The Austrian writer Peter Handke, European public opinion, and the war in Yugoslavia

                    By Bernd Reinhardt
                    Although many German-speaking artists took cover during the war in
                    Kosovo, the Austrian writer Peter Handke stood out by sharply
                    criticising NATO's actions from the very beginning as criminal.

                    "Morality is the new word for despotism", is how he countered all
                    those—such as writers Günter Grass, Stefan Heym, Hans Magnus
                    Enzenburger; the cabaret artist Ellen Tiedtke, or Wolfgang Niedekken,
                    the lead singer of the German rock group BAP—who either supported
                    the bombing for moral reasons, kept quiet, or who argued for UN
                    intervention (Handke's interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, May
                    15, 1999).

                    "Pictures and words can be used to create the greatest deception, and
                    earn great amounts of money," is what he said elsewhere about official
                    media reports of mass slaughter being carried out by the Serbs. "No one
                    knows what is going on in Kosovo, because no one can get in.... The
                    refugees are all saying the same things. Why should that make it more
                    credible?" [1]

                    Handke turned the tables on the official justifications for the bombings,
                    saying NATO had not prevented a new Auschwitz, but had rather
                    created one. "In those days, it was gas chambers and shooting squads,
                    today it is computerised killers from 15,000 feet." [2]

                    Just two days after the first bombs had fallen, Handke issued his first
                    open letter, which spoke of "Green slaughterers". [3] He demanded that
                    the "German Minister of Death" (Defence Minister Rudolf Scharping),
                    who just months before had sent him birthday wishes, "should return my
                    books to me." [4] Handke attacked the sociologist and philosopher
                    Jürgen Habermas for lending the war his moral support. He undertook
                    several short journeys to Serbia, and returned the Büchner Prize (the
                    highest award for a German-language author) that he had been awarded
                    in 1973.

                    The response of the media was to shower him with abuse. It was not
                    only German-speaking colleagues who turned their backs on him. "There
                    are intellectuals who, after hearing his utterances about the war in
                    Yugoslavia, have sworn never to pick up another of his books", wrote
                    Susan Sonntag in New York. The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut
                    saw in Handke an "ideological monster", whose utterances were based
                    on a "Germanic guilty conscience" and the "conviction that he was an
                    invulnerable genius".

                    This campaign reached a climax when, in mid-May, the actress Marie
                    Colbin spoke out in an open letter. She told of private arguments, which
                    apparently became violent, from an earlier time when she lived with
                    Handke, with the aim of portraying him as a violent, power-hungry man,
                    and a "vain author ... who enjoyed depicting himself publicly as the 'voice
                    in the wilderness'.” She drew the conclusion that he was "an ideologue of
                    modern Balkan fascism". [5]

                    The Berliner Zeitung pointed to Handke's Olympian outlook and
                    naiveté, criticising the literary work of this internationally recognised
                    author as "narcissistically wrapped up in itself", as the attempt to work on
                    a "poetic parallel universe", which he had "increasingly sought to
                    construct as an impenetrable castle against the real world". [6] The Swiss
                    writer Laederach called Handke's statements on the war in Kosovo a
                    case of "advanced mental fog". The German-Swiss PEN Centre saw in
                    him the "blind inhabitant of an ivory tower", whose "pro-Serbian
                    derailment", as the PEN general secretary put it in the Berliner Zeitung,
                    reveals a "particularly unpalatable cynicism". [7]

                    There is, however, nothing in Handke's public statements to indicate that
                    he is a supporter of the Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosovic, or his
                    politics. Anyone who has followed his writings over recent years can see
                    this clearly. His latest play, about the war in Yugoslavia— Die Fahrt im
                    Einbaum oder Das Stück zum Film vom Krieg ( Journey in a canoe,
                    or the play about the film of the war)—which premiered in June at the
                    Vienna Burgtheater, likewise contains no trace of pro-Serbian sentiment.

