Swans Commentary » swans.com June 19, 2006  



Peter Handke And The Watch Dogs Of War


by Diana Johnstone





(Swans - June 19, 2006)  Last April 8, the director of the Comédie-Française, Marcel Bozonnet, announced his decision to cancel a planned Paris production of Peter Handke's play, Voyage au pays sonore ou l'art de la question. The cancellation was in reaction to a short item in the Nouvel Observateur, attacking the Austrian playwright for having been present when Slobodan Milosevic was buried in Pozarevac, Serbia, three weeks earlier. The item fancifully described Handke as "waving a Serbian flag" and "approving the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes committed in the name of purification."

In fact, Handke stood discreetly in an icy rain among the hundreds of thousands of people who quietly paid tribute less, probably, to the former President of Serbia and of Yugoslavia than to the prisoner who died in The Hague before he could conclude his surprisingly effective and convincing defense.

The Soviet press used to start many affirmations with the expression, "everyone knows." Today, thanks to Western media, "everyone knows" all about former Yugoslavia, even if they know nothing. In France, "everyone knows" because they read about it in Le Monde, whose Belgrade correspondent, Florence Hartmann, has gone on to be spokeswoman for the prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague. The same media that had already convicted Milosevic ignored most of the trial except for complaints by the Prosecution that Milosevic was impeding justice by being ill and insisting on defending himself. Even his dying was treated in the media as a dirty trick. Only those who watched the proceedings on Serbian television or on the web could know that the main accusation against him, of masterminding a "joint criminal enterprise" to create a "Greater Serbia," had collapsed by last August, and that no evidence whatever linked him to the Srebrenica massacre.

The defendant's death saved the ICTY judges from having to render a verdict. The media has enthusiastically done the job for them.

Handke explained that what moved him to go to Pozarevac was precisely the stereotyped language of the media that "knew everything," endlessly recycling words like "the butcher of Belgrade"... Handke's one-minute statement simply suggested that if "the world," meaning the media, "knew everything," he did not. He hoped for a more thoughtful, questioning language. (1)

Far from "approving" the Srebrenica massacre, Handke has described it as an "infernal vengeance, eternal shame for the Bosnian Serbs responsible." (2) He has simply tried to put it in context, and that is considered sacrilege. "Srebrenica" is not an event to be studied and put into context but a sacred cult. It must simply be ritually deplored as "genocide" and "the worst massacre since World War II." Anything else is stigmatized as an "insult to the victims" and a form of "revisionism" or "negationism."

Now, history involves a constant process of revision. But today what is implied by "revisionism" is "Holocaust denial," which is a crime in a dozen European countries. By analogy with the Holocaust, history of even such recent events as the war in Bosnia is being replaced by "the duty of memory" which means reverent repetition of the designated victims' version of the past.

Memory or history?

The transformation of "memory" into a sacred cult silences dissent and prevents open-minded examination of recent events and their context. To understand the conflicts that tore apart Yugoslavia, there needs to be much more free inquiry, more information, more analysis. But all that would imply "revisionism." The ideological watch dogs are there to bark and snarl at any deviation, frightening the mass of conformists back into the sheepfold.

Today it is an unquestioned dogma that recalling atrocities is a "duty of memory" to the victims, something that must be endlessly repeated, lest we forget. However, constant reminders of past atrocities may simply prepare the next wave, which is what has already happened in the Balkans, and more than once. In reality, the dead victims cannot profit from such memories. But the memory of victimhood is a moral and political capital of great value for the heirs of victimhood and especially for their self-appointed champions. The dominance of the Holocaust in contemporary consciousness has created a sort of "Holocaust envy" among other groups who see advantages in being recognized as victims.

Every community involved in a civil war has a natural tendency to see itself as pure victims. "Memory" enforces group identification, because each group tends to cultivate its own memories. To a large extent, the ferocity of the fighting that broke loose in 1992 was a resumption of the vicious cycle of massacres and vengeance that devastated Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1941-44, because the secession of Yugoslav Republics resounded in the Serb community's memory as a repetition of the Croatian Ustashi attacks on Serbs after the first Yugoslavia was broken up by Nazi occupation.

Western media and politicians echo the charge that the Muslims of Bosnia were the target of a deliberate project of "genocide," because this justifies their illegal 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia. It distracts from their own responsibility in reducing Yugoslavia to a mutually unfriendly cluster of dependent mini-states, and from the persecution of the non-Albanian population of Kosovo. It also fans hatred between communities. Some politicians in the West may hope that focusing on Serb crimes will convince Muslims (despite Palestine) of Western concern for their well-being, but it tends to backfire. Constantly claiming that the West stood by while Bosnian Muslims were the object of "genocide" can only further inflame Islamists against the West. It does not make them forget Israel and Palestine. It only contributes to an ominous mood of "conflict of civilizations."

