It must have been a long time since a conference of the German PEN center aroused such public interest as the one taking place this Friday and at the weekend in Gotha, Thuringia.
As a rule, the board of directors presents reports at these conferences, it is about its discharge, about the election of new members, there are a few readings and podiums, and every few years a new president is elected – like in the last October, the “Welt” journalist Deniz Yücel.
It’s no different this time in Gotha, only the German PEN has gotten into serious turbulence in recent months, basically since the election of Yücel. At the center of this turbulence is the new chairman and his management style, and in Gotha on Friday, after a motion signed by almost fifty members, a vote was taken on whether Deniz Yücel and with him the entire executive committee should be removed or remain in office.
Yes, and the turbulence continued in Gotha: Shortly after 7 p.m., the PEN members decided by a narrow majority that Yücel should remain president, and Secretary General Peuckmann also received a majority (treasurer Joachim Helfer, on the other hand, did not). Half an hour later, Deniz Yücel resigned and immediately left PEN, screaming, as they say, offended that he wanted nothing more to do with PEN’s “Bratwurst-ness”. The meeting ended immediately afterwards.
According to dpa, the conference had already started on Friday morning in a “heated mood”, and there were said to have been boos as soon as the welcome and the motions for management were made. A problem that initially occupied the general meeting and led to the first legal skirmishes: some of the almost eight hundred members of PEN Germany do not have online access and were unable to follow the discussions and therefore could not vote. So it went straight to the point. “In the best case,” said a Berlin writer who is taking part in the conference digitally, “the meeting can become interesting discourse theater.” And it became more: great theatre, a great soap.
The dispute within the association became public after Yücel spoke out on a podium in Cologne during lit.cologne in mid-March for a no-fly zone over Ukraine and military support for the country from NATO (“Wouldn’t be a good idea, or?”).
Although Yücel basically only followed the catchy slogan on the PEN website “For the word and freedom”, his words angered four former PEN presidents and his predecessor Regula Venske. They demanded the President’s resignation because, in their opinion, he had violated the charter of the international PEN with these “public military-strategic statements”, against the “ideal of a humanity living in peace”, as the charter states.
However, in response to the demand for his resignation, Yücel tweeted, among other things, that “this dispute is (also/actually) about completely different things,” and these other things then became public knowledge in the form of email correspondence that received various media. Accordingly, Yücel has described other PEN members he does not like as “elephant in the room”, “hippos” or “silverback” (which in the latter case seems almost funny, as he is on the way to becoming one himself) ; he is accused of “bullying” and “cunning”, as one could see in a “FAZ” article by PEN member and Yücel opponent Petra Reski. And so, as the “Spiegel” reported, he is said to have taken legal action against Reski and another PEN member who did not like him because of their critical statements about him and threatened to issue a warning.
On the other hand, Yücel was also attacked very badly in the e-mails as “one of the many puppets of the Springer press”, as someone who was carried into office by a “pity effect for the injustice suffered in Turkish imprisonment.” Tough bandages, then; but also a lot of small things, a lot of club cheating, communication that was disturbed in any case. With allegations like the one above, one wonders how Yücel, who has only been a PEN member since 2019, was even able to be elected chairman with an overwhelming majority at the time.
In fact, after spending a year in Turkish custody, he could be described as the most authentic PEN president in a long time. The majority of PEN members must have been aware that in Yücel they did not elect a diplomatic functionary, an eminence grise or a stubborn bureaucrat to head them. But a journalist and non-fiction author who doesn’t mince his words, who is pointed and tongue-in-cheek (and who sometimes goes wrong or angers some people), and who ensures the extra visibility that PEN gets with its secretly wished for a choice.
Yücel may not be a poet, essayist or novelist, as the PEN abbreviations are written out, but his name and his vita are known to a broad public.
Unlike, for example, those of Regula Venske or Johanno Strasser, his two predecessors. One could not spontaneously name a novel title or other conspicuous cultural achievements from them; different from that of the current General Secretary Heinrich Peuckmann, another opponent of Yücel. According to the PEN website, Peuckmann writes novels and short stories. Poems, radio plays and essays and most recently published the thriller “Nach Abpfiff Mord” and the Ruhrpott family novel “Saitenwechsel”.
The PEN has now found itself in a rather paradoxical situation: on the one hand, it has not been so visible for a long time, it has its actual, self-imposed task, namely to help persecuted writers (not least through the “Writers-in-Exile” funded by the federal government program), experienced a lot of resonance and attention.
On the other hand, the reputation of PEN could be damaged by the public disputes, especially if Deniz Yücel were to be voted out of office after only six months in office. However, there are also many PEN members who stand behind Yücel, for example Daniel Kehlmann. For the conference in Gotha, a motion signed by more than sixty authors was submitted for a vote, which explicitly calls for the presidency to remain.
The meeting in Gotha gets something of a showdown that seems to be completely open. And after which further questions immediately arise. Because if the Presidency really has to resign after the vote, a simple majority would suffice: who will follow Deniz Yücel? And vice versa: How many PEN members will leave if Yücel stays? Which probably again would hardly happen without Aplomb.
In view of the tense world situation, which makes its work for writers all the more urgent, a peace treaty in Gotha would only be desirable, especially in terms of PEN’s tasks.