I knew next to nothing about Langer, so the information on his life and thought was mostly taken from Giulia Allegrini's account of Langer's life Anima nomade (Nomadic spirit) in an anthology of his writings published by Terredimezzo for Altra Economia edizioni scarl and Cart'armata edizioni srl. Indeed, the words and quotations in italics in my text are direct translations from it. The rest is my responsibility. 

The Fondazione Alexander Langer Stiftung (Alexander Langer Foundation) website also provided useful material.


A brief introduction to Alex Langer


Historical background of the South Tyrol

In his letter to St. Christopher, Alexander Langer makes reference to St. Christopher's wading across the dangerous river with a baby (Christ) on his shoulders as the 'Great Cause'. Langer himself would function as a sort of St. Christopher, acting as a bridge between people, groups, opposing factions and so on. One of his great skills was to recognise that certain people, though hailing from very different, and sometimes conflictual, sides could work together on certain issues, and he was able to put them into contact with each other. He had had a good training for he was born in Sterzing/Vitipeno in the South Tyrol in the North-East of Italy. This had once been an integral part of the Austrian Tyrol, but was given to Italy at the end of the First World War. In 1919 the South Tyrol thus became Alto Adige. Fascism carried out a policy of enforced Italianisation, transferring tens of thousands of people from other regions and imposing the exclusive use of the Italian language. Tensions and instability followed. In 1939 after Hitler had annexed Austria, he and Mussolini forced a painful choice on the German- and Ladina-speaking peoples: to opt between Italian or German citizenship. Choosing the latter meant they had to abandon their land. In 1946 the then Italian Prime minister, Alcide de Gasperi (an Austrian citizen before the events of 1919), together with the Austrian Prime Minister Karl Gruber, agreed the principle of special autonomous administration for the provinces of Trento and Bolzano, which was accepted by the constituent Assembly in 1948. The following year those who had opted for German citizenship were given the opportunity to return to the South Tyrol. However, ethnic conflict, petty nationalism and terrorism would be rife for some time afterwards.



Langer was born in 1946 into a family that was 'very tolerant and certainly did not bear hatred for anyone from a different ethnic group'. They had Italian friends,..., sent Alex to an Italian nursery school and felt particularly strongly that all their children should learn both languages. The second half of the fifties was a period of terrorist attacks on the part of hardline Tyrolese secessionists and one day when he was about twelve or thirteen years old he asked his mother 'why don't we hate Italians?' He then went to high school in Bolzano, where ethnic differences were deeply felt, and stayed with some relatives in an Italian quarter. It was during this period that he understood what it feels like to be a 'minority', and above all what ethnic, linguistic and national identity mean.


Ethnic conflict

Langer later wrote, 'This conflict of [ethno-linguistic] loyalty was so strong that I realised that all the others at school hated the Italians and at that point I didn't know whether I should hate them, too, without understanding in the slightest why I should. Anyway, at the very least because they had occupied our land, I told myself'. He found a way out at the age of eighteen, when he and his friends formed a mixed group of boys and girls from German-. Italian- and Ladina-speaking backgrounds to study their history together, trying to get to the bottom of each side's omissions and reticence, and revealing the stereotypes each side had about the other. The aim was to 'experience what living side-by-side in an inter-ethnic situation really meant'. An alternative to conflict. Many years later he would say 'Nowadays, when I find myself faced with ethnic conflict, first of all I try to see if there is some group that can manage to bring together people from the various factions... the first thing I ask myself is "Is there someone who has scaled the wall of enmity?" '


Florence and 'The Bridge'

In 1964 he went to Florence to study Law. It was a time of dialogue between Catholics and Communists, and Langer frequently attended meetings and debates, and made various friends, among whom many leading figures of the day. He kept up to date on happenings back home and in 1967 together with others founded a monthly review Die Brücke (The Bridge), which would be published till the end of 1969. He writes 'We don't always agree on everything: when I write about the need for a "new left" (November 1967) and to manage to arrive at a multi-ethnic organisation in South Tyrol politics (1968), the editing group [part of a German-speaking university students' collective] points out these are only my ideas...on the whole Die Brücke showed that the young native Tyrolese left was capable of walking on its own two feet.'


Germany and the Green movement

He went back home in 1968 and taught in high schools till 1972. This was followed by a period of research on comparative constitutional law in Bonn. In 1972 he got his second degree, in Sociology, with a dissertation, together with Bruno Lovano, entitled 'For an anlysis of the classes and social contradictions in Alto Adige-South Tyrol.' He returned to Germany, where he remained until the summer of 1975. There he set up 'an authentic political and social observatory on the countries in Northern and Central Europe', through which he came into contact with Germans, Austrians, immigrants, militants, scholars and various sorts of groups. It was also in Germany that he came into contact with pacifist, ecological and environmental groups. On his return to Italy in the eighties he became one of the founders of the Green movement: 'people cross my bridge in both directions,' he said, 'and I'm glad to be able to help the circulation of ideas and people.'


