Gertrude Stein and the Nazis
Bill Berkowitz printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Sep 14, 2011 at 12:12:01 PM EST
Did You Know Gertrude Stein Nominated Adolf Hitler for a Nobel Prize in 1938? It Gets Worse.

An otherwise extraordinary art exhibit at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, is marred by leaving out some salient, but disquieting historical facts, namely: Prior to World War II, Gertrude Stein nominated Adolf Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize; and, she survived the Nazi occupation of France and the Vichy puppet government thanks to at least one well-known French anti-Semite with close ties to the Vichy and Nazi regimes. Some details are still not clear, but the evidence of de facto tacit "collaboration" is.

Haunted by Gertrude Stein

For days now, I've been haunted by Gertrude Stein. Except for an occasional glance at her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, I confess to never fully reading her work. I did see Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and enjoyed (as always) Kathy Bates' portrayal of her. And, I have known - as does most any Oakland resident -- that Stein is famously quoted as having remarked, "The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn't any there there"; a comment that for years has been open to various interpretations.

My Stein saga started innocently enough: My wife and I met up with two friends on Saturday afternoon outside the San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), and headed in to see The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde. This was the last weekend the exhibit would be up, and the place was packed. It was so crowded that I blithely remarked that it seemed like we were at The Louvre during tourist season. (In an early August Press Release, SFMoMA indicated that it expected as many as 350,000 visitors by the end of the run.)

SFMoMA's "The Steins Collect"

The exhibit was fascinating. I'll let Stephen West of who described it as, "The curatorial triumph of the summer," handle the details:

"Writer and Bay Area native Gertrude Stein and her brothers, Leo and Michael, had remarkable taste and timing. They moved to Paris in the early 1900s and soon began collecting the newest wave of modern art, Matisse and Picasso, as well as the more established Cezanne, Renoir, Bonnard and others.

"Their apartments became de facto museums of modernism and salons for the artistic elite of Paris. Gertrude was Picasso's champion. Leo, Michael and his wife, Sarah, favored Matisse. (And others: Michael and Sarah later commissioned Le Corbusier to design a modernist house for them.)

"The sprawling show brings together much of the now scattered Stein collection. It features iconic works like Picasso's monumental 1905-06 portrait of Gertrude, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and Matisse's 1905 'Woman With a Hat,' now part of the San Francisco museum's collection.

"Along with about 40 Picassos, 60 Matisses and works by more than a dozen other artists, the exhibition offers scores of photographs of the Steins, Gertrude's partner Alice B. Toklas, their apartments and their arty circle, encapsulating a remarkable period."

In each room, accompanying the paintings were drawings, film clips, correspondence, and photos (some from floor-to-ceiling) from the Stein family.  There was an informative introductory description of the period, the changes that were taking place in the art world during that time, and the family's connection and influence on it all.

One of the first rooms at the SFMoMA exhibit featured photographs of the then Bay Area-based Stein family from the turn of the twentieth century, before Gertrude and her brother Leo took off for Paris. The Stein family was part of a thriving Jewish community in Northern California, and clearly proud of their Jewish identity.

The World War II years

As I left the museum, I turned toward my friend and asked him if he had noticed that sentence. He had. It was, after all quite remarkable. He had.

It was an unexceptional detail that told us nothing, yet ironically, told us a great deal, because Jews in Vichy "controlled" southern France were rounded up for concentration camps at the direction of the Nazis.

We both wondered how Stein and her lover/longtime companion, Alice Toklas -- lesbians and Jews -- had managed to survive during the German occupation (puppet Vichy government), which saw the deportation and murder of thousands of French Jews in concentration camps.

Later that evening I began looking into that question. Googling "Gertrude Stein" "Nazis" I found thousands of hits. The first site I went to was called "Adolph The Great. Com," which claims that it "is not an anti-Semitic [sic] site but a collection of facts intended to bring about understanding and tolerance," which is code for an anti-Semitic site. The site's content includes those titled "Adolf the Humanitarian," "Adolf the Artist," "Adolf fights cancer," "Adolf's Jewish Support," and "Adolf and the Nobel Peace Prize." That was the one that caught me off guard as it featured a picture of Gertrude Stein.

According to, "The renowned Jewish author, Gertrude Stein, led the campaign to get Adolf Hitler nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938: 'I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize, because he is removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace...'"

I couldn't believe what I had just read. It must be the product of a fevered mind distorting some off-hand comment that Stein might or might not have made. In any case, why trust a Nazi-revisionist website?

I continued my search.

Surviving the Holocaust

A formidable discussion of Stein's situation during the Nazi occupation of France appears in an article published in the June 9, 2011 edition of by Sonia Melnikova-Raich. The piece was titled San Francisco "Exhibit leaves out how Gertrude Stein survived Holocaust" ( gertrude-stein-survived-holocaust/).

Melnikova-Raich, who, according to a biographical line at the end of the piece, "has an extensive background in architecture, art and art history, including writing and curatorial work," was writing about another Stein exhibit called Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, which was coincidentally down the street from the SFMoMA showing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

That exhibit, she wrote, "noticeably lacks a sixth story: How did Gertrude Stein and her life partner, Alice B. Toklas - being American, Jewish and lesbian - survive unharmed during World War II in Nazi-occupied (Vichy administered) France?"

Although it was an "engaging exhibit," Melnikova-Raich questioned how Stein and Toklas "manage[d] to escape deportation and maintain their lifestyle in their country home in the south of France? And why didn't they escape to Switzerland - only 21 miles away - after being told by the American consul that their lives were in danger and they should leave immediately?"

