The Apologist

The celebrated Austrian writer Peter Handke, who won the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature, appeared at the funeral of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Should we

Peter Handke

“Indignation . . . is the most gratifying of emotions. Nothing is quite so soothing as the feeling of superiority over sinners who have committed offenses that we are sure to be innocent of and that allow us to purse our lips in disdain: another giant with feet of clay!” Thus wrote the distinguished Yale historian Peter Gay following the confession by Günter Grass that he had served as a boy of 17 in the Waffen SS, the highly trained Nazi combat unit that took part in the Holocaust.

Gay’s comments, which appeared in a New York Times op-ed column on August 20, 2006, were assembled as part of an understated argument designed to tell Grass’s many critics, in essence, to get off his back. Consider, Gay wrote, that Grass was only six years old when Hitler came to power in 1933. Consider, too, Gay continued, that from that point until Hitler’s downfall 12 years later, Grass was at the mercy of the Nazis’ all-powerful propaganda apparatus. To be sure, it would have been better if Grass had “come out of the Nazi closet” sooner. But, Gay opined, Grass was most likely “too ashamed” to have done so and, besides, what does it matter inasmuch as Grass’s “powerful novels” retain “their value”—presumably as art—regardless of his past actions.

The novelist John Irving reached the same conclusion in an op-ed he contributed to the Manchester Guardian around the same time. Employing the kind of bruising and earthy language Grass himself is wont to use, Irving stomped boisterously to the point: “How do I feel about . . . [the] ‘shit storm’ of nationalist babbling in the German media, in the wake of my friend Günter Grass’s revelation? From what I have read . . . there has been a predictably sanctimonious dismantling of Grass’s life and work from the oh-so cowardly standpoint of hindsight.” Grass, Irving proclaimed, “remains a hero” and “a daring writer” despite the “obnoxious bitching.”

But there is another reason to be indignant with Grass, one that has nothing to do with feet of clay or the “oh-so cowardly standpoint of hindsight.” Rather it has to do with Grass’s scandal eclipsing another literary scandal of even greater importance: that involving the Austrian writer Peter Handke.

Who is Peter Handke? He is the strongest, most inventive writer to have emerged in German literature since, well, Günter Grass. Handke, like Grass, is a great prose stylist. But unlike Grass, or any other novelist of note for that matter, Handke is also one of the most prominent defenders of the late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, a fact that made Handke the most controversial writer in Europe throughout the spring and early summer of 2006. The most controversial, that is, until the media eruption unleashed by Grass’s confession buried Handke’s actions and statements under a deep wash of newspaper ink.

What exactly had Handke done? Milosevic was on trial for war crimes, including genocide in Bosnia for overseeing the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, when he died in his prison cell in The Hague on March 11, 2006. Handke spoke at his funeral in Belgrade one week later, when Milosevic’s coffin was displayed in the Museum of the Revolution before an overflow crowd of some 20,000 radical Serb nationalists.

What Handke said has been the subject of debate. Initial reports quoted him to the effect that his presence at the mock state funeral was meant to honor a man who had “defended his people” during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Later stories, including a version circulated by Handke himself, contested the earlier accounts and asserted that his graveside eulogy, far from celebrating Milosevic, had simply consisted of Pontius Pilate–like musings on his own state of mind: “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.”

Handke is previously on record as saying that Milosevic had been forced to “defend his country’s territory” and that “anyone in his position” would have acted as Milosevic had done. Even accepting Handke’s version, his having taken respectful part in the burial services could not be interpreted as anything other than a sign of his support for Milosevic, a man most disinterested observers believe to have been responsible for a series of wars that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people during his 13 years in power.

In an essay on Salvador Dalí called “Benefit of Clergy,” George Orwell examined the thinking of writers and artists who engage in outlandish behavior expecting forgiveness because of their artistic or literary skills. Did Handke believe that, because of his prestige, people would shrug off his act of solidarity with the “Butcher of the Balkans”? If so, he was in for a surprise.

