Articles - May 2012

A short response to Alan Dershowitz

In his Huffington Post piece, “Suppressing Ugly Truth for Beautiful Art” (May 1, 2012), Alan Dershowitz writes: 

Stein, a “racial” Jew according to Nazi ideology, managed to survive the Holocaust, while the vast majority of her co-religionists were deported and slaughtered. The [Metropolitan Museum of Art] exhibit says “remarkably, the two women [Stein and her companion Alice Toklas] survived the war with their possessions intact.” It adds that “Bernard Fay, a close friend … and influential Vichy collaborator is thought to have protected them.” That is an incomplete and distorted account of what actually happened. Stein and Toklas survived the Holocaust for one simple reason: Gertrude Stein was herself a major collaborator with the Vichy regime and a supporter of its pro-Nazi leadership.

Dershowitz seems to have forgotten that, unlike her “co-religionists [who] were deported or slaughtered,” Stein was an American citizen and the US was not yet at war with Germany. Indeed, when the war broke out in September 1939, the United States immediately recognized the Vichy Government and sent an Ambassador — William D. Leahy — to Vichy: the idea, originally, was to pry the Maréchal away from the Germans. At the time that Stein and Toklas settled in the small village of Belley, near Bilignin, where Stein first bought a house in the early twenties, they were not yet in physical danger.  The US declared war on Germany on December 11, 1941 — two years and three months later. After that point, of course — think 1942 — American citizens were the enemy and were rounded up and imprisoned, and Stein makes clear that she and Alice were deeply afraid. Nothing happened, not because Stein was a “major collaborator with the Vichy regime” — an assertion that is simply absurd —  but because, as two old American ladies more or less hiding in the village where they were on good terms with their neighbors, they were left alone.  

Myself an Austrian Jewish refugee from Hitler in 1938 and knowing how complex the situation was in wartime France, I find Dershowitz’s blanket accusations appalling. Maybe he now wants to pronounce Roosevelt a “collaborator” because he sent an ambassador to Vichy; our embassy there, incidentally, was open until the spring of 1942.

Gertrude Stein: September 1942–September 1944

from 'The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder'

Edward Burns and Ulla E. Dydo included this detailed accounting of Stein’s wartime experience as “Appendix IX — Gertrude Stein: September 1942–September 1944” in their landmark volume, The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder (Yale University Press, 1996).  You can read the complete text here in PDF format.

A letter to the editor

'The Nation,' 1987

Published under the title “Three Lives,” this letter by Edward Burns and Ulla Dydo — written in response to Natalie Robin’s article, “The Defiling of Writers,” appeared in the December 5, 1987 issue of The Nation.  You can read the complete text here in PDF format.

Joan Retallack on Stein's war years

From her introduction to 'Gertrude Stein: Selections'

Stein and History

(The “Stein and History” section of Retallack’s introduction is available here in PDF format.  She wrote this headnote for the Stein dossier.)

In writing “Stein and History” — the penultimate section of my introduction to Gertrude Stein: Selections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), I was trying to understand both Stein’s attitude toward history, something she frequently wrote about from both an American and European point of view, and her sense of what was going on during the Vichy years. As with so many other things concerning Stein, what seems to be the truth of the life, the poetics, the politics, the performance of sometimes capricious opinions, the ethics (all of which I think of as the poethics) was intertwined, complicated, and not always entirely admirable. Stein — as I hope I make clear in the pages included here — was a republican of the sort whose priorities were national security (government dedicated to protection of its citizens) and individualism. She was no fascist. That her clearly ironic (sardonic is probably more accurate) statement about Hitler and the Nobel Peace Prize has been excised from its considerable context — which can leave no doubt of its irony, judicious or not — is a testament to the motives and intentions of certain readers, not to her own.

The most egregious accusation currently circulating about Gertrude Stein is that she seriously thought Hitler deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. The often quoted or paraphrased remark about Hitler appears in a 1934 New York Times interview where she says that by “driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left elements, [Hitler] is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.” What is not noted, in Barbara Will’s or others’ accounts, is that for Stein “driving out activity” is deplorable because, among other things, it drives out the multiple points of view brought by immigrants (like her Jewish family, one might add) which is precisely what gives a society its interest and vitality.  

In the extensive interview from which the sardonic (and sole) remark about Hitler is excised Stein goes on to say these things: “What matters is competition, struggle, interest, activity that keeps a people alive and excited. … Protection, paternalism and suppression of natural activity and competition lead to dullness and stagnation. It is true in politics, in literature, in art. Everything in life needs constant stimulation. It needs activity, new blood. … That is the reason why I do not approve of the stringent immigration laws in America today.” See, the full interview in which the statement occurs, provided here by Charles Bernstein. See also Edward Burns and Ulla Dydo’s “Gertrude Stein: September 1942 to September 1944”  (Appendix IX to the Yale edition of the Stein-Wilder letters) and Burns’s updated, annotated chronology of Stein’s interactions with both right and left-wing figures during the German Occupation of France. 

