Protests, boycotts overshadow Peter Handke’s Nobel prize win

Controversial laureate for literature has been criticised over his support for late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Nobel protests
Protests against Handke's win took place in Stockholm and Sarajevo [Colm Fulton/Reuters]

Protesters in Stockholm and Sarajevo have denounced the awarding of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature to Austrian author Peter Handke over his support for Serbia during the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Handke and the Nobel laureates in chemistry, medicine, physics and economics received their prizes from Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf at Tuesday evening’s ceremony in the capital. Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the postponed 2018 prize for literature, also collected her award.

The event at Stockholm Concert Hall was boycotted by representatives of the embassies of Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Turkey, as well as by one member of the awarding body.

The Swedish Academy’s pick for the 2019 prize, announced in October, sparked outrage in the Balkans and beyond because of Handke’s support for late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

In 1997, Handke was accused of minimising Serb war crimes in his book A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia.

He also drew criticism for speaking at Milosevic’s funeral in 2006. The former leader died while on trial for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity

Peter Handke, Olga Tokarczuk
The 2018 literature winner Olga Tokarczuk received her award on Tuesday along with Peter Handke [Henrik Montgomery/AFP]

Hundreds braved cold winter weather to protest in Stockholm, with some waving Bosnian flags and placards bearing messages such as “Who do you trust: Handke or the Hague?” and “No prize to genocide”.

“He’s allowed to write what he wants. The problem is that he is being honoured for his writings,” Teufika Sabanovic, a protest organiser in Stockholm, told the AFP news agency.

“He defends war criminals, he qualifies genocide, he qualifies genocide deniers. Where is the limit for what is acceptable?” asked Srebrenica-born Sabanovic, who lost much of her family in the genocide.

Some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995 in the event, which the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has recognised as a genocide. 

Meanwhile, protests also took place in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, where a giant electronic display showed Handke next to skills with the message “Shame on You”. 

“As a citizen of Sarajevo I am horrified with this,” resident Senka Tinjak said. “He is a genocide denier. He claims genocide did not happen in Bosnia. We will never forget this.”

SARAJEVO, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - DECEMBER 10: A visual, written 'shame on you' is reflected to a giant screen on a shopping mall's wall to protest against the awarding of Nobel Literature prize to A
 An image of a grim reaper-like Handke looms over Sarajevo, Bosnia [Elman Omic/Anadolu]

The choice of Handke came as the Swedish Academy struggles to recover from a scandal that saw a member’s husband convicted of rape and resulted in the 2018 prize being postponed and awarded this year to Tokarczuk.

The Academy said it had chosen to honour Handke “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and specificity of human experience”. 


“I don’t understand why, if the Nobel prize wants to show that it’s moved with the times, it’s giving this award to somebody who has been around for a very long time but who is also so controversial,” Helen Finch, a professor in German at the University of Leeds, told Al Jazeera at the time of the announcement.

“I do think that Handke’s aesthetic achievements are fantastic: his writing is beautiful, he thinks very deeply about his words, but I don’t think you can separate that from his toxic political positions,” she said. 

Royal snub?

Handke dodged questions on the Balkan wars at a news conference in Stockholm on Friday, telling reporters: “I like literature, not opinions.”

However, the writer has reiterated his views several times since the publication of his book, including in November when he told the German weekly Die Zeit:

“Not one word I have written about Yugoslavia can be denounced, not a single one. It’s literature”.

Handke has not been invited to a traditional event for literature laureates with high school students in a Stockholm suburb, where many students are of foreign background. Tokarczuk will, however, attend.


At the Nobel banquet, which follows the ceremony, Handke is to be the laureate seated farthest from the king and queen at the head table, while Tokarczuk is to be seated between the king and Prince Daniel, the husband of Crown Princess Victoria.

Organisers have refused to comment on the seating arrangements.

While Anders Olsson, the head of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel committee, defended awarding the prize to Handke, insisting he is “not a political writer”, committee member Peter Englund disagreed.

“I will not participate in Nobel Week this year … Celebrating Peter Handke’s Nobel Prize would be pure hypocrisy on my part,” Englund said on Friday.

Charlotte Mitchell contributed to this report

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies