Articles on the Bosnia Conflict




Blind to the Truth
By Tobias K. Vogel
Transitions Online (Prague)
July 20, 2005

FREIBURG, Germany -- Peter Handke's transformation from one of the German language's most celebrated writers and an idol of the '68 generation into a full-blown apologist for Serbian war crimes has taken a good 10 years but is now officially complete.

His obsession with what he thought to be an injustice of epic proportions - the demonization of the Serbian people by Western media - first came to the attention of a broader audience in 1996, when Germany's foremost literary publisher Suhrkamp brought Handke's A Winter Journey to the Danube, Sava, Morava, and Drina Rivers, or Justice for Serbia to a market that was thirsting for anything to do with the Balkan wars of 1991-1995, which had just ended with the Dayton accords.

Ian Traynor from the London Guardian called the book (published in English as A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia) "a lyrical, finely-wrought description of a recent journey to Serbia coupled with raging invective against the Germans, the Croats, the Slovenes, the West generally and the international media in particular who are guilty of demonizing the Serbs.

"Handke has blown a hole in the politically correct consensus by heroicising the Serbs and denouncing just about every other actor involved in a polemic that is at once gentle, reflective, wonderfully evocative and extraordinarily vicious," Traynor wrote in March 1996, just as NATO peacekeepers were settling in across Bosnia.

Not surprisingly, the travelogue's various excursions into Serbia's recent history touched off one of those controversies so beloved of the German public. Literary critics and journalists who had covered the Balkan wars were near-unanimous in their condemnation, while Handke became a hero to those who accused the mainstream media of having fallen for a conspiracy by Western governments under U.S. leadership to destroy Yugoslavia and open it up to exploitation by Western capitalists. (This line would be repeated by Noam Chomsky with regards to NATO's war against Serbia in 1999.)

Few thought of asking people in former Yugoslavia what they thought of Handke's views, and the debate soon degenerated into a score-settling that had nothing to do with Handke's purported subject. As such debates go, it was singularly unenlightening.

Handke didn't help his cause when he appeared on Serbian state television during the ill-fated Rambouillet peace talks of 1998 between the Serbian government and ethnic Albanian rebels from Kosovo.

"There is not a people in Europe in this century which has had to endure what the Serbs have had to put up with for five, or more, eight, years," he told his audience. "There are no categories for this. There are categories and concepts for the Jews. You can talk about that. But with the Serbs, it is a tragedy for no reason, a scandal." (Handke later dismissed this statement as a "slip of the tongue.")


Handke was a bit of a pop star of German literature after bursting onto the scene in the late 1960s. His play Insulting the Audience was enormously popular and several other titles made it into the pantheon of German literature. He also co-wrote, with Wim Wenders, the script for Wenders' 1987 Wings of Desire.

Handke always seemed to have a more withdrawn side and a penchant for mysticism. When these tendencies found their application in politics, disaster was preordained.

Handke found his big cause in the fate of Yugoslavia, a country he evidently loved. Born to a Slovenian mother in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia, bordering what was then Yugoslavia, he seems to have felt a special bond to the people and landscapes next door. He was furious when Yugoslavia broke up and blamed the Western-looking Slovenes and Croats for its destruction, along with Germany, Austria, and the Vatican. The Serbs were on this view simply victims, largely blameless for the violence that now engulfed the former country.

In this he was not alone. A number of Western intellectuals, many of them with fond memories of Tito's country and a romantic attachment to his policy of steering a middle course between capitalism and communism, also blamed the Croats for the break-up. Later on, during the atrocities in Bosnia, this would degenerate into bizarre accusations - fed by UN officials on the ground anxious to maintain their "impartiality" in light of brutal Serbian assaults on Sarajevo that were widely publicized by an aggressive, and despairing, international press corps there - that the Bosnian government was responsible for the deadliest shelling.

Some continue this argument to this day. Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail of 14 July [2005], retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie of Canada, the first UN force commander in Bosnia in 1992, said that the Srebrenica massacre was not "a black and white event in which the Serbs were solely to blame." He then goes on to doubt the number of around 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys killed, a number now accepted as accurate not only by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and leading international human rights organizations, but also by the government of Bosnia's largely Serbian entity, Republika Srpska.