                    Handke told the Austrian magazine News that Milosevic was the
                    "country's elected president" and had to "defend his country's territory".
                    He added, "Anyone in his position in the last ten years would have acted
                    the same way he did. He was left no choice." [8]

                    In the interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung quoted above, he said
                    clearly, "I am with the Serbian people, not Milosevic. Anyone who is not
                    a pronounced anti-Serb is despised as being 'pro-Serb'. Whoever
                    mentions Milosevic's name without immediately adding 'slaughterer',
                    'Balkan Hitler', 'God protect us', is accused of taking sides with
                    Milosovic.” He added, polemically, that "to be called pro-Serb today is
                    an honour."

                    A few years before, Handke had argued against the demonisation of the
                    Serbs in the Bosnian war. In autumn 1995 he travelled to the "land of
                    so-called aggressors" because all the newspaper articles had unleashed
                    an urge to "look behind the mirror".

                    "Who can really tell,” he wrote, “what such a thing is like, if one has only
                    been shown a picture?" [9] When the Süddeutsche Zeitung in January
                    1996 published the report of his visit, “Justice for Serbia”, he was
                    violently attacked in the media and accused of having a "pro-Serbian"

                    The opposite was the case. Anyone who bothered to read his text
                    carefully could not fail but notice that even in his dispute with the young
                    French writer Patrick Besson, Handke expressed concern that in
                    rejecting any generalised media prejudice against Serbs, one had to avoid
                    going over to the opposite extreme, an equally generalised "defence of
                    the Serbs". Such arguments "contained the danger of expressing
                    something which could be likened to the glorification of the Soviet system
                    by certain visitors from the West in the 1930s." [10]

                    One reason for the unceasing vilification of Handke is plain to see.
                    Comparing NATO's intervention with that of the Nazis is both a
                    provocation and a withering criticism of all those anti-fascists from the
                    1968 generation whose moral appeals for decades stressed that war
                    must never again be permitted from German soil. Now, having
                    themselves called for war, they had to conjure up a second Hitler to
                    justify their about-face.

                    There may, however, be another, more important consideration. Handke
                    has rejected the prevailing opinion in Europe (and especially in Germany)
                    that supports, in the name of national self-determination, the formation of
                    numerous petty states in the Balkans. He has called this policy "absolutely
                    childish”, according to one German Internet newspaper which indignantly
                    quoted Handke's views on the “liberation struggle of the Kosovo
                    Albanians”. [11] Is this perhaps why Handke has been labeled

                    Handke clearly sees nothing positive in the division of the Balkans. In
                    1991, in his book Abshied des Träumers vom Neunten Land ( The
                    Dreamer's Farewell from the Ninth Land), he spoke against the
                    separation of Slovenia from Yugoslavia.

                    In the account of his travels, entitled Justice for Serbia, to which his
                    critics continually return, his regret over the dissolution of Yugoslavia is
                    evident. In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Handke expressed his sorrow
                    over the "tragic failure" of what he called "reform-communism" in
                    Yugoslavia. [12]

                    His book ends with an extract from the suicide note of a former Tito
                    partisan who, in desperation, killed himself in 1992. "The betrayal, the
                    decline and chaos of our country, the difficult situation into which our
                    people have been thrown, the war ... in Bosnia Herzogovina, the
                    extermination of the Serbian people and my own illness have made my
                    further life senseless." [13] About his wife, who was Handke's host, he
                    wrote: "Until the end of her life, she would remain a thoroughly convinced
                    Yugoslavian—not Serbian—communist ... even today this is the only
                    possibility she sees for the south Slav people. Before the German
                    invasion in 1941, under the monarchy, there were a few who owned
                    everything. Next to them was only howling poverty. And now, in this
                    special Serbian state—where the powers that be are 'traitors', as in the
                    other new states—this is repeated, with avaricious war profiteers
                    alongside of half-frozen have-nothings." [14]

                    As Handke writes in his conclusion, Justice for Sebia is not only
                    directed at a German-reading audience, but is "also for those in Slovenia,
                    Croatia, Serbia". [15] Handke wants to remind the people of the former
                    Yugoslavia that they have a common past. To this end, he is not so
                    concerned with the current theatres of war. He calls to mind
                    unspectacular, inconspicuous, everyday events shared by the various
                    peoples—events which previously would not have been given a second

                    For example, he recalls how, early in summer, swimmers would swim
                    backwards and forwards between the Bosnian bank and the Serbian;
                    that many people had Muslim friends; how cosmetics from Slovenia were
                    popular, as was Bosnian fruit and vegetables that were shipped over the
                    Drina; that at one time, the buses used to go from Bajina Basta to Tuzla
                    and Srebrenica, and this was nothing special; in contrast to today, it was
                    not unusual to see a car from Skopje/Macedonia parked on the street.