Regional Councillor and declaration of ethnic language group

From 1975-78 he taught in high schools in Rome, but decided to go back to the South Tyrol because 'something needed to be done': 'From behind Kaser's coffin [a young, dissident poet friend] I saw friends and companions again, after so many years...in two minds as to whether to turn their back on their homeland, leaving the insignificant, despotic local godfathers and the people that back them up to stew in their own juice, or to gather together our strength and try once more, to pick up the conversation where we had let it drop so many years ago.' Langer, after a long period away from his homeland, decided to try again. A few months after Kaser's funeral an inter-ethnic movement was founded, with the help of the Radical Party, called the Neue Linke (The New Left). In the 1978 elections they received 10,000 votes and unexpectedly became the fourth force in the province. Langer was elected councillor in the Regional Council and made his first speech in both German and Italian. Between 1978 and 1983 the inter-ethnic movement spread widely. The height of its activity coincided with protests against the 1981 general census which was used to measure the consistency of linguistic groups and which till then had been anonymous. This time it was to be recorded under the person's name: each citizen had to decide which linguistic group they belonged to. The declaration was valid for ten years and could bring certain social advantages (housing and jobs in the civil service), and political ones (passive electorate) in those sectors that a norm in the Statute subdivides proportionately between language groups. For Langer, and many others who decided to oppose it, this was institutionalising ethnic conflict, ... splitting people up according to their group. Five thousand people, among whom Langer and his mother, refused to sign the document. The repercussions were not long in arriving. A request he had made to be transferred from a grammar school in Rome to one in Bolzano -- and which had been accepted -- was revoked. The reason being because he had not declared his linguistic group and therefore could not be considered a German-speaking Tyrolese. On 17th December he resigned from his position as councillor, as foreseen by the New Left movement, which had decided it would be covered on a language rotation basis. In 1983 a new political group was founded 'The Alternative List for the South Tyrol' and in November he was elected councillor once again.


Change has to be 'cultural'

The Alternative List's main aim was to get away from the inflexible differences between groups, which could be summed up in 'you're either for me or against me', and put forward another way which 'favours meetings, dialogue, common commitment, democracy not split into ethnic parcels.' Change has to be 'cultural', has to come from daily conduct in civil society and not only through laws. This is a fundamental aspect of Langer's way of seeing things and acting -- starting from daily life, carrying out experiments, activating single individuals and groups. Something he will try to implement later on in countries, [e.g. the Balkans], devastated by civil wars and ethnic cleansing; where it is the civil population that is most damaged, where its social fabric is torn to shreds.


Sowing Green seeds

The eighties saw the rise of Green lists and the founding of the Green movement, as we have already seen. The Greens entered Parliament in 1987. Langer saw that the movement would turn into a Party, with all the problems that brings, so, together with a small group of like-minded people, he suggested the Party be dissolved so as to go back to doing politics with the people. The 1989 European elections saw the formation of a grassroots group called the 'Green European Council', which represented ecological-pacifist movements and associations. Although he distanced himself more and more from the inner life of the Green Party, he was elected to represent it twice in Europe in 1989 and 1994.


Civil society

Even though he held political posts, he was convinced that real changes would come about from civil society, which was a laboratory for coming up with and experimenting 'best practices'. Thus, as usual, he always tried to form a bridge between society and politics. ... Therefore he tried to promote the idea of a representative political organisation which would respect and not betray ethical, human values ... and make use of the resources and voices of individual citizens for a real, common, civil, cultural and social change. ... 'The Greens' for Langer were the third way "something 'other' than the channelling current in political dialectic'.



As a member of the European Parliament he took part in numerous initiatives on environmental, ecological and peace issues organised by civil associations and so on, and thus his personal network of contacts grew considerably. He writes 'In the past perhaps I learned more from books. More recently I seem to learn more from the meetings I happen to take part in. (Perhaps it was like that before, and my memory is playing tricks)'.


The West's model of development

This is the period in which he reflects on the West's model of development based on exploiting and depleting the earth's resources in order to pursue a policy of unending growth, thereby building up an 'ecological debt' which others will have to pay off -- those in far-off countries, the poor and future generations. Langer sees that the aim should not be to bring the South and East into this enormous, mad competition, or search for ways to offset the damage done to the Earth, but to abandon this untrammelled desire for development and recognise that the South is not the North's debtor, but, on the contrary, its creditor. He writes countless articles on the subject, ... takes part in meetings and debates and enters into contact with people in other countries who have long been saying the same things, like Ivan Illich, Wolfgang Sachs, Vandana Shiva.


