The intellectual and the totalitarian – a sad affair

Peter Handke at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic
Peter Handke at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic

This article appeared on Friday 19.9.2014 on the website of VG Nyheter in Norwegian as a part of the debate about the controversial decision to award the prestigious Ibsen Award to Peter Handke. Written by professor Øystein Sørensen of Oslo University.

On Sunday, Austrian Peter Handke will receive The Ibsen Award. Handke is one of today’s best-known playwrights. He is also one of those that has downplayed and excused war crimes and genocide in the Balkans. Among other things, he made ​​his mark with a funeral speech for Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian ex-president who was charged with genocide and that certainly would have been convicted of it too.

Handke follows a long and sad tradition. A new book: Intellectuals and the Totalitarian looks into this tradition. It looks at how some intellectuals in different ways and at different times have embraced, legitimized, excused and explained away some of the worst regimes and ideologies mankind has experienced.

In a more conceptual sense, it is a question of intellectuals who have embraced and advocated totalitarian ideologies, or at least have been willing to defend and understand totalitarian regimes because of the ideas they have been based on.

What and who is an intellectual? There is no shortage of proposals for definitions. Here’s a suggestion: Intellectuals working with ideas, their business begins and ends with ideas.

These ideas can in turn be more or less original and good, they may have greater or lesser impact and more or less directly influence on human life and history. But the result of an intellectual’s efforts is ideas. Brain Surgeons and engineers are not intellectuals as such, as brilliant as they might be at their field. They operate brains and construct bridges – the result of their driven activities is something tangible. Adam Smith produced ideas but he never ran a business himself, Karl Marx produced ideas but he never operated a Gulag, and so on.

Now we have Peter Handke as an example of an intellectual who lives in a free and democratic society. On the whole , people like him can mean what ever they want, without it having a particularly large impact. They can even get awards. That is a problem in itself, that so many that live with free speech and by free speech have rallied behind, defended and made excuses for some of the worst atrocities by some of the most bloody regimes.

There will be fierce competition to blink out any totalitarian regime that has been worst for the purposes of the intellectual (and vice versa ) . A strong candidate must obviously be the Communist Pol Pot regime in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.


Among the many grotesque aspects of this regime was that intellectual be killed only by virtue of the fact that they were intellectual . The ideological rationale was , in brief, that the regime should build a new awareness in the population , a new communist man , from scratch. Among the many grotesque aspects of this regime was that intellectual be killed only by virtue of the fact that they were intellectual . The ideological rationale was, in brief, that the regime should build a new awareness in the population, a new communist man, from scratch. The idea then was that intellectuals from the old Cambodia would have strong mental ties to the former regime and therefore had to be cleared away. A spectacular feature of the Pol Pot regime´s rise to power in 1975 was that the capital Pnomh Penh was emptied of people, people who were forced into the countryside. How to distinguish who´s an intellectual under such conditions ? Apparently there was an rule of thumb, glasses – people with glasses were presumably intellectuals and had to be killed.

It ‘s just that the entire leadership of the regime, people who carefully thought out, planned and arranged to carry out the genocide in Cambodia, were  intellectuals themselves. Some of the most prominent was educated in Paris and had thoroughly thought out in advance how to build the new society and creating new people in Cambodia. Some of the foremost used  glasses.

In this story naturally intellectuals in the West who praised , defended and excused the Pol Pot regime also belong. Intellectuals who were at a safe distance from what actually happened ( although some of them did attend carefully arranged tours to Cambodia), which did not have to worry about being killed and not felt that they needed to take some moral responsibility for what the killers did. In Norway this was particularly true for the intellectuals in and around the Maoist party AKP. (ml)

The party’s chief ideologue Tron Øgrim hailed for example the regime in Cambodia as particularly advanced on a Marxist scale, with a “specific and creative application of Marxism – Leninism .”  Øgrim could opt for a “light and relaxed ” atmosphere in Cambodia, with the enthusiastic masses who joined the party leadership , the evacuation of towns and collectivization of land in the countryside. AKP and Øgrim was also, especially internationally, in prominent company.

Trapped by ideas 

So why have so many been so wrong , have made such monumental and grotesque errors and been so arrogantly mistaken?

Here we need to of course make a point that one should not generalize. It is certainly not the case that all intellectuals have been ensnared by totalitarian ideas. Some have shown great personal courage in combating not only these schools of thought, but already existing totalitarian regimes. Yet it is strikingly many people we are talking about. Handke is not a special case.

The answer is obviously complex, among many explanations, let me highlight one set: Human intellectual activity revolves around ideas. Many of them think big ideas about liberation , peace , justice and happiness. Many other things too. They can easily be captured by these ideas. They may be convinced that they have found magnificent solutions. They will probably be convinced that they will be good. what they want is good. Not least, they will certainly be convinced that they know better than others when they hold on to their grand ideas. And before they know it , they risk not only become prisoners of ideas, but prisoners of history.

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