Friday, December 5, 2014
The The Rise and Fall of German-American Bund
Robert Rockaway and Larry Engelmann
On the night of February 20, 1939, President’s Day in America and five months before the Soviet-Nazi pact dividing up Poland, the Baltic states and Finland, and six months before the German Blitzkrieg in Poland and the UK’s declaration of war on Germany, an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 22,000 gathered in New York City for a massive indoor demonstration glorifying Nazism. Banners as big as bed sheets bearing the slogans "Smash Jewish Communism" and "Stop Jewish Domination" had were nailed high the walls of the Madison Square Garden where the rally was held. The crowd of conservatively attired men and women –this might have been mistaken for delegates at a national nominating convention for either of America’s two major political parties, the males in suits and ties and the women in fashionable dresses -- hummed with anticipation as they waited for the program to unfold. A few, eager to see the opening ceremonies, stood on the seats of their metal folding chairs and gazed toward the commotion at the back of the auditorium. Precisely at the appointed hour the pounding of drums began just outside the rear entrances to the hall and washed over the crowd. The volume of the drums increased quickly and a few moments later hundreds of brown-shirted men, their arms extended in the formalized Fascist salute, marched down the aisles behind the drummers and a forest of red and gold swastika flags.
The crowd went wild! Everyone in the auditorium started cheering and chanting, "Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!" The noise continued until the marching drummers, flag bearers and various dignitaries arrived on the stage. Speaker followed speaker to the podium after that, stood beneath the thirty-foot tall portrait of George Washington, and each more shrill, loud and excited than his predecessor, emitted the same message of hatred and warning against “Jewish world domination,” "Jewish-Marxism," and "Jewish Bolshevism." Franklin Roosevelt was denounced as “Franklin D. Rosenfeld” and the New Deal was referred to as “the Jew Deal.”
Except for the language of the speakers and the crowd – English -- the event could easily have been mistaken for a mass rally in Nuremberg or Munich. The message was the same. The tone of the speakers was the same. The posturing of the dignitaries and the crowd was the same, the saluting was the same, the flags were the same, with the exception of the sprinkling of the stars and stripes among the swastikas, and the crowd and speakers alike virtually swooned at the mention of German National Socialism and the Fuhrer Adolph Hitler. Fascist bliss and bluster ruled the hall.
The rally was sponsored by the German-American Bund, the largest, most influential and outspoken Nazi organization in the United States. At its peak the Bund never enrolled more than 20,000 members. But its spectacular rallies, ability to manipulate and manufacture publicity, and the extensive media coverage given to its pro-Nazi activities provoked nationwide hostility and fears that the group posed a serious threat to American democracy.
The Bund's birth can be traced to the years after World War I. Between 1919 and 1933 around 430,000 German immigrants arrived in the United States. Most were fleeing the catastrophic post-war economic collapse in Germany. Some had become members of the fledgling National Socialist Party before they left Germany. Others were embittered veterans of the Frei Korps, right-wing paramilitary bands who believed that Germany had been tricked out of victory in World War I because of treasonous activities by Jews and Marxists at home. Still others came to the United States for the express purpose of raising money for German causes.
Many of these immigrants openly expressed their conviction that their stay in America was a temporary exile. They intended to return to Germany when economic conditions improved. But their plans changed after Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933. By then the United States was itself mired in economic depression and many of the immigrants found themselves unexpectedly unemployed, short of money and with time on their hands. Their own economic misfortune now fed their unhappiness and sense of isolation. They became the critical mass with which Germany Fascists and nationalists hoped to start a powerful chain reaction of a pro-Nazi German-American political movement. They were, for agents of international fascism, capitalism’s crippling Fifth Column.
As a consequence of internal disputes, rivalries with other pro-Nazi groups, and the changed political situation in Germany, ironically, Teutonia disbanded after 1933. With vocal encouragement and financial support from the Nazi government and the German consul in New York City, however, leaders of Teutonia created a new organization, the Friends of the New Germany, around a hard core of former Teutonia members. Based in New York, the group published a daily and weekly German language and bi-lingual (English-German) newspapers to publicize its views and the irresistible and glorious Nazi ideology.
The organization’s persistent in-your-face efforts at disseminating and defending the National Socialist ideology among German Americans in New York City, its open, defiant and aggressive anti-Semitism, along with a series of violent confrontations and incidents in which it was involved aroused a ripple of public protest and brought the group to the attention of the United States government.
