My upcoming WW2 book, War, Spies and Bobby Sox, includes three stories about World War Two on the homefront. Obviously, Hitler’s Germany never actually invaded our shores or blitzed us as they did our UK cousins. But, in fact, Nazism was alive and well in the US during the 1930s, just as it was in Europe. Here’s the story of the German American Bund, which is a factor in all three of my stories.
Roosevelt and his administration detested fascism. But in the pre-war years, and stretching beyond, the US was home to an extensive Nazi counter-culture loyal to Hitler and his henchmen. The German-American Bund, based in New York, evolved from several pro-Nazi groups in the 1930s. The Bund was led by Fritz Kuhn and hit a peak in popularity between 1936 and 1939. Kuhn reckoned he had at least two hundred thousand followers. The FBI were more circumspect, estimating fewer than ten thousand, and a piece of research by the American Legion identified just twenty five thousand.
However many or few Fascists there were running around the USA, enough Bund members existed to set up a network of businesses, publications, training camps, Hitler Youth organizations and SS-like groups. Twenty thousand of the German American Bund took to the streets of New York city in late 1939 in a parade, testament to the power of free speech. However, Kuhn was eventually sent to jail for embezzlement, having spent Bund funds to finance his love affairs, and the organization subsequently fell apart.
Did people protest against the German American Bund? Absolutely. Plenty of Jewish organizations boycotted German products, and some prominent members of the Jewish underworld used violence to break up Bund meetings, including Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen and Jack Ruby. (Yes, THAT Jack Ruby).
At one stage, rumor had it that Henry Ford was a Bund supporter, especially since Kuhn was a Ford employee. Ford apparently turned up at Grand Central station to see Kuhn off to Sing Sing but never provided a good reason why. Hitler adored Ford’s anti-Semitic manifesto, The International Jew. He mentioned the magnate by name in his book, Mein Kampf, and apparently had a photo of Ford hanging in his office. July 1938 saw Ford being awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, an ‘honor’ he refused to reject.
Just before the war Charles Lindbergh visited Germany to inspect the Third Reich’s air capabilities, hooking up with a bunch of Nazi officials at the same time. He was given a Grand Cross of the German Eagle of his own by Göring. By 1940 Lindbergh had become a prominent voice in the America First movement, determined to keep the US out of the war. In fall 1941 Lindbergh spoke publicly to denounce Roosevelt and America’s Jews for pushing the nation into the war in Europe.
They weren’t the only sympathizers. The early 1930s saw ex-journalist William Dudley Pelley creating his Silver Legion of America, AKA the Silver Shirts, which eventually attracted 15,000 members. He ran for president in 1936, but the movement didn’t last – by 1938 it was dead in the water. Then there was the Friends of Progress over in California, which held meetings and rallies in the LA area. And there was also Joseph Kenney, Ambassador to the UK for Roosevelt, and father of JFK, whose pro-Hitler feelings were quite well known.
Even after the Third Reich finally crashed and burned, a few US citizens held onto their pro-Nazi ideas, including, famously, George Lincoln Rockwell. After WW2 he became embroiled with anti-Semitic extremists and eventually created the American Nazi Party. He ran for president in 1964 as a write-in candidate, and carried on supporting the fascist cause throughout the 1960s. Rockwell was assassinated by one of his own followers in 1967, finally signaling the end of the German American Bund.
We live in a country where free speech is cherished. We might not always like the fact that people have that right. But consider this: Is it better to suppress unpleasant views and risk them going underground, or let people say what they wish openly, revealing their madness and letting them hang themselves?
For an excellent history of the Bund, I highly recommend Arnie Bernstein’s Swastika Nation.