Saturday, November 21, 2015

Fascism Made in the USA: The Night Nazis Fought on the Streets of New York City

by Nomad

1939 Bund Party Rally NYCThe United States has had its share of fascist groups that have come and gone. One of those was the American Nazi Party, the Bund Party. Here's the story of its 1939 rally and how it led to its collapse. 

A "Pro-American" Rally

On The night of 20 February 1939, something occurred that became an interesting footnote in American history. Today it is mostly a forgotten bit of the history of New York City. And for many, it could be a period they would rather not recall.

That evening, Madison Square Garden was the venue for the American- German Bund party Washington's Day celebration, hosted by American-German Bund party. 
You may not be familiar with the Bund party, it was better known as the American Nazi party. 
Advertised as a "Pro-American Rally" it was attended by somewhere between 17,000 and 22,000. It was one of the largest gatherings of American Nazis of its time.

From the photographs of the event, there were the usual Nazi rally fixtures, flags, the swastikas, and uniforms. In order to establish its brand as true blue American, a forty-foot portrait of George Washington graced the stage. That was more than just window dressing. The organization had declared that Washington was "the first Fascist" who did not believe democracy would work. 

The meeting opened with a salute to the flag and the playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner." (It was to end with the Nazi anthem, however.)

The Chicago Tribune reported:
There was a blare of brass and the roll of drums. A Nazi uniformed drum and bugle corp, many of the members were only 8 or 9 years old, line up on the stage. House lights were dimmed and a spotlight was played upon the center aisle. In marched a color guard bearing swastika-like banner, American flags and pennants of the Bund.
The leader of the German American Bund Party, Fritz Kuhn, flanked by uniformed security, marched to the podium and addressed the packed rally hall. 

American Nazi Fritz KuhnBorn in Munich, Germany, Kuhn had become a US citizen in 1934, Two years later, the German American Bund was established in Buffalo, New York, and Kuhn was elected as its leader. With his antisemitic, anti-communist, and pro-German propaganda, Kuhn was able to enlist thousands into the Americanized Nazi party.

As an editorial in the LIFE magazine explains, The Bund Party derived its inspiration and guidance, "if not its pay" from its German counterpart. 
Yet, it called its doctrine "Americanism" and critics said the organization skulked "behind the symbols and heroes of America while working to destroy the American democracy it despises."

The Bund Party

The American Nazi Party was described by one of its leaders as “the German element which is in touch with its race but owes its first duty to America.” Others saw it as the small end of the fascist wedge. 
In 1939, The Department of Justice estimated that Bund Party had roughly about 8,000 official members. This could have been a gross underestimation. According to one report after WWII, it was discovered that the Nazis had a mailing list of 250,000 German Americans with relatives still in Germany, and a master file of over eight million German-American names.

Bund Party March
Clearly the Bund Party took itself very seriously and it had every reason to. It was, in fact, a highly structured organization, with headquarters at 178 East 85th Street in downtown Manhattan.
Not officially part of the Nazi party, the Bund behaved as if it were. It operated on the Nazi leadership principle, which demanded absolute obedience to superiors... Members donned uniforms with brown shirts and jackboots eerily like those of Germany’s Nazis. Despite their foreign appearance, members considered themselves to be loyal, patriotic Americans who were strengthening their adopted homeland, protecting it from Jewish-communist plots and black cultural influences such as jazz music.
At that time, like Germany’s Nazi party, the Bund Party was divided into three parts, or "Gau." One in Los Angeles, directed by Hermann Schwinn. The one in Milwaukee was directed by George Froboese, and finally the Gau of New York City, by Kuhn. These three Gaus were further subdivided into 93 locals or "ortsgruppen."

In addition, and more ominously it ran a paramilitary called the Order Division, or Ordnungsdienst.
The Bund operated German language schools with a Nazi theme, and several divisions of Hitler Youth. They ran four weekly newspapers, all under the moniker Weckruf und Beobachter, in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
American Nazi speech 1930sIn 1936, Kuhn had been elected the leader of the entire organization. In August 1936, Kuhn, along with 50 others from his organization had traveled to the Germany, to meet with Hitler and to attend the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympics

From all reports, Hitler and members of the High Command were not greatly impressed. There were many in Berlin that viewed the Bund with a great deal of skepticism. As one source notes:
It was at this time that German Ambassador to the United States Hans Heinrich Dieckhoff began to voice his disapproval and concerns over the Bund. Dieckhoff wrote to officials in Berlin that the Bund would never succeed in America because no German “minority” existed in the U.S. in the European sense. He wrote that most immigrant movements in America were highly resented and that the organization was only creating anti-German feelings among Americans.
And Dieckhoff was, ultimately, quite correct.