MacKenzie argues that only 2,000 bodies have been recovered and that among them are the remains of people who'd been killed during three years of intense fighting in the area. This, however, is simply untrue: over 2,000 bodies have already been formally identified as those of the victims of the July 1995 massacre and reburied at the memorial site outside Srebrenica.

MacKenzie's piece also assures us that Srebrenica couldn't have been a genocide: "if you're committing genocide, you don't let the women go since they are key to perpetuating the very group you are trying to eliminate."

The idea that the primary victims of the conflict had somehow brought all this misery upon themselves had been abandoned by most serious intellectuals by the time of Srebrenica, and they tended to remain quiet for the rest of the war.

They understood something Handke still doesn't get, after all these years.

Denouncing gullible Western journalists, who were indeed often propagating facile black-and-white images of the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, and cozying up to a dictator like Slobodan Milosevic are two very different things.

The former could be done, and indeed was done, by perfectly reasonable people with a genuine will to understand what was going on in the Balkans.

The latter was the specialty of a few maverick writers such as the Russian Edward Limonov, who commented about meeting Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan," Serbia's most notorious "ethnic cleanser," "I've always loved bright and handsome gangsters." He later went to visit his friend and fellow man of letters Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime leader, and was filmed firing a machine gun at besieged Sarajevo.


Handke's latest essay, published in the July issue of the monthly Literaturen (Literatures), is less confrontational than A Winter Journey and has so far failed to revive the fierce debate that followed the 1996 book. But Handke's beliefs are as firm as ever, and he still sees Serbia, and Serbia's former president Milosevic, now on trial at the ICTY, as a bulwark against the encroachment of market modernity on ever-wider regions of the world.

Indeed, what seems to animate his relentless denunciation of Western responses to the Balkan slaughter is his hatred of the modern world, a theme already much in evidence in A Winter Journey. Traynor wrote in the Guardian, "The simplicity of the pre-capitalist system he encounters [in Serbia] is so attractive to Handke that he wants the country's enforced isolation maintained so that this charm is not lost, a sentiment not likely to be shared by many of those directly affected." Much of this spirit is intact in the latest installment.

But then, Handke has never been particularly interested in the views of those he encounters; he always made sure that they would only tell him what he wanted to hear.

"The Tablas of Daimiel: A detour witness report on the trial of Slobodan Milosevic," billed as a travelogue, describes a talk Handke had with the deposed Serbian president in the ICTY detention facility in The Hague last year. (The cryptic title refers to an anecdote of dubious relevance Handke tells at the end of the piece.)

"Almost the entire time," Handke writes of the more than three hours they spent together, "it was only Milosevic who talked." But we never hear what Milosevic said - Handke doesn't tell us.

It's the same with Serbian refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo he meets across Serbia: it's not what they say or feel but the impression they make on the writer that's recorded here. Still, it's only in these encounters that Handke's humanity shows through, and it becomes evident that the neglect and misery these people have been living in for the last 10 years touches him deeply and, one hopes, genuinely.

What he utterly fails to even contemplate, of course, is that it might have been the policies of his hero Milosevic that put an abrupt end to what may have been content lives in Knin or Pristina.

Handke also has rather less sympathy for other victims of the wars unleashed by Milosevic, for example referring to the association of mothers of Srebrenica as "organized and activated for a global audience, hopefully by the mothers themselves."


On the 10th anniversary of the premeditated massacres at Srebrenica - in the meantime ruled a genocide by the ICTY that Handke so loathes - there seems to be growing recognition in Serbia of the enormity of that crime. Handke, by contrast, is now aligning himself with a faction of the Serbian public that still refuses to recognize what happened at Srebrenica.

Srebrenica was a watershed event that finally shamed the Western powers into stopping the bloodbath in former Yugoslavia by military means.

It is this original sin that so exercises Handke: disregarding the fact that the ICTY was set up by the UN Security Council, which also includes two permanent members that opposed military intervention in Bosnia, he considers it to be partial and an extension of NATO. It is victors' justice that's being pursued at The Hague, Handke insists.

This argument, of course, is no different from those offered by Serbian nationalists. But they have come under increasing pressure in recent months as dramatic video footage seemed to suggest that Serbian Interior Ministry troops may have been directly involved in the killing at Srebrenica.

For Handke, what happened there still only qualifies as a "massacre of Muslim soldiers" and is worth no more than a few sentences in the entire 20-page essay. It may be this fact more than anything Handke actually says that best illustrates his particular moral blindness.


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