It must have been a very long time since a conference of the German PEN Center attracted such public interest as the one taking place this weekend in Gotha, Thuringia.
As a rule, the board of directors presents reports at these conferences, it is about its discharge or the election of new members, there are a few readings and podiums, and a new president is elected every few years – like last October “Welt” journalist Deniz Yücel.
It’s no different this time in Gotha, only the German PEN has gotten into serious turbulence in the last few months, basically since the election of Yücel. At the center of this turbulence is the new chairman and his management style, and in Gotha, after a motion signed by almost fifty members, a vote is taken on whether Yücel and with him the entire executive committee should be dismissed or remain in office.
And so, according to the “Deutscher Presseagentur” (dpa), the conference started on Friday morning in a “heated mood” and there were boos as soon as the welcome and the motions for management were made. A problem that initially occupied the general assembly and has already led to legal skirmishes: Some of the almost eight hundred members of PEN Germany do not have online access and cannot follow the discussions and therefore cannot vote. So it’s getting down to business. “In the best case,” says a Berlin writer who is taking part in the conference digitally, “the meeting can become interesting discourse theater.”
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 scene over Ukraine and military assistance from NATO (“Would be a good idea, wouldn’t it?” ).
Although Yücel was basically just following the slogan “For the word and freedom” that immediately catches the eye on the PEN website, 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 says.
However, in response to this 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 e-mail 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 addressed 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 the 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. Most of the PEN members must have been aware that with Yücel they did not elect a diplomatic functionary or an eminence grise as their head. But a journalist and non-fiction author who doesn’t mince his words, who is pointed and tongue-in-cheek (and who occasionally 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.
So the PEN has now found itself in a rather paradoxical situation: on the one hand, it hasn’t been that visible for a long time, it has its actual, self-imposed task, namely to help persecuted writers (not least through the “Writers-in-Exile ’ programme), experienced a lot of resonance and attention.
On the other hand, the reputation of PEN could be damaged by these public disputes, especially if Deniz Yücel were to be voted out of office after six months in office. However, there are also many PEN members who are behind Yücel, for example Daniel Kehlmann, and they submitted a motion signed by more than 60 authors for the Gotha conference, which expressly calls for the Presidium 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.