Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund

Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund

4.0 1
by Arnie Bernstein
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

In the late 1930s, the German–American Bund, led by its popinjay dictator Fritz Kuhn, was a small but powerful national movement in pre-World War II America, determined to conquer the United States government with a fascist dictatorship. They met in private social halls and beer garden backrooms, gathered at private resorts and public rallies, developed their

Overview

In the late 1930s, the German–American Bund, led by its popinjay dictator Fritz Kuhn, was a small but powerful national movement in pre-World War II America, determined to conquer the United States government with a fascist dictatorship. They met in private social halls and beer garden backrooms, gathered at private resorts and public rallies, developed their own version of the SS and Hitler Youth, published a national newspaper and—for a brief moment of their own imagined glory—seemed poised to make an impact on American politics.

But while the American Nazi leadership dreamed of their Swastika Nation, an amalgamation of politicians, a rising legal star, an ego-charged newspaper columnist, and denizens of the criminal underworld utilized their respective means and muscle to bring down the movement and its dreams of a United Reich States.

Swastika Nation by Arnie Bernstein is a story of bad guys, good guys, and a few guys who fell somewhere in-between. The rise and fall of Fritz Kuhn and his German-American Bund at the hands of these disparate fighters is a sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing, and always compelling story from start to finish.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
The author of Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing (2009) returns with the disturbing story of the pro-Nazi movement that grew in 1930s America--until legal troubles and Pearl Harbor destroyed both the mad dreams and the dreamers. Bernstein begins with a moment almost impossible to imagine: a 1939 pro-Nazi rally held in Madison Square Garden to celebrate George Washington's birthday. Tens of thousands were involved, including some 17,000 cops to keep control of the 100,000 protestors outside. (The author returns later with much more detail about the event.) Bernstein focuses on Fritz Julius Kuhn, born in Munich, a young man at the time Hitler began his improbable ascent to power. The author follows Kuhn to the United States, where he eventually became a citizen, and tells about his employment with Henry Ford, another who was dazzled by Hitler and besotted by anti-Semitism. Kuhn joined the Bund, worked his way into the position of Bundesführer and thereafter lived with blithe disregard for social conventions. The Bund found lots of supporters--on both coasts and in between--in Depression-era America, though it had some high-profile opponents, as well, including columnist Walter Winchell, who regularly blasted them. They founded publications and youth and women's groups--in the youth camp, it seems, there was some sexual activity along with the canoeing and propaganda. Bernstein tells us about the odd outreach to Native Americans and reminds us of Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel, It Can't Happen Here (about a fascist takeover of America). Eventually, the authorities in New York--Fiorello La Guardia and Thomas Dewey among them--decided they'd had enough and went after Kuhn. They got him, and he spent some jail time and ended up in Europe, dead and forgotten. A story of disgusting people doing disgusting things, told with relish and undisguised disdain.
Publishers Weekly
Inspired by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s fictional Inglorious Basterds, this is the fast-paced story of how an obscure German chemist named Fritz Kuhn followed Hitler’s road map to rise to the top of the United States’ most powerful Nazi organization in 1930s and ’40s New York City. Writing for armchair historians, Bernstein (Bath Massacre) shows how an unlikely group of allies thwarted the ambitions of the self-styled Bundesführer (second only, in his estimation, to the Führer) and his stateside sympathizers, who paradoxically revered both Hitler and George Washington. Disgusted local and state government officials joined with Jewish mobsters to blunt the Bund’s influence, while journalist Walter Winchell and the Warner Bros. movie studio swayed public opinion against the group. Bernstein’s narrative deflates with Kuhn’s anticlimactic trials on embezzlement charges (New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia even provided testimony—and comic relief), during which the Bundesführer backtracked and talked around the prosecution’s questions. Like Tarantino, Bernstein manages to present a fresh account of a well-documented era, and the egotistical, philandering, and deluded Kuhn makes a great and detestable star. Agent: Leigh Feldman, Writers House. (Sept.)
author of The New Hate: A History of Fear and Arthur Goldwag

