American icon – Hitler’s Jewish fan

Suppose someone proposed Joseph Kony, the blood-soaked warlord of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army of kidnapped children, be appointed children’s welfare commissioner — we’d want to know who would make such a proposal. Imagine Richard Nixon was recommended as a symbol of probity in public office. We would want to know who could ever think of such a thing. As fanciful examples as these may be, there is historical precedent.

In the 1930s Hitler was recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize; who could, who would, do such a thing? As astounding as that might be is the fact that so few know the story and those who do really aren’t interested in something so relevant, tells us something about our attitude to cultural icons.

Gertrude Stein lobbied for Hitler to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because his ethnic cleansing of the Jews was ridding Germany of the elements in its society that caused disharmony.

It is hard to imagine, but evidently one of Hitler’s biggest fan was Jewish. When the French gave up their losing struggle against the invading Nazis Adolf’s admirer, as she had been for many years, was living in France. The American ambassador urged flight, but instead of running for her life she remained in France. Gertrude was not deported and gassed, nor did she go underground, she wasn’t humiliated in public and shot in a trench she had been forced to dig. In fact she spent the four years of occupation living a comfortable existence with her female partner and their collection of modern art, under the protection of a viciously anti-Semitic Vichy official.

She had choices, Stein wasn’t trapped in Europe, certainly not until Germany declared war on the USA in December 1941. While Anne Frank and her family hid and millions of Jews were herded into ghettos and concentration camps, listed, deported and murdered, Stein and her lover, Alice B Tokless, enjoyed the protection of the French collaborationist regime. Even after the Germans occupied Vichy France in 1942, Gertrude and Alice missed the round ups and instead wiled away their time in a villa a few kilometers from the Swiss border.

After the war, a close friend of the couple, Bernard Faÿ who had persuaded Marshal Petain, French hero of the Great War and leader of the Vichy government, to protect Stein and Tokless during the war, was to be tried for treason. Faÿ had joined Gertrude’s circle in the thirties. He had translated some of her writing into French. Faÿ became an official of the Vichy regime, embracing its ideology and showing the alacrity that characterized Vichy, to go beyond what its Nazi masters demanded in terms of getting rid of racial inferiors and undesirable elements. Faÿ was appointed to deal with “secret societies”. He sent 1000 Freemasons to their death.

Yet Stein campaigned for this man’s pardon. And that after the horror of Nazism and the Occupation was known.

It is shocking that this nugget of history is not a secret, it hasn’t been hidden from view, it hasn’t even been denied, it has just been ignored. There have been many articles and there is even a book coming out about Gertrude Stein her ghastly beliefs have not dented the armor of her iconography. A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art doesn’t ignore this aspect of Gertrude’s life. It can’t be accused of that. Instead it deals with it by just about mentioning it.

“The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde”, has meticulously gathered together, for the first time in decades, 200 works that were collected by the Steins. Even their modest apartment, the apartment that became a destination to see the new art, and became Gertrude’s famous salon, is recreated. Gertrude’s attempt to do in literature what Picasso did representing the world in art, is described. The exhibition is about art and the Steins, whose rhapsodic journey from provincial, American bourgeoisie to the heart of bohemian and artistic life is honored. To skip over Gertrude’s relationship with Nazism might be understandable if the lives of the Steins were not so central to the exhibition. In France, as in much of Europe and beyond, the fundamental and consuming political issue of the thirties was the struggle for nations and peoples between the left, the spread of Bolshevism promoted by the Comintern, and the forces of reaction, fascism and it’s darker progeny, Nazism. Every country including the USA feared the spread of communism. In Spain a bitter and prolonged civil war, used as a proxy fight by the USSR and Italy and Germany, was the cockpit for the struggle. What was said in Gertrude’s salon?

The exhibition doesn’t ask the question. It deals with Gertrude’s sojourn in occupied France in a few sentences and mentions that she was under the protection of a Vichy official, Faÿ. The exhibition wears blinkers, it looks at so much, it glories in the story of the Steins, it avoids the unpalatable.

I really didn’t know Gertrude Stein outside of Woody Allen’s references. She isn’t widely read. She became iconic because she captured a day dream of middle class and middling prosperous Americans to abandon their provincial life and make a mark in Paris. The magic isn’t all gone as Allen’s latest film success, “Midnight inParis” proves, but for a grown up institution like the Met, isn’t it time to ask some more questions?