‘Nazi Town, USA’: Not far from here
PBS American Experience

Director Peter Yost’s new documentary Nazi Town, USA is a timely reminder of how fragile American democracy has always been. Yost’s movie for the PBS American Experience film series uses the brief history of The German-American Bund to show us how this threat is never far below the surface of everyday life…even and especially today.

Fascist ideas are hardly new to America. The earliest colonists brought with them the building blocks of authoritarianism embedded in their notions of religious-based cultural and ethnic superiority. This vision was bolstered by the assumption of rule by the few over the benighted many. The never-ending quest to set up a predominant religion always seeded the path toward fascism.

Building on these first religious and nativist elements, the Ku Klux Klan was the earliest widespread organized racist movement. The Klan was originally established by ex-Confederate soldiers to kill and terrorize Blacks, largely in the post-Civil War South. Later iterations of the KKK grew to impose Jim Crow laws and ethnic and race-based crimes against Blacks, Jews, Catholics, other racial minorities, and immigrants.

Yost’s film describes how more recent organizational attempts to establish white supremacist and fascist rule occurred during the turbulent 20th century period between the two World Wars. As the Great Depression of the 1930s rattled the foundations of American democracy, large groups of citizens sought diverse solutions to the crises of capitalism. A fascist-inspired movement drew on these unresolved early prejudices to offer right-wing solutions. The religious and social authoritarian strains were expressed in the direct violence of Jim Crow law enforcement and the hardly more subtle economic and political sanctions of deep-rooted religious-based anti-Semitism.

During this time, there was a proliferation of influential right-wing individuals and groups. Radio preacher Charles Coughlin attracted 14 million daily listeners preaching that Jews were threatening American civilization. Business leader and car manufacturer Henry Ford promoted virulent anti-Semitism as he sold America’s most popular automobiles. The pseudo-science of eugenics swept the nation advising that biologically inferior races undermined American greatness.

Out of this welter of fear and ignorance emerged a group calling itself “Friends of New Germany.” German Americans in particular had tried to salvage ethnic pride after Germany’s ignominious loss in World War I. Some of them did so by supporting the fascism emerging in Europe as a solution to what they viewed as the chaos of competing ethnic, race, and social groups.

Members of the German-American Bund on the march in New York in the 1930s. | Photo via PBS American Experience

Founded under the oversight of German leader Adolf Hitler’s deputy, Rudolph Hess, the Friends of New Germany were the uniformed arm of Germany in the United States. They tried to take over aspects of German-American life in the U.S., pushing pro-Nazi propaganda both within and beyond the German-American community. They boycotted businesses and infiltrated other organizations to promote laws, policies, youth camps, social programs, and other groups that carried a strong pro-Nazi agenda. They demanded a strong leader who was white and Christian.

Nazi Town, USA is the story of how the Friends of New Germany morphed into the German-American Bund. They sought to exterminate Jews, first by marginalizing them in the larger society. The Bund organized marches to terrorize Jewish neighborhoods and physically assaulted Jews, particularly the children. They sought to push out and close the door to other immigrants in their newly adopted country.

President Roosevelt urged the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate and take action against the German-American Bund. But FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover decided to tolerate the Bund, as he wanted to focus instead on the Communist Party, which had been so effective in helping workers organize.

The culmination of Bund power was a huge march and rally of 20,000 Nazi supporters in Madison Square Garden in New York in February 1939. Speakers on the platform excoriated Jews as parasites while Jewish demonstrators were beaten and thrown out by Nazi guards.

Bund leader Fritz Kuhn had promised the rally they would Make America Great. But New York Mayor La Guardia’s investigation of the Bund found that Kuhn wanted to make himself great instead. He had been using Bund monies to pay for mistresses across the country. Found guilty of grand larceny, forgery, embezzlement, and tax evasion, German-American Bund leader Kuhn was sent to Sing Sing Penitentiary.

With the failure of its leadership and the onset of World War II’s conflict with Germany, the Bund collapsed. Still, the ideas upon which the Bund was built—the nativist urge to establish a white Christian authoritarian government—continue to feed on the same fear, racism, and greed. Peter Yost’s film does a great service in reminding us about the motives and consequences of those who proclaim they want to Make America Great Again.

Nazi Town, USA premieres on Tuesday, Jan. 23, on PBS. Please consult your local station to confirm the exact viewing time.

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Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.