It would be more helpful to point out that wars lead to massacres, and that evacuating women and children to safety (as the Serb forces did when they captured Srebrenica) is not a usual feature of what most people understand by "genocide." There have long been indications of Serb willingness to admit guilt for whatever really happened at Srebrenica, but only for what really happened, and in return for recognition that atrocities of the same sort were committed on all sides. If the desire for revenge (against earlier massacres of Serb villagers by Muslim forces based in Srebrenica) spurred the massacres at Srebrenica, revenge now also motivates the insistence of the Bosnian Muslim party on branding the Serbs as "genocidal." Muslim leaders in Bosnia hope it will enable them to force Serbia to pay billions of dollars of reparations -- a prospect which would be about as helpful in promoting peace as the reparations imposed on Germany after World War I, which led to the Nazi victory.

To promote reconciliation, what is needed is more history and less "memory." Certainly, group memories and myths must be recognized as factors in behavior, but not accepted as holy writ which cannot be challenged. Acknowledging that Muslims suffered the greatest number of casualties in the 1992-95 war (3) does not mean that this was not a civil war, for which Izetbegovic bore major responsibility and in which Muslim fighters, notably foreign Mujahidin, committed atrocities.

War is the condition that leads to massacres. Had the war in Bosnia been prevented, there would have been no Srebrenica massacre. It could have best been prevented, not by U.S. or NATO bombing, but by stopping civil war from breaking out in Bosnia Herzegovina to begin with. This prevention was possible if the "international community," meaning the NATO powers, Europe and the United States, had firmly insisted that the Yugoslav crisis of 1990 should be settled by negotiations. But first of all, Germany opposed this, by bullying the European Union into immediate recognition of the secession of Slovenia and Croatia from Yugoslavia, without negotiation. All informed persons knew that this threatened the existence of Bosnia Herzegovina. A moderate Muslim businessman, Adil Zulfikarpasic, proposed a settlement accepted by Serbs and others. The European Union proposed a cantonization plan for Bosnia Herzegovina, not very different from the present arrangement, which was accepted by leaders of the Bosnian Muslim, Serb and Croat communities. But both these compromise agreements, which would have prevented war, were rejected by the Muslim party leader Alija Izetbegovic, encouraged by the United States. Throughout the subsequent fighting, the U.S. put obstacles in the way of every European peace plan. Without this US interference, there would have been no Srebrenica massacre, which occurred in the last weeks of the three-and-a-half-year war.

This rejection of compromise, which plunged Bosnia-Herzegovina into fratricidal war, was supported at the time by a chorus of humanitarian absolutists, claiming that Bosnia must be a centralized State for the sake of "multiculturalism." These were the same humanitarians who had applauded the breakup of multicultural Yugoslavia -- which in fact created the crisis in Bosnia. They have been silent as Serbs and other non-Albanians are being "ethnically cleansed" from Kosovo, in the presence of NATO forces.

It is remarkable that more media attention and public indignation is devoted to the search for General Ratko Mladic than to the US destruction of Fallujah and other Iraqi cities.

The West's dominant media and politicians promote war policies that lead inevitably to massacres, while posturing as moral guardians by constantly recalling a massacre that occurred over ten years ago in a war that was largely a result of their own irresponsible encouragement of secessionist forces in Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, the victims of Western massacres continue to pile up in Afghanistan and Iraq. The "Srebrenica genocide" -- because it was committed by "them" and not by us -- is essential to Western claims of moral superiority. The watch dogs cannot tolerate the rivalry of a poet, such as Peter Handke, who tries, against all odds, to inspire genuine moral reflection.


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1.  "Le discours intégral de l'écrivain autrichien sur la tombe de Milosevic," Libération, 4 May 2006.  (back)

2.  Peter Handke, "Il faut maintenant sortir de la vision unilatérale de la guerre. Les Serbes ne sont pas les seuls coupables; Parlons donc de la Yougoalvie", Libération, 10 May 2006.  (back)

3.  Ever since the Sarajevo ministry of information in 1993 launched the figure of 200,000 killed in Bosnia, the media have repeated the figure without question, sometimes raising it to 250,000 or even 300,000. The first systematic nominal study of losses in Bosnia-Herzegovine, by the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Center headed by Mirsad Tokaca, has concluded that around 100,000 people died, slightly over 66 % of them Muslims, about evenly divided between soldiers and civilians.  (back)


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About the Author

Diana Johnstone is a widely-published essayist and columnist who has written extensively on European and international politics. She is the author of The Politics of Euromissiles: Europe's Role in America's World (Verso, 1985). Her writings have been published in many publications such as New Left Review, In These Times, The Nation, Counterpunch, and Covert Action Quarterly. The introduction of her latest book, Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions, Monthly Review Press, 2003, ISBN: 1-58367-084-X, was published on Swans in May 2003 (as well as three reviews whose links are appended at the end of the excerpt).



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Published June 19, 2006