                    The reader is given an impression of how natural it was that the various
                    languages and dialects existed alongside each other in the Balkans, and
                    how this unconsciously penetrated everyday life—until today. When
                    Sladko, Handke's Serbian travel companion from Germany, visited his
                    parents' village, “despite straining to listen, I suddenly understood
                    nothing—were they even speaking Serbian? No, the family had naturally
                    started speaking Romanian, the conversational and private language of
                    most villagers. Porodin was renowned as such a linguistic island. But did
                    they even consider themselves to be Serbs? 'Of course — what else?'"

                    "Why had there been such massive slaughter?" Handke asked. "Who
                    were the aggressors? Were those who provoked a war the same as
                    those who started it? And what did 'starting it' mean?" [17]

                    In contrast to the official media reports in Western Europe, he was
                    unable to discover any "Serbian paranoia". He suggested that it was not
                    present on the territory where "three ethnic peoples ... intermingled, not
                    simply in the 'multi-cultural' capital, but rather from village to village, and
                    in the villages themselves, even from house to shack, living side-by-side
                    and in between one another..." He concluded that "legendary grains of
                    sand... were blown up and became as big as rocks" thrown in the anger
                    of war. That happened in "our darkrooms". [18]

                    "How could this be compared to any violent dreams of 'Greater Serbia'?"
                    he asked.

                    "In the end, wasn't it rather a 'Greater Croatia' that proved to be
                    something more real, or more effective, or more massively determined
                    and conclusive, than the illusory grains of sand of Serbian legend, that
                    nowhere and never became a unified concept of power and policy?”

                    In biting words, he wrote of the new independence of the Slovenian state:
                    "Now... I arrived at the Hotel 'Zlatorog' ... at the valley's end, everything
                    arranged for German speakers, and in the entrance the framed photos of
                    Tito's visit had been removed—not a pity really—and replaced with
                    those of Willy Brandt.... On state television—almost nothing other than
                    German and Austrian channels—over and over again a foreign trade or
                    economic delegation was having native folk songs sung to them. Then the
                    Slovenian President would enter the scene. Wasn't he once a capable
                    and proud functionary? But now he behaves like a waiter, almost like a
                    lackey, who serves up his country to the foreigners who visit, as if he
                    wanted to satisfy every wish of a German employer or customer: the
                    Slovenians aren't this or that, but rather a 'hard working and willing Alpen
                    people'." The first question that Handke heard a customer in the new
                    supermarket ask, was: "Has the Bild [German newspaper] arrived?" [20]

                    On his journey in April of this year, Handke lashed out against "the fat
                    German, courtly mendacious French and expansionist American"
                    language of the negotiations, which he followed on the hotel television,
                    and the logic of the NATO attack, "which could bomb both a corn field
                    and a chicken coup, because corn, chicken and eggs could nourish an
                    enemy soldier".

                    He mused: "It's their own fault? The guilty, isn't it the people of this land
                    themselves.... What does the country say? The country says absolutely
                    nothing, it only becomes quieter, much quieter, and thereby doesn't say
                    anything—which is more enduring. It means: no, we're not to blame."

                    Last year, the Austrian cultural journalist Sigfrid Löffler delivered a
                    speech to the Goethe Institute in Montevideo entitled “Peter Handke and
                    the controversy over his text , Justice for Serbia.” She supported
                    Handke and traced the origins of the incessant, malicious press attacks
                    back to a fundamental question that Handke had provoked: "Who will
                    really do justice to the war in Yugoslavia?"

