Last year, I read the book It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. It was published in 1935 and was actually meant to be a somewhat satirical look of what life could be like if someone like Adolph Hitler came to power in the United States. And if you watched the Academy Awards this year, you saw that A Night at the Garden was nominated for best short documentary film. It is all of seven minutes long, but it is a very powerful seven minutes. The film shows a Nazi style rally taking place at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Lewis’ book was happening here.
Even though the events took place four years apart, they are a scary reminder that when power is left unchecked, it can turn into hatred.
Adolph in America
In 1928 a German veteran of World War I emigrated to America. With him he brought a deep seeded hatred of the Jewish race. His name was Fritz Julius Kuhn.
Fritz settled in Detroit and began working at a hospital owned by Henry Ford (himself a notorious anti-Semite). The hospital went so far as to have a policy against hiring Jewish doctors and staff.
Fritz soon found himself a place in the Friends of New Germany, a pro-Hitler group with ties to Rudolph Hess, Hitlers sycophant second in command. The group attracted the attention of the United States Congress and soon found itself under Congressional scrutiny. Not wanting to attract unwanted negative opinions on the group in the Untied States, Hitler ordered the group to be shut down.
This created a power vacuum and Fritz was all to happy to take over. He began a new party, the American Bund (German meaning “federation”) party, and declared himself Fuhrer.
American Bund Party
The charter of the American Bund Party states that it desires “a socially just, white gentile ruled United States” and “gentile controlled labor unions, free from Jewish Moscow directed domination”.
The group, which was created in 1936, grew quickly. Within three years it had over 70 regional divisions, Hitler Youth styled camps along the East coast and tens of thousands of members. There were also propaganda newspapers and each member was required to buy and read Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Fritz himself oversaw the installation of two gated summer camps: Camp Siegfried and Camp Norland. The camps were not your typical “summer camp”, these were indoctrination camps. Male members received military style training, female members learned German cooking and children participated in sing-a-longs and learning the “seig heil”.
By 1938 the party had grown into a strong political force that attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. However, the party found an ally in Father Charles Edward Coughlin. Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest with very strong pro-fascist and anti-Semitic views. Coughlin had a regular radio show with an estimated 30 million listeners.
Fritz not only styled the American Bund Party after the Nazi party, in ideology but also in its leadership design and violence. Where Hitler had the SS, Fritz had the OD (Ordnungspienst). The OD was not allowed to carry firearms; however, they were allowed truncheons and black jacks (leather clubs). When the party held a meeting in April of 1938 in New York City, protestors appeared outside, violence soon erupted and the OD injured seven of the protestors.
Height of Glory and Swan Song
The height of its power and its swan song happened all in one night for the American Bund, February 20, 1939. On this night the party held a rally at Madison Square garden, that they billed as a “mass demonstration for true Americans”. Their goal was to send the message that American Nazis were here to stay and to showcase what all Fritz had built in three years.
The Garden was decorated with swastikas, American flags and giant full-length pictures of George Washington, whom the party called the “original American Nazi”. A banner hung from the second-floor railing declaring “stop Jewish domination of Christians”. Too the party, George Washington was a “doer” president, whereas Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were to intellectual and philosophical for their ideals.
The rally attracted over 20,000 attendees, anyone who was sympathetic to their Nazi ideals were welcomed as walk ins. New York mayor, Fiorello La Guardia was an Episcopalian with a Jewish mother and even though he loathed the party and its ideals, he was determined to allow them to exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of speech, however he did post 1,700 members of the New York police department outside the venue, including many mounted patrolmen. Thousands of anti-Nazi protestors that included many World War I veterans, and members of Meyer Lansky’s gang, were also outside the rally.
One side of the Garden stage was covered in Nazi flags while the other side was covered in American flags. There were lines of young men in Hitler Youth styled uniforms and older men in SD styled uniforms. There were crowds of people giving the Heil Hitler as a band and members of the American Bund march down the aisle to take their places in front of and alongside the stage. If I had not been sure that this film was shot in New York city, I would have sworn it was a Nazi propaganda film.
A young Jewish man named Isadore Greenbaum charged the stage. It is thought that his aim was to attack or kill Fritz Kuhn. Before he could reach Kuhn, he was grabbed, beaten and stomped on by members of Fritz’s OD before being pulled off stage by the police.
When newsreel footage of the rally was shown in theaters the only thing people saw was an American being beaten by Nazi thugs. With the beating of Isadore and with Kristallnacht having taken place just four months earlier (The American Bund felt that Kristallnacht was justified retribution against the Jewish people), it sealed the death of the American Bund party.
Fritz, Coughlin and Isadore
After World War II started President Roosevelt had the FBI doing an exhaustive investigation into the American Bund party and Fritz Kuhn himself. Kuhn’s mistress, Virginia Cogswell, worked with the FBI and recorded her conversations with Kuhn. The recordings revealed that Kuhn had embezzled over $14,000 from the party. That was enough to arrest and charge him with embezzlement. Kuhn was sentenced to two years in New York’s Sing Sing prison. In 1943 the United States revoked Kuhn’s citizenship and kept him in custody in Texas until after the war, at which time he was deported back to Germany, where he died in 1951.
Father Coughlin rose to prominence during the Great Depression, at first giving hope to the hopeless and the unemployed. However, Coughlin’s rise to fame was as fast as his fall. When he began to spout the ideals of fascists regimes popping up all over Europe, and with his Social Justice group being barred by the US government because it to “closely resembled the Axis propaganda line”, his end had come as well. Coughlin died October 1979 in Detroit.
Isadore moved to Southern California and fished from the Newport pier, after serving in the US Navy during the war. When the Loma Prieto earthquake struck San Francisco 1989 a Los Angeles Times reporter spoke to a local fisherman who told him that he didn’t pay much attention to the quakes. The young reporter had no idea he was talking to the man who was beaten and dragged from a Nazi sympathizer rally in 1939. Isadore died in 1997.
As I wrote this story, I was reminded of so many similarities between these actual events and those in Sinclair Lewis’ book. The dictator who rises to power with the support of fascists clergy and the everyday man who fights the tide of hate and injustice. If you have not read the book or seen the film, I encourage you to do so. Both are especially eye opening and frightening and in truth it really can happen here. But, it can only do so if we lose our vigilance for peace, justice, equality and brotherhood.
I am reminded of John Lennon’s Imagine. If we had a world of no politics, no formal religion, no countries, just people. People living their lives in peace. You can call me a dreamer, its ok, it’s a really good dream. We can achieve it, if we are all working together.
Looking forward to seeing you again in two weeks. Until then, you can find a link to the film’s website below. I hope you watch it, share it and this blog and follow this blog.