An explosive error

Peter Handke’s defence of Slobodan Milošević was sentimental and lopsided. His Nobel prize is undeserved

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Peter Handke speaks at a rally just before the funeral of Slobodan Milošević on March 18, 2006 (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

When the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Austrian writer Peter Handke—infamous for defending the regime of Slobodan Milošević—the world was astonished. How could the prizegivers honour someone who has scrubbed so tirelessly at the most indelible stain of recent European history?

The outcry is justified, but incomplete. Handke is not unique. Others have taken similar paths through concentric circles of reasoning, each more sparsely populated than the last. The departure point is Balkan history: the imperial exploitation of ethnic groups, and the reflex attempts of those proxies to exploit their exploiters. Each great-power conflagration provided tacit cover to avenge the crimes committed under the previous one, and sowed the seeds of the next. As Rebecca West wrote on the eve of another round of bloodletting, “the corpses of empires stink like nothing else”.

The second circle applies this view to more recent history. Lord Carrington correctly warned that unilateral recognition of Croatia would lead to terrible war in Bosnia. By the end of the decade, he was stating with equanimity, “I don’t think he [Milošević] is any more a war criminal than president [Franjo] Tudjman of Croatia.” Already the moral compass was wobbling: the Croatian leader’s main ethnic purge, of Serbs living in the Krajina region, was deplorable, but it was not a crime on the scale of Srebrenica.

The next stage is to regard the West not as simply bungling or apathetic, but as cynical and manipulative. In the forefront of this is Noam Chomsky, who was vocally opposed to the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. The campaign’s origin, scope and effects are all questioned. Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence is taken as a precedent for other borders to be torn up, notably those of Ukraine.

Compounding this is a sentimental and lopsided attitude to Serb culture itself. This draws on Serbs’ self-perception as the numinous exceptionalists of world history and on an indulgent paternalism that romanticises the region—“patronising and pernicious”, as Vesna Goldsworthy puts it in her study of the Balkans in Western imagination, Inventing Ruritania.

When Handke imagined himself as an Orthodox warrior-monk, he was responding to the tropes of a culture truncated—as the Serbs see it—by disastrous defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The next 500 years incubated hyperbolic dreams of what the restoration of statehood might mean when the Turks were finally expelled: the nebulous yet deadly hyper-revanchism of a “Greater Serbia”. This fighting spirit manifested in a heroic resistance to Austria-Hungary in the First World War. Yet it soon became coloured by an insidious romanticism that obscures the nationalists’ later crimes. Who could not be moved by the (wholly invented) story that Winston Churchill in 1945 briefly designated a room of Claridge’s as Yugoslav territory so the exiled queen could give birth to an heir on her own soil?

Serb nationalists assiduously cultivate these historical tropes. The procession to the Easter midnight liturgy in Belgrade is led by two Arthurian knights, while the Chetnik (royalist) resistance of the Second World War remains the touchstone for more recent history. The intellectual rebel now enters into the innermost circle, with only the most exotic fellow-travellers (such as the Putinist martial arts star Steven Seagal) for company. The embrace of Serbia becomes a cultural protest vote against the entire Western consensus.

The paradox is that by treating the thuggish communist bureaucrat as synonymous with the glorious remnants of Serbian culture, Handke became the very thing he once hated: an imperial sock-puppet, indifferent to deaths which serve a political narrative other than his own. By catapulting him into the spotlight, the Nobel Committee has now widened the very cultural, confessional and geopolitical East-West divisions that the current Serbian government has been trying incrementally to close. Nobel the explosives-maker might approve. The philanthropist, one suspects, would not.