No novelist would have dared to pass off the bumptious Fritz Kuhn, his dim-witted associates, or his improbable harem of divorced socialites as real-life characters. But for a few years in the 1930s, the Bundesführer purveyed his bizarre blend of Hitler-worship, Jew-hatred, and star-spangled patriotism to audiences of thousands--while the likes of Walter Winchell, Thomas Dewey, Fiorella LaGuardia, and Meyer Lansky worked separately and sometimes together to bring him down. Swastika Nation reminds us that when it comes to the politics of hatred, truth is stranger than fiction--and nothing is new under the sun.
New York Times best-selling author of Starvation H Gregg Olson

Bernstein wraps his arms around an amazing cast and spins a tale that will readers breathless--it's that good. An astonishing read by a wonderful writer.
From the Publisher

“[An] engrossing retelling...” —The New York Times

“Impeccably researched and forcefully written.” —Chicago Tribune

“Told with relish and undisguised disdain.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A breathtaking story of a lost piece of American history--a powerfully written, expertly researched tale packed with fascinating characters and riveting action.” —Jonathan Eig, New York Times bestselling author of Luckiest Man

“The frightening, compulsively readable story...A vivid and enlightening look at a largely forgotten episode of American history.” —Gary Krist, New York Times bestselling author of City of Scoundrels

“...fast-paced...a fresh account of a well-documented era.” —Publishers Weekly

“This is narrative nonfiction at its best, a gripping tale that's impossible to put down.” —Karen Abbott, author of American Rose

“Arnie Bernstein is a master storyteller…Here's a book with a cast of bigger-than-life characters…A powerful, riveting story.” —John McNally, Award-winning author of The Book of Ralph

“No novelist would have dared to pass off the bumptious Fritz Kuhn, his dim-witted associates, or his improbable harem of divorced socialites as real-life characters. But for a few years in the 1930s, the Bundesführer purveyed his bizarre blend of Hitler-worship, Jew-hatred, and star-spangled patriotism to audiences of thousands--while the likes of Walter Winchell, Thomas Dewey, Fiorella LaGuardia, and Meyer Lansky worked separately and sometimes together to bring him down. Swastika Nation reminds us that when it comes to the politics of hatred, truth is stranger than fiction--and nothing is new under the sun.” —Arthur Goldwag, author of The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right

“Bernstein wraps his arms around an amazing cast and spins a tale that will readers breathless--it's that good. An astonishing read by a wonderful writer.” —Gregg Olson, New York Times best-selling author of Starvation Heights

New York Times bestselling author of City of Scoun Gary Krist

The frightening, compulsively readable story...A vivid and enlightening look at a largely forgotten episode of American history.
Library Journal
10/15/2013
As the Nazi party rose to power in Germany, many German Americans formed organizations to support Hitler, most notably the German American Bund in 1936, while people from across the political and social spectrum—many Jewish—banded together to fight against the anti-Semitism of National Socialism. Bernstein (Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing) introduces us to a colorful cast of characters on both sides of this conflict and traces the development of support for and opposition to Hitler. Biographical sketches—compelling thumbnail portraits of figures such as Bundesführer Fritz Kuhn, mobster Meyer Lansky, and powerful anti-Bund columnist Walter Winchell—are the highlight of this book. Bernstein's descriptions of Bund history and activities are relatively weak; his tone is generally contemptuous and dismissive, which does not strengthen the overall work. VERDICT This is an interesting and informative narrative, but it lacks the nuance that would raise it to the level of being useful scholarly material. However, as there are few other works specifically on this topic—none aimed at a popular audience and many out of print—this is an adequate overview of the history of the Bund. Recommended for those interested in the time period and the U.S. Nazi movement.—Claire Houck, New York

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781250006714
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
09/03/2013
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
368
Sales rank:
925,445
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 5.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Swastika Nation

Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund


By Arnie Bernstein

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Arnie Bernstein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-03644-5



CHAPTER 1

Fritz Julius Kuhn


On the evening of November 8, 1923, three thousand men packed the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer hall in Munich, Germany, waiting to hear a speech by Gustav Ritter von Kahr, the controversial leader of Bavaria's chaotic postwar government. Outside, where a uniformed and adversarial mix of storm troopers and police uneasily mixed, it was wet and cold. Inside the hall was a choking miasma of stale smoke, beer, and sweat.

