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Americans For Hitler

On the eve of World War II, the German American Bund


insisted the Nazi salute was as American as apple pie.
By Mark D. Van Ells
Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler. Only a Nazi would have dared to compare. Hitler is the friend of
Germans everywhere, one girl in a Nazi youth camp remembered being told, and just as Christ
wanted little children to come to him, Hitler wants German children to revere him. The
comment may hardly sound shocking, considering the Nazi mindset, but the girl who heard it
wasnt in Dsseldorf or Stuttgart or Berlin. She was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the heartland
of America, American children were being indoctrinated into Nazism as the Nazis prepared to
take over Europe.

The youth camps were run by an organization of German immigrants


in the United States to cultivate a loyal Nazi following in their adopted homeland. All but
forgotten today, the group known as the German American Bund (bund is German for alliance)
was one of the most controversial political groups of the politically uncertain 1930s. Nazi
ideology taught that all Germans were united by blood and that the descendants of German
emigrants around the world needed to be awakened to their racial duties in support of Hitler. The
United States, 25 percent of whose population traced ancestry back to Germany, was a tempting
target for Nazi recruiters. Forty-three percent of the population of Wisconsin, a state noted for its
beer and bratwurst, was either German-born or first-generation German American in 1939. Nazis
believed those German Americans could be awakened to their cause.
World War I had been traumatic for Germans on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, a
wave of anti-German hysteria had swept through the nation. Fear spurred by government
propaganda led some to attack what they believed was the enemy in their midst, even though
there was little evidence to justify their fears. So-called superpatriots maligned German culture.
Some localities banned German music and instruction in the German language. Sauerkraut
became liberty cabbage. There were reports of dachshunds being attacked, and Germanlanguage books being hauled out of libraries and burned in the street. Some Germans endured
humiliations such as being forced to kiss the American flag in public, being spied upon by their
neighbors, and in some cases even being attacked. In Illinois, one German immigrant was killed
by a mob. Many German Americans hid their ethnic identity. What remained of the public
German-American community grew insular, defensive, and wary of outsiders.

After the war, another wave of German immigrants came to America.


Most assimilated successfully, but some did not. These maladjusted new arrivals were German
fascists, described by historian Sander Diamond as self-proclaimed migrs who feared
proletarianization in Germanys unstable new democracy. They had experienced the
humiliation of Germanys wartime defeat and occupation, and the social and political chaos that
reigned there afterward. Many were young, middle-class professionals, and some had
participated in street fighting against socialists and communists. Once in America, these fascists
formed political groups like the Teutonia Association, founded in Detroit in 1924.
Just four months after Hitler came to power in January 1933, Nazi groups in the United States
merged to form the Friends of the New Germany. The involvement of German nationals in the
organization caused friction between Berlin and Washington, so in 1936 it was reorganized as the
German American Bund and was to consist only of American citizens of German descent.
Headquartered in New York, the Bund was led by Fritz Kuhn, a chemical engineer from Munich
who had served in the German army during the war. Dubbed the American fuehrer in the press,
he arrived in America in 1928, settling first in Detroit and then in New York. He became a citizen
in 1934.
Not officially part of the Nazi party, the Bund behaved as if it were. It operated on the Nazi
leadership principle, which demanded absolute obedience to superiors. Like Germanys Nazi
party, the American Bund divided its territorythe United Statesinto regional districts, and
created a youth program and a paramilitary Order Division. Members donned uniforms with
brown shirts and jack boots eerily like those of Germanys Nazis. Despite their foreign
appearance, members considered themselves to be loyal, patriotic Americans who were
strengthening their adopted homeland, protecting it from Jewish-communist plots and black
cultural influences such as jazz music. The Midwestern regional leader George Froboese of
Milwaukee described the Bund as the German element which is in touch with its race but owes
its first duty to America. To avoid another clash between Germany and America, it urged US
neutrality in European affairs.
The Bund made far more enemies than friends in the United States. Socialists and communists
immediately opposed it. So did Jewish Americans, who organized a boycott of products from
Nazi Germany (the Bund, in turn, organized a boycott of Jewish merchants and harassed Jewish
and communist groups). In Washington, Congressman Samuel Dickstein of New York began an
investigation of Nazism in America. The Bund also attracted the attention of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

The German-American reaction to Hitler and the Bund was mixed.


