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Peter Handke's Untendable Position

By hovering as ‘third person’ in-between politics and literature after having attended the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, and then having his play “The Game with Questioning…” taken from the program of Comedie Francaise, Peter Handke continues to uphold an untenable position for several reasons.

“Should you suit the words to the actions or the actions to the words, that is the question” – Shakespeare, Macbeth

Ever since it became known that Peter Handke attended the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the question of his engagement for or ‘with’ Serbia (as Handke would like to put it) has provoked again reactions and discussions about what relationship any author of name should have, if at all, to politics?

For instance, the director of Comedie Francaise, Marcel Bozonnet found this action of Handke to be so outrageous, that he decided to cancel his play “the Game with Questioning or the voyage into the Sonora land”. Some branded it as act of censorship, while others differentiated between the personal decision of Bozonnet and the French government’s policy, in particular of the Ministry of Culture as expressed in the form of “not understanding” why Handke’s Play was taken from the theatre’s program, so the wording of the hardly known French Minister for Culture, Renaud Donnedieu.

The debate about the pro and con of Bozonnet’s decision cited then examples of great art works held in high esteem while the authors had contentious relationships to politics. There is Erza Pound’s support of Mussolini while quite often, so the criticism, is that the world tends to overlook Pablo Picasso’s linkage to Communism and therefore to Stalin. As if different moral measures were being applied in each case, the intention was obviously to rebuke Marcel Bozonnet while not sure on how to appraise this time Handke’s own action.

Indeed opinion is not so much divided whether any writer has to show some consistency when it comes to engaging him- or herself for this or another political cause. Rather in not knowing whether judgment of a literary work should be done independently from what the author does politically or not, the general opinion in the case of Peter Handke is much more confused and puzzled. This is because Yugoslavia, the break-up of this country after Tito died, is such a difficult case itself as the Balkans have always been.

To recall the break-up of Yugoslavia was speeded up by a single act of Germany which gave quick recognition to Croatia and thereby broke with international consensus prevailing at that time on how to handle the situation in former Yugoslavia. Germany giving the recognition is of interest because it provides an insight into a new nationalism per say, as it was the first act of sovereignty by Germany after the Berlin Wall came down 1989 and reunification completed as recognized by state law in 1990. The act of defiance of the rest of the world seemed to be as much the result of pent-up feelings not to be able to show independence on the international stage since 1945 and the defeat of Germany by the four powers as it reflects the strong influence of the then still foreign minister Genscher. Interestingly enough he retired immediately thereafter as if not wishing to face the political responsibility for the fall-out of his own actions.

Historically speaking, Croatia was on the side of German Fascism, so then a post war alliance seemed to desire a speed up of the nationalist assertion of one culture, one state. It is a thesis that Germany’s recognition precipitated what followed and not merely the break-up of former Yugoslavia, but more so the ‘ethnic cleansing’, as it became known, that followed.

Of interest is here one remark by Peter Handke who had been traveling to former Yugoslavia due to his mother’s affiliation with that land. He observed and remarked that it is one thing for people in Croatia complaining about the Serbs controlling the military and all of the national administration, thereby taking the money, and quite another when claiming by drawing a wall through the own house to be better off. He meant this was a qualitative difference and he could not explain himself why this sudden transition from mere complaining about the others to a real redrawing of borders came about. Such complaints about the others being lazy, but ‘we’ are productive and could be better off without the burden of those others, that is similar to Italy. There the Northern people would say quite often those in the South, especially in Sicily are poor and lazy but they take all our tax money without wishing to work. Nevertheless, and here one has to agree with Peter Handke, all that complaining is still a far cry away from the practical wish to create an independent state. At least this is what Peter Handke seemed to suggest in his probe out of a wish to further understand something not readily comprehensible at all.

Such qualitative transformations are no strangers to political developments. The Monday demonstrations in Leipzig which preceded the fall of the East German government and therefore the opening up to reunification went through a similar qualitative alteration. At the beginning none of the demonstrators had in mind reunification. They wanted simply the democratization of the East German state. But when there arrived new people from the West to join the demonstration, suddenly the slogans and chants changed. Something had been induced from above and outside. It was no longer the demonstration of the people from Leipzig but it had become an appropriated political movement by political forces which wanted these Monday demonstrations to serve still other and further going goals and motives. In such cases it pays never to be naïve as if “we are the people”. The subsequent, ever more violent break-up of former Yugoslavia engulfed Europe in a new mess. It distracted the European Union from making sure integration was based on ‘social and economic cohesion’ and not on military force and a foreign policy looking in from outwards to unify what cannot be unified under any of the given terms. Indeed, the clinging to national sovereignty as demonstrated alone by the Euro-Skeptics in the UK can show how even the most cherished traditions can contribute to fateful developments. In Europe this has been signaled by the failure to ratify the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2005.

