By Arnie Bernstein
In the 1930s and 1940s (and beyond) fascism and Nazi loyalty was as American as a proverbial apple pie. Never mind Hitler and his Third Reich were held in political and moral disdain by the Roosevelt administration. There was a substantial counter culture of loyalists to Hitler and his throughout the United States during Depression era and into the WWII years.
German American Bund parade in New York City, October 30, 1939
Photo By New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
1. The German-American Bund, headed by its popinjay leader Bundesführer Fritz Kuhn thrived from 1936 through 1939. Though their membership rolls were secretive, Kuhn claimed he had 200,000 followers nationwide. More reliable estimates from the FBI put the group between 6,000 to 8,000, though an American Legion study found upwards of 25,000 members. Certainly there were enough Bundists to develop a nationwide system of family retreats, businesses, publications, plus the organization’s own versions of Hitler Youth and SS squadrons. At their height in February 1939, the Bund held a rally in Madison Square Garden with some 20,000 people packing the arena to hear speeches by Kuhn and his flunkies. The group came to a crashing end when the Bundesführer went to prison after being convicted on embezzlement charges for using Bund funds to finance his numerous romantic dalliances.
2. Many Jewish organizations, including community groups and veterans associations, protested at Bund meetings. They weren’t alone in the fight. Jewish underworld kingpins, including Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Mickey Cohen broke up Bundist meetings and bones. Charlie “Lucky” Luciano offered assistance from the Italian branch of the Mafia. But Lansky believed this was a Jewish fight, and politely declined his colleague’s offer. However, while mobsters usually were wary of outsiders want a part of underworld action, Lansky and his crews trained eager “civilian” volunteers who wanted to join in the street battles and meeting hall raids. Another Jewish gangster who fought Bundists was a former delivery boy for Al Capone, a Chicago thug named Jacob Rubenstein. Rubenstein later moved to Dallas and changed his name to Jack Ruby. Ruby’s youthful exploits as a Bund fighter are explicitly detailed in the Warren Commission Report on President Kennedy’s assassination.
3. Henry Ford was rumored to be a shadow supporter of the Bund. Before ascending to his position as leader of the organization Fritz Kuhn was an employee within many divisions of Ford’s empire. When Kuhn was eventually found guilty of embezzling money from the group, and sent to Sing Sing, Ford mysteriously showed up at the train terminal in Grand Central Station to take one look at his former employee. He never made it clear why he went out of his way to do this. Ford’s anti-Semitic manifesto The International Jew had a profound influence on Adolf Hitler. In his own book Mein Kampf, the Führer noted Ford’s achievements as an American industrialist. Hitler not only kept a picture of Ford in his office; in July 1938 the German Counsel presented Ford with the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest an honor bestowed by the Reich onto foreigners. Another American who was bestowed this award: celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh. Neither Ford nor Lindbergh disavowed their medals, even after Hitler declared war on the United States.
4. Speaking of Lindbergh, given his extensive knowledge of aircraft, Lindbergh was sent by the U.S. government to Germany to inspect the Third Reich’s bombers and air fighters. During this tour, Lindbergh met with top Nazi officials, and was presented his Grand Cross of the German Eagle by Hitler’s close associate Hermann Göring. In 1940 Lindbergh was a leading voice in the America First movement, a force determined to keep the United States out of the war in Europe. On September 11, 1941 Lindbergh gave a speech denouncing President Roosevelt and America’s Jews for pushing the country towards entry into the war. In the wake of this speech, some Americans believed Lindbergh was a secret Nazi sympathizer. Despite his unpopular views, Lindberg was occasionally mentioned as a possible candidate for President of the United States. Novelist Philip Roth explored what might have happened under a Lindbergh administration in his 2004 alternative history The Plot Against America.
5. There were plenty of other groups during the era who were sympathetic to the Third Reich and the German-American Bund. In the early 1930s William Dudley Pelley, a former journalist and winner of the O. Henry Award for his short stories, founded The Silver Legion of America, commonly known as The Silver Shirts. The group holed up in a compound located in the hills of Southern California. Pelley ran for president in 1936. At its height The Silver Shirts had an estimated 15,000 members but by 1938 the group was down to just 5,000. They succumbed to the pressure of congressional investigation and America’s eventual entry into WWII. Another organization, The Friends of Progress was a California association run by Robert Noble and Ellis Jones. Noble was strongly influenced by the ideas in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The group held rallies and meetings throughout Los Angeles, with members of the Bund often in attendance given their mutual interests. Noble was sent to prison in 1942 after being convicted of wartime sedition.
6. Hitler’s Third Reich crashed with an inglorious end to his nightmare visions, but a scattering of deluded Americans still hung on to his ideas in the postwar years. George Lincoln Rockwell is probably the best known of them. Rockwell had an unusual background. His father was a vaudeville comedian who regularly appeared on Fred Allen’s popular radio program in the 1940s. After dropping out of Brown University, Rockwell joined the United States Navy. During WWII he fought in the Pacific Theatre. Rockwell became involved with anti-Semitic extremists during the 1950s and founded the American Nazi Party. He staged various demonstrations, ran for president in 1964 as a write-in candidate, and held counter-rallies to civil rights marches throughout the 1960s. Alex Haley, the African-American author of Roots, interviewed Rockwell for Playboy Magazine. Rockwell was assassinated by a disgruntled follower on August 25, 1967.
ARNIE BERNSTEIN learned firsthand about American Nazis as a high school student, when a group of neo-fascists threatened to march in his neighborhood, known for its large Jewish population. He is the author of Swastika Nation, available now from St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter at @arnie_bernstein.