The rise of the US Nazi movement in the 1930s is a fascinating and often overlooked chapter in American history. Driven by a complex set of factors, including global economic and political turmoil, the spread of fascist ideology, and anti-Semitic sentiment, the American Nazi movement sought to establish a racially pure and authoritarian state modeled on Nazi Germany.
While the movement was relatively small and marginalized in American society, its impact on American politics and society during this period was significant, and its legacy continues to be felt to this day. This is the worrying tale of Nazis in New York.
Stage 1: Friends of New Germany
Since the end of World War 2, the Allied nations have done an excellent job of patting themselves on the back for defeating the evil Nazis and ridding the world of their insidious influence. What they’ve done a less good job at is admitting that in the run-up to, and even during the war, they had a fair few citizens who were not only sympathetic to the Nazi cause, but even went as far as calling themselves Nazis.
In the US, the rise of American Nazism can be traced back to the May of 1933 when a German immigrant and Nazi member, Heinz Spanknobel was given authority by the Nazi Deputy in Germany to form his own American Nazi organization. With the help of the German Consul in New York Spanknobel went on to form the Friends of New Germany.
He did this by merging two older organizations, the Gau-USA and the Free Society of Teutonia. There was nothing friendly about his organization. They were openly pro-Nazi and engaged in wholesome activities like storming newspaper offices and demanding they publish pro-Nazi articles and using propaganda to counter the Jewish boycott of German goods.
The group made enough noise that Congressman Samuel Dickstein, Chairman of the Committee of Naturalization and Immigration, got involved. He was concerned by the number of foreigners who were legally, and illegally, entering the country and the seeming rise of antisemitism that came with it.
His investigations into the rise of Nazi and fascist groups led to the formation of the Special Committee of Un-American Activities. This group then conducted various hearings with the leaders of the Friends of New Germany.
The group lasted a few years but ultimately fell. Its membership was between 5,000-10,000 members, mainly German citizens who lived in the US. By the mid-1930s the group was no more but it had set the scene for much worse to come, aided by the social and economic situation in the US at the time.
The Great Depression, which had begun in 1929, created vast economic hardship and social unrest in many parts of the US. The economic turmoil and disillusionment that went with it created a fertile ground for right-wing extremist ideologies.
Just as many Americans were becoming disillusioned with their own leaders, the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany were gaining popularity. This led to some Americans viewing Mussolini and Hitler as strong, charismatic figures who could restore order and economic stability to their countries. People began to wonder, if Germany and Italy were doing so well, fascism couldn’t be all bad, right?
Then of course there was the age-old problem of antisemitism. Both America and Europe had strong histories of antisemitism. Many Americans, including high-profile politicians and organizations, held anti-Jewish views. The conspiracy theory that Jews were responsible for many of the world’s problems, including the idea that they were behind the Great Depression, grew and grew.
Stage 2: The American Bund
Ultimately, the Friends of New Germany failed because the American government made it look anti-American. No one liked a bunch of immigrants running around saying how great Germany was and criticizing America. For Nazism to flourish in America it needed to be American Nazism.
On March 19th, 1936, the American Bund was established as a replacement for the Friends of New Germany. At its head was a German-born American citizen, Fritz Julius Kuhn, a veteran of the Bavarian infantry and a long-time member of the German Nazi party.
The group was Nazi through and through. Their admin structure mimicked that of the Nazi Party. They divided the U.S. into three Gaue (divisions) and each area had its own Gauleiter and staff to direct operations within each region.
The Bund’s leaders knew it needed American members to survive. They set up training camps all over the US including in New Jersey, New York, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. They then held rallies with Nazi insignia and where they did the Hitler salute.
The purpose of these rallies was to tempt away disillusioned Americans. They attacked the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, ranted about Jewish conspiracies to take over the US and destroy “American” values, and warned of the dangers of Communism and “Moscow-directed” trade unions. To really hammer home their America-first credentials they flew the American flag next to the Nazi flag and announced that George Washington was the “first fascist.”
The Politics of American Nazis
The politics of the American Bund weren’t really that surprising. They were Nazis after all. They were antisemitic racists who advocated for white supremacy. They were also anti-democracy and hailed the idea of an authoritarian state in the model of Nazi Germany.
They were also opposed to the United States’ involvement in World War 2. Long before the US joined the fighting, American Nazis fought against the supply of weapons and aid to those fighting the Germans. To do so they hid behind an isolationist foreign policy, saying Americans should only care about America, not a war being waged thousands of miles away.
They were a fringe political movement that stood for a tiny (but vocal) minority of the American population. Thankfully, they had no real influence over US foreign policy and the public at large rejected their most extreme views. If anything, their antics pushed people towards supporting America joining the war effort.
In conclusion, the US Nazi Party arose in the 1930s because of a complex set of social, economic, and political factors. The movement was heavily influenced by fascist ideologies and anti-semitic sentiment, as well as the global economic and political climate of the time.
The American Nazi groups were strongly supportive of Nazi Germany and its policies and advocated for an authoritarian state that promoted white supremacy and nationalism. They hid behind this supposed nationalism to espouse their vitriolic views.
For most of its time the American Nazi Party, in all its guises, stayed a fringe political party. Yet today, more than ever, we have to be aware of just how dangerous, and insidious, far-right fringe parties can become. As the world at large sees a growth in such groups, the history of the Nazis in New York is more important than ever.
Top Image: New York Nazis: The American Bund holds a rally in Madison Square Garden, February 1939. Source: Department of Defense / Public Domain.