A foppish man outfitted with a Charlie Chaplin toothbrush mustache sat nervously at the bar and ordered three beers. In the wake of Germany's crippling postwar recession the price was hard: one billion marks per glass.

Austrian by birth, German by choice, Adolf Hitler was a failed art student and veteran of the Great War; a brooder overflowing with ideas and prepared for action. It was time to live up to his name "Adolf," an old Teutonic word meaning "fortunate wolf." Tonight, within the packed confines of a Munich beer hall, this fortunate wolf felt poised to change the world. The dismal late autumn weather had compounded a daylong headache. What's more, his jaw throbbed from an ugly toothache. "See a dentist," his friends had implored, but Hitler had paid them no mind. There was work to be done, work of national importance — nay, world importance. His physical maladies were nothing compared to the rot pervading his adopted country.

As Kahr outlined the aims of his government, a colleague approached Hitler at the bar. The time was now.

Hitler whipsawed one of the billion-mark beers to the floor, smashing the mug with a loud crash. Pulling his Browning pistol from its holster Hitler, surrounded by a thug entourage pushing and elbowing bewildered inebriates out of the way, defiantly took the stage. Hitler held his pistol high, squeezed the trigger, and sent a bullet into the ceiling.

The Browning's loud bang! did the trick. The confused and rambunctious crowd fell into uneasy silence, a moment that lasted all of an eye blink. From outside storm troopers poured into the packed hall, crying "Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!" It was a dictum more than a salute, barked out by loyalists to a cause greater than themselves.

"The national revolution has broken out!" Hitler declared. "The hall is surrounded!"

History would remember this night as the "Beer Hall Putsch," Hitler's attempt to seize the government for Nazi control. Though the night ended in failure with Hitler's arrest, it marked the beginning for a nascent movement that grew into a New World Order the fortunate wolf dreamed of: Germany's conquering Third Reich.

As the cult of Hitler expanded over the years, many of his acolytes would proudly say, "I was at Bürgerbräukeller. I stood with our führer from the start." Among those who declared he boldly followed the future dictator into the melee was a plump, nearsighted chemist named Fritz Julius Kuhn. In the end, it didn't really matter whether or not Kuhn was part of the putsch mob. Throughout his life, he would claim many things.

* * *

Fritz Julius Kuhn was born on May 15, 1896, in Munich to Karl and Anna Kuhn. The Kuhns raised a large brood; Fritz was one of Karl and Anna's twelve children. His childhood was nondescript at best. Certainly nothing emerged in later investigations of Kuhn's past that would show any glimmer of what he was to become.

In 1913, during Kuhn's high school years, Hitler moved to Munich from Vienna. He was twenty-four, a failed art student with a dismal future and completely taken with his new surroundings. "A German city!" he later rhapsodized in his autobiography/manifesto Mein Kampf. "[T]here was ... heartfelt love which seized me for this city more than any other place that I knew, almost from the first hour of my sojourn there." Munich provided fertile ground for Hitler's growing Jewcentric ideologies. This "German city" was teeming with anti-Semitic salons and Hitler soaked it in. He plunged himself into studies, while eking out a meager living selling architectural drawings to afford the tiny room where he lived. After long days of creating art and voraciously devouring book upon book, Hitler would head to beer halls for the always lively, sometimes drunken political discussions hurled back and forth on any given night. In some quarters, a greeting was traded between friends to indicate their anti-Semitic political bonds. It was a simple but effective word: Heil!

