When Nazis 'Played' In The Madison Square Garden
Six and a half months before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, New York City’s Madison Square Garden hosted a rally to celebrate the rise of Nazism in Germany. Inside, more than 20,000 attendees raised Nazi salutes toward a 30-foot-tall portrait of George Washington flanked by swastikas. Outside, police and some 100,000 protestors gathered.
The organization behind the February 20, 1939 event—advertised on the arena’s marquee as a “Pro American Rally”—was the German American Bund (“Bund” is German for “federation”). The anti-semitic organization held Nazi summer camps for youth and their families during the 1930s. The Bund’s youth members were present that night, as were the Ordnungsdienst, or OD, the group’s vigilante police force who dressed in the style of Hitler’s SS officers.
Banners at the rally had messages like “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian Americans” and “Wake Up America. Smash Jewish Communism.” When the Bund’s national leader, Fritz Kuhn, gave his closing speech, he referred to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as “Rosenfield,” and Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey as “Thomas Jewey.” “We, with American ideals, demand that our government shall be returned to the American people who founded it,” declared Kuhn, a naturalized American who lost his citizenship during World War II. “If you ask what we are actively fighting for under our charter: First, a socially just, white, Gentile-ruled United States. Second, Gentile-controlled labor unions, free from Jewish Moscow-directed domination.”
At the time the rally took place, Hitler was completing his sixth concentration camp; and protesters—many of them Jewish Americans—called attention to the fact that what was happening in Germany could happen in the U.S. “Don’t wait for the concentration camps—Act now!” proclaimed fliers advertising the protest. It bears mentioning that while there were 20,000 enthusiastic American Nazis inside the venue, 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 Madison Square 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 and blasted a denunciation of the Nazis out the window: "Be American, Stay at Home." The New York Police Department had deployed a record number of 1,700 officers around Madison Square Garden, enough "to stop a revolution," the police commissioner said.
Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York, 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 fervour. Eventually he stood up and started slowly making his way to the front of the arena.
Meanwhile, onstage, Fritz Kuhn stepped up to the microphone. 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 the 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 World War II, 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, 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 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 Ku Klux Klan in response to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. "Eighty 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."