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“The challenge is to transform this club idea into a 21st century NGO, while remaining a literary club”

Interview with Regula Venske. This Story also belongs to the German Centre.

By Ginevra Avalle

Oxford, 19th March 2019

Regula Venske is a scholar, novelist and essayist and President of German PEN. She taught German literature at Hamburg University, the Free University of Berlin and Queen Mary College, London. Regula Venske received a number of literary awards, including the Oldenburg Jugendbuchpreis, the German Crime-Writing Award (Deutscher Krimipreis) and the Lessing Scholarship of the City of Hamburg. She has been a member of German PEN since 1998 and served as General Secretary from May 2013 – 2017.

G.A. When was German Centre created? What led to its creation? Who were the founding members?

R.V. The first German PEN Club was created in 1924. At the onset of World War I, the founding members had been rather nationalistic. After the First World War finished, they changed their perspectives on politics and the world. One of them was the writer Ludwig Fulda, who had been a very conservative nationalistic person at the start of the First World War. He was a Jew and committed suicide in 1938. They were all male writers, mostly conservative. The progressive and leftist writers joined the club in the late 20’s. The 1920’s were very politicised times in Germany. There was a famous critic, Kurt Tucholsky, who contributed to newspapers and journals. He once wrote in one of his articles: “The German PEN Club declared to be pacifists in times of peace”.

G.A. What are the key moments of the history of your Centre? What happened when Hitler came into power?

R.V. The times of peace ended in 1933 when Hitler came into power. All the cultural clubs, organisations, institutions, were mainstreamed into the Nazi ideology. Apparently, the PEN Club was one of the last of the cultural societies to be forced into conformity, because of its international basis. Shortly after the Nazis came into power, most of the ones who had been leaders of the German PEN Club had to go in exile. Those were especially the ones who had joined the club in the late 1920’s: Thomas Mann and Heinrich Mann, Alfred Kerr, Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger… They were Jews, communists, anti-Nazis. In the Dubrovnik International PEN Congress 1934, the German PEN withdrew from the International PEN. We can debate whether they were expelled or whether they withdrew themselves.

G.A. What happened with the writers who decided to stay?

R.V. Some writers stayed in Germany, for example Erich Kästner, a popular writer. He stood in the crowd watching his books being burnt by the Nazis. He went on what we call interior emigration, and kept publishing using pseudonyms. After the war, he later became President of the German PEN. In 1934 another German PEN Centre was founded: the German in Exile PEN. After the Second World War, some of the emigrants returned to Germany, either East or West, others remained in the countries where they had immigrated to. Others, like Thomas Mann, left the US during the McCarthy era and moved to Switzerland.

In 1948, the new German PEN was founded with the help of PEN International, the founding writers being mainly emigrants who were coming back. One of them was Anna Seghers, one of the two only women in the club, who moved to East Germany, the Russian zone, later to become the German Democratic Republic; Erich Kästner, who had stayed in the country, was there, and other writers from the three Western allied zones. The club consisted mainly of two groups, one in Berlin and one in Munich, since it was difficult to travel across Germany at that time.

G.A. How did the Cold War affect German PEN?

R.V. In 1951, this new PEN Club split because of the Cold War. In 1948, East Germany and the Federal Republic of West Germany were funded. For three years the two centers managed to negotiate. But PEN members in the Western zones would complain about the Eastern side not protesting against atrocities committed by the Soviet authorities. Berlin was also split in Western and Eastern sides. Many of the communist members were in East Berlin. But people in Munich didn’t like Communism very much, and this showed a trench between them. From 1951, there was an East German PEN Centre and a West German PEN Centre, the latter being called simply German PEN Centre, like nowadays.

I have been a member since 1997. I was accepted into PEN by the old Western German system, and this means that it was the board who decided who would join. We are still quite conservative in that sense: writers cannot apply for membership. A person needs two people testifying for them, and then the general assembly has to vote for their acceptance. The Eastern side considered that they had a more democratic system, because they had a genuine vote on who could become a member, while the Western side seemed to use a system based on decisions behind closed doors.

G.A. What happened with the unification of Germany?