* * *

On June 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie paraded in an open car through the streets of Sarajevo. The pleasingly plump couple seemed not to have a care in the world as they soaked in the cheers of a mostly adoring crowd lining the streets. Yet among the happy faces were some stern looks, silently holding in their contempt for the royal pomposity.

Lurking within the crowd, slipping in and out of the throng, five teenagers all wracked by tuberculosis tightly held their coats, guarding secrets. The minutes dragged until one of the young men saw his chance. He hurled a pocket-sized explosive at the archduke's car. Evasive moves by Ferdinand's sharp-eyed driver couldn't stop the bomb from landing in the automobile. Quickly realizing what was happening, the archduke threw up his arm to shield Sophie from the incoming firepower. His actions had limited effect; shrapnel from the explosion cut her slightly along the neck. The chauffeur floored the gas pedal, smashed cars, and injured pedestrians in the confusion.

Not ones to let an assassination attempt ruin the day, Ferdinand and Sophie next attended a mayoral welcoming ceremony at Sarajevo's city hall. After the ritual pomp and circumstance, the archduke insisted on going to the hospital to meet people hit by his car during the royal getaway.

Apparently the change in plans confused the chauffer. He drove down the scheduled motorcade route but was corrected on his mistake and told to change direction.

The car stopped. Five feet away, Gavrilo Princip saw his chance.

Princip, the brains of the tubercular quintet, pulled a handgun from his coat and squeezed off two shots. Ferdinand, the intended target, was neatly hit. The second bullet penetrated the car door, then struck Sophie. Seconds after pulling the trigger the assassin tried to turn the gun on himself. A mob grabbed him, deflecting any chance for Princip to commit suicide. His second option, chomping down on a vial of cyanide, was an equal failure. The poison within was old, its lethal potency long evaporated.

Princip's bullets cut down two people. The war sparked by this assassination ultimately would kill millions, military and civilian alike.

* * *

One month to the day after Ferdinand's assassination, Austria-Hungry declared war on Serbia. Four days later, on August first, Hitler joined the exuberant crowd in Odeonsplatz, Munich's central square, celebrating Germany's declaration of war on France and Russia.

Like Hitler, and so many young men of his generation, eighteen-year-old Fritz Kuhn volunteered in the fight for his country. Joining a Bavarian combat unit, Kuhn developed adept skills as a machine gunner, providing firepower support to brethren in the war-torn trenches of France. He served four years, rising to the rank of lieutenant. For bravery on the field of battle Kuhn was awarded the Iron Cross First Class, the German military's highest honor. It surely was a proud moment, as this esteemed laurel was rarely bestowed on enlisted men. And in this award, Kuhn's life invisibly crossed Hitler's, another enlisted man who earned the coveted medal.

Luster ultimately dimmed in the wake of German defeat in the Great War. The devastating loss was followed by the Treaty of Versailles, a forced contract on Germany from the American, French, and English victors demanding reparations be paid from a people shattered by postwar economic recession.

With no job and no future in sight, Kuhn joined many disillusioned veterans in the Freikorps, a paramilitary force determined to restore honor to the Fatherland. These freelance troops were funded surreptitiously with money funneled into an anti-Bolshevik movement by leaders of German heavy industry, including Alfred Krupp, Emil Kirdorf, Hugo Stinnes, Albert Vögler, and Hermann Röchling. The country may have been in turmoil and deep in an overwhelming recession, but the barons of business were taking no chances that upstart rebels might cut into their profits via revolution. Freikorps volunteers, still bitter from Germany's loss, were lured by patriotic broadsides and newspaper advertisements, crying out for men to defend honor of country and "prevent Germany from becoming the laughingstock of the earth."

They operated under the eye of Gustav Noske, Germany's postwar Minister of Defense. In the terrible wake of Germany's humiliation in the Great War, the Freikorps served as a sort of internal protection force. Their law enforcement techniques were highly unorthodox, driven by a mob psychology specializing in intimidation and brutality.

