Ernst Toller, famous playwright and Communist, played an important role in the history of the PEN organisation. After the Reichstag Fire of 27thFebruary 1933, Toller was one of the first people the Nazis tried to arrest. Luckily for him he was in Switzerland at the time. From that moment onwards, he would live in exile from his homeland.
He was a regular Congress attender during the early to mid 1930s, going to Budapest in 1932, Dubrovnik in 1933 and Edinburgh in 1934. At Budapest he questioned Congress’ claim that PEN stood apart from politics, because, as he put it, ‘it is politics if, for example, fascism is defended here. When a particular peoples’ relationship is praised, we must declare; we have to defend the community of all peoples’.
His most famous moment in the history of PEN, however, came at the May 1933 Dubrovnik Congress, where the German PEN Club, which had been taken over by Nazis, were effectively thrown out of the PEN organisation.
Standing up to represent ‘exiled writers’, he delivered a rousing speech. He spoke movingly of the moral responsibilities of the writer, responsibilities which forced him to speak out. He was heckled in the Congress Hall, with one delegate shouting ‘You have no right to speak because you are a Communist’. But Toller would not be silenced. He described the circumstances in Berlin PEN, how members of the club had been told they were barred from PEN because of their Communist views. ‘If they exclude authors for reasons of their opinion’, as he put it, ‘it is they who carry politics into the PEN-Club’.
Citing the burning of books by Nazi students on 10thMay, as well as the imprisonment, ousting and enforced exile of German writers, artists, actors, professors, scientists, and publishers Toller asked the Congress: What has the German PEN Club done to protest this outrage? The answer, he states, is nothing.
He attacked the anti-semitism of the current members of the German PEN Club and spoke of the pain of enforced exile. The exile is prevented from seeing ‘again the country in which they were born’; they are ‘expelled, chased away, outcasts.’ He went on to thank the PEN congress for defending the writer against persecution. He described this era as one of ‘nationalistic madness, a madness of race, of hate.’ And, as he said ‘Millions of people in Germany may neither speak nor write freely. I am talking for all those millions who, today, have no voice.’ ‘The air around use becomes thinner and thinner.’ But, let us fight, he declared. ‘Let us conquer the fear which crushes and humbles us’ and let us dream of a ‘Utopia in which freedom from barbarity, lies, social injustice, and slavery will prevail.’
Toller also attended the 1934 Edinburgh Congress and spoke again as a representative of writers in exile. He described the power of the German state to control not only internal affairs, but also the book publishing of German exiles in both Spain and Italy: ‘The Hitlerite dictatorship’, as he said, ‘shrinks from no method of injuring those writers whom it cannot catch.’ He spoke movingly of the Nazis assertion of global pressure: ‘This well organised persecution of authors, publishers and booksellers who are obnoxious to the present regime in Germany, a persecution carried on systematically and supported by the immense resources of the state into even the most distant lands, constitutes the most dangerous threat to the freedom of the writer throughout the world.’ Facing the Congress hall he asked ‘Will you tolerate this threat?’
Toller would continue to oppose the Nazi state at PEN events, and attended the 1939 New York World Congress PEN event, and gave a talk on How Can Culture Survive Exile’, very soon before his tragic suicide. At New York he claimed that ‘The threatened culture can only be defended if those who were fortunate enough to escape slavery, devote themselves faithfully to their language…fight barbarism wherever it threatens.’