At the time of its founding in the year 1921, the International PEN, a global conclave of authors, was ahead of its times.
The idea of supranational structures was new at that time and authors were among the first that tried to make them a reality.
The founding of PEN was impelled by artistic motivations just as much as out of idealism, by motivations out of protest and
out of advocacy. The protest was directed against war, genocide, nationalism, and hatred of other races – the intellectuals
of Europe were still gripped by a shock-reaction stemming from the First World War. They embraced the freedom of speech, of
tolerance, and other basic democratic values.
The Constitution of PEN corresponded to these convictions. Acceptance into the relevant national PEN-Center was granted through an elective process: the principal criteria for membership in PEN were to be literary standards, not political stances, status, ethnicity or whatever else other groups might designate as a standard for election. Its name is based on an acronym, a game with words: P for poets, E for essayists, N for novelists, which simultaneously supplies in this arrangement at the same time the English word “pen”, meaning a writing utensil. The members of PEN are convinced of the victorious survival of the pen: the pen is mightier than the sword.
What is the purpose of such a conclave of writers? The founders hoped for a positive influence of literature upon politics, upon the moral condition of society. The writers are of those times were convinced of the humanizing effect of the written word. One need only read the political essays of the leading lights of PEN of those days, for example German texts by Thomas Mann: How profound was the belief in the significance of literature, its human message, its sense of responsibility vis-à-vis society. The PEN-Center embodied the great hopes for an enlightened volonté generale, that one could reach man’s reason through a liberating word.
This conviction was increasingly shattered, not least by the incessant “abuse of words” in the service of irrational ideologies and totalitarian systems which misused literature for their own justification and glorification. The first flowering of PEN antedated this phenomenon. Repulsed by the First World War and its consequences, one proclaimed “freedom”, “ humanity” and similar ideals as demands of literature without perceiving the possibility of misusing it in the service of the exact opposite. Orwell’s “Ministry for Love” was still unknown. Scarcely anyone had the imagination to intuit the co-culpability of literature in totalitarian states -- in Russia since the 20’s, in Germany since 1933, in other places since 1945.
Also, writers in the West proved to be susceptible to the fascination of a brutal despotism, which was inimical to literature. The despotism of the Bolscheviks destructive of culture, was accepted by many literary personalities of Europe, and even admired. Whoever took the concept of the “liberating word” seriously, could not be at all sure of the feelings of solidarity from his western colleagues. The German writers, deprived of their citizenship by the National Socialists, suffered similar experiences in the ‘30s. Heinrich Mann compressed their travail in the phrase “The exile from conviction looses his credibility in direct proportion to the revelation that he is at odds with an established power.”
But the International PEN-Center, bound by its charter proved itself to be a relatively reliable organization. To be sure, the German PEN club accepted its ideological “consolidation” after Hitler’s accession to power and conformed to National Socialist cultural politics, but that conformity led to a confrontation with the international leadership during the plenary session of the International-PEN in Ragusa in May 1933. Hitler’s pyromanic literary politics were irreconcilable with the PEN charter; the German delegation was expected to disavow the burning of the books. This expectation went unfulfilled; instead the German delegation left the PEN Congress under protest.
It left the defense of German literature to a Jewish immigrant, Ernst Toller, who held his famous accusatory speech against the Nazis at the Congress. The German PEN club was not prepared to champion the freedom of speech and other principles of PEN in Germany. In November 1933, the German Center declared its final demarche from the International PEN and soon descended into insignificance. The loss for the PEN-Center was negligible: almost all German writers with any status at all were already living then in exile anyway. At the following International-PEN Congress of 1934 in Edinburgh, German literature was represented by immigrants.
What could have been more logical in such a situation than founding a new German PEN center abroad? Lion Feuchtwanger, Max Herrmann-Neisse, and Ernst Toller applied for just such a body in the name of numerous writers expatriated or escaped from Germany. The then president of the International PEN, the English Nobel laureate H.G. Wells, tried at first to side-step the problem, but General Secretary Hermon Ould was in favor of the idea. Finally it was a woman, the Dutch delegate Jo van Ammers-Kuller who passionately urged a speedy decision. Hence an important innovation in the history of PEN came about at this Congress: with the founding of the “German Exile-PEN,” the first center was born which was no longer linked to a nation, but exclusively to a language, to a literature.