The typical Langer approach

On 15th April 1988 the "Campagna Nord-Sud: biosfera, sopravvivenza dei popoli, debito" (North-South Campaign: biosphere, survival of peoples, debt) took place in Rome. This international meeting was attended by environmentalists, associations, n.g.o.'s, unions, groups working with indigenous peoples and so on. Langer often found himself spokesman for the Campaign, giving speeches and taking part in conventios at home and abroad, and as a member of the European Parliament he brought some political clout to it. In one of his speeches we see the typical Langer approach: he points out that the 'ecological debt' is already coming back on us and the policy it has sprung from is not only 'homicide' but 'suicide'. The financial debt that countries in the South face 'forces them to pillage their own environment, which, however, we benefit from. The system carried out by countries in the North accelerates this process and leads to further destruction.' One of the solutions is 'to forge direct links, of cooperation and interchange. Of solidarity between the peoples in the South and those in the North. In order for it to be a little less abstract, we think that these links of real reciprocity and interdependence should have eyes, ears, mouths, hands, feet; using above all those who have understood this, and who are putting it into practice, as "builders of bridges".' Then he mentions that this Campaign, together with similar campaigns in other countries and above all those countries directly interested, n.g.o.'s, unions etc. from the South, could indicate some mechanisms to insert in the statutes that govern the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on the occasion of their meeting that September in Berlin. To this end members of the Italian Campaign will seek to start working on this project with the Italian government right away. This could be flanked by the organisation of meetings with Parliamentary groups and individual members of the government so as to arrive at Berlin not only as a group of representatives of civil society but also with political backing. Then he suggests setting up an observatory to study the socio-environmental impact of international cooperation and the debt. Finally, he appeals to the 'bridge-builders' -- all those who have already forged links with groups in the south, from associations to missionaries, from unions to skilled workers actually teaching their skills in countries in the South of the world, to those pacifist groups who have understood that intervention is necessary not only for a single war, but to create structural conditions for peaceful relations between peoples -- to raise awareness about the importance of forging links of reciprocity.


Changing lifestyle

Each single one of us in the North can make a difference by simply adopting a more sober lifestyle, a more critical lifestyle, more aware of the repercussions choices in how we live can have on those who live in far-off countries, on the environment, on child labour. This means choosing to 'live better with less'. This means changing from 'going faster, aiming higher, getting stronger' to living 'more slowly, deeply, softly'.


The Berlin Wall, Albania ex-Yugoslavia

In 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn down and Eastern European countries hoped for integration. The response from Western European countries was one of exclusivity. Little by little some of them were able to satisfy the criteria for membership of the European Union, while others had to wait, and are still waiting. Langer was dismayed by the reaction and pointed out that 'Maastricht ... shows itself to be a plan for only the Europe of the rich or those states that are at least able to keep pace with the single market.... The rich brother was never really happy about the return of the prodigal son, whom he hoped was lost forever, out of his sight; otherwise he may have to share his inheritance.' His visit to Albania in 1990 brought home to him the deep need for a many-sided Europe where local and regional needs find space alongside a supranational structure which does not annul the differences, but recognises them as values. He went as an envoy for the Political Commission of the European Parliament to prepare a report and a proposal for establishing relations between Albania and the European community. ... Thanks to his efforts the European Parliament approved a resolution in 1991 which paved the way for normal, stable relations between the European Community and Albania. When, that same year, there was the proclamation by Slovenia and Croatia of independence from Yugoslavia, he saw the inherent dangers of this action and tried to involve the European Community as a guarantor of non-aggression against those countries and as an institution that could promote dialogue between the Yugoslavian parties involved. He also appealed to the democratic, pacifist and ecological forces within the European Comminity to promote inter-ethnic solidarity in Yugoslavia and among its republics. Once again the 'bridge-builders' and those who had 'scaled the wall of enmity' were called into play. In September 1992 the 'Verona Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in ex-Yugoslavia', which he had worked tirelessly to promote, took place. This was a sort of peace conference where representatives from various regions of ex-Yugoslavia were able to meet on neutral ground accompanied by people not directly involved in the conflict who had their trust.


Delusion and suicide

The start of the nineties, however, was a period of delusion: in 1991 the ethnic census with one's language group recorded under your name was held again in the South Tyrol; there was an electoral reform in Italy (which in his opinion was not adequate) from proportional representation to first-past-the-post and a premium of extra seats in parliament for the winning party; political debates had become 'extremely normal and often boring', where everything is taken for granted, there are no surprises, people go to be seen, and heard; he has the 'acute feeling that messages launched by the mass-media, politicians, advertising, at conferences contain untruths....People are thirsting for simple, true messages, from actual experience, not blown out of proportion so as to make a greater impact, attract attention or curiosity'; Petra Kelly, leader of the German Greens, and her partner, Gert Bastian, committed suicide. In October 1992 he wrote: 'Perhaps it is too hard to be "bringers of hope'' individually: you feel others' expectations weighing on you; too many delusions and non-fulfillment of obligations inevitably accumulate; too much envy and jealousy, too much love for humanity and for humans that intertwine, but come to nothing; too great the gap between what you proclaim and what you manage to do'; in 1993 he even considered retiring from public life; there seemed to be no solution to the situation in ex-Yugoslavia, violence was on the rise and Europe was paralysed.

He began to think that intervening by means of force may be necessary because the situation had gone beyond the point of no return. Yet, he also believed that force cannot be the only form of intervention and he launched a proposal for the foundation of a European Civil Peace Corps, something which the European Parliament would approve in only 1996, and which he did not live to see, for in July 1995 he took his own life.