A 60-foot likeness of George Washington hung from the rafters at Madison Square Garden on the night of February 20, 1939. Also hanging from the rafters on either side of Washington were four 60-foot banners with elongated versions of the American flag; among the flags, there were Nazi swastikas.
A crowd of 17,000 attended the “Pro-American Rally” sponsored by the German-American Bund. Ostensibly a celebration of Washington’s birthday, the gathering resembled a Nazi party rally at Nuremberg, only in English. For three hours speaker after speaker denounced democracy, preached hatred for Jews, glorified Nazi Germany, and brought roars from the crowd at the mention of the name Adolf Hitler. For laughs one speaker mentioned Franklin D. Rosenfeld.
Outside the Garden, 10,000 demonstrators, many solicited by the Socialist Workers Party, were kept away from the Nazis by what the New York Times said “was such an outpouring of policemen as the city never had witnessed before for a similar event.” The 1,700 policemen formed skirmish lines as early as four hours before the scheduled meeting. The police presence kept what could have been a volatile situation to a minimum. During the evening the police arrested 13 demonstrators. Eight people required medical attention.
The German-American Bund had its roots in Heinz Spanknoebel’s The Friends of the New Germany. Created in 1933, The Friends of the New Germany combined the members of the Teutonia Association(1924-1932) and Gau-USA(1931-33), a unit of Hitler’s Nazi Party. Spanknoebel spoke to Germanic communities around the United States. He denounced communism, racial mixing, and exhorted his audiences to preserve their German heritage. In October 1933, Congressmen Samuel Dickstein, chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization discovered that Spanknoebel had failed to register as an agent of the German Government. Spanknoebel fled the country.
In October 1935, on orders from Hitler, all German nationals withdrew from The Friends of the New Germany and a new organization was formed: The German-American Bund. According to the Bund their purpose was “to take a positive attitude in the affairs of the country while complying unqualifiedly with its duties to the United States.” Fritz Gissibl, the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party in the United States handpicked the bunds new leader, Bundesfuehrer Fritz Kuhn.
Born in Munich in 1896, Kuhn earned an Iron Cross in World War I as an infantry lieutenant. After the war he graduated from the University of Munich with a masters degree in chemical engineering. Kuhn worked in Mexico during the mid-20s, came to the United States in 1928, and became a naturalized American citizen in 1934.
Kuhn and his Bund members, most of whom were German nationals, wore Nazi-style uniforms, gave the Nazi salute, backed all of Hitler’s policies, and held rallies similar to the Nuremberg rallies in Germany, only on a much smaller scale. The Bund probably had no more than 25,000 members at it’s peak. A peak reached on that February night in Madison Square Garden.
During the winter of 1939, New York’s District Attorney, Thomas E. Dewey, already famous for breaking up New York’s underworld rackets, set his sights on Kuhn. Dewey uncovered evidence that Kuhn had embezzeled money from the Bund. To the Bund, Kuhn was their Fuehrer and could do no wrong; they refused to prosecute. Nevertheless, Dewey charged Kuhn with forgery and larceny, winning a conviction that sent Kuhn to Sing Sing prison on December 6, 1939.
The Bund annointed other leaders, but by this time the war in Europe had begun and most Americans, including the isolationist, found Hitler and anything connected with him as vile and evil. With added pressure from the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activites, the Bund withered away. They disbanded shortly after Hilter’s declartion of War on the United States in December 1941.
On the night of the Washington’s Birthday Bund meeting, 1,000 German-Americans gathered together in the Bronx to protest the Bund. That small group was far more representative of the millions of German-American citizens and aliens in 1939 America than the loud, garish, goose-stepping mob at the Garden.