Nazis in America: The Madison Square Garden Rally
In 1929, as many as 22,000 Americans met for a Nazi rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden. It was an event of the German-American Bund and attendees cheered while listening to anti-semitic, Nazi-sympathizing speeches. It’s hard to believe that this type of thing could happen in America, but it’s true. In this episode, we examine the event and then play the quick quiz with International Award-Winning Magician, Erik Tait.
When a society experiences hardship, history shows us time and time again that political leaders deflect that hardship toward an enemy to blame. In 1929, the hardship was a global economic depression.
Like in the United States, the depression left millions of Germans unemployed and unsatisfied with the democratic system of the Weimar Republic that had stabilized the country after the first World War ten years ago. The public blamed social democracy and big business. If a German was going to reject Social Democracy, they had a choice between Communism and National Socialism and while Communism’s argument was a complex one, The National Socialists had pointed their finger at a clear enemy – Jewish Financiers and Bolsheviks. Because of that and because Hitler was seen by many Germans at the time as powerful and charismatic, the Nazi Party rose in popularity. Between the years of 1924 and 1934, the Nazis went from receiving 3% of the vote to 33%. Even after their rise to power, a lot of Germans were still skeptical, but the party offered a populist appeal and promoted a nationalism that people liked. They called it Volksgemeinshaft – “The People’s Community.” And after a global economic depression, nationalism sounded like a good idea. Sadly, even many of those who disagreed with the hateful anti-semitic views ignored them in favor of seeing a political party build a stronger Germany. By 1936, Germany saw full employment – of course many of those jobs were because of the country building up the military strength to prepare for war.
The Nazi Party saw support in other countries as well. History tells us about their support in Italy and Japan, but we know of other instances of Nazi support around the globe. In Europe, these were sometimes nothing more than an alliance in fear of the Soviet Union. For instance, in Finland, the President made an agreement with Hitler for protection against the Soviet Union should they invade. Even Great Britain, who would eventually be absolutely devastated by German forces during the war, had made an Anglo-German Naval pact in the 1930s – something that was in violation of the treaty of Versailles. And while most British despised the Nazi Party, there was indeed a large swath of support – mostly in the North – through the British Union of Fascists, led by a member of Parliament, Oswald Mosely. They even changed their name to include National Socialists. They had 50,000 members. They were disbanded in 1940, but there were a handful of smaller groups that supported the Nazis within Britain. Some were funded by Berlin directly. Some were simply aligned with the Nazis anti-semitic policies. Many in the country’s high society admired Hitler and saw his politics as crucial to defeating communism. Most of these high society folks ended their support as soon as Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Even then, during the war, as many as 70 British men and women were convicted of attempting to aid the enemy and hundreds more were rounded up and interned by the British government.
Like in Great Britain, there was support for Naziism in America as well. Bradley W. Hart, author of “Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States,” argues that the support for Nazis in the US was greater than most Americans remember today. There were a few different reasons for this. Remember the first weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 when there were extreme right-wing talking heads who were celebrating Russia’s strength and denigrating the Ukrainian government? It’s still happening today as the war enters its 6th month. Well similarly, there was a far-right radio personality, Charles Coughlin, who would go on the air and promote Nazi fascist policies and apply them to American life. This guy was a Catholic Priest out of Detroit and he would broadcast these huge anti-semitic tirades to tens of millions of listeners.
In North Carolina, there was a guy William Dudley Pelley who started the Silver Legion – known as the Silver Shirts – who grew a group of 15,000 Pro-Nazi, Anti-Jewish members, mostly because he had convinced them that “Jews were possessed by demons.” It was a Christian Nationalist group. This guy was particularly weird. He had developed a whole costume for his clan and even had ambitions of becoming an American dictator like Hitler.
There were even American Politicians in Washington dsitributing Nazi propaganda, like Congressman Hamilton Fish III, who was an isolationist and led a scheme to distribute Goebbels propaganda via U.S. Mail and Senator Robert Rice Reynolds who made pro-German statements in the Congressional record.
The German American Bund, also known as the German-American Federation started as a group called “Friends of New Germany.” They were Nazi sympathizers and were started by a German immigrant to the U.S. who was given the direction to start this group directly from the deputy Führer of the Nazis, Rudolf Hess. This wasn’t a grassroots Nazi support campaign – it was a direct result of Nazi influence. Many of the members of the German American Bund were of German descent, but some were just anti-semites. They had a headquarters in New York City, but had training camps in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They publicly opposed and attacked Jewish-American groups, Communism, F.D.R., trade unions and American boycotts of German goods. They would display the American flag next to the Nazi swastika flag, perform the hitler salute and propped up George Washington as their icon, saying he was the first fascist. Of course Washington wasn’t a fascist. This is the man that turned down serving a third term when he was asked. They appropriated his image to make Nazism seem more “American.” And at one point, they claimed to have 200,000 members, though historians have disputed that fact.
