"Interference Desired": Heinrich Böll and his PEN Presidency 1970 to 1974


Fifty years ago, Heinrich Böll's article "A Plea for Meddling" appeared in the New York Times. In it, Böll pleaded to intervene in all countries of the world when it comes to helping political prisoners and securing their release. Over the years, the text has become a special document for global human rights engagement. Böll's demands are still valid today. This is one of the reasons why the Heinrich Böll Foundation adopted a quote from the article as the motto of its work when it was founded: "Intervention is the only way to remain realistic."

Zeichnung von Heinrich Böll vor einem grünen Hintergrund
This is an automatically translated article.
Translated with DeepL.
Original language: Deutsch

50 years ago, on February 18, 1973, the text "Interference Desired" appeared in English in the New York Times under the title "A Plea for Meddling". With this text, Böll contradicted the view that global détente, which was evident in the flourishing economic relations between the power blocs in East and West, would have positive effects on the observance of human rights. In this text, Böll names systems and states, organizations and institutions, perpetrators and victims. The increasing persecution of writers and intellectuals around the world provoked Böll to demand that the "hypocritical concept" of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states be abandoned. Böll was aware that this demand would be dismissed by politicians as idealistic reverie. Nevertheless, he stuck to his idea:


"We authors are born meddlers, we interfere [...]. That sounds idealistic, but it is not. Interference is the only way to remain realistic".


Herbert Mitgang, an associate editor of The New York Times, had contacted Heinrich Böll, who was then president of International PEN, through the American PEN Club to ask him to write an essay on the state of human rights worldwide for his newspaper.

Böll and the PEN

Heinrich Böll was already aware immediately after the war in May 1945 that no democratic society could emerge "overnight" from a National Socialist dictatorship. He observed the developments of the Adenauer government with suspicion. He was appalled by the lax treatment of war criminals, the favoritism shown to shareholders in the currency reform, and the lack of awareness of the need to come to terms with the past. As an unknown writer, he did not have the forum to make socially relevant issues a factor in shaping public opinion with essays or articles in literary and cultural magazines. Instead, far removed from the "routine political language" of politics, Böll formulated his criticism of the unsatisfactory developments in society in his stories and especially in his satires. Seen in this light, "Einmischung erwünscht" can be read as a formula for Böll's writerly self-image. "Interference" was not a natural and indispensable prerequisite for a functioning democracy in all social groups in the postwar period, but was rather dismissed as querulousness. For Böll, however, "interference" had always been an impulse for writing, as he wanted to question existing structures and put them up for discussion in order to bring about change.

Heinrich Böll was elected to the German PEN Club in May 1955 at the general assembly in Darmstadt, along with nine other candidates. In the 1950s and 1960s, he established contacts with authors and intellectuals during his visits abroad (France, the Netherlands, Poland, the Soviet Union, Greece, and Israel) and tried, within the limits of his private means, to help fellow writers in need. Above all, Böll's stay in Prague in August 1968 during the invasion, his reporting on it, and his concern for his fellow writers made him a credible authority. In an interview with Wolfgang Ignée, published under the title "Reist Böll für Deutschland? Kulturpolitik im Meinungsstreit" (Cultural Politics in a Conflict of Opinion), which appeared in the Stuttgarter Zeitung on April 26th, 1971, he speaks at length about his contacts abroad and the manageable possibilities of influencing the reprisals against his fellow writers.

Throughout his life, Böll was committed to the interests of writers in the Federal Republic, as for example in the founding of the Association of German Writers (VS). For example, at the founding meeting of the association on June 8, 1969, he gave a speech entitled "End of Modesty," in which he advocated better working conditions, adequate financial compensation and security for authors and writers. He also spoke at the Amnesty International rally in Wuppertal on January 11, 1970, about political prisoners and was concerned for their families:


"It is considered indelicate to interfere in the domestic politics of other countries, even to criticize them. But I believe that the integrity of domestic politics in this sense has long since ceased to exist. The ramparts have to be jumped over and breached, and Amnesty International has begun not only to report but also to assist political prisoners and their families or survivors."


For Böll, human rights were non-negotiable, and he was willing to leave no stone unturned to help cases known to him of imprisoned or harassed people and their families.

Böll's reputation in sociopolitical and moral matters and his commitment ultimately led to the wish of some fellow writers that he should apply for the presidency of the West German PEN after all. So it was only a matter of time before Böll announced his candidacy for president of the West German PEN and was elected president on April 17, 1970.

Böll paid particular attention to the principles of the International PEN and its charter. According to this, literature knows no borders and must remain a currency common to all people, even in times of domestic or international upheaval.