Most supported American neutrality, and many were glad to see the revival of Germany and were
angry about the Jewish boycott of German goods. But they were also uneasy about Hitler. Some
tried to be cautiously optimistic. The Milwaukee Sonntags-post argued in 1933, for example, that
the Hitler dictatorship represents for the moment the most efficient and expedient concentration
of the united will of the German nation. Any hopes German Americans may have placed in
Hitler would soon be dashed. Nazi behavior overseas and the presence of the Bund in America
would soon revive German Americans deepest fear: a repeat of World War Is anti-German
hysteria.
The Bund used several methods to try to awaken German Americans to Nazism. One was to
infiltrate existing German ethnic clubs. The Bund hoped to Nazify German-American cultural
life as Hitler had done under his policy of political coordination. The infiltration instead tore
German-American communities apart. The Bund then tried to take control through intimidation.
When the Wisconsin Federation of German-American Societies voted to ban displays of the
swastika at cultural events in 1935, for example, Bund members threatened anti-Nazi delegates.
The meeting became so heated that the police were called to restore order. Bund harassment of
anti-Nazi Germans continued, and the Wisconsin federation president once received an
anonymous letter saying It is a very poor bird that dirties its own nest.
One way the Bund promoted its cause was by sponsoring meetings and rallies, well-publicized
events in which leaders outlined Nazi ideology and members distributed propaganda. Uniformed
members gave the Nazi salute and shouted Heil Hitler as the Order Division kept a stern watch
over the proceedings. There was fiery rhetoric aimed at Jews, communists, and certain
politicians. Bund leaders lambasted President Franklin Roosevelt, calling him Franklin
Rosenfeld and criticizing his Jew Deal social programs.
The Bund took care to display patriotism for America during its gatherings. George Washingtons
birthday was a common occasion for Bund rallies. On stage, the American flag and portraits of
Washington appeared side by side with the swastika. Both countries national anthems were
played.
Bund rallies frequently became public spectacles. Protesters were a common sight, sometimes
appearing in numbers comparable to the Bund members in attendance. Violence seemed all but
inevitable. In Milwaukee in 1938, riots broke out at two separate Bund rallies. Hecklers arose to
break up the meeting, the Milwaukee Journal reported of a Washingtons birthday rally in
February. The order division went to work, gloved fists flying. One heckler lost several teeth in
the melee. A month later, violence erupted again when a communist rushed the stage during a
rally, enraged by the sight of children in Nazi youth uniforms.

Children were an important part of the Bund. Members sent their children to places such as
Camp Hindenburg in Wisconsin each summer to participate in a youth program the Bund
compared to boy and girl scouting. The camps were also gathering places for adult activities
everything from picnics to rallies. At these camps, children dressed in Nazi uniforms and drilled
military-style, with marching, inspections, and flag-raising ceremonies. Although the Bund
denied it, children were taught Nazi ideology.
The rise of the Bund stimulated considerable discussion in America. A few homegrown racist
groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Christian Enforcers, and the Silver Shirts (who sniped that
democracy was strictly kosher) found common ground with the anti-Semitic, whitesupremacist Bund. Most Americans, however, objected to the Bunds racist and undemocratic
ideology, and the fact that the Bund rose to prominence just as Hitler began expanding German
control in Europe raised other concerns. The Bund seemed to most Americans like a dangerous
foreign element, perhaps a secret Nazi fifth column in the United States. By 1938, the anti-fascist
movement broadened to encompass a diverse coalition ranging from communists to veterans
groups.
German Americans were torn. Some German clubs had spoken out against the Bund early on, but
others resisted public criticism of the organization, fearing that a divided German community
would be subject to further cultural erosion. But by 1938, anti-Bund sentiment had grown so
strong that German-American leaders concluded they either had to dissociate themselves
completely from the Bund or run the risk of being branded Nazis themselves. In 1938, the
Wisconsin Federation of German-American Societies issued a statement declaring it had
nothing whatsoever to do with the propaganda of racial hatred and religious intolerance fostered
by the Volksbund [literally, the peoples alliancethe German American Bund]. The federation
claimed that the average German American was strongly opposed to the Nazi doctrines of hate
and pleaded America, please take notice!
The Wisconsin federation backed up its words with action. In 1939, with the help of some in the
business community, it acquired the lease to Camp Hindenburg, renaming it Camp Carl Schurz
in honor of the 19th-century German-American political leader and turning it into its own youth
camp. Federation president Bernhard Hofmann stated that children would be instructed there in
Americanism and that there would be no flag but the stars and stripes. Froboese claimed the
site had been stolen, stating I am glad they had the decency to abandon the name Camp
Hindenburg. The Bund meanwhile obtained another site, just a mile to the south. These and
other rival German-American camps operated around Milwaukee for several years.
As the 1930s came to a close, various problems had begun to take a serious toll on the Bund. The
Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939 took the fire from the Bunds anti-communist rhetoric. By the
end of the year, Kuhn had been jailed for illegal use of organizational funds. Protests against the
Bund continued as well, including the bombing of its Chicago offices in July 1940. The Bund
developed a bunker mentality, holding its 1940 national convention secretly among three
Midwestern camps. Although the Bund continued to speak out against the Jewish boycott and the
tories and internationalists trying to provoke war with Germany, press coverage of the Bund
tapered off as the group declined and public fear of domestic Nazism waned. Hundreds of
dispirited Bund members returned to Germany.

