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Q & A: Is A Conspiracy Theory Responsible For This Year’s Shocking Nobel Prize In Literature?

The October announcement of Austrian novelist Peter Handke as the winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature was greeted, by many, with confusion.

Handke, apologist for Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president who oversaw the Bosnian genocide? Handke, who spoke at Milosevic’s funeral and told critics of his decision to do so to “go to hell?” Who, in his writing, has frequently questioned the facts of history in regard to the Bosnian War? How could the Swedish Academy have decided that he would be an appropriate recipient of the world’s most prestigious literary prize?

In the month since the announcement of Handke’s win — accompanied by news that the vigorously liberal Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk had taken the belatedly-delivered 2018 prize — two Nobel jurors have spoken out in defense of their decision. The duo, Henrik Petersen and Eric Runesson, made public the sources that they consulted in determining Handke’s fitness as a potential laureate — citing, in doing so, books that defend Handke’s record on the Bosnian War on the basis of a conspiracy theory that significantly downplays Serbian atrocities.

But the alarming and ahistorical arguments presented in the books that Petersen and Runesson consulted might have escaped notice in the U.S. were it not for Peter Maass, a senior editor at The Intercept. Both books are available only in German, and neither has received significant scholarly attention. But Maass, who covered the Bosnian War and later wrote a book about it, had been digging into the spread of disinformation about the war surrounding Handke’s award, so he took a closer look at the jurors’ sources.

What he found is shocking. The conspiracy theory cited by the books insists that international condemnation of the Serbs was a response not to real atrocities but rather to a misleading publicity campaign, obscuring the indisputable and horrifying facts of the Bosnian genocide. And, like many conspiracy theories, it may dabble in anti-Semitism.

The Forward’s Talya Zax spoke with Maass about his continuing reporting; the following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Talya Zax: I know conspiracy theories are difficult to distill, but can you give me a brief summary of what, exactly, the Ruder Finn conspiracy theory is?

Peter Maass: Very often, conspiracy stories either start with or include things that are true, and then they make associations that are not true. So, what is true? In early 1992, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina hired a PR firm named Ruder Finn. And executives of Ruder Finn met with journalists and people on Capitol Hill, as they were supposed to. When there were the first reports of concentration camps in Bosnia, the company publicized it.

That’s where the truth stops. Where the conspiracy theory begins is [with the idea] that the efforts of Ruder Finn [prompted] a shift in public opinion against the Serb side, and a shift in U.S. policy against the Serb side. This publicity firm, according to the conspiracy theory, outwitted the Jewish groups [the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress] which came out against the concentration camps, and public opinion shifted.

What this conspiracy theory is doing is shifting the reason for international outrage against the Serbs to a deceptive publicity campaign, rather than attributing it to actual facts on the ground. The Serbs had a network of concentration camps at which people, in very large numbers, were being tortured and killed. These facts were supported by the work of journalists over years.

How did you become aware that this decades-old myth played a role in Handke’s selection?

I had covered the war in Bosnia, and I hadn’t heard of this particular conspiracy theory, because it’s so obscure. After I read the statements of one of the Nobel jurors, who mentioned that he had relied on a book by Kurt Gritsch, a historian in Innsbruck, I contacted Gritsch, and he responded [with] the rough summary of what he believed. He went on about this publicity company Ruder Finn. There were other code words in the email. One of them was that he referred to the Bosnian army as the Muslim militia, kind of tipping his hand that he regards the only legal military force in Bosnia at that time as a militia.

I followed up, and he sent me a PDF of his book. I did a Google translation — of course not reliable in a publishing or journalistic sense, but it can give an idea of what’s in the book, and then professional translators can translate particular passages. That’s how I drilled down to what he wrote, which one particular Nobel juror said he had relied on to come to his conclusions.

Tell me about your experience reporting on the Bosnian War.

In 1992 I was a contract writer for the Washington Post based in Budapest. The war in Bosnia started, so I was called on to be one of several correspondents covering the war, which I did through 1992 and 1993. I was fully immersed in Bosnia, in Serbia and Croatia, and also covered in 1993 some of the peace talks that had begun in Geneva. I stopped covering it in 1993. It was an extremely dangerous assignment and becoming more dangerous, and the longer that I took the chances I was taking, the higher was the chance I wouldn’t continue to be lucky. I really kind of lost hope. Why take these risks, when they’re not going to have the effect I would want — that is, people becoming aware of this ongoing genocide and taking the actions required to bring it to an end?

