Controversy over herta muller in serbia: poking a wasps’ nest

In Belgrade, Nobel literature laureate Herta Muller blames Serbia for the Balkan wars of the 1990s and is sharply attacked for it.

Archive photo with Herta Muller in 2010 during a visit to Bucharest, Romania. Photo: Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

Herta Muller has stirred up a hornet’s nest. A conversation with the German Nobel laureate in literature during the book fair in the Serbian capital Belgrade led to a media outcry there over the weekend. "Scandal: the daughter of an SS officer spits on church and Serbs," headlined the newspaper Kurir.

"Mueller abuses our hospitality," outraged the tabloid Informer. And the largest newspaper Blic spoke of a "shock".

The literary figure was a representative of "the fear-mongering, deep and primitive hatred against the Serbs, as the Germans have otherwise shown only against the Jews", was to be read in the government newspaper Novosti.

Last week, on the podium of the "Yugoslav Drama Theater", Herta Muller had blamed Serbia for the wars of the 1990s in a talk led by FAZ correspondent Michael Martens. In doing so, she had also included the Orthodox Church in her criticism.

"The Serbs have done themselves harm".

As warmongers, the Serbs were responsible for endless suffering in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, Muller stressed. "The Serbs have caused themselves suffering, and now they have to live with that. When you see the women from Srebrenica, it still breaks my heart today," she said during the event, alluding to the monstrous crime committed by a Serbian soldier’s army in Srebrenica. More than 8,000 men were murdered there in 1995.

There was a rumble in the hall, and the first audience members left the room. But Muller went one better. "Because I think so much had happened, and so much suffering had been done to Kosovo and Bosnia, and there was this terrible nationalism, in which I think the Orthodox Church was also very much involved," he said, adding that the NATO bombs on Serbia in the spring of 1999 had been justified in order to stop dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

At this, many listeners left the scene in shock. Word of Muller’s appearance spread. Over the next few days, a wave of indignation swept the country, culminating in a widespread media frenzy over the weekend.

In Serbia, portraying Muller as the daughter of an SS father is one of the methods of defamation. Although clan liability should have been abolished, such accusations have long been part of the Serbian nationalists’ repertoire when dealing with dissidents from other ethnic groups.

Serbian nationalists do not want to be enlightened

The fact that the Nobel Prize winner confronts the history of the Second World War and its consequences, that she critically reflects on the aberrations of the German minority in Banat, where she comes from, that she dissects the mechanisms of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania and thus has an enlightening effect, all this the relevant newspapers in Serbia do not want to take note of.

After all, these questions would challenge them themselves in their ways of acting and thinking. The Serbian public is by no means prepared to deal self-critically with its own history. Conspiracy theories are rather circulated. The public and politicians would like to stylize the Serbian nation as a victim of history.

More pragmatically, a police officer recently responded to the author during a discussion about the past. "If we admit guilt, our opponents will take advantage of that and lash out at us," he explained.

But how is this country, unable to deal with itself in a self-critical manner, to become a member of the European Union?

Sonja Biserko, chairwoman of the Serbian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and a decades-long campaigner for a culture of open discussion, called it "indispensable" for society in Serbia to hear what others think about it. Instead, she said, "an atmosphere is being created that is against any dialogue and debate about the responsibility of the Milosevic regime.

Instead of distancing himself from his regime, Milosevic is being rehabilitated and celebrated as the greatest Serbian politician. Society is not ready to come to terms with the bare facts, Biserko said on the sidelines of the event with Muller.