On a February day in 1939, New York City cops gathered around Madison Square Garden to protect the 20,000 fascists inside and the surrounding protesters who numbered as many as 100,000.
There wouldn't be a larger police presence in the city until 9/11. According to historian Arnie Bernstein, "the cops said they had enough men on hand to stop a revolution."
The Nazi sympathizers in the arena, there to see the fascist German-American Bund organization, wouldn't have minded setting off a revolt. After all, in their minds, the man of the day – this was the Bund's “George Washington Birthday Celebration" – had helped spark a revolution as the "First American Fascist.”
Outside, just as in Charlottesville, outraged protesters decried the hatred. "They were like what we saw in Charlottesville, a cross section of Americans," Bernstein says. "Young, old, black, white, Jew, gentile, people from political groups of all stripes, including Trotskyites and other fringe figures as well as more mainstream groups. It was a massive scene, and a few Bundists took punches as they left. Most tried to hide their identity as Bund members."
The Bund and its toxic American fascism are largely forgotten now. But they were significant players in the America their time, says Bernstein, author of 2013's Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund.
In a Monitor interview, Bernstein talks about the roots of the American fascist movement, the parallels to today, and why Americans should not despair.
Q: What started this movement?
The German-American Bund was born out of various factions and groups that came into being during the 1920s post-war era, when Germans immigrants and descendants of previous immigrant generations in the US were faced with enormous prejudices.
These groups looked back to the Fatherland, the rise of Hitler and National Socialism for inspiration. They adopted uniforms resembling those of SS and brownshirts, created family retreats where they could espouse their ideals in private with like-minded individuals, printed their own newspaper, and held parades among with other activities.
The Bund was led by Fritz Kuhn, who labeled himself “the Bundesführer." Kuhn was a German immigrant himself and a Hitler loyalist.
Q: How big was the group?
It's impossible to say, given that they were secretive and also bad record keepers. It's estimated they had between 15,000 to 20,000 official members. Those numbers don’t include non-members who were sympathetic to the Bund and its mission and may have provided some funding to the organization.
But it’s important to note that the vast majority of German-Americans did not support the Bund.
Q: Was this a fringe movement?
Yes, but loud and vocal. Americans coast to coast knew what the Bund was and what they were about. Fritz Kuhn, who had an inflated sense of self importance and a grandiose ego, loved to play to the media.
Q: How did American leaders respond?
Politicians fought back. The major players were Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York, and his district attorney, Thomas Dewey, who later became New York’s governor and ran for president.
They couldn’t get the Bund on what they were saying because you have the right to be obnoxious in this country. But they found Kuhn was siphoning Bund coffers to fund his extramarital romances. He ended up going to prison on embezzlement charges.
Q: Who else responded?
The people who went after the Bund were a wild and disparate group. The FBI came down hard: There’s nearly 3,000 pages of FBI files on Kuhn and the Bund.
[Prominent columnist] Walter Winchell went after them in his column and on his radio show. In fact, he was one of the first to attack them. He pummeled Kuhn with a variety of name-calling, satire, and black comedy.
Kuhn hated Winchell and said when the Bund took over he would hang from the highest light pole in front of his beloved New York hangout, The Stork Club.
In one notorious case, a group of Jewish VFW members infiltrated a Bund meeting hall and at the prescribed time interrupted the meeting and started swinging. The fight spilled out into the streets and cops had to call for reinforcements.
In another case, the Bundists wanted to build a family retreat in Southbury, Connecticut.
The town council said: not in our town. They changed zoning laws and made arrests – which were probably illegal – that forced the Bund to leave.
Q: How did Jewish mobsters fit in?
One of the most notorious groups to go after the Bund were the boys of the Jewish underworld: Mayer Lansky, Bugsy Siegal, Mickey Cohen, and others.
They were bad guys to be sure, but they were loyal to their people. Mobsters broke up Bund meetings and broke Bundist bones. Bugsy Siegal ran training sessions to teach these volunteers the best methods to attack Bundists! Quite a tale, to be sure.
Q: What are differences between the American fascists of the 1930s and today?
This past weekend's anti-semitic shouts, the swastika flags and tattoos that were brazenly displayed, the racist taunts: What we saw makes the Bundists look like amateurs.
The Bund fell apart after Kuhn went to prison in 1939, and the death knell was sounded when we entered World War II. A situation like that doesn’t exist today.
Q: What gives you hope?
The downside is that these groups are out there and in numbers. The good news is that there are more people of good and always will be.
We live in a different society than the late 1930s. People can live openly and together regardless of religion, race, sexuality, or other factors.
I’m not saying we’re a utopian society by any stretch of the imagination. But we are better.