R.V. After the wall collapsed in 1989, the two Germanies ‘reunited’ a year later. However, it took more time for the two PEN Centres to finally unite. There were a lot of debates, and also an ideological division. In the Western side, there were some renowned writers who had come from East Germany or Eastern parts of Europe, such as Herta Müller, the latter Nobel laureate, or the poet Günter Kunert. Naturally, the dissidents from the East did not want to be in the same Centre with the people who had been part of the Eastern German PEN and accordingly, maybe the system.

G.A. I understand that there are a many of German-speaking PEN Centres.

R.V. There are of course the Austrian as well as Suisse-German PEN-clubs. The former Writers in Exile PEN changed its name, they are now called German-Speaking Writers Abroad. There you can still find some old immigrants, who are sadly and slowly dying out, and then you have members of the second wave: the dissidents from the East who didn’t not want to be in one Centre with people who may have made compromises in East Germany.

G.A. How did you first hear about PEN International and when did you join?

R.V. I think I was asked to join German PEN in 1997 or 1998, shortly before the unification. It was a great honour for me, but it also took a while to feel at home in our club. It was rather dominated by men at the time. I knew about PEN´s work before that, of course. As a young student, I admired Heinrich Böll, rather more for his political engagement than for his books, I may say.

G.A. How did you join the board?

R.V. It took a while. Actually, it took a long time for me to dare speak up in our annual congresses. In 2012, I was asked by my predecessor whether I might consider putting up my candidacy in 2013. At that time, I was already engaged in a working committee preparing a declaration on author´s rights. In 2013, then, I was elected General Secretary, and Josef Haslinger was elected President.

G.A. Can you tell me about a special event in those early years?

R.V. In 2014, I organised an event commemorating 90 years after the founding of the first German PEN-club. We then published a resolution on Shelter in Europe. It was adopted by PEN International and other Centres, more than 1200 PEN members from different countries signed, and it was handed over in Brussels by a delegation led by John Ralston Saul. This is a Charter on Asylum in Europe, we demanded that the nations of Europe create common, humane laws of asylum that are not driven by national interests, but instead by a spirit of solidarity and a sense of responsibility.  It was one year before the influx of migration in autumn 2015. We were one year earlier than politicians, thanks to the initiative of our Honorary President, Günter Grass and Josef Haslinger. In 2014 we commemorated 90 years. In 2018, in Göttingen, we commemorated the founding of the new German PEN, 70 years ago. We had our congress in Göttingen, where the founding had taken place, halfway between Berlin and Munich.

G.A. Have you ever organised or participated in a joined event with the other German speaking PEN Centres?

R.V. Yes, for example, in 2014 the German-Speaking Writers Abroad celebrated 80 years and I was invited to participate in a panel discussion. We also collaborate on other issues, such as Writers in Prison issues, or perhaps literary events. On Oct. 5th, 2021, which happens to be the exact date of our Centenary, they are presenting the Ovid-Award to Wolf Biermann, and I have the honour to participate and say a few words.

G.A. Could a non-German join the German PEN?

R.V. Yes. Some years ago, I suggested Rosa Yassin Hassan, a Syrian writer who came as a political emigrant. I was new in the board, and somebody said it wasn’t possible because she didn’t speak German. The next year I was better prepared and showed them that it is not said in our constitution that all our members should use German for their writings. So finally, she joined the Centre. We also have Turkish Germans, Hungarian Germans, and others, and hopefully will be more diverse in the future than we used to be …

G.A. What are the challenges of your PEN Centre?

R.V. We have many. Some of them are shared with PEN International. The challenge is to transform this club idea into a 21st century NGO, with everything that this requires nowadays, while still remaining a literary club. Then we had another challenge deriving from the mood after the reunification of the two Centres. The younger – now middle-aged – generation was lacking. So, during these past years, since the time when Josef was the President and I was the Secretary, we have been taking in a lot of younger writers.

G.A. Are you planning on changing the membership rules?

R.V. No, not really. It might make sense, but on the other hand, it would be too much of a revolution. It was revolutionary enough to suggest 88 new members at the same time, while normally only around 10-20 are suggested. When you have 750 members, these things are not easy. May I add that German PEN has quite some reputation in Germany, and of course we want to keep and protect that.

