In response to a request from a blog reader,* who mentioned that she would like to know more about Americans who supported the Nazis, I’m going to give it a go.
In the early years of Nazi Germany, American students and tourists came back with glowing reports on Germany, and raised questions about the accuracy of serious reports of problems in the Nazi state written by journalists like Sigrid Schultz. (Because a casual observer always knows more than an expert.) Antisemitism was widespread in American culture. Isolationism was a serious political position, espoused by groups like the America First Committee. (Charles Lindbergh was the most prominent figure in all of this.**) It’s an ugly picture, and all too easy to forget in the context of the powerful national narrative of World War II, but as best I can tell, most of these people were not active Nazi supporters. (Though Lindbergh seemed to tiptoe in that direction.
However, there were several organizations in the United States in the years before the war that actively supported Hitler and the rise of fascism in Europe. The most prominent of these was the German-American Bund, which was based in Manhattan and had seventy chapters with thousands of members across the United States. The Bund was founded in 1936 by a German immigrant named Fritz Kuhn, who was a veteran of World War I (on the German side) and became an American citizen in 1934. The Bund was explicitly for German-Americans and their Austrian cousins. It combined Nazi ideology, with its toxic mix of “Aryan” cultural and racial superiority, “scientific” racism, and antisemitism, and what its members framed as American patriotism.
At its height, the Bund sponsored parades, concerts, bookstore and youth camps, which introduced German-American children to camping skills and Nazi ideology. Like their German counterparts, the Bund also had uniformed storm troopers. Not a typical element in American social clubs.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), best known for their Cold War investigations of suspected communist sympathizers, was formed in 1938 to investigate the German-American Bund and other pro-Nazi organizations and sympathizers. HUAC reached the conclusion that while the German-American Bund was overtly racist, its activities were protected by the First Amendment. The FBI, which also investigated the Bund, concluded that it was not a threat to American security. (In all fairness, Nazi rhetoric at that point was horrifying but was not directed at the United States. That came later.)
The high point (or maybe the low point) of Bund activities was a rally at Madison Square Gardens on February 20, 1939. Kuhn called it a “mass demonstration for true Americanization.” Twenty-two thousand members attended. They carried banners with antisemitic messages taken straight from the Nazi handbook:** “Wake up America! Smash Jewish Communism!” “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian Americans.” They gave the Nazi salute to three-story tall banners depicting George Washington, flanked by swastikas.
One hundred thousand anti-Nazi protestors, also carrying banners, surrounded Madison Square Gardens. A few protestors managed to get into the rally. A Jewish plumber named Isadore Greenbaum made his way onto the stage and interrupted Fritz Kuhn’s address, screaming “Down with Hitler.” Bund storm troopers beat him right on the stage until the police intervened and got him to safety. The storm troopers were more gentle with celebrity journalist Dorothy Thompson,*** who shouted “bunk” from the audience. They surrounded her and escorted her from the building.
Within a year, the organization had crumbled. Kuhn was convicted of forgery and embezzlement and other leaders of the Bund was interned as a dangerous alien. By the end of December 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war against the United States, the government outlawed the Bund.
* I LOVE it when you guys suggest blog topics. Sometimes I actually know stuff about the question. Sometimes I have to rabbit-hole it. Either way, I’m a happy history nerd. Today’s post is a combination.
**The more I read about him, the less respect I have for the man.
***Not a literal Nazi handbook. Though Germany did create a horrifying handbook for its athletes at the time of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
***You didn’t think I was going to get through this without mentioning a woman journalist did you?
If you want to know more about American Nazis in the years before World War II, I strongly recommend Arnie Bernstein’s Swastika Nation.