The bankrollers behind Freikorps had reason to worry. The Spartacus League, a leftist force that took its name from the leader of the ancient Greek slave revolt, was making inroads. Under the leadership of Rosa Luxemburg — a Jewish Russian–born Marxist — and her colleague, fiery German attorney Karl Liebknecht, a Bolshevik takeover similar to the recent Russian revolution loomed. The Spartacist movement was gaining momentum in Berlin, taking control of public utilities, transportation, and munitions factories. Friedrich Ebert, the postwar German Republic's first president, panicked. He fired Berlin's chief of police, declaring the man a Spartacist sympathizer.

On Sunday, January 5, 1919, Spartacists held rallies and demonstrations throughout the streets of Berlin. Luxemburg issued a broadsheet imploring people throughout Germany to join the fight. "Act! Act! Courageously, consistently — that is the 'accursed' duty and obligation ..." she wrote. "Disarm the counter-revolution. Arm the masses. Occupy all positions of power. Act quickly!"

Overthrow of the government was quelled through efficient and merciless means.

During what became known as "Bloody Week," Freikorps volunteers from throughout the country flocked to Berlin. Forces amplified to thousands of men salivating for street battles against the paltry opposition.

Using an abandoned school as his headquarters, Noske took command as Freikorps men brought down wave upon wave of the enemy throughout the week. On January 11, Freikorps shock troops, armed with flamethrowers and machine guns, unleashed their furies on the headquarters of the leftist newspaper Vorwärts. Spartacist snipers scattered throughout the building held out as best they could. Finally seven of the rebels came out waving white handkerchiefs. One member of the group was sent back into the building, with the message that Freikorps would only accept unconditional surrender. The remaining six were beaten and shot. As they fell into gruesome heaps, three hundred remaining Spartacists inside the building were rounded up. Seven people in this final group were turned into helpless targets, blasted with a fusillade of ammunition as their comrades were taken into custody en masse.

Next were Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The duo, holed up in the flat of one of Liebknecht's relatives, was found on January 15th. They were hauled to the ironically named Hotel Eden in the center of Berlin. Liebknecht was clubbed insensible with rifle butts. Battered and helpless, he was dragged off to nearby Tiergarten, a public greenery described by author Erik Larson as " ... Berlin's equivalent to Central Park. The name, in literal translation, meant 'animal garden' or 'garden of the beasts ...'" Liebknecht was ordered to walk. As he stumbled forward Freikorps guns riddled his back with bullets. The bloodied corpse was dumped off at the Berlin Zoo like a slab of freshly butchered meat meant for animal feed.

Once Liebknecht was dispatched attentions turned to Luxemburg. Like her now-dead comrade, she was slammed in the skull with merciless rifle butts. Bleeding from her nose and mouth, unconscious yet still alive, she was thrown into a car and spirited away. Hotel workers heard pistol shots as the automobile peeled off. Upon reaching Berlin's Landwehr Canal, Luxemburg's killers secured heavy stones around her body with tightly bound wire, and then threw the weighted corpse into the water. "The old slut is swimming now," sneered one of the assassins. Five months later Luxemburg's remains, a bloated caricature of a woman, were found in one of the canal locks.

Emboldened by the unchecked Berlin slaughter, men throughout the country clamored to join Freikorps. Kuhn signed on with a unit organized by Colonel Franz Ritter von Epp, a highly decorated hero of Germany's doomed war efforts. The division — known as Freikorps Epp — was formed in the violent wake of Bloody Week. Its members were mostly former enlisted men such as Kuhn and became the largest Freikorps regiment in Bavaria. Determined not to let any rebels create new threats, Kuhn and his fellow soldiers in the Freikorps Epp kept tight and brutal rings surrounding cities throughout the region. "No pardon is given," one member of the group wrote. "We shoot even the wounded. ... Anyone who falls into our hands first gets the rifle butt and then is finished off with a bullet. We even shot ten Red Cross nurses on sight because they were carrying pistols. We shot those little ladies with pleasure — how they cried and pleaded with us to save their lives. Nothing doing! Anyone with a gun is our enemy ..."

