Handke’s award will likely remain tied to Milošević. courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Handke’s relationship to Milošević not a disqualifier

The writer’s proximity to the Serbian war criminal has put his entire award into question.

A question for you: should high tier international awards have political implications? Should a winner have their entire background scrutinized before winning? Should an individual’s art be separate from their personal beliefs?

These are difficult questions with no grounded, singular rule for all cases. However, this last round of Nobel Prize winners has elicited a large reaction that indicates there is a line that was crossed.

Peter Handke, an Austrian man born in 1942, received one of this year’s prizes in literature due to his “influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience” — a statement taken from the official Nobel Prize’s website. Sounds pretty good, right? Seems that he has a way with words, his biographical bibliography is extensive and he is grateful and humble in his post-award interview. Although that’s all on the up and up, they neglect to mention that time he gave the eulogy for a man indicted for 66 charges relating to war crimes and violating the Geneva Convention. Must have slipped through the cracks.

The dead man in question, Slobodan Milošević, was problematic, to say the least. A born Serb, he quickly rose through the political ranks in Yugoslavia, a nation-state constantly on the brink of a race-based civil war. Eventually, the state would break up through a series of secessions from each race’s subgovernment. It’s a whole mess that takes years to explain, but Milošević, the acting president at the time, was a key figure at the center of this ball of confusion.

Some paint Milošević as a political opportunist, riding waves of nationalism, anti-imperialism and xenophobia as a means to further his political agenda, and others see him as a twisted war criminal butchering others with impunity. However, the U.N. stated their investigation did not provide enough evidence that he was directly responsible or complicit with the war crimes, but they also claimed he did not do enough to prevent them, isolating Milošević in history as someone with no true, definitive verdict from the U.N.’s court. Essentially, he got away with whatever he did and did not do. Make no mistake, he was an awful man. He allowed nationalist groups to move freely without interference from his government, engaged in typical absolutist tactics like censorship and historical revisionism and some of his policies are straight out of the fascist playbook. He openly wished for more Serbians-only living spaces, directly mirroring Adolf Hitler’s Lebensraum doctrine. Others see him as a Serbian hero, standing up for their unity as a culture and attempting to ensure the continuation of their people.

So Milošević is a divisive figure and Peter Handke spoke at his funeral; Handke was friends with a man indicted for war crimes. Does that mean he cannot earn a widely recognized prize for his work? Should his art be separate from his personal connections? Is it possible to separate the two?

To be honest, I’m not sure.

Do I think it was a wise decision for the Nobel Prize Committee to award him the prize in lit? No. However, does that allow one the ability to strip his honor? To answer that, I have to say the worst part about this situation is how deeply private Handke is. From the little I can dig up, he had an awful childhood, with his mom committing suicide and his stepfather descending into violent alcoholism, and my human empathy wants to give him a free pass on this. Do I think his political views and friendship with Milošević are bad? Yeah, I personally would not want to associate with, let me say again, a U.N.-indicted war criminal. But is it enough to disqualify him and his hard work?

As the writer of this article, I could sell out and take a middle ground position or say no and end this thing, but this is something I struggle with as an individual. I am so painfully conscious of the possibility that some of the jokes that I make or things said out of context could cause me great grief in the future; that someone from high school will do something awful and I’m seen as complicit due to a previous relationship. If I condemn him for his close association to a heinous individual, then I open myself up to the same criticism. My mom and dad were not great people for a good portion of their lives; my sister has done things that I don’t want to reflect on me, so can I ethically say that someone should strip his democratically given award? I don’t think so.

This is another one of those moments where one has to examine their personal bias on a topic, and this one leaves me feeling conflicted. I condemn the actions, disagree with Handke’s relationship with Milošević, but the award has been given, and I cannot say that it should be retracted, but I am curious about what you, humble reader, think. I’m open to talk about it.

Post Author: Adam Walsh