A book examining the strange terrain of Nazi sympathizers, nonintervention campaigners and other voices in America who advocated on behalf of Nazi Germany in the years before World War II.
Americans who remember World War II reminisce about how it brought the country together. The less popular truth behind this warm nostalgia: until the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was deeply, dangerously divided.
Bradley W. Hart's Hitler's American Friends exposes the homegrown antagonists who sought to protect and promote Hitler, leave Europeans (and especially European Jews) to fend for themselves, and elevate the Nazi regime.
Some of these friends were Americans of German heritage who joined the Bund, whose leadership dreamed of installing a stateside Führer. Some were as bizarre and hair-raising as the Silver Shirt Legion, run by an eccentric who claimed that Hitler fulfilled a religious prophesy. Some were Midwestern Catholics like Father Charles Coughlin, an early right-wing radio star who broadcast anti-Semitic tirades. They were even members of Congress who used their franking privilege—sending mail at cost to American taxpayers—to distribute German propaganda. And celebrity pilot Charles Lindbergh ended up speaking for them all at the America First Committee.
We try to tell ourselves it couldn't happen here, but Americans are not immune to the lure of fascism. Hitler's American Friends is a powerful look at how the forces of evil manipulate ordinary people, how we stepped back from the ledge, and the disturbing ease with which we could return to it.
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About the Author
Bradley W. Hart is Assistant Professor at California State University, Fresno, USA and a former by-fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, UK. His previous works include a co-edited volume entitled The Foundations of the British Conservative Party: Essays on Conservatism from Lord Salisbury to David Cameron (2013).
Read an Excerpt
The 1937 Fourth of July celebration in Yaphank, Long Island, had many elements of a typical Independence Day gala. It was a warm day and families sat at picnic tables under the leafy trees while the adults swigged beer and sang traditional songs. As the day wore on and the alcohol took effect, there was dancing and more carousing before a fireworks display concluded the evening.
Yet this was far from a typical patriotic celebration of American history. Many of the thousands in attendance were in uniform, but not the olive-green uniform of the US Army. There were speeches by local dignitaries, but these were focused less on a celebration of the Declaration of Independence than a series of homages to prominent foreign leaders. "Heil Hitler" and "Heil Mussolini" were the standard greetings of the day. A huge swastika adorned the stage, which one speaker told the crowd represented "Aryan groups in all countries," including the United States. More than three hundred men in silver- gray shirts with black ties and Sam Browne belts that passed over their right shoulders, and others in black shirts, goose-stepped past the stage and saluted their leaders with extended right arms. These storm troopers "are not a military organization," the crowd was assured by one of the afternoon's keynote speakers. He continued by predicting dark days ahead: "It would be ridiculous to believe they are drilling to take over America. ... Trouble is coming to America soon and these men will be ready to fight for real American ideals against the homeless, Godless minority that is seeking to take us away from true Americanism."
This was the Fourth of the July celebrated in the style of the German American Bund, the country's leading organization for German sympathizers and Nazi imitators. Over the course of the 1930s, the Bund would go from being the butt of jokes nationwide to one of the government's top domestic security threats. At the same time, the outrageous behavior of the Bund's leadership would lead the German government itself to disavow it and eventually even ban German citizens from joining its ranks. By the outbreak of World War II, the Bund had largely been broken under the weight of its own corruption and a string of government prosecutions. While the Bund was home to Hitler's most visible American friends, they were in many ways his least effective allies in the country.
The downfall of the Bund would be largely brought about by one of the men attending the 1937 Fourth of July celebration. He was wearing the uniform of the German American Bund — a Hitler-style shirt and tie with the Sam Browne belt — with his hair and moustache shaped to imitate the Führer's personal styling. For all appearances he would have cut the profile of an avid Hitler admirer and, to his comrades in the Bund, he was exactly this. Over the course of the past few months, Hellmut Oberwinder had managed to gain the trust of the Bund's leadership and has even been dispatched on a series of secret missions to make contact with Bund cells across the country.
In reality, there was no Hellmut Oberwinder, at least as his fellow Bund members knew him. The man going by that name in 1937 was actually John C. Metcalfe, a German-born reporter for the Chicago Daily Times who had painstakingly established a false identity over the course of months to infiltrate the Bund and gain the trust of its leadership. (Hellmut Oberwinder was in fact his German birth name, which he changed after moving to the United States in 1914). By late 1937, just months after traveling twenty thousand miles on a series of fact-finding trips on behalf of the Bund's leadership, Metcalfe and two other reporters — one of whom was his brother, a former FBI agent who simultaneously infiltrated a Chicago-based Nazi group — published a series of articles that blew the lid off the Bund's operation and revealed the extent of its intentions to the American people. Congress would subsequently appoint Metcalfe as a special investigator for Martin Dies's House Committee on Un-American Activities. In the course of the coming years he would personally expose a range of plots by Hitler's American friends across the country. Metcalfe quickly accomplished more than any other single individual working to unravel the threat posed by Nazi sympathizers to US national security.
