German American Bund, American Nazis of the 1930s

Nazis Openly Held Rallies and Promoted Hitler's Ideology in America

photo of German American Bund rally at Madison Square Garden
Crowd at 1939 German American Bund rally at Madison Square Garden.

Getty Images

The German American Bund was a Nazi organization in the United States in the late 1930s that recruited members and openly supported Hitler's policies. Though the organization was never massive, it was shocking to mainstream Americans and drew considerable attention from the authorities.

Fast Facts: The German American Bund

  • The German American Bund was a Nazi organization which operated openly in the United States in the late 1930s, attracting press attention and generating controversy.
  • The organization was led by Fritz Kuhn, an immigrant from Germany who was a naturalized American citizen.
  • Nearly all of its members were American citizens, though mostly of German descent.
  • The German American Bund was active between 1936 and 1939.

The Nazi leadership in Berlin had tried to create a support organization and propaganda operation in the United States but failed until an ambitious and belligerent German immigrant, Fritz Kuhn, emerged as a leader. A naturalized American citizen, Kuhn rose to prominence before his 1939 imprisonment for embezzlement abruptly ended his career as the topmost American Nazi.

The German American Bund was separate from the America First Committee, which emerged later and expressed more mild support for Hitler while advocating that the United States stay out of World War II.

Origins

The German American Bund evolved from an earlier organization, the Friends of New Germany. During World War I, some German-Americans had been subject to discrimination and ostracism, and the Friends of New Germany cited continued resentment of some German-Americans as it recruited in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The Friends of New Germany leadership was affiliated with Hitler's Nazi movement in Germany. American members of the Friends of New Germany took an oath pledging loyalty to Hitler, and also swore that they were of pure Aryan blood and had no Jewish ancestry.

The organization was being guided from afar by one of Hitler's close associates, Rudolf Hess, but it was marked by inept leadership in America and demonstrated no clear sense of how to carry the Nazi message to mainstream Americans. That changed when the leader of the Detroit chapter of the Friends of New Germany emerged as a fanatical leader.

Fritz Kuhn

After serving in the German army during World War I, Fritz Kuhn attended school and became a chemist. In the early 1920s, while living in Munich, he became fascinated with the small but rising Nazi movement, and subscribed to its racial and anti-Semitic fixations.

Kuhn got into legal trouble in Germany by stealing from an employer. His family, assuming a fresh start would be helpful, aided him in moving to Mexico. After staying in Mexico City for a short time he moved on to the United States, arriving in 1928.

On the advice of a friend in Mexico, Kuhn traveled to Detroit, where jobs were said to be plentiful in the factories run by Henry Ford. Kuhn admired Ford, as the great American industrialist was widely known as one of the world's foremost anti-Semites. Ford had published newspaper columns titled "The International Jew" which advanced his theories about Jewish manipulation of financial markets and the banking industry.

Kuhn found a job working in a Ford plant, was laid off, and eventually obtained a job working as a chemist for Ford, a job he held until 1937.

In Detroit, Kuhn joined the Friends of New Germany and his fanatical devotion to Hitler helped him advance to the leadership of the local chapter.

At about the same time, the Nazi regime in Berlin began to view the fractured and faltering national leadership of the Friends of New Germany as a liability. Hess withdrew support for the group. Kuhn, sensing an opportunity, moved to replace the organization with something new and, he promised, more efficient.

Kuhn called for a convention of the local leaders of the Friends of New Germany, and they met in Buffalo, New York, in March 1936. A new organization, called Der Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, or the German-American Bund, was formed. Fritz Kuhn was its leader. He had become an American citizen, and he decreed that members of the German-American Bund would also have to be citizens. It was to be an organization of American Nazis, not German Nazis operating in exile in America.

Gaining Attention

Basing his actions on those of Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy, Kuhn began his rule of the Bund by stressing loyalty and discipline. Members were required to wear uniforms of black pants, grey shirts, and a black military-style "Sam Browne" belt. They did not carry firearms, but many carried a truncheon (said to be for defensive purposes).

Photo of German American Bund parading at camp in New Jersey.
Fritz Kuhn saluting marching Bund members at Camp Nordland in New Jersey. Getty Images

Under Kuhn's direction, the Bund gained members and began building a public presence. Two camps, Camp Siegfried in Long Island and Camp Nordland in New Jersey, began operating. In 1937 an article in the New York Times noted that 10,000 German Americans attended a Camp Nordland picnic at which American flags were displayed beside flags of the Nazi swastika.

Nazis at Madison Square Garden

The most memorable event staged by the German American Bund was a huge rally at Madison Square Garden, one of New York's major venues. On February 20, 1939, about 20,000 Bund supporters packed the huge arena as thousands of protesters gathered outside.

The rally, which was promoted as a celebration of the birthday of George Washington—who was depicted on a huge banner hung between swastika banners—featured Kuhn giving an anti-Semitic speech. Banners hanging from the balconies proclaimed "Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America."

The mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, had seen enough. He understood Kuhn and the Bund had a right to free speech, but he wondered about their finances. He held a meeting with Thomas Dewey, the district attorney (and future presidential candidate), and suggested an investigation of the group's taxes.

Legal Problems and Decline

When investigators began to look at the finances of Kuhn's organization they realized that the self-styled "American Fuhrer" had been embezzling money from the organization. He was prosecuted, convicted in late 1939, and sent to prison.

Without Kuhn's leadership, the German American Bund essentially disintegrated. Kuhn remained in prison until the end of World War II, when he was deported to Germany. He died in 1951, but he had faded so far into obscurity that his death was not reported in the American press until early 1953.

Sources:

  • Bernstein, Arnie. Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund. New York City, St. Martin's Press, 2014.
  • "American Fascism in Embryo." American Decades Primary Sources, edited by Cynthia Rose, vol. 4: 1930-1939, Gale, 2004, pp. 279-285. Gale Virtual Reference Library.