Victor Van Vriesland was a Dutch Jewish writer and critic who was President of PEN International from 1962-65 as the organisation wrestled with the Cold War, decolonising struggles in different parts of the world and the politics of the post-nuclear age.
Van Vriesland’s Presidency followed on from Alberto Moravia and preceded that of Arthur Miller. Like Miller, his reign was overshadowed by Cold War politics.
Alongside Storm Jameson, he was a leading member of the so-called ‘Committee of Five’ who sought to restore the Hungarian PEN Club to the PEN International fold following its expulsion for colluding too closely with the Hungarian government in the censorship and persecution of writers.
The Hungarian Centre was eventually re-admitted on 22ndJuly 1959 after years of close monitoring.
Van Vriesland was elected to the International Presidency on 3rdMay 1962 at the Brussels Congress. At the same time, another #100PENMembers Victoria Ocampo was elected as Vice-President, alongside Poland’s Jan Parandowski.
Van Vriesland’s biggest challenge was managing the politics between the Communist Centres of Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia and the other centres.
In 1962, the French Centre submitted a resolution to the International Executive which read: ‘The French P.E.N. Centre, meeting at its General Assembly on February 7, 1962, expresses its disapproval of all measures which tend to limit the freedom of expression of writers and journalists, and formally condemns all extreme measures – no matter what their source – aimed at the intimidation or removal of writers and journalists in the sole interest of suppressing al differences of opinion.’
Whilst this Resolution may have appeared innocuous at first, bearing in mind PEN’s position as a free expression organisation, it caused consternation in some circles, namely those in Communist countries. They argued that it was essential that the resolution be amended to demonstrate PEN’s ‘impartiality’ and to make clear that it was referring only to restrictions on free expression under fascist governments. As the Hungarian Lazlo Kéry argued ‘the Hungarian Centre considers a completion of the Resolution of the French PEN Centre necessary in a form that should leave no doubt about the fact that International PEN does not take sides with any persons who exert an activity in the interest of fascism or with a view to unleashing a war.’ The French M. de Beer refused to support this amendment and as the minutes record ‘Mr Kéry said that he would not wish to defend all writers everywhere.’
This showcases perfectly the postwar struggle between the desire of Centres in non-Communist countries to defend free expression at all costs and among Communist Centres to support the oppression of writers where it threatened state or communist ideology. The impasse continued for two decades in a series of micro-tussles which framed every Executive meeting in some form.
Van Vriesland worked hard to bridge this gap. In 1965, as his Presidency came to an end, the PEN International Congress took place in Budapest, Hungary. Showing how far Hungary had come since its expulsion at the end of the previous decade, the Hungarian Centre under Istvan Sötereagerly welcomed their guests, and government officials held receptions and meetings with PEN members. The Congress marked a key turning point for East-West relations within PEN, leading to breakthroughs in relations with the East German Centre and with the Soviet Writers Union.