Kuhn Takes the Stage

Nazi Speaker Kuhn in New York Rally 1939

On the platform, Kuhn condemned the New Deal spending for the poor and said  
"Americanism should be returned to the Christians who founded the nation."
He blamed the Jews for the trying to turn the nation into a Communist state. LIFE Magazine summed up the content of his speech like this:
Protected by uniformed Storm Troopers..the speaker for three hours derided American democracy, praised Nazi Germany and its ideals, preached hatred and expulsion of Jews and "Jewish Communism" from America. Loud cheers greeted a speaker's sneering reference to "Franklin D. Rosenfeld."
And that's not all. The Jews were to blame for the First World War too, according to Kuhn. 
Actually, Kuhn blamed all of America's troubles on "the Brandeises, the Baruchs and the Untermyers" who, he sneered, "sent thousands of boys to France to die under the slogan of 'Make the World Safe for Democracy.'"
(He was referring to Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court Justice, Bernard Baruch, financier and political consultant to presidents,  and Samuel Untermyer, lawyer, millionaire, and civic leader. All of the men he listed were, not surprisingly, Jewish.)

Rally Bund Party 1939 NYC
Only a year before, Nazi Germany had implemented its policy of stripping Jews of their financial resources and forcing them out of the country. the Nazis introduced step by step, their final push to squeeze Jews out of economic life altogether.
The reaction to these developments in the US ranged from apathetic to outrage.

The booking agent for the Madison Square Garden, Harold Dibblee, would later tell reporters that the Bund officials had previously assured him that there would be no anti-Jewish remarks.
It's a bit disingenuous of Dibblee.
By then, everybody knew that no Nazi speech could possibly be free of anti-Semitism. Like all speeches given by the Nazis, hatred for Jews was the main content of the speeches made that evening.

Nazi Rally NYCAlong with New York police, additional security for the event was provided by the Bund Storm Troopers, who were flanked out in Nazi uniforms and wearing black iron crosses, They filled the aisles scanning the crowd for anybody attempting to disrupt things.

At one point, an attempt was made by a member of the audience to disrupt Kuhn's speech.  An unemployed plumber, Isadore Greenbaum, an unemployed plumber, leaped on the stage. 

Before he could close the speaker, a group of a dozen or more "husky" Storm Troopers beat the man severely. The police in attendance rushed to the stage in order to rescue Greenbaum... and promptly arrested him for disorderly conduct. 

Nonetheless, they probably saved his life.

The Constitutional Right to Heckle

One female journalist in the crowd openly denounced the proceedings. Shouting "Bunk!" the woman interrupted a speech by the Nazi press secretary, G. W. Kunze, and said that he was "only repeating the words of from Hitler's book, Mein Kampf." 

When she was heard laughing too loudly, the Storm Troopers quickly escorted her out of the building. (When it was discovered who she actually was, police promptly returned to her seat. She told the officers that it was "her constitutional right to heckle" and apparently the New York City police agreed.)

That journalist, Dorothy Thompson, was an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime. She had written about the threat the Nazis posed to the world very early on.

Dorothy Thompson NYC RallyBack in 1934 the first American journalist to be expelled from Germany because of her critical articles. Thompson was also the wife of Sinclair Lewis who, incidentally had written a book about a fascist takeover of the US. "It Can't Happen Here."

Today, Thompson might not be well-known. That's a pity. In that year, she was recognized by Time magazine as the second most influential woman in America right behind Eleanor Roosevelt
When asked why she had been removed from the rally, Thompson said that it was because she had laughed. She explained:
"these Nazis were exercising the free speech which one day they would deny everyone else."
And in removing the reporter for simply laughing, proved her point. The excessive reaction by the Storm Troopers made a mockery all of the false connections to Americana.

Kuhn's speech in which he blasted the Roosevelt administration as a facade for the real power-holders, the Jews. Kuhn also denounced the New Deal (he called it "The Jew Deal") spending for public relief as a part of the Jewish plot to take over the country. 

In all the fiery speech lasted a full three hours and concluded with the Nazi anthem.

Bund Party Nazi protest

The Brawl and the Aftermath

Perhaps the real story was not what happened inside the hall but in the streets outside.

Newspaper reports of the night tell us that the rally was met with protests and clashes with the police. A force of 1700 officers, supervised by the Police commissioner and the mayor struggled for hours with the anti-Nazi crowds that surrounded the area around Madison
Square Gardens.

One report claims that about 50,000 showed up to protest the Nazi rally. They had been waiting for hours A few even succeeded and in all 13 were arrest and 8 received medical are for injuries.

At 11:15, the Bund members, thoroughly energized by the rousing speech and marching music, began to leave the Garden. The members filtered out, with the words of the Nazi anthem still on their lips:
The street free for the brown battalions,
The street free for the Storm Troopers.
Millions, full of hope, look up at the swastika;
The day breaks for freedom and for bread.

In this case, however, the streets were far from free. They were crowded with New Yorkers who didn't "look up to the swastika" full of hope but with disgust and revulsion. 
A clash between the two groups was inevitable. By all accounts, it was pandemonium on the streets that night.

As the Bundsmen were leaving, several hundred persons from the anti-Nazi crowds broke through the police barricades. The police somehow managed to beat them back. 

American Nazi fights New York
In all, 13 were arrested and 8 received medical for their injuries. Four officers were listed among the injured, with one officer being knocked off his horse. 
Even though only one Bund member was injured, (with scratches to his forehead), that didn't stop the German press from decrying the incident and blaming America, the critics of the Nazis and the Jews.

