What Peter Handke Said at Slobodan Milošević’s Funeral

Everyone has an opinion about the fact that Peter Handke spoke at Slobodan Milošević’s funeral, but as far as I know, nobody has yet translated what he said there into English. Milošević died in 2006, during his trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Handke provided handwritten copies of his speech to the German magazine Focus in response to a reporter’s questions. This is all documented online at the online archive of his work (g).

In an accompanying letter, Handke also explains his decision to attend the funeral. Handke said that he was not invited by any political party, but rather by Milošević’s family. Even after receiving the invitation, he wrote, he did not plan to attend.  What made him change his mind was the language used by journalists and prosecutors at the Hague responding to Milošević’s death. As Handke pointed out, they called him a dictator and butcher, and expressed regret that his early death had “stolen” the court’s opportunity to pass judgment. It was this coarsely judgmental and self-satisfied reaction (in Handke’s view) which prompted him to attend the funeral:

It was this language which prompted my mini-speech [at the funeral] — firstly and lastly this language. It prompted me to allow another — no, the other language to be heard, not from loyalty to Slobodan Milošević, but rather precisely from loyalty to this other, non-journalistic, non-domineering (nicht herrschenden) language.

This is the speech he gave at the funeral, as recorded in his own handwriting, and with his own editorial insertion:

I would have preferred not to be alone here as a writer in Požarevac, but rather at the side of another writer, for instance Harold Pinter. He would have needed strong words. I need weak words. But weakness should be right, here, now. It is a day not only for strong, but also for weak words. [From this point I spoke Serbo-Croatian — which I wrote myself –, and later re-translated:] The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Yugoslavia, Serbia. The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Slobodan Milošević. The so-called world knows the truth. And for this reason the so-called world is absent, and not just today, and not just here. The so-called world is not the world. I know that I don’t know. I don’t know the truth. But I look. I hear. I feel. I remember. I question. That is why I am present today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milošević.

Even in my journeyman translation, we see this is classic Handke, gnomic and elliptical.

Thus, according to Handke’s own account, his speech was not intended to express support for Milošević’s policies, but rather to counter what he perceived as arrogant, one-sided, and simple-mindedly moralizing assessments of his legacy and reactions to his death.