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Germans Divided Over Prize for Pro-Serb Author Handke

DW staff / AFP (tt)May 29, 2006

The decision to award the city of Düsseldorf's prestigious Heine Prize to controversial Austrian author Peter Handke -- known for his pro-Serbian stance during the Balkan wars -- has been met with criticism in Germany.

Germany's top literary prize bears the name of 19th century rebellious poet Heinrich HeineImage: Ulrich Otte

A row is brewing in Germany over the decision to give Austrian author Peter Handke the Heinrich Heine literature prize, just weeks after a play of his was cancelled in France because of his pro-Serbian sympathies.

The parliamentary leader of the Green party, Fritz Kuhn, said on Sunday it was a "scandal" to honor Handke with the prize, and a slap in the face of the victims of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Handke has long been perceived as pro-Serbian but a storm broke over his head after he attended Milosevic's funeral in March and paid respect to him as "a man who defended his people."

Kuhn urged the city of Düsseldorf, which sponsors the prize money of 50,000 euros ($64,000), to overrule the decision by the jury who selected the winner.

Is it art? Or is it politics?

Peter Handke
His artistic merit is not questioned, but his politics is: Austrian writer Peter HandkeImage: AP

The jury justified the award by saying that "in his work, Peter Handke obstinately follows the path to an open truth. He sets his poetic gaze onto the world regardless of the public opinion and its rituals."

But the jury decision was not unanimous. A member of the jury and former Berlin culture senator from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christoph Stölz, openly distanced himself from Handke.

"Handke was not my choice," Stölz said. "I think what is happening now is good. Juries are not God."

Joseph Kruse, the head of the Heinrich Heine Institute in Düsseldorf, said he was torn over giving one of Germany's most prestigious literature awards to Handke.

Handke has become "increasingly lost," but at the same time it might be counter-productive to "treat him as though he has the plague," Kruse said.

The prize is due to be awarded on Dec. 13, but must be confirmed by Düsseldorf authorities in June.

A voyage to the land of political correctness

Alice Schwarzer 3. Dezember 2002 60. Geburtstag
Journalist Alice Schwarzer is defending the decision to honor Peter HandkeImage: AP

Journalist and feminist critic Alice Schwarzer, on the other hand, stood up in defense of the Austrian writer and what she saw as Handke's courageous opposition to the political mainstream.

"In a time of general demonization of Serbia, he risked positioning himself against the one-sided allocation of blame," Schwarzer said.

Handke was named as the winner last week, a month after France's foremost theater company decided not to stage one of his plays in response to his remarks at Milosevic's graveside.

The administrator of the Comédie-Française, Marcel Bozonnet, said he was scandalized by Handke's eulogy and cancelled the 2007 season of "Voyage to the Sonorous Land or the Art of Asking."

Bozonnet's decision was condemned in art circles in France, where Handke lives, and by artists from further afield, including Austrian Nobel literature prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek.