The American Nazi-Sympathizing Group That Drew Tens of Thousands of Members Before World War II
January 17, 2024
On June 18, 1939, thousands of people gathered before a stage with both American flags and Nazi swastikas in what is now Merrimac Park on Chicago’s far northwest. They were there to hear the leader of a German American Nazi group praise Adolf Hitler. The group, called the German American Bund, is the subject of a new American Experience documentary called Nazi Town, USA.
“Their ideas were shocking, and they knew they were shocking, and they were fairly image-savvy, and they were fairly incendiary,” says Peter Yost, the director, producer, and writer of Nazi Town, USA. “They would do actions and rallies that they knew were going to provoke attention from the press and from the general public.”
The Bund was formed in 1936 by Fritz Kuhn, who had been involved in the Nazi Party back in Germany in its early days before immigrating to America and getting a job at a hospital in Detroit named after Henry Ford, a vocal anti-Semite. Kuhn argued that members could simultaneously be proud Americans and supporters of the Nazi regime in Germany, saying in one speech, “We are decidedly not preaching un-Americanism or anything basically new. We have [in America] an Asiatic exclusion act, Jim Crow laws, and a complicated system of immigration quotas…It has then always been very much American.”
While actual numbers are hard to come by, the Bund probably had tens of thousands of members nationwide at its height, with an unknown number of additional non-dues-paying supporters. It ran summer camps for children, including some near Chicago, and built a German American settlement on Long Island. In early 1939, it organized a rally in New York City’s Madison Square Garden that drew some 20,000 people, and tens of thousands of counter-protestors outside.
The 1939 gathering in Chicago, which drew anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 participants, was to raise money for the legal defense of Kuhn. He had been charged with embezzlement from the Bund to support a mistress in the wake of the Madison Square Garden rally. That gathering had angered officials like New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who was frustrated by First Amendment protections on speech such as Kuhn’s and so sought different charges to shut him down.
Kuhn was convicted and sent to prison, and after the U.S. entered World War II had his American citizenship revoked under new laws for not registering as a foreign agent of the German government. He was deported back to Germany after the end of the war.
“There is a story around America and Fascism that many of us were told and even continue to tell ourselves, which is with the advent of World War II, America entered the war and fought the good war and pushed back Nazism and ‘saved the world for democracy,’ and there is a great deal of truth to that,” says Yost.
However, Yost adds that the story is not quite “clean.” “We did do all of those things, and it’s wonderful that we did…but if you look closer, as the film does, at the state of America in the 1930s, the truth is that a lot of these Fascist ideas that we associate with Europe are not as foreign as we might like to believe,” he says.
The 1930s were an incredibly unstable period, given the Great Depression, so some people started to look to alternatives to democracy, whether Communism on the left or Fascism on the right. “Large numbers of people in America by the 1930s were openly wondering if the American experiment was failing,” Yost says.
Furthermore, as Kuhn pointed out, there was plenty of legal discrimination in America in the form of segregation and immigration quotas or bans. In fact, Jim Crow laws and sections of some state constitutions inspired the Nazis, as Yost points out: “They found the language to be so appealing, and in many cases even too extreme for their liking.”
He continues, “There are some deep roots to this [in America] that predate even the rise of Nazism.”
While the German American Bund enjoyed some popularity – “I think the Bund punched beyond their weight in the public consciousness compared to their actual numbers,” Yost says – as World War II broke out and especially after the U.S. entered the war against the Nazis, support waned. “It was no longer so tolerable to be goose-stepping down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan carrying a Nazi flag,” Yost says.
But in its brief lifespan, the Bund inspired plenty of consternation. Court cases were filed against the Bund. The ACLU “defended the Bund’s right to these rather noxious statements and actions on free speech grounds” in New Jersey, in Yost’s words, presaging the ACLU’s controversial defense of neo-Nazis who wanted to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie in the 1970s.
The Chicago Daily Times sent two brothers, John and James Metcalfe, to pose as members of the Bund and uncover its aims and practices. John ingratiated himself with Kuhn and traveled to chapters of the organization across the country. The Metcalfes’ multi-part expose, published in 1937, helped galvanize public opinion against the Bund and also led to an investigation into the group by Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), with John Metcalfe called as a witness.
While we now associate HUAC with McCarthyism and the Red Scare, “more or less it was founded to investigate threats to America, and in these early days those were as much if not more from the right as they were on the left,” Yost says.
“That does raise perhaps a cautionary tale,” Yost continues, “that when a group or investigative committee is formed or a law is passed, it can be used by both sides in the future for ways that perhaps were not foremost in the minds of those who originally created it.”
Yost thinks other aspects of the history of the German American Bund can be useful to consider today.
“The dynamics at play, whether they be free speech or the othering of groups, are in some ways parallel,” he says. “It can be instructive to see what happened back then just to gain insight into some of the issues that we’re still wrestling with today.”