Accordingly, PEN stands for the principle of an unhindered exchange of ideas within each nation and between all nations. Thus, its members are obliged to oppose any kind of suppression of the freedom of expression. For PEN is of the opinion that the necessary progress in the world towards a more highly organized political and economic order makes free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative; but this also includes the press.

Even before his election, he had already agreed to give a lecture on the content of the PEN Charter. In a letter of June 6, 1970 to the Dutch PEN Secretary General Otto Dijk, he explicitly commented on the PEN Charter:


"I think there is little point in our meeting in Holland in concealing the fact that our colleagues in the various PEN's of the socialist countries actually no longer observe the Charter, and we should talk about whether one can demand that they observe it, whether one behaves diplomatically or rigorously toward them. I am happy to make a short presentation on this subject, and I think your idea of making the PEN Charter the subject of the meeting is very good."


Böll gave the short paper, which was published under the title "We must not be a veterans' club" in the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung of September 26, 1970, at the German-Dutch PEN meeting in Arnhem on September 18, 1970.


"What cannot be read out of the charter at all is the interpretation of PEN as an exclusively sociable club that has to cultivate sociability and backslapping - and not even this, sociability, is cultivated. If one reads the charter carefully, it contains [...] much call for political activity and vigilance. [...] If I once again avis the summation of the potential of influence of each individual PEN member - and suggest you to look at how little is started with this potential - I think this difference is one of the reasons for all our discomfort."


On April 17th, 1970, Böll was elected president of the West German PEN Center. His first official acts included a statement distancing himself from the Oberammergau Passion Plays, which had repeatedly been subjected to fierce criticism because of their anti-Semitic tendencies, a dispute with Saarländischer Rundfunk regarding the summary dismissal of literary editor Arnfrid Astel, and a more intensive engagement with Ulrich Sonnemann's study critical of the judiciary, "Der bundesdeutsche Dreyfus-Skandal," which was banned by the Bavarian judiciary in 1970. Together with the Association of German Writers, PEN organized a reading on September 26th, 1970, during the Frankfurt Book Fair of new works by some Czechoslovak authors who were unable to come to the Book Fair because of the repression in their own country. Böll expressed in his short introductory speech, published under the title "Gesichtskosmetik der Großmächte ein teurer Spaß!" in Luzerner Neueste Nachrichten of November 28th, 1970, that one should not remain neutral and passive in the face of human rights violations, but intervene wherever intellectuals are endangered:


"Meanwhile, a nice word has been found for what is going on in Czechoslovakia: normalization. It is just another word for calm and order, and the calmest and most orderly people are those who lie in the coffin cleanly washed and dressed in a snow-white shroud. Normalization is like a prescribed suffocation process, and East and West can look each other in the preserved faces with reassurance."


On April 19th, 1971, Die Welt, on the occasion of the annual meeting of the German PEN Club in April 1971 in Nuremberg, stated under the headline "End of the Teatime Era" that the PEN Club had become more political and quoted Heinrich Böll as saying "If you read the PEN Charter, you have to conclude that the PEN Club can't be political enough." At this meeting it was decided to elect a permanent committee critical of justice, which should accompany the development of jurisprudence with political content or background. "The occasion for this decision were concrete abuses from the field of legal-political practice in recent times. It was recalled very different treatment of a number of cases, arousing the suspicion of the bending of the law. On the one hand, PEN members were outraged by the stifling of judicial criticism in the Sonnemann-Strauß case, the dismissal of Beate Klarsfeld's appeal for imprisonment, the verdict against Fritz Teufel that degenerated into an act of revenge, and the formal legal protection for the reactionary attacks of a Kurt Ziesel against authors such as Luise Rinser, Bernt Engelmann and Günter Grass. On the other hand, the criticism of the meeting was directed against the incomprehensible magnanimity of the judiciary towards violent criminals and desk criminals of the NS," according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung of April 19th, 1971.

For Böll it was important that every writing PEN member should become aware of his socio-political responsibility in a world that was divided into two political and ideological camps, and in addition knew the problem of racial discrimination and the material need in the developing countries. In his contribution "Why do we write?" Böll expressed himself at the congress of the International PEN from May 7th to 12th, 1971, in Piran, then Yugoslavia, now Slovenia:


"There is no authorship without social impact, even if the author himself denies it. In my opinion, he himself is simply not asked. Every published line, even one typed or passed around by hand merely among friends, is a social action because it is present, and the present is what is demanded of us. [...] What literature needs is face, material, and actuality. It does not need freedom, it is freedom. It can be deprived of the freedom to be published, to be printed, but presence does not depend on official publication. [...] Many restrictions exist, even in societies without censorship, such as commercial restrictions. Concentration in publishing results in a kind of commercial censorship. Even in a society without an official censorship, an author will notice if he crosses borders - borders without a name - without a passport. He will notice if he goes too far because he will be shot at; how far he is allowed to go or how far he should have gone, no one can predict. He has to go too far to find out how far he can go."


