Heinrich Böll was President of PEN International from 1971-1974, marking an attempt by the organisation to bridge the gap between centres in the West and those in the Communist East.
As a former President of the West German branch of PEN, the Nobel Prize winner bought unique insight to this role and a real empathy with writers on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
He was elected at the congress held in Dublin as the organisation celebrated its jubilee. A unifying candidate, his Presidency offered a respite from the more divisive days of Arthur Miller, who, despite his attempts to create a Russian PEN Centre, had often raised the hackles of other Eastern Centres with his heavy-handed approach.
Böll had experience in managing these dynamics and more respect throughout the region having campaigned in 1961 – as the Berlin Wall was erected – for a UN headquarters in both the East and West areas of the city.
He spoke at the inaugural meeting of the Association of German Writers in 1969, calling for more ethical government particularly around relations with Eastern Europe.
He had travelled widely in Eastern Europe, and was invited to visit Czechoslovakia in August 1968 where he witnessed the invasion by Warsaw Pact troops, bringing years of communist dictatorship and the further suppression of human rights and particularly the activities of writers in Czechoslovakia.
He was highly influential in bringing to PEN’s attention the plight of the Russian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. He had visited Solzhenitsyn during his travels and after Solzhenitsyn’s arrest in 1974, he gave the exiled writer the use of his cottage in Langenbrioch in the Eifel hills.
At his first meeting as President he asked for writers in the West not to judge their counterparts in Soviet countries for their action or inaction on censorship: ‘It is all right for everyone to take risks for themselves, whether calculated or not, but as soon as it becomes a matter of other people’s risks, caution and silence are not cowardice, nor even diplomacy. Nobody should take risks for other people, nobody can know exactly what other people risk.’
His ties to the East were such that he was once named “warden of the Dissident Wayfarers”in an East German magazine. But Böll’s activities were not limited to these so-called “dissident Wayfarers” from the East. In 1969, he had rallied PEN to organise a campaign appealing to the US government to drop proceedings against civil rights activist Angela Davis.
As a political thinker and activist Böll remained active throughout his life speaking out on the key issues of the twentieth century, campaigning for civil rights in the US, against nuclear weapons in his native German, in support of Vietnamese boat people in 1979 and against oppressive governments across the world.
As well as being a lifelong campaigner for free expression, Böll’s interest in the environment led to the foundation after his death in 1985 of the Heinrich Böll Foundation which funds and orchestrates ‘green ideas and projects’ all over the world, and has branches in 32 countries worldwide.