Homegrown hate intertwined the Stars and Stripes and swastika as war neared.
In six decades and at three different locations, Manhattan’s storied Madison Square Garden had witnessed diverse spectacles—from circuses and con- certs to sports championships—but nothing like this. On the wintry evening of February 20, 1939, less than seven months before Germany launched the war by invading Poland, America’s best-known indoor arena bristled with swastikas and bulged with a capacity crowd of 22,000, its members all too ready to thrust their right arms outward in the Nazi salute.
This “Pro-America Rally” staged by the German American Bund ostensibly took place to honor the birthday of George Washington, whom Bundists referred to as “America’s first Fascist.” But the radical organization’s actual intent was to dramatize the growing strength of the nation’s most prominent example of homegrown Fascism.
Hundreds of men belonging to the Bund’s paramilitary wing, the so-called Ordnungsdienst, or Uniformed Service— wearing garrison caps, brown shirts, swastika armbands, and military-style Sam Browne belts—lined the Garden’s aisles and formed a protective cordon at the front of the stage. Against the striking backdrop of a 30-foot-high portrait of America’s first president flanked by towering star-and-stripes and swastika banners, speaker after speaker spewed venom at Communists, Jews, and elected officials. To thunderous applause, Bundists vilified President Franklin D. Roosevelt as “Rosenfeld,” his New Deal as the “Jew Deal,” and New York City’s district attorney, Thomas E. Dewey, as “Thomas Jewey.”
The evening’s climax came when Fritz Julius Kuhn, the group’s 42-year-old leader, strutted to the podium. Large and imposing in a Nazi-style uniform, he wore thick glasses and was “bowlegged” and “bullnecked,” observed John Roy Carlson, a reporter for Fortune magazine there to begin an undercover investigation of the Bund. “The crowd went wild as Der Bundesführer rose to speak,” Carlson wrote. “He acknowledged the applause with the Nazi salute and then spoke with a thick German accent.”
“You will have heard of me,” Kuhn began, “through the Jewish-controlled press as a creature with horns, a cloven hoof and a long tail.” Listeners erupted in laughing approval. Kuhn launched an anti-Semitic litany, blaming Jews for involving the United States in World War I and favorably comparing Adolf Hitler and George Washington as fathers of their nations.
Then came an unscripted highlight, as a figure in a blue suit broke through the line of guards. While onlookers rose to their feet and roared in anger, the young man lunged at Kuhn, shouting “Down with Hitler!” and knocking over a microphone. A dozen startled guards recovered and grabbed the intruder. To cheers, they threw him to the floor, kicked and beat him, and ripped off his trousers. New York policemen on duty inside the Garden rushed to rescue the man.
The intruder was Isadore Greenbaum, an unemployed Jewish plumber’s assistant from Brooklyn. “I lost my head, listening to that S.O.B. hollering against the government and publicly kissing Hitler’s behind,” Greenbaum later explained. He was charged with disorderly conduct and fined $25.
Briefly flustered, Kuhn resumed his speech. When he was finished the audience joined him in the Nazi salute and shouting the Bund slogan, “Free America! Free America! Free America!”
As the Bundists and their sympathizers filed out of the arena, nearly 2,000 policemen manned a two-block perimeter around the Garden, holding back tens of thousands of New Yorkers angrily protesting people they considered enemies.
THE SPECTACULAR RALLY, which drew international press coverage, marked the zenith of the German American Bund’s dramatic rise. In a nation and an era rife with extreme right-wing organizations, it appeared to signal heightened cause for alarm. By one historian’s count, the U.S. harbored no fewer than 120 quasi-fascist organizations during the politically turbulent 1930s. There were the Ku Klux Klan Knights of the White Camellia based in West Virginia, the Crusader White Knights out of Tennessee, and the Silver Shirts of North Carolina, modeled after Hitler’s SS. And from Royal Oak, Michigan, Father Charles Coughlin broadcast over his private national radio network weekly sermons of hate, around which coalesced his National Union for Social Justice, Christian Front. Most such outfits tended to be motley collections of cranks, con men, and lunatics united by anti-Communism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy.
The Bund stood out in part because it was rooted in enclaves of the nation’s largest ethnic group. Americans of German descent outnumbered even Irish Americans. From early on, German Americans showed a proclivity to gather in cultural and social organizations and tightly knit neighborhoods. When this tendency intensified during World War I, anti-German hysteria led communities to ban teaching the language in many schools. Bias even erupted about German food: frankfurters became hot dogs and sauerkraut was rechristened “liberty cabbage.”
