Some months ago I came across footage of an event that I couldn’t believe had been left out of my history books when I was growing up. It showed a cold night in 1939, when 20,000 Americans gathered in Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism. I’ve watched the footage hundreds of times now, and every time I see it, it gives me chills.
Captured in beautiful 35 mm film, the night begins with a procession of adults and children marching into the packed New York City arena carrying American flags. The crowd of thousands recites the Pledge of Allegiance, and then, en masse, offers a Nazi salute to the stage, where a 30-foot portrait of George Washington is flanked by swastikas.
Fritz Kuhn, the organizer of the rally, takes the stage and welcomes his fellow “American patriots.” He attacks the “Jewish-controlled press” for criticizing him and calls for a “white Gentile-ruled United States.” He demands that the government “be returned to the people who founded it!”
Suddenly, a Jewish protester runs out on stage and is set upon by men in brown shirt uniforms who batter him with punches and tear off his pants before NYPD cops can hustle him out of the room.
It’s breathtaking to watch, and after finding the footage, I edited some of it into a short seven-minute film called A Night At the Garden. In the days since it was posted online, the film has gone viral—a surprising turn for 80-year-old archival footage, without any narration or interviews. But I think what makes the footage so striking is that it feels completely bizarre and at the same time, contemporary and familiar.
Watching it, we are reminded that demagogues have used the same tactics for generations. They attack the press, using sarcasm and humor. They wrap messages of cruelty and intolerance in the symbols of patriotism. They tell their followers that they are the true Americans (or Germans, or Spartans, or…), and exhort them to take their country back from whatever minority group has supposedly ruined it.
And these tactics work.
When the protester is beaten up and thrown off stage, there’s a long slow pan across the crowd of 20,000 spectators who are laughing and applauding like they’re at a WWE match. These New Yorkers, dressed in suits, hats, and skirts, loved their kids and were probably nice to their neighbors. But that night they couldn’t help but cheer as a speaker dehumanized people who would be murdered by the millions in the next few years.
We’d like to believe that there are clear lines between good people and bad people. But even “good” people are vulnerable to the charms of demagogues who are funny and mean, who assure us that decency is for the weak, that democracy is naïve, and that kindness and respect are just ridiculous political correctness. I think this footage is a reminder of that and a warning against complacency.
Seven months after the rally, The New York Times reported on a sermon delivered by the minister Halford E. Luccock. The article begins: “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism.’”