At this meeting Heinrich Böll and his diplomatic skills showed in a German-German issue and in a dispute between the PEN centers from Israel and Lebanon. In the reports of this meeting, Heinrich Böll was mentioned for the first time as a candidate for the office of President of International PEN. This meeting prompted the Austrian writer and literary critic Robert Neumann to write a report that appeared in Die Zeit on May 21st, 1971, under the title "My Candidate: H. Böll." The Dutch center nominated Heinrich Böll as candidate for the international presidency, and several centers (Austria, USA, Federal Republic of Germany and GDR) supported this proposal. According to the statutes, the 'actual' election of the new president had to take place at the PEN Congress in Dublin on September 13th, 1971. After counting the votes from a total of 45 countries, the election was in favor of Heinrich Böll by 22 votes to 19 (with four invalid votes). Helmut M. Braem reports for the Stuttgarter Zeitung on September 14th, 1971:


"It is true that Heinrich Böll's election is mainly due to the great reputation he enjoys in many countries; but it is also always emphasized in discussions among the participants that Böll's election has a political significance. [...] According to Kamnitzer [President of the PEN Center of the GDR], Böll at the head of International PEN guarantees a literary world community that transcends ideological boundaries."


In his speech "The International Nation," Böll emphasized that PEN would act independently of political and diplomatic agreements. He was concerned in this speech with internationality and not with neutrality.


"If you ask me whether PEN has a political dimension, I would simply refer you to the Charter. You will find everything there. The question of the political dimension brings us to the question of resolutions. We have all grown tired of them, sometimes we even get bored of them, because we feel that we are simply relieving our guilty conscience by drafting a text and sending it to the government or person in question. I think we tend to either underestimate or overestimate our potential impact. It's mainly a question of finding the right moment, and if every sixth or seventh resolution, delivered at the right time and in the right place, saves someone a few months in jail, anyone who has ever been imprisoned will know what that means. I don't just suspect, I know: people have been saved by resolutions, not just from prison, but from death. To make resolutions effective, we must keep in mind what the very spirit of PEN is: its international character. To be international means to act independently of the political or diplomatic agreements of the great powers. When great powers and nations agree not to interfere in their domestic politics, there is a kind of permanent blackmail going on. All of them have a guilty conscience somewhere, which can easily be exploited to make them keep quiet under the pretext of politeness. International PEN should not participate in this kind of blackmail. It is easy for politicians to accuse writers' organizations of their ineffectiveness if they, who have the power, do not use it to make humanity more than a mere phrase. And what is true of political powers is also true of economic ones. I've never heard of a steel company offering a discount for the release of a writer in prison - or, just as necessary - for the release of a captured bus conductor."

Against the excesses of the free press

Böll experienced how difficult it can be to give effect to the PEN Charter in January 1972. One point in the charter is that PEN members pledge,


"to counteract excesses of a free press, such as untruthful publications, deliberate lying and distortion of facts, undertaken for political and personal ends."


Böll had been grappling with this passage of the charter for some time, and he sought a public debate on the concentration of power of the Springer publishing house and on the methods of manipulation. The occasion was a front-page story in the Bild newspaper on December 23rd, 1971, which led to Böll's first comment on terrorism in Der Spiegel on January 10th, 1972. Under the title "Does Ulrike Want Mercy or Free Escort?" he argued not for the group around Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, but against the reporting of the Bild-Zeitung, which in Böll's perception called for lynch law. He was aware that he would polarize with this text, and as expected, the Springer newspapers Bild and Welt commented on Heinrich Böll's article the next day. But shortly after publication, it became clear that the article, which was clearly directed against the Bild newspaper, was reinterpreted as one for Ulrike Meinhof and had a strong impact on the public perception of Heinrich Böll in 1972 in particular and for the next few years.