After initial hesitation, the political utopian H.G. Wells, at that time the author of attention-commanding books such as A Modern Utopia or The Shade of things to Come, may have come to the realization that this first supranational PEN-Center dovetailed with his own literary concept of the world. Wells dreamed of a “one-world-concept”, based on a desire to bring to fruition humanistic ideals across the boundaries separating nations. In thus extending its mission, this decision of the Edinburgh congress marked an additional step on the road to internationalization or, as one would say today, to globalization. For the first time, a PEN center emerged, unencumbered by ties to a particular nation. In the spirit of this precedent PEN centers could divorce themselves from their countries of origin if the countries’ politics were irreconcilable with the constitution of PEN. These centers could then continue to exist while upholding their language in exile.
Let us add as a marginalia that today there exist more than a dozen exile centers within the al of approximately 120 PEN centers, hence one-tenth of all noteworthy literary figures of the world maintain themselves in exile or in a similar condition vis-à-vis their country of origin. On the one hand, this is further proof of the dangers which, time and again, writers are exposed to in their homeland, on the other hand of the increasing randomness of place of residence in a freely communicative world. There is a PEN center in London of writers speaking Somali, founded by authors who cannot freely express themselves in a fundamentalist-Islamic homeland or a Chinese Writers Abroad PEN Center in New York, founded by Chinese opponents of the government. On the other hand the Suisse Romande PEN center has its headquarters in Paris, presumably but for reasons more of language than of politics, or the Writers in Exile PEN Center in Orange, USA which is comprised of literary figures of diverse countries of origin. Members of PEN living far from their homeland need not have emigrated for political reasons, nor do the members of a center need to share the same country of origin.
The last stipulation also became moot since 1939 for the German Exile PEN as well. After the take-over of Austria and the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the German army, additional immigrants arrived in Western Europe writing in the German, but not German nationals. Heinrich Mann, a German writer, became the first president of the center, but the Viennese Stefan Zweig was just as much a member as was the poetess Mascha Kaléko, who was born in Chrzanow, Galicia. The adjective German was changed into German-speaking and that attribute has been preserved until today. The center has become an international club whose members come from different countries of origin, but are unified through their writing and publishing in the common German language.
In consequence, the German-speaking exile PEN differed even after 1945 from the newly founded German PEN Centers in East and West. Its office remained as before in London, hence it was shielded from the ideological or political influence of one of the German post-war countries. Members such as Thomas Mann, Richard Friedenthal, Nelly Sachs, Arthur Koestler, Alfred Döblin, H.G. Adler, or Paul Celan represented a literary dimension which both states would gladly have claimed as their own, at the same time for an intellectual independence which discomfited people in both East and West Germany. Attempts to declare the center abroad obsolete and to dissolve it through lobbying at the international PEN proliferated. One attempt came as early as 1957; the hitherto last one occurred in the past year. Those who would like to sweep history under the rug would love to make us forget the reason for its origin, that is the dismal failure of the German PEN Club in the year 1933.
German reference works or histories of literature appear to have a difficult time of it to mention the center for German-language authors abroad. And when they do so, after all, then they have recourse to distorting formulations as though they were talking about a phenomenon that has ceased to exist. To pick a randomly chosen example, Meyers Lexikon refers to the exile PEN consistently in the past tense: “Beginning in 1934 there existed in London a PEN club of German authors founded by German immigrants.”
Yet the number of members even increased after 1945. It is well known that the immigrants were less than welcome in the German post-war states unless it be as ready-made alibis for political interests. This was noticeable above all in East Germany, a role which only a few exile PEN members imposed upon themselves, for example Johannes R. Becher or Anna Seghers. Thomas Mann stayed in Zurich, Feuchtwanger in the USA, Nelly Sachs in Stockholm. Alfred Döblin, who had assayed a return to West Germany, re-immigrated to Paris. Despite these facts the center was renamed in 1948; one can only suppose in order to delete the provocative word “exile” in order to please the German PEN clubs; it received the name which is still its designation today PEN Center of German-speaking Authors Abroad.
Both German post-war states defined themselves as milieus benign to literature, sponsored representative authors, gave away prices and invested large sums in the build-up of their respective German literature so that, according to the logic of the administrators of culture in East and West, no need existed to have a PEN-Center abroad. They therefore felt entitled to indicate to the PEN-Centrum in London that its continued existence was superfluous. “Why should a German in the year 1957 be entitled to claim exile status?” Storm Jameson, the British writer and altruistic helper of German immigrants in the difficult war years summarized retrospectively the frequently argued question. Fortunately for the German exile writers, the international PEN club elected in the same year Storm Jameson as chair of its executive committee which was tantamount to saving the endangered center.
