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The Peter Handke affair

A chronicle of the debate in the German-language press

The Heinrich Heine Prize of the City of Düsseldorf (not to be confused with the Heinrich Heine Prize of the GDR, which was awarded every year from 1950 - 1990), is given out every two years and includes 50,000 euros in prize money. It is awarded to personalities whose literary works promote human rights and social and political progress, and foster understanding and solidarity between peoples. In late May, Austrian author Peter Handke was informed he had been selected as winner of this year's prize. A controversy then flared up over Handke's public support for Slobodan Milosevic, and shortly thereafter the prize was revoked. We've compiled below a series of voices from the German-language press.

May 27, 2006

The decision is announced

Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Hubert Spiegel distinguishes between the decision taken by the Comedie Francaise and the jury's choice: "The decision made by Marcel Bozonnet, head of the Comedie Francaise, is by no means an act of censorship, as some maintain. Because it is the right and the duty of a theatre's artistic director to decide on what gets performed." But things are different for the Düsseldorf prize: "Does the jury sincerely contend that Handke's appearance at the grave of mass murderer Slobodan Milosovic will advance understanding between nations? Does the brazenness with which Handke glosses over Serbian crimes and denies ethnic cleansing foster solidarity between peoples?"

May 29, 2006

Joachim Güntner comments in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: "Heinrich Heine and Peter Handke as soul-mates: a possible field of research. But the problem is that the list of similarities would not be very long. H & H do seem to share a certain irritability which sometimes results in the spontaneous administering of slaps to the face. And they share an allergy to platitudes, an abhorrence for things bourgeois and an anti-militaristic spirit. But then things get difficult. Heine's heavenly gift for humour which shuns anger and alleviates pain, his quicksilver irony and diabolic spirit, none of this is shared by the emotional phenomenologist Handke."

In Die Welt, Uwe Wittstock looks for a way out of the conflict. "Several jury members have already distanced themselves from the decision, which still has to be endorsed by the city council. The SPD, the Greens and the liberal FDP, who together make up the majority, are all vehemently opposed to Handke. But a veto by these aldermen – like the decision by the Comedie Francaise not to produce 'Voyage to the Sonorous Land or the Art of Asking' – would put Handke once more in the role of the persecuted martyr. The situation is ripe with difficulties. Perhaps a way out would be for the jury – which includes Gabriele von Arnim, Sigrid Löffler, Julius H. Schoeps and Christoph Stölzl among others – to expressly state that the Heine Prize has been awarded to Handke the author, and not Handke the holder of absurd political positions."

May 30, 2006

Handke himself answers today in a short article entitled "What I did not say" in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "I have never denied or played down, not to speak of sanctioned, any of the massacres in Yugoslavia from 1991 – 1995." Handke continues that although he is often criticised for having one of the characters in his play "Die Fahrt im Einbaum" (the voyage in the dugout) defend the Serbs, "the truth is that in the play (page 65), one figure says: 'You know it was we who protected you from the Asian hordes for centuries. And without us you'd still be eating with your fingers. Who was it that introduced the knife and fork to the Western world?' But: is it necessary to point out that this is a parody? or that this minor character's name is 'Irrer' (Madman)?"

Matthias Kamann takes up the cudgels for Handke in Die Welt, explaining his position on ex-Yugoslavia and describing Handke as an outcast. "While Handke continues to be accused for drawing parallels between Auschwitz and the bombardment of Serbia, Joschka Fischer has yet to feel any consequences for fantasizing with total disregard for reality about having to prevent another Auschwitz in Serbia. Thoughts like these, and the apocryphal 'Hufeisenplan' (Operation Horseshoe) which was cooked up by the then Minister of Defence Rudolf Scharping, fitted and still fit well with the feuilletonistic debate of consensus that 'Germany finds new responsibilities through the Kosovo war.' Peter Handke however was ostracised from public debate, which is determined not to see consensus destroyed and only accepts artistic obstinacy when this confirms the cartel."

May 31, 2006

The prize is revoked

Writing in Die Tageszeitung, Gerrit Bartels roundly criticises the decision to revoke the prize, saying that the "eternal Peter Handke reflex" had led to things being handled in a slipshod way. "Certainly, Handke's stubbornness and his statements on Milosevic's behalf are amply disconcerting. But one should also try to understand why Handke has consistently got so carried away and stuck in his ideas. Maybe then you can at least see what he's trying to get at. In the best democratic tradition people have to be able to accept that someone like Peter Handke should win the Heinrich Heine Prize."

