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American Bund


The Failure of American Nazism: The German-American Bund’s Attempt to Create an American “Fifth Column”


by Jim Bredemus


            Many Americans feared the presence of a German “Fifth Column” before World War II. In the case of the disorganized and poorly led American Bund, for the most part these fears ultimately proved unjustified.

            After Hitler’s rise to power 1933, some German Americans formed groups to support the Nazi party in Germany and attempt to influence American politics. The most notorious of these groups was the “German-American Bund”, which tried to model itself as an American arm of Hitler’s Third Reich. Although these groups wore uniforms and touted swastikas, in reality they had few ties to Nazi Germany and their support among the larger German-American community was minimal. Nevertheless, the group strongly promoted hatred for Jews and strove to bring Nazi-style fascism to the United States.

 Initial support for American fascist organizations did come from Germany. In May 1933 Nazi Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess gave authority to German immigrant Heinz Spanknobel to create an American Nazi organization. Shortly thereafter the “Friends of New Germany” was created with help from the German consul in New York City. The organization was based in New York but had a strong presence in Chicago.

The organization led by Spanknobel was openly pro-Nazi, and engaged in activities such as storming the German language New Yorker Staats-Zeitung with the demand that Nazi-sympathetic articles be published, and the infiltration of other non-political German-American organizations. Spanknobel was ousted as leader and subsequently deported in October 1933 when it was discovered he had failed to register as a foreigner agent.

Supposedly 22,000 Nazi supporters attended an American Bund rally at New York's Madison Square Garden in February 1939, under police guard. Demonstrators protested outside (above right). An American Bund parade through New York's Yorkville district on Manhattan's Upper East Side (below) drew both supporters and protesters--and the press.

The organization existed into the mid-1930s, although it always remained small, with a membership of between 5,000-10,000. Mostly German citizens living in America and German emigrants who only recently had become citizens composed its ranks. The organization busied itself with verbal attacks against Jews, Communists and the Versailles Treaty. Until 1935 the organization was openly supported by the Third Reich, although soon Nazi officials realized the organization was doing more harm than good in America and in December 1935 Hess ordered that all German citizens leave the Friends of New Germany; also, all the group’s leaders were recalled to Germany.

Not long after the Friends of New Germany fell out of favor with the Nazis and was dismantled, a new organization with similar goals arose in its place. Formed in March 1936 in Buffalo/New York and calling itself the German-American Bund or Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, the organization chose Fritz Kuhn as its Bundesleiter.

A Munich native, Kuhn had fought in the German Army during World War I. After receiving an education in chemical engineering, Kuhn briefly had worked in Mexico before coming to the United States and in 1934 being granted American citizenship. Kuhn was initially effective as a leader and was able to unite the organization and expand its membership.

Kuhn was a perfect figurehead for the organization. A facade of swastikas and “Sieg Heil” prevailed, but in reality Kuhn was to become seen simply as an incompetent swindler and liar who spoke poor English; even the Nazis were embarrassed of him. German Ambassador Hans Dieckhoff called him “stupid, noisy and absurd”.

The organization was soon filled with those calling themselves “Germans in America” and dreamed of the day when Nazism would rule the United States. Although they were instructed not to accept German citizens in their organization, they were not about to turn down anyone interested and many immigrants joined. It is estimated that around 25% of Bund members were German nationals—the rest being mostly first or second generation Germans. Research indicates that most Bund members were of lower-middle class origin.

The Bund soon began to hold rallies filled with swastikas, Nazi salutes and the singing of German songs. The Bund created recreational camps such as Camp Siegfried in New York and Camp Nordland in New Jersey. It also established Camp Hindenburg in Wisconsin and the group met frequently in Milwaukee and Chicago beer halls.

The Bund created an American version of the Hitler Youth that educated children in the German language, German history and Nazi philosophy. Although this organization tried to differentiate itself from the previously unsuccessful Friends of New Germany, the German Foreign Ministry commented that “In reality...they are the same people, with the same principles, and the same appearance”.

The organization brashly promoted the same anti-Semitism of the Third Reich: it handed out Aryan pamphlets outside Jewish-owned establishments and by campaigned in the 1936 presidential election against Franklin Delano Roosevelt—who they charged was part of the Jewish-Bolshevik “conspiracy”. The Bund even spawned several incidents of violence against Jewish-Americans and Jewish-owned businesses. An opinion poll taken in the late 1930’s named Fritz Kuhn as the leading anti-Semite in America.

