Peter Handke Won the Nobel Prize After Two Jurors Fell for a Conspiracy Theory About the Bosnia War

The Intercept
Nov. 14, 2019

This is a story about a conspiracy theory that was born in the 1990s, hibernated in obscurity for two decades, and in 2019 appears to have duped jurors into awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Peter Handke, who has denied the Serb genocide of Muslims in Bosnia.

The short version is that two Nobel jurors, responding to global criticism over their selection of the Austrian-born writer, took the unusual step last month of disclosing the sources they consulted while making up their minds. One of the jurors, Henrik Petersen, cited a book by a little-known author, Lothar Struck, who lives in Düsseldorf and contributes to an online literary magazine. Another juror, Eric Runesson, said he relied on a book by an Innsbruck historian named Kurt Gritsch. Neither book has been translated from German, and they have only a handful of citations on the German version of Google Scholar.

The books by Struck and Gritsch defend Handke’s skepticism over the scale of Serb atrocities, and they endorse Handke’s argument that news reports in the 1990s were unfair to Serbs. The books have a confident tone, and apparently the Nobel jurors concluded from them that Handke was justified in his written and gestural sympathy for the Serb side (which included delivering a eulogy at the 2006 funeral of Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died of a heart attack while awaiting trial on charges that included genocide).

But these two books have a huge flaw that the Nobel jurors apparently didn’t recognize. Both books support a conspiracy theory that asserts an American publicity firm, Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs, masterminded a campaign to inflate Serb atrocities and thus shifted U.S. opinion against the Serbs. According to the wag-the-dog theory of the Bosnia war that these books adopt, the accepted narrative of immense and one-sided atrocities by Serbs was largely the consequence of a deceptive publicity campaign, rather than actual events on the ground. Gritsch mentions Ruder Finn about 20 times in his book, “Peter Handke and ‘Justice for Serbia,’” devoting a short chapter to it. Struck, whose book is titled “The One With His Yugoslavia,” was so taken with Ruder Finn that he published a digital supplement that consists of — to a surprising extent — disclosure forms the company filed with the U.S. government.

As Gritsch wrote, “Due to various resentments and an already-existing anti-Serb and pro-Muslim position among many journalists, the thesis developed that the Serb side (and only the Serb side) was operating death camps in the Yugoslav conflict, and after that the PR agency Ruder Finn publicized this theory, bringing the news of Serb concentration camps into massive circulation.” Gritsch added that after the first pictures and videos emerged of the Serb camps, “the use of emotionally-loaded terms like ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘concentration camps,’ etc., can be attributed to the PR agency Ruder Finn.”

This is a vast rewriting of history. The first articles about Serb camps took off on their own accord in August 1992; it was a spectacular development that didn’t need any nudges from a publicity firm. Subsequent investigations, articles, and war crimes trials proved that the camps turned out to be even worse than the first reports were able to detail. And the phrase “ethnic cleansing” was in wide use from the start of the war in April 1992, when Serb militias stormed into Bosnian towns and killed or expelled the Muslims there.

“It’s just nonsense,” said Marshall Harris, a Bosnia expert in the State Department when the war broke out. Harris, who resigned his post to protest the lack of U.S. action early in the conflict, went on to lead a coalition of prominent activists on Bosnia, and he interacted with Ruder Finn. “The U.S. intervened in the Balkans because of Slobodan Milosevic. The purpose of attributing great success in influencing U.S. Balkans policy to a good but small PR firm with limited political reach minimizes the gravity and scope of the genocide.”

The theory is so off-base that it’s hard to find scholars familiar with it. University of Chicago professor Michael Sells, author of the 1996 book “The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia,” noticed Serb nationalists mentioning Ruder Finn on internet bulletin boards during the war, but he was surprised to learn, when contacted by The Intercept, that the firm was being discussed now as an important or even minor factor in the conflict. “Things were so overwhelming and clear in Bosnia about what was going on, from so many different sources, that I can’t image that Ruder Finn would have tipped the scales in any way,” he said.