Metcalfe's dramatic successes infiltrating the Bund and the wider American Nazi movement partially stemmed from the fact that, as a relatively recent German immigrant to the country, he was part of the exact demographic from which many of these organizations were seeking to recruit. In 1910, the United States had more than 8.2 million residents who had either been born in Germany or had German-born parents. Many spoke German as their primary language. In a country of just 92 million people, this made the German- American bloc a major demographic force. Before World War I there were numerous German-language newspapers across the country and a wide range of German cultural and heritage organizations that catered to the growing German-speaking community.
America's 1917 entry in the war changed all this quickly. Though the overwhelming majority of German Americans were demonstrably loyal to the United States, the wider community quickly found itself on the receiving end of xenophobic abuse fanned by press accounts of German atrocities in Europe and on the high seas. The most aggressive attempts to counter this narrative and support the German cause (by propaganda agents including George Sylvester Viereck, discussed later) backfired and led to more prejudice. Alarmist reports about German espionage attempts in the United States led to further outrage, and in 1917 President Woodrow Wilson ordered all German noncitizens over the age of fourteen to register with the government as a preemptive measure. This helped foster a febrile atmosphere. On April 5, 1918, a German coal miner in Illinois was lynched by an angry mob and, in the ensuing trial, none of the accused killers were actually convicted. While this death was the only one immediately attributable to the national panic, its effect on the wider German-American community was profound. German-language newspapers began to disappear, and many German-American families decided that rapid integration into American society and the English language was the surest way to protect themselves from another outbreak of violence.
The arrival of peace in 1919 had another profound effect on this dynamic. Between 1919 and 1933, more than four hundred thousand German immigrants would arrive on American shores, in large part because postwar Germany was in the midst of economic collapse. Unlike the German Americans who had come before and now mostly decided to adopt an American identity, a portion of these new migrants saw themselves as temporary expatriates fleeing economic and political turmoil. Many did not expect to stay in the United States for long and some even saw themselves as right-wing political refugees fleeing the vagaries of the newly established and liberal Weimar Republic. The German American Bund's membership would largely be drawn from these more recent immigrants.
German politics was changing rapidly in the 1930s, and German Americans took a keen interest in the events taking place there. In 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg following an indecisive parliamentary election. Hitler had been a controversial political figure for more than a decade. In 1923 he had led an unsuccessful coup called the Beer Hall Putsch against the government of Bavaria. The uprising ended in bloodshed and Hitler was sent to prison for his role in the plot. While there, he penned the autobiographical Mein Kampf, an account of his past political activities that contained a strong dose of anti-Semitism. After being released from prison in late 1924, Hitler returned to the political fray as leader of the nascent National Socialist Party. The party's vote share would never be massive, and under his leadership it won just 37 percent of the national vote in July 1932. This was nowhere near a majority, but it positioned Hitler to take on a key role in the next government. Conservative politicians believed they could control the Austrian former soldier who, for all his impressive rhetorical skills, lacked many of the social graces that were expected of traditional politicians. Hitler quickly took advantage of events, accepted their support, and outwitted them.
Following the burning of the Reichstag in a terrorist arson attack a month after he took office, Hitler began to consolidate power for the Nazi Party. An Enabling Act was passed allowing Hitler to effectively govern without parliamentary oversight. Civil liberties swiftly disappeared and all opposition parties were banned. Opponents of the Nazi Party found themselves in concentration camps. In August 1934 Hindenburg died, leaving the presidency vacant. Rather than take on the role himself, Hitler simply assumed Hindenburg's power and created a new position for himself: Führer (leader). Most semblances of German democracy ceased to exist in under two years.
Hitler's rapid rise was watched closely around the world. "He [Hitler] has a blank check from nearly twenty million Germans to rule the Fatherland however he wills," Hungarian-American journalist Emil Lengyel wrote in April 1933. "Hitler is thus Germany's dictator by the right of the electorate. The bad boy of Germany, the boy the neighbors fear, is on his own." German Americans were split over these developments. In Brooklyn, one of the largest German-American organizations issued a strong denunciation of Hitler's anti- Semitism in June 1933. Others were more eager to support Hitler's new government. In December 1933, a crowd of twenty thousand cheered Hitler's name at a Madison Square Garden meeting of the Steuben Society, a prominent German heritage organization. German ambassador to the United States Hans Luther encouraged the crowd to "study the truth about Germany and not be satisfied with incomplete reports whose correctness is so often contradicted and inherently questionable." As in Germany, there was clearly substantial, though far from unanimous, support for the country's new leader among the expat community.
The first group with clear affinities for Nazism to emerge in the German- American community was called the National Socialist Teutonia Association. Founded in Detroit in 1924, the association was openly supportive of the nascent National Socialist movement. Some members had even been part of the Nazi Party before the Beer Hall Putsch and had fled to America to avoid prison time. Association members sent much-needed funds to the struggling Nazi Party in addition to publishing a local newspaper. Its leaders were all young men who had recently immigrated to the United States and shared aspects of Hitler's anti-Semitic outlook. Some would eventually return to Germany and receive rewards for their financial contributions to the Nazi Party at this critical phase in its existence. However, the goal of the Teutonia Association was not to build a branch of the Nazi Party in the United States but to provide a temporary home for exiled Nazis. Most expected to eventually return to Germany and continue their struggle there. If they could gain new recruits among their fellow recent immigrants, all the better, but the notion of trying to build a mass movement among the wider German-American community was far from the primary aim.
