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Fall 2003

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“One son for the land, one son for the gun, one son for abroad,” goes an old Albanian saying.
     He’s not Albanian, but Paul Hockenos ’85 was obviously born to be his family’s designated son for abroad. He established that birthright when, right after Skidmore, he lit out for Berlin, Germany, where he has been living the often dramatic life of an expatriate journalist ever since. For almost twenty years Hockenos has reported extensively on Eastern European life and times, including the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia. He also works for a European think tank focused on the future of the Balkans.
     One measure of how deeply he has sunk his roots abroad is his second book, published this fall by Cornell University Press. Homeland Calling: Exile Patriotism and the Balkan Wars documents the impact of exile activists on their homelands of Croatia, Serbia, and Albania. Tracking how the émigrés raised large amounts of money for weapons, political campaigns, and the lobbying of Western governments, Hockenos concludes that exile leaders didn’t cause the wars, but they effectively turbocharged them by supporting radically nationalistic policies and actions. Advance reviews laud the book as “truly pioneering work…in a crucial aspect of the Balkans issue. No one has done it before, and no one is likely to do it better in the future.”
     One of three sons, Hockenos practically grew up on the Skidmore campus, where his father, Warren Hockenos, taught philosophy and his mother, Anne Crookall Hockenos, was Scope’s associate editor. (Brother Timothy is an ’89 Skidmore grad, and brother Matthew is an assistant professor of history at the college.) As a student, Paul was editor in chief of the Skidmore News and Politeia, the social-science journal. After graduating (Phi Beta Kappa) with a degree in political economy, he headed out for the Cold War city of Berlin and never really came back.
     “Germany has always attracted me,” says Hockenos, “especially Berlin, a city where east meets west.” He began graduate study in political science at the Free University in West Berlin and earned an MA in social and political thought at the University of Sussex in England. Then in 1989 a funny thing happened on his way to a PhD. “I took the summer off, hitchhiked to Budapest,” and stumbled into hard, hot news: Taking advantage of Hungary’s newly opened borders, East Germans were mass-migrating out of their communist-ruled country and passing through Budapest on their way into democratic West Germany. “Refugees were streaming into Budapest. It was a very exciting time—a rare moment of hope, a future suddenly open,” recalls Hockenos. “I got a room and a typewriter, wrote what I saw, and started offering work to magazines”—dozens of them.
     His features, news, and analyses turned up in print and on the radio, from The World Policy Journal and The Nation to In These Times and Die Tageszeitung, from BBC World to Radio Netherlands. To succeed as a freelance journalist, “you just had to hustle,” says Hockenos, who covered everything from the overthrow of Romanian dictator Ceaucescu to the destruction of Sarajevo’s multicultural heritage to the fate of gays in the former Yugoslavia. His 1993 book, Free to Hate: The Rise of the Right in Post-Communist Eastern Europe, traced the radical movements sweeping across Europe. When London’s New Statesman asked if he knew anything about Kosovo, “I said, sure,” Hockenos grins boyishly. “Actually, I knew nothing! I arrived in Pristina by train on a frozen January morning and just started talking to people.”
     He covered the democratic revolutions in 1989 and ’90, in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. He hitched rides into besieged cities on humanitarian-aid planes, clad in the required flak jacket and helmet that “you’d pack away once you got there, because the helmets are clunky and flak jackets don’t protect you from sniper bullets.” He saw families trapped in bombed houses, lines of corpses, refugees who had lost everything—terrifying, heart-rending sights—and he wrote about them all. “Despite the human tragedy, wartime situations are fascinating,” Hockenos says. “I was blown away by the incredible humanity and tolerance that the people of Sarajevo and Tuzla showed while their cities were besieged. I’d return to Berlin with my head spinning and still in Bosnia.”
     Homeland Calling sprang directly from that experience. “Those of us on the front lines realized that émigré groups had played a role in the wars, but were not sure how big a role,” says Hockenos. “When I asked experts in the field, ‘Where’s the book on this?’ they said it hadn’t been written.” Hockenos lined up two years’ worth of grants and wrote it himself. He pored over press accounts, exile literature, and other documents and interviewed several hundred people across the United States, Europe, and Canada. Many of the émigré activists and leaders he met were “eccentric, often damaged by the trauma of exile.” The majority were frankly suspicious. Not surprising, says Hockenos. “As the radical fringe of the diaspora communities, they’d been hounded by communist authorities in their homelands and then again in their new homes abroad. They didn’t buy ‘simple curiosity’ as my motive.”
     Hockenos’s curiosity was anything but simple. Combining what one reviewer called “phenomenal reporting and a judicious eye,” he untangled the Byzantine plotlines of infighting and factionalism, traced the money trails, and sorted out the machinations of communists vs. anti-communists vs. monarchists, and Christians vs. Muslims. Meticulous enough to satisfy even a Balkans specialist, Homeland Calling is brightened with sharp-edged vignettes of players such as Gojko Susak, the Canadian pizza-shop owner turned Croatian defense minister. Praised by Croatians for “the liberation of the homeland in a few glorious days,” Susak was damned by Bosnian Muslims as a war criminal. That happens a lot in the book’s structure of conflicting discourses, says Hockenos: Some of the figures who see themselves as heroes in fact supported regimes of prejudice and brutality.
     Living in Berlin, Hockenos enjoys the vibrant cultural and political discourse of “one of the most original cities in Europe today.” And his adopted hometown offers a superb vantage point for his work both as a writer and as a policy analyst with the European Stability Initiative, the American-style think tank he helped found. Hockenos is still covering the Balkans, but nowadays he’s producing analyses and critiques on approaches to peace and prosperity there. Like a journalist,“I’m on the ground, pulling out information and making it available,” he says. “But as an analyst I can spend months instead of days on a topic, and go as deep as necessary.”
     Which is deep indeed. The very word “balkanized,” as Hockenos admits, has become “a synonym for ‘shattered, splintered, complex, barbaric, bloody, impossible.’ But I always think of the Balkan situation as a set of those nesting Russian dolls. What you learn at each layer deepens your understanding of all the other layers. You’d think doing field work in a tiny Bosnian village would be the smallest doll, but you find another doll inside it.” Pause. “I’ve never found the smallest doll.”

Scope writer Barbara Melville interviewed Paul Hockenos while he was in Saratoga to teach a Skidmore summer course on Balkan history.

 


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