‘The Bob Dylan of Genocide Apologists’

Peter Handke, the Austrian writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, is an apologist for Slobodan Milosevic.

The writer Peter Handke in 1970.
The writer Peter Handke in 1970.Credit…Mehner/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

Back in my previous life in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, I read the Austrian writer Peter Handke’s books, was pleasantly baffled by his plays and watched the movies he wrote. I loved the shimmering emptiness of his novel “The Goalie’s Fear of the Penalty Kick.” I loved the beauty of the Wim Wenders’s masterpiece “The Wings of Desire,” which Mr. Handke worked on.

In the late 1980s, I was young and invested in the pursuit of the smart and cool. Mr. Handke seemed not only smart and cool but also a writer who was expanding the frontiers of literature. He was the kind of writer I was angling to become.

But things changed for Mr. Handke and me in 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav People’s Army, responding to Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, engaged in a brief war in Slovenia, then in a longer and much bloodier one in Croatia, leveling cities and committing atrocities.

Unwilling to stay in Yugoslavia, a majority of the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina decided in a 1992 referendum to declare independence. Mr. Milosevic pounced. His nationalist ambition to create a “Greater Serbia” demanded a genocidal operation against Bosnian Muslims. Radovan Karadzic, one of Mr. Milosevic’s proxies in Bosnia, conducted a campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” which meant rape and murder, mass expulsions, concentration camps and siege. Mr. Milosevic’s state provided full financial and military support.

In July 1995, the Serbs entered Srebrenica, a town in eastern Bosnia, that had been declared a safe zone and was supposed to be protected by a Dutch battalion under the United Nations flag. Gen. RatkoMladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, was there to celebrate the taking of Srebrenica. He declared that it was the most recent victory in the 500-year war against “the Turks” — a racist term for Bosnian Muslims. A few days later, Mr. Mladic’s soldiers murdered about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims and buried them in unmarked mass graves.

I don’t remember how or when I heard that Mr. Handke, whose mother was from Slovenia, had decided that the real victims of the Yugoslav wars were the Serbs, and that the Western governments and journalists lied about them out of hatred.

It could be that my initial reaction was mere disbelief — for how could the writer who imagined the angels in the sky over Berlin caring about all its citizens in Mr. Wenders’ movie come to believe that the “Muslims” in the multiethnic Sarajevo were massacring themselves to blame the Serbs, that both sides committed atrocities in Srebrenica. Mr. Handke insisted that the number of Bosnians killed was much exaggerated and that the Serbs were suffering like the Jews under the Nazis.

Shortly after the war was over in 1996, he published a book titled “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia.” He discovered a kind of purity that was 2,000 years old in Serbia and Republika Srpska (the ethnically cleansed Serb entity in Bosnia established as part of the Dayton Peace Accord) and came to believe that a true Europe still existed only there.

Mr. Milosevic was so fond of Mr. Handke, he bestowed upon him the Order of the Serbian Knight for his commitment to the Serbian cause. Even after huge amounts of evidence of Serbian crimes in Croatia and Bosnia (and after 1999, in Kosovo) led to Mr. Milosevic and his proxies being arrested and indicted after the war, Mr. Handke’s support for the butcher of the Balkans went on unabated.

Mr. Milosevic called for him to be a witness at his trial in The Hague, which Mr. Handke politely declined, though he visited his trial more than once. After Mr. Milosevic’s death in 2006, Mr. Handke spoke at his funeral to an audience of 20,000 patriotic mourners. In Belgrade, Mr. Handke is deemed to be “the friend the Serbs didn’t have to buy.”

Peter Handke at a rally just before the funeral for Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2006.
Peter Handke at a rally just before the funeral for Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2006.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Outside the pure Serb lands and Mr. Handke’s head, the responsibility of Mr. Milosevic and his underlings was established beyond reasonable doubt: Mr. Karadzic and Mr. Mladic were sentenced for life for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

One might be tempted to think that those crimes have now become undeniable history, but Bosnians learned the hard way that “Never again!” usually means “Never again, until the next time!” We often run into people who don’t know, don’t care to know, think it is too complicated or outright deny what happened in Bosnia and whose responsibility it was.

Any survivor of genocide will tell you that disbelieving or dismissing their experience is a continuation of genocide. A genocide denier is an apologist for the next genocide. As for Mr. Handke, when a journalist asked him if he was concerned about the suffering in Bosnia, he retorted, “Stick your concerns up your ass!”

