Arnold Zweig was a German writer, pacifist and socialist, who took a leading role in the East German PEN Centre following World War Two.
Zweig was very active in Communist East German politics alongside his PEN duties, serving as a member of parliament and a delegate to the World Peace Council as well as a cultural advisor to the Communist Party.
He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1958 for his anti-war novels and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature seven times.
Following the expulsion of the German PEN Centre at the 1933 Congress, and the setting up of the German Centre in Exile by Heinrich Mann in 1934, the Centre was re-founded in Gottingen in 1948. However, when East and West Germany were created as separate states in 1949, two centres were created to represent the Soviet East and the West.
The split continued after reunification and a united Centre was finally formed in 1998.
Zweig was often a difficult delegate at PEN Congresses, where he sought to put forward the concerns of the Communist PEN centres and to contest charges that those Centres based in Soviet countries were complicit in the censorship and imprisonment of writers and therefore in contravention of the organisation’s rules.
In 1960, he wrote to PEN International Secretary David Carver that West Berlin had been giving temporary passports to citizens from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to allow them to travel to countries in the West which did not recognise the G.D.R. and its Communist affiliations. However, political tensions had placed new restrictions on travel between East and West Germany which all but prevented international travel for most citizens of the G.D.R. and, of course, prevented East German members from attending PEN Congresses and meetings. Zweig asks that PEN ‘should use its influence to stop the restriction.’
However, PEN, as it turned out, had limited influence in this area and the East German Centre missed a good many conferences in the early 1960s. Correspondence from Zweig during this period is peppered with his frustrations at being represented, in effect, by the hostile West German Centre and unable to answer in person their accusations about censorship and writers’ rights in the Communist East. Zweig suggested repeatedly that PEN should hold Congresses in more neutral countries but his protests fall on deaf ears.
Despite hostilities between Zweig and the rest of PEN, even Carver himself, the letters remain friendly, reiterating invitations to visit and petitions of friendship even whilst implying institutional bias.
He wrote in 1966 to Carver and Arthur Miller, describing his regret at not being able to attend the New York Congress of that year as ‘being almost eighty years of age I am not very fit to travel so far afield.’
He reminisced about attending the 1939 New York PEN Congress ‘the clarion call of the best writers in the world no less than Ernst Toller’s suicide in a New York hotel.’
However, his letter was not apolitical. Despite his charm and good wishes, he went on that ‘though being a bit shaky I might have risked the journey to New York if I had not been expected to assume for this very purpose the status of a stateless individual, a condition all the more humiliating to me who has ended his days of exile and is proud to be citizen of the German Democratic Republic.’
Zweig was indeed in ill-health during the early 1960s and died in 1968.