A personal friend of Dawson Scott, H.G. Wells attended the first meeting of PEN. His main contribution to the organisation, however, was in shaping its commitment to free speech activism after he became International PEN President on John Galsworthy’s death in 1933.
In Spring 1933, the Nazis took control of Berlin PEN and resolutely refused to protest when Socialist and Jewish writers were thrown out of Germany.
One of Wells’ first tasks as President was to steer the infamous 1933 PEN congress in Dubrovnik. There were passionate speeches on both sides, with the Nazi PEN members insisting that PEN should remain apolitical, and one of Germany’s most famous literary exiles, Ernst Toller, demanding that PEN act to protect Germany’s persecuted writers.
When Wells, hampered by protocol, nevertheless threatened to resign rather than suppress the issue of free speech in Germany, the Nazi PEN members stormed out.
It was the first time a PEN centre had effectively been turfed out of the International organisation. The fall-out was momentous. While some members bemoaned PEN’s new political stance, Wells argued that PEN should become an organisation committed to defending what he called, at the 1934 Edinburgh PEN Congress, the ‘one end’ of freedom of expression. It is a commitment to free speech activism that has defined the organisation ever since.
At the same time, however, as political events spiralled out of control in Germany, Spain, and Italy, Wells was also often exasperated with what he saw as PEN’s ineffectiveness in defending persecuted writers, and after the 1936 Barcelona PEN Congress he resigned as International PEN President. He continued, however, to participate in PEN activities, even travelling to Stockholm for the 1939 PEN Congress, despite the fact that it had to be cancelled because of the outbreak of war.
Wells continued to agitate for the right to free expression, something that formed part of his 1939 ‘Declaration of Rights’. A document that influenced the penning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights some of Wells’ rights now strike an anachronistic note, such as the right not to be sterilized.
His free speech commitments to ‘access to information’ and to ‘freedom of discussion’, however, not only feature in the UDHR, but also continue to be central human rights in today’s world.