At the start of 2006, France’s best-known theater company, La Comédie Française, announced that it would perform one of Handke’s newer plays, Voyage to the Sonorous Land, or the Art of Asking, the following year. In May, once the company’s manager, Marcel Bozonnet, learned that Handke had attended Milosevic’s funeral, he canceled the production. Bozonnet said he had been scandalized by what he had read and, after much deliberation, had concluded that it was no longer possible “to welcome this person into my theater.”

In aborting the production, Bozonnet was exercising his managerial rights to decide what plays should be performed. Still, he must have known that he would be pilloried on the French cultural pages for “censorship,” as he was, and he might have anticipated French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres’s charge that he had made a serious (as in careerending) mistake.

Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian 2004 Nobel laureate for literature and a longstanding friend of Handke’s and admirer of his work, was particularly scathing in her denunciation of Bozonnet: “Whoever prevents an artist from working commits a crime not only against the poet but against the general public.” By not putting on his play, the Comédie Française was, she continued, “following in the worst tradition of cultural institutions under dictatorships, who throw out artists who cause trouble and condemn them to silence.” Bozonnet, responding that Jelinek must have “fallen on her head,” remained unmoved.

Despite the play’s cancellation, Handke had reason to believe that no lasting damage had been done when, later in May, a jury of writers and critics sponsored by the city of Düsseldorf selected Handke to receive one of Germany’s major literary awards, the Heinrich Heine Prize, worth 50,000 euros. Indeed, the jury seemed to factor in Handke’s decades-long support of Milosevic, as well as his recent graveyard eulogy, by remarking in its citation how Handke had “obstinately follow[ed] the path to an open truth” and set his poetic gaze loose in the world “regardless of public opinion and its rituals.”

This was the bestowal of Orwell’s “benefit of clergy” in spades. But there was a slight problem: the jury’s selection was not final. The process required the Düsseldorf city council to ratify its verdict, and the change of venue, from literary salon to political assembly, proved to be Handke’s undoing. Representatives of all the major parties weighed in to denounce the award as a slap in the face to Milosevic’s many victims.

Handke had many supporters on the German cultural pages who recited the familiar arguments about censorship and artistic freedom previously aired in Paris. But they carried little weight. The Heine Prize was intended to honor writers who “furthered social and political progress” or “spread an appreciation for human solidarity.” Simply put, it was hard to explain how Handke’s appearance at burial celebrations for a mass murderer or his repeated attempts to gloss over Serbian ethnic cleansing fostered solidarity among peoples.

The prize was to be awarded on December 13, 2006. But in early June, once it had become clear that the Düsseldorf city council would veto the jury’s decision, Handke wrote a letter to the mayor of Düsseldorf— grandiosely titled “Je refuse!”—in which he proclaimed himself disgusted by the uproar and preemptively renounced the prize.

Handke is known around the world for his deeply ruminative, inwardlooking, and seemingly apolitical plays and novels. Indeed, he launched his career in the mid-1960s by publicly castigating the older generation of politically and socially conscious writers who made up the so-called Gruppe 47 (a circle including Heinrich Böll, Walter Jens, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and, yes, Günter Grass) for the “impotency” of their writing. But Handke’s postmodernist aesthetic has always had an underlying political edge. Properly viewed, Handke’s repeated engagement with Milosevic, most recently at his funeral, is a public enactment of some of his deepest, and most questionable, aesthetic convictions.

Handke was born on December 6, 1942, into a small-town, workingclass family in Carinthia, a conservative, southern Austrian province that borders what was then Yugoslavia. (At the time of his birth, Austria was known as Ostmark, the eastern boundary, in Hitler’s greater Reich.) His mother was an ethnic Slovene; his father a soldier in the German army.

It may have served the larger geopolitical purposes of the Western Allies, particularly as the Cold War heated up, to foster the image of Austria as the “first victim” of Hitler’s aggression. But the simple truth was that the overwhelming majority of Austrians welcomed the 1938 Anschluss. By one estimate, there had been more than half a million Austrian members of the Nazi Party in a country of roughly seven million people. An even more telling figure is that while Austrians constituted a mere 8 percent of the population inside the borders of Hitler’s enlarged German nation, they made up around 40 percent of those, such as Adolf Eichmann, who participated in the Final Solution. And after the war, while serious efforts at denazification took place in West Germany, little effort toward that end occurred in Austria, with the predictable results that Austrians never came to terms with their political past. This deliberate amnesia, in turn, fueled the conflict that would occur in the 1960s and 1970s as boomers in Vienna, no less than their counterparts in Paris and Berkeley, challenged their parents’ values.

