On February 20, 1939, a crowd estimated at twenty thousand gathered in Madison Square Garden in New York City. They were American citizens of German descent and had gathered to hear the leader of their organization, a naturalized citizen but native of Munich named Fritz Julius Kuhn, supposedly extol the virtues of Americanisation and celebrate George Washington’s birthday. What actually took place was a Nazi rally fit for Nuremberg, complete with swastika flags, signs denouncing Jews, and thousands of stormtroopers with hands raised in Nazi salutes.
The group, known as the German American Bund, was ostensibly founded to show, with war in Europe looming, that those of German heritage were still loyal and patriotic Americans. What it was, in reality, was an American arm of the Nazi party. Kuhn, in full Nazi uniform and to the applause of the brown-shirted rabble, referred to President Washington as “the first fascist” and raged against President “Rosenfeld” and his “Jew Deal.”
Not everyone in attendance was a supporter, however. At one point, a young Jewish man named Isadore Greenbaum managed to get on stage and take a swing at Kuhn but was tackled by jackbooted body guards and severely beaten before police rescued him by arresting him. Outside, a force of 1,500 NYPD members struggled to hold back a crowd of as many as fifty thousand protesters who greatly desired to gain entrance and have a word with the Nazi sympathizers. Police did what they could to protect the Bund members from the crowd but a number of what were described as “pitched battles” broke out, most notably between some stormtroopers and a group of Jewish WWI veterans.
The full horrors of Nazism weren’t known in February of 1939, of course. But enough was known that a whole lot of New Yorkers weren’t particularly interested in hearing about the First Amendment rights of Fritz Kuhn. The events of Friday night and Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, seem to indicate that not much has changed on that score: Nazis are still inflammatory and despicable, protesters of Nazis still can’t control their (justified) emotions, there are still hucksters espousing rhetoric that leads to violence just to make a buck (Kuhn would eventually be convicted of embezzlement and tax evasion and have his citizenship revoked), and for the most part law enforcement still recognizes the rights of Americans to peaceably assemble no matter how distasteful their views.
There is one anecdote from the 1939 rally which indicates things have changed in some ways. The journalist Dorothy Thompson, an early foe of Hitler and in fact the first journalist he banned from Germany (in 1934), attended the Bund event. Seated in the press gallery, she loudly laughed at some preposterous claim or another by one of the speakers prior to Kuhn and exclaimed “Bunk!” In an effort to disabuse similar interruptions by others, she was promptly removed by a few of the stormtrooper guards, who walked her outside to let police know she was barred from re-entry. Outside, Thompson prevailed upon her escorts and the officers that, just as she recognized the Constitutional right of the Bund to hold their rally despite her feelings about Mr. Hitler, she had a Constitutional right to heckle. Whether due to the force of her argument or admiration for her moxie is not recorded, but Dorothy Thompson was escorted back to her seat.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.