In recent years, several companies dedicated to digital effects, virtual reality, and robotics have been established and are now thriving (some of their work is on display in the town’s high-tech coal mining museum), and these industries are now seen as the area’s future.
One could detect a melancholy tone in Mr. Poznič’s voice as he reflected on the town’s history, as should only be expected from someone who has seen his hometown destroyed and then rise from the ashes in a completely different form. And yet he still seemed confident and excited about its future. Nevertheless, a number of times during the tour he mentioned that he was trying to imagine what the town must look like through our eyes as newcomers, and that it must “look like Pakistan” to us, implying that it must appear completely run down and degenerate. But really, that was not the impression I got from the place at all; apart from its beautiful natural scenery, the town was clean, quiet, and well-ordered, like any small European town, and certainly unlike anywhere I went while I was in India (perhaps Pakistan is better ordered, but that strikes me as unlikely). In fact Mike and I had dinner at an excellent restaurant that evening called K5; the nature and quality of its cuisine was certainly several orders of magnitude higher than anything one is likely to find in the average Midwestern American small town.
Of Laibach itself and its artistic circles, Mr. Poznič told us that there were fifty to sixty people from Trbovlje who had been there at the beginning, but he said that all but a few of them are dead, many from suicide, or are in mental institutions. He pointed out that all of Laibach’s founding members had been born within a kilometer of each other in the town, which he regarded as a noteworthy coincidence.
The next part of the tour brought us back to Delavski Dom, where Laibach was to hold a dress rehearsal of their new tour that evening. The building was originally a community cultural center that had been built by the collective, voluntary labor of the workers of Trbovlje in the 1950s. Mr. Poznič pointed out that the floors of the building were made from karstic marble, being one of only two buildings in Slovenia to contain the material, the other being the National Assembly building in Ljubljana. The reason for this, he explained, is that the marble for the Assembly, which was also built in the 1950s, was brought to Ljubljana by train on tracks that passed through the town, and that the townspeople had simply forced one of the trains to stop and seized all the marble they needed. When word reached Ljubljana, the authorities called the town’s Mayor and angrily demanded that the marble be returned, to which he replied, “Come and get it.” They never came, and the marble remains in the building to this day.
For reasons that weren’t made entirely clear to me, by the late 1970s the building was no longer in use, and Laibach used to hold its earliest sessions in the abandoned complex by candlelight. Mr. Poznič said that the local police were suspicious of them and disliked their activities, and he said he received what he referred to as his “first beating” at their hands when they were taken from the building one night, driven out of town, and beaten, and that he and his comrades had then been forced to walk back into town, bloodied, while everyone else was on their way to work in the morning. This was an important illustration of the fact that, for the members of the early Laibach, art was not merely a game being played by the members of a pampered elite as it is in the West today, but was an activity that entailed very real risk and consequences.
Today, Delavski Dom, which has been beautifully restored, is a vibrant art museum and performance venue which has featured not only Laibach events and retrospectives, but also hosted work from international artists, and serves as a center for Trbovlje’s own burgeoning artistic and musical community. The last part of the tour was conducted in the recently-opened coal mining museum, located next to Delavski Dom, and where virtual reality technology is employed to show visitors what working in the mines was like and how its operations were conducted.
In the evening we were treated to the final dress rehearsal of Laibach’s new tour for their latest album, Also Sprach Zarathustra, based upon Nietzsche’s text of the same name. Those of us diehard fans who had come for the occasion were joined by the band members’ friends and family. The music was originally composed by Laibach for a Slovene stage performance based on Zarathustra, and then considerably adapted in order to be suitable for a concert presentation.
While I was overjoyed to be able to fulfill my longtime dream of seeing Laibach perform in their hometown, and the experience was an unforgettable one, I have to admit that this is not my favorite album of theirs. Any Laibach production is worth experiencing, and Nietzsche is an inherently interesting subject, but much of the music has more the character of background music, I felt, than something dramatic enough to stand on its own. Only the lyrical “Vor Sonnen-Aufgang,” which has been released online accompanying a very beautiful video, and which features the band’s sole female member, Mina Špiler, on vocals, seems destined to stand beside Laibach’s most memorable pieces. The set certainly lacks the power, complexity, and absorbing appeal of their last full-length album, Spectre. I overheard another audience member talking with Ivan Novak, the band’s spokesman, who mentioned that this album reminded him of Laibach’s early industrial music, and Novak agreed. I can see the similarity, but nevertheless it seems to me that their latest work lacks the drive and originality of their primordial era. Perhaps the album will grow on me over time, but this has been my reaction to it so far.
