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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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.
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”.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Leland. “The Failure of Nazism in America”. Political
Science Quarterly. Vol 85(4). Dec. 1970, p. 585.
Francis. Insidious Foes: The Axis
Fifth Column and the American Home Front. Oxford University Press, New
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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