The intergenerational rift was particularly pronounced in Austrian literary circles whose modernist tradition had sprung up out of Karl Kraus and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s insights into the unreliability of language. Postwar avant-garde Austrian writers became obsessed with the ways in which language “programs” human beings to act in inauthentic ways. Although a decade older than Handke and his cohorts, the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard captured the essence of this outlook when he emphasized the futility of language—“There is nothing outside of heads”—and lambasted Austria as “a permanent condition of perversity and prostitution in the form of a state, a rummage sale of intellectual and cultural history . . . with nothing left, apart from its congenital imbecility, but its hypocrisy.”

Handke first came to public attention in 1966, when he was 22. That year, in addition to attacking the members of Gruppe 47, Handke wrote Offending the Audience and Self-Accusation, the two plays that made his name as the enfant terrible of the new generation of postwar Austrian writers. He also wrote a first novel called The Hornets.

The most remarkable attribute of these works is a total absence of action. In the plays, Handke disposes of the typical theatrical convention of the fourth wall. People are in a room and they speak to the audience. Other than language itself, nothing happens. Similarly in his first novel, as well as those that followed in the 1970s such as A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, A Moment of True Feeling, and The Left- Handed Woman, Handke dispenses with linear narrative. In its place, he offers readers a static “story” built almost entirely around the inner thoughts of characters who discover that life is absurd and language inadequate to their needs.

Thus, for example, following a terrible dream in which Gregor Keuschnig, the protagonist of A Moment of True Feeling, “ceases to belong,” he realizes that “as soon as he tried deliberately to think, his thoughts ceased to be credible—they were not his own.” He discovers that “regardless of how he put his perceptions together, they arranged themselves, independently of him, into the traditional well-bred nonsense.” He attempts to think word for word, “as though thinking in words could protect him,” but in the end learns that he can no longer recite “memorized sentences that were not really alive,” and that “memorized ways of simulating life” were no longer valid for him.

Many of the finest writers of the last century, men such as George Orwell and Primo Levi, were concerned about the degradation of language through political manipulation. But they always believed that language should act, in Heinrich Böll’s memorable words, as “the bulwark of freedom.” Not so Handke. In the manifesto he wrote entitled “Literature Is Romantic,” he took exception to the notion that literature could have a constructive social purpose. He particularly disagreed with Sartre’s notion of “engaged literature” and the distinction Sartre had formulated between poetry (which was based, Sartre maintained, on the aesthetic use of words and therefore was inherently “romantic”) and other forms of literature, such as the novel, which could not help but have a social dimension.

For Handke all literature, relying as it does on language, is “romantic,” that is, unrealistic. Handke raged against language (“it expresses nothing but its own stupidity”) and went so far to say that we can only achieve true consciousness if we “learn to be nauseated by language.” Viewing language as a means by which we are induced to accept a fictive “reality,” Handke issued the notorious declaration that syntax is in its very essence an authoritarian conspiracy to suppress individuality through the fictive creation of what is universally considered “true.”

Handke has never abandoned his bedrock faith that language is merely a set of debilitating fictions used to mask reality. In the 1980s, however, after delving into the philosophical writings of Martin Heidegger, he ventured outside the minds of his characters long enough to offer readers finely drawn evocations of natural landscapes.

Like Heidegger, Handke now claimed he wanted to awaken in his readers a new sense of “the mystery of being.” To that end, he had his fictional creations travel to places in which new perceptions of exterior reality would enable them to surpass rational thinking and engage directly with objects themselves rather than the preconceived notions of them induced by language. His characters are finally able to achieve moments of happiness, but only in an irrational way as they sink below the threshold of mind and participate, if only for a moment, in the unfolding processes of life.