The conspiracy theory about Ruder Finn has circulated in the bowels of the internet for nearly as long as the web has existed. While a small number of books and articles defending the Serbs feature it, there is basically no reputable work that lends any credence to the theory. The proposition that it was unfair to define the Serbs as the overwhelming culprit in Bosnia — and that a relatively small PR firm created this myth and got everyone to believe it — is utterly crackpot. Even Jacques Merlino, the French journalist whose 1993 interview with a Ruder Finn executive gave rise to the theory, seems taken aback with how far it’s gone. “I know they did their work but I don’t know if it was particularly effective,” he wrote in an email to The Intercept.

Yet two jurors for the Nobel Prize for Literature say they relied on books that peddled this conspiracy theory in the service of exonerating Handke.

THE BEST WAY to tell this bizarre story is from its origin, which is April 24, 1993. That’s when Merlino arrived at the office of James Harff, a Ruder Finn executive in Washington, D.C.

Harff worked on behalf of Bosnia’s beleaguered government, which at the time was trying to stave off defeat by Serb forces that in 1992 had attacked the country and seized 70 percent of its territory, murdering or expelling Muslims in their path. It was Harff’s job to talk with journalists and politicians about the war, which by 1993 had reached a stalemate as Serb militias besieged the capital of Sarajevo and other cities, including Srebrenica.

As Harff remembers it, the interview did not last long and was not recorded. But at the end of 1993, Merlino published a book in France, “The Truths From Yugoslavia Are Not All Easy to Tell,” that had a chapter about Ruder Finn. It quoted Harff as boasting that his PR firm had “outwitted” three major Jewish organizations into supporting Bosnia’s government, thereby turning the tide of public opinion. According to Merlino’s book, Harff said Ruder Finn had disseminated reports of Serb-run concentration camps even though the reports were not confirmed. “Our work is not to verify information,” Harff was quoted as saying. “Our job, as I’ve told you, is to accelerate the circulation of information that is favorable to our side. … We are not paid to be moral.” Harff’s comments seemed to be evidence that the Serbs had been framed — unfairly and without evidence — for committing genocide in Bosnia.

Merlino’s book found an immediate audience among Serbs and their supporters who were trying to stave off military intervention by the U.S. Here, finally, was proof of what they were trying to tell the world — that the news reports about Serbs slaughtering Muslims in a one-sided wave of atrocities was based not on reality but on a manipulative campaign by a PR firm that now admitted its role. Extracts of Merlino’s chapter on Harff were published in pro-Serb media and even made their way into a handful of opinion pieces in mainstream U.S. and European publications.

Conspiracy theories often have elements of truth that launch their big lies. What was true in Merlino’s book, and in what was attributed to Harff, is that the first reports of Serb concentration camps, in two dispatches in July and August 1992 by Newsday’s Roy Gutman, were unconfirmed. Gutman had talked with aid workers and two survivors of the camps, but he had not visited the camps and did not have an abundance of firsthand testimony. So it was correct that Ruder Finn circulated unconfirmed reports.

But the Merlino conspiracy theory skips a crucial fact: Within days and weeks of Gutman’s articles, subsequent reporting by other journalists confirmed his work, as did war crimes trials that came years later. Gutman won a Pulitzer Prize for his articles the following year.

Virtually every major newspaper, magazine, and TV network in the United States became filled with on-the-ground reports starting in early August. Were they exaggerated? As a reporter for the Washington Post, I made my way to Banja Luka and visited two camps: Omarska and Trnopolje. They had been cleaned up a bit — Trnopolje even had an English banner over its entrance that said “Trnopolje Open Reception Center” — but they remained horrifying. Here’s what I wrote not long afterward:

“I never thought that one day I would talk to a skeleton. That’s what I did at Trnopolje. I remember thinking that they walked surprisingly well for people without muscle or flesh. … One skeletal prisoner had just enough time to unbutton his shirt, showing off a mutilated chest with a few dozen fresh scars from God-knows-what torture, before a look of horror came over his face. He was staring, like a deer caught in a car’s headlights, at a spot just above the top of my head. I looked around. A guard stood behind me.

An eighteen-year-old youth came up to us. He had just arrived at Trnopolje after two months at Omarska, the worst camp of all. His skin was stretched like a transparent scarf over his ribs and shoulder bones. “It was horrible,” he whispered. “Just look at me. For beatings, the guards used hands, bars, whips, belts, chains, anything. A normal person cannot imagine the methods they used. I am sorry to say that it was good when new prisoners came. The guards beat them instead of us.”