The first half of the concert consisted of all of the “songs” (if all of them qualify as such) from Also Sprach Zarathustra apart from “Die Unschuld I.” The second half, which I have to admit was much more engaging for me, was a selection of pieces from their earlier albums, as well as some that I believe may be new and unreleased, or at least which had been altered to such a degree that I didn’t recognize them. It’s hard to be certain as even the songs I did recognize were extensively redone, not just musically but their lyrics as well. The ones I did identify were “Anti-Semitism” and “Hell: Symmetry” from WAT, “Brat Moj” from Anthems, “Wirtschaft ist tot” and “Le Privilege des morts” from Kapital (the latter of which was accompanied, as it has been in previous performances, by projections of video clips from Yukio Mishima’s film of his own short story, “Patriotism”), and “Ti, ki izzivaš” from Nova Akropola. For encores they did “Bossanova” and their cover of the blues classic “See that My Grave is Kept Clean,” both from Spectre.
For the last part of the event, we were again taken by bus to the top of nearby Mount Kum, which has been featured in many of Laibach’s videos, especially those from the 1980s. The trip up the mountain, which was rather treacherous for a vehicle of that size (everyone aboard applauded when we reached the top), took about an hour, but when disembarked I immediately recognized the scene from the soul-stirring (for me), übervölkisch video for the Laibach song “The Great Seal” from Opus Dei, which is part of their 1988 film, Victory Under the Sun. At the peak of Mount Kum is a church dating from the seventeenth century, an enormous radio transmitter, and an inn, which Mr. Novak later mentioned had originally been built and owned by his family (with others). My only disappointment was that, given that it was the middle of the night, the breathtaking views one sees in the videos were not visible, but alas, that can be an objective for another visit.
Eager to get inside the inn to escape the chilly winds that were sweeping the peak that night, we were nonetheless delighted to be greeted at the entrance by a small Alpine band in traditional clothes which played a few old German songs. When we got inside we were greeted with more Ćevapcici, Slovene soup, and copious amounts of wine and beer, backed up by a DJ spinning, among other tunes, obscure early Kraftwerk songs (to my nerdy delight). The band members mixed freely with the crowd throughout the night. I couldn’t think of anything to say to the newer members that wouldn’t be silly and trite (“Thanks for a great concert!”), although it was interesting to see that Mina Špiler is not cold and frightening in person, as she appears on stage, not just because of her demeanor but also due to her tiny stature, which is less apparent when she is performing, no doubt an effect induced by the power of her voice.
I had intended to seek out the last two members who have remained from Laibach’s original, 1980s lineup: the aforementioned Ivan Novak, who used to be part of the band itself but has now retreated to backstage activities and acts as the group’s public representative; and Milan Fras, their legendary lead vocalist who is renowned for his ultra-deep voice, which lends a dark resonance to Laibach’s lyrics unmatched by any other band. I was able to talk briefly with Mr. Novak, thanking him for the many years of pleasure and intellectual stimulation that his work has given me, and asked him a question that has been on my mind for twenty-one years: did they start Laibach with any particular aesthetic, cultural, or political goal in mind? “We just didn’t want to play music that was metal or rock, like everybody else,” he said. I’m not sure if he was being bluntly honest or if he just didn’t feel like engaging in a lengthy conversation with a fan, but that was his answer, and I didn’t press him.