Also in Die Tageszeitung, Wiglaf Droste writes: "Of course it's possible that Peter Handke has got a screw loose. If you go on a search for the truth, you can also get lost along the way. But anyone that believes they automatically have truth on their side just because they belong to the overwhelming majority should not be listened to in the first place. A writer has every right to his own view of the world. Telling him to be more media-friendly is tantamount to seeking to abolish the writing profession."

Thomas Steinfeld, head of the literary desk at the Süddeutsche Zeitung (where Peter Handke's call for "Justice for Serbia" launched the heated debate around Handke's support for Serbia and Milosovic), reacts angrily to the decision by the Düsseldorf City Council: "That's not how things are done. The mayor of Düsseldorf can't ring up Peter Handke and say he'll get the Heinrich Heine Prize this year, if just a few days later the City Council says no, on second thoughts he won't win it after all. That's not how things are done. The former historian, museum director and now politician Christoph Stölzl can't be member of a literary jury and then – as soon as a democratic decision meets with public criticism – go around saying the person who won wasn't his man. That's not how things are done. And now all manner of politicians are piping up and calling the decision 'a poor choice', 'unthinkable' and 'insensitive', while leaving no one in any doubt that they've never read anything Peter Handke has written on the subject. That's not how things are done."

Tilman Krause of Die Welt however applauds the intervention of the Dusseldorf city council: "What luck that at least the policitians in this country have some sense!"

June 1, 2006

In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Peter Handke refuses to distinguish between Serbian and Muslim perpetrators in the Bosnian war. "When it comes to the wars in Yugoslavia, let us forget all comparisons and parallels. Let's stick with the facts of a civil war that a disingenuous or at least unknowing Europe instigated or at least co-produced, and which are terrible on all sides. (...) It is a fact that between 1992 and 1995, in the Yugoslavian Republic, and in Bosnia in particular, prison camps existed where people were starved, tortured and murdered. But let us refrain from mechanically linking these camps with the Bosnian Serbs. There were also Croatian and Muslim camps, and the crimes committed there will be punished in the tribunal in Den Haag."

German author and playwright Botho Strauß writes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "What remains today of Bertolt Brecht, a poet who valued the revolution over human life and whose only opposition to the bloody Stalin was a spot of dialectics? What remains is someone who changed the theatre more lastingly than any other European author... What remains, at the end of the day, of the alleged bard of the Greater Serbian Empire, Peter Handke? Not just the most gifted poetic craftsman of his day, but an episteme-creator (to use Foucault's term) as only the most outstanding minds can be, a milestone of seeing, feeling and understanding in German literature. Those who fail to see guilt and error as the stigmata (or even as stimulants in some cases) of great minds, shouldn't busy themselves with true poets and thinkers."

June 2, 2006

Writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Sigrid Löffler and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre announce in an open letter that they are resigning from the jury of the Heinrich Heine Prize. "No one can comprehend, let alone want to approve of, Handke's bizarre acts regarding Milosevic," they write. Yet "one of the jury's reasons for giving Handke the prize in the first place was that he is undaunted in his poetic stance by public opinion and its rituals. The witch-hunt now raging against unwittingly demonstrates how clearly Handke really did deserve the Heine Prize."

For Frank Schirrmacher in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the question is no longer whether Peter Handke deserved the Heinrich Heine Prize (this was refuted by Hubert Spiegel recently in this paper) or not. The real question is: "Should Peter Handke be allowed to receive the prize? This is purely a question of power. If he doesn't receive it after the jury's decision has been made clear, then literary prizes in Germany will be exposed as the arbitrary character assassinations that they have always been, from the times of the 'anonimo romano' until today. Honouring someone, regardless of how controversial he may be, and then openly declaring him unworthy of that honour, without anything else having happened, is the ultimate form of social backslide. It turns the literary critic into the henchman of the politician. With the politicians' interference, the critic's objections to Handke now sound like a denunciation to the police."

The Frankfurter Rundschau prints a text written "Because of the circumstances" for Peter Handke by fellow Austrian writer and former Heinrich-Heiner Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek on her homepage. "The poet has to say what he has to say, because it's necessary for him to say it. But it's not that he has to say what is necessary, because that would mean he had nothing more to say, that he only had to get done what needed doing. And that's not enough."

Andrej Ivanji points out in Die Tageszeitung that Peter Handke by no means spoke for all Serbs. "In the mid 90s, Handke visited Serbia and read in Serbian in the Belgrad theatre 'Jugoslovensko dramsko pozoriste.' In so doing he won the hearts of the gathered Serbian intellectual elite. At least, that is, those members of the Serbian Writers' Association and the Academy of Arts and Sciences who put forward the ideology of a Greater Serbia which Slobodan Milosevic used as the basis for his military campaigns."