Although Handke’s slim plot constructions never provided much reason for his bloodless protagonists to engage most readers’ sympathies, those critics and academics receptive to postmodern theory had enough to celebrate. Moreover, Handke’s style possessed a power that somehow came through even in English translation. John Updike spoke for most critics when he observed: “There is no denying his willful intensity and knifelike clarity of evocation.” That skill, together with the avant-garde nature of his writing, propelled him to the first ranks of contemporary writers. After Handke co-wrote with Wim Wenders the script for Wenders’s highly successful film Der Himmel über Berlin—released in the United States as Wings of Desire (1988), which won the best director prize at Cannes in 1987— Handke’s reputation was at its apex.

As the 1990s began, it seemed as though Handke would soon he capping his career with the Nobel Prize in Literature. Indeed, when his compatriot Jelinek won her Nobel in 2004, she said that Handke deserved it much more than she did—and she may have been right. The Swedish Academy had cited Jelinek for “her extraordinary linguistic zeal” for revealing “the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” If that was the standard the Nobel jurors sought, Handke should indeed have been their man. But by 2004, Handke had for more than a decade been involved with Slobodan Milosevic and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Those political engagements were to prove his literary undoing.

Intellectuals may disdain their native lands. A good many do. But such relentless negativity is difficult to sustain without the countervailing positive crutch of another, better place to lean on. Handke found his as a young man, just across the Austrian border, when he visited and fell in love with the Slovenian region of Yugoslavia.

For the first two decades of his writing career, Slovenia, in Handke’s mind, symbolized everything Austria wasn’t: it, together with the rest of Yugoslavia, stood outside the Western free-market system in something of a preconsumerist idyll. Moreover, it was, in his view, a self-enclosed world of peasants and artisans who were “at one” with the land, where language counted for little and what it did count for was still “pure” and retained an exact fit to the surrounding reality.

But all this changed in 1991 when Slovenia, followed in rapid succession by Croatia and Bosnia, gained independence and sought greater ties to the European Union. Handke was outraged over the destruction of his utopian fantasy, which he wrote about in a book called, appropriately enough, The Dreamer’s Farewell (1991). Predictably, he laid the blame for his disappointment on those countries, including his native Austria, that had supported independence for the former Yugoslavian provinces.

As war intensified in the Balkans in the 1990s, Handke devoted more and more of his energies to speaking out about the conflict. He employed arguments similar to those being made on the far left that what was occurring in Yugoslavia was, in Handke’s words, “a civil war, unleashed or at least co-produced by European bad faith” and that Europe and the United States had decided to carve up Yugoslavia to fill the coffers of their bankers and industrialists.

But Handke was an apologist for Serbian aggression with a difference: he came armed with a set of intellectual and aesthetic presuppositions that could be readily applied to his political engagement with Serbia. Handke had been an outspoken critic throughout his life of automatized language systems that distorted perception and interaction. And now Western journalists were telling people what to think about Serbian nationalism and suggesting that Milosevic was a war criminal comparable to Adolf Hitler.

And so he wrote Justice for Serbia (1996), a book that was part political harangue and part travelogue. Like one of his fictional creations in the 1980s, Handke embarked upon a journey to experience the reality of Serbia for himself. What he discovered was a land of openhearted and generous people. Handke went so far as to adopt Milosevic’s overriding myth of Serb suffering. Milosevic always portrayed himself and the Serbs as the victims of “Muslim propaganda.” Handke went him one better, likening the fate of the Serbs to that of the Jews under the Nazi regime, a “slip of the tongue” for which he later apologized.

When he was attacked for turning a blind eye to Serbian war crimes, all Handke would reply was that his view was neither “Yugophile” nor “pro- Serb,” but rather one of “raising doubts” in order to dispel unjust assessments. Handke repeatedly stressed the complexity of the situation and the need to transcend simplistic, one-sided debate as he pleaded for people to “learn the art of the question.”