After the war some German Americans resented the harsh peace terms the Allies imposed on their homeland. They banded in small groups sympathetic to Hitler’s nascent National Socialists. Moreover, between 1919 and 1933 some 430,000 Germans who had lived through the war or fought in it emigrated to the United States. With the blessing of Hitler’s newly installed government, an organization bringing together these scattered bands of Nazi sympathizers was created in 1933 and dubbed Friends of the New Germany.
From this group rose the German American Bund—Bund means an alliance or league— under the vigorous leadership of Fritz Julius Kuhn. Kuhn had shown early signs of militant ambition. One of 12 children born to middle-class parents in Munich, he distinguished himself as a machine gunner during World War I. He served four years, rose to lieutenant, and earned the Iron Cross First Class for bravery.
After the war Kuhn, like many veterans, enlisted in a paramilitary Freikorps to fight Communists and Socialists. In 1921 he joined the embryonic Nazi Party and enrolled at the University of Munich, where he earned an advanced degree in chemical engineering. Unable to get a job in that field amid the chaos of the Weimar Republic, he hired on as a shipping clerk in a clothing factory owned by an acquaintance of his father. Kuhn supplemented his income by stealing and selling fabric until the factory owner, a Jew, learned of the crimes. At the pleading of Kuhn’s father, the owner agreed not to press charges and, in fact, helped raise funds to send young Kuhn and his new wife to Mexico to find work.
Kuhn worked as an industrial chemist in Mexico City until 1927, when he was allowed into the United States. In Detroit he found an economic and ideological home in the empire of Henry Ford, whose notoriety as an anti-Semite nearly matched his fame as an automotive entrepreneur. For eight years Ford had published a weekly newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, that warned of a “Jewish conspiracy to control the world.” He so earned Hitler’s admiration that the Führer hung Ford’s picture on his office wall. In 1938, on Ford’s 75th birthday, he was awarded at Hitler’s command the German Eagle, Germany’s highest honor for a noncitizen. (Rumors persisted that Ford helped subsidize the German American Bund, but the accusations were never proved.)
Kuhn worked at first as an X-ray technician at Henry Ford Hospital and then as a chemist in Ford’s River Rouge auto plant, and soon involved himself in expatriate politics. He joined Friends of the New Germany. He had impressive organizing skills and wielded them effectively, becoming head of the group’s Detroit branch and then chief of the Midwest region.
The Friends in those days struggled with internal squabbling and external pressure from the American and German governments. The Justice Department indicted one national leader, a native German, for failure to register as a foreign agent. He fled to Germany to avoid prosecution. In December 1935 the Nazi regime, trying to stay on the U.S. government’s good side, banned German nationals from joining the Friends. Since German nationals made up about 60 percent of membership, the edict decimated the Friends’ ranks. That same month, the up-and-coming Kuhn, by now an American citizen, was appointed provisional national leader. He consolidated his power three months later when the national convention in Buffalo officially elected him leader of the Friends.
TO REBUILD THE SKELETAL ORGANIZATION, Kuhn immediately renamed it the German American Bund. He stressed the group’s Americanism and portrayed it as a patriotic organization of naturalized citizens loyal to their adopted country. He had no intention of abandoning the Friends’ aim of establishing National Socialism in the United States, but felt the Bund could do so more readily by emphasizing its independence from Germany. At the same time, he kept much of the structure and philosophy of the Friends, imitating Hitler to the extent of calling himself “Bundesführer” and embracing Hitler’s leadership principle, or Führerprinzip, under which he seized supreme authority over the group’s every aspect.
Intelligent, forceful, and decisive, and a charismatic and grandiloquent orator, Kuhn cracked down on the bickering that had riven the Friends. He shaped the organization to his measure, appointing a trusted inner circle and controlling the selection of regional and district leaders across the United States from his headquarters in the historically German Yorkville section of Manhattan. Soon the Bund and Kuhn became synonymous.
Kuhn’s primary tool for control was the Uniformed Service. The Friends had patterned this paramilitary wing after Hitler’s storm troopers. But Kuhn made the service his own, outfitting the elite corps in new Nazi-style uniforms and using them as his personal bodyguard. The most fanatical of the Bundists, they trained weekly in the martial arts and drilled like soldiers, sang Nazi songs, and learned the principles of National Socialism. Ordnungsdienst members could not carry firearms but often sported nightsticks. During rallies and parades, they served as the color guard, bearing both American and Nazi flags.