On the same day of the Spiegel publication, Böll, as president of the international PEN, commented in the political magazine Panorama on the condemnation of the Soviet writer and dissident Vladimir Bukovsky. He could not, he argued in the program, make any public statements without consulting International PEN and its committees. It would also first have to be examined whether Bukovsky's situation could be improved in other ways. The appearance of the Spiegel article and Böll's television appearance on the same day was a mere coincidence, but in the further course of the dispute it was to be combined into the narrative that Böll, while standing up for the defense of the terrorists, denied the dissidents in the Soviet Union any form of support. On January 16, 1972, Hans Habe demanded in the Welt am Sonntag under the title "Treten Sie ab, Herr Böll:


"Böll, a mixture of Albert Schweitzer, Schwejk and Fritz Teufel, plays the role of the Biedermann, partly of the arsonist. [...] It had become 'urgent', Böll said in London, for PEN to take a stand on environmental pollution. But Moscow's Western darling, who, as the Americans would say, poses as a 'goodie-goodie', as a Hans-welfare-in-every-street, wants to know nothing about the intellectual pollution of the Soviets. [...] Siberia is a cold zone, it leaves him cold. But the president can do other things as well. He already has a few tears left, the best-selling author who has been praised as a Western bogeyman, and he sheds them in the Monopol news magazine for Ulrike Meinhof. [...] The international president represents the freedom of the terrorist Meinhof. He does not represent the freedom of the intellectual Bukowski. [...] Fascism would be if President Böll remained at his post."


The disputes on this subject, not only in the press but on many levels of society and even in the German Bundestag, seemed to be one of the reasons for Böll not to run again for president of the German PEN. The annual meeting of the PEN Center in Dortmund from April 6th to 8th, 1972, was his last as president. The Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger of April 10th, 1972 quoted Böll:


"He expressly emphasized that he was not resigning; 'I'm just not running again.' But there can be no doubt that it was not only because of work overload from his activities as international PEN president, but also because of the incidents in the last weeks and months that he did not run again."


Böll, however, continued to be involved in German PEN. As president of International PEN, he organized the regular annual meeting, which was held at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin from November 13th-18th, 1972. This meeting was to have been held in Manila (Philippines) in 1972, but was cancelled by the Philippine government because of the natural disasters there. Böll approached Chancellor Brandt with a request for support for the conference, which had been moved to West Berlin at short notice by the presidium of International PEN. Willy Brandt replied to him on August 24th, 1972:


"I am answering only today, because first of all a result of the efforts of Mr. Federal Minister Genscher and the Land Berlin had to be awaited. As Mr. Genscher has now informed me, the Federal Ministry of the Interior and the State of Berlin will jointly provide a subsidy of up to about DM 150,000."


The special status of West Berlin as a meeting place posed a problem for the two German PEN centers. Heinrich Böll would have liked to organize the events in East and West Berlin with both German PEN centers, but, according to the Frankfurter Rundschau of September 29, 1972, "unfortunately we were turned down." One of his first official acts was the implementation of a resolution providing for close cooperation between the "Foundation PEN Emergency Fund" established by the Dutch PEN Center and the "Writers in Prison" Committee of International PEN. With these funds, it was possible to provide financial support to persecuted or imprisoned writers and their families, in the spirit of direct and practical international solidarity.

"The volume is not prescribed"

On January 19th, 1973, Heinrich Böll responded in Die Zeit to an open letter by Eugen Kogon entitled "Protesting - would you rather be loud or quiet? On the Most Useful Form of Moral Action."


"The problem of volume is beside the point if one decides to intervene and rejects acting out. It is the charter, the constitution of PEN, which obliges to interfere, and I see no other way of credibility than to start interfering in one's own camp. Then no more offsetting [...] is possible. That would be the sense of the International Committee 'Writers in Prison' in PEN. Admittedly: a distant goal. Not utopian, but distant. I hope that my colleagues and friends in the socialist countries will one day carry out what they have long understood: That their and our freedom [...] is indeed indivisible, that they must then first stand by their colleagues in the USSR and the CSSR, in a way that we may not be able to determine here. The in the long run senseless, almost automatic procedure that some speak out for socialists in Brazil, others for detainees in the USSR, is not worth more than the international hypocritical practice of non-interference practiced by politicians. [...] PEN's charter would oblige any potential Soviet member of PEN to speak up for Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky and others. The volume is not prescribed."


He expressed himself in the same spirit, as I said, in the essay "Interference Desired," published in the New York Times on February 18th, 1973:


"We writers are born meddlers; we meddle in the jurisprudence and cultural politics of the Soviet Union, the CSSR, Spain, Indonesia, Brazil, and Portugal [...]. We will also interfere in the People's Republic of China, in Cuba and in Mexico. This sounds idealistic, but it is not. Interference is the only way to remain realistic. Our Czech friends, who do not give an inch, are not idealists, they are realists, because they know very well that spiritual terrain is occupied even faster and more definitively than geographical terrain."


