Is Peter Handke a Serbian Nationalist?

Protests after the awarding of the Nobel Prize focus on claims that Handke is a Serbian nationalist.

In 2014, after the awarding of the Ibsen Prize, protestors claimed he is a Serbian nationalist.

[ Karl Ove Knausgaard responded to the 2014 protests in an essay called “Handke and Singularity”, arguing that Handke’s Yugoslavia works are “another form of history-writing, about what goes on outside of public attention, the entire political-historical and generalizing system of concepts that has filled ‘Serbia’ with a whole bunch of fixed notions, unalterable and unshakable.”]  

After the 1996/1997 publication of his Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, protestors claimed Handke was a Serbian nationalist.

Slobodan Milosevic was a Serbian nationalist. Franjo Tudjman was a Croatian nationalist. Alija Izetbegovic was a Bosnian nationalist. Their actions leading to the civil wars that broke up the former Yugoslavia and their actions during the wars pitted Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks against one another. A nationalist denounces other nationalities as enemies of their own nation.

Has Peter Handke ever denounced Croats or Bosniaks or Kosovars as enemies of Serbia?


What, then, about his advocacy for the Serbs?

If Angela Merkel is an advocate for Germany, is she then automatically a nationalist? No.

Barack Obama was not a nationalist; but if my slogans are “Make America Great Again” and “America First” and if I praise Russian and Turkish nationalists, then I’m an American nationalist.

Peter Handke’s advocacy for Serbia might best be described as an “and” rather than the “or” of a nationalist. He lamented the breakup of multi-cultural Yugoslavia and decried  the emerging nationalist provocations.

In Handke’s novel The Moravian Night there are repeated denunciations of nationalism. Two here as examples:

Driving through Kosovo, a bus driver launches an angry tirade against rock throwers, against ethnic cleansers, against hate-filled nationalists, against nations in general.

In Austria, a gathering of jew’s-harp players produces simple music with limited means that reminds the former author of his own craft. Performances of national anthems, however, raise his ire: “abusing the jew’s-harp to play mendacious harmonies: that was impermissible.” Each note should emanate from reflections, he thinks, should avoid “any kind of melodic demagoguery.”

[for my extended essay on The Moravian Night, click HERE]

I challenge readers to find melodic demagoguery in any work by Peter Handke, to find passages that pit one nation against another.

As an advocate for Serbia, Peter Handke’s is arguing that it should be included with an “and,” not excluded with an “or.”

In conclusion, I post once again my translation of a beautifully inclusive essay from Handke’s Once again for Thucydides:

Head Coverings in Skopje

A possible minor epic: of the various head coverings of the passersby in large cities, as, for example, in Skopje in Macedonia/Yugoslavia on December 10, 1987. There were even, right in the metropolis, those “Passe-Montagne” or mountain-climbing caps, covering the nose below and the forehead above and leaving only the eyes uncovered, and among them the bicycle-cart drivers with black little Moslem caps glued to their skulls, while next to them at the edge of the street an old man said goodby to his daughter or niece from Titograd/Montenegro or Vipava/Slovenia, multiple steep gables in his hood, an Islamic window and capital ornament (his daughter or niece cried). It was snowing in southernmost Yugoslavia and thawing at the same time. And then a man passed by with a white, crocheted forage cap shot through with oriental patterns under the dripping snow, followed by a blond girl with a thick bright stocking cap (topped by a tassel), followed immediately by a bespectacled man with a beret, a dark blue stem on top, followed by the beret of a long-legged soldier and by a pair of peaked police caps with concave surfaces. A man walked past then with a fur cap, earlaps turned up, in the midst of swarms of women wearing black cloths over their heads. After that a man with a checked fez — slung over his ear, in magpie black and white, Parzival’s half-brother, piebald Feirefiz. His companion carried a leather-and-fur cap, and after them came a child with a black-and-white ear band. The child was followed by a man with a salt-and-pepper hat, a black-market magnate suavely making his way along the Macedonian bazaar street in the slushy snow. The troop of soldiers then, with the Tito-star on the prows of their caps. After them a man with a brown-wool Tyrolean hat, front brim turned down, the back brim turned straight up, a silver badge on the side. A little girl hopping by with a bright deerskin hood, lined. A man with a whitish-gray shepherd’s hat wound by a red band. A fat woman with a linen-white cook’s scarf, fringed in the back. A young man with a multi-layered leather cap, each layer a different color. A man pushed a cart and had a plastic cap over his ears, his chin wrapped in a Palestinian scarf. One man walked along then with a rose-patterned cap, and gradually even the bareheaded passersby seemed to be equipped with head coverings — hair itself a covering. Child, carried, with a night cap, intersected by woman with slanted, broadly sweeping movie hat: there was no keeping up with the variety. A beauty in glasses walked past with a pale violet Borsalino hat and sauntered around the corner, followed by a very small woman with a towering cable-knit hat she had knitted herself, followed by an infant with a sombrero on its still open fontanel, carried by a girl with an oversized beret made in Hongkong. A boy with a shawl around his neck and ears. An older boy with skier’s earmuffs, logo TRICOT. And so on.  That beautiful And so on. That beautiful And so on.



photo by Thomas Deichmann

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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