                    "The storm of disapproval that arose in the press following the publication
                    of Justice for Serbia ... can only be understood if one keeps in mind the
                    really audacious provocation that the poet was undertaking, legitimised
                    by nothing other than the artist's sheer self will. The poet is not only
                    seeking to criticise the predominant media practices and place a question
                    mark over them. He wants to counterpose his poetic experience, his
                    poet's eye, to the picture of the Serbs that the media paints world-wide.
                    Against the superior power of media opinions about this war, he counters
                    with his poetic voice. A single individual opposes the world's entire press:
                    the poet, in and for himself. And he has the nerve to pose the question
                    anew: Which side bears the guilt for the Yugoslavian war of secession?"

                    Handke declares that the majority of war journalists "confuse their role as
                    journalist with that of judge, or even demagogue, and ... are just as nasty
                    as the dogs of war on the battlefield." Their words are kept "on the taut
                    leash they are given." Instead of research into the origins [of the war],
                    what counts is only "the sale of naked, randy, market-oriented facts, or
                    bogus facts". [23]

                    For Handke, the truth about the war is not one-dimensional, and does
                    not run in a straight line, as the media would have us believe. "The
                    problem—is it only mine?—is more complicated, complicated by many
                    levels of reality, or degrees, and in trying to clarify it, I am aiming at
                    something quite thoroughly real, in which all of the swirling threads of
                    reality enable some sort of context to be vaguely grasped." [24]

                    The two film directors in Handke's Journey in a Canoe also experience
                    this. In the end, they abandon their joint film project regarding the war in
                    Yugoslavia. They find the events on the ground too confusing and alien to
                    make a simply drawn story that would move the public, using the tried
                    and tested formula, as they had originally intended, where everything
                    "unfolds nicely according to plan".

                    At one time, students in Berlin (before they later became writers, lawyers
                    and politicians) occupied the media headquarters of Axel Springer,
                    publisher of the gutter newspaper Bild, in protest "against total
                    manipulation". That was in 1968. Today they look back at their fight
                    against the "power of the media" with some nostalgia, but also with
                    mounting incomprehension. For today they are, above all, more tolerant.

                    Handke clearly does not belong to this group. He goes his own way,
                    critical and unimpressed by the prevailing opinions. The high standards he
                    has set himself as a "traveller in the cause of truth"—as a journalist from
                    the Berliner Zeitung condescendingly remarked—thereby throwing his
                    international authority as an artist into the balance, deserves respect.

                    The fact that he presently provides the portrait of an isolated fighter
                    underscores the rapid right-wing development of the intellectual and
                    political milieu from which Handke himself comes, and which in past
                    times brought forth such critical spirits as Jürgen Habermas, Stefan Heym
                    and Gunther Grass. The accusation that he has assumed the role of the
                    "voice in the wilderness" out of pride or to seek publicity is levelled
                    against Handke only because, in reality, the writer is holding the fort


                    1. Burgenland-Online,
                    2. SZ 15. May 1999, interview
                    3. Online-Archiv Munzinger, Peter Handke p. 5
                    4. SZ 15. May 1999, interview
                    5. Tiroler Tageszeitung Online 21. May 1999,
                    6. Berliner Zeitung, 3 April 1999
                    7. Berliner Zeitung, 31 March 1999
                    8. Vienna Online,
                    9. “Gerechtigkeit für Serbien”(Part 1), SZ 05. January 1996, culture pp. 1, 2
                    10. Ebenda, P. 3
                    11. Burgenland-Online, see Note 1.
                    12. SZ 15. May 1999, interview
                    13. “Gerechtigkeit für Serbien” (part 2), SZ 13. January 1996, culture p. 4
                    14. Ebenda p. 3
                    15. Ebenda p. 4
                    16. Ebenda p. 1
                    17. “Gerechtigkeit für Serbien” (part 1), p. 2
                    18. Ebenda, pp. 3-4
                    19. Ebenda, p. 4
                    20. “Gerechtigkeit für Serbien” (part 2), p. 3
                    21. “Der Krieg ist das Gebiet des Zufalls” SZ 05. June 1999
                    22. Sigrid Löffler “Peter Handke und die Kontroverse um seine Streitschrift
                    ‚Gerechtigkeit für Serbien” unter
                    23. “Gerechtigkeit für Serbien” (part 2) p. 4; (part 1) p. 2
                    24. “Gerechtigkeit für Serbien” (part 1) p. 2