Looking Back: the historical context of the Make Space campaign

As PEN International launches its new campaign Make Space, academic Dr Katherine Cooper looks back at the PEN’s history of working with writers who are refugees or living in exile. 

'The Make Space campaign is not only a response to a serious contemporary issue but a timely engagement with PEN’s earliest experiences of activism.

In 1938, PEN responded similarly to a growing crisis of refugees: that which occurred shortly before World War Two.

And it did so in similar terms to those which characterise the Make Space campaign to be launched this May; as well as practical help, it offered personal and social support through literature, using writing as a way of uniting people and helping them to come to terms with their experiences.

When news had just reached London of the Munich Pact in which Chamberlain gave away vast swathes of the Czechoslovakian Sudentenland to Hitler in an attempt to satisfy his expansionist ambitions, PEN’s then English President Margaret Storm Jameson and Hermon Ould, then the Club’s General Secretary, were determined to act.

They started a Refugee Fund to help Czech writers and wrote to PEN members and influential Presidents such as H.G. Wells and J.B. Priestley for help.

Support was very forthcoming and by the end of the year almost £700 had been raised. This was quickly put to use purchasing visas and travel for refugee writers not only in Czechoslovakia but also those fleeing Austria, Germany and Poland.

Wells, Priestley and Jameson busied themselves guaranteeing visas and even using their own money to help secure passage for those who contacted them or who they heard about through other PEN members.

Over the intervening years the Fund came to support a thriving community of writers in London, including Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig (whose work is perhaps most recognisable in Wes Anderson’s film, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and even the Freuds. The Fund and its executors came to represent the central point in a literary network offering personal, social and professional support to communities of literary exiles across the city.

By 1939, the administrative and financial arm of the campaign was groaning under the pressure of the costly and time-consuming visa process. It was decided that - with the number of refugee writers in the UK rising - a more practical approach was needed. As one of the Fund's administrators wrote of the moneys at the end of 1938, ‘we are [increasingly] using it to help these writers with their current expenses, because we find that many of them arrive in a penniless condition.’ In this way, the Fund became about survival in Britain, about inclusion, about how to "Make Space" for this influx of creative talent from the context not only of material needs but of professional well-being and inclusion in the wider literary community.

PEN’s activism - although it began as a humanitarian effort around basic survival needs, safety, and freedom - also became about freedom of expression, the power of literature, and the literary community as a rehabilitative force.

As more refugees came to London PEN began to host dinners and readings, conferences and tea parties. At these events refugee writers from the Continent could meet publishers, build relationships with British writers which might lead to collaboration or publication, arrange events and make themselves known to London literary society.

On a social and personal level these events felt to some like a lifeline, offering friendship and a feeling not only of personal but of professional belonging.

In this atmosphere of mutual support, 'Writers in Exile' Centres began to open – Austrian, German, Polish, Czechoslovakian. They offered support for displaced communities, providing a crucial link to the culture of homelands under Nazi rule. The Austrian Centre organised traditional Viennese theatre performances; the Germans hosted readings of Goethe and classical music recitals; the Czechoslovakia Centre hosted discussions on writers’ responsibilities and on re-building the country after the war.

More than the sustenance or financial help of the Fund, its activities brought into being a crucial literary network of exiles which allowed refugees - writers and non-writers alike - to make space for themselves in London through culture.'

Read more about PEN's Emergency Fund here, and find about about Katherine's research around PEN's history of working with refugees here. All quoted materials are from the PEN International archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.