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American Nazism: German-American Bund sought fascist America during the 1930s

Library of Congress image This image shows a pro-fascism march in New York City in Oct. 30, 1937.

As a matter of practice, I tend to reject the idiom that goes something like this – “Those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it.”

I get hung up on the “bound to repeat it” part but that’s an argument to make another day.

The first piece – the importance of learning from the past – is certainly true, though.

I was watching an American Experience show entitled “Nazi Town, USA” earlier this week.

It explored the creation and development of the German-American Bund, an organization I hadn’t heard of until I hit play on that show.

Photo from the Warren Times Mirror This article on the German-American Bund was published in the April 3, 1939 edition of the Warren Times Mirror. It was one of hundreds of references to the pro-fascism-in-America groups that can be found in local papers.

As I watched, I was reminded that the 1930s weren’t really that long ago. On the far reaches of the political spectrum, it’s possible to find language today in the dark corners of the internet that sounds eerily similar to what these American Nazis were spouting in the 1930s.

And the problem with that is obvious. But consider this – when the German-American Bund was “advocating” for a fascist United States, it wasn’t yet clear where Nazism would turn into in Europe.

The Holocaust hadn’t happened yet.

But it did. And that should make the vitriol on the fringes now even more concerning.

Here’s some evidence for that: “Since the Hamas massacre in Israel on Oct. 7, U.S. antisemitic incidents reached the highest number of incidents during any two-month period since ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) began tracking in 1979,” the League said in a statement.

“On average, over the last 61 days, Jews in America experienced nearly 34 antisemitic incidents per day.”

An article published in winter 1995 specifically explored the growth of fascism and right-wing extremism between 1933 and 1942.

“Defining fascism is not an easy task, and only in retrospect does the Nazi

obsession with anti-Semitism appear so ideologically central,” that article explains.

“In the mid-1930s, there was also an upsurge of broadly fascist groups in the United States,” the article stated. “These were usually united by a common opposition to Franklin Roosevelt, his New Deal policies and his sympathy for the European democracies, as well as by a common anti-Semitism.”

The author makes the argument that, towards the end of the 1930s, the anti-Semitism stream joined closely with an isolationist streak “for Jewish influence was consistently blamed for driving the United States towards war with Germany.”

That article gives a background on the Bund, specifically.

“The Bund was the most visibly Nazi and controversial group, with its uniformed Ordnungs-Dienst, OD, which the Bundesleiter Fritz Julius Kuhn termed his personal SS,” it states.

The group had a camp in Bucks County and the organization published its own newspapers.

“The Bund was at its height nationally in 1937 and 1938, when it was seen as

a sufficient threat to merit the close scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the news media,” the PSU article explained. “Accounts of the Bund at this time emphasize the close parallels with German Naziism, the role of German diplomats and intelligence agencies, the indoctrination of youth, and the concealment of the organization’s true goals.”

If you were waiting for the local connection, you’ve arrived.

A search of local newspapers shows 443 references to the German-American Bund, primarily in the 1930s and 1940s, once the organization was already on the decline.

Many of those stories were on the front page. Editors at the time – by the placement of the story – pretty clearly saw the threat.

From the Feb. 23, 1939 edition – “LOS ANGELES BUND MEETING IS ARRESTED.”

“Pelted with eggs and overripe vegetables by a violent crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators, 300 persons attended a meeting of the German-American bund here (in Los Angeles) last night at which Adolf Hitler was likened to George Washington.”

The April 3, 1939 edition included an article on an FBI report on the Bund under the headline “REPORT CHARGES BUND FOSTER GERMAN IDEALS.”

The irony to this edition is that two columns over there was a photo captioned “Nazis In – Jews Out” that told of “another exodus of Jews” near the Baltic Sea.

A retired American general testified before a Congressional committee in June, saying that the Bund is “trying to see that Communist don’t take over this country.”

Red Scares weren’t anything new but there was an argument to be made that if you were afraid of the spread of Communism, you found an ally in Hitler who was pretty clearly anti-Communist.

Once war broke out later in 1939, the American approach to the Bund unsurprisingly changed.

“Two Erie men indicted in New York by a federal grand jury investigating the German-American Bund were held today in lieu of $10,000 bond each after they waived a hearing on removal to New York, according to an Associated Press dispatch,” reported in the July 9, 1942 Times Mirror. “The two, Walter Schenllerk, Jr., and Joseph Bachmaier, were charged in the indictment with conspiracy to evade the selective service act and concealing German-American Bund affiliations.”

Around that same time, a “rounding up of Bandits” had been undertaken by the FBI “charging conspiracy to evade national defense regulations.

Nominally defunct since the outbreak of the war between the United States and Germany, the Bund was charged in the indictments with continuing certain acts which… confirmed a belief that the Bund was operating with underground tactics.”

The end of the war appeared to end the Bund.

From the Times Mirror on May 18, 1945: “Former German-American Bund leader Fritz Kuhn has been ordered deported to Germany as an undesirable alien, the justice department announced today.

The order was issued by the board of immigration appeals. The justice department said the 49-year-old native of Munich, who was convicted in 1939 of larceny and forgery involving German-American bund funds, will be placed on a boat at a time to be determined by American military authorities in Germany.”

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