In May 1974, Böll took leave from the position of International President; however, he was elected one of the Vice Presidents of International PEN. In his farewell speech, published under the title "A Good Model" in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of May 20th, 1974, he summed up:


"Now a few words about the PEN Club. You know that I shy away from long-winded explanations - that they are not my thing. I don't want to draw up a balance sheet here, nor do I want to give an account of the club; others may try to do that. So let us confine ourselves to stating what we have not succeeded in doing. We have not succeeded - which would actually be the task of an international writers' organization with an unambiguous charter - in establishing, in terms of journalism, even a halfway fair proportion between the persecuted, censored, suppressed colleagues within the various political systems."

"A Literature of Bad Conscience"

Böll's last participation in a meeting of the International PEN Club was in Jerusalem from December 15th to 20th, 1974, with the theme: "Cultural Heritage and the Creative Force in the Literature of Our Time." Heinrich Böll, as vice-president, in the presence of President Efraim Katzir and Prime Minister Izchak Rabin, gave the opening speech of the event entitled "I am a German". He began his speech:


"If one day a name will be sought for our century, it will probably be called the century of the displaced and the prisoners, and if one will then begin to record the displaced and prisoners - worldwide, of course - in their numbers, one will arrive at a number of people with whom one could have populated entire continents. Truly a century of records."


Böll mentioned in his speech that migration of peoples was always also displacement of peoples; thus, indirectly, the Arab question and the problem of Israel's existence became the theme of the conference already on the first evening:


"And there is another cruel condition, that he who knows displacement and the fear of it, gets into the cruel compulsion to displace others, in the search for a new homeland puts others into that condition from which he has just escaped. Völkerwanderung, that sounds so friendly, because wandering and migration are such peaceful words, words. In truth, the migration of peoples was always displacement of peoples, it was never without violence, there was deported, dragged along, left behind, climatic-geological or political shifts were always the cause - and this dream of the peoples who wanted to get out of the night and fog of the north into the southern sun. And what did the displaced, who displaced others, bring with them: their god, their gods, their idols and their language."


This passage in particular was resented by the Israeli side at the time and commented on in glosses, for example in the newspaper Yediot Acharonoth under the title "You too, Brutus?"; one believed to be able to recognize in it a hidden criticism of the Israeli settlement policy, if not more. Erich Gottgetreu, editor of Israel-Nachrichten, wrote an open letter to Heinrich Böll on January 10th, 1975, under the title "Have we Israelis become 'expellees'". This open letter is primarily concerned with the passage in Böll's speech in which Böll always considers the migration of peoples to be a displacement of peoples as well, and the implied question of "Zionist guilt or innocence in the as yet unsolved Arab-Palestinian refugee problem," as Erich Gottgetreu explained in an accompanying letter two days later. On February 7th, 1975, Heinrich Böll's response to the open letter appeared in Israel News. The letter to the editor was introduced by an explanation of the circumstances of Böll's speech. :


"When I wrote down the formulation you quoted and later uttered it in Jerusalem, I was indeed not thinking of Israel at all; what I wanted to find when I wrote the speech was a formulation that could have covered the cruel law inherent in all expulsions of peoples, migrations of peoples and movements of peoples; a formulation that would also have hinted at the tragedy of such movements without addressing the question of guilt. But now, through your letter and other reactions, this quotation has been directly related to Israel, and I do not want to avoid the problem by simply saying that I did not 'mean' it that way. I didn't mean it that way, and yet it now takes on this meaning that you and others give to the quote, and I therefore want to accept this meaning. [...] I would never presume to address or pronounce conflicts and tensions that are expressed and carried out in the country itself, in Israel, as foreigners. The same applies to the Arab countries; I only wish that there too there was this 'suffering' from circumstances that you mentioned, and a literature of bad conscience."


On February 9th, 1975, Erich Gottgetreu wrote to Heinrich Böll that Heinrich Böll's lecture, the rejoinder to the controversial paragraph, and Böll's replica had served to clarify the painful subject and that this was important enough.

Heinrich Böll was committed to the work of International PEN and especially to the Writers in Prison Committee until the end of his life, although not in a position of responsibility. In an obituary on Heinrich Böll's death in 1985, the then president of International PEN, the Swedish writer Per Wästberg, formulated:


"As president of PEN he was very committed, at the same time he was hair-raisingly clueless in administrative matters. He listened to discussions with unheard-of patience and was free of that egocentricity one often finds in writers. [...] For several decades Heinrich Böll was the clearest and most warning voice of his country. 'Interference wanted' is the name of one of his texts. He refused to stand outside, he interfered and took a stand with his tireless, gently burning energy, which lasted until the end."