How the Nobel Prize Succumbed to the Literary Art of Genocide Denial

The Intercept
October 26, 2019

There is a crucial question at the heart of the controversy over Peter Handke winning the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature: Can you be a genocide denier if all you do is cast doubts about the genocide?

Handke’s supporters have argued that it’s unfair to accuse him of denying the Serb genocide of Bosnia’s Muslims because he has never actually claimed the genocide did not happen. “For me, it is crucial that Handke regretted the war in Yugoslavia, that he preferred a peaceful resolution of the conflicts,” stated Henrik Petersen, a member of the Nobel Committee for Literature that selected Handke. “He made clear that he wanted to avoid civil war.” Another member of the committee, Rebecka Karde, said that while Handke had written some “hair-raising things,” she could not find a “dogmatic attitude” in his work. Two members of the Swedish Academy that ratified the committee’s choice, Mats Malm and Eric Runesson, lowered the bar further in a statement that they had found “no evidence for the claim that Handke hailed bloodshed, worshipped a monster or denied war crimes while attending Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral.”

These defenses of Handke stand in defiance of what has long been noted by historians of the Holocaust and other genocides: Outright denial is just one way to deny a genocide. According to an analysis by Israel Charny of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide, other forms of denial include claiming deaths were inadvertent or unauthorized by political leaders, or there were not as many deaths as reported, or that the victims were killed in retaliation for previous killings they had carried out. Those strategies encompass much of what Handke has written about the Serb genocide in Bosnia — and are the reason so many people and organizations have fiercely criticized the Swedish Academy for honoring Handke with what’s arguably the world’s most important literary prize.

“What I’m realizing is that surprisingly few people understand what genocide denial is, and what different forms it can take in the ultimate service of denial,” said Edin Hajdarpasic, a historian of modern Europe at Loyola University Chicago. “Genocide denial does not just look like [former Iranian leader Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad: deliberately appalling, aggressive, uncouth, brazen in calling established events ‘lies.’ Handke is not like that. Handke knows not to call Srebrenica or the entire siege of Sarajevo a lie. If one seeks to destabilize truth, it is better, Handke knows, to ask questions with lots of clauses, subjunctives, conjectures, and other stylish pauses so that the perverse implication of his questions can be denied.”

The façade of Handke’s soft denialism is showing signs of falling apart, however. On Friday, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that in a 2011 interview with an obscure magazine called Ketzerbriefe, Handke said that he “would not judge” the Serb slaughter of thousands of Muslims in Srebrenica, which he downplayed as an “act of revenge” for earlier Muslim killings of Serbs. This was no slip of the tongue by Handke. In a largely overlooked book he wrote in 1996, “Summer Addendum to a Winter’s Journey,” he used the same deceptive framing, describing Srebrenica as a “revenge massacre” — even though the killings by Muslims in the area were fractional compared to what the Serbs did. This is a key denialist tactic.

Much of the debate about Handke’s position on the genocide in Bosnia has revolved around a different book, “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia.” It is based on a visit Handke made to Serbia as the war in Bosnia was coming to a close. Handke wastes no time questioning who was responsible for the genocide: On the book’s second page, he refers to the Serbs as “the so-called aggressors.” He then insinuates that the American and West European journalists who chronicled the war from 1992 to 1995 were embellishing it or making it up, describing them as a “horde of foreign reporters every evening at a hotel bar.” (During the war, 19 journalists were killed in Bosnia.) Referring to mortar attacks on Sarajevo that killed more than 100 civilians, Handke wrote skeptically, “Has it been proved that the two attacks on Markale, the market of Sarajevo, were really Bosnian Serb atrocities”?

There’s much more that’s objectionable in the book; I delved into its problematic details in this Twitter thread last week. But his follow-up to it, “Summer Addendum,” contains passages that are even more concerning, and have received little attention so far. The short book was based on a brief visit Handke made to Bosnia not long after the war had ended, and it contains a number of suggestions and questions that cast doubt on the genocide.

For instance, Handke visited Srebrenica and likened the Serbs who besieged the Muslims there to “freedom fighters,” favorably comparing them to Native Americans ambushing convoys of American settlers intruding into their land. “Do the Indians not in fact fight for their freedom?” Handke asked. This is a deceptive reversal of Bosnia, though. Srebrenica, like other cities besieged by the Serbs, had a majority Muslim population before the Serbs surrounded and tried to starve them out.

While not flatly denying the Srebrenica massacre, Handke greatly exaggerated the death toll among Serbs in skirmishes outside the city earlier in the war. “Didn’t the events, no, the crimes at the beginning of this war, and this time not committed by the Serbs, count as the pre-history above all?” he wrote. He went on to describe the Serb slaughter in Srebrenica as “revenge massacres,” writing that “there were also thousands of Serbian victims in the landscape around” the city. Handke’s death toll is significantly off base. As an example, Handke has principally evoked the Serb village of Kravica, which was a military garrison attacked by Muslim fighters from Srebrenica in January 1993. According to the office of the international prosecutor for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, that Muslim attack killed 43 Serbs, of whom 13 were identified as civilians — a death toll that doesn’t come close to the more than 8,000 men and boys killed at Srebrenica in 1995. The commander of Muslim forces in Srebrenica, Naser Oric, was twice tried and acquitted for the killings of three Serb prisoners during the war.

