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“fathers are depressing”

Notes on Gertrude Stein and Adolf Hitler

In 1938 Gertrude Stein led a campaign to urge a Nobel Prize for Adolf Hitler. The story is disclosed by Gustave Hendrikksen, a former member of the Nobel committee. The committee, according to Hendrikksen, rejected the proposal: “politely but firmly, citing among their reasons the attitude of the Nazi regime toward Jews.” (Weber)

Stein is quoted: “I say that Hitler ought to have the Peace Prize, because he is removing all the elements of contest and of struggle in Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic Left element, he is driving out everything that is conducive to activity. That means peace… By suppressing Jews… he is ending struggle in Germany…” (Warren, also in Weber.)

Perhaps we may forgive those who today, in the first years of the 21st century, support the policy of preemptive and opportunistic strikes at nations perceived as threats and the underlying uncritical acceptance of a role as premier world power. Most Americans, apparently, are in a position to. We have to believe, if we are to believe anything at all in this realm, that, given the realities of power, one should believe politicians when they tell us what their intentions are. It is not as though we also have the choice to stop believing them. For they only represent—whether we speak of dictatorships, corporate oligarchies or the democratically elected—the aspirations of ordinary people: those ordinary people who accommodate themselves to conditions that extend best their lives and interests and, not accidentally, at the expense of those of other ordinary people in other places. This conservative impulse engorges our leaders. The beauty of politics is that it does not require belief to achieve it ends. You may as well believe him (it will usually be a “him”) when your leader tells you that he has your best interests in mind. His opposition, no doubt, also holds them dear. And you are allowed to believe him, too. We live in wonderful world because we are allowed to believe whatever we wish…

Is it possible that if Hitler had been given the peace prize he might actually have tried living up to it? Perhaps Stein thought she saw evidence that—in the imperfect way of politicians “fathering” everywhere—he might. The strategies of provoking of peace through war and eliminating intractable or dissident elements are mainstays of the way states have been run by men (with the bedroom support of women). Stein was indeed naïve to believe that this man, or any other, might be encouraged in a better direction. Something much deeper in the infrastructure of the way crowds of wounded humanity are managed would have to change.*

*Editor’s note: This is probably a vague reference to the political theory adumbrated in Luno’s notes on Agacinski and elsewhere: namely, that power in all its forms requires wresting from the hands of men in proportion to their numbers on the planet and foisting on women, again, in proportion to their numbers on the planet. Only in this way, he argues, can we begin the process of the moral reform of the species. The words are emphasized to indicate how counter to nature morality is. It is, in fact, the path of most resistance. But nothing less will do.

She was being “sardonic,” some have suggested.**

**Editor’s note: Wagner-Martin, for instance.

This can be exaggerated. In 1934, it wasn’t as necessary as it might become later to be sardonic. Not much more than it would take to associate any man with peace. Lansing Warren, writing the 1934 New York Times article that reported her comment, didn’t exactly express outrage or even inordinate puzzlement at her proposal. He almost implies in the few sentences following the quote that she was at her least provocative in saying such things—not like she was in Tender Buttons: “Act so that there is no use in a centre. A wide action is not a width. A preparation is given to the ones preparing. They do not eat who mention silver and sweet. There was an occupation.” Now that was being provocative. In the Hitler comment she was at least making a certain amount of sense. It was just something to consider among the other odd things she had to say. Even Hendrikksen and the committee took the trouble to “politely” reject the idea of giving the prize (it was, after all, itself, a fruit of a fortune made in the war materials industry).

As Wagner-Martin writes, “elements of contest and of struggle” were positive things to Stein (p. 225). Hitler’s driving them out of Germany in the interest of “peace” we might think of as instance of “the ethics of emergencies” (Ayn Rand’s phrase), just as in the United States in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 civil liberties with their tendencies to dilute unity, a good part of the population thought wise, could be sacrificed in the interest of a “higher” goal—security.

Except that for Stein “contest” and “struggle,” in their positive connotations, were at their lowest ebb in the context of politics and war. She meant they were dynamic, culturally speaking. When the dynamism strayed much beyond that—into the realm of state building and maintenance, that is, squarely into the hands of fathers—fewer nice things could be said for it.

It should be recalled, Stein was scarcely alone in these sentiments. Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and many other prominent figures of the time approved of Hitler’s efforts at friendly relations with Poland, Italy, Hungary and surrounding nations. When almost no one else was doing it, Hitler “offered detailed proposals for mutual reductions in armaments by the major powers.” (Weber)

Stein also applauded the policies of collaborationist, Henri Phillipe Pétain, France’s chief of state. Bernard Faÿ, head of the Bibliothèque Nationale at the time, was her long-time friend before and after his conviction for collaborating with the Nazis. Wagner-Martin suggests this is because allegiances and friendships in France mattered more than politics. Faÿ helped to save her from the concentration camps, even as he worked with the Vichy government. After the war, sentenced as collaborationist, Gertude and Alice sold Picassos to help finance his escape. Janet Malcolm finds this despicable—helping Faÿ, not selling the Picassos. Faÿ’s war-time cowardice occasioned the death of many innocents.*

*Editor’s note: Faÿ, it seems, attributed a good deal of historical mischief to freemasons. According to Masonic sources, 545 freemasons died in Nazi concentration camps in part through his efforts (among that of others, notably, the Catholic Church). Although anti-Freemasonry is often linked with anti-Semitism, Faÿ, who was gay, remained a loyal friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas through the war years.

