An Ideal Direction? The Nobel Prize to Peter Handke

Last week, the Nobel Prize for Literature 2019 was awarded to the Austrian Peter Handke for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” However, beyond his literary merit, Handke is well-known for his revisionist interpretation of the 1990s conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Against a background of continuing tension in Bosnia, and with the Nobel literature committee attempting to redeem themselves after the 2018 sexual harassment scandal, it seems an odd choice to award the prize to such an adversarial figure.

From 1992 to 1995, war raged in Bosnia-Herzegovina – resulting from the breakdown of Yugoslavia. The war was between different ethno-religious groups who upheld competing claims to the same land, the land upon which they had previously co-existed in relative peace. The war was eventually stopped in 1995 through international intervention, although tensions remain in the country. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established in 1993 to investigate claims of atrocities. While the internationally accredited court found evidence of wrong committed by all parties in the conflict, they found the Serbs to be the main aggressors. Further, the court found clear evidence of genocide, specifically related to the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica in which up to 8000 Muslim men and boys were killed by the Bosnian Serb army.

Despite the ICTY clearly acknowledging the perpetration of genocide and evidence that genocide was perpetrated in Bosnia-Herzegovina, denialism and revisionism are still widespread. Sceptics claim that genocide was a result of international conspiracy, the numbers of victims were heavily inflated or that it never happened at all.

Peter Handke, the latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, falls in with this group of people who downplay or outright deny genocide. He even came close to conspiracy theorising when he suggested that Bosnian Muslims in Sarajevo massacred themselves and blamed the Serbs. Further, he denied that the Serb-led Srebrenica massacre ever happened and was invited by former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to testify as an expert witness in his defence at his trial in the Hague. Despite not honouring this invitation, Handke later gave a speech at Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral in 2006 in which he said “I don’t know the truth. But I look. I listen. I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milosevic.” By doing so, he aligned with a convicted war criminal, gave credence to mass murder and proffered falsehoods on the war itself.

The decision to award Handke the prize has been met with outrage in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo and survivor organisations, such as the Mothers of Srebrenica, have called for the committee to rescind the honour. Internationally, the prize has been met with shock and confusion in some circles as to how the committee could deem it relevant to award the prize to such a controversial and problematic figure: PEN America, for example, released a statement expressing “deep regret” over the selection of Handke.

The Nobel committee work on the premise that the prize should be awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” (Excerpt from the will of Alfred Nobel). While the term “ideal direction” is vague and open to multiple interpretations, it is hard to argue that someone whose work includes an essay called Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien (A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia), a pro-Serb revisionist work on the Yugoslav wars, embodies the Nobel ideals.

The Nobel committee are not ones to shy away from awarding the prize to someone controversial. However, awarding this esteemed prize to someone who is known to have denied genocide is a dangerous precedent to set. They are effectively dishonouring and disregarding victims of genocide, the victims of the worst atrocity on European soil since WWII.

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