Book Review: “Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund” by Arnie Bernstein – posted 11/11/2014
Arnie Bernstein’s book, Swastika Nation, peers into a little known bit of American history. Bernstein investigates the Nazi movement in the United States before World War II. I have to say it is not a movement I knew anything about. I had heard of Father Coughlin, Gerald L.K. Smith and the Silver Shirts but I did not know anything about the German-American Bund.
My reason for wanting to read the book came out of curiosity about how far the movement actually got in the United States. Where did they get their supporters? Who were they? What was the sociological make-up of the movement? What was the Bund’s relationship to Nazi Germany? I wondered if there are any lessons we could learn about right wing extremism.
Bernstein’s book provides some answers. It is more a pop history and a character study than an academic work. I think Bernstein was trying for more of a mass than academic audience. Swastika Nation tells some good stories, especially about Fritz Kuhn, who was the major Bund leader in the 1930’s. Also, Bernstein chronicles the opposition to the Bund, Jewish and otherwise. He shows how opposition came from some unlikely places, including from Jewish gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen.
I guess the good news to report is that the Bund never got far in America. Even before the crimes of the German Nazis became more widely known, they never moved beyond being a very fringe movement. They struggled with self-definition. Were they German or were they American? Were they an arm of the German Nazi Party or were they an independent American variant? They never seemed to figure that out.
In the Bund constitution, membership was open “to all Americans and prospective citizens of Aryan blood of German extraction and good reputation.” It is hard not to think such a self-definition was incredibly limiting. Such an absurd self-definition contrasted with the diversity of America. On its face, it ruled out huge numbers. Unless people already saw themselves as Hitler sympathizers, I have a hard time imagining that there were Americans who were proudly seeing themselves as having Aryan blood. i think that was probably true even in the South.
The Bund always remained focused on Nazi Germany. They wanted to be just like the German Nazis, swearing allegiance to Hitler, but they were living in another country. Their efforts to adapt to America and to Americanize were never successful.
At their height in 1939 when they packed a rally with 20,000 supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York City, they attempted to manipulate the image of George Washington as some type of Nazi precursor. They surrounded a huge image of Washington with swastikas, Betsy Ross American flags, and anti-Jewish propaganda. Kuhn argued for an America ruled by white gentiles, labor unions free from Jewish communists, a thorough cleansing of the Hollywood film industries of all alien, subversive influences and a return to the policies of George Washington, free of any foreign influence.
Kuhn apparently did not appreciate the irony of his call for Americans to be free of any foreign influence when the Bund was obsessively and slavishly mimicking all things Nazi Germany. Bernstein shows how Kuhn and the other Bund leaders were always trying to get the German Nazis to give them the official nod as the true American Nazi entity, blessed by Hitler.
The German government never did strongly endorse the Bund. Kuhn made a pilgrimmage to Germany in 1936 and met with Hitler and other high-up Nazis but the German Nazis always maintained a distance.
Bernstein reported that in the 1930’s, Kuhn said the Bund had 200,000 members nationally. This is highly doubtful and there is no way to check it. In 1936, the New York Times reported the Bund membership was between 6000-8000. Most lived in large cities on the coasts or in the midwest. Bernstein wrote:
“The vast majority of the Bundists were blue-collar workers, employed as mechanics, at restaurants, lowly office clerks, itinerant job hoppers. There was a smattering of professional people within the ranks…”
The Bund was viciously anti-semitic. They despised FDR as a man with a secret Jewish past. They referred to President Roosevelt as “Rosenfelt”. Kuhn described Jews as “conniving sorcerers” devoted to the persecution of German-Americans. Jews were “money-mad leeches” and “master magicians”. Kuhn described a fantastical version of American history where Jews were a secret cabal behind the scenes pulling strings. Kuhn said Jewish carpetbaggers swept through the post-Civil War South exploiting newly freed blacks with promises of “a white woman for a sweetheart”.
It is truly amazing that anyone could have believed this delusional crap. I am reminded of the words of Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Interestingly, Fritz Kuhn was inspired by Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company fame. Kuhn was actually a Ford employee. Henry Ford, who was one of the most powerful, wealthy and famous men in America was also a committed anti-semite. Ford was extremely public about his anti-semitism. He used a paper he financially controlled, the Dearborn Independent, to repeatedly warn that Jews were the root of America and the world’s ills. He spent heavily to take what was an an obscure local paper to try and turn it into a national force. He called his regular feature column, “The International Jew”. Eventually the columns were collected into a four volume book of the same name. Ford car dealerships were required to meet a quota for subscription sales.
Ford is the only American Hitler mentions in Mein Kampf. In 1931, Hitler told a reporter from the Detroit News that he regarded Ford as his inspiration and he explained he kept a life-size portrait of Ford next to his desk. Ford actually reprinted The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in the Dearborn Independent. In 1938, Ford received an award from the German Nazis, “The Grand Cross of the German Eagle.”
Henry Ford created nightmares for Ford Motor Company. Others at the company tried for years to repair his damage.
Kuhn modelled his leadership on the corporate Leadership Principle used by Henry Ford. As Bernstein says, Kuhn felt one man with vision and determination could control people on a monumental scale. Hitler was the leading example of giving one man almost total power.
Kuhn called himself the Bundesfuhrer. The term president was too mild and American-like. He wanted to follow the Hitler example. Hitler was a fuhrer so Kuhn successfully sold his colleagues on this meglomaniacal title.
Things did not end well for Kuhn. He was tried for grand larceny (diverting Bund money for his personal use), forgery and falsifying entries in Bund account books. Bernstein shows how the married Kuhn used his control of Bund money to finance a long string of mistresses on the side. When he was not playing Bundesfuhrer, he was quite the playboy. Kuhn had the chutzpah to argue that as Bundesfuhrer with total control and power he had the freedom to use money however he wanted.
While the House Un-American Activities Committee usually attacked the Left, they did go after Kuhn. The famous reporter Walter Winchell also pursued Kuhn with a vengeance. Winchell called Kuhn : Phffftz Kuhn, Kuhnazi, The Shamerican, Son-of-a-Fritz and Chief of the Ratzis.
The criminal case against Kuhn ended in a conviction. The jury found Kuhn guilty of larceny and forgery. Kuhn went to prison for 3 and one-half years.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the political heat greatly increased on the Bund and other American fascists. The Bund dissolved itself within weeks of Pearl Harbor.
In 1943, when Kuhn was paroled from jail, his problems did not end. He was denaturalized and eventually deported back to Germany. In a little poetic justice, after his return to Germany, Kuhn was sent to Dachau which had been turned into a prison for German war criminals. He wanted to return to the U.S. but that request was denied. Kuhn died in obscurity and poverty in1951.
In reading Swastika Nation, I was struck by how support for anti-semitism could come from elite sources like Henry Ford. Anti-semites and fascists are not necessarily uneducated bigots. I worry that the United States remains susceptible to irrational strands of right wing populism. We are likely past Nazism but we seem to have little respect for science or intellectualism. There is a quote famously attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” I think this is still closer to the truth.
Bernstein’s book provides insight into why the American Nazis did not succeed. Hopefully they will never learn from their mistakes.