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A typewriter on a table
For the last 100 years, PEN has been championing freedom of speechImage: STPP/imago images

PEN celebrates its 100th anniversary

Stefan Dege
October 4, 2021

The writers association has long championed human rights, whether in Belarus or Nazi Germany. A new publication commemorates the 100 years since its founding on October 5, 1921.


Suppressing freedom of expression of the written word has been a hallmark of numerous regimes throughout history — whether in countries such as China, Turkey and Iran today or the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany in the past. Writers often face persecution, imprisonment and even death in such countries.

One organization has notably made it part of its mission to provide support for such freedom fighters. Celebrating its 100th anniversary on Tuesday, the writers association PEN International has been providing a safe haven for persecuted authors and championing literary freedom for a century.

"One hundred years of PEN is an occasion to celebrate, as well as to pause, to remember and to mourn," Regula Venske, the president of the German PEN Center, told DW.

The fact that writers are still persecuted worldwide means that support is needed now more than ever. "The word is the weapon that rulers in authoritarian regimes around the world fear most," Venske said. "The first to be arrested are always the writers and journalists." Many brave women and men have supported human rights and paid with their lives, she points out.

A portrait of Regula Venske at a microphone, smiling.
President of the German PEN association Regula VenskeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt

In Germany, where the situation is more peaceful, Venske said, literature has slipped somewhat into the entertainment realm and is an after-work pastime. However, she points out that "the written word is elemental to supporting freedom, truth and human coexistence, in general. That's what it's all about."

A chart that shows the number of attacks on writers based on the country.
This chart shows attacks on writers in 2018, compiled by PEN

Humble beginnings

PEN stands for "Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Editors, Novelists." It was founded in England in 1921, as a literary circle of friends.

One of the primary organizers was English writer Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, who gathered 40 like-minded people for a founding dinner in a London restaurant on October 5, 1921. During the meal, PEN's first president, John Galsworthy, made a toast in which he said that writers saw themselves as the "trustees of human nature," but that literary culture must stay out of politics. It was the only way, he argued, that PEN could secure its independence.

Within a year, new PEN centers sprang up in Paris, New York, Brussels, Oslo, Barcelona and Stockholm.

By the end of the decade, PEN had more than 40 clubs with over 3,000 members in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, South and North America. The London club acted as a hub, while international conferences were held in different locations around the world. A monthly newsletter provided information about the latest happenings.

A black and white portrait of Ernst Toller.
Jewish-German writer Ernst Toller was among those who encouraged PEN to stand up to the NazisImage: picture-alliance/dpa

PEN against the Nazis

By the mid-1930s, PEN had grown far beyond the borders of Europe and included centers in Johannesburg and Cape Town, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Beijing, La Paz, Baghdad and Tokyo, among other locations. A non-territorial Yiddish PEN emerged with centers in New York, Warsaw and Vilnius.

In its "Appeal to All Governments," PEN first called on rulers in 1931 to respect the "rights of authors imprisoned for religious or political reasons." Further appeals followed, and they were increasingly political in nature.

When the National Socialists took power in Germany, PEN took a stand, triggered by the increasingly harsh persecution of writers, and the censorship and burning of books. At the PEN congress in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in May 1933, Jewish author Ernst Toller, by then living in exile, took the floor and spoke about the consequences of Nazi rule.

A sign reading
PEN organized a 2017 protest in Berlin for filmmaker Oleg Sentzov who was imprisoned in RussiaImage: picture alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

He mentioned the names of 60 writers whose books had been burned in Berlin two weeks earlier. "Millions of people in Germany are not allowed to speak freely and write freely," Toller said. "The gentlemen invoke the great German spirits," he said, referring to famous German authors used by the Nazis for their propaganda purposes. "But how are the intellectual demands of Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Herder, Wieland and Lessing compatible with the persecution of millions of people?" he continued.

"Let us not deceive ourselves," Toller said. "These politicians only tolerate us, then persecute us when we become inconvenient. The voice of truth has never been comfortable."

A black and white portrait of Erich Kästner smoking and holding a newspaper.
The PEN association has a long history in Germany, where writer Erich Kästner was a former PEN Germany presidentImage: picture-alliance/Georg Goebel

A global reach

With the Canby Resolution of (1933), PEN condemned "persecution on the grounds of racial prejudice," while the so-called "Raymond Resolution" of 1934 demanded the right to freedom of expression for all exiled authors. In 1948, PEN created a charter with clear goals analogous to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "Literature knows no frontiers" it states, "and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals."

The protection of freedom of art and of expression around the word are still the most important demands of the PEN Charter today.

In the meantime, PEN has become the world's largest literary network, with locations in more than 100 countries. It is still considered to be one of the most important human rights organizations working internationally.

Notable writers PEN has championed include Federico Garcia Lorca, Stefan ZweigWole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Anna Politkovskaya, Hrant Dink and Svetlana Alexievich.

Svetlana Alexievic smiles as she walks through a door.
Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich is among the authors PEN has assistedImage: picture-alliance/AP/TUT

Today, PEN maintains several committees for its work. The Writers in Prison committee, for example, campaigns for the release of persecuted authors, publishers, editors, illustrators and journalists. The Writers in Exile scholarship program supports writers who are persecuted in their home countries.

An informative publication about the eventful history of PEN was published in Germany, as well as in several other countries, just in time for the organisation's 100th anniversary.

Titled "Pen International: An Illustrated History," the book contains previously unpublished material and includes photos, notes and manuscripts.

"The freedom of the word is not something you fight for once to win forever," the book quotes German writer Juli Zeh. "It is an eternal struggle for the foundations of human togetherness. What task could be more honorable for us writers!"

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