It was a propaganda gold mine for the Nazis. German newspapers- now under the control of the Nazi party- were "outraged" by the events In New York. 
In a remarkably short time (especially given the time differences) the press were quick to condemn the attacks. By the next day, the news of the New York incident was being exaggerated out of all recognition. 

Despite the fact that nobody had died - or seriously hurt, one newspaper attempted to link the incident with the 1936 assassination of Wilhelm Gustloff, a German Nazi leader in Switzerland and the mysterious murder of Ernst Vom Rathe, a low-level secretary of the German Embassy in Paris.

Other publications were much more hysterical and aggressive.
Under the front page banner line "Jewish Onslaught on Leader of German-Americans in New York" Der Angriff said:
"the German nation and all civilized nations learn with indignation of this new attempt of Jewry for the criminal expression of this feeling of hatred and revenge."
The paper called for an investigation of "would be assassin" of Kuhn. (One would never guess that it was hardly more than a scuffle on the stage with Greenbaum being thrashed.)
The paper demanded an investigation of the incident.
"Such an investigation might afford surprising facts as to where this Jew boy received his impulses."
Greenbaum was 26 years old at the time, so the term "Jew boy" was obviously meant as a Nazi insult. 

A Wake-Up Call and the Unraveling

In retrospect, this Madison Square Garden rally would prove to be the organization's unraveling.
Up until that time, the organization had operated under the radar and drawing too much attention would eventually force a confrontation with the authorities. 
Besides that, events in Europe- with the war now seemingly inevitable- had rendered this effort to inspire a homegrown Nazi base in the US unrealistic. The battle lines had already been drawn and in the end, Hitler's encouragement of isolationism and pro-Nazi sympathies in the US had only been a delaying tactic.

When Americans all over the country opened their morning papers and read about the events in the Empire State, it came as a quite shock to their sensibilities. The common reaction must have been "we cannot allow a bunch of thugs to take over this country like they seem so determined to do elsewhere."

The clumsy hijacking of American images in order to promote racist and anti-Semitic ideology as well as the heavy-handed denunciation of the president and his policies could not be written off as simply free speech. Fascism- no matter what mask it wore- was incompatible to democracy and an insult to all freedom-loving people. That much was now clear. 

The 1939 Madison Square Garden event turned out to be a wake-up call. This was precisely the public reaction Hitler had feared when he first met the leaders of the Bund Party in Berlin years before. 
*   *   *
For the leader of the Bund Party, the event also spelled the beginning of the end. 
Less than a month later, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia ordered the city prosecutors to investigate Bund taxes. They quickly uncovered that Kuhn had embezzled more than $14,000 from the Party funds, spending at least part of it  for his mistresses, including one who had been married seven times and called herself a former Miss America.”
He was indicted and convicted and sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison for tax evasion and embezzlement in December 1939. 

Things did not improve for him or the American Nazis while in prison. America's entry into the war left the Bund followers to decide their allegiances. By 1941, the membership of the organization had waned. The Party's new leader, G.W, Kunze, quickly ran into problems with the law. After encouraging German-American draftees to evade the draft, Kunze fled to Mexico in November of 1941.

With the anti-Nazis fervor kicking in, few German-Americans wanted to be associated in any way with the Nazis. This included the industrialists who had once been so friendly with Hitler and Mussolini. Now there was considerable profit to be made in making war with them. 

Dorothy Thompson was the one who had the last laugh. With America a year into the war, December 1942, she organized a crushing blow to the Bund Party. 
As an absolute repudiation of the Nazi ideology. fifty leading German-Americans signed a "Christmas Declaration by men and women of German ancestry" condemning Nazism, which appeared in ten major American daily newspapers. 
Here's an excerpt:
"[W]e Americans of German descent raise our voices in denunciation of the Hitler policy of cold-blooded extermination of the Jews of Europe and against the barbarities committed by the Nazis against all other innocent peoples under their sway. These horrors ... are, in particular, a challenge to those who, like ourselves are descendants of the Germany that once stood in the foremost ranks of civilization. ... [We] utterly repudiate every thought and deed of Hitler and his Nazis ... [and urge Germany] to overthrow a regime which is in the infamy of German history

The Fall of Kuhn

As far as Kuhn, retribution by the authorities was as complete as can be imagined.

in June 1943, two years after his original conviction, the State Department canceled his citizenship. With America at war with Germany, nobody seemed too upset by a Nazi in jail. 
Actually, most Americans probably happy never to see him free again. (That probably included the same people who once saluted him. After all, nobody wants to be reminded of unflattering associations with Nazis.)  

Devastation Germany WWII
After 43 months in state prison, Kuhn was immediately re-arrested as an enemy agent. He was incarcerated in Texas until the end of the war.
Then, on VE day, he was promptly deported to a prison cell in West Germany. 

Shortly after his release from incarceration in 1951, Kuhn died, Upon his death, the New York Times contrasted his rise and fall, dying in the ruined Germany as "a poor and obscure chemist, unheralded and unsung.."

While sitting in prison, there must surely have been many times that the once-hailed leader of the now dead Bund Party sat back and relived in his mind over and over that evening when the Nazis fought on the streets of lower Manhattan.