A Writer And Intellectual With An Unwavering Moral Compass

Chairperson of Swedish PEN Ola Larsmo writes about his memories of Thomas von Vegesack:

Just two months ago, Thomas von Vegesack and I sat and talked about his latest book in the Söderbokhandeln (South Bookstore, Stockholm). Last night I was told that he had passed away. My first reaction at the news of his death was disbelief: He was just here. He is still needed.

And he’s needed in more ways than one. Thomas von Vegesack effortlessly juggled the roles of a publisher, writer, free speech activist and expert in German literature all at once. He chaired the Swedish PEN from 1978 – 87 and went on to play a major part in establishing one of the main branches of PEN International, the Writers in Prison Committee which he chaired from 1987 – 92. He should be considered though first and foremost a writer and intellectual.

Even just a brief survey of his works demonstrates the breath of his writing. In recent years, he wrote an excellent biography of his father and A Taste of Freedom, a history of public opinion formation in Sweden. My personal favourite is The Word Became Free (2003). Perhaps he is most famous for The Tank Aristocrats or the Pen’s Servants (Tankens aristokrater eller pennans betjänter, 1986) where he wrote uncompromisingly about an intellectuals’ relationship with power and ideology. Almost nobody could say that they live up to Von Vegesack’s principles- to think for yourself, think clearly, think self-critically and to not only recognize the shortcomings of others but your own.

Actually there was probably only one person that really up to standards set out by Von Vegesack in his book and that was Albert Camus. As von Vegesack himself writes in the preface: “The people in this book that best matches the description – although nobody fits perfectly – Klaus Mann, Albert Camus and George Orwell; all deeply pessimistic people.”

He would not like it, but I would like to add his own name to the list.

Thomas’ last book was the autobiographical Days with PEN. It’s a little volume, full of life experience. Thomas talks about how during his time as Chairperson of PEN International’s WiPC he was monitored by the Stasi, searched by the KGB, and he also had to deal with Chilean PEN during the Pinochet coup. (One memorable incident was how he and Wolf Biermann managed to trick the Stasi using a tape with the Red Army men’s choir. But that’s another story. Read his book.)

These brief examples of his work as Chairperson of WiPC highlight the great qualities he had. Many today use the term ‘moral compass’ and talk of how we need to have one in order to navigate past a lot of ideological nonsense and reach the truly important questions and answers. Thomas claimed to never have one, but all who knew him would agree that one of his defining characteristics was his unerring ability to point his compass towards justice.

Writing an obituary is dark, dark task, not in least because one has to measure the void people leave behind. Thomas lived to be over eighty and left a strong legacy behind; the freedom of the Swedish press is undoubtedly greater because of his contributions.

This article was originally published in Swedish on DN.se