In 1934, the House of Representatives created a special committee, the McCormick-Dickstein Committee, to investigate Nazi activities in the United States. Samuel Dickstein, a Jewish congressman from New York, was the moving force behind the establishment of the committee. He became a relentless opponent of homegrown Nazism throughout the 1930s. The McCormick-Dickstein Committee was the forerunner of the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities in 1937 which became the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1946.
The McCormick-Dickstein Committee exposed the Nazi character of the Friends of the New Germany. It uncovered evidence that Germany provided financial and ideological support to the organization and that German consulates helped the Friends spread Nazi propaganda within the United States. When the relationship became public, the State Department protested to the German government. Worried about its diplomatic relations with the United States, the German government recalled a number of its consular officials and severed public ties between the Friends and the Third Reich.
The Friends hated Dickstein, of course. They asserted that he persecuted them because he was a Jew and their newspaper portrayed him as an evil and satanic Bolshevik, who was nothing more than a "loud-mouthed Jew." But the propaganda of the Friends also alienated many German Americans who saw considered themselves not citizens of the Reich but rather loyal American citizens. The negative publicity against the Friends, the nation's growing anti-Nazi sentiment, government scrutiny, internal dissension, and a loss of favor with Nazi Germany's government, led to the group's reorganization and reemergence as the German- American Bund under a new leader, Fritz Julius Kuhn.
Born in Munich in 1895, Kuhn served in the German army during World War I. After the war, he joined the Free Corps and the new Nazi Party. He studied chemical engineering at the Munich University. Following graduation, unable to find work, he left Germany for Mexico in 1923. In Mexico, he worked as an industrial chemist until 1927, and then he accepted a position at the Ford Hospital laboratory in Detroit and later at Ford's River Rouge assembly plant. He remained at Ford till 1935.
Kuhn became an American citizen and joined the Friends of the New Germany. He quickly rose to become leader of the Detroit local and the Midwest district. At a convention in 1936, Kuhn took the remnants of the Friends and a number of splinter groups into the new organization which he named the Amerika-Deutscher Volksbund, or the German American Bund. He stated that the name represented the Bund’s devotion to promoting friendship between the United States and Germany. His real goal, however, was to advance the cause of National Socialism in the United States.
Kuhn was a forceful and dynamic organizer and speaker and he was able to revive and restore the Nazi movement in America. He considered himself as a great leader, a "historical personality," and the leader of "united Germandom in America." His opponents saw him differently. They characterized him variously as a liar, swindler, adulterer, braggart and boor. The German ambassador to the United States, Hans Heinrich Dieckhoff, called him "stupid, noisy, and absurd."
The Bund divided itself into three regional corps: East, Midwest, and West. The national headquarters was located at 178 East 85th Street in the heart of New York City's German-American community of Yorkville. The East region operated out of New York office. The Midwest region was headquarters in Chicago, and the West region in Los Angeles. Although the Bund claimed members in every state but Louisiana, the organization's membership came primarily from the northern and eastern urban areas of the nation.
Anyone might become a Bund card carrying member provided he was of Aryan stock, free of black or Jewish blood, and accepted the imperative leadership principle –complete submission of members to the decisions of the Bund leader. Accordingly, Demographically the Bund was dominated by recently naturalized German-Americans, second generation Americans of German descent, and German nationals. The Bund was unable to attract more than a few persons of professional standing, higher education or wealth. They had virtually no representation in Hollywood, where writers and stars who watched developments in Europe were more likely to join or sympathize with the Communist Party and follow the leadership of Joseph Stalin, perceived as an anti-Fascist until his troubling pact with Hitler in 1939, than to side with the Bund and follow Hitler. The Bund was always a metropolitan lower-middle-class movement. Naturalized Americans who had fought for Germany in World War I comprised a majority of the members. Although some members could easily be dismissed as alienated misfits, traditional anti-Semites, fanatical Fascist True Believers, thugs or all four, many Bundists considered themselves mainstream Americans and convinced themselves that their Bund represented at heart a patriotic American organization whose goal was to "save" the US from domination by Jews. Yet despite these transparent proclamations of patriotism, Bundists, without any disconcerting sense of irony, still swore complete allegiance to Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich.
