Scholars of the life of Gertrude Stein were recently startled to learn that in 1938 the prominent Jewish-American writer had spearheaded a campaign urging the Nobel committee to award its Peace Prize to Adolf Hitler. This was disclosed by Gustav Hendrikksen, a former member of the Nobel committee and now professor emeritus of Bible studies at Sweden's Uppsala University, in Nativ, a political magazine published in Israel. (Reports about this appeared in the New York Jewish community weekly Forward, Feb. 2, June 14, and Oct. 25, 1996.)
Hendrikksen, an avowed friend of Israel who is now in his late 80s, recalled that the Nobel committee rejected Stein's proposal “politely but firmly, citing among their reasons the attitude of the Nazi regime toward the Jews.”
In the decades before her death in 1946, Stein was a widely acclaimed literary icon. As monarch of the “lost generation” of American expatriates in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, she cultivated and influenced such literary figures as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as such artists as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Her Paris home was a mecca for writers and artists. Stein's own “modernist” novels, memoirs, lectures and plays — once celebrated as stylishly avant garde — have not aged well. Today she is remembered almost as much for who she was as for what she wrote.
Born in Pennsylvania of a wealthy German-Jewish family, she was raised in the United States, and attended Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins universities. But it was during her years of expatriate living in France that she made her lasting mark.
Stein's seemingly paradoxical views about Hitler and fascism have never been a secret. As early as 1934, she told a reporter that Hitler should be awarded the Nobel peace prize. “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 … By suppressing Jews … he was ending struggle in Germany” (New York Times Magazine, May 6, 1934).
As astonishing at it may seem today, in 1938 many credited Hitler for his numerous efforts to secure lasting peace in Europe on the basis of equal rights of nations. After assuming power in 1933, he succeeded in quickly establishing friendly relations with Poland, Italy, Hungary and several other European nations. Among his numerous initiatives to lessen tensions in Europe, the German leader offered detailed proposals for mutual reductions of armaments by the major powers.
In a 1940 essay, Stein wrote positively of the appointment of “collaborationist” Henri Philippe Petain as France's Chief of State, comparing him to George Washington. As late as 1941, she was urging the Atlantic Monthly to publish speeches by Marshal Petain, which she had translated into English. In spite of her background, Stein continued to live and write in France during the years of German occupation (1940-1944).
She also maintained a friendship with Bernard Fay, who headed France's national library, the Bibliotheque Nationale, during the Petain era. According to a new biography of Stein, Favored Strangers: Gertrude Stein and Her Family, by Linda Wagner-Martin, Fay and Stein often discussed “the Führer's qualities of greatness” in the years before the outbreak of war in 1939. Even after the war, when he was convicted as a collaborationist, Stein and her close companion Alice Toklas remained good friends with Fay and lobbied to free him from prison.
Like many of this century's Jewish American intellectuals, Stein's relationship to her own Jewishness was complex and conflicted. She was sensitive to anti-Jewish sentiment, and sometimes expressed criticism of Hitler. In 1936 she wrote: “There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it fathers are depressing. Everybody now-a-days is a father, there is father Mussolini and father Hitler and father Roosevelt and father Stalin and father Trotzky …”
Estranged from the organized Jewish community, in part because of her eccentricity and lesbianism, she nevertheless retained an acute and proud sense of her Jewishness. According to Wagner-Martin, Stein once said, “all men of genius had Jewish blood,” and even developed a theory that Abraham Lincoln was part Jewish.
During the first decade of this century, Stein became enamored of Austrian-Jewish psychologist and philosopher Otto Weininger, whose major work, Geschlecht und Charakter ("Sex and Character"), had tremendous influence on European thinking. Following its first publication in 1903, the book was quickly translated into various languages, and went through 30 editions. Weininger contrasted the masculine “Being” of Aryanism and Christianity with the feminine “non-Being” of Judaism. Jesus was the only Jew to overcome Judaism, he argued. Zionism, in Weininger's view, is the negation of Judaism, because it seeks to ennoble what cannot be ennobled. Whereas Judaism stands for the world dispersion of Jews, Zionism strives for their ingathering.