#100PENMembers No. 33: Arthur Koestler

PEN’s campaign to get Arthur Koestler freed from prison in 1937 was its first real writers in prison success story.  

Rene Saint Paul/RDA/Everett Collection

Koestler, who was to become one of the twentieth century’s most famous ex-Communist anti-Communists, was a member of the Communist Party from 1931. He went to Spain in 1936, and 1937 on the direct instructions of Willi Münzenberg, head of Soviet covert operations in Europe, to report on Franco’s activities. He revealed that Franco was receiving direct assistance from both Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Koestler was arrested and thrown in prison in Seville from February to May, 1937, under sentence of death.

Lobbied by a group including Koestler’s wife, PEN joined both the British government, a number of establishment figures such as Lady Astor and the Archbishop of Westminster, and other organisations, in campaigning for Koestler’s release. Disingenuously claiming he was a ‘liberal’ journalist whose free speech rights should be respected, they wrote high-profile letters to the press, and also directly to Franco himself, stipulating their apolitical stance as an organisation, and mentioning the ‘immemorial rights of press correspondents’. Koestler’s release was widely publicised in the British press, under headings such as ‘Imprisonment of Journalist: P.E.N. Cable to Franco’, and the organisation thereby received a welcome burst of publicity. 

Koestler was incredibly grateful. After his release he arrived in London and immediately wrote to PEN. Their actions on his behalf, and in defence of free expression of ‘opinion’, were what he called the ‘life-blood of democracy and humanity’. 

Koestler did not forget his debt to PEN. He became a lifelong member of the organisation from 1937, and also established a PEN ‘Koestler Fund’, which was used to support exiled writers. 

He was, however, to be one of the organisation’s most controversial and critical figures. A year after his imprisonment, Koestler left the Communist Party, and became one of its most high-profile critics, particularly of their suppression of free speech and literary expression. 

While he continued to acknowledge his debts to PEN, writing, for instance, in 1941, to E.M. Forster about his ‘repeated thanks to Mr Ould […] for all of his kind actions in the past, in connection with my unpleasant adventures in various countries of the Continent’, he was also critical of what he saw as PEN’s lacklustre approach to the suppression of free speech in Communist countries, particularly among those with PEN Centres. He wrote to International Secretary Hermon Ould in 1950, for instance, stating that the reason for his estrangement from PEN ‘is to be found in this kind of neutrality towards the most grotesque and dreadful persecution of art, science and literature, from geneticists and musicians to circus clowns [in Communist countries]’.

In 1958, Koestler’s forthright anti-Communist stance caused a highly publicised rift in PEN. He pulled out of a planned address to the Japanese PEN Club stating publicly that this was because of their refusal to condemn the treatment of Boris Pasternak by the Soviet authorities. 

Pasternak had been awarded that year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, partly because of his novel, Doctor Zhivago, which had been banned by the Russian Authorities but smuggled out of the country and published to wide acclaim elsewhere. Pasternak had been forced to refuse to accept the award, causing widespread condemnation among PEN members and letters and petitions of support. 

Alongside this support, however, the organisation often stopped short of criticising Soviet policy and alienating its Eastern bloc members in an attempt to be politically neutral. The Japanese PEN, in this instance, released a statement stating that they had no definite opinion on the Pasternak case, having not read Doctor Zhivago as it had not yet been published in Japan,  but that they thought the incident ‘regrettable’.

The enraged Koestler protested that Japanese PEN seemed more willing to condemn the Swedish Academy for awarding Pasternak the prize than the Russian authorities for censoring him. 

He spelled out the situation in very direct terms: ‘when one of the prominent members of their “international fraternity” had been deprived of the right of freedom of expression, and hounded and besmirched in a manner rarely paralleled in history, his colleagues in Japan had issued a statement which, when read carefully, put more blame on the defenders of the victim than on his persecutors.’

Japanese PEN rejected Koestler’s charges as ‘ill-considered.’ As the case exploded across the world media with camera crews encamped outside Japanese PEN’s headquarters, the PEN International office in London, then staffed by International Secretary David Carver and his team, were forced to intervene. The incident became the subject of numerous meetings of the PEN Executive, almost overshadowing the high-profile Pasternak case itself. 

The divisions exposed, once again, the faultlines in PEN during the Cold War. 

Five years before his death in 1978, Koestler was invited to become a Vice President of English PEN. He remains one of the organisation’s most famous but perhaps most controversial members.

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