He asked me what I thought of their latest album, and asked me to “be honest,” so I was, and admitted that while I liked it, it wasn’t my favorite. He asked me which was my favorite album, and he seemed a bit disappointed when I said Opus Dei. I quickly added that I liked all of their work, but that WAT and Spectre were both great albums, completely reinventing Laibach’s musical aesthetic in interesting new ways. I also mentioned Let It Be, which surprised him, and he said, “But that’s just a cover album!” to which I replied, “Yes, but at the time I found it, I was living in a house full of hippies, and I used to put it on to annoy them,” and he laughed. Someone else asked him why they had chosen the mountaintop, which required a long and treacherous journey up the slopes, for the party, and Mr. Novak replied that that was precisely the point, that it was a demanding effort to get there, and that they wanted the fans to see this place, as they consider it to be their own special ground, and which is where they have held many celebrations over the years. Anyone who has seen the breathtaking video for “The Great Seal” can surely relate to the sense that he was describing.
Throughout the evening, I looked for Mr. Fras, and not seeing him, figured that he had decided not to come. But a longtime Slovene follower of the group who I spoke to after we had left told me that he had in fact been present, and I had simply failed to recognize him. Thinking back, I realized who he had been, but I had been fooled by the fact that he was wearing glasses, was wearing ordinary clothes, and was also shorter than he has always been in my mind – a testament to the ability of Laibach’s performances to project images of power that far transcend the individual members.
It was a wonderful day, and one that I hope they might repeat, and likewise again open to their dedicated followers, in future tours. Only six days later they gave the first public concert of the Zarathustra tour in Budapest, which I also attended, and while it was great to see the final product, there were few differences between it and the rehearsal we had seen in Trbovlje.
So what did I, as a longtime follower of Laibach, take away from this experience? What was most deeply impressed upon me is the degree to which they are an expression of the culture of both Slovenia and Trbovlje, and to a larger extent Central Europe: after the concert in Budapest, one of my Hungarian friends even remarked on how quintessentially Central European Laibach’s style and aesthetics really are. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think it’s even possible to fully understand Laibach without experiencing the place where they are from.
Indeed, a great deal of the symbolism that have made use of over the years that has been accused of being “fascist” in the West is in actuality specific to their native land. For example, Laibach is famous for often dressing in all black, military-style uniforms; in fact, as Mr. Poznič informed us during the tour, they are based on traditional Trbovlje coal miners’ uniforms, which were, as he put it, in the “SS style,” even though they predated the SS: black with silver buttons. Similarly, Laibach Kunst has frequently made use of the symbol of a Futurist-styled gear, and of a hammer crossed with an axe – both are in fact the traditional symbols of Trbovlje. Likewise with Laibach’s frequent depiction of deer antlers – these are often found in the official symbolism of both Slovenia and Ljubljana. And some have seen the fact that the band, while being Slovene, frequently sings in German as an indication that they are some sort of neo-Nazi germanophiles, when in fact, during the era of the Holy Roman Empire, Slovenia was in a political union with present-day Austria and Bavaria, and its language and culture is just as deeply marked by German as by Slavic influences.
This is not to say that Laibach has been innocently making use of such symbolism without realizing the way it will be taken by outsiders. On the contrary, it is certain that it is precisely this double meaning, and the resulting ambiguity, which they have been playing with all this time. Likewise, it cannot be questioned that Laibach has also made use of imagery that is very explicitly derived from fascist and Communist sources – as well as from anti-fascist and anti-Communist sources.
And this brings us back to the question that has been central to the band’s popularity all along: what are they promoting? Is there some hidden political agenda at work? Or is it all just some artistic game, and Laibach is privately laughing at all the attempts to read meaning into what they’re doing?
I would answer no to both of those questions, but with the qualification that, as I suggested before, I do believe there is an implicitly metapolitical message in Laibach. I do not adhere to the view of some, also rejected by Žižek, that they are simply good liberals who make use of fascism and Communism in order to undermine non-liberal ideologies and reinforce the neoliberal order. I could cite many examples of an inherent critique of liberalism in their imagery and lyrics, but one that springs to mind is the song “No History” from Spectre, the lyrics of which are quite clearly a critique of the modern West: one of the song’s refrains is “No commandments on the wall / No god, no rules to scare you all,” they say, perhaps with sarcasm, and the song ends with:
Use the wisdom of ancient sages
Call out for heroes
Who will be the creed
Of a new political faith
Use the language of misunderstanding
Occupy Wall Street
And judge the intentions of those we don’t trust
Also, their controversial choice to play in North Korea, over the objections of many Western liberals, and their further declaration in interviews that North Korea is in fact “better than Europe today,” suggests that they are quite cognizant of the fact that neoliberal progressivism is a utopian illusion.