But how many innocents is war-time “courage” responsible for? I think it works this way: there are degrees of innocence and they have little to do with anything you are or have done but with what others are or do. If your death is a side effect of someone’s else act of courage, your innocence is diminished, augmented if it was through their cowardice…

So Stein, we can say, also applauded “collaborationism.”

Stein was true to her friends. She was the ultimate collaborationist. She even collaborated with the maquis (the French armed resistance). She was in a perfect position to do so. She loved to take walks in the country. The countryside was crawling with the maquis. In Culoz, she and Alice lived right under the noses of hundreds of quartered German soldiers. She knew of their movements. After the war, the maquis honored her. The details are fuzzy, but we may put two and two together.

Was Stein a war heroine? There were many women in southern France who operated in support of the resistance in the course of going about their business—many who were caught and not as lucky as Stein and Toklas. But then Stein and Toklas were Jews, lesbians and spoke French like Americans—which helped to heighten the excitement.

But it would have all been beside the point. Heroism and fatherism, same difference… When the war was over there would be Alice, good cheese, fine wine and Basket.

Stein had famously explained earlier: “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 Sinclair Lewis and father Léon Blum and father Franco is just commencing now and there are ever so many more ready to be one.” (Everybody’s Autobiography, ch. 3. Note that Weber inserts “father Trotzky” in this list.)

Weber cites in passing Stein’s pronouncement that “all men of genius had Jewish blood” as well as her Weininger-fascination. Also that she theorized that Abraham Lincoln was part Jewish. (Lincoln bore a resemblance to Alice Toklas, Picasso said, and Stein herself did to George Washington. One boy noticed and said so, Stein writes in ABT. Perhaps he had been staring too hard at the pictures in his American history books just before being introduced to Stein and Toklas.)

Of course, she agreed with Weininger’s depreciation of Zionism’s ingathering or tribalism.

What are we to conclude from this?

Is it fodder for criticizing the shallowness of her aestheticism, an indication of the lack of moral seriousness requisite in a great artist?

Her self-indulgent fascination with the material and verbal textures and decor of her small literary world is justification enough for the neglect her literary and “philosophical” work by all but a coterie of academics, lesbians, aesthetes, and assorted oddballs. She is a famous socialite. But, except by a dismissible few, she is not generally revered for the greatness of her writing—not like, say, Proust or Joyce, in whose league she considered herself. That she might have also toyed with sympathy for Hitler, as Jew, as lesbian, and as American seems to some inexcusable and par for the course… Not always put so baldly, but something like that animates her detractors.

Our policy—to cut short the suspense—is to assume the worse but excuse all those from whom we learn something. And we learn vastly more from Gertrude Stein, Otto Weininger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, etc. than we do from any of their critics especially on this score. We excuse the critics, too, certainly, for they render us a service, they mirror error which is always good to know about, but they are replaceable, and one can overexert easily in acting to forgive them.

“These—and self-deprecating Jews, generally—merely seek to ingratiate themselves with their oppressors to pass. Or suffer abysmal self-esteem, etc.” We hear that on occasion. There may be as much cowardice among Jews as among non-Jews, but if you were looking for a list of exemplars none on my list fits comfortably. Weininger, Stein, Wittgenstein, and Weil were none of them looking for an easier time of it. Weininger and Weil rode their imperatives off a cliff. Stein and Wittgenstein did not shirk duty under fire.

No wonder, they say, Stein managed to survive living in the countryside of Nazi-occupied southern France with Alice, her poodle, good cheese, and decent wine…*

*Editor’s note: Luno is being sarcastic. He is well aware that Stein suffered the same deprivation during this period as those around her.

We may never know if Hitler himself got wind of her efforts to award him the Nobel Prize. No doubt, her name would then have been added to his over-short list of “good Jews” along with Otto Weininger’s, and that of the doctor who cured his mother. Too many more like that and he might have had to reconsider his “final solution.” Had he known of Simone Weil’s views on Judaism she also might have gotten special dispensation…

Does it matter that during the First World War she and Alice volunteered to bump around war torn France in their old car visiting and delivering letters to American soldiers in hospitals? That during the Second World War she took every opportunity to meet with and encourage American GIs. That she was honored after the war by the maquis for reasons that we can only guess included her help with intelligence gathering as she lived during the height of the occupation right under the noses of German forces. That she and Alice refused to escape to Switzerland when they had the chance… She came to be loved by many even by those who never read (or could have borne to read) a word by her. We hear of her peculiar (ex)patriotism, her being flattered when compared to George Washington. She chose to live and die in France.

I sometimes wonder if I, too, could come to love this country, the United States, more if I decided to quit it for good… Better the morons you know, I suppose.

Her experience of the ravages and inanity of the First World War made her perhaps too eager to praise efforts to forestall another. By the time of the second world “war she was to see,” she might have been forgiven for having given up political ideas of any stripe fathered by men. Her loyalties were always more concrete and local. There were Basket, her poodle, Alice, a good cheese, a fine wine… and, in a few years, stomach cancer to spare her having to see any more wars.

Posted by luno in Stein, political philosophy, anti-Semitism, Weininger (Friday August 15, 2008 at 12:32 pm)

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