American Nazi organization rally at Madison Square Garden

American Nazi organization rally at Madison Square Garden, 1939

Supposedly 22,000 Nazi supporters attended an American Bund rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden in February 1939, under police guard. Demonstrators protested outside. An American Bund parade through New York’s Yorkville district on Manhattan’s Upper East Side drew both supporters and protesters and the press. Aside from its admiration for Adolf Hitler and the achievements of Nazi Germany, the German American Bund program included antisemitism, strong anti-Communist sentiments, and the demand that the United States remain neutral in the approaching European conflict.

There is a reason Washington is up there and not Jefferson or Madison. Fascism was an ideology that emphasized action and heroism over intellectualism and philosophy. This is why Hitler’s ideal Aryan concept was a strong, handsome, and physically fit person rather than someone with a mind for civics. Men of action were the ideal example figures. The other part of fascism was extreme patriotism, which is why each nation/group had its own fascist symbolism and mythology. It wasn’t like communism where concepts were supposed to transcend ethnic boundaries, but an ideology where each nation had its own flavor. Washington, as a military leader, patriotic father, and someone whom a legend of heroism and virtue has grown up around, was/is the ideal figure for fascist groups looking to pull a symbol out of American history. Facists will always wrap themselves in the most patriotic props.

The German-American Bund or German American Federation was a fraternal American organization established in the 1930s as a merger of two older organizations, the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) and the Free Society of Teutonia, both of which were small groups with only a few hundred members each. NSDAP member Heinz Sponknobel eventually consolidated the two groups into the Friends of New Germany.

The organization existed into the mid-1930s, although it always remained small, with a membership of between 5,000-10,000. Mostly German citizens living in America and German emigrants who only recently had become citizens composed its ranks. The organization busied itself with verbal attacks against Jews, Communists and the Versailles Treaty. Until 1935 the organization was openly supported by the Third Reich, although soon Nazi officials realized the organization was doing more harm than good in America and in December 1935 Hess ordered that all German citizens leave the Friends of New Germany; also, all the group’s leaders were recalled to Germany. Not long after the Friends of New Germany fell out of favor with the Nazis and was dismantled, a new organization with similar goals arose in its place. Formed in March 1936 in Buffalo/New York and calling itself the German-American Bund or Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, the organization chose Fritz Kuhn as its Bundesleiter. A Munich native, Kuhn had fought in the German Army during World War I. After receiving an education in chemical engineering, Kuhn briefly had worked in Mexico before coming to the United States and in 1934 being granted American citizenship. Kuhn was initially effective as a leader and was able to unite the organization and expand its membership.

In February 1939 Kuhn and the Bund held their largest rally in Madison Square Garden—ironically, one which marked the beginning of the end for the organization. In front of a crowd of 22,000, flanked by a massive portrait of George Washington, swastikas and Americans flags, Kuhn attacked FDR for being part of a Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy, calling him “Frank D. Rosenfeld” and criticizing the New Deal, which Kuhn had deemed “the Jew Deal”. Three thousands members of the Ordnungsdienst, the militant arm of the Bund, were on hand and fistfights broke out in the crowd among those who had come to heckle Kuhn. After the rally, New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey arrested Kuhn on charges of larceny and forgery. He not only was convicted of these charges but he also confessed to being arrested multiple times for drunkenness, carrying on extra-marital affairs and pocketing $15,000 from the Madison Square Garden rally. After the war, Kuhn was deported to Germany; he died there unceremoniously in 1951. Following Kuhn’s arrest, the Bund slowly withered away, until its dissolution on 8 December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the United States declared war on Germany, federal officials began to arrest Bund officials. Kuhn’s successor Gerhard Kunze was captured in Mexico and sentenced to 15 years of prison for “subversive activities”. Twenty-four other officers were convicted of conspiracy to violate the 1940 Selective Service Act and served prison time. Some other Bund leaders committed suicide before the FBI caught up with them. Although some Bund members had their naturalization revoked and some spent time in prison camps, most members were left alone after the organization was disbanded.

The German-American reaction to Hitler and the Bund was mixed. Most supported American neutrality, and many were glad to see the revival of Germany and were angry about the Jewish boycott of German goods. But they were also uneasy about Hitler. Some tried to be cautiously optimistic. The Milwaukee Sonntags-post argued in 1933, for example, that “the Hitler dictatorship represents for the moment the most efficient and expedient concentration of the united will of the German nation.” Any hopes German Americans may have placed in Hitler would soon be dashed. Nazi behavior overseas and the presence of the Bund in America would soon revive German Americans’ deepest fear: a repeat of World War I’s anti-German hysteria.

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