What was your reaction to the news of Handke’s win?

I was familiar, generally speaking, with his work and reputation. But the day after the announcement I started refreshing myself, and finding for the first time some of the more objectionable things he had written and said. I read and speak French; there’s an article that he wrote for Liberation, the French newspaper, in 2006, which was shocking to read, wherein he equalized [the Bosnian War] on all sides. I walked to my library, which had a copy of his “A Journey to The Rivers,” English language, which is very difficult to find. And then I did a close reading of it and found that to just be astonishing. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, a lot of voices were raised. I just wish that it wasn’t ebbing away like this.

The Ruder Finn conspiracy theory cites the purported effect of three Jewish organizations speaking out against the Bosnian genocide. Do you see any influence of anti-Semitism in the theory?

My story did not go into the issue of anti-Semitism as an element or motivator or effect of this particular conspiracy theory. What I knew is that this conspiracy theory does not go beyond the identification of these Jewish groups. It leaves open the question of whether you are also saying that Jews control the media and Jews control U.S. foreign policy.

There are two key things with this conspiracy: Ruder Finn circulated unconfirmed reports of concentration camps that were almost immediately proved true, [then] used these reports to persuade —that’s where the word “outwitted” has been used in one of the founding documents in this conspiracy theory, a book by the French journalist Jacques Merlino — the Jewish organizations into taking a public stand against the concentration camps. The conspiracy theory says that public stand played a huge role in turning public opinion. That gets at this question of: Is this an anti-Semitic move by these conspiracy theorists, to attribute to Jewish organizations powers they actually don’t have? The fact that three Jewish organizations issued a public statement of concern helped draw attention, but that’s not what changed the tide. It was the continual stream of reports about Serb atrocities that affected public opinion. U.S. policy did not change in 1992, or 1993, or 1994. These Jewish organizations that made this statement in August of 1992 didn’t change policy. Policy changed in 1995 after the Srebrenica massacre.

I did have the question in my mind about this being one of the ways that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories work. They do not say, explicitly, the Jews control things. But they make these statements that are understood by people who are intended as the audience.

What are the implications of this conspiracy theory infiltrating the Swedish Academy?

What is the Swedish Academy doing? It is reading up on conspiracy theories and then putting them out into the public domain as fact. It’s jaw-dropping. In the biography of Handke they released on the day his award was announced, there is a line that says something to the effect of he has no political program in his writing. [There are] statements by various academy officials that the literature award is not a political award. It becomes a political award when you give it to somebody who has denied genocide.

I just don’t know where to begin to register the astonishing factor that they relied on a book like this — and this wasn’t the only one. Did the jurors know that this was a conspiracy theory? Did they go to this because they wanted justification and it confirmed what they wanted to believe? Or were they duped by it? I would like to know to what degree they were duped and to what degree this is something they believed.

Are there reforms you would hope the Swedish Academy might make to protect against the influence of disinformation in the future?

This is something that Aleksandar Hemon and others have pointed out. When you are thinking of giving a Nobel Prize to somebody who has written about a certain part of the world, maybe you should consult with people who are from that part of the world. The Swedish Academy members have said relatively little about what they read and who they consulted, and what they’ve said is horrifying. But the question has been raised: Did you consult with people from Bosnia? If you didn’t, why not? I’m not saying that a literary prize should be a public opinion poll, but if you are looking to understand whether the writings of Peter Handke constitute genocide denial, then perhaps ask the people who know about that genocide best — that is, the victims. There’s no sign yet that the members of the Swedish Academy consulted anybody who was affected first hand by this genocide.

Does the Swedish Academy’s giving of the award to Handke, and its defense of that decision, suggest anything about how the world understands the Bosnian War today?

If he was expressing these thoughts about the Holocaust, nobody would seriously suggest or nominate him for a Nobel Prize. It’s easier to ignore facts when the people who are closest to the facts are ones whose truths have not yet been codified. The truth of the Holocaust — there are still deniers, but it’s been codified. What this controversy shows is that the truths of the Bosnian genocide have not been codified. One of the reasons I’ve gone on about this, four articles now and counting, is that I realized that, oh my god, this thing is not settled history. I thought it was. I knew there were conspiracy theorists. Lots of people, in Serbia and elsewhere, denied what happened. But no, it’s not settled history, and that’s what’s shocking. It’s almost like all the journalists and all the people who were victims need to now do the same work they did back then to get the truth out. That doubt is back.


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