The Swedish Academy held a press conference on Friday for Peter Handke, the writer it selected as the winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. Handke’s lifetime work includes about a half-dozen books that downplay Serb massacres of Muslims in Bosnia, and his critics regard him as a genocide denier.
After about 15 minutes of questions and answers in the chandeliered conference hall at the Academy’s headquarters in Stockholm, I was given the microphone for what turned out to be the last questions of the day. I asked Handke why his books did not acknowledge the documented fact that thousands of Muslim boys and men were killed by Serb fighters in Srebrenica in 1995, and I asked whether he would now acknowledge that these mass killings had happened.
Over the next few minutes, Handke became combative and insulting, refusing to answer my questions about Srebrenica. He described receiving an anonymous letter that he said included toilet paper with a “calligraphy of shit,” and he added, “I tell you, I prefer the anonymous letter with toilet paper inside to your empty and ignorant questions.”
Back in 1992, I started covering the war in Bosnia and visited the concentration camps where Serbs tortured and murdered prisoners, almost all of whom were Muslim. In the winter of that year, I also reported on the sieges that Serb fighters had thrown over Sarajevo and several other cities, including Srebrenica. The Serbs’ strategy was brutally simple: starve and freeze the Muslims into surrender. The war continued until the summer of 1995, when the massacre at Srebrenica turned into the final straw for the U.S. and its allies, which bombed Serb targets and brought the war to an end.
Handke despises the journalists who covered the war and provided the first accounts of Serb crimes — in one of his books, he describes us as a “horde of foreign reporters every evening at a hotel bar” and implies we made up our stories. His sympathies, which broke to the surface with his 1996 book “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia,” have been fairly obvious for quite a while. In 2006, he delivered a eulogy at the grave of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was not only the mastermind of the war in Bosnia, but was also ultimately deposed by his own people and extradited to The Hague to face trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Milosevic died of a heart attack before a verdict could be delivered.
The depths of Handke’s sympathies have not all been visible, however. After he was announced as the Nobel winner two months ago — he is now in Stockholm for the official ceremony in a few days — I began digging into his books and the Swedish Academy’s baffling decision to honor him with the world’s most influential literary award. One of the things I found out was that in 1999, Handke secretly obtained a Yugoslav passport from Milosevic’s outlaw regime; Handke subsequently claimed that he got it to make things easier when he traveled to Serbia.
Handke’s elevation to Nobel Prize laureate has generated an unprecedented amount of turmoil even within the Nobel organization. Just a few hours before the press conference, the newspaper Dagens Nyheter broke the news that one of the most prominent members of the Swedish Academy, Peter Englund, would boycott the award ceremony. Englund, who has reported on Bosnia, said, “To celebrate Peter Handke’s Nobel Prize would be gross hypocrisy on my part.” And just a few days earlier, two members of the Nobel Committee for Literature, which plays a key role in choosing the winner, abruptly resigned from their posts, with one of them explicitly citing Handke.
In his books, as well as in comments he has made to reporters over the years, Handke plays with the facts of what happened in Bosnia, always asking whether we can really believe it, suggesting that Muslims might have bombed themselves in some instances, and arguing that even if some of the facts might be true, the Serbs might have been provoked into crimes by Muslims who resisted their dominance. These are the tactics of genocide denial: Throw doubt into the air so that people begin to question the truth. Handke tries to avoid direct confrontations with facts that have been established beyond any doubt whatsoever, and that’s why I asked the following:
International war crimes tribunals have established as fact that there was a genocide committed in Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed. And they have established as fact that there were other massacres. Why in your books have you not accepted and written these facts? Are you willing now to accept them?
Handke, who is Austrian-born and was speaking in English, then appeared to bait me.
“Continue your questions,” he said. “I like these questions. Is [this] the only one? I think you have a lot of questions. Continue, continue.”
I sensed this was a trap — with more questions, Handke would be able to avoid answering any single one.
“We’ll do them one at a time, one at a time,” I replied.
“Continue,” he said.
“No,” I responded. “This is your press conference.”
He then did something peculiar — he pulled a few pages of paper out of his coat pocket. Earlier in the press conference, he had mentioned receiving what he described as a letter from a New York Times culture reporter. This was apparently it.
“I start to read the letter,” Handke said. “Dear Peter — I don’t know this man, but he calls me ‘Dear Peter.’ Then he has a lot of questions.”
Handke then read excerpts of the letter, which, it became clear, was not a letter but a series of questions that its writer — whom Handke soon named as Alex Marshall — apparently wanted the Nobel winner to respond to. It was an ordinary query from a journalist, not a personal missive. Handke then pivoted and said he had received “a lot of wonderful letters” from readers who appreciated his books.
The winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature then turned on me. As Handke is not a native speaker of English, I have used ellipses in places where he had extraneous or ungrammatical words.
“Only one was an anonymous letter which didn’t come from the heart,” Handke said. “There was toilet paper in it. … It had a kind of calligraphy of shit. And I tell you, all you who … put these questions like this man, I tell you, I prefer the … anonymous letter with the toilet paper inside to your empty and ignorant questions.”
I no longer held the microphone, so I shouted out my response.
“Why do you refuse to answer the question about why you do not accept the verdict of international courts in your works?”
Handke started talking over me about halfway through, so I am not sure he heard my entire question, but he apparently heard enough to know what to say.
“I don’t want to answer you,” he replied. “I read this letter from the Dear Peter, I don’t know him, this man, his name. He calls himself a culture reporter from the New York Times. … His name is, I think, Alex Marshall. And I don’t want to answer any of your questions.”
An official from the Swedish Academy who held the microphone then intervened, asking a senior member of the Academy, Anders Olsson, who was on the dais with Handke, to make a closing statement. Olsson made a reference to the readers of Handke’s books, and this seemed to incite Handke to make a closing insult. Looking at the journalists before him, he said, “My people are readers, not you.”
On December 10, in a white-tie ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall, King Carl XVI Gustaf is scheduled to present Handke with the gold medal of the Nobel Prize in Literature. At that moment, the Swedish royal family and the Swedish Academy will have officially and fully endorsed the work of a genocide denier.
Correction: December 18, 2019
A reference to Anders Olsson being the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy has been removed. He shed that title earlier this year and became chair of the Academy’s Nobel Committee for Literature.