30 April 2016

The German American Bund in 1939

Initial support for American fascist organizations came from Germany. In May 1933 Nazi Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess gave authority to German immigrant Heinz Spanknobel to create an American Nazi organisation. In fact the Friends of New Germany was created with help from the German consul in New York City. Led by Spanknobel, these openly pro-Nazi fascists were based in New York and had a strong presence in Chicago.

The Friends existed into the mid-1930s, although it always remained small, with a membership of German citizens living in America and German emigrants who had already become American citizens. The organisation, openly supported by the Third Reich until 1935, busied itself with verbal attacks against Jews, Communists and the Versailles Treaty.

So who was Fritz Kuhn (1896-1951)? He was born in Munich, earned honours as a German infantry officer during the Great War, then returned to civilian life where he studied chemical engineering at the Technical University of Munich. In 1928, Kuhn emigrated to the United States and by 1934 had became a naturalised citizen. Thanks to Arnie Bernstein in Tablet, I can now link the Bund history to an important story I have already told in this blog: New York State - anti-black, anti-Jewish and anti-Soviet riots.

Kuhn moved to Detroit where his master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Munich got him hired at Henry Ford Hospital — a medical facility with an employment ban on Jewish doctors. Kuhn joined the Friends of New Germany and quickly rose to the top of the organisation’s Midwest division. When the Friends closed down, Kuhn declared that the only way for a pro-Hitler movement to succeed in the USA was by building a new organisation based on core American principles and the ideas of the Founding Fathers. The new group, the Bund, adhered to a detailed constitution that mimicked the language of Jeff­erson’s Declaration of Independence in its call for the “preservation of the inalienable Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness in a truly sovereign United States of America, ruled in accordance with Aryan Christian Precepts.”

Advertising poster for the mass demonstration at
Madison Square Garden
February 1939.
Note the appeal for American patriotism, more than German patriotism

Bund's Washington’s Birthday Rally
Madison Square Garden, New York
Feb 1939

Members considered themselves to be loyal, patriotic Americans who were strengthening their adopted homeland, protecting it from Jewish-Communist plots and black cultural influences such as jazz music. They thought of the Bund as “the German element which was in touch with its race but owed its first duty to America”. And to avoid a clash between Germany and America, they urged US neutrality in European affairs. The Bund took care to display patriotism for America during their gatherings. At Bund rallies and on stage, the American flag and portraits of George Washington appeared, alongside the swastika. Both countries’ national anthems were played.

Kuhn was a skilled entrepreneur. Under his leadership, the Bund was transformed into a money-making machine with interests that included publishing newspapers and other propaganda, sales of Bund ephemera and uniforms, and a nationwide constellation of family retreats. Though membership records were both secretive and poorly kept, the FBI believed there were 5,000-8,000 Bundists, while the American Legion estimated the Bund had 25,000+ members. Kuhn claimed he had 200,000+ followers.

Bernstein tells of an unprecedented political moment: in Feb 1939, Kuhn held the largest, most publicised rally in the Bund's history at New York’s Madison Square Garden. This charismatic leader took the stage in an arena overflowing with fanatical supporters and delivered a rousing and most assuredly politically incorrect speech decrying the USA’s “suicidal tolerance of parasitical aliens, making something entirely different out of the nation, destroying its ethics, morals, patriot­ism and religious conceptions.” He told his devoted audience to pledge their loyalty to him and their desires for a greater America. In the media gallery reporters were ejected as they openly mocked the speaker. Isidore Greenbaum, a wild-eyed protester rushed the stage, but was beaten to a pulp as the crowd roared its approval.

Fritz Kuhn, 1939

This German-American Bund gathered at their Washington’s Birthday Rally. A packed house of 20,000+ whooped it up the leader Fritz Kuhn, the man with vainglorious dreams who roused crowds by targeting perceived religious, racial, ethnic, and/or political enemies. Kuhn had an uncanny talent for tapping into populist sentiments. He condemned President Roosevelt by repeatedly calling him Frank D. Rosenfeld, calling his New Deal the Jew Deal and criticising the Bolshevik-Jewish American leadership.

Kuhn was an outright liar. Among other things, he bragged that he’d been part of the mob that followed Hitler into the Beer Hall putsch.

In 1930s Germany, standing up to Hitler had meant death. But in the USA, when Kuhn laid out his plan to his followers in Madison Square Garden, the streets surrounding the venue were choked with c100,000 people of all stripes. College students, Trotskyites and button-down businessmen were all determined to stop Kuhn and the German-American Bund. Dorothy Thompson, the journalist tossed out from the event, marked this moment with pride as the second time she was kicked out by a Fascist: Thompson was the first foreign correspondent sent packing by Nazi Germany after Harper’s published her interview with Hitler, describing the Fuhrer as a formless, almost faceless little man.