One thing that’s indisputable, however, is that this group was powerful enough to fill Madison Square Garden in a huge Nazi rally in 1939.
When I talked about support for Hitler and the Nazi Party in the United Kingdom, I mentioned that most of the support ended when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. That happened at the end of 1938. But this huge rally in New York City that we’re going to talk about happened in February of 1939. It was before Germany invaded Poland, but after they had annexed Czechoslovakia.
It wasn’t a small affair. For the previous several years, The German American Bund had run training camps and held Nazi parades in several states. In 1938, we know that they were becoming somewhat sensitive to the overwhelming American opinion of Nazis. Okay, they weren’t sensitive to it. I guess we can say they “knew” how most Americans felt. We know this because they were careful to point out that by this time, they were not funded by any German relations and they didn’t allow actual German Nazis in their ranks. They also formally banned Nazi emblems to be used by the Bund. But I don’t know if I believe any of this, because we have the giant rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939 as proof.
As many as 22,000 people attended the rally on February 20 of 1939. Here is some actual footage from that event.
Before the event, Mayor LaGuardia knew there was going to be a storm of counter-protesters, so he dispatched a force of 1,700 uniformed New York Police Officers around Madison Square Garden. Inside, 22,000 American Nazis and Nazi supporters gathered. They gave the Nazi Salute to the American Nazi color guard walking by in uniform. These were Americans who had drilled at the various camps like the one in New Jersey. German marches played over the speakers. The stage was adorned with a 30 foot tall image of George Washington, flanked by American Flags and Swastikas.
Fritz Julius Kuhn was a German Nazi Activist, the current leader of the Bund, and was the featured guest speaker. He was a veteran of World War I, where he fought for Germany. He addressed the crowd in the uniform of a full German Storm Trooper.
As Kuhn spoke, Isadore Greenbaum, a young Jewish anti-Nazi protestor stormed the stage attempting to reach the podium and was quickly tackled and beaten by the guards wearing red swastika armbands. They kicked and punched the man onstage and ripped his pants off. Police came in and intervened and the rally continued. At one point, the journalist and author Dorothy Thompson yelled the word “Bunk” in protest and was escorted out of the rally.
Outside Madison Square Garden, as many as 100,000 anti-Nazi protesters organized, waving American flags, tearing down Nazi flags and attempting to confront anyone who entered or exited the rally inside.
To see one of the overhead shots of this rally, it’s shocking to think that there were this many Americans who supported the open and raw anti-semitism. Whether they knew or didn’t know – while that rally was being held in America, Adolf Hitler was finishing construction on his sixth concentration camp in Europe. Here were 22,000 Americans who supported these anti-semitic views – and these were just the ones that attended the rally, who knows how many tens of thousands silently supported the cause from around the country.
And I think one of the major causes of that was propaganda. It could be spread so easily around the world. Whether it was through film, radio or newspapers, it was easy for Joseph Goebbels to plant messages internationally – especially knowing he had the support of several United States Lawmakers. So these tens of thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands of Americans had received Hitlers message and agreed with it. Hitler said, I’m paraphrasing, “Nature doesn’t desire the blending of a higher race with a lower race.”
I’m going to read you another quote. “This is why we have always fought. We are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race.” That quote wasn’t from Hitler, or Goebbels, or from 1939. It was from 2022. And it was said by Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who was a guest speaker last week at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas. He received a standing ovation from the crowd of Conservatives there. Of course I’m not the first to draw this comparison. CPAC has been widely mocked for promoting Anti-American and isolationist views that sound more like something from 1930s Germany. Americans heard a sitting U.S. Congresswoman call herself a “Christian Nationalist” onstage and heard speakers promote Trump’s “America First” tagline – the same type of nationalist/isolationist sentiment of the German American Bund. In fact, a major Nazi sympathizing group that came about in 1940 was called the “America First Committee.” This was a group that showed up after the German American Bund sort of dissolved. So “America First” as a slogan has a dirty past that directly links to present-day politics.
And as we saw in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, there are still plenty of Americans out there today spreading this same brand of hatred. At that event, and at the U.S. capitol attack in 2021, people were spotted carrying Nazi swastika flags. Some wore T-Shirts that said “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” – an acronym for “Six Million Wasn’t Enough.” With his anti-immigrant, America-First rhetoric, Former President Trump riled up the new Alt-Right and fueled their anti-semitism. White Christian Supremacy in the United States is still alive and well. And instead of newspapers and film strips, they’re receiving their messaging from the Internet and hyper partisan news-entertainment television.
Sometimes people ask “How could that have happened?” How could Hitler have risen to power with those types of views? The 1939 rally at Madison Square Garden is proof. It could happen then, and it could happen now. All it takes is an angry faction of the public looking for someone to blame for their hardships, some exciting-sounding slogans, a leader to help them along the way, and for good people to do nothing.
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