And Trnopolje was the better camp. It was where men and women released from Omarska were sent to, and it was where some refugees went voluntarily because staying in their homes was even more perilous, due to Serb militias killing and looting their way through the region. Omarska was pure evil, even in its improved condition, and this wasn’t a fiction dreamt up by James Harff in Washington, D.C. Taken to a cafeteria where the prisoners had been marched in, the climate of fear was overwhelming when I tried to talk with them.

“They bowed their heads farther down, noses virtually in the bowls,” I wrote at the time. “This was a place where words, any words, could kill them. ‘Please, don’t ask me questions,’ one of them begged in a whisper. A prisoner slipped a note to us. ‘About 500 people have been killed here with sticks, hammers and knives,’ it said. ‘Until August 6, there were 2,500 people. We were sleeping on the concrete floor, eating only once a day, in a rush, and we were beaten while we were eating. We have been here for 75 days. Please help us.’”

Was it so bad? In 1997, the two Serb warlords responsible for these camps were indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. One of them, Simo Drljaca, was killed as NATO troops tried to arrest him. Drljaca had taken me and the other journalists to Omarska and Trnopolje. The other warlord, Milan Kovacevic, with whom we had argued to get permission to visit the hellish camps, was flown to The Hague but died of natural causes during his trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.

When Merlino’s book came out, Ruder Finn did what it could to correct its fallacies and errors, Harff told me in a phone interview last month. Faxes were sent to Merlino — one of them, which Harff emailed to me, had the subject line “Misquotes, Inaccuracies, Cynicism” — and legal letters were dispatched to media outlets that quoted Merlino’s book. Nothing was corrected or retracted (Merlino told me he didn’t receive any faxes from Ruder Finn), but as the war went on, Merlino’s book didn’t seem to matter that much because evidence of Serb atrocities became so overwhelming.

In the summer of 1995, the onslaught culminated with a massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica — a new act of genocide that finally triggered military intervention against the Serbs by the U.S and its NATO allies. The war crimes tribunal in The Hague later indicted key Serb politicians — not just Slobodan Milosevic but also Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic. Milosevic’s death spared him a verdict, but Karadzic and Mladic were found guilty of genocide and sentenced to life in prison. The evidence was indisputable.

Yet Merlino’s book had a surprising afterlife. A quarter-century later, it helped deliver the Nobel Prize to Peter Handke.

THE CONSPIRACY THEORY about Ruder Finn is tenacious on the homepages of left and right extremism, but it’s obscure elsewhere. Even though I covered the war and wrote a book about it, I had not heard of Ruder Finn until I contacted Kurt Gritsch last month.

I reached out to Gritsch because Eric Runesson, the Nobel juror, had mentioned Gritsch’s book as what appeared to be his principal source for deciding, before awarding the Nobel to Handke, that the criticism of him was wrong. “Kurt Gritsch, as I see it, comes to the conclusion that the criticism is not entirely factual,” Runesson told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter last month. I emailed Gritsch to ask whether he might have an unofficial English translation of his book because I can’t read German. Gritsch said there was no translation, but he provided a nearly 2,000-word explanation of his research. He wrote that “Belgrade and the Bosnian Serbs played an important — and probably the most important — role in many ways of the conflict,” but he also cited the Bosnian Croat militia and what he described as “the Bosnian-Muslim militia” — which is a provocative way to refer to the Bosnian Army, the only military force in the country that had a legal standing.

He defended Handke by mashing together several debunked talking points that pivoted around Ruder Finn. One of the talking points involved a controversial statement issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1992 in response to Gutman’s articles about the Serb camps. The ICRC, seeking to remain a neutral arbiter, falsely suggested that all combatants had prison camps of equal brutality. The statement was disproved by the stream of subsequent news reports, investigations, and war crimes trials, but conspiracy theorists nonetheless cite it as proof that abuses at prison camps in Bosnia were roughly equivalent on all sides. The conspiracists pick one soon-to-be-discredited data point and ignore everything that discredited it later on.

