Peter Handke has questionable political judgment, which is something he shares with most artists and writers. This post isn’t meant to defend his stance on the Balkan wars of the 1990s, although, as a German reader, I can state that it is much more nuanced than is being reported in the English-language press.
But one of the most-repeated and most-tweeted charges in the indictment against Handke is false. The charge is that, when confronted about Serb atrocities in Bosnia, Handke said: “You can shove your corpses up your ass.” Even the New York Times published this false quotation.
German-language outlets have established this quote is fake. As far as I know, no English-language source has yet done so. So let me be the first.
Here is what Handke actually said, live and in-person:
This was a recording of a talk Handke gave at the Akademietheater in Vienna in 1996. A member of the audience asks Handke why he never visited Bosnia, only Serbia. Handke says everyone else was already visiting Bosnia, and he wanted to be on the “wrong” side. This comment is obviously meant ironically, and the audience laughs.
The questioner then asks whether “journalists who were trapped in Sarajevo” might have been more “affected” (betroffen) by the war than Handke.
Handke then interrupts and says “‘Betroffenheit’ — das kann ich schon überhaupt nicht hören…” — “I can’t stand this word ‘Betroffenheit’. Go home with your ‘Betroffenheit’, stick it up your ass.”
To understand what Handke was saying, we need to unpack this word Betroffenheit. The verb betroffen means to be affected by something. Betroffen has a standard, neutral meaning in the sense of being literally affected: i.e., this law does not apply to you, you are not betroffen by it; they changed the test, but I graduated before that, so I was not betroffen by the change.
But betroffen also has an emotional meaning: something has affected your emotions, has touched you, has caused you anguish, etc. Usually it’s used in response to negative events: I was betroffen to hear of your mother’s death; he was betroffen by images of starving children on the television.
Betroffenheit is simply the noun version of the adjective betroffen — it means the state of being emotionally affected by something. Whenever a disaster or terrorist attack hits Germany, politicians always tweet about their Betroffenheit: they want to say they are deeply affected by whatever happened.
It’s kind of like the secular German equivalent of an American politicians saying their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims after a mass shooting. And this analogy is spot-on. Just as “thoughts and prayers” is a cliché in English, Betroffenheit is a cliché in German. It’s mocked as an platitude which politicians trot out just so they won’t be called insensitive, and which doesn’t require them to take a stand. In German-speaking media, people of all political stripes mock politicians for calling attention to their Betroffenheit all the time.
This is the point Handke is making. As someone who lives by language, he finds the words “betroffen” and “Betroffenheit” offensively unoriginal. And on another level, he is calling expressions of sympathy and concern by Western journalists and commentators are hypocritical, because these commentators focus exclusively on the suffering of Bosniaks and Muslims, while downplaying or ignoring the suffering of Serbs.
So he’s not saying “shove the corpses up your ass”. He is saying “shove your Betroffenheit [one-sided and hypocritical expressions of dismay] up your ass”.
Again, I am not here to defend all of Handke’s views. But this is a major error which, to my knowledge, has yet to be corrected and acknowledged in the English-speaking press.