The main elements of Bund ideology were German racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Communism. The outstanding feature of this ideology was its insistence upon race as the basis for uniting Germans in America. In the Bund view, all Germans outside Germany were united in a racial community and bound to the Fatherland by common blood. Germans everywhere were Germans first and secondly citizens of a particular country. Kuhn stressed that German Americans were "first of all, Germans by race, in blood, in language." In fostering this doctrine, he and the Bund stressed the importance of National Socialism for German-Americans. Kuhn asserted that just as the Nazis had forged a new unity in Germany, so would the Bund create a racial alliance among all Americans of German blood. He proposed “to build an Aryan movement under the swastika to liberate America from the Jews.”
The Bund formed a special strong-arm division known as the Ordnungsdienst (Order service), or OD, a paramilitary unit patterned after the Nazi Party's early paramilitary organization, the Storm Division, or SA. Members of the OD donned fascist uniforms, including swastika arm bands, engaged in military drills and rifle practice, paraded at Bund gatherings, served as guards and flag bearers, and functioned as the Bund's private police force.
Bund propaganda employed Nazi themes and applied them to America. It declared that a state of war existed in the United States between Aryans and Jews. The Bund newspaper, Weckruf, and its pamphlets blamed Jews for Bolshevism, for the economic depression and for influencing or controlling all important institutions of American life, especially the press, the motion picture industry, the theater, and politics. During the 1936 presidential election, the Bund accused President Roosevelt and the Democratic administration as being in the hands of Jews.
Kuhn headed the Bund from 1936-1939 and ran the organization like a little dictator with absolute and unrelenting power over its affairs. He mediated grievances, appointed or removed officers, revoked memberships of Bundists whenever he saw fit, convened conventions, and interpreted Bund regulations. He exercised full power over Bund property and controlled all of the Bund’s subsidiary organizations.
Kuhn consciously mimicked Hitler’s mannerisms by strutting about in a Nazi-style uniform with black leather boots, his thumbs fixed in his belt, his chest thrust forward, shoulders back and chin up. He monotonously reiterated his allegiance to Hitler and seemed convinced he had been chosen by the gods to unify his racial brothers in America and bring National Socialism to the United States. In 1936, Kuhn traveled to the Berlin Olympics with two hundred of his followers. He received the thrill of his life when he was invited to the Reich chancellery and have his picture taken with Hitler.
But when those same photographs appeared in newspapers across the United States, Americans reacted with anger and indignation and the government intensified its surveillance of Kuhn and the Bund. The Hitler meeting not only outraged American Jews but also organized labor, liberals, conservatives, and innumerable Americans who viewed the German-American Bund as an insidious subversive and anti-American group controlled by Berlin.
Under Kuhn the Bund became more militant, aggressive and sensationalist than the Friends of the New Germany had been. Kuhn's technique involved the use of elaborate displays, Nazi regalia, and exaggerations of the group's size and importance. Kuhn's insatiable desire for publicity, flamboyant style and pro-Nazi statements, together with the Bund's extremist propaganda, brought him and the Bund widespread exposure in the press and made the government and the average interested American more aware of fascism and Nazism and more negative to them.
Kuhn's personal life contributed to his notoriety. Although married with two children, He frequented nightclubs along Broadway and beer halls in Yorkville with his girlfriends, one a former Miss America who had been married seven times. Like a boy scout from Hell, he wore his uniform everywhere and some observers wondered if he even slept in it.
Kuhn was a practitioner of hyperbole. He claimed to have nearly a quarter of a million men in his organization, who were armed and ready for action. Martin Dies outdid Kuhn and suggested that there were nearly half a million Bund members and associates in the country. In addition to his members, Kuhn claimed alliances with sympathetic fascist groups in the US including the Silver Shirts, Mussolini-supporting Brown Shirts and of course the white-sheeted Ku Klux Klan. In fact, reliable sources indicate that the peak membership of the Bund was probably around 25,000.
Kuhn let it all go to his head, as often happens to leaders of fringe organizations. Although he had an endless capacity for drinking his own bathwater, the men who should have been his greatest allies abhorred him. The German ambassador to the US described Kuhn as “stupid, noisy, and absurd” and Hitler told his closest associates after meeting Kuhn in 1936 that he never wanted to see him again.
The Bund's sources of revenue consisted of sales of its newspaper and publications, monthly membership dues, and admission charges to Bund events. Bund rallies were generally noisy affairs designed to impress members and outsiders. They included marching bands, fascist salutes, stamping feet, rousing applause, booming "Sieg Heils," and the singing of Nazi songs. Recreational camps run by the Bund provided another source of income. The two largest camps were Nordland at Andover, New Jersey, and Siegfried located at Laphank, Long Island. Both these camps contained overnight accommodations, a restaurant, meeting hall, parade and sports ground, and streets named after Nazi leaders, such as Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering.