The following is what Gritsch wrote in his email, with the grammar corrected as he requested (“You can quote this but … please correct the grammar, vocabulary and spelling when needed”):

“The reason for all of this can be found in a PR campaign of 1992. In August 1992, Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs was working for the Croatian and the Bosnian-Muslim governments. They published that camps had been found in Bosnia and that it was Serbs running them. The facts were, as the ICRC (the Red Cross) gave evidence in the same month, that all three parties in the Bosnian conflict — Croats, Muslims, Serbs — were running prison camps. The ICRC was very clear about this and very concerned about the terrible conditions of those camps, where human rights violations took place every day, up to rape and murder. The ICRC confirmed that there were many Serbian-run camps but … explained that this was within the proportion of the fighting parties — the Serbian militia was the biggest group at that time and ran the most camps. Yet the other two groups had their prison camps too.

But ignoring this was not the only thing Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs did. They gave it a spin by declaring prison camps to be death camps and by comparing Bosnian Muslims with the Jews. This was possible with the help of three big Jewish American organizations which publicly supported the Bosnian Muslims (ignoring the fact that their leader, Alija Izetbegovic, had his own ideas of an Islamic state, published in a book many years before). The next step was to combine the perpetrators, and there it was: If Bosnian Muslims were the Jews of our time, then the Serbs had to be the Nazis.”

Just as he does in his book, Gritsch repeated yet another discredited theory that comes from a long-debunked 1997 article by a German freelance journalist, Thomas Deichmann. Among conspiracy theorists, Deichmann’s work is often cited alongside Merlino’s; they are fundamental parts of the extremist canon that tries to rewrite what happened in Bosnia. And in what may be one of the most telling yet least noted twists of the entire Handke controversy, Deichmann has been one of Handke’s closest traveling companions in the Balkans — they made at least four visits together to Serbia and Bosnia in the 1990s and 2000s. Though their joint trips are little-known, it’s not a secret; they have been mentioned in various books and websites.

Deichmann first came into public view when he testified as a defense witness in the 1996 trial of a Serb named Dusko Tadic, who was accused of committing war crimes at Omarska and elsewhere. Deichmann, testifying as a media expert, said that Bosnian Muslims who identified Tadic in court might have known him only through news photos or TV reports about him. Deichmann was suggesting that their identification of Tadic was a lie or a case of mistaken identity. It was not a persuasive argument: Tadic was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Within a year, Deichmann was back in the limelight, writing a lengthy article headlined “The Picture That Fooled the World.” His article was published by a far-left magazine called LM, which was formerly called Living Marxism and launched a decade earlier by Britain’s Revolutionary Communist Party. Deichmann wrote that a British television crew from ITN, the first to visit Trnopolje, had purposefully staged a shot in which detainees stood behind a fence topped with barbed wire, to exaggerate the conditions there. Deichmann’s article turned into a perfect complement to Merlino’s book of a few years earlier — it was not just a U.S. publicity firm that was trying to smear the Serbs, but journalists on the ground were creating fictions too.

The journalists who were accused by Deichmann sued for libel in a London court and won damages of 375,000 pounds. This forced LM out of business — but not Deichmann’s article. Like Merlino’s theory, it was kept alive by revisionist books and postings on Stormfront and other websites of the extreme right and left. As the photography historian David Campbell noted in a meticulous study, the Deichmann article was “part of an overall argument which attempts to revise the understanding of the Bosnian war by denying the nature, extent and purpose of the violence in the Bosnian Serbs’ ethnic cleansing strategy.” Campbell added, “What matters for LM and others is the way this dispute enables the potential link between Bosnia and the Holocaust to be cut, the meaning of the Bosnian war to be diminished, and the responsibility of those who perpetrated the ethnic-cleansing campaigns to be denied.”

Gritsch treats the Deichmann article as fact in his book and in the email he sent me. “When later Penny Marshall and ITN filmed a refugee camp in Trnopolje and put the film crew behind barb wire in order to make it look like as if the people were imprisoned, the whole world interpreted it as evidence of ‘new Nazi-camps’ in Europe,” Gritsch wrote. “The picture, as you surely know, was later (in 1996/97) analyzed and German journalist Thomas Deichmann found out that it had been a construction (‘The picture that fooled the world’).” Gritsch’s book has at least 30 references to Deichmann, including passages about Deichmann’s work that range, in tone, between neutral to supportive. In an interesting twist, the cover photo of Gritsch’s book, which shows Handke gazing over a body of water along the Montenegrin coast, was shot by Deichmann.