G.A. How many of your members are truly active?

R.V. In the Congresses there are always about 100-120 people who sign up, and finally 80-100 present for the votes. I would say that around 150 participate in our Club evenings, including friends from our Supporters Circle. But we also get a lot of mails and feed-back by members who don’t attend our meetings.

G.A. What campaigns or programmes by German PEN are you most proud of?

R.V. We have this Writers in Exile programme, sponsored by the government. It is a programme like ICORN’s, but with our own scholarship programme. We sponsor writers for up to three years, in different German cities. It started 20 years ago and was founded in 1999 by our first State Secretary of Culture, Michael Naumann. Before going into politics, he had been Publisher of Rowohlt Publishing House and had been very active in the case of Salman Rushdie after the Fatwa, bringing together different publishing houses to publish the Satanic Verses and thus share the risk. But let me add, I am not “proud” of our programmes. I am grateful we can do them. It is a lot of work, but what we get back in return is invaluable: friendship with our international guests, so many truly wonderful and courageous people.

G.A. Can you tell me about writers who have taken part in this programme?

R.V. So far, we received about 60 guests from many different countries, so I can only name a few, like Pinar Selek and Asli Erdogan from Turkey, Ana Lilia Perez from Mexico, Enoh Meyomesse from Cameroon and Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu from Eritrea. Svetlana Alexijevitch was in our programme from 2008-2010. You can imagine how thrilled we were when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

G.A. How is Germany dealing with the rise of the right wing?

R.V. It’s a great challenge for the whole society and country of course, and it is no comfort that it is in other countries, too. Let me just concentrate on some of what we have done in German PEN. In 2017, we passed a resolution at our annual congress in Dortmund stating that those ideologies as represented by the AfD, the so-called Alternative for Germany-party, or movements like Pegida and others with their anti-refugee sentiments and slogans are not compatible with the PEN-Charta. After racist outbursts in Chemnitz in the summer of 2018, I wrote a resolution that we passed at the International Congress in Pune, condemning the rising number of attacks against journalists covering right-wing demonstrations in Germany. In Chemnitz, also several restaurants had been attacked in the context of those violent racist outbursts. When we met in Chemnitz for our annual congress in 2019, we did literary events in those restaurants to show our support.

G.A. Do you have any award for writers?

R.V. Yes, we do. We have an annual award in the name of Hermann Kesten who was an emigrant to the United States. He was very active trying to get visas for Jews and support emigrants from Nazi-Germany to the US. He was born in the Ukrainian Galicia and then moved to Nuremberg, before emigrating to the US. The Kesten-Award appreciates outstanding efforts in support of persecuted writers according to the principles of the Charter of PEN International. Among the people who have been awarded the Hermann Kesten-Award are Anna Politkovskaya, Liu Xiaobo, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül from Cumhyriet, Gioconda Belli and Philippe Lançon who survived the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

G.A. Could you tell us an anecdote?

R.V. I have already mentioned our petition “Protection for Refugees in Europe” which we started in November 2014. In April 2015, we wanted to hand it over with all 1200 or so signatures by European writers to representatives of the Federal Ministry of the Interior. It was obvious that the State Secretary who had to receive us did not like our petition too much – which was quite the opposite, by the way, to our reception by the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, in Brussels the following day. The atmosphere during our visit at the Federal Ministry was somewhat tense, even a bit aggressive on the other side. In this of all situations, my mobile phone started to ring. At that time, my signal was seagulls crying-out loud, and it sounded as if the seagulls were hiding in my bag underneath the table, mocking what the State Secretary of the Interior had just said. I decided to ignore the sound completely, but was quite embarrassed of course. After our visit, still in the lobby of the Ministry, I saw that it had been a phone call by a Public Broadcasting Station. They had just received the news that Günter Grass had died that morning and wanted to have an interview with me. Ever since then, I have the somewhat irrational thought that it was Günter Grass himself calling me in that situation. This was his resolution, and I like the thought that he was there with us that day, if only in our hearts and thoughts.