It is not typical for a publishing house, after its author wins a Nobel Prize for Literature, to feel obliged to issue a private 24-page defense of his work, but that’s what it has come down to for Suhrkamp Verlag, the publisher of Peter Handke.
Newspapers in Germany and Austria began reporting on Suhrkamp’s strange document a few days ago, noting that it was dated Oct. 31 but had not been released to the public. The document, according to the news reports, was apparently a confidential one intended mainly for the benefit of foreign publishers of Handke’s work who had found themselves, like Suhrkamp, in an uncomfortable position as a result of Handke’s record of downplaying Serb atrocities against Muslims in the Bosnia war. It seems possible that the document was also intended for Nobel Prize jurors who might be having second thoughts about their controversial selection. After Handke was announced on Oct. 10 as the winner of the 2019 literature prize, there was an almost immediate wave of protest that his books, articles, and speeches amounted to genocide denial.
The document, written in English with Suhrkamp’s name and initials on the title page and the notation “Work in Progress,” was not reprinted by the German-language news outlets that reported on it, but The Intercept has obtained a copy. Making frequent and critical references to articles I wrote in the past few weeks, the document argues that it’s wrong to examine snippets of an author’s work — so in the interests of allowing readers to come to their own conclusions about Suhrkamp’s work, The Intercept is publishing the version it obtained. (A slightly truncated and unofficial version without Suhrkamp’s logo was posted on Nov. 3 by Handke’s American translator on his personal blog but it seems to have gone unnoticed — there were no articles written about it at the time.)
Although the German and Austrian media have generally been supportive of Handke winning the Nobel, Suhrkamp’s rambling defense has not received positive reviews from them. “It may work here and there, but in its entirety it is a problematic endeavor,” wrote Der Tagesspiegel, accusing Suhrkamp of doing what the publisher was accusing others of doing: “Many of the Handke quotes are torn from their context.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine was more cutting, asking whether the document “will enter literary history as an act of heroism or an act of villainy.” And an article on the website of Deutschlandfunk Kultur pointed out that Suhrkamp may have shot itself in the foot because Handke’s defenders, including the Nobel Prize committee, have publicly insisted that he is not a political writer and should be judged on literary merits alone — yet the publisher’s effort to define the political meaning of his work “invalidates the argument that Handke is not a political author.”
The selectiveness of Suhrkamp’s defense is illustrated by its first example, which cites four critical stories — two from The Intercept and two from the Guardian. All four stories, published after the Nobel announcement, described Handke as having engaged in genocide denialism. Suhrkamp argues that “Peter Handke has neither denied nor excused genocide and war crimes in the Yugoslav wars,” and it cited two statements he made, one in 2006 and another just over a week ago. But while Handke certainly made those short and begrudging statements, he has also made a far-larger number of longer statements and comments in his books, articles, and interviews that heaped skepticism and sometimes scorn on the historical fact of massive Serb atrocities in Bosnia (the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia delivered guilty verdicts on war crimes and genocide against an overwhelming number of Serb defendants). Suhrkamp tries to deflect from that problem by saying that “Handke’s questioning does not apply to the crimes per se, but to the way in which they were reported. From this media-critical approach, he attempts to historically expand the media’s handling of acts and declarations of war from a Yugoslavian and Serbian perspective.” The statement uses the phrase “media-critical approach” on three occasions.
Suhrkamp officials did not reply to requests for comment from The Intercept.
The statement, if you’re in the right mood, is nearly comically inept in places. For instance, it seeks to rebut critics who have noted Handke’s closeness to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who engineered the genocide in Bosnia, was deposed by his own people in 2000, extradited to the Hague for a war crimes trial a year later, and died in prison before a verdict was delivered. Handke visited Milosevic in prison and delivered a eulogy at his funeral in 2006. Trying to deflect these connections between the future Nobel Prize winner and one of the worst tyrants of recent decades, Suhrkamp weakly noted in its statement that although Handke was officially named by Milosevic’s lawyers as one of their possible defense witnesses, “He decided not to testify at the trial” (emphasis in the original).
The statement also dissembles about Handke’s passages on prison camps. It tries to defend him by focusing on the reason he didn’t think the phrase “concentration camp” was an appropriate description for anything in Bosnia, because it evoked a Holocaust comparison that he felt was inappropriate. While that’s disputable, it’s an ancillary aspect of the critique against what he wrote on the camps. Handke always insisted on spreading the blame on all sides, emphasizing that there were Croatian and Muslim camps too. As Suhrkamp noted (again in boldface), “Peter Handke has not denied the existence of camps in the Yugoslav wars.” But that misses, probably intentionally, the most important thing — that the Serb camps were monstrously larger, frequently lethal, and clearly systemic (as the war crimes trials in the Hague demonstrated in case after case). Obscuring the specificity of the Serb camps, as one of The Intercept stories noted, is a way to deny or obscure the crucial fact that there was only side — the Serbs — that started the war, tried to commit genocide, and created a network of concentration camps to make that happen.
The statement is nakedly deceitful in its treatment of what Handke wrote about Serb massacres of Muslims in the city of Visegrad in 1992. In its statement, Suhrkamp insists in boldface that “Peter Handke has not denied that crimes against humanity were committed in Visegrad.” As proof, Suhrkamp cites a passage Handke wrote: “according to eyewitnesses, many of the victims […] were pushed off the bridge over there, and all on the orders of a young Serbian militia leader.” However, it is almost perverse that Suhrkamp uses that passage to defend Handke, because the book it comes from, “Summer Addendum to a Winter’s Journey,” derides the accounts of witnesses in Visegrad — saying, for instance, they were “exclusively Muslims” and wondering aloud why, if they had witnessed atrocities, they would have been allowed to escape the city to testify about them. When Handke uses the word “eyewitness,” it is to question the veracity of the account.
In that same passage, Suhrkamp portrays Handke as acknowledging the atrocities by writing that the victims were pushed off the bridge “all on the orders of a young Serbian militia leader.” The selective quotation here is astounding. In what he wrote about Visegrad, Handke persistently questioned whether in fact a single young militia leader — his name was Milan Lukic — could really have committed so many atrocities. When Handke writes that the executions were carried out “all on the orders of a young Serbian militia leader,” he means to throw doubt on whether those executions could really have happened. As one of The Intercept’s previous stories explained, “It would seem impossible for anyone to question Lukic’s guilt, but Handke has done just that.”
Suhrkamp, in its 24-page statement, has embraced Handke’s practice of laying literary crimes upon war crimes.
The post Peter Handke Won the Nobel Prize. Then His Publisher Quietly Circulated a Strange Defense of His Genocide Denialism. appeared first on The Intercept.