Stein During World War II
While identified with the modernist movements in art and literature, Stein’s political affiliations were decidedly reactionary, and she was outspoken in her hostility to the liberal reforms of progressive politics. To Stein, the industrial revolution had acted as a negative societal force, disrupting stability, degrading values, and subsequently effecting cultural decline. Stein idealized the 18th century as the golden age of civilization, epitomized in America as the era of its founding fathers and what was in France, the glory of its pre-revolutionary Ancien Régime.
A compendium of source material confirms that Stein was able to save her life and sustain her lifestyle through the protection of powerful Vichy government official Bernard Faÿ. Stein had met Fay, in 1926, and was her “dearest friend during her life,” according to Alice B. Toklas. Faÿ had been the primary translator of Stein’s work into French and subsequently masterminded her 1933-34 American book tour, which gave Stein celebrity status and proved to be a highly successful promotion of her memoir, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” Fay’s influence was instrumental in protecting Nazi confiscation of the Stein’s historically significant and monetarily valuable collection of artwork, which throughout the war years was housed in Stein’s Paris rue Christine apartment, under locked safeguard.
In 1941, at Faÿ’s suggestion, Stein consented to translate into English some 180 pages of speeches made by Marshal Philippe Pétain, replete with “explicitly anti-Semitic tirades.” Stein crafts an analogy between George Washington, and Pétain, equating the Vichy leader with America’s first president, also insinuating the personage of Benjamin Franklin into the mix. She also writes of the high esteem in which Pétain is held by his countrymen; France respected and admired the man who had stuck an armistice with Hitler. Conceived and targeted for an American readership, Stein’s translations were ultimately never published in the United States. Random House publisher Bennett Cerf had read the introduction Stein had written for the translations and been horrified by what she had produced.
Of Jewish parentage, Stein willingly collaborated with Vichy France, a regime that deported more than 75,000 Jews to concentration camps, of whom only 3 percent survived the Holocaust. In 1944, Stein had written that Petain’s policies were “really wonderful so simple so natural so extraordinary.” This was Stein’s contention in the year when the town of Culoz where she and Toklas resided, saw the removal of its Jewish children to Auschwitz.
Stein was able to condemn the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor while simultaneously maintaining the dissonant acceptance of Hitler as conqueror of Europe. Journalist Lanning Warren interviewed Stein in her Paris apartment in a piece published in The New York Times Magazine on May 6, 1934. Stein proclaimed that Hitler merited the Nobel Peace Prize.
- “I say Hitler ought to have the peace prize...because he is removing all elements of contest and struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic Left elements, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.”
This 1934 Stein interview has come to be interpreted by some as an ironic jest made by a practiced iconoclast hoping to gain attention and provoke controversy. Gustav Hendrikksen, who had been a member of the Nobel committee in the 1930s, refuted this analysis in the 1990s. He recalled that Stein’s bid for Hitler’s Nobel honor was indeed made in earnest. In 1938, Stein spearheaded a campaign urging the Nobel committee to consider Adolf Hitler for nomination of the Peace Prize. Hendrikksen recounts that the committee formerly rejected Stein’s proposal “politely but firmly citing among their reasons the attitude of the Nazis towards Jews.”
How much of Stein’s wartime activities were motivated by the real exigencies of self-preservation in a dangerous environment, can only be speculated upon. However, her loyalty to Pétain went beyond expedience. She had been urged to leave France by American embassy officials, friends and family when that possibility still existed, but declined to do so. Accustomed to a life of entitlement since birth, Stein was convinced her wealth and notoriety would exempt her from what had befallen other European Jews. In an essay written for the Atlantic Monthly in November 1940, Stein had glibly written about her decision not to leave France: “it would be awfully uncomfortable and I am fussy about my food.” Stein continued to praise Pétain after the war ended, this at a time when Pétain had been sentenced to death by a French court for treason.
Author Djuna Barnes provided a caustic assessment of Stein's book, "Wars I Have Seen":
- "You do not feel that she is ever really worried about the sorrows of the people. Her concerns at its highest pitch is a well-fed apprehension."
Read more about this topic: Gertrude Stein
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Famous quotes containing the words war, stein and/or world:
“This war no longer bears the characteristics of former inter-European conflicts. It is one of those elemental conflicts which usher in a new millennium and which shake the world once in a thousand years.”
—Adolf Hitler (18891945)
“The question mark is alright when it is all alone when it
is used as a brand on cattle or when it could be used
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completely entirely completely uninteresting.... A
question is a question, anybody can know that a
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question is already there in the writing.”
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—Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. Excerpted from, Gender Grace: Love, Work, and Parenting in a Changing World (1990)