Handke uses the same tactic — raising questions long after the answers have been determined — in his description of what happened in Višegrad, another Bosnian town he visited for “Summer Addendum.” In particular, Handke questioned the role of one of the most notorious Serb war criminals, Milan Lukic, whom an international tribunal convicted for the murder of at least 132 people in Višegrad, including setting fire to two houses filled with women and children. The tribunal noted in its 360-page verdict that some victims survived in the infernos for as long as 20 minutes, and that their agonized cries were “like the screams of cats.” Lukic, who also executed prisoners at Višegrad’s famous bridge, is now serving a life prison sentence for these crimes.

It would seem impossible for anyone to question Lukic’s guilt, but Handke has done just that. He wrote the following dreamy passage as he looked out at the bridge from his hotel window:

“The image is crossed by the thought about the reports of killings in the local Muslim community almost exactly four years ago: many of the victims, according to eyewitnesses (from a hotel just like mine here), pushed over the balustrade of the bridge over there, and all of this at the behest of a young Serbian militia leader; my memory, now, above all: an article from the New York Times, peppered with statement after statement against the man, who at this point has vanished, this man who ‘often went barefoot,’ a main characteristic, in the paramilitary group that he had named ‘the Wolves,’ and among the otherwise, predictably, exclusively Muslim witnesses for the prosecution, also, again predictably, the one singular Serb, a soldier from the town, a prisoner now.”

Handke is referring to an article by Chris Hedges that was published in the New York Times on March 25, 1996. In that article, Hedges documented the murder spree that was carried out by Lukic and the band of killers he enlisted to terrorize and drive out the town’s Muslim inhabitants. “Survivors said the killings quickly became frenzied and common,” Hedges wrote. “On one occasion, witnesses said, Mr. Lukic used a rope to tie a man to his car and dragged him through the streets until he died.”

The article also described the house burnings that 13 years later Lukic would be held responsible for by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Additionally, the article detailed the mass rapes that Lukic and his men committed at a hotel in the forest outside Višegrad. The hotel was called the Vilina Vlas, and the article reported that one of the young women who was held there jumped out of a window to kill herself after four days of being raped.

All of these facts were known at the time of Handke’s visit to Višegrad; Milan Lukic was already a hunted man who would be arrested in Argentina in 2005 and extradited to the war crimes court in the Hague. Yet in the type of genocide denialism that experts have warned about, Handke nonetheless threw doubt on what had happened, questioning whether the witnesses cited by Hedges could be trusted or were real, describing the Muslims as well armed before the war even began, and deriding war reporters as “collectors of statements” in search of “their merchandise.”

“And why did the aforementioned article pretend that that Serbian-Bosnian Wolf gang here in Višegrad had had complete freedom to execute its months of raging in 1992?” Handke wrote. “The entire city a gruesome territory for nothing but the few barefooted people playing cat and mouse with their hundreds of victims? … How could such freewheeling terror rage, given an overwhelmingly Muslim population, long and well prepared for war, and largely in positions of authority? Remarkable, isn’t it, how for those collectors of statements who had traveled here from across the seas, the only thing that mattered was, almost exclusively, their story, their scoop, getting their prey, their merchandise (which, for starters, was of course not to be scoffed at) — ‘witnesses said,’ ‘survivors said,’ that same thing, paragraph after paragraph, the official seal as it were.”

I was one of those statement collectors, and I suppose that’s why I believe it’s appropriate to reject the pseudo-facts behind Handke’s deceptions. In September 1992, as a journalist for the Washington Post, I reported from Višegrad and filed a dispatch that began with a short line: “This is a Muslim city without Muslims.” Lukic was still active in the area but I didn’t see him — as the town was already empty of its Muslims, he had gone elsewhere to commit more crimes, I suppose. I met with the mayor of Višegrad, Branimir Savovic, who had a pistol tucked into the backside of his pants and told me the town’s mosques had been destroyed because they “were used as machine-gun nests and hideouts … so we had to blow them up.”

Handke repeats a version of that in “Summer Addendum,” writing that he had asked his hosts why the mosques were gone and was told that weapons and ammunition had been stored in them. Handke seemed satisfied with that explanation: “In the usual emptiness of the mosques, it did not seem so impossible,” he wrote. Except the physical evidence in Višegrad said otherwise. I inspected the area around the vanished mosques; there were no signs of fighting where they had been, no bullet holes in adjacent buildings, no mortar damage of the sort that would be expected in the fighting described, falsely, by the Serbs.

I have to add one more personal note on Handke’s contempt for what the statement collectors reported about Lukic. At the end of 1992, I travelled to the Bosnian city of Zenica, which was packed with refugees who had been cleansed by the Serbs. In an empty pizza restaurant, I interviewed a 17-year-old girl who a few months earlier had been taken from her home by Lukic and brought to the Vilina Vlas hotel, where she was locked in a room. When Lukic came into the room, he put a table in front of the door and ordered her to take off her clothes. “He said I must, that it would be better to take my clothes off myself, or else he would do it and he would be violent,” the girl told me.

The rest is as terrible as you might imagine; Lukic raped her. But there’s a part you might not be able to imagine, so it must be explained. The girl’s younger sister, just 15 years old, had also been taken to the Vilina Vlas and locked in a room across the hall. Although the girl I talked with was released after being raped, she had no idea, when we spoke, of what happened to her sister, and feared she was dead. The last contact she had with her sister was hearing her sobbing from across the hallway.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.