Tonight Rangers v Detroit. Tomorrow 22 000 Nazis!
On the 30th of February 1939, 22 000 sympathisers attended a Nazi rally in the heart of one of the worlds major cities. The swastika bedecked hall was patrolled by brown-shirted men with crew cuts and white-shirted women with blonde braids. As the speaker slipped into his well-rehearsed rhetoric about the threat of a Jewish dominated press and a Bolshevik conspiracy to enslave the world, the crowd rose in delight and threw a fascist salute towards the podium.
This, in itself, should not have been surprising. After all, the opening guns of World War II were just months away, and already much of central Europe was under the thrall of Nazi Germany. Except the speaker was not Adolf Hitler or Joseph Goebbels, and the city was not Munich or Berlin. This was Madison square gardens, New York and the would be Fuhrer was an American citizen and founder of the “German American Bund,” Fritz Julius Kuhn.
To an outsider, the Nazi rally had all the hallmarks of one of Hitlers carefully managed tableau. Uniforms, flags, massive spotlights and martial music all combined to create a feverish atmosphere inside the hall. But on the stage, itself was something peculiarly American. A majestic thirty-three-foot portrait of George Washington. It stood impassive, flanked by both the Stars and Stripes and the swastika.
If this seemed incongruous, stranger still was the aspiring Fuhrer shuffling uncomfortably at the podium. For Kuhn had none of the charisma of his idol. Heavy set, short-sighted and sweating profusely, he began his harangue with an attempted joke at his own expense. The Jewish dominated news had told everyone he was the Devil. Well were where his horns and tail? His heavily accented Germanic vowels and his stilted delivery of the line did not prevent the audience from erupting into sycophantic laughter. This pretty much set the tone for the entire speech. The usual conspiracy theories borrowed from Nazi propaganda were trotted out to thunderous applause.
Yet the biggest cheers were delivered when Kuhn made the absurd claim that George Washington was the worlds first fascist. It was an easy crowd to please. Even so, Kuhn was no natural demagogue, and though he was preaching to the converted, there was a tangible sense of anticlimax in the hall as he neared the end of his address.
The solitary Jewish protester.
Suddenly from one of the aisle seats, a young man stood up and began to run toward the podium. He was Isadore Greenbaum, a 26-year-old plumbers mate and occasional hotel worker from New York. Shouting “it’s all lies” he rushed the stage to attack Kuhn. He was violently tackled by numerous brown-shirts and beaten severely. He was then turned over to the police who beat him again. As he was lead away, his shirt and trousers were torn from his bloody body. The baying crowd merely laughed and jeered.
Two things seem odd today about this Nazi rally in the heart of one of the worlds most Liberal cities. The first was that an organisation so openly fascist as the “Bund” should have existed in the USA at a date so close to her declaration of war on Germany. But it needs to be remembered that Germans were the largest immigrant group in America in the pre-war decades. Their numbers dwarfed those of the Irish, Italians and Poles. In many cities, they made up sizable minorities. So much so that by 1910 German Americans had created their own distinctive, vibrant, prosperous German-language communities, referred to collectively as “Germania.”
So it was a natural progression that In March 1936, the “German American Bund” was established in Buffalo as “the largest and best-financed Nazi group operating in America.” Its national membership peaked at around 25,000 with it attracting not just ethnic Germans, but native Americans too who were beguiled by its “Wake Up America” clarion call. This popularity was due primarily to the efforts of its leader Fritz Kuhn.
The man who would be King
Kuhn fought in the German Army in World War I, and when the war was over, he joined the Freikorps, the paramilitary group of demobilised army veterans that violently suppressed the revolutionary worker’s movement in the early days of the German Republic. He joined the Nazi Party while a student at the University of Munich. Kuhn assumed the leadership of the Bund in 1936, having become a naturalised citizen in 1933. Like many aspiring leaders of the era, Kuhn tried to imitate Hitler in every way, even calling himself the “American Fuhrer.” But there the similarities ended. Unlike Hitler, he was a notorious womaniser and heavy drinker. On their only meeting at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, Hitler was reported to have been appalled by the uncouth and boorish American.
Perhaps even odder than the bund itself was the decision to allow them to parade at a sporting venue so beloved by ordinary Americans. Though The City of New York did not own the Garden it nevertheless had a big say in whether an event could take place there or not. Initially, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia came under some pressure to cancel the Nazi rally, but he (and the American Jewish Committee) “answered that it was the Bund’s prerogative to exercise its civil rights.” It was a decision they soon both came to regret.
Despite the violence, Greenbaum was the only person charged that evening, being fined $25 for disorderly conduct. The magistrate asked him, ‘Don’t you realise that innocent people might have been killed?’ To which Greenbaum with a prescient foreshadowing replied, ‘ And do you realise that plenty of Jewish people might be killed with their persecution up there?’” He continued ‘I went down to the Garden without any intention of interrupting. But being that they talked so much against my religion and there was so much persecution I lost my head, and I felt it was my duty to talk.’
Though the Bund declared the rally to be an unqualified success, in many ways, it was the beginning of the end for the organisation, for this would be America’s last major Nazi rally. Most people were becoming sick of the violence associated with National Socialism in Germany and objected to its apparent importation into American life. The demonstrations both inside and outside the hall only emphasised this unwelcome alien climate. German Americans began to turn their back on Kuhn as both Republican and Democratic politicians initiated a crusade to destroy him.
Shortly after the rally, a New York tax investigation determined that Kuhn had embezzled $14,000 from the Bund., much of which he had spent on his mistress. On December 5, 1939, Kuhn was sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison for tax evasion and embezzlement. While in Sing Sing prison, Kuhn’s citizenship was cancelled. Upon his release after spending 43 months in jail, Kuhn was immediately re-arrested as an enemy agent and interned by the federal government at a camp in Crystal City, Texas. After the war, Kuhn was sent to Ellis Island and deported to Germany on September 15, 1945.
And as for, Isadore Greenbaum? He went on to serve as a chief petty officer in the Navy during World War II and later moved to southern California, where he was remembered fondly on his death.
For a look at how the American Government used teenage comic books as propaganda to warn of the Soviet Red menace see my blog onCold War comics