The European Union has become sidetracked since the Kosovo war, as it is called. Above all it meant for Europeans the breaking of their promise upheld since 1945, namely ‘never again war’ in Europe. By defeating diplomacy, this promise was broken once the NATO bombings of Kosovo started in early 1999 (although there had been some bombings before that time). In view of the atrocities linked to campaigns of ‘ethnic cleansing’ even the German Greens till then really a Pacifist movement supported in the majority their foreign minister Joschka Fischer who justified this military measure as ‘humanitarian act’. His argument rests on the claim that war was the only way to stop the genocide going on.

Since 2000 and Slobodan Milosevic having been first defeated and ousted from office, then arrested and brought to the International Court in the Hague as war criminal, a key issue has been him being charged with ordering the genocide of especially Bosnian Muslims. Over the years a type of trial was evolving which appeared to measure itself on the previous model of the Nuremberg trial. At that time the National Socialists were judged and condemned to death as punishment for their ‘crimes against humanity’ and not, as this is very important, for their war crimes. Legally speaking every nation state claims the Right to defend itself if attacked. Consequently with wars after wars having engulfed nations and people in all kinds of atrocities there is still unclear whether crimes of war offend national law. At the same time the newly emerging international law is still on too weak a ground to make any case in the name of humanity. What arguments appear then to be plausible to a jury while judges still grabble with mounts of evidence but no clear witnesses as they are all stuck in-between national value systems and a world realizing that if conflicts are not resolved peacefully, violence of many kinds will always prevail. In the case of Serbs committing atrocities, many Milosevic and Serbian followers would want to put down the accusations as an all out American or American-European conspiracy, while pleading for a broader understanding that war is war, hence always dirty, with an added question, if all are involved in the war game and business who has really the moral right to judge anyone else. In that sense, it was of importance that Milosevic decided to defend himself insofar as he wanted to structure the case personally in order to be able to argue from a better position by knowing better than anyone else the complexity of the situation. Of interest is that he invited Peter Handke to be a witness on his behalf but Handke refused. However, he did attend the trial as an observer and wrote a newspaper article about it.

The German newspaper, die Sueddeutsche, reminds in an article about the Peter Handke that the author was known for his engagement for Serbia especially since the publication of his writing with the title “A wintry journey to the rivers Danube, Save, Moravia and Drina or Justice for Serbia” (published by the newspaper in 1996 at the height of war raging in Yugoslavia). At that time, Handke had to defend already his position as not ignoring the fact that ‘crimes against humanity’ had been committed by all sides in this war. Still, he wondered and asked, “Why does one not read what he has written and instead just attacks him?” He continues his self defense by stating that he has written about the Serbian victims because no one else wanted to recognize that there were also Serbian victims; at the same time, so he underlines, he has thought about the victims on the Croatian and Muslim side. At that time he traveled to Serbia in order to get a better picture of a very complex reality than the one portrayed by those who often confuse describing the situation with being judges. His main principle of action was “to listen, to mediate perception and to reflect without passing a judgment”. (Sueddeutsche, 6.-7. Mai, “Aufgeregte Horden aus der vermeintlichen Welt”).

Out of that follows his justification for attending the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic: “The world, the so-called world knows everything about Slobodan Milosevic. The so-called world knows the truth. For this reason the so-called world is not present today, and not only today and here. I do not know as well the truth. But I look. I comprehend. I feel. I remember myself. I ask. For this reason I am here today.” This Handke said in an Interview he gave to LeMonde that he is not ‘for’ but ‘with’ Serbia, and he does not wish to insult with such a position another people (Volk). In that sense Peter Handke claims for himself a third position: “I am alone, and if one lives alone, one tends towards feeling guilty, as the case with Kafka, or else one considers oneself as being a great person. I am neither guilty nor a hero. I am the third person.”

The third person reminds of the funeral of Onassis in Greece when Jacqueline attended but only on the side lines while the family of Onassis had tried to exclude her as if not wishing to confront that part of the man’s story or evidence of a personal life having gone if not astray, then in a different direction than originally thought.