When Hitler declared war against the United States four days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor
on December 7, 1941, Bund members found themselves stranded in enemy territory. Federal
agents seized Bund records. Many of its members faced denaturalization proceedings and
imprisonment. In a letter to the Bunds lawyer, Froboese, who had risen from Midwestern
regional leader to become the Bunds national leader just weeks earlier, offered his assessment of
the organizations brief but tumultuous existence:
True it is that we made mistakes especially in the field of what you call mental psychology.
Still, I would like to again emphasize, that I never looked upon the [Bund] as an offensive
organisation. From the beginning it was a defensive movement. We have never been a cause, but
instead have always been a reaction to a cause. We always stood with both feet on American
soil and in the final analysis of all of our doings, had only the very interests of this our America
at heart.
In 1942 Froboese was issued a subpoena to testify before a New York grand jury concerning
Bund activities. En route to New York, he got off the train in Waterloo, Indiana, and committed
suicide by laying his head on the tracks in front of an oncoming train.
German Americans continued to emphasize their American-ism after the Pearl Harbor raid. We
appeal to the public not to think that everything German must be Nazi, declared the Wisconsin
Federation of German-American Societies. We are not covering any aliens[and] will not
stand for anything that is against this country. In New York the Loyal Americans of German
Descent claimed that World War II throws a searchlight on German Americans and that
failure to distinguish between loyal Americans and Nazi sympathizers can create disaster. In
1942 American Legion magazine featured the article I Killed Americans in 1918, but Now I
Fight for America. The author called his US citizenship oath sacred and stated that
immigrants such as he must rally in defense of honor, family, and German-America. Indeed,
many German Americans served, fought, and died in defense of the United States during the war.
The emphasis on Americanism paid off, and a revival of anti-German hysteria did not occur.
There were some unfortunate incidents of violence and prejudice against Germans during World
War II, but they were not widespread. The extent of the governments internment of German
Americans during the war is hotly debated among scholars, but it was indisputably small in
comparison to the internment of Japanese Americans. Most Americans seemed to make a
distinction between what they believed were good Germans and bad Germans, and America
became a refuge for many German intellectuals fleeing Nazi rule. In the Pacific, one of the
troops favorite generals was German-born Walter Krueger, commander of the US Sixth Army.
Actress and USO entertainer Marlene Dietrich, also born in Germany, was even more popular
with the average GI than Krueger.
For all its prominence and bluster, the Bund involved only a small portion of the GermanAmerican community. Precise membership figures are not known. Estimates range from as high
as 25,000 to as low as 6,000. Historians agree that about 90 percent of Bund members were
immigrants who arrived in America after 1919. In Wisconsin, the most heavily German state, the
Bund seems to have mustered barely 500 members, which would rule out the possibility of
anywhere near 25,000 members nationwide.

Ironically, the Bunds goal of awakening Germans in America actually weakened German culture
where it had once thrived. The Holocaust, the lack of new immigrants after the war, and
suburbanization hurt, but the mere existence of the Bund had forced many German Americans to
emphasize the American part of their identities and sacrifice the German.