Convinced many German Americans had been “crippled by Americanization,” Kuhn created a movement modeled after the Hitler Youth, even copying the uniforms with swastika buckles and lightning-bolt insignia symbolizing the power of Nordic youth. Boys and girls had separate organizations that met weekly to study the German language and German history, and be indoctrinated in National Socialist theory. Kuhn had the Bund purchase properties across the country, on which it built 24 summer camps. At these facilities, during stays featuring highly regimented activities, campers sang, attended indoctrination sessions, and endured rugged hikes intended to instill discipline and obedience.
Although Kuhn was a rake—a habitué of New York nightlife who left his wife and two children at home while squiring young women to the Stork Club and other expensive nightspots—he professed a belief in the power of well-reared children. “The youth is our great hope,” Kuhn said, labeling youngsters the “future carriers of German racial ideals in America.”
Kuhn also launched and presided over a small but profitable corporate empire. A development corporation administered real estate that included bungalows at the summer camps rented or sold to Bundists. Another enterprise marketed uniforms, jewelry, and Nazi regalia. His publishing arm produced weekly newspapers—printed in English and German—along with pamphlets, books, and other propaganda. Annual Bund dues of $9 plus additional fees and mandatory purchases of books and uniforms further fattened the treasury.
In only months, and with no help from Germany, the Bundesführer revived the movement. He found a loophole in the Nazi ban on German national participation by devising a special membership category. His Prospective Citizens League granted membership to German nationals in the process of becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.
Like Kuhn, many Bundists were part of the wave of Germans who, after fighting for a losing cause during World War I, had left their homeland. There were a few professionals, but most were blue-collar workers: mechanics, office clerks, and restaurant help. Strangers in a strange land, first lost amid the Roaring ’20s and then beset by the Great Depression, they found in the Bund the refuge of common heritage. Members could attend weekly meetings, go to summer camps, take boat trips on the Hudson River, ski in the Catskills, and revel in beer fests galore. Ebling’s Casino, a favorite German American watering hole in the Bronx, provided free beer and sandwiches every Thursday night courtesy of the Bund, along with decks of playing cards and even the occasional movie or lecture on Nazi art and music.
HAVING RE-ENERGIZED THE BUND, Kuhn desperately wanted Hitler’s nod. He saw an opportunity in 1936 when Berlin hosted the Olympic Games. He organized a junket for some 400 Bundists enthralled at the prospect of experiencing the new Germany. Kuhn and some of his party sailed on the SS New York, arriving in Hamburg on August 1, the day the games opened. The following day in Berlin, Kuhn and a contingent of Bundists marched down the grand tree-shaded Boulevard Unter den Linden in the company of Hitler’s own storm troopers.
That afternoon, Kuhn and four associates received an invitation to meet the Führer at his headquarters in the old Imperial Chancery. After shaking hands with his idol, Kuhn presented Hitler with gifts. One was a check for more than $2,000 for the Nazi winter relief fund. The other was a luxurious, leather-bound volume, The Golden Book of American Germandom, signed by 6,000 Bundists and documenting in text and photographs more than a decade of pro-Nazi activities in the United States.
“In America, the hearts of the German people also beat for the great leader of all Germans,” the flowery introduction began. “Thousands upon thousands have found new hope and faith through him and his work. The German-American Bund is the expression of his National Socialist worldview.”
The meeting lasted only about 10 minutes. But during them Hitler uttered words that the awestruck Kuhn wanted to hear: “Go over there and continue the fight.” Kuhn interpreted this as an official endorsement of him and the Bund, though Hitler had many such meetings during the Olympics and may well have used that line frequently as a coda for his visitors. Kuhn, however, came home convinced the Bund would “assume the political leadership of the German element in the United States.”
With typical bombast, Kuhn magnified the brief encounter with Hitler to increase his own prestige and influence. He even resorted to outright fabrication. Two years later he made another trip to Germany and returned boasting—falsely—of contact with Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring, Luftwaffe commander and Hitler’s number-two man.
In reality, the German government increasingly was keeping the Bund at arm’s length in an attempt to smooth diplomatic relations with the United States. In November 1937, the German ambassador to the United States, Hans Heinrich Dieckhoff, said of Kuhn and his minions: “Nothing has resulted in so much hostility toward us in the last few months as the stupid and noisy activities of a handful of German Americans.” Soon afterward, the Reich ordered Kuhn to remove all German nationals from his organization’s membership rolls.
Nonetheless Kuhn’s exaggerations and deceits paid off. Bund membership swelled—though to nowhere near the 200,000 he claimed. At its peak, Bund members probably numbered no more than 25,000. But Kuhn cared less about data than drama. His meeting with Hitler at the Berlin Olympics had yielded photos of the two bound by a handshake that lit up the front pages of many American papers. The February 1939 Madison Square Garden spectacular spurred global coverage, catching the Bund at its peak—and triggering a backlash that marked the beginning of the end for Kuhn and cohort.