Clearly all these accounts about Peter Handke in reflection of what he says himself do not allow as of yet any kind of understanding which differs from making a judgment even though there has to be brought some truth into this matter as it is impossible to take always a neutral position and then naively expect others to understand this hovering in-between all chairs and positions.

There are some other details which need to be added. First of all, Peter Handke came to a highly watched funeral because Milosevic died in jail and before the International Court could ever pass judgment on his case. Moreover, his wife and brother would not attend the funeral for fear of persecution. They are living in exile, in Russia. Secondly, witnesses say Peter Handke did not stand at the funeral quietly, but he carried the Serbian flag and then went to kiss the coffin prior to being lowered into the ground. Such an action exceeds both his claim of standing on a neutral ground as third person and indicates that he involved himself in more than being merely symbolically present as a kind of defiance of a world he claims to think knows the truth while he does not but still angered by that claim he tends to the other extreme. There are other ways of defiance as shown by Thomas Bernhard or even Jean Paul Sartre when refusing to accept the Nobel Prize. Any writer knows symbolic actions can signify something but as symbolic actions they are suspect and lead to much more misunderstanding than further clarification.

If more the way of dying matters nowadays that the actual person being dead and buried, then such a presence as demonstrated by Handke at the funeral of Milosevic risks in not letting the legend die. It is said that Milosevic managed through his unexpected death to evade the International Court and therefore left behind him something inclusive. Perhaps Peter Handke wishes to reinforce that, however, there are other clues which might help to illuminate why he undertook such a particular action. In ‘Repetition’ he writes: I came to feel at home while on the move, riding in trains, waiting at railroad stations and bus stops... I heaved a sigh of relief every time I was restored to the society of my mostly unknown fellow travellers, whom I had no need to classify and who did not classify me. During the trip we were neither rich nor poor, neither better nor worse than anyone else, neither German nor Slovene; if anything, we were young and old -- and on the return journey in the evening it seemed to me that even age had ceased to count.

As if he wishes to escape all categories, he seems to reflect here something that agonizes him ever since he left Austria and started to live outside of Paris in a sort of exile he calls living alone even though with a woman. There are after all some Austrian critics of literature who chastise him as not being ‘patriotic’, hence Austrian enough to be considered a compatriot and fellow-traveler of modern literature. This wish for national branding of writers so that their works can be claimed as Austrian literature has made Peter Handke sensitive to the point that he seems to flee into what Freud would call submerging body and mind in a collective unconsciousness. If this concept applies to Serbian people not wishing to confront their own history and political responsibilities, then this guilt feeling of being alone and the risk of deeming oneself to be, however, the greatest, entails two dangers for Peter Handke. He has not the perception that he could step outside loneliness into a realm of discourse in which truth matters nor does he seem to be willing to demystify himself the figure of Slobodan Milosevic since he needs such a figure to configure his entire political complexity linked to having only identity as non-identity.

The untenable position is when a writer adheres to a military man and then claims that Milosevic was defending merely the Serbian people. No matter the intention, Slobodan Milosevic did what he did regardless whether or not this action had any ethical nor political value. Rather it can be assumed that he did everything as part and parcel of intrigues, and he did to gain power by being more than just shrewd.

Insofar as Yugoslavia was already filled with memories of atrocities committed in the name of Communism, Fascism or just anger for having not gotten a share of what one simply wanted, there prevailed a virulent violence. This may explain that after the break up of Yugoslavia a readiness to be violent was a kind of political manifestation, but which went further to become a most violent 'ethnic assertiveness'. The latter has let people live in fear, especially if abandoned by the world and therefore left completely alone. In such a situation they experience reality as if no law exists.

The interesting point for a writer would be to think about such an existence when people feel completely abandoned not only by the world but also by their own leaders and where instead of the rule of the law something else reigns, if not terror, then violence. It is a state of affairs as if the only true claim could be made that no one would know any more that truth does still matter, especially if people are to live together in peace. Hence the claim by Peter Handke that this 'so-called world' knows the truth is as true as untrue. For the truth as to what went on in Yugoslavia and what is the part played by Slobodan Milosevic is not an unknown ordeal, but can be known, provided truthful accounts are given.

Yes, it does matter not only who listens, but also what is being said, even if only oneself says it! After all it is not at all self understood, or rather an open question, if that part of the self is willing to listen, especially when the self realizes (often too late) that the others are already engaged in something else.


Hatto Fischer



This article was orginally published in heritageradio


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