Austrian writer Robert Neumann transformed PEN repeatedly, playing key roles in the evolution of its Charter, its remit and its politics during his fifty-year membership of the organisation.
A German Jew, Neumann first came to PEN when his works fell victim to the Nazi book burnings in 1933. He left his home in Vienna in 1934 and fled to Britain where he was the founder of the Austrian PEN Centre in exile in 1938.
During World War Two, he worked tirelessly on behalf of refugee and exiled writers in London, despite being interned as an ‘Enemy Alien’ himself for several months in 1940. Alongside English President Storm Jameson and International Secretary Hermon Ould he worked as a fundraiser for the PEN Refugee Fund and even provided a weekly drop-in session – as part of his role as an editor with Hutchinson International – to give writers advice on how to publish or find work as translators in London.
After the war he helped to revive and became Honorary President of the Austrian PEN Club in 1947 and PEN Vice President in 1950. This membership and his history with the organisation gave him a unique platform to critique and influence PEN policy at every level.
A lifelong socialist, Neumann could be a vehement critic of PEN’s more conservative tendencies, particularly during the early postwar years.
Neumann’s experiences in Austria left him with a very personal and violent response to any indication of government interference in free expression. He had seen first-hand where such interventions could end.
In 1953, he lobbied the PEN International Congress in Dublin to add a very important element to PEN’s Charter.
The contribution formed part of a raft of measures proposed by the French Centre to formally reassert PEN’s commitment to freedom of expression, to condemn censorship and the banning of books by governments.
There were a number of these types of reaffirmations in PEN Press releases and meetings at the time, which reflected an organisation seeking to find terra firma in the postwar world and to ensure that the slide to fascism could not be repeated.
It was also a response to simmering Cold War tensions within the organisation, which was starting to become aware of the threats to free expression in Eastern European countries.
Neumann wanted to add in a clause which would stipulate that all national PEN Centres must report regularly on the state of intellectual freedom within their respective countries and ‘their own actions to combat victimizations and other Government and private interferences with that freedom. He wanted UNESCO to assist PEN in publishing these findings.
Issues were raised with the Amendment, among those PEN Centres in Iron Curtain countries who might find themselves having to report regular and humiliating infringements on their liberties but also among those in the West, who feared leaving potentially-infiltrated centres in the East to raise free expression issues. Neumann himself had long been wary of the domination of more centrist and right-wing politics within PEN, speaking out at the 1950 Congress about PEN’s internal Cold War under President Charles Morgan.
The debate marked a fissure which would rupture PEN policy and campaigning on free expression throughout the Cold War.
It also came to mark a crucial point in PEN’s history and its sense of the role of itself and its Centres in monitoring and reporting on free expression worldwide.
Most tellingly, this type of reporting would come to form a crucial element of PEN’s work with human rights charities and is now a routine part of UN monitoring of human rights across the world: Where a report is being compiled local PEN Centres are asked to provide information on attitudes to writers and writing, conditions of censorship, the imprisonment of writers, because – as Neumann so shrewdly recognised – the way a society treats its writers is hugely indicative of the health of its democracy.
Neumann continued to take a leading role in PEN until the end of his life, serving as a Vice President . In 1971, just five years before his death he was at the Congress in Yugoslavia, submitting an amendment on writers in Israel and Palestine and continuing his lifelong fight for free expression.