“Swastika Nation”: Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund (Book Review)

“Swastika Nation”: Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund (Book Review)

The rise and fall of a small but threatening Nazi movement

Everyone is familiar with Adolf Hitler and the rise and fall of Nazi  Germany. Few remember that in the mid- to late-1930s the United States  experienced a Nazi crusade of its own, one led by Fritz Julius Kuhn (1896-1951), a radical anti-Semite who dreamed of a fascist America led by a  Nazi president. Kuhn never realized his dream, but he did develop a national Nazi movement—complete with propaganda wing, youth group, and its own version of  the Schutzstaffel (SS)—that inspired a concerted effort (among  politicians, law enforcement and media alike) to destroy him and his  organization.

But on February 20, 1939—the day Kuhn’s German-American Bund (Der  Amerikadeutsche Volksbund) held a Nuremberg-style rally at New York’s  Madison Square Garden—Kuhn and his rabid followers seemed a very real threat to  order. Tens of thousands of protestors surrounded the Garden while  Bundesführer Kuhn addressed 17,000 enthusiastic supporters—men and women  who demonstrated their support by extending their right arms straight out, palms  down, in that instantly-recognizable salute, all the while shouting “Free  America! Free America! Free America!” Yet that night would mark the peak of the Bund’s reach and influence, as the New York-based group was effectively  marginalized later that year when Kuhn was convicted of larceny and forgery and  sent to prison at Sing Sing, the state’s infamous maximum-security prison.

In the new book “Swastika Nation” (St. Martin’s Press), author  Arnie Bernstein deftly chronicles the rise and fall of the  German-American Bund, which emerged from the remnants of a group known as the  Friends of New Germany. “Kuhn did a remarkable job of marshaling the movement,”  says Bernstein. If Kuhn was running a corporation instead of a Nazi movement he  would have been [considered] an astute businessman.”

The Bund maintained a diversified income stream derived from annual dues and  various ancillary fees, as well as the mandatory purchase of uniforms, armbands,  pins and badges. Uniforms for both the rank-and-file and the group’s Ordnungsdienst (“well-dressed bodyguards who undertook their duties with  brutal seriousness,” according to Bernstein) had to be purchased from Bund-approved tailors. In fact, the Bund strongly encouraged its membership to  spend their hard-earned dollars at Aryan-owned businesses that were a part of  the Deutscher Konsum Verband (D.K.V.), or German Business League.

Fritz_Kuhn_19380105_NARA_2Fritz Kuhn

Meanwhile, the organization’s publishing arm (the AV Publishing  Company, the name derived from the initials of the Bund’s German name,  Amerikadeutscher Volksbund), pushed out books and propaganda materials, and also published a weekly newspaper, The German Wakeup Call and  Observer (Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter). Members were obligated  to subscribe to the newspaper, and to buy a copy of Hitler’s autobiography/manifesto “Mein Kampf,” among other propaganda materials.

But what really drew the ire of the American public were the Bund’s camps and  retreats—Camp Siegfried in Yaphank, New York, and Camp Nordland in  Andover Township, New Jersey, for example—where thousands of Bund members gathered en masse to picnic and swim. Think summer camp with a Nazi twist.

The retreats were a key component of the Bund’s youth initiative, which was  loosely modeled after Germany’s Hitler Youth and female counterpart, the  League of German Girls. As in Germany, youth group retreats were sexually  charged gatherings. “They encouraged the boys and girls to sleep with each other to produce good Aryan children for the day that they would take over,” notes Bernstein.

Predictably, neighbors didn’t take kindly to the idea of Bund members  goose-stepping the streets of Yaphank or Andover Township in Nazi-styled  uniforms, and the pushback against the camps attracted media coverage coast-to-coast. Syndicated newspaper columnist Walter Winchell painted  Kuhn and his followers in a particularly unflattering light, the former taking  delight in referring to the Bund leader as Phffftz Kuhn, Fritz Kuhnfucious, or  simply Fat Fritz Kuhn. In fact, Winchell became Kuhn’s chief antagonist, so much  so that The German Wakeup Call and Observer declared Winchell “Kuhn’s  worst enemy.” Worse yet, Kuhn promised to “blacken Walter Winchell’s eyes” (promise kept, courtesy of two thugs) and to piss on his grave (promise not  kept).

Hitler and the rest of Germany’s Nazi leadership didn’t think much of Kuhn,  either. In the summer of 1936, the Bundesführer and his lieutenants visited Germany and, via a mutual connection, managed to gain an audience with  the Führer. “It was basically one of those grip-and-grin photo ops. Hitler shook Kuhn’s hand and said, ‘Go over there and continue the  fight,’” recalls Bernstein, a statement that Kuhn viewed as an official  endorsement. “Of course, Hitler meant nothing by it,” continues the author. In  fact, Hitler was embarrassed by Kuhn, and Nazi officials wanted nothing to do  with the German-American Bund, viewing the “stupid and noisy” group as damaging to the Third Reich’s image in America.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., powerful forces began amassing against the Bund.  In August 1937 United States Attorney General Homer Cummings launched an FBI probe of Bund camps, and five months later issued his findings in a  fourteen-volume report, Nazi Camps in the United States.

But the campaign to bring down Kuhn went into high gear shortly after the  Madison Square Garden rally, when New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and prosecutor Thomas Dewey seized the Bund’s financial records, hoping to put Kuhn away on tax evasion charges. The plan worked: Kuhn was charged with  grand larceny and forgery for embezzling from the Bund’s bank accounts. After  being found guilty he was sent to prison, first to Sing Sing, then to Clinton  Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, where he was incarcerated until  being paroled on June 18, 1943. He spent the remainder of the war in the federal internment camp system for wartime enemy aliens, and was subsequently deported  to Germany, where he spent the next several years in and out of prison.

Though the Bund attempted to soldier on under the leadership of Bund  Führer Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, “the movement flopped around like a fish on a deck for a couple more years,” quips Bernstein. “Then Pearl Harbor happened and that was that.”

As for Kuhn, his death attracted little notice; the news didn’t reach the  United States until two years later. “Hitler’s U.S. Bund Chief Fritz Kuhn Died  Friendless in Germany,” announced Winchell in his February 6, 1953, column for  the Daily Mirror. Kuhn had fallen so far, so fast that the columnist had  little to say about the disgraced Bundesführer. Winchell’s final words about Kuhn and his dream of a Nazi America were: “(End of shrug).”


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