Peter Handke: The Višegrad Killings

Since he published his Summer Addendum to a Wintry Journey in 1996, critics have claimed that he denied the atrocities committed by Serbs as they ethnically cleansed Višegrad. I’ll cite a couple of paragraphs from the text that offer a reader a different picture (in my as yet unpublished translation).

Leaving his traveling companions, Handke climbs a hill where he finds a Serbian Orthodox church and, nearby, a cemetery with a hundred or more graves of Serbian soldiers killed, for the most part, in the early days of the war (1992).

The early-evening sultriness still, and not a living soul among the black-against-black rows of the graveyard. And looking down over the city not a trace of the minarets seen in a volume about the life of Andrić published in Belgrade in 1989 (in one of the pictures, from the previous century, I had counted two of them — the Orthodox church tower didn’t seem to be built yet — and in another one, much more recent — Višegrad had, after all, a Muslim majority — there were at least six of them, or was one of these spires a factory chimney? if so, then now, after the war, it too had ceased to exist.

Muslim minarets have disappeared from the landscape. The city was ethnically cleansed.

A couple of years after this account, I stood with Peter Handke on an apartment building under construction and spoke with the architect, like the others working on the building a refugee from the area around Sarajevo. I mentioned that their industry was impressive, that it was wonderful to see them moving past the troubles of war. That’s true enough, Handke said, but the terrible irony is that this building is going up on the site of a razed mosque.


That night Handke’s thoughts turn again to the war in a long paragraph I’ll break up with annotations:

Late night, standing at the open window in the room of the “Hotel Višegrad.” Not a sound from the city at my back, and the heavy bridge shining faintly in the dark and emptied of people, under the already summery stars, southernly bright yet disconnected, bound no longer to the earthly realm below; and now this image is shot through by reflections on the reports of the killings in the local Muslim community almost exactly four years ago. According to eye witnesses (from a hotel window just like mine here), many of the victims were thrown from the bridge railing at the command of a young Serbian militia leader;

[a factual statement based on eye-witness reports]

in my memory, especially, an article from the New York Times about the event, larded with testimony after testimony against this man, whereabouts now unknown,

[still factual, but now Handke is beginning to think about how the tragedy was reported]

who — his primary feature – “often went barefoot” in the paramilitary troop he called “The Wolves.” Among the other, as usual, exclusively Muslim witnesses for the prosecution, that solitary Serb, again as usual, a soldier here from the city, taken prisoner and interrogated there by a UN policeman; later, it was said, exchanged, and he too now missing (almost certainly “to his demise” wrote the newspaper). And now I could not help asking myself how it was that in this war, repeatedly, it was exactly the primary witnesses of the atrocities, as it seemed, who simply had been released, exchanged, a fact that appeared in nearly every such report, repeated each time without a question: If these witnesses knew such serious, revealing things — why then exchange them and let them go?

[who was the young Serbian militia leader? According to the Times piece, a barefoot paramilitary leader of a wolfpack. Yes, readers will say with satisfaction, yes! he was an animal. Next question: why was the perpetrator of the killings exchanged? His testimony would have been an important addition to the testimonies of others. Is the question exculpatory for the ethnically-cleansing Serbs of Višegrad? Not as I read the passage.]

And why did the article in question pretend that that Serbian-Bosnian wolf pack here in Višegrad in 1992 had had free rein for their months-long savagery? the entire city a gruesome playground for the couple of bare-footed men playing cat-and-mouse with hundreds of victims? (The Serb-Serbian army, again as usual in these reports, watched passively from the other side of the border, if they did not, as in the more notorious reports, participate.) Hadn’t the civil war broken out already, with reciprocal fighting everywhere in Bosnia? How could such open terror play itself out in the face of a majority Muslim population long since well-armed and, further, constituting the government? The Ivo-Andrić monument there at the bridge, hadn’t it already been blown up the year before the outbreak of the war to signify that, and by whom?

[more questions, none of which denies the killings or the ethnic cleansing by the Serbs. Rather, why did the journalists not move past the bare-footed wolfish perpetrator to the many related questions?]

Remarkable indeed how the collectors of statements who arrived from overseas, who had flown in, almost without exception were interested only and exclusively in their story, their scoop, their prey, their merchandise (which was not, in itself, contemptible)

[the story that needed to be told “was not, in itself, contemptible,” but the way it was told did nothing to think through the complexities of a civil war]

— “witnesses said,” “survivors said,” paragraph after paragraph, uniformly the stamp of authenticity –,

[again, witnesses and survivors provide facts; but . . .]

but hardly ever did their interest lead to an explanatory or informative piece that worked through a problem, that led further, that sought a context, and never, or at least not in the recent past, were they concerned, and this includes the once serious “global- papers,” with what had gone before, with all that history especially significant for Bosnia and Yugoslavia — with a presentation of the problem that addressed the heart in a fundamentally different sense than, for example, the pseudo-literary concluding paragraph (not reaching the heart at all, rather taking aim obviously and shamelessly at the heart) of the Manhattan journalist hired to penetrate the Bosnian mountains where he found a witness who had fled from her city, who was present at night when her mother and sister were pushed off the bridge, and who has the woman say, à la Tennessee Williams: “The bridge. The bridge. The bridge . . .”

[confronted with a story that features the dramatic triplet, we can only hold up our hands and say “The beasts. The beasts. The beasts.” That’s not enough.]

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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2 Responses to Peter Handke: The Višegrad Killings

  1. loicfragend says:

    Ihre Meinung re: ? Looked like a well-rounded forum, but maybe there are better pieces… Btw, so interesting to see other photos and visuals in your posts, no more stock images in Handke articles please! Seem like unique photos, mir ganz neu, thanks!


  2. Pingback: The Perils of Self-Righteousness | THE GOALIE'S ANXIETY

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