The biggest problem for Teutonia was that it was far from the only Nazi show in town. While it remained a powerful force in the Detroit area, there were other Nazi Party members living in exile elsewhere, most notably New York City. In 1931, an organization of these members wrote to the Nazi Party's foreign section in Hamburg and suggested that they be commissioned to form an official Nazi branch in New York City. The leader of the foreign section agreed to the proposal, effectively cutting Teutonia out of the official party apparatus and creating a new "official" Nazi organization called Gauleitung-USA (District Headquarters USA, or Gau-USA for short). For the next several years, rival Nazi groups verbally sniped at one another claiming to be the most authentic, with the press giving increasing column space to the conflict as Hitler's profile grew. Teutonia's leadership eventually declared the organization defunct and joined Gau-USA, but this proved to be only a temporary solution. Following Hitler's ascent to power in 1933, the German Nazi Party decided that its public image in the United States needed improvement and founded a completely new organization, the Friends of Germany, to spread propaganda and build support for the new government.
Farcically, the leaders of Gau-USA refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the new organization and still claimed themselves to be the true embodiment of American Nazism. At the same time, dissenters within the group broke away to found their own organizations. The American press had a field day as a ridiculous internecine conflict unfolded, hardly giving the German embassy the propaganda coup for which it had hoped. Fed up with the entire situation, the Nazi Party's leaders in Berlin eventually threw up their hands and ordered everyone to shut down their groups immediately. The American branch of National Socialism was causing far more problems than it was solving.
The solution was clearly to be found in applying more discipline and structure to the American Nazi movement's many disparate pieces. In mid- 1933, a former member of Teutonia, Heinz Spanknöbel, obtained party permission to form a new organization that would include both German Americans and German nationals living in the United States under one umbrella group called Friends of the New Germany. Unlike Gau-USA, this new group would include all factions of the American Nazi movement and avoid the infighting that had plagued its previous incarnations. More menacingly, Spanknöbel took a page from Hitler's own playbook and set up an armed wing of the organization — called the Ordnungsdienst or OD — which had previously been part of Teutonia and was modeled on the Nazi Party's violent brown-shirted Sturmabteilung (SA). In the event of a threat to Spanknöbel's leadership or the wider organization, the OD was trained to respond with force.
Between 1933 and 1935, Friends of the New Germany recruited a membership of about five thousand. This made it a small but potent force — similar to the six thousand members the American Communist Party had in 1932. The group published two newspapers in the New York area and soon opened branches in five other cities including Detroit and Chicago. Despite these successes, Spanknöbel himself quickly turned out to be exactly the loose cannon that the Nazi Party had tried to prevent from tarnishing its name in the United States. In 1933, he attempted to intimidate the owners of a major German-language daily paper in New York City into accepting him as the legitimate voice of the German government, only to be thrown out of their offices. Later that year the OD painted swastikas on the doors of Manhattan synagogues. A subsequent anti-Semitic rally in New Jersey ended in a brawl between the OD and protestors in the audience. The press once again had a field day, and dark memories of the hysteria over German espionage and subversion in World War I began to resurface in the German-American community.
The German government ordered Spanknöbel to stop attracting attention to himself. He simply ignored the instructions coming from Berlin and the controversy continued. Alarmed by the group's growing profile and violent tendencies, the chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization requested Spanknöbel's deportation on the grounds that he had failed to properly register as an agent operating on behalf of a foreign government. Spanknöbel skipped town and left the country before he could be apprehended by federal authorities. Congressional hearings soon resulted and, in 1935, the German government once again threw up its hands and ordered all German nationals to resign their membership in the organization or face having their German citizenship revoked. Friends of the New Germany had not only failed to improve Nazism's reputation in the United States but had in fact become a major liability for the German government. The Friends were only the precursor of what was to come, however. In late March 1936, Friends of the New Germany was officially declared defunct, and was absorbed into a new group: German American Bund (Amerikadeutscher Volksbund in German, which appeared above its English name on its official letterhead) at a national convention in Buffalo, New York. The new organization would be partially headquartered on East Eighty-Fifth Street in in the Yorkville Section of New York City, not far from Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hitler's American Friends"
Copyright © 2018 Bradley W. Hart.
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.
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Table of Contents
1. THE BUND,
2. THE SILVER LEGION AND THE CHIEF,
3. THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT,
4. THE SENATORS,
5. THE BUSINESSMEN,
6. THE STUDENTS,
7. AMERICA FIRST!,
8. THE SPIES,
APPENDIX: HITLER'S AMERICAN FRIENDS IN NUMBERS,
ALSO BY BRADLEY W. HART,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,