So, is Laibach calling for a return to either fascism or Communism, or perhaps for some National Bolshevist synthesis of the two? No. What I think Laibach is, and has, been doing is, rather like the European New Right, pointing out the fact that the West has lost its soul in the course of adopting neoliberalism. Their embrace of fascist and Communist imagery is not ironic; rather, it is an assertion of the fact that fascism and Communism, in spite of the claims of liberals, were not aberrations in the Western tradition, but were in fact as much a part and parcel of the West as is liberalism itself. One cannot help but sense the grandeur inherent in the totalitarian imagery of which Laibach makes use. It is not merely parody or a warning. It is also a reminder of a heroic vision that we have lost in condemning everything that frightens the liberal mindset to the dustbin of history. Also like the European New Right, I believe that Laibach searches through these traditions to discover what in them is still useful, and what was bad in them that brought about their failures and which needs to be rejected. And this is why Laibach makes use not just of totalitarian imagery, but of references to both high and pop culture; and makes reference to artists, events, and thinkers from both recent and more distant history. One is reminded of their song “Tanz mit Laibach” from WAT, which seems to be a sort of credo for the group, in which Milan Fras sings (in German), “We dance with totalitarianism and with democracy, we dance with fascism and red anarchy.” Laibach is all, and yet none, of these things at the same time. And this is why the traditional symbolism of a coal mining town in Slovenia can be so easily mistaken for fascist art: such imagery is inherently Western; it belongs to an aesthetic tradition which became embedded in fascism, but which also predates it and has an existence and meaning independent of it. Just like the Western cultural tradition itself. Fascism is indeed the hidden reverse of today’s liberal order; it, and everything it has been associated with, is also something repressed, and Laibach is thus releasing it from its cage.
Moreover, I do believe that we should see Laibach as being, at least in some sense, Slovene nationalists. Apart from their totalitarian aesthetic, the only other element that has been absolutely consistent throughout their career is their use of Slovene symbols, history, ideas, and art – both traditional and modern. This also sets them apart from their contemporaries, since they embrace their national identity rather than see it as something reactionary and problematic, as in the West, where anything that tears down social cohesion or tradition is celebrated as a triumph. But this is unsurprising in an East-Central European band, and again marks them as something specifically Slovene, since a refusal to give up one’s communal identity in favor of the deracinated “New European” offered by Brussels and Merkel is very much a characteristic of all the peoples of the former Eastern bloc. And of course, the fact that they hail from Trbovlje, a town with a long revolutionary, anti-establishment tradition, and where, as we were told on the tour, people are “socialist anarchists,” suggests to me that Laibach is in fact furthering their local traditions rather than rejecting them and trying to turn their countrymen into good liberals. It often strikes people who are only familiar with the Anglo-American political tradition as odd, but in Central and Eastern Europe, this blending of nationalism with socialist ideals is a long tradition, and Laibach’s imagery could be seen as an artistic expression of this spirit.
This seems to me to be what makes Laibach so unique and fascinating. We cannot divorce Laibach from their European, Slovene, or Trbovlje roots, even while they also keep up with all the latest cultural trends, giving all of it their own particular spin and unafraid to combine usually contradictory elements. All of this combines in them to produce something entirely unique in today’s cultural landscape. In an age when most rock stars are either celebrating decadence or romanticizing alienation and cultural suicide, Laibach actually dares to suggest that our lives have a deeper meaning than what neoliberalism and the New World Order allows for.
If you’re new to Laibach, I encourage you to check out their music and their art, much of which can be found online, and if possible, see them live. You might just be embarking on an intellectual adventure that could last for the rest of your life. As the band itself has said, “Laibach is a noble mission that demands fanaticism!”
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Remembering Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: December 11, 1918–August 3, 2008