Thomas Mann was asked to become an honorary member of London PEN within a year of its founding, in September 1922. As one of the most important global writers, his honorary status was unsurprising. But, he was also an active member, helping to create Berlin PEN in December 1924 and later becoming an important figure in the German Writers in Exile centre, which was established in January 1934.
Initially, Mann acknowledged the importance of PEN networks in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when travel between Germany and France was extremely difficult. In a short piece for the French PEN Bulletin in 1926 he explained his happiness at being invited to speak abroad, noting his delight in being the first German writer to be received in London since the end of hostilities. For Mann, and for other German PEN members such as Heinrich Mann, Gerhart Hauptmann and Robert Musil, PEN networks in the mid-1920s provided an invaluable means through which to supersede frosty German-French political relations. Speaking of the foundation of PEN itself, Mann commented on the humorous nature of the organisation’s name, and extolled its symbolic embodiment of the international solidarity of ‘spiritual workers’, as he called them: ‘My personal impression,’ he exclaims, ‘is that the association is a European force of great importance, able to influence the vital questions of the day.’ The spiritual solidarity represented by the organisation lay not in any imposed programme or ideology; but in the ‘voluntary’ union of writers.
The Berlin PEN centre was one of the most successful in the 1920s and early 1930s. However, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, it was taken over by Nazi writers, who immediately excluded writers including Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, and Erich Maria Remarque, as well as Communist and Jewish writers. They also refused to protest when Nazi students burnt books in German universities and town squares in May 1933. Mann, who had fled to Switzerland when Hitler came to power, became a key figure for the German Writers in Exile centre. German refugees were sometimes strategically referred to as the Thomas Mann Group of Refugees, a label used to enlist support. In 1940, for instance, Hermon Ould wrote to American PEN asking if they could help the Thomas Mann Group of Refugees, who ‘have suffered extreme persecution and have fought the Nazi Regime since its beginning.’ In 1939, Mann emigrated to the US and began making anti-Nazi broadcasts.