As It Happens

Journalist who covered Srebrenica massacre 'astounded' Peter Handke received Nobel Prize

Peter Maass says he's astounded that the Swedish Academy would award the Nobel Literature Prize to Peter Handke, who has denied atrocities by the Serbs during the war in the former Yugoslavia.

The Austrian writer has cast doubt on the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s

Austrian author Peter Handke, left, receives the 2019 Nobel Prize from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden, during the Nobel Prize award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency via AP)

A journalist who covered the genocide in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in the 1990s says he is astounded that the Swedish Academy would award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Peter Handke.

The Austrian novelist received the award on Tuesday from the King of Sweden, amid protests over his denial of atrocities by the Serbs during the war in the former Yugoslavia. 

"There's something between being astounded by just how wrong it is and also the audacity of somebody saying these things and then being rewarded with a Nobel Prize," Peter Maass, a war reporter during the Bosnian war who now works for the Intercept, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Handke speaks at a press conference at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency/Associated Press)

Ambassadors from seven countries including Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo and Turkey boycotted the awards ceremony. Two Nobel committee members have resigned since his selection, and Peter Englund, a member of the Swedish Academy, boycotted the event. 

Thousands protested outside the awards ceremony in Stockholm.

Handke has been accused of denying that the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica was a genocide. 

He delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader who died while on trial in The Hague for war crimes.

He has also claimed that Muslims staged their own massacres in Sarajevo and blamed it on the Serbs. 

 "What he does, and this is a consistent tactic that genocide deniers use, is not to really try to persuade you: It did not happen. What he does is he raises doubt," said Maass.

"He says, 'How could it have happened, really?'"

The Swedish Academy's response

Maass has spent the last two months, since Handke's Nobel was announced, trying to get answers from the Swedish Academy. He has repeatedly been turned away. 

The Academy called Handke "one of the most influential writers in Europe after the Second World War."

Anders Olsson, head of the Swedish Academy's Nobel committee, has said that Handke is "not a political writer."

In response to a letter from survives of war crimes in Bosnia, he wrote: "It is obvious that we understand Peter Handke's literary work in very different ways."

Members of associations of survivors of the war in Bosnia hold photos of the writer while he was on a personal visit to their hometown of Srebrenica. The photo shows the novelist standing in front of a sign at the entrance of the town allegedly in 1996, one year after the massacre. (Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images)

Maass hypothesized that the Academy's jurors chose Handke because they are from an older generation, and grew up on his writing before the war.

"There are people who say, 'Well, Handke might be right,'" he said. 

"I think it was just enough for these jurors on the Swedish Academy to say, 'Well you know the Yugoslav work [is] very minor and, you know, maybe it's not so far off anyway. We can get away with this. '"

'Empty and ignorant questions': Handke

During a Friday press conference with Handke, Maass asked the writer if he would say that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre had happened. 

Handke responded with a story about a letter he had received from a critic, which was written on a piece of toilet paper with human feces. 

"I prefer toilet paper, an anonymous letter with toilet paper inside, to your empty and ignorant questions," he told Maass. 

A Bosnian Muslim woman, walks by the memorial wall containing the names of the victims at the Srebrenica memorial in Potocari. (Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images)

"I was asking a very simple question: Why in your works and at this moment do you not accept the internationally established fact of a genocide in Srebrenica?" Maass told As It Happens.

"And he said that's a question that is not even worth toilet paper that's been smeared with human feces." 

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from the Associated Press. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.