I was admitted to the PEN Center of German-speaking authors abroad in 1993, when I was already living abroad, but published as before in Germany. The condition of being at a distance from German cultural life was new for me and produced difficulties. On the other hand, it encouraged literary contributions that would have been impossible had they originated from Germany. The PEN Club abroad became an irreplaceable partner. My correspondence with the president at that time Fritz Beer, who was born 1911 in Brünn, but lives as an immigrant of the 30’s in London, mirrors our closeness to one another across generations and boundaries. A part of this epistolary point of reference was published 1994 with the title “Exile without End”.
In that volume Beer formulated what we two had in common:
“For I am, just as you, a Jew and an exile…and both of us carry a like burden, the brown and red past of Germany which was never mastered.”
In my answer I added a further dimension transcending politics:
“Our second communality which is far reaching is the language in which we write, the German language. This ambivalent situation—to have left the country but being bound to the language—initially induced oppressive feelings, but now it has become a challenge….In this confrontation, this interplay between outside and inside, offers a tremendous opportunity.”
Today the PEN Center of German speaking authors abroad has about 100 members, an impressive number if we compare it with other PEN Centers of the world. This is true despite the fact that the number of emigrants of the 30’s and 40’s has steadily declined; the new membership was born largely after World War II. Their origin for the most part is Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, countries that they have left voluntarily. The center abroad has received numerous further requests for admittance. The members communicate for the most part with one another in written form—but is writing not after all the suitable means of contact for literary persons? In this exchange, email was added as a new medium of quick communication of thoughts and opinions between members scattered across the globe.
When I became a member of the erstwhile exile PEN club in 1993, the organization had entered a state of rejuvenation and new hope. Simultaneously, work was going on in Germany in order to bring about a unification of the two PEN centers East and West. It was to be a mega-center with hundreds of members, a process which was galvanized by political motivations and which was labeled with the technical terminology, as a process of blending, coined by the functionaries of the German PEN. To accept even former collaborators of the cultural apparatus of the GDR and even former informants of the state security services into the “blended” center was a distinctly questionable intention. Many members of both centers protested against this policy and about 90 German writers canceled their membership in both centers. The PEN Center of German-speaking authors abroad likewise felt impelled to enter a protest.
“Germany needs a unified PEN organization in which a dissident is considered as an important voice, in which the exploitative beneficiaries of a culturally destructive dictatorship no longer sit at the control during the debates about the past, in which the obligation of defending the freedom of expression against the prevailing powers is more than idle talk. Germany needs a PEN Center that does not capitulate, when confronted by the task of bringing about a Renaissance of humanistic direction in German intellectual life.”
The clear position of the German Writers’ Abroad Centre provoked new antipathy against it. The arguments were the same as in 1957 and before. Christoph Hein, the first president of the unified German PEN, repeated the same formulation of the previous attempts to declare the exile PEN club unnecessary: “One only goes into exile, if one has to. There is no reason to go into exile from present-day Germany”.
The intransigent argumentation of his declaration betrays a subconscious fear. He uses the word “exile”; he uses it unnecessarily, since the center for more than 50 years has a different name. His apodictic declaration sounds as though he did not interpret this word as a description of a condition, but as a program, as a declaration of war, as a danger.
But what danger could emanate from a Pen Center of German-Speaking Authors Abroad? What fear inspiring effect could descend upon Germany? What effect at all? Logically -- as our member Günter Kunert explained to a German newspaper -- it could have the effect of a “memory aid and a reminder.” Kunert, who suffered through two German dictatorships, as son of a Jewish mother in the Nazi period, then as a critical writer in the GDR, does not feel that a memory aid poses a danger. About this, all the other members of the center are in agreement despite their being scattered across the continents. We see memory, reflection, and overcoming the past as essential motivation for our literary labors. Barbara Honigmann, the author of prose texts who lives in Strasbourg, France remembers in her autobiographical writings her youthful years when she was living as a Jewish woman in East Berlin. The novelist Erich Wolfgang Skwara, living in San Diego, California, traces the mental anguish that drove him from a provincial life in Austria into a far-away country. At the University of Southampton in England the scholar of Germanistics, Andrea Reiter, dedicates herself to the literature of the Holocaust. Aliana Brodmann von Richthofen, who was born in Munich the daughter of survivors of the Shoah is living today in Boston, USA. She undertakes literary excursions into the Polish-Jewish world of her parents. The Germanist Cornelius Schnauber, born in Dresden and now teaching in Los Angeles, undertakes studies of the “Psychology of Fascist Rhetoric”. Gottfried Wagner, the great grandson of the composer, lives in Italy and traces the entanglements of his family during the time of the Nazi regime. The Swiss-born author Gabrielle Alioth, living in Ireland, writes subtly wrought mediaeval novels. The Papyrologist Carsten Peter Thiede, a Professor in Basel and on the staff of the Israeli Office for the Study of Antiquity in Jerusalem, is a specialist for the period of the first century, the century chronicled in the New Testament. They all belong to the post-war generation and attribute their exile to non-political reasons. They rather cite psychological or religious ones or put forth motivations arising from their academic work, or from the ambience of distant places which provide them with creative inspiration.