 In 1936 Kuhn and a few of his followers traveled to Berlin to attend the 1936 Summer Olympics. During his visit Kuhn was offered to come to the Reichs chancellery and have his picture taken with the Führer. This hardly signified an endorsement from Hitler, who took many ceremonial pictures in the spirit of the Olympics, but for Kuhn this symbolized his christening as Bundesführer of the United States.

The Bund began attracting the attention of the federal government in the summer of 1937 as rumors spread that Kuhn had 200,000 men ready to take up arms. During that summer an FBI probe of the organization was conducted but no evidence of wrongdoing was found. Later in 1938 Martin Dies of the House Un-American Activities Committee wildly proclaimed that Kuhn had 480,000 followers. More accurate records show that at the peak of his power in 1938 Kuhn had only 8,500 members and another 5,000 “sympathizers”.

It was at this time that German Ambassador to the United States Hans Heinrich Dieckhoff began to voice his disapproval and concerns over the Bund. Dieckhoff wrote to officials in Berlin that the Bund would never succeed in America because no German “minority” existed in the U.S. in the European sense. He wrote that most immigrant movements in America were highly resented and that the organization was only creating anti-German feelings among Americans.

Dieckhoff’s skepticism was well warranted. Many German Americans were indifferent towards politics and polls taken at the time showed that German Americans were not much more sympathetic to Nazi Germany than traditional Americans. Most Americans, including most German Americans, saw Kuhn and the Bund as Nazi-supported presences at Hitler’s command, even though this was true only in Kuhn’s convoluted perceptions.

Although there was some unofficial contact between the Bund and Nazi officials, for the most part the Nazi government was uninterested in the organization and gave the organization no financial or verbal support. Most Third Reich officials distrusted Kuhn and the Bund, and Adolf Hitler himself made his displeasure with the organization known. On 1 March 1938 the Nazi government—partly to appease the U.S., partly to distance themselves from an embarrassing organization—firmly declared once again that no German citizens could be members in the Bund and, further, that no Nazi emblems and symbols were to be used by the organization.

In March 1938 Kuhn traveled to Berlin to appeal the decision that had been made. He met with Hitler’s aide Captain Wiedemann, who simply told Kuhn the decision was final. In spite of his rejection, Kuhn returned to American bragging of meetings with Goering and Goebbels and ties he had made with Hitler—all which were fabrications.

            In February 1939 Kuhn and the Bund held their largest rally in Madison Square Garden—ironically, one which marked the beginning of the end for the organization. In front of a crowd of 22,000, flanked by a massive portrait of George Washington, swastikas and Americans flags, Kuhn attacked FDR for being part of a Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy, calling him “Frank D. Rosenfeld” and criticizing the New Deal, which Kuhn had deemed “the Jew Deal”. Three thousands members of the Ordnungsdienst, the militant arm of the Bund, were on hand and fistfights broke out in the crowd among those who had come to heckle Kuhn.

After the rally, New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey arrested Kuhn on charges of larceny and forgery. He not only was convicted of these charges but he also confessed to being arrested multiple times for drunkenness, carrying on extra-marital affairs and pocketing $15,000 from the Madison Square Garden rally. After the war, Kuhn was deported to Germany; he died there unceremoniously in 1951.

Following Kuhn’s arrest, the Bund slowly withered away, until its dissolution on 8 December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the United States declared war on Germany, federal officials began to arrest Bund officials. Kuhn’s successor Gerhard Kunze was captured in Mexico and sentenced to 15 years of prison for “subversive activities”. Twenty-four other officers were convicted of conspiracy to violate the 1940 Selective Service Act and served prison time. Some other Bund leaders committed suicide before the FBI caught up with them. Although some Bund members had their naturalization revoked and some spent time in prison camps, most members were left alone after the organization was disbanded.

In the end, the Bund of German immigrants held little power, if any, and often made average Americans less sympathetic to Germany, as the Bund’s extreme anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi views did not play well with the American public. Even Nazi Germany realized this and attempted to distance itself from the Bund. In spite of all the marches, swastikas and rallies staged by the Bund, New York’s Mayor LaGuardia aptly described it simply as “a racket”.



Bell, Leland. “The Failure of Nazism in America”. Political Science Quarterly. Vol 85(4). Dec. 1970, p. 585.

MacDonnell, Francis. Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front. Oxford University Press, New York: 1995.

Remak, Joachim. “Friends of the New Germany: The Bund and German-American Relations”. Journal of Modern History. Vol 29(1). Mar. 1957, p. 38.

Smith, Gene. “Bundesfuehrer Kuhn”. American Heritage. Vol 46(5). Sep. 1995, p. 102.

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