Intersections is an occasional feature at Amplify that looks at the intersection of arts, culture and major historical events. This feature examines how our buildings and events impact history and our own notion of identity.
On February 20, 1939, the eve of World War II, American Nazis and fascist sympathizers staged a huge rally at Madison Square Garden in support of Adolf Hitler. The building was covered in symbols of the Third Reich and the stage was adorned with a giant picture of George Washington, “the original American Nazi” according to organizers.
The rally was for the German-American Bund party, established by the viciously racist German-born American Fritz Julius Kuhn. The Bund Party was to be Hitler’s “Fifth Column” and encourage U.S. politicians not to intervene with the war in Europe. Officials with MSG later said they had instructed organizers not to cover the arena in Swastikas, but apparently the Nazis didn’t get the memo. A banner was hung from the rafters that read “Stop Jewish Domination of Christians.”
Kuhn was a former German WWI veteran who came to America and brought with him a strong hatred of Jews. Kuhn settled in Detroit and worked at a hospital owned by legendary industrialist Henry Ford. The hospital Kuhn worked for, the Henry Ford Hospital, had a policy against hiring Jewish doctors. Eventually Kuhn joined the Friends of New Germany, an American pro-Hitler organization with direct ties to the Nazi party.
The group came under instant scrutiny and congressional hearings threatened to expose the group’s links to the Third Reich, so the Nazi party in Berlin ordered it to shut down. Seizing an opportunity from the power vacuum, Kuhn created the American Bund party and appointed himself Bund Führer.
Fritz Julius Kuhn
The group began to stage pro-Hitler rallies around the United States, culminating in the massive 22,000 person rally at Madison Square Garden, under police guard while demonstrators protested outside. The arena was covered with swatiskas, anti-semetic slogans and a huge poster of the country’s first president.
“There is a reason Washington is up there and not Jefferson or Madison,” explained one scholar on a popular history site. “Fascism was an ideology that emphasized action and heroism over intellectualism and philosophy. This is why Hitler’s ideal Aryan concept was a strong, handsome, and physically fit person rather than someone with a mind for civics. Men of action were the ideal example figures.”
Adolf Hitler meets with Kuhn in the late 1930s
Many in attendance were teenagers who had been trained at Hitler Youth-style camps run by the Bunds on the East Coast. Hundreds of mock-uniformed “storm troopers” paraded to the stage, mimicking the Blitzkrieg-style battalions that would invade Poland months later. Kuhn opened the ceremony with a Heil Hitler salute and gave what has been described as “typical Nazi stump speech” by historians.
His speech was briefly interrupted by a young Jewish-American plumber, who sprung from the audience and ran at Kuhn to attack him, only to be be tackled and beaten by Kuhn’s bodyguards and eventually kicked out by police officers. There is evidence that the protester had links to famed Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky. Outraged by news of the Nazi atrocities, the Chicago Outfit gangster collaborated with other Jewish gangsters like Bugsy Siegel and Murder, Inc.’s Louis “Lepke” Buchalter to break up Bund party rallies with guns, knives and violence.
An anti-semitic banner hangs above the rafters of MSG
Meanwhile, outside of Madison Square Garden, throngs of anti-Nazi protesters that included WWI Veterans and weapon-wielding members of Lansky’s gang waited out front, preparing to attack the American Nazis as they left the rally. According to one article, a huge police response of mounted officers “large enough to prevent a revolution,” converged on the arena and prevented what many thought could have been a bloody riot.
After WWII broke out, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to launch an investigation of the German-American Bund party. Virginia Cogswell, one of Kuhn’s mistresses, agreed to work with the FBI and began to secretly record her conversations with the Bund Führer. The FBI uncovered that Kuhn was stealing from the German-American Bund Party and he was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces and Hitler’s declaration of war against the United States, the German-American Bund voted to disband itself. Shortly after the war concluded with the Allied Forces defeating the Axis Powers, Kuhn was deported to Germany and died in 1951.
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