OPPOSITION TO THE BUND had been mounting. The front-page photographs of Kuhn with Hitler might have impressed potential Bund members, but they also increased the hostility of many Americans. Some saw in the Bund a kind of fifth column that Germany could use to subvert American democracy. The most strident attacks came from Walter Winchell, a onetime vaudevillian turned popular gossip columnist and radio commentator, with a vocabulary all his own. He dismissed Bundists as “Ratzis.”
Two groups in particular not only castigated the Bund but physically disrupted its rallies. One consisted of World War I veterans with a grudge against Germany; the other was built of targets of the Bund’s most vicious verbal attacks—Jews. In Buffalo, New York, and Bergen County, New Jersey, American Legion members broke up Bund meetings. In April 1938 a hundred Legionnaires, mostly Jewish, infiltrated a 3,500- person rally in Yorkville celebrating Hitler’s 49th birthday. At a planned signal they donned their blue Legion caps and, though outnumbered 35-to-1, began throwing punches. The Legionnaires took a beating.
An array of criminals picked up the cudgel—and baseball bats and lead pipes—on behalf of their fellow Jews. The names read like a who’s who of Jewish organized crime. In New York, gangster Meyer Lansky was enlisted by a top rabbinical scholar and a high-ranking judge. In Los Angeles, Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel dispatched goon squads to attack Bundists. In Chicago, Barnet Rosofsky and Jacob Rubenstein teamed up against the Bund. Rosofsky was better known as Barney Ross, a world boxing champion in three classes; Rubenstein later changed his name to Jack Ruby and moved to Dallas, where he was convicted of killing President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
The federal government also was bashing the Bund. The attorney general reported in early 1938 that a Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry had found no evidence of Bund wrongdoing, but a new congressional panel began hearings that year. The House Un-American Activities Committee had as its chairman Martin Dies of Texas, later a vociferous anti-Communist.
The committee was the brainchild of Representative Samuel Dickstein, a flamboyant New York Democrat. A Lithuanian-born Jew, Dickstein had been instrumental in crippling the Bund’s predecessor, Friends of the New Germany, while chairman of the House Committee on Immigration. His goal was extirpating Nazism from American soil. (Six decades later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it would be revealed that Dickstein had been a paid informant of the Soviet spy agency, the NKVD, from 1937 to 1940.) When Kuhn appeared before the Dies-Dickstein committee in August 1939, the hearing turned turbulent, with the Bundesführer standing defiant and roaring denials of accusations shouted by the panel.
But it was in New York, home of the Bund, that the most effective opposition emerged. Popular mayor Fiorello La Guardia, whose mother was Jewish, had refused to ban the Madison Square Garden rally on constitutional grounds. “If we are for free speech,” La Guardia said, “we have to be for free speech for everybody and that includes Nazis.” But public revulsion at the event prodded the mayor and Manhattan district attorney Thomas Dewey, a rising Republican political star, to pry into Bund finances. Emulating the Justice Department’s method in prosecuting Chicago gangster Al Capone for tax evasion eight years earlier, Dewey seized Bund records, hoping to find a failure to pay sales taxes on products its business arms sold.
Dewey instead found evidence that Kuhn was an embezzler. Some of his thievery helped pay for two of his mistresses. One of them, whose exaggerations rivaled those of her escort, was a blonde Georgia peach who asserted she had been married 10 times and falsely identified herself as the Miss America of 1925.
Kuhn insisted that the Führerprinzip allowed him to spend Bund funds as he saw fit. Jurors disagreed, and in December 1939 found him guilty on three counts of larceny and two of forgery. The judge sentenced him to two and a half to five years in Sing Sing, downplaying the exalted status the press had conferred upon Kuhn during the trial. The sentence, the judge said, reflected the crimes of “an ordinary small-time forger and thief” and not “his disseminations of any gospels of hate.”
The Bund immediately expelled Kuhn, and without him the movement splintered and shriveled. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war, remnants of the Bund leadership met to officially disband the group.
The United States stripped Kuhn of his American citizenship in 1943, paroled him to an internment camp, and, after the war, deported him to Germany as an enemy alien. In 1951, he died at age 55 in Munich, the city of his birth. Not until February 2, 1953, did that news reach his former adopted country. An Associated Press story in The New York Times reported: “Fritz Kuhn, once the arrogant, noisy leader of the pro-Hitler German-American Bund, died here more than a year ago—a poor and obscure chemist, unheralded and unsung.”
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.