American icon: Hitler's Jewish fan

Writer Gertrude Stein enjoyed the protection of French officials while others Jews died.

Gertrude Stein paper doll 311 (photo credit: Facebook)
Gertrude Stein paper doll 311
(photo credit: Facebook)
Suppose someone proposed appointing Joseph Kony, the blood-soaked warlord who kidnaps children in Uganda, as the new children's welfare commissioner. I suspect we would want to what a possible reason could be for making such a proposal. Imagine former US president Richard Nixon was recommended as a symbol of probity in public office.  In this case, too, we would want to know who could ever think of such a thing. As fanciful as these examples are, there is a historical precedent.
In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler was recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize. As astounding as that is, even more jarring is how few people are aware of this. This indifference tells us something about our attitude to cultural icons.
Writer Gertrude Stein lobbied for Hitler to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His ethnic cleansing of Jews was ridding Germany of the elements in its society that caused disharmony.
It is hard to imagine that one of Hitler’s biggest fans was Jewish. When the French gave up their losing struggle against the invading Nazis, Hitler’s admirer was living in France. The American ambassador urged her to escape, but Stein chose to remain in France.  She 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. Instead, Stein 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.
Stein had choices. She wasn’t trapped in Europe, certainly not until Germany declared war on the US in December 1941. While millions of Jews were herded into ghettos and concentration camps, Stein and her lover, Alice B. Tokless, enjoyed the protection of the French collaborationist regime. Even after the Germans occupied Vichy France in 1942, Stein and Tokless evaded the round-ups and enjoyed respite at a villa a few kilometers from the Swiss border.
After the war, a close friend of the couple, Bernard Faÿ, was tried for treason. Faÿ had persuaded French hero of the Great War and leader of the Vichy government, Marshal Petain, to protect Stein and Tokless during the war.
Faÿ had joined Stein's circle in the thirties.  He had translated some of her writing into French. As an official of the Vichy regime, Faÿ embraced its ideology and went beyond what Nazi masters demanded in terms of getting rid of racial inferiors and undesirable elements. Faÿ was also appointed to deal with "secret societies" and subsequently, he sent a thousand Freemasons to their death.
Yet even the world was made aware of the horror of Nazism and the occupation, Stein still campaigned for this man's pardon.
This nugget of history is not a secret and neither has it even been denied. It has simply been ignored. There have been many articles, and there is even a book coming out about Stein and her ghastly beliefs, none of which has dented the armor of her iconography.  A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art doesn't ignore this aspect of Gertrude's life, but it only briefly mentions it.
For the first time in decades, "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avante-Garde" is a collection of 200 works that belonged to the Steins. The exhibition is about art and the Steins, and pays homage to the rhapsodic journey from provincial, American bourgeoisie to the heart of bohemian and artistic life. Their modest apartment has become the location in which to view the art and Stein's famous salon has been meticulously recreated. Stein's attempt to do in literature what Picasso did for the art world is described for viewers.
Skipping over Stein's relationship with Nazism might be understandable if the lives of the Steins were not so central to the exhibition. In 1930s France, as in much of Europe and beyond, the fundamental political issue of the time was the struggle between the spread of Bolshevism promoted by the Communist International and the forces of reaction, fascism and its darker progeny, Nazism.
Every country feared the spread of communism. In Spain, a bitter and prolonged civil war was used as a proxy fight by the USSR and Italy and Germany and was the cockpit for the struggle.
So what was said about this turmoil in Stein's salon?
The exhibition itself does not pose this question. It deals with Stein's sojourn in occupied France in a few sentences and mentions her protection under Faÿ. Glorifying the story of the Steins and avoiding the unpalatable, the exhibition can be accused of hoodwinking viewers.
Stein’s own work isn’t widely read and she is largely known to people through popular culture such as Woody Allen's movies. She became iconic because she captured the dream of middle class and middling, prosperous Americans to abandon their provincial lives and make a mark in Paris.  The magic isn't all gone, as Allen's latest film success, "Midnight in Paris" proves, but for a grown-up institution like the Met, isn't it time to stop editing aspects of her life and start asking some questions?