Curiously, though, Handke’s awareness of the mechanisms by which the media bounds debate and channels perceptions failed him when it came to Serbian state television. The poet Charles Simic has rightly observed how the “daily diet of lies” churned out by the government-controlled press and television in Serbia “must bear heavy guilt for spreading nationalist madness and inciting hatred.” Handke evidently saw nothing amiss. He granted numerous interviews to Serbian state television, which in turn celebrated Handke as the greatest living European novelist.

By the late summer of 1998, Serbian actions had driven some 300,000 Kosovar Albanians out of their homes, creating one of the largest refugee crises in the world. NATO dithered but eventually went to war to end this brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing on March 23, 1999. Within a month there were some 850,000 Kosovar refugees as the Serbs increased their violence. Handke was outraged, not at Milosevic but at NATO. All the more so when the NATO bombing campaign succeeded in ending the conflict in Kosovo and, ultimately, provoked Milosevic’s downfall and transfer to The Hague.

After Milosevic went on trial in The Hague, Handke visited him there. Indeed, it seemed for a time that Milosevic might summon him as a witness, but Handke indicated his unwillingness to be one and Milosevic dropped the matter, no doubt realizing Handke’s greater usefulness as a “disinterested” observer. And indeed, in due course, Handke attended the trial and spoke out against its legitimacy.

Handke’s suppporters have offered up any number of justifications on his behalf. One defense is to insist that Handke is being punished for speaking outside the mainstream regarding Milosevic. But Handke has hardly been silenced or relegated to obloquy. In 2003, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Salzburg. He continues to be published by the prestigious German firm Suhrkamp, his books are reviewed in the German press, his plays are staged around the world, and he continues to receive space to disseminate his views in the most widely circulated German-language newspapers and magazines. In the meantime, Marcel Bozonnet finds himself without a job. In late July of last year, Minister de Vabres fired him from the Comédie Française even though his contract was set to run until 2009.

Handke’s supporters say there is no question of his artistic achievement and no way to minimize his literary importance. But is Handke a great writer? At his best, as Updike has remarked, Handke is “a kind of nature poet, a romantic whose exacerbated nerves cling like pained ivy to the landscape.” And Updike cites, rightly, this passage from A Moment of True Feeling in support of his view:

As though the sky now partook of an alien system, it became too high for the high towers of civilization in the foreground of the picture, and against the compact, menacing background the human landscape degenerated into a junkyard. The deep blue with which a time grown plethoric weighed on the world was the essential—the scattered leaflets down below, in which only fear of life or death could beguile him (or anyone else!) to find the slightest meaning, were a secondary, minor factor. Keuschnig saw the sky arching over the Place de la Concorde as something incongruous and hostile.

Such descriptive passages are far from uncommon in Handke’s work. But his visionary power of description has little in the way of intellect behind it to engage the reader. By concentrating with surgical precision on the physical details of life, Handke can paint a horrifying image of the mechanical numbness of everyday habit. But is what he describes really life? Literature is many things, but it wouldn’t be worthy of our attention if it didn’t have something to do with human psychology—from which Handke clearly wishes to escape. Literature that deals exclusively with the external forms of life ends up being repetitive and trivial—which is what Handke’s writing often is. His reputation as a writer is unlikely to survive except in textbooks. Who reads (outside of the classroom) Robbe-Grillet and the other nouveaux romanciers from whom Handke has learned so much?

But whatever his literary achievement, nothing can minimize the effect on Handke’s legacy of his connection with Milosevic. In commenting on Handke and the Heine Prize controversy, Günter Grass remarked: “What I dislike about the current discussion is the double standard, as if you could grant writers the right to err as a special kind of favor. I have a hard time with granting writers a kind of bonus for genius which excuses their partisanship for the worst and most dangerous nonsense.”

Thomas Mann said something similar in a letter he wrote to a correspondent in 1946. Mann had been asked whether Nietzsche and Hegel bore part of the blame for the Nazis. Mann replied yes and no. To dismiss responsibility makes works of the mind look more innocuous than they are. Handke is right to believe that language is a force that contributes to shaping the mind and how you deal with life. But that argues for accepting rather than abdicating the writer’s responsibility to get at the truth.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Michael McDonald is literary counsel to The American Interest magazine and is currently working on a literary biography of the Italian novelist Curzio Malaparte.


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