Like many of his Freikorps volunteers, Kuhn joined Hitler's growing Nazi Party, officially becoming a member in 1921. Intellectual ambition separated him from the majority of his peers, most of whom were working class men of limited schooling. Kuhn enrolled in the University of Munich and in 1922 earned the American equivalent of a master's degree in chemical engineering.

Higher education afforded Kuhn opportunities outside the classroom. He developed a penchant for pilfering the overcoats of fellow students, a crime that earned Kuhn four months at Munich's Stadelheim Prison in 1921. Again, Kuhn and Hitler crossed inadvertent paths. On April 16, 1922, Hitler was arrested and taken to Stadelheim for inciting an Easter Sunday riot, shouting, "Two thousand years ago, the mob of Jerusalem dragged a man to execution in just this way!"

Fearful for his son's future, Karl Kuhn sought out Reinhold Spitz, a Jewish manufacturer whose clothing factory was down the street from Kuhn's business. Spitz empathized with the situation, having known Fritz since he was four years old, and in 1924 hired the wayward young man as a shipping clerk.

Within a few months Spitz noticed that bolts of cloth used in factory machinery were coming up short. On further investigation, he realized the actual lengths of cloth were not as stated on inventory tags. Spitz's first thought was that his suppliers were cheating him, but this proved wrong. Next he traced how the cloth bolts were transported within his factory. Somewhere between the first-floor stock room and the third-floor manufacturing plant on the top of the building, an employee was altering inventory. Watching carefully through a workroom door, Spitz found his culprit. Fritz Kuhn was using tailor's shears to remove several yards of cloth from each bolt, and then slip the purloined material to an accomplice outside the factory.

Spitz called Fritz Kuhn to his office, promptly fired him, then summoned Karl Kuhn to come fetch his son. All told, Kuhn had stolen some three thousand marks' worth of material. Karl implored his son's boss not to press charges. Spitz was a forgiving man, for he agreed to help give Fritz a fresh start and helped raise money so his now ex-employee could move to Mexico. Perhaps this radical change in scenery was what Fritz needed to get on the straight and narrow. Besides, the man now had a wife to support, having gotten married May 28, 1923.

Kuhn's move to Mexico with his new bride, Elsa, was not an unusual strategy for the times. Strapped by their Fatherland's battered economy, many Germans of his generation sought better opportunities in the United States. The American consulate told Kuhn a quota system regulated immigration so it might be easier if he first went to Mexico. In theory Kuhn would only have to wait a few months to establish Mexican residency, and then relocate to the United States.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Swastika Nation by Arnie Bernstein. Copyright © 2013 Arnie Bernstein. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author


ARNIE BERNSTEIN learned firsthand about American Nazis as a high school student, when a group of neo-fascists threatened to march in his neighborhood, known for its large Jewish population. He has been interviewed by the New York Times, BBC Radio, NPR, PBS, and numerous documentaries. He's lectured at DePaul University, the Chicago History Museum, and other venues, and appeared on C-SPAN's Book-TV. Bernstein's nonfiction tale Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing was honored as a Notable Book of the Year by the State Library of Michigan. He lives in Chicago.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
druidgirl More than 1 year ago
Swastika Nation is the story of the German American Bund and its leader Fritz Kuhn in pre World War II times. Kuhn was a trained chemist and also a thief, he stole money from the Bund treasury to keep his many mistresses, he was eventually tried and imprisoned in Sing Sing for embezzlement. He had once worked for Henry Ford who who was known as an anti-Semitic. The historical research and storyline were wonderful and the characters although sleazy were written with great care. Thanks to Net Galley and St. Martins for allowing me to read this in exchange for an honest review.