 Sometimes coupled with a report of the Hitler remark is a contention that Stein actually nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Everything in this vein that I’ve read is persuasive only if one believes at the outset that Stein’s remark about Hitler and the Peace Prize was serious. That comment (though not its interpretation) is the sole piece of actual data anyone has offered. Here are some facts from the Nobel Peace Prize nomination website & database which I suggest you visit if this particular accusation has been nagging at you. 

The Nobel Peace Prize nomination database.

Facts you’ll discover:

1. Nominators must be invited by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to submit nominations. It’s not a freelance affair.
2. In searching the database where names of all nominators and nominees from 1901 to 1956 have been archived, there is no match with either Gertrude Stein or Adolph HItler.

 In addition, I’m providing a link to a 2009 New York Review of Books review-essay by Ian Buruma — “Occupied Paris: The Sweet and the Cruel” — not because it includes Stein (it doesn’t) but because it is such a striking model of a balanced and compassionate treatment of similar Vichy matters. Buruma’s analysis acknowledges social, historical, and psychological complexity without ethical equivocation. More of this is sorely needed with respect to Gertrude Stein.

The “Stein and History” section of Retallack’s  introduction is available as a PDF here. 

updated May 20, 2012

Gertrude Stein taunts Hitler in 1934 and 1945

(Sieg heil, sieg heil, right in der Fuehrer's face.)

On May 6, 1934, The New York Times published an interview by Lansing Warren, entitled “Gertrude Stein Views Life and Politics.” The full piece is available online at the Times site.  A pdf of the article, as it appeared in the paper, in available here (useful given that the OCR version on the Times site has a few minor errors). Because of a remark made in this interview, Stein has been accused of being pro-Hitler in a number of recent articles. The accusation about Stein’s view of Hitler has been made by Bill Berkowitz in The Buzzflash Blog, Alan Dershowitz in the Huffington Post; Allen Ellenzweig in TabletMichael Kimmelman in the New York Review of Books; Sonia Melnikova-Raich, in JWeekly.com, Alexander Nazaryan in the New York Daily News; Natasha Mozgovaya in Haaretz; and Barbara Will in Humanities / NEH.  Even the Anti-Defamation League has repeated this defamation. [Addendum 6/9/12: The defamation still ciruclates:  Peter Worthington in Toronto Sun and Emily Greenhouse in The New Yorker.]

Saying that Stein endorsed Hitler for the Nobel Prize in the 1934 interview is like saying that Mel Brooks includes a tribute to Hitler in The Producers. In Stein’s remarks  about Hitler and the Nobel Prize, she associates Hitler with all that is bad in Germany. Her remarks constitute an attack on Hitler. 

This is what is quoted by Stein’s detractors: “I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize,” she says, “because he is removing all elements of contest and struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left elements, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.” What is left out is Stein’s explicit claim that “activity,” “struggle,” and contest (which she later calls competition) are necessarily good. According to Stein, Hitler’s “driving out everything that conduces to activity,” that is, to “contest and struggle” — by means of the ethnic cleansing of Jews and others — would result in a deathly peace, what she calls “dullness and stagnation.” In other words, it would be a bad thing. “What matters” in government, she says, “is competition, struggle, interest, activity that keeps a people alive and excited in accordance with the instincts which best provide excitement for the individual people.” In the interview Stein strongly endorses more open immigration — “constant activity, new blood;” indeed, immigration of the kind that allowed the Jews, including her family, to become Americans, the subject of her monumental work The Making of Americans. Stein’s views about immigration directly contest the ethnic cleaning (of non-Aryan, “new blood”) of Hitler’s Germany. In the 1934 interview, Stein also, explicitly, expresses her distaste for Germans and her preference for the Americans and the French.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but I hope those who wish to quote Stein on this matter will not take my word for what she says, or the mischaracterizations of Stein’s detractors, but rather will read the full interview. And keep in mind that the interview begins with a disclaimer that Stein’s remarks should not be taken at face value (a warning not taken by those who denounce her for her comments in the interview). Here are a few relevant excerpts from the interview:

Many of Miss Stein’s statements have an irrefutable terseness, though that terseness may conceal mystifying ambiguity such as characterized the utterances.

“There really are only two wholly sincere democracies, and those are the American and the French.”

“The Saxon element is always destined to be dominated. The Germans have no gift at organizing. They can only obey. And obedience is not organization. Organization comes from community of will as well as community of action. And in America our democracy has been based on community of will and effort.”

“When I say government does not matter, I do not mean that it cannot have bad effects. I mean that any form of government may be good, and any form of government may be bad. What matters is competition, struggle, interest, activity that keeps a people alive and excited in accordance with the instincts which best provide excitement for the individual people.”

“Building a Chinese wall is always bad. Protection, paternalism and suppression of natural activity and competition lead to dullness and stagnation. It is true in politics, in literature, in art. Everything in life needs constant stimulation. It needs activity, new blood. To the young people who, wanting to become writers, ask me for advice, I always say, ‘Don't think it isn’t possible to be senile at 22.’ It is even very difficult to keep from becoming senile in youth. It is hard to keep one’s self open and receptive to stimulation. Doing what other people tell you and being protected from this and from that is not so good, is not stimulating. You must face life and struggle. Satisfaction comes from overcoming opposition and sometimes from enduring things that are not supposed to be good for one.”

