DE USURIS - Arnie Bernstein on Fritz Kuhn 80 Years Later
Charlottesville, August 12, 2017. Three deaths. Nineteen other serious injuries reported. Many more if you consider the psychological trauma inflicted on the scores of individuals there that day. Historian Arnie Bernstein sees comparisons and contrasts to another troubling time in our history.
As we process these events, individual and corporate stands were swift, condemning racism, hate and bigotry, and awakening, even as the story continues to unfold, a new cycle of activist movement against the forces of evil exemplified in the KKK, neo-Nazi and white supremacists. With history as a barometer, words and boycotts are not enough to stem the tide of domestic terrorism in our Nation and around the world.
In the decade leading up to American involvement in World War II, the rise of the German American Bund Movement, a neo-Nazi organization led by Fritz Kuhn, is a harbinger of the kind of polarization we have witnessed that led to violence and death in Charlottesville this weekend.
Arnie Bernstein, author of Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund, joined me for a program last year during our live series at Skokie Theatre, a conversation about the life and times of a man whose rise and fall in 1930s America provides a glimpse into another troubling period in our nation's history.
This week, we asked Arnie Bernstein to expand on our conversation in the context of the events in Charlottesville. ET 8/15/2017
ET: Talk about the social climate in the mid-1930s, the political divide that fostered Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund movement and how it compares or contrasts to the polarization in our society today?
AB: The German-American Bund movement was largely what the name said: German Americans, mostly naturalized immigrants escaping from the terrible economic conditions of post-WWI Germany. But post-war America was rough for them, given the anti-German fervor in the United States during the war years and afterwards. They banded together during the 1920s under various groups, culminating in the founding of the German-American Bund in 1936. Instead of embracing American ideals, the members of these groups looked to Hitler and the rise of National Socialism back in the Fatherland. But the vast majority of German-Americans (both immigrant and those who had been here for a few generations) had no interest in the Bund and despised what it stood for. The Bundists were a loud group of maybe 15,000 nationwide. They never revealed official numbers, and estimates vary depending on what resource you look at, such as the FBI or the American Legion.
ET: The rise of the Bund had immediate detractors. Who were some of the more prominent individuals and organizations involved and how did they express themselves?
The Bund’s opponents were a disparate association of legal authorities like the FBI, elected officials including New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and his district attorney Thomas Dewey (later governor and presidential candidate), citizen groups and veterans, Jewish organizations, and journalists, most famously Walter Winchell, who delighted in attacking the Bund’s leader Fritz Kuhn. Others who went after the Bund included major players in the Jewish criminal underworld, like Mayer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Mickey Cohen. They were approached on the sly by important figures in the Jewish community. The boys in the mob responded, and refused to take payment for their services. They busted up Bund meetings and busted up Bundists’ bones in the process.
ET: What impact did they have?
AB: As varied as the groups. LaGuardia and Dewey were effective taking down the Bund by cutting off the dragon at the head: they found that Fritz Kuhn was embezzling the group’s money and eventually got him sent to prison on those charges, sort of like how Al Capone got tripped up not by his crimes but through tax evasion. As I said, the mobsters broke up meetings with fists and Winchell attacked them in his column and on his radio show. The FBI worked their wiles on the Bund, with something like 3,000 pages of files accumulated on their activities. In one case, the community of Southbury, CT banded together so the Bundists could not open a private retreat on the outskirts of town. The efforts around the country were considerable on so many fronts.
ET: Compare the rhetoric of the time to what is occurring now.
AB: Similar and different, to be sure. The fascist Nazi standards of anti-Semitism, racial hatred, anti-Communist (which they associated with Jews and African-Americans), and the “purity” of the Aryan race sound exactly the same. They are separated by decades but not rhetoric. On the other hand, the groups today are much more violent in what they say and much more open about it. You didn’t see Bundists walking around with tattooed swastikas on their arms, marching through streets of towns like Charlottesville wielding semi-automatic weapons. The Bundists were scary, to be sure, but they pale in comparison to the things we’re seeing today. Sure, they attacked people, but it was with fists and baseball bats, not wielding menacing heavy-duty firepower and driving cars into groups of protestors.
ET: In your book, Swastika Nation, you attribute the collapse of the Bund movement to a series of factors. Talk about these and by example how they may or may not apply to what is happening today.
AB: The factors really are different. The Bund was an organization with a strict constitution and bylaws that were enforced. Fritz Kuhn brought them down himself in late 1939 by embezzling the group’s money to fund his romances. He was a dynamic presence who made the Bund what it was, and when he was gone, they struggled. With the rise of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s, members jumped ship—it just wasn’t safe to be associated with a pro-Hitler movement in the United States. Then came Pearl Harbor, America’s entry into WWII, and that was the end of the Bund.
ET: Historians often tend to examine social injustice, racism, gender issues and bigotry as having been the product of another time long past. And yet, today, we are grappling with extreme anger, hatred and a new strain of lawlessness fueled in growing numbers by fear, oppression and domestic terrorism.
Learn from the past … or doomed to repeat it?
AB: I think a bit of both. The Bund was an overt group, while for a long time the people like what we’re seeing in Charlottesville were more underground and outcasts. During the 1930s social conditions certainly fostered many alienated German immigrants and their sympathizers in the United States. What they did not have were like-minded individuals in high positions engendering that anger and hatred, such as we’re seeing today. There’s no question in my mind that what happened in Charlottesville was a culmination of many factors: a right-wing propaganda machine fostering hatred and playing to the lowest common denominator and using well-understood code words and social dog whistles. “Liberals control the media” sounds just like what the 1930s counterparts said, only it was “Jews control the media.”
Ultimately, though, there are many more good people in the world than there are of these types. We’re always going to have to face the reality that they exist and they want to do damage in order to protect a mythical ideal of something that never was. But the world is changing. People who didn’t have a voice before are speaking out and standing up to these groups. That happened in the 1930s and it’s happening now, as we’ve seen since the deadly events in Charlottesville. We’re standing up to those who want to pervert American ideals.