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Why Peter Handke is a startlingly controversial Nobel prize winner

The Nobel Prize in Literature is no stranger to controversy, most recently prompting hand-wringing when it awarded Bob Dylan the literary world's highest honor back in 2016. On Thursday, though, with the announcement of the 2019 prize going to Austrian writer Peter Handke, the Swedish Academy is under fire once more.

Handke, 76, is a novelist and a playwright "regarded as one of the most important writers in German," in the words of The New York Times. Handke, who grew up near the Slovenian border, "is also one of the most prominent defenders of the late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic," writes The American Scholar. Milosevic died in 2006 while on trial at The Hague for war crimes pertaining to the Bosnian genocide, including his role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslims. Handke, however, eulogized Milosevic after the dictator's death, and "before an overflow crowd of some 20,000 radical Serb nationalists."

While Handke's exact words have been lost, he reportedly claimed Milosevic "defended his people" during the Balkan War; the writer also previously made sympathetic remarks including that "anyone in [Milosevic's] position" would have done the same. Adds The American Scholar, "Even accepting Handke's version, his having taken respectful part in the burial services could not be interpreted as anything other than a sign of his support for Milosevic, a man most disinterested observers believe to have been responsible for a series of wars that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people during his 13 years in power."

Handke's alignment with Milosevic has been so controversial that in 2006, his nomination for the Heinrich Heine Prize was ultimately withdrawn; likewise, when he was awarded the Ibsen Prize in Oslo in 2014, protesters described him as a fascist and Handke ultimately didn't accept the prize money, either.

Critics of the backlash against Handke have described the reactions as an "attack on artistic freedom." The Nobel committee acknowledged Handke's checkered reputation in its citation, noting "he has, at times, caused controversy."