Fascism is not supposed to flourish in New York, a place with a literal beacon in the harbor welcoming everyone to our shores regardless of race, faith, or class.
In a period of economic turmoil and social disorientation a century ago, one organization, the German-American Bund, recruited a vocal minority of disaffected New Yorkers by appealing to ethnic pride and exploiting their insecurities. Its members defined themselves as quintessentially American while brutalizing Catholics, Jews, blacks, and immigrants.
Those efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Politicians railed against their influence. Everyday New Yorkers mobilized to oppose their rallies in the streets. Prosecutors helped bring down Bund leaders with a flurry of investigations.
One could be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja vu as self-proclaimed neo-Nazis marched on college campuses this summer to defend Confederate monuments and scrawl swastikas on public streets.
But these earlier battles over identity politics were even fiercer than they are today.
Nearly two and a half million Germans arrived in America in the1850s and 1860s, with New York their principal port of arrival. While most moved west, others settled in Alphabet City, Yorkville, and Williamsburg, where they helped expand the city’s banking industry, brew the nation’s beer, and worked in construction.
By 1885, New York had the third-largest population of German speakers in the world behind Berlin and Vienna.
But German-American identity suffered during World War I when it became a liability to show German pride.
“It was bad for Germans during the war,” said historian Arnie Bernstein, who wrote Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund. Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage. Wienerschnitzel became hot dogs. Beethoven wasn’t played in symphonies. German language wasn’t taught in the schools. And some German-Americans were taken in the street and made to kneel in public squares.”
After the war, Germans sought to rehabilitate their image in America. Some looked overseas to their fatherland — and found inspiration in Hitler’s rise to power.
They established German-only ethnic societies, such as the Teutonia Association and Friends of New Germany, which held a pro-German rally in Madison Square Garden in 1934 before dissolving the following year.
One of its leaders was a young organizer named Fritz Kuhn, who moved to New York and formed his own organization in 1936 called the German American Bund.
“He was a visionary,” Bernstein said. “Notice the word America is in there. He thought if the group was focused on America and American politics, the organization would be stronger, more accepted and have less trouble.”
Based in Yorkville, Kuhn built an organization that served as a self-contained community promoting the advancement of German culture. The Bund had its own constitution with extensive rules and regulations, its own newspaper which came with membership, tailors, markets, and meeting halls in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Their members, numbering more than 22,000, wore brown shirts and pants matching those worn by Hitler’s followers, and set up youth and family training camps at Yaphank in Long Island.
“They had a whole social organization of youth clones and stormtroopers who had to buy their own uniforms — $27 bought you a whole regalia,” said CUNY professor Mike Wallace, author of Greater Gotham A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919.
“They sang together, they had dances, they had beer halls, and the Long Island Rail Road ran Camp Siegfried Specials on the weekends,” he added.
Kuhn presented the organization as a pro-German ethnic group, but they were Hitler loyalists who hated Jews, blacks, and Catholics. Kuhn had traveled to Berlin in the summer of 1936 and met with Hitler. By 1938, he was leading a drive to prevent American Jews from holding positions in government and banking.
“They insisted they were American but they were Nazis first,” said Bernstein.
Many German-Americans in New York, despite being sympathetic to their fatherland’s post-WWI plight, wanted little to do with the Bund.
“The bulk of German American community did not want to get into the limelight certainly on behalf of Nazis,” Wallace said. “They didn’t want Bund taking over German representation which they considered riffraff.”
But Kuhn and his followers viewed themselves as German loyalists within the United States — a stance that Hitler’s allies strongly encouraged.
“Hitler had advisers who were American specialists and they were convinced Germans were an oppressed minority here,” Wallace added. “With sufficient nudging they could be organized into a pro-Nazi force and conceivably be a fifth column in the war.”
The Bund held a several rallies in New York City in the late 1930s culminating in a boisterous gathering at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939
The photos of the rally are still striking today.
Nearly 20,000 Bund members and sympathizers donned stormtrooper regalia and cheered their leaders for six hours under banners of swastikas, the stars and stripes, and George Washington.
Dressed in a brown German military uniform and dark slacks, Kuhn denounced Jews as “enemies of the United States” and called for racial purity.
“We, the German-American Bund, organized as American citizens with American ideals and determined to protect ourselves, our homes, our wives and children against the slimy conspirators who would change this glorious republic into the inferno of a Bolshevik paradise,” he thundered.
The gathering of 20,000 Bund members did not go unnoticed.
Jewish groups led anti-Nazi demonstrations in the days preceding the event and more than 50,000 New Yorkers, flanked by what was until 9/11 the biggest police presence in city history, protested outside Madison Square Garden during the event.
One man was assaulted inside the rally and protesters clashed with cops at Eighth Avenue outside as tensions boiled.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who had condemned Kuhn and his anti-Semitic remarks, nevertheless allowed the Bund to hold the event.
"It would be a strange thing indeed if I should make any attempt to prevent this meeting just because I don't agree with the sponsors," La Guardia had announced. "I would then be doing exactly as Adolf Hitler is doing in carrying on his abhorrent form of government."
The February rally would be the beginning of the end for Kuhn and the Bund.
Rep. Samuel Dickstein, New York attorney Julius Hochfelder, and the House Rules Committee had sought to revoke Kuhn’s citizenship and deport him from the country for several years. But it was La Guardia and Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey who finally nailed him.
City investigators raided the Bund’s offices on 178 E. 85th Street a few days after the rally on the hunch the group’s sale of Nazi paraphernalia violated business and sales taxes. Dewey subpoenaed its records and found the Bund couldn’t account for $14,548. A grand jury issued a 12-count grand larceny indictment in May and Kuhn was soon imprisoned.
It turned out Kuhn had a mistress with expensive tastes who he fed using the Bund’s coffers.
“They couldn’t bring him down on freedom of speech issues but they found he was embezzling funds of the Bund to fund his romances,” said Bernstein. “The government got one of his mistresses to go undercover. He funded her apartment. Another he paid for moving fees."
Members started quitting the Bund after Kuhn went to jail and the group began to fizzle. By the time Pearl Harbor drew the United States into the second World War, the group had dissolved.
Some Nazis just went underground.
Four spies, three of whom were Camp Siegfrieders, armed with explosives disembarked from a German U-Boat off of Long Island in 1942. with the intention of destroying U.S. military encampments. One spy had second thoughts and turned the group in.
And there are still Bund admirers who gather in the back rooms of pubs in New York’s German neighborhoods on April 20 to commemorate Hitler’s birthday.
“There are people who still think the Bund was heroic,” Bernstein added. “I’ve seen them.”