Rudolf Olden was a German writer, journalist and lawyer, who acted as secretary of the German Exiles group of the PEN from January 1934 until 1940. After the Reichstag Fire, he fled Germany, and ended up in London. Here, he helped create the German writers in exile centre.
He lived in London during this time, and liaised with Hermon Ould, often around refugee issues.
He attended the 1934 Edinburgh Congress, and discussed the situation for writers and for PEN in Germany. He argued that PEN needed to take up a more robust stance against Germany. He defended the actions of Ernst Toller when he publicly criticised the German PEN Centre for its complicity with the Nazis, and also declared that it was the question of Germany which ‘at present moved the world very deeply and which I believe in future will be the main issue which will determine the course of the world.’ All the hot air about peace, he insisted, was irrelevant, demanding that PEN take firm action to condemn the actions of the Nazi government and all who lent them their support. He lamented that ‘the XIIth P.E.N. congress would go down to history probably as futile and neither hot nor cold’ because of its failure to act decisively against fascism.
Emil Ludwig lamented the fact that many PEN delegates could not understand Olden’s speech because of bad translation. However, he stated, ‘If you could not understand his language, you saw the trembling man, and you heard the trembling voice. You had before you in these moments the real symbol of these poor writers and thinkers who are exiled.’
In 1939 Hermon Ould enlisted Olden to help him guarantee the status of German refugees. As Ould stated, ‘we in the PEN Club are certainly in a position to give sound information on the subject of the refugee writers who have passed through our hands, or about those whom you and our other helpers are accurately informed.’ Ould continued, by insisting ‘I need not impress upon you the necessity for scrupulous care in dealing with this matter.’ Olden wrote to Ould in frustration, for instance, at the internment of the Amsterdam publisher Fritz Landshoff, who had worked at the anti-Nazi Querido publishers. He had accidentally been in Britain when the Nazis conquered Holland: ‘for his friends, he is above suspicion of any pro-Nazi sympathies.’ But, as Olden explains, ‘he was given “B” – qualification and so he was interned when the “B’s” were rounded up.’ Olden continued his letter by describing two German writers, given category “C” and “B”, who have recently been interned. By June 1940, Olden himself had been put under a curfew by the authorities, and his wireless seized so that ‘we are no more able to hear the new regulations pouring in continuously’. Ould endeavoured to help Olden, asking him to send the date of his application for naturalisation, reference numbers of any communications with the authorities, his date of arrival in England and his wife’s national status so that he could ‘make the necessary application to the Home Office’.
He died en route to the US in 1940. The ship in which he was sailing was attacked and sunk by the Nazis. Eight days before his death, he had written to Ould, handing on his PEN responsibilities, with lists of the ‘German Group’, or anti-Nazi writers, or the ‘Thomas Mann group’ as they were called. While the group began with Thomas Mann, Ernst Toller, Ludwig Renn and others as members, by the late 1930s, membership included Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht.
His successor, Friedrich Burschell spoke of the ‘tragic experience’ of going through Olden’s lists and portfolios of exiled writers. They revealed Olden’s indefatigable efforts, ‘to warn of dangers’, to offer his services and to ‘forward schemes’. As far as I can see, Burschell stated gloomily, ‘he never succeeded in anything’. He was met with friendly, but inactive responses. Now he has gone, as Burschell wrote, we have lost a friend, ‘liberal in every respect’.