It was argued “there is no reason to leave Germany and go into exile today.” On the contrary there are many reasons and steadily new ones arise. If a person leaves his or her country those staying behind need not interpret that as a slight. If that were otherwise, many people would have a reason for being affronted. Emigration is today an everyday occurrence, in many cases not much more than a change of residence. In fact, it is an open question whether one needs to change one’s residence in order to go into exile. Exile is a spiritual dimension. Each member of our center has his or her own motivation; each is unique, individual and differs from that of all preceding exiles. Each time a further biography, that of a German writer comes into being, an additional facet of a new German history of literature. The transition into a different country need not take the form of a violent expulsion in order to be a legitimate form of exile. Someone like the above-mentioned German PEN president who can associate the word “exile” only with concepts forged by dictatorships, lays bare the narrowness of his conceptual world.
German authors living abroad enrich German literature and help it to attain a universality, which, time and again, it is in danger to lose. They experience their mother tongue in the surroundings of foreign lands and develop a different relationship to it, find more sublime approaches to it, and preserve—unburdened by the decline of everyday language deplored in their home country—traditional structures of literature. At the same time they experience the German language within the context of other languages, recognize its advantages and weaknesses more authentically, occupy themselves with comparative investigations, explore new possibilities of its expressiveness. They dedicate themselves quite often to the task of translating German literature into other languages, an especially meritorious undertaking in the face of the dramatic decline in books translated from the German.
Also the older members of our center who in the main had to flee Germany, never abandoned their ties to German literature. Professor Guy Stern, teaching in Detroit, has lived in the US since 1937. He has devoted himself for decades to the German language and its literature. His books are published, like those of many members of our center, in several languages. Mariana Frank-Westheim lectured on German literature at the University of Mexico. Peter Finkelgruen, who was born in exile in Shanghai, now resides again in Germany after sojourns in many countries. After many years in exile in America our member Hans Sahl died in Germany. Alice Schwarz-Gardos publishes, now as before, the single German language newspaper in Israel. They all employed their exile to spread the written German word with an amour propre no less strong than as if they had lived in Germany.
The German authors living abroad and their PEN Center could serve the German literary activities as cultural bridges, consultants and memory aids. The German PEN club should make efforts to mend fences with the German Writers Abroad Centre. Cooperation between the two PEN Centres could improve the quality of German cultural life. Instead of that it seemed as if the German PEN was not interested in the Exile PEN. Its president at that time, Fritz Beer in London, now 92 years old, was unable to resist that pressure in the spring of 2002 and proposed on his own initiative the dissolving of the organization. German newspapers prematurely proclaimed “the end of the exile PEN”. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the mouthpiece for other German media, even presumed to know the reasons why that center within the framework of today’s modern Germany had become superfluous. But if one looks below the surface, one discovers the same reservations against German exile writers, which were advanced by German cultural functionaries ever since the forties.
A group of younger members took up the cause. PEN centers abroad, the American, the Russian and the Israeli PEN Clubs came to the aid of the threatened German PEN Club abroad. In the spirit of its charter the International PEN Club at its plenary session in September in 2002 rejected the attempted dissolution and granted the German authors living abroad the time span of one year to reorganize its center.
The newly elected Board sees an important future for the PEN Centre of German-speaking Writers Abroad. The centre also wants to devote its efforts to the screening of numerous new applications by authors who live in Germany. For the PEN Center of the German-language Authors Abroad there is no reason to turn down these writers for the sole reason that most of them live in Germany. The experience of exile can obviously be made these days in one’s own country. For us who live beyond the borders of Germany the place of residence of most of the new members would not be a barrier anyway. From our perspective Germany, too, is foreign country.
© 1994 by Chaim Noll.
The volume “Exil ohne Ende. Das PEN Zentrum deutschsprachiger Autoren im Ausland” was published 1994 by Bleicher Publishing House in Gerlingen.
Translation by Nicola Diergardt-Work, Mayne University, Detroit, USA.