Crimes and Their Trivialisation. Why the Denial of Genocide is Destroying Our Democracies

The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Peter Handke has far-reaching consequences: His denial of the greatest atrocities which were committed after World War Two on European soil, is likely to disrupt the foundation of our democracies. Values and standards of a civilisational coexistence have been weakened. Thus, anything seems possible again: Human dignity is once more violable.

"Es gab keinen Genozid"

Crimes and Their Trivialisation

Why the Denial of Genocide is Destroying Our Democracies

The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Peter Handke has far-reaching consequences: His denial of the greatest atrocities which were committed after World War Two on European soil, is likely to disrupt the foundation of our democracies. Values and standards of a civilisational coexistence have been weakened. Thus, anything seems possible again: Human dignity is once more violable.

Towards the end of the year, a lastingly unsettling act took place: Peter Handke, Austrian author with an apparently chronic tendency for the trivialisation of the very war party of the Balkan Wars which with its idea of a united greater nation state and its major protagonists Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, contributed to the commitment of crimes against humanity in Europe in an extent unknown since World War Two, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

So far, so known.

Despite numerous protests opposing the accolade, many commentators kept faith with the controversial Austrian man of letters and defended the awarding of the prize, with the justification that the prize for his work must be viewed separately from the words and deeds he is responsible for besides that.

That, with all due respect, is nonsense.

Handke himself has moved out of the safe harbour of literature with his vassal´s loyalty to Slobodan Milosevic, by talking full of admiration at the grave of that political gambler who stands as no other for the explosion of hatred of the 1990ies on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. That alone speaks volumes about Handke’s personal disposition and lets the poet seem blind for the unsettling moral abyss of the Balkan Wars.

And that is why the Nobel Prize to Handke is a turning point which will emanate far beyond the literary world, and whose negative consequences thus require a more thorough analysis. Does not the Nobel accolade haul the genocide denial to a global level – whereby it supplies those actors who have been lastingly thwarting the reconciliation process on the Balkans for 25 years with new ammunition. It is not without reason that the Serbian representative in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian State Presidency, Milorad Dodik, most vehement denier of the acts committed by the Serbs in Bosnia, rejoiced that the prize of the Nobel Committee was being awarded to a champion of “justice and truth“. And it is not coincidental that during the last few days, posters have again appeared in Srebrenica, spreading that the genocide never happened – the message accompanied with a photograph of Ratko Mladic, the military officer revered profoundly as a hero regardless of the crimes of many Serbs.

Precisely here is where the lastingly disintegrating effect of awarding the prize lies: Despite   the thousands of harrowing witness testimonies regarding the atrocities of Srebrenica, which Handke has never wanted to take notice of (he is even quoted with the outrageous statement that he does not believe a word of the Srebrenica widows – if he has ever sought contact with them) – with the Prize being awarded to him, the boundaries between facts and fake are being blurred.

What is true? What is fiction?

If this distinction is blurred by one of the most renowned prizes worldwide, the damage caused by that is far reaching: It does not only concern the world of literature then and those who define themselves as the fan community, it concerns us all, as it undermines the foundation pillars of our democratic value systems. The strict distinction between true and false, justice and injustice forms the very foundation of a functioning legal system. Building on this, it is established what constitutes the democratic (and not least moral and civilisational) standard, and what – as the opposite pole –  constitutes barbarism.

The crimes of the Bosnian War, above all the ones in Srebrenica, committed against more than 8000 people, were such an act of barbarism. Thousands of boys and men were sorted out, separated from the women and girls, fettered and bestially murdered. From hatred. From delusion. Because they were Muslims.

The Srebrenica genocide was the first and only committed on European soil after the end of World War Two. After the racial mania of the Nazis, the re-eradication of arduously established civilisational achievements. Contemptible. Genocide.

Especially for the anyway sluggish reconciliation process in the Balkans, for dealing with the committed crimes, the awarding of the Prize represents a serious retrograde step: The very actors who are denying and whitewashing those gruesome murders – despite the historical facts – obtain a publicity-wise very effective appreciation through the accolade.

Simultaneously, those actors are weakened inevitably who attempt to meticulously deal with the bloody past and through critical debates counter false hero worshipping and glorifications – a popular discipline in the Balkans –, in order to ultimately overcome the murderous nationalisms.

Civil society actors above all are the ones who have devoted themselves to that task, courageous lone fighters, who have to deal with hostility and threats not least because they are guided by objective truths, they argument with facts and critically scrutinise the still virulent, war-glorifying mainstream: Sonja Biserko and Natascha Kandic in Serbia, Stefica Galic in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Vesna Terselic in Croatia.

Their valuable contribution to the formation of a critical interpretation of history in the post-conflict societies in the Balkans, the juxtaposition of facts for breaking down nationalist glorification strategies and the ideologisation of friend and foe, is being slyly torpedoed by Handke’s accolade. Awarding the prize to him thereby reinforces the very nationalist or even fascist ideologies, against which those activists are rightly protesting.

Against that backdrop, the Stockholm Committee has caused irreparable harm to the brand “Nobel“: With the sound waves now caused, the Nobel Prize as a moral authority is dead. Just how is the accolade in view of such reprehensible effects to be taken seriously in the future? Who is supposed to be a peacemaker in the post-Handke era, if the Nobel jury has only just honoured the one who is himself sowing discord by negating, i.e. whitewashing committed crimes?

By declaring the testimonials of the survivors of Srebrenica to be irrelevant and hardly reasonable, Handke actively participated in the trivialisation of the crimes. And thus, he personally created conspiracy theories according to which perpetrators were not recognised as perpetrators, but the Serbs were made victims of unfair reporting. In this case as well, the guiding principle of reinterpretation is clearly recognisable, the demarcation between facts and fake is being blurred. It seems tragic that apparently, the Nobel Committee, which in the sense of Alfred Nobel after all also awards prizes to scientists who deal with generally accepted facts and laws, has also grotesquely succumbed to those tendencies.

Already in November, the US publicist Peter Maas demonstrated in a report for The Intercept that the objective power of judgement of the two Nobel jurors Henrik Petersen and Eric Runesson was clouded, as they fell for the crude conspiracy theories which deliberately belittle the extent of atrocities committed by Serbs. That the jurors dealt with questionable interpretative texts on the Balkan Wars (among the authors are also two Germans), but quite apparently did not take notice of the numerous documents of the war crimes trials in Den Haag, seems odd. Why did they orient themselves by self-proclaimed “experts” in such an important issue, who are absolutely unknown to authorities on Balkan issues, and disregarded accounts of witnesses, as well as the judgements of the war crimes tribunal?

Conspiracy theories are a firm feature of left- and right-wing extremist circles. The method is generally known: figures – like the ones regarding the victims of the Holocaust – are reduced, the extent of the terror and the annihilation deliberately downplayed. It would (still) be unthinkable that persons motivated by their convictions denying the Shoah are awarded a prize with international standing. However, the denial of the Srebrenica genocide evidently seems a trifle to the jurors of the Nobel Committee and the advocates of awarding the prize to Handke.

And precisely that represents the opening of floodgates, suitable for bursting the foundation of our normatively rooted democracies. When social derailments, murder and violence no longer are unmistakably condemned and sanctioned, when their interpretation no longer inevitably results in a clear and unequivocal condemnation, when barbarism becomes a trifle, when indifference triumphs over human lives, then there is danger ahead. Then the foundation of our civilisational world is in danger. Then lately everything has become possible, as it is allowed. In that sense, the Nobel Prize to the man of letters and stooge of Serbian policies of omnipotence Peter Handke has opened a door widely: Human dignity is violable again.