Today we feature one of the most surprising members in PEN’s 100-year history. While Bertolt Brecht needs no introduction as a writer, his political commitments probably make it unsurprising that for many years he stayed aloof from PEN, viewing it as a liberal talking shop.
However, in the mid-1950s he became the President of PEN Germany, East and West, as it was called. He was active in liaising between the Soviets and International PEN with the hope of persuading the Soviets to participate in the organisation, and in proposing resolutions.
In 1954, prior to the Congress in Amsterdam, Brecht liaised between PEN and Soviets Ilya Ehrenburg and Konstantin Simonov, who was Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Association of Soviet Writers. Simonov had proposed sending representatives to the Congress but had wanted information from PEN about its membership fees, past post-war resolutions and statutes.
In the end, the Soviets did not attend the Amsterdam Congress, but Brecht was there and he sat on the International Executive Committee. There was some discussion of the Soviets’ desire to become PEN members, with delegates doubting whether they would be able, in any genuine way, to ‘sign the [PEN] Charter’. The Committee passed a resolution, however, welcoming the creation of a Russian Centre ‘with interest’. Brecht seconded a request by John Hewitt to change the word ‘interest’ to ‘sympathy’; but it was defeated. This was work that another playwright and #100PENMembers Arthur Miller would continue a decade later.
Along with his German, West and East, colleague Johannes Tralow, Brecht also proposed a controversial resolution, which asked for PEN to defend ‘freedom of circulation for all types of literature, insofar as they do not serve the inflammation of national hatred, racial discrimination, or militarism.’
In discussion Brecht and Tralow explained that the resolution sought to secure the free circulation of what they labelled ‘progressive’ books which ‘would benefit humanity’, but not books like Mein Kampf ‘which inflamed national hatreds.’
However, this attempt to drive a wedge between progressive and Fascist books, met with opposition in the Congress hall. Denis Saurat and Storm Jameson protested, with Jameson explaining that the Resolution implied it ‘would be proper to ban certain books’. She proposed an amendment to the wording such that it would read that PEN defended ‘freedom of circulation of all types of literature, while deploring works which serve the inflammationof national hatred, racial discrimination, or militarism’.
This amended text was then agreed to. The disagreement, and the shift, captures a key cold war tension between Communist and liberal ideas of free expression, with the Communists arguing that there should be limits placed on the dissemination of Fascist speech, and Western members arguing that the individual right to free speech precluded the suppression of books on the grounds of certain kinds of content, Fascist or not.
Brecht’s voice was also prominent at the 1955 Congress in Vienna, which he was unable to attend. He sent a message supporting the resolution on the atomic bomb, pleading with members to do everything that they could to ‘stop further tests with atomic bombs.’ Again, the resolution was controversial, centring on whether this issue was really within PEN’s remit. While the Japan centre supported it, the Americans opposed it. They argued that it was a non-issue, as, in countries which guaranteed freedom of expression, there were no specific restrictions on speech about the atomic bomb.
Brecht’s short-lived participation in PEN, at the height of cold war tensions, suggests that there was also a short period in which Soviet participation in PEN seemed a genuine possibility; his interventions also capture key differences of opinion about free speech in the cultural cold war.