[On June 26th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin. That was just one of many interesting moments that brought the two nations together, so for the speech’s 60th anniversary I’ll AmericanStudy it and other German-American histories!]
On three distinct but complementary ways to contextualize an American Nazi organization.
1) That Rally: I said a great deal of what I’d want to say about the justifiably infamous February 1939 Madison Square Garden rally in this Saturday Evening Post column (that first, hyperlinked short documentary is well worth your time if you want to learn more about this historic and horrific night). “If George Washington were alive today, he would be friends with Adolf Hitler,” said German American Bund secretary James Wheeler Hill in his introductory remarks. We can find plenty of despicable statements about American ideals across the course of our history, but Hill’s has to be very high on that list.
2) The Great War’s Legacies: There is quite literally no excuse for such statements or attitudes, and I am certainly not going to make any in this space. But individual historical moments don’t happen in a vacuum, and just as the rise of Nazi Germany has to be contextualized with what occurred in that country during and after the Great War, it’s likewise important to recognize that the U.S. featured a great deal of anti-German prejudice and xenophobia during and after that war. Which makes it entirely understandable that in subsequent years German Americans would seek community and solidarity in civic and cultural organizations—it’s just pretty unfortunate that as of the 1930s the largest and most influential such organization was one started by both American and German Nazis.
3) White Supremacy: In recent years, there’s been a lot of overdue and important attention paid to the way in which Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi Party learned about turning prejudice into policy from Jim Crow and other American systems. At the same time, it’s important to think about a distinct but related trajectory: how communities of white immigrants have, too often, contributed to American white supremacist ideas and ideologies. A main story in my current book project features an Irish American immigrant who became the national face of the anti-Chinese movement, for example. And I think we can see the same process at work with the German American Bund, as exemplified by one more quote from the 1939 rally: in his closing remarks, Bund leader Fritz Julius Kuhn told the audience that “the Bund is open to you, provided you are sincere, of good character, of white gentile stock, and an American citizen imbued with patriotic zeal.”
Last German-American history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? German-American contexts you’d highlight?