June 3, 2006

The poet Peter Handke is not entitled to the Heinrich Heine Prize, writes Serbian writer Bora Cosic in Der Tagesspiegel: "Anyone who demands justice for Handke should first demand justice for Serbia, to protect it from false advocates. Because the way he represents this country is insulting. Serbia is not some needy country, full of poor, dull, backward people; it is a region which over the last hundred years has made a gift to the rest of the world of its poets, its avant-garde art and its brilliant personalities. There are plenty of people who are openly opposed to the regime there. The country is precisely the way that the young writer Biljana Srbljanovic describes it. This other Serbia will bear witness in the court of honour before which Peter Handke is standing today."

June 8, 2006

Author Martin Mosebach writes in Die Zeit on the Peter Handke affair: "Too bad the American ambassador who encouraged Slobodan Milosevic to wage war in Bosnia didn't come to his funeral in Belgrade. Someone like Handke who remained faithful to the dead Milosevic is much more worthy of admiration than all the Western politicians who made it possible for Milosevic to commit his crimes while he was alive."

Also in Die Zeit, Jörg Lau puts the two Peter Handkes back together in an exclusively online answer to writer Botho Strauß' general amnesty for geniuses in the Peter Handke affair (text in German here): "Why do we get so upset at Handke's kitsch rendering of Serbia and things Serbian, why does his coquettishly playful relativisation of the facts annoy us so much, why do our hackles rise when he appears at the funeral of mass murderer Slobodan Milosevic? It's because he's a major poet, whose novels and diaries continually provide us with 'moments of true experience.' When we attack Peter Handke the politician, we defend Peter Handke the poet."

June 9, 2006

Peter Handke refuses prize

In an article entitled by the paper "Je refuse!", the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung publishes the brief correspondence between Peter Handke and Düsseldorf Mayor Joachim Erwin on the subject of the Heinrich Heine Prize. Handke writes: "I am writing to you today with the express intention of saving you (and the world) the bother of a meeting of the Dusseldorf City Council (if that's what it's called) to declare the decision to give me the prize null and void. I'm also doing this to save myself the bother, or rather the ghost of myself which is currently haunting the public, and even more importantly to save my work, or should I say stuff, from being exposed again and again to this kind of ridicule from one party politician or another."

In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Thomas Steinfeld takes a bitter look at the Heinrich Heine Prize affair, with especially harsh words far the city's politicians: "The last idea the city council had before Peter Handke officially refused the prize was that Heinrich Heine University should organise a symposium at which his work could be discussed, and where Handke himself could answer for his words and actions. The whole thing would have constituted a tribunal arraigning the poet, to his own detriment. There is something consternating about the idea. Can the Düsseldorf aldermen really have learned nothing from the conflict of the last ten days, do they really not see what an injustice they have done?"

June 14, 2006

Talking with Christof Siemes in Die Zeit, Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass points out that Peter Handke would not have been an unworthy laureate of the Heinrich Heine Prize. "Heine – like Goethe too, by the way – remained a fan of Napoleon until his death. The horror and the terror that Napoleon spread, how he used up his armies on the way to Russia – all of that was of no consequence for his admirers. Heine runs equally afoul of today's criteria whereby Handke is condemned for his absurd, one-sided support for Serbia... Handke has always tended to adopt the most nonsensical arguments and counter-positions. But what I dislike about the current discussion is the double standard, as if you could grant writers the right to err as a special kind of favour. The writer Botho Strauß said something along these lines (text in German here)... I have a hard time with granting writers a kind of bonus for geniuses which excuses their partisanship for the worst and most dangerous nonsense."

June 17, 2006

Peter Handke talks in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung with Martin Meyer and Andreas Breitenstein about his unchanging attitude to Serbia, the Yugoslavia of the partisans, Srebrenica and Milosevic: "Where is there any order from Milosevic? How can you bring him together with Srebrenica? I don't know. And on top of that Milosevic was no dictator. He was an autocrat who exercised a semi-authoritarian regime. The press was free, but the television was state-controlled. I don't have any opinion about Milosevic. None. I can't find him either good or bad. I don't want to compare him with Ceausescu or Saddam Hussein, for me that's wrong. Setting Milosevic up as the major evil of the Balkan Wars is a simplification." Click here for a full translation of the interview.

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