Stockholm is more than 1,500 miles from Sarajevo, and the war in Bosnia was halted in 1995, so there’s a lot of time and distance between the Swedes who just chose the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature and the nasty war that happened in the heart of the Balkans a generation ago. But that’s no excuse for the decision to give this year’s prize to Peter Handke, who denies that a well-documented genocide was committed by Serbs against Muslims in Bosnia.
We live in perplexing times when the U.S. president saw “very fine people” among neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and we have a television network that traffics in racism and conspiracy theories. Our world is being described in fraudulent ways, and history is being rewritten to suit these distorted narratives. The last thing we need, and the last thing I’d expect to happen, is for an intellectual honor as paramount as the Nobel Prize to go to a writer who embodies the prime intellectual diseases of our era. And let’s remember that the Nobel selection comes at a moment when violent white supremacists are singling out the 1990s Serbs as heroic avatars of what needs to be done in our world. It’s dumbfounding that the Nobel Committee would seize this moment to honor an Austrian writer who defends these war criminals and dissembles on their behalf.
What were they thinking?
I honestly don’t know where to begin with this whole thing. But let me start by making clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that we should not read Handke’s literary work. My objection is not a version of the age-old question of whether we should listen to Richard Wagner. Go ahead and listen to Wagner. Go ahead and read Handke. My point is this: It is one thing to read him — it is quite another to bestow upon him a prize that delivers a great amount of legitimacy to his entire body of work, not just the novels and plays that are most impeccable and nonpolitical.
Handke’s most famous political offense was attending the funeral of Serbian strongman Slobodan Miloševic, who died in prison awaiting a trial for genocide and war crimes. Handke had visited Miloševic during his detention in The Hague and made a short eulogy during his funeral in Požarevac, Serbia, in 2006. This followed many years of Handke writing about how the Serbs were misunderstood and were unfairly given the lion’s share of blame for the bloodshed that occurred during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The controversy over Handke winning the Nobel Prize revolves around what he wrote in a series of essays in 1996 that were collected in a short book titled, “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia.” His book, based on a brief trip he made to Serbia, complained that the media “relentlessly portray the Serbs as evil,” and Handke pretended to distance himself from the Serbian leader, writing that “I am with the Serbian people, not with Miloševic” — which turned out to be a strange thing for one of the few Westerners who attended Miloševic’s funeral to have written.
So what does Handke really believe, and is it so terrible? Handke distilled his views into a concise article he wrote for the French newspaper Liberation after his 1996 essays appeared. The article has gotten very little attention in the current discussion, and that’s unfortunate because it clearly demonstrates that he is a truther on the subject of the genocide in Bosnia. For instance, he wrote that it is wrong to talk of “concentration camps” in Bosnia.
“True, there were intolerable camps between 1992 and 1995 on the territories of the Yugoslav republics, especially in Bosnia,” he wrote. “But let’s stop automatically connecting these camps to the Serbs in Bosnia. There were also Croat camps and Muslim camps, and the crimes committed here and there are and will be judged at the Hague.”
Let me tell you something about the Serb camps in Bosnia that Handke, who never visited Bosnia during the war, does not admit: They were concentration camps. I visited them during the war, which I covered for the Washington Post. I talked with prisoners inside the camps, as well as survivors. The United Nations war crimes tribunal at The Hague sentenced Serbs to lengthy prison terms for the crimes committed there.
Let me tell you something else about Bosnia: The Muslims had nothing like those industrial-scale camps, where thousands of prisoners were brought in, tortured, and killed. The position that Handke adopts — everyone was doing it — is a dodge that would be funny if it weren’t so evil. Were some atrocities committed by Muslim troops? Yes, but equating a small number of random crimes with a systemic and massive number is a transparent form of deception and deflection. That’s what apologists do.
Handke, who lives in France, deepens that deception in his article for Liberation. When writing about Srebrenica, where several thousand Muslims were executed by Serb forces after they captured the enclave, he allows that what happened there was the most “abominable” massacre in the war, but he swiftly pivots to saying that we should also “listen to the survivors of Muslim massacres in numerous Serb villages around Srebrencia.” This is the same “all sides do it” canard, which equates the extremely few with the very many, and fails to acknowledge that this war was started by Serbs and Miloševic in particular.
Handke is full of it. The writer David Rieff, who has reported from Bosnia, took the time to read “A Journey to the Rivers” and issued this assessment of its author: “The truth is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. … He came to Serbia knowing nothing about its complicated politics and, to judge by the book, left knowing no more.”
There are lots of award-winning writers who have dumb ideas about politics and politicians, and write bad books from time to time. That’s not disqualifying for a Nobel Prize or a three-martini lunch with their editor. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about denying a genocide — turning history on its head, making perpetrators into heroes and victims into villains. And this particular history, of Christians killing Muslims for the supposed sake of defending their culture, is an important one to get right at a time of heightened discrimination of Muslims and other minorities in the U.S. and Western Europe.
The Swedish Academy’s response to the controversy is below pitiful. Confronted with the first wave of objections to its choice, the academy’s permanent secretary, Mats Malm, told the New York Times that Handke was chosen on literary and aesthetic grounds. “It is not in the Academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations,” Malm said.
This isn’t so far, in the excuse-making sweepstakes, from Ellen DeGeneres talking about what a nice man George W. Bush is (never mind the hundreds of thousands who were killed as a result of his decision to invade Iraq). Our world is a political world, as I hope Ellen and the Swedish Academy would appreciate. People with power and influence have a particular responsibility to connect their words and their hugs to the real world.
While Stockholm is a long distance from Bosnia, it is not so far from Norway, where in 2011 the terrorist Anders Breivik killed 77 people, many of them children at a summer camp. Breivik was obsessed with the Balkans and wrote a 1,500-page manifesto that frequently evoked and praised the Serb ultranationalists who were Miloševic’s puppets. Rising to the defense of Serbs who rampaged through Bosnia is not, in our culture today, a harmless act of ignorance that a prize-giving committee has no responsibility to wrestle with. These genocide-friendly sentiments feed into a wave of violence that afflicts us.
Peter Handke is entitled to believe what he wants to believe. He can lie and dissemble as much as he wishes. That is his right. But I simply can’t believe that the Swedish Academy has done what it has done. Their irresponsible decision evokes the idea of capitalists selling the rope to people that will be used to hang them. The aesthetes on the Nobel Committee have made a selection that will destroy their prize, as it should.