Mr. Handke’s immoral delusions could perhaps be related to his literary aesthetics, to his suspicion of language and its ability to represent truth, which ultimately leads to a position that everything is equally true, or untrue. His moral collapse could also be seen in the context of everlasting European Islamophobia, or its cocktail whataboutism which found all parts of former Yugoslavia equally responsible for its demise, all of which went very nicely with knee-jerk dislike of Western imperialism that in the bloody 1990s befogged the lofty minds of many a European salon.

But even if one could explain Mr. Handke’s moral derailment with his intellectual skepticism, or with his uncritical sentimentalization of the Balkans, rooted in his family history, it is hard to grasp what could cause him to worship a monster like Mr. Milosevic.

A dull apparatchik whose ambition exactly matched his bloodthirst, Mr. Milosevic was reliant on the oppressive machinery of his police, secret service and the paramilitaries. He made a habit of ordering the killings of his political rivals. He turned Serbia into a war-addicted kleptocracy, ruined its economy, lost every war he fought and was deposed by his own people in 2000. To Mr. Handke, he was “a rather tragic man” who did what anyone would do in his position.

I haven’t been able to read Mr. Handke’s work since he devoted himself to the lost cause of Mr. Milosevic and Serbia. By virtue of being Bosnian, I am not as European as the wise Swedes on the Nobel Committee, who awarded Mr. Handke the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday. I am therefore repeatedly failing at not seeking the connection between his writing about, say, a goalie who suffers from penalty-kick anxiety and his belief that the defenders of Sarajevo dropped a shell onto the packed city market only to blame the Serbs for it.

Mr. Handke’s politics irreversibly invalidated his aesthetics, his worship of Mr. Milosevic invalidated his ethics. At Mr. Milosevic’s funeral, he said, “The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Yugoslavia, Serbia. The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Slobodan Milosevic. The so-called world knows the truth … I don’t know the truth. But I look. I listen. I feel. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milosevic.” The writer who could speak those words can’t have anything of value to say.

Evidently, not knowing the truth about Mr. Milosevic and genocide was not a problem for the Nobel Committee, mandated by Alfred Nobel to reward “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Maybe the engaged literature of the great Olga Tokarczuk is to it but one among many aesthetic, ethical options of value equal to Mr. Handke’s.

Perhaps the esteemed Nobel Committee is so invested in the preservation of Western civilization that to it a page of Mr. Handke is worth a thousand Muslim lives. Or it could be that in the rarefied chambers in Stockholm, Mr. Handke’s anxious goalie is far more real than a woman from Srebrenica whose family was eradicated in the massacre.

The choice of Mr. Handke implies a concept of literature safe from the infelicities of history and actualities of human life and death. War and genocide, Milosevic and Srebrenica, the value of the writer’s words and actions at this moment in history, might be of interest to the unsophisticated plebs once subjected to murder and displacement, but not to those who can appreciate “linguistic ingenuity” that “has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” For them, genocide comes and goes, but literature is forever.

In the midst of a global epidemic of Islamophobia and white nationalism, Mr. Handke’s Nobel Prize has validated an aesthetic untroubled by decency, a literary project whose value should dissolve like a body in acid before the magnitude of crimes its author repeatedly denied and thus endorsed. Mr. Handke is the Bob Dylan of genocide apologists. The Nobel Committee has shown us that it knows little about literature and its true place in this so-called world.

Author: Aleksandar Hemon

Mr. Hemon is a Bosnian-American novelist and essayist.Aleksandar Hemon teaches at Princeton and is the author, most recently, of “My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You.”

Correction: Oct. 16, 2019 An earlier version of this essay incorrectly described a method used to dispose of the corpse of a Slobodan Milosevic opponent. The opponent, Ivan Stambolic, was buried in quicklime; his body was not dissolved in an acid bath.

Correction: Oct. 23, 2019 An earlier version of this article included a mistranslation, via The Irish Times, of a comment by Peter Handke. When asked whether he was concerned about Serb atrocities, Mr. Handke replied, in German, “You can stick your concerns up your ass,” not “corpses up your ass.” 

A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 16, 2019, Section A, Page 27 of the New York edition with the headline: Why Reward an Apologist for Genocide?.

SOURCE: The New York Times