An enormous portrait of George Washington hung alongside swastika banners and American flags at Madison Square Garden. 
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An enormous portrait of George Washington hung alongside swastika banners and American flags at Madison Square Garden.
Credit: Field of Vision

When Nazis Took Manhattan

On the evening of Feb. 20, 1939, the marquee of Madison Square Garden was lit up with the evening's main event: a "Pro-America Rally." The organizers had chosen the date in celebration of George Washington's birthday and had procured a 30-foot-tall banner of America's first president for the stage. More than 20,000 men and women streamed inside and took their seats. The view they had was stunning: Washington was hung between American flags — and swastikas.

The rally was sponsored by the German American Bund, an organization with headquarters in Manhattan and thousands of members across the United States. In the 1930s, the Bund was one of several organizations in the United States that were openly supportive of Adolf Hitler and the rise of fascism in Europe. They had parades, bookstores and summer camps for youth. Their vision for America was a cocktail of white supremacy, fascist ideology and American patriotism.

At Madison Square Garden, the rally opened with the pledge of allegiance to the American flag. The mood was jubilant. Attendees wore Nazi armbands, waved American flags, and held aloft posters with slogans like "Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America." There were Storm Troopers in the aisles, their uniforms almost identical to those of Nazi Germany. "It looked like any political rally - only with a Nazi twist," said Arnie Bernstein, author of Swastika Nation.

The speeches were explicitly anti-Semitic, and tirades against "job-taking Jewish refugees" were met with thunderous applause. "They demanded a white gentile America, they denounced Roosevelt as 'Rosenfeld,' to say that Roosevelt was in the pocket of rich Jews," said Sarah Churchwell, author of Behold, America. In equal measure to the xenophobia, the speeches were loaded with American boosterism.

One of the main speakers, Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, the national public relations director of the Bund, pointed to the white supremacy present at America's founding as a nation. "The spirit which opened the west and built our country is the spirit of the militant white man," he preached. Kunze followed the thread of racism that runs through American history to bolster his vision for a whites-only America. He cited anti-miscegenation laws, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Jim Crow policies, and immigration quotas. "It has then always been very much American to protect the Aryan character of this nation," Kunze told the audience.

That giant portrait of George Washington was no afterthought. "One of the things they tried to do was to say that this is what America has always been, and this is what the founding fathers would have supported," said Churchwell. Indeed, they referred to Washington as "America's First Fascist."

It bears mentioning that while there were 20,000 enthusiastic American Nazis inside the garden, there were also thousands of protesters outside. The anti-Nazi contingent included everyone from veterans to housewives to members of the Socialist Workers Party. The New York Times reported that the streets of midtown Manhattan were packed, and at one point the orchestra from a Broadway musical near the Garden performed a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" for the protesters. A mysterious crusader even set up a loudspeaker in a rooming house near the scene, blasting a denunciation of the Nazis out the window, "Be American, Stay at Home." The NYPD had deployed a record number of 1,700 officers around the Garden, enough "to stop a revolution," the police commissioner said.

Fiorello LaGuardia, the Mayor of New York City, was criticized for allowing the rally to take place. But LaGuardia, along with the American Jewish Committee, supported the Bund's right to rally on free-speech grounds. "If we are for free speech we have to be for free speech for everybody and that includes Nazis," he said.

The police had practically built a fortress around Madison Square Garden, but one man managed to squeeze through. Isadore Greenbaum was a 26-year-old plumber from Brooklyn, and on this night, he was a Jew surrounded by 20,000 Nazis. Greenbaum sat through the three hour rally, listening, and marveling at the crowd's fervor. Eventually he stood up, and started slowly making his way to the front of the arena.

Meanwhile, on stage, Fritz Kuhn stepped up to the mic. Kuhn was the leader, or Bundesführer, of the German American Bund. "This was his rally," said Bernstein. "He wanted to be the Hitler of America." Kuhn's opening remarks didn't pull any punches. "You all have heard of me through the Jewish controlled press," he said, a line that garnered cheers from the crowd. "Wake up! You Aryan, Nordic and Christians, to demand that our government be returned to the people who founded it!"

Greenbaum arrived at the foot of the stage as Kuhn was rallying the crowd to a fever pitch. He muscled his way through the guards up front, jumped up on stage, yanked on the cables so Kuhn's microphone fell over, and yelled "Down with Hitler!" Immediately, Greenbaum was tackled by the Bund's security team. They brutally punched and kicked him, even ripped his pants off, to the delight of the crowd, before the NYPD wrestled Greenbaum to safety. "He had a black eye and a broken nose, but he said he would have done it again," Greenbaum's grandson, Brett Siciliano, told Radio Diaries. After the rally, Greenbaum was arrested for disorderly conduct and fined $25 for disrupting the rally. When the United States entered WWII, Greenbaum enlisted in the Navy and fought the Nazis.

This rally in 1939 was the high point for the German American Bund. Later that year, Fritz Kuhn was indicted on embezzlement charges. He was denaturalized and deported in 1945. More broadly, world events made it harder to be a Nazi in America. "As soon as the United States entered the war, all of these fascist groups were discredited, and disbanded," said Churchwell.

The Bund was largely forgotten until 2017, when film director Marshall Curry stumbled on the footage of the rally and released a short film, "A Night at the Garden" which is now in consideration for an Oscar.

The German American Bund faded away, but the white supremacist ideology they championed remains. "There's something they tapped into, that is part of America," said Bernstein, who pointed to the 1978 attempt by Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, the resurgence of the KKK in response to the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 1960s, and the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, VA. "80 years later, the philosophy is still there," Bernstein said. "All these groups maintain that they are patriotic Americans - and this is the America that they see."

This story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries, with help from Joe Richman and Nellie Gilles. It was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. On the Radio Diaries podcast, you can hear a companion story about a fight that took place outside Madison Square Garden on the night of the rally, produced by The Memory Palace.

Thanks to Andy Lanset and the WNYC Archives for providing the audio of the rally. To see A Night at the Garden and learn more about the film, go to https://anightatthegarden.com/ [Copyright 2019 NPR]