How the Ukrainian war shakes the world of literature – the PEN conference and the resignation of Deniz Yücel

Fgota, a few months after the 100th anniversary of the International Writers Association PEN, held a memorable annual German PEN conference in mid-May in Gotha, Thuringia. According to media reports, the conference has escalated into bustle, mutual insults and shouts. President Deniz Yücel resigned after seven months in office.

Deniz Yücel at the 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair [Photo by Harald Krichel / CC BY-SA 4.0]

Yücel, a journalist famous for Erdogan’s opponent, was re-elected by a small margin. But when his opponent in the association, PEN Secretary-General Heinrich Peuckmann, was confirmed to take office with significantly more votes, Yücel resigned from his post to the effective media. He jumped roaring and shouted that he no longer wanted to be “a figure in this bratwurst stand.”

The controversy began in March at the international literature fair Lit.Cologne in Cologne. Deniz Yücel called for more weapons to be allocated to Ukraine and the creation of a no-fly zone, a direct NATO intervention in Ukraine’s war.

Five former PEN presidents – Christoph Hein, Gert Heidenreich, Johan Strasser, Josef Haslinger and Regula Venske – then wrote a letter of protest accusing him of abusing the PEN president. His initiative has not been coordinated with the PEN Board and also violates the International PEN Charter, which obliges members to “work with all their might to achieve the ideal of a peaceful humanity”. Eventually, they demanded his resignation. The other 36 members of the PEN also objected and put Yücel out of office.

Most of the media stood on Yücel’s side. They gladly quoted his vulgar outbursts in Gotha and dismissed his critics as petty.

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Interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) Yücel insulted PEN as a “pile of Philistines and robbers” who “with Alfred Kerr and Dolf Sternberger and Heinrich Böll” carried their “ancestral gallery” in front of them. PEN was held hostage to “rights in itself, funny writers” and so on.

SZ author Cornelius Pollmer, who spoke to Yücel, wrote a cynical commentary on “the scenes of one of the most spectacular intellectual marches”. He confirmed the fate of the PEN “home for the elderly, which is slowly disappearing” and described Yücel as a “tragic hero”.

Bourgeois Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), entitled ‘Screaming loudly’, was not about Yücel’s aggressive behavior, but about the bad manners of other PEN members. SpiegelEditor Jan Fleischhauer was impressed by the comparison with Bratwurst’s cabin and described Yücel’s demand in the no-fly zone as a laudable intervention by a “resilient intellectual”.

Mirk taz the observer quoted favorably the title ‘Bratwurst booth to be shame of’, according to which the PEN is dominated by ‘the toxic masculinity of the old West German gentlemen’. Already after Lit.Cologne had taz it says: “There is a war going on in Europe! You can’t step back to the “ideal of a peaceful humanity” …

Mirk timeauthor Jana Hensel eventually described the conference as “agony.” You felt like a “fifth division team stadium” or an “AfD party conference.” According to Hensel, “sacrificial noise, caustic remarks or threats of legal action” became particularly notorious before the Yücel camp. In the end, she went so far as to say that Yücel was “in the tradition of Heinrich Heine, Georg Büchner, Ludwig Börne,” who also suffered from “bullying of the Philistines and clubs.”

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