Most shocking to American sensibilities was the outbreak of violence between protesters and Bund henchmen. But in any case Kuhn, America’s want-to-be Fuhrer, self-destructed. In 1939 he went to prison after being caught embezzling from Bund coffers. Stripped of American citizenship and sent to Sing Sing, Kuhn was deported after WW2 back to Germany. He died there in 1951, broken and forgotten.


But was the German-American Bund also broken and forgotten? Hist­orians have suggested that the Madison Garden demonstration was the peak of the movement’s history, but certainly not its end. Kuhn was replaced by a leader who may have wanted to continue Kuhn’s crusade, but WW2 broke out in August 1939. The Bund was formally dissolved in 1941.

German American Bund 
complete with flags and marching band, 
New York 1939

Other homegrown racist groups continued the crusade, particularly the Ku Klux Klan, the Christian Enforcers and the Silver Shirts who found common ground with the anti-Semitic, white-supremacist Bund.

So which group was responsible for funding, publicising and organising the anti-Semitic, anti-Black riots at a Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill New York in 1949? The Ku Klux Klan. 80% of the concert goers were Jewish. Despite the most tragic world war having finished only a couple of years before, the pro-Fascist mobs screamed “We are Hitler’s boys, here to finish his job”. The violence overflowed even to people who had not attended the concert. Some locals noticed a bus of blacks travelling along the highway from a field trip to visit the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park and attacked it violently. 145 Jews and blacks were hospitalised.

Bernstein is correct that decent Americans ultimately cast Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund onto the ash-heap of history. But other pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic and anti-black organisations in the USA continued to carry the flag high. 


Andrew said...

I think Japanese were interned in the US during WWII. I wonder why Germans were not. Too many perhaps, or maybe there weren't seen as such an enemy as the Japanese were.

Deb said...

Did the Bund start as a sort of social club for lonely German speaking immigrants and became sinister later when Kuhn took over

Hels said...


there were indeed German-Americans interned, but only c10,000-12,000 of the millions of those born in Germany or whose parents were born in Germany. But after Pearl Harbour was blown up, there was a presidential command declaring the entire West Coast an Exclusion Zone for ALL Japanese in area, even if they had been American citizens for decades. Mandatory internment, based on racial features rather than on threatening behaviour, was totally unjust.

Hels said...


I believe the Friends of New Germany, as the organisation was called, was sinister from its beginning in 1933. I will add an explanatory paragraph into the body of the blog. Thanks for reminding me.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It's no surprise that Kuhn worked for that notorious anti-Semite, Henry Ford. It continues to amaze me that groups like the ones you describe, even when ultimately defeated, are able to garner so much support. Often it is bad publicity or scandal that ends such groups, not the coming to their senses of the members.

Joseph said...

Didn't the local government have to give a permit for a march in the centre of town or for thousands and thousands of people to rally in Madison Square?

Hels said...


Henry Ford was a nasty piece of work *nod*. But, it would seem, a very influential one as well. The Dearborn Independent was nasty. But the most vicious articles from Ford's newspaper were edited and consolidated into the four books that made up "The International Jew", after WW1. Kuhn must have thought he had died and gone to heaven, when Ford became his boss.

Hels said...


from what I can find, the Bund did indeed gain permission for their outdoor activities. They were not allowed to wave swastikas or call for the death of the Jews or blacks or communists. But the idea of family oriented social gatherings at Bund meeting halls and summer camps was very appealing to the authorities.

Were policemen sent to supervise the events and to ensure than the Bundists and the Jews/blacks/communists were kept apart?

Alan Taylor said...

Nearly 1,000 uniformed men wearing swastika arm bands and carrying Nazi banners paraded past a reviewing stand in New Jersey in July 1937. The New Jersey division of the German-American Bund opened its 100-acre Camp Nordland at Sussex Hills.

In Oct 1938 Fritz Kuhn, bundsfuehrer, was to make a victory speech celebrating Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. An anti-Nazi crowd rushed the bar entrance of the German-American Bund Hall in Union City New Jersey, and although Bund members drove the protesters out, the meeting was disrupted.

Alan Taylor

Hels said...


thank you... I think :(

Most of us had assumed that Nazism would have taken hold in the southern states, but it is clear that New York, Washington, Detroit, Chicago and now New Jersey were important centres of popular support.