Monday, September 14, 2020
September 14, 2020: Nazis in America: Madison Square Garden
[On September 20, 1945, the first group of Nazi scientists repatriated to the US under Operation Paperclip arrived at a landing point in Boston Harbor. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of histories and stories of American Nazis, leading up to a special post on that fraught anniversary.]
On three telling sides to a February 1939 Nazi rally in New York City.
1) Organizers: Thanks to prominent individual figures like the three on whom I’ll focus tomorrow (Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Father Coughlin), I think Americans have a general sense that there was support for Nazis in 1930s America. But that support was also organized, and one of the chief such national organizations, the German American Bund, was the force behind the Madison Square Garden rally. While the Bund was paralleled by other pro-Hitler organizations in the period like the Free Society of Teutonia and the Friends of the New Germany, it seems to me that the Bund were also singular in their desire to wed these pro-Nazi Germany sentiments with direct appeals to mythic images of American identity and patriotism (on which more in item 2). And the rally’s two keynote speakers reflect the Bund’s own multi-national, immigrant origins (not unlike America’s, if far more fully European): Bund leader Fritz Julius Kuhn was a German immigrant who had become a naturalized American citizen in 1934; while Bund secretary and Kuhn’s right-hand man James Wheeler-Hill was a Russian (Latvian) national and recent immigrant known as “the boy orator of the Bund.”
2) George Washington: The rally’s February 20th date was chosen very specifically—it was George Washington’s birthday, and the stage featured a portrait of Washington flanked by both American flags and Nazi flags/swastikas. After the rally opened with a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Wheeler-Hill’s introductory speech proclaimed that “If George Washington were alive today, he would be friends with Adolf Hitler.” In my forthcoming book Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism, I argue that celebratory patriotism (like the communal ritual of standing for and singing the anthem) has throughout American history too often turned into mythic patriotism, the creation of myths about our history and identity that are generally used to exclude particular groups from the America being embraced (and to define those groups as un- and even anti-American). So it’s no coincidence that in Kuhn’s concluding speech, he argued 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.”
3) Protesters: That speech of Kuhn’s did not go off smoothly, however—it was interrupted when Isadore Greenbaum, a 26-year-old Jewish American from Brooklyn (and future World War II naval sailor), charged the stage; Greenbaum was attacked by Nazi guards, pulled away by police, and charged with disorderly conduct (for which he paid a $25 fine to avoid a 10-day jail sentence). He wasn’t the least bit apologetic, later stating, “Gee, what would you have done if you were in my place listening to that s.o.b. hollering against the government and publicly kissing Hitler's behind while thousands cheered? Well, I did it.” Nor was he alone, as an estimated 100,000 anti-Nazi protesters gathered outside the Garden, dwarfing the 20,000 or so Nazi sympathizers inside. The protesters featured World War I veterans, members of the Socialist Workers Party, and countless other organizations and communities. This inspiring group in no way mitigates the troubling realities of the rally and its reflection of widespread American support for Hitler and the Nazis; but it does remind us that 1930s American patriotism, like every other element of our society and history, was deeply contested.
Next NaziStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?