“That is the reason why I do not approve of the stringent immigration laws in America today. We need the stimulation of new blood. It is best to favor healthy competition. There is no reason why we should not select our immigrants with greater care, nor why we should not bar certain peoples and preserve the color line for instance. But if we shut down on immigration completely we shall become stagnant. The French may not like the competition of foreigners, but they let them in. They accept the challenge and derive the stimulus. I am surprised that there is not more discussion of immigration in the United States than there is. We have got rid of prohibition restrictions, and it seems to me the next thing we should do is to relax the severity of immigration restrictions.”

A related charge made against Stein is that she later actually nominated Hitler for a Nobel Prize. Edward Burns, in his essay for the Stein dossier, reports that the Nobel Prize Committee has denied that any such recommendation was made (see also page 414 of the Burns/Dydo appendix to the Stein/Wilder letters).

In her National Endowment for the Humanities essay, Barbara Will writes: “Yet surprisingly, most of Stein’s critics have given her a relatively free pass on her Vichy sympathies. Others have tried to ignore or justify equally inexplicable events: for example, Stein’s endorsement of Adolf Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934, or her performance of the Hitler salute at his bunker in Berchtesgaden after the Allied victory in 1945.” Edward Burns and Joan Retallack give a full response to Stein’s complicated relation with Vichy. Will’s denunciation of Stein for her ironic comment about Hitler and the Nobel Prize is mistaken. But there is one more issue, the Stein salute in 1945, which Will grossly mischaracterizes.

Gertrude Stein Life salute

Stein’s “Hitler salute” refers to the August 6, 1945 issue of Life magazine, which featured an essay by Stein called “‘Off We All Went to See Germany’: Germans Should Learn to Be Disobedient and GIs Should Not Like Them No They Shouldn’t.” Stein’s essays appears along with a photo-spread of Stein and Toklas. The photo referred to by Will appears on page 46 of the issue, with a caption, “We all did Hitler’s Pose on Hitler’s Balcony at Berchtesgaden. Miss Stein liked Hitler’s radiators, wanted to take one home as a flowerpot but was talked out of it.”

According to the caption, she and six GIs are mocking Hitler and his gang saluting on the step of Berchtesgaden. But if Stein is indeed pledging her allegiance to the Fuehrer in this picture, as Will suggests, that would also go for the five GIs making the same gesture as she is. And it would mean Life magazine was publishing a picture of pro-Nazi GIs at the moment of liberation in 1945. When Will says that Stein’s motives in this picture are suspect, she is also casting aspersions on Life and the American soldiers that liberated Germany from fascism. In this photo, Stein appears to be illustrating the point made in the subtitle of the Life spread: “Germans Should Learn to Be Disobedient and GIs Should Not Like Them No They Shouldn’t.” (We’ll leave aside the fact the Stein and the GIs seem to be pointing to the field rather than saluting.)

The Life spread is filled with Stein’s enthusiasm for the American liberators, the GIs that are the subject of her affectionate and patriotic late work, Brewsie and Willie, which was published in 1946. The next time someone wants to talk about this photo of Stein with the GIs, let them quote what she told their general (as reported in the article on page 56):

When General Osborne came to see me just after the victory, he asked me what I thought should be done to educate the Germans. I said there is only one thing to be done and that is to teach them disobedience, as long as they are obedient so long sooner or later they will be ordered around by a bad man and there will be trouble. Teach them disobedience, I said, make every German child know that it is its duty at least once a day to do its good deed and not believe something its father or its teacher tells them, confuse their minds, get their minds confused and perhaps they will be disobedient and the world will be at peace.

Lest someone accuse me of a pro-Hitler gesture in my subtitle, “Seig heil, seig heil, right in der Fuehrer’s face” — it’s from “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” the 1942 anti-Nazi parody by Spike Jones and His City Slickers (featuring the inimitable Mickey Katz). (See the Movietone News short on YouTube.) The song, by Oliver Wallace, was taken from Der Fuehrer’s Face, the Academy-Award-Winning Walt Disney Donald Duck cartoon, which originally entitled “Donald Duck in Nuzi Land” (according to the Wikipedia article on the film). The cartoon was made in 1942 and released in 1943. In the cartoon, Donald Duck also gives the fascist salute, which may be why Disney kept the cartoon out of circulation, fearing what is happening to Gertrude would happen to Donald. (See the full film on YouTube.)

donald duck seig heil

“Why a duck?,” says Chico Marx in The Cocoanuts.
“It’s deep water, that’s why a duck. It’s deep water.”
“All I know is that it’s a viaduct.”
“Now look, alright, I catch on: why a horse, why a chicken, why a this, why a that …”
“I no catch on: why a duck?”

I no catch on.

Why Gertrude Stein?
Why now?