Happy Wonker Book Club: Uncle Sam’s First Nazis
One reason America’s never come to grips with its racist-nationalist past is Americans are pointedly encouraged not to know a nationalist racist when they see one. One can scarcely write the word ‘Nazi’ online without angry writs from comments-section Godwin’s lawyers demanding all electronic conversation cease forthwith. Worse, even talking about an American fascism is liable to really upset American fascists, who, as we’re often reminded, are people too. This murk allows a horde of Christian righties, crypto-racists and besotted Putin-kissers to pass for ordinary conservatives, no different perhaps from your batty uncle that voted four times for Harold Stassen or that sweet elderly man down the block who was hauled away by ICE as a camp guard at Treblinka.
In writing history, one of the many downsides of regarding the personal as political is the moral burden of having to consider as a fellow human being the type of truly evil motherfucker best regarded with hammer and stake in hand. Arnie Bernstein doesn’t make this fatal error in Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund, this pungent first-ever biography of Fritz Julius Kuhn, America’s leading proponent of Adolf Hitler during national socialism’s Thirties heyday as a possible solution to Western capitalism’s problems. Fritz comes to us as the kind of man for whom any biography would come off as an exercise in gargoyle painting, but it was just that kind of era.
One of American history’s more lurid minor villains, Kuhn was born in Munich in 1896. Courage and enterprise in the Great War won him an officer’s commission and an Iron Cross, but it was all downhill from there as far as personal honor went. After the war, the future naturalized American followed up a stint in the far-right paramilitary terrorist Freikorps with becoming one of the earliest members of the Nazi party. He was eventually caught stealing from an employer and immigrated in 1928, first to Mexico, then the United States. Kuhn found a sympathetic employer in king automaker Henry Ford, an anti-Semitic crackpot, who put his name on The International Jew, a tract circulated widely enough after its 1920 publication to make a slavering fan out of Adolf Hitler. Kuhn, already a hardened political thug, found it easy to bluff and bully his way to prominence in the narrow world of émigré politics.
Bernstein makes a quick work of the domestic U.S. political landscape, situating the ever-finagling Fritz in a general reactionary stew of disgruntled expatriates, conspiratorial 1%-ers, mainstream xenophobia and two-a-nickel social messiahs that was the Thirties U.S. right-wing. Soon after Hitler came to power, the Bund began to make noise in predominantly German-American areas in support of the New Order. Beery security goons took to swanking around in S.A.-style uniforms, as Jews and other familiar targets were excoriated by Kuhn and other top Bundists from platforms nationwide. “[T]he German-American Bund is called upon to take over the political leadership of the German element in the U.S.A.,” Kuhn bragged after a 1936 audience with Hitler. Bundesführer Kuhn claimed some 200,000 members for his organization, but the F.B.I. later put the number at closer to eight thousand.
A series of massive rallies, including a fabled 1939 free-for-all at Madison Square Garden, drew much queasy media attention, but the money rolled in to Bund’s NYC headquarters from a long domestic sucker list. German-American parents sent kinder to rural youth camps patterned on the Nazi model, while Kuhn spent the organization’s funds lavishly. Old Fritz was quite the horndog, but the little insight Bernstein offers into what must have been an extraordinarily goatish sex life does nothing to endear him to us. His subject comes off as one more married cad making the usual worthless pledges of love to a series of Harlow-era cuties, each more scorched by his acquaintance than the last.
Bernstein wisely regards Kuhn’s rise to temporary prominence as nothing remarkable in the land that produced P.T. Barnum. The many rousing depictions of resistance to the Bund form considerable narrative interest. Outside of far right German-American enclaves, pushback spread with news of the Bund