Bund social activities revolved around mass rallies and camp gatherings. Camps were established not only for adults but also for the youth division, upon which they placed primary importance. Modeled after Germany's Hitler Youth, the Youth Division aimed to instill racial pride and indoctrinate National Socialist values in German American youngsters. Youth Division members learned German, German history, and the Nazi philosophy. The sight of children and young adults dressed in Nazi-style uniforms singing "Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles" (Germany, Germany, above everything), shocked camp visitors. The Un-American Activities Committee characterized camp activities as the "four Hs: Health, Hitler, Heils and Hatred."
Opposition to the Bund coincided with the hardening of American attitudes toward Nazi Germany. By 1937 Congress and the Justice Department had mounted investigations into subversive activities by leftist and rightist organizations in the United States. Intellectuals, labor unions, business, and religious groups publicly opposed Nazi Germany and Nazi organizations in United States; and American Legion members, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and anti-Nazi groups and individuals began disrupting Bund rallies and meetings. They picketed the meetings places, booed speakers off the stage, bombarded the conference halls with bricks and rocks, and fought on the streets with Bundists.
Attacks against Bund meetings became especially violent in New York City and Newark, New Jersey. In New York, Jewish mobsters organized by the gangster Meyer Lansky broke up Bund rallies in Yorkville. Years later, Lansky recounted one of the onslaughts. "We got there in the evening and found several hundred people dressed in brown shirts. The stage was decorated with a swastika and pictures of Hitler. The speaker started ranting. There were only fifteen of us, but we went into action. We attacked them in the hall and threw some of them out the windows. There were fistfights all over the place. Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up, and some were out of action for months."
In Newark, a former boxer named Nat Arno organized Jewish prizefighters and street thugs into a group called he called the "Minutemen." They used fists, clubs, and baseball bats to oppose the local Nazis. Max "Puddy" Hinkes, a former boxer, gangster, and member of the Minutemen, recollected one of the attacks he participated in. The incident took place at Schwabben Hall bordering the German neighborhood in Irvington, New Jersey. "The Nazis were meeting one night on the second floor. Nat Arno and I went upstairs and threw stink bombs into the room where the Nazis were. As they came out of the room, running from the odor of the stink bombs and running down the steps to go out into the street to escape, our boys were waiting with bats and iron bars. It was like running a gauntlet. Our boys were lined up on both sides and we started hitting, aiming for their heads or any other part of their body with our bats and irons. The Nazis were screaming blue murder. This was one of the most happy [sic] moments of my life. It was too bad we didn't kill them all."
Because of the attacks, Kuhn and Bund officers and members demanded police protection. In New York, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, whose mother was Jewish, complied. He sent black and Jewish policemen to guard Bund rallies. The mayors of Chicago, Syracuse, Newark, and other communities also sent police to guard Bund meetings. La Guardia concluded that the Bund was not so much an organization as a “racket.”
The Bund came apart after 1939. This resulted from public denunciations, popular revulsion, widespread opposition from the larger German American community, federal and local investigations, and the investigation into Bund finances by New York's Mayor LaGuardia and the crime fighting district attorney, Thomas E. Dewey. In the end Fritz Kuhn was indicted, tried, and sent to prison for forgery and larceny. His conviction splintered and weakened the movement. After the war, Kuhn lost his American citizenship and was deported to Germany where he lived in obscurity until his death in 1951.
By 1940, Bund membership had declined to two thousand. The organization was bankrupt and had lost most of its appeal. Local and federal government action damaged the organization even further. After Pearl Harbor, the Bund's executive committee voted to disband the organization.
Living in bombed-out Munich in 1951, Kuhn is said to have asked no one in particular, "Who would have known that it would end like this?"
3552 words in text
ROBERT ROCKAWAY is an associate professor in the Department of Jewish History at Tel-Aviv University. He has authored The Jews of Detroit: From the Beginning, 1762-1914 (1986); Words of the Uprooted: Jewish Immigrants in Early 20th Century America (1998); and But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters (2000), as well as numerous articles on American history, American Jewish history and modern Jewish history.
LARRY ENGELMANN is professor of history at San Jose State University in California. He is the author of six books.