The text at the Contemporary Jewish Museum exhibit called the story "complicated" "and briefly mentions 'an aggressively anti-Semitic writer Bernard Faÿ, who was a figure in the upper echelons of the Vichy government, and who ensured their safety and that of their art collection,' adding that 'the extent and exact form of this protection remain unclear.'"

Melnikova-Raich pointed out that while the issue may have been "complicated," this history was "perhaps not as unclear as stated": "Many scholars have explored the subject. Their conclusions range from outright collaboration  (Barbara Will's essay 'Lost in Translation: Stein's Vichy Collaboration') to a more nuanced view of Stein's possible simultaneous 'familiarity with the Resistance' (Linda Wagner-Martin's book Favored Strangers)."

Stein met Fay, a French history professor, in the late 1920s. "Despite his open anti-Semitism, Faÿ declared his 'adoration' for Stein and her writing, translated her books into French, and was instrumental in her becoming a celebrity in France and her 1934 American lecture tour, even teaching her lecturing techniques," Melnikova-Raich pointed out. "(Stein's 'Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas' mentions Faÿ as a 'charming guest' and 'one of the four permanent friendships of Gertrude Stein's life.')

"During the Nazi occupation, Faÿ had close connections to the Gestapo. He was appointed director of the Vichy government's Bureau des Sociétés Secrètes and was responsible for deportations to concentration camps of a thousand Freemasons, more than half of whom died. He was also made head of the Bibliothèque Nationale and as such was instrumental in protecting Stein and Toklas from what ordinarily would have been their fate under a Nazi regime."

Stein "held remarkably reactionary views, opposing Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and supporting Franco in the Spanish Civil War, among other things," Melnikova-Raich noted. While Stein supported a more open immigration policy in the U.S., she stated that it was important to "select our immigrants with greater care, ... [and] bar certain peoples and preserve the color line."
In addition, Stein had followed up her nomination of Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize by lobbying the Nobel committee in 1938.

According to Melnikova-Raich, Stein, "at Faÿ's instigation in late 1941, undertook translating speeches by the Vichy leader Pétain into English, comparing him in her introduction to George Washington.... After the liberation of France, Faÿ was tried as a collaborator and Stein, shortly before she died, campaigned on his behalf. He was sentenced to dégradation nationale and hard labor for life but escaped to Switzerland, with financial aid allegedly from Toklas."

There has also been additional corroboration over the years of Gertrude Stein's close relationships to individuals with close ties to the Vichy and Nazi regimes.

Two exhibits: Virtual silence

In the space of a few months, two San Francisco institutions held significant exhibits featuring Gertrude Stein. In both instances - although more so in the case of the SFMoMA display - the museums failed to discuss a seminal aspect of Stein's life.

Some might argue that SFMoMA wasn't the proper venue for a more detailed discussion of Stein's political views and actions; that it would take away from the focus of the display. While I am not an art critic or art historian, I have come to understand some of the nuances/protocols of exhibition venues. In this case, however, I would argue that SFMoMA showed exceedingly poor judgment by not expanding upon Stein and Toklas' WWII survival strategy.

I say this mainly because of the dozen or so people I talked to about the SFMoMA exhibit and my subsequent research -- most of them Jewish and had seen the exhibit -- were universally appalled by the information I presented to them and the fact that it wasn't included in the exhibit.

If the Contemporary Jewish Museum had anything near the traffic as SFMoMA, both museums benefitted greatly - both financially and in terms of prestige -- from their respective Stein exhibits. The fact that both chose to downplay, and in the case of SFMoMA totally disregard, Stein's Nazi connections was a disservice to those who came, saw, and were enthralled.

I can only speculate as to why SFMoMA omitted this critical aspect of Stein's history. Might it have something to do with the Stein family's roots in the Bay Area's Jewish community and the Jewish community's support for both museums? Many Jewish donors most certainly would have been appalled by the details of Stein's cozy Vichy-Nazi relationship.

The history of patronage of the arts and its relationship to politics is complex and sometimes very uncomfortable, but this history must not disappear. The Steins Collect should call upon us to appreciate the remarkable vision of the entire Stein family in recognizing and gathering together some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. But, we must also be prepared to confront the seeming contradictions and horror of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas' later years.

Interestingly, both exhibits are moving on. The Contemporary Jewish Museum's Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is moving to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, where it will open on October 14.

SFMoMA's The Steins Collect will travel to the Grand Palais, Paris (October 3, 2011, through January 16, 2012) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (February 21 through June 3, 2012).

One can only hope that those institutions will support greater disclosure.

... accepting, believing in & practicing religion,
why should it be so surprising that Stein accepted & acted on the behalf of Hitler & Fay?

Isn't it really all about personal interpretation and
ones chosen biases?

by kleinem on Wed Sep 14, 2011 at 01:44:42 PM EST

The article really raises two separate questions. The first is that frequently vexing one of how we deal with flawed genius. Immense talent and creativity do not guarantee moral rectitude, or even common decency. Richard Wagner wrote some of the most sublime music to come out of 19th century Europe, but his anti-Semitism is undeniable, and in many other ways besides, he was simply not a nice person. Coco Chanel was apparently a collaborator, and quite possibly a Nazi spy. And as this article shows, Gertrude Stein supported the rise of Hitler to such an extent that she nominated him for the Peace Prize.

The more important question, however, is how we make use of the knowledge we have regarding such flawed geniuses. That two major shows minimized and ignored the very relevant question of how Stein and her family were able to preserve both their lifestyle and their art collection in Vichy France while millions of their fellow Jews were being slaughtered is troubling. Whether it is the silence of ignorance or the silence of denial, it is to be lamented. The questions raised in this article deserve full and open discussion.

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