I was surprised to hear these discredited ideas coming from the author of a book that was apparently a crucial factor in the deliberations of the Nobel Prize jury. But Gritsch’s email was consistent not just with his book but with articles he has written, including one from a few months ago in the online magazine Telepolis, where he described Ruder Finn’s efforts as “discourse determining” — specifically referring, in a footnote, to Merlino’s work. As Gritsch wrote in his 2009 book on Handke, “Jacques Merlino’s report about the work of the U.S.-American PR agency Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs urgently poses the question whether and to what extent the official depiction of the Croatian or Muslim perspective can be believed.”

When I contacted Gritsch for comment on this story, he replied politely in another email of about 2,000 words that restated the outlines of his book. His response included these lines: “Science and the search for truth is not something easy. … I do not claim to know the truth about the Yugoslav wars or the debate about Peter Handke, but anyone willing to dive into the debates and discourses can identify the master narrative and the counter narrative. And this can already help to understand the whole debate a little better.”

UNDER ALFRED NOBEL’S WILL, the Swedish Academy is charged with selecting the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The academy’s two-step process was amended this year due to a sexual abuse scandal in 2017 that undermined confidence in the academy’s abilities. This year, five outside experts joined the academy’s four-member subcommittee that chooses a shortlist of finalists. The final decision is made by the 18-seat academy. This year, the subcommittee nominated just one person for the 2019 award — Peter Handke — and the full academy accepted it.

Eric Runesson, who said he trusted Gritsch’s exoneration of Handke, is a member of the academy. Henrik Petersen, a literary critic, was one of the subcommittee’s outside experts. In an article on October 17, Petersen defended the selection of Handke by saying that “a political program is not propagated” in his work, though he acknowledged that “the manner in which Handke articulated his critique was precarious, clumsy, and sometimes led to downright absurd comparisons.” The clumsiness was nonetheless a small factor for Petersen and other jurors, apparently. Petersen wrote that in 50 years Handke would be regarded as “one of the most obvious laureates ever awarded by the Swedish Academy,” and he suggested that “if you would like to know more about what Handke actually said about Yugoslavia, I recommend Lothar Struck’s remarks in ‘The One With His Yugoslavia.’”

Struck’s book appears to have gotten relatively scant attention in literary circles since it was published about seven years ago. His book is more thoughtful than Gritsch’s and doesn’t wade as deeply into other conspiracy theories. Struck has a few passing mentions of Thomas Deichmann and his discredited story about the Trnopolje camp, but he doesn’t delve into it the way Gritsch does. Nonetheless, Struck’s book embraces the general theory about the Serbs being unfairly turned into the prime culprit of the Bosnia war by a manipulative publicity campaign, rather than by their own actions on the ground.

“The opinion about the warring factions was partly determined, early on, by professional PR agencies,” Struck wrote. As evidence, he pointed to what he described as the “almost legendary” interview that Merlino, the French journalist, had conducted in 1993 with James Harff of Ruder Finn. This is of course the same interview, and the same conspiracy theory, that Gritsch wrote extensively about. Struck goes on to quote a passage of the Harff interview that Merlino published. “Harff’s campaign was, by the standards of the industry, surely an excellent maneuver,” Struck wrote. “Above all, it was sustainable, since from that point on the Serbs weren’t simply the aggressors, but rather could be placed in the corner of genocidal murderers.”

Struck’s book had a lengthy digital supplement, nearly 600 pages long, that he described as its “volume of source material.” About a third of it consists of disclosure forms that Ruder Finn filed with the U.S. government in the 1990s, listing its contacts with journalists and politicians, among other things. Struck’s interest in Ruder Finn’s influence has not faded since his book was published. After the Nobel Prize was announced, Struck posted a long defense of Handke on the literary magazine he contributes to, Glanz & Elend (“Splendor & Misery”). Arguing that Handke has been smeared by a deceptive publicity campaign against Serbs and their supporters, he wrote that Ruder Finn and other firms that have represented Croats and Kosovars since the 1990s “have been working the U.S. public, have done a good job, their poison is still there, is being picked up by commentators and injected into the world unchecked.”

Here’s what shocks me most about this Nobel Prize disaster. It’s not that the Nobel jurors fell for conspiracy theories. That’s terrible enough, of course. The worst is that the elevation of Peter Handke has also raised from the nearly dead a discredited rewrite of history and genocide. We are going back in time.

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.