Commentary Magazine

The Nazi Movement in the United States, 1924-1941, by Sander A. Diamond

The Nazi Movement in the United States 1924-1941.
by Sander A. Diamond.
Cornell University Press. 380 pp. $15.00.

For well over half a century, the idea of America as a “melting pot” was a virtual article of faith among the majority of American historians, sociologists, and political scientists, all of whom were certain that the various ethnic groups that came together in the United States would eventually merge to form a single nationality, Anglo-Saxon in character to accord with the dominant strand. However, in the course of the past decade this cherished notion, like so many others, has gone by the boards. America, it is now argued, never was, nor is ever likely to become, a true “melting pot,” as witness the resurgence of ethnic consciousness we see all around us today. Significantly, this latest assertion reiterates what many European social scientists have long contended, that ethnic and cultural differences are the hallmark of American society.

Nevertheless, the notion of the “melting pot” may still be a useful one. For all the residual and resurgent ethnicity in evidence today, the fact remains that some groups have integrated quite successfully into the American mainstream. This is particularly true of those whose ancestors came to the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries from Northern and Western Europe—the Germans, the Scandinavians, and the Welsh, Scots, and Irish. The Germans, especially, demonstrated the viability of the “melting pot” thesis when they overwhelmingly resisted the various blandishments profferred by National Socialism in the 20’s and 30’s. The Nazi failure to win the allegiance of German-Americans was an instructive development, and its details are thoughtfully explored by Sander A. Diamond in this excellent study.

The National Socialist ideology assumed that all persons of German ancestry, no matter by how many miles and generations separated from the Vaterland, were still loyal Germans. The Nazis also asserted the superiority of the German race; Germans, in their view, were a people apart, entitled to special rights, even in America. That reality did not conform to their assumptions was of no importance to the Nazis, who never allowed the facts to interfere with their version of “higher truth.” Thus, they even considered the Pennsylvania Dutch, descendants of political and religious dissenters who fled German autocratic rule more than two hundred years earlier, to be Germans by blood.

To be sure, not all of the intellectual leaders of the “New Germany” accepted the Nazi race-and-blood myth. There were some who had lived in the U.S. before Hitler’s rise to power and who knew at first hand that the German-American community was far less German, and more American, than the party leaders averred. This, for instance, was the view held by the pre-Hitler Deutsches Ausland-In-stitut whose staff was dismissed once Hitler seized power and the racial mythology of National Socialism became the guiding light of German foreign policy.

The result of that policy, with regard to millions of Americans of German descent, was a diplomatic disaster. While it is true that in the early days of the movement the National Socialists found some adherents in the American community, these were hardly assets to the cause. Drawn mostly from among the 400,000 or so Germans who had immigrated to the U.S. in the years immediately following World War I, many of these supporters were ex-soldiers who had accepted the nationalist myth of a Germany betrayed in the war by a cabal of liberals, Bolsheviks, and Jews, and who considered the democratic Weimar republic the ultimate in political evil. Their hope was for the rise of a great leader, a Ludendorff or a Hitler, who would free Germany from the shame of defeat. In America, some of these men joined the Stahlhelm, the extremely nationalistic German veterans’ organization. Others helped found the Nationalsozialistische Vereinigung Teutonia, a small but vociferous organization which sought to attract members by offering low-cost trips to the “homeland.” But these were all insignificant efforts. The overwhelming majority of native-born German-Americans, including all mainstream German-American organizations, showed no interest whatsoever in the nationalist movement that was beginning to take shape in post-World War I Germany.

With Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930’s the situation appeared to change. The new exigencies required a new organization in America to rally support for the Third Reich. The first move in that direction came with the formation of the Friends of the New Germany, which was almost universally ignored and soon vanished from the scene. The foreign office of the National Socialist party then organized a shadow party in the U.S., the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, or the Bund as it came to be known. Its failure was assured in its name, which spoke not of Deutsch-Amerikaner, German-Americans, but of Amerikadeutscher, Germans in America, a not-so-subtle designation that most Americans of German descent found at variance with their own image of themselves.

At its height the Bund had a membership of fewer than 25,000, almost all of whom were German-born. The organization enjoyed some influence in the Yorkville section of New York City and in northern Hudson County in New Jersey, but little elsewhere. In other major German-American centers it scarcely existed, and its failure soon proved an embarrassment to the parent organization in Germany. Nevertheless, Bundists continued to parade and to hold rallies in Madison Square Garden, creating an exaggerated fear of their power.

A sensational Congressional investigation in 1935-36 threw the Bund leadership into disarray. Most of the original leaders then fled the country and control was assumed by Fritz Julius Kuhn, an ambitious, venal chemist from Munich, who soon dominated the organization and even had many Americans believing that he and Hitler were plotting a Nazi coup in the U.S. Kuhn’s uniformed Brownshirts paraded through the streets of Yorkville; he declared a boycott of Jewish merchants, and talked of the new day when Germany would rule the world.

The leaders of the old-line German organizations, such as the Steuben Society, were aghast at the Bund’s tactics. Not that they were humanitarians or were necessarily opposed to Hitler on principle; but they were concerned lest Kuhn’s bombast lead to an outbreak of anti-German sentiment, and accordingly, they petitioned Hitler to dissolve the Bund. Actually, by this time the National Socialist leadership had itself come to the conclusion that its American arm was counterproductive to Nazi purpose, but since a party order for the Bund to disband would have been tantamount to admitting that the Kuhn group was, in effect, Berlin-directed, nothing was done about the situation.

In November 1938 the Nazis perpetrated the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom against German Jewry. Following close on the heels of the Sudetenland crisis, the anti-Jewish atrocity convinced most Americans that Hitler was a threat to world civilization. The U.S. ambassador was recalled from Berlin, German-American organizations expressed their revulsion, and pro-Nazi groups were virtually forced underground. The Bund’s books were seized and its leaders sent to prison (for stealing and misappropriating organization funds). The membership either returned to Germany or dropped out of sight. The short life of the Bund was over.



Professor Diamond correctly attributes the Nazis’ failure in establishing an American branch to their unwillingness and inability to realize that German-Americans preponderantly did not feel any tie to the land of their forefathers. For all intents and purposes, they were Americans who merely happened to bear Germanic surnames (such as Eisenhower); to them Germany was a foreign country. This the National Socialists refused to understand.

Yet for all his understanding of German-American realities, Professor Diamond tends to overstate the internal weaknesses of the Bund as a factor in the organization’s disintegration. There can be no doubt that the Bund suffered from bad leadership from the very beginning. It is also apparent that the continuing power struggle had a debilitating effect on its activities. Nor can there be any question that Fritz Kuhn lied to his members and stole their money. However, all of this is only of peripheral importance. Quite simply, the Bund came a cropper because it failed to attract the respectable masses of Americans of German descent who in their own minds and in the minds of most of their countrymen were deemed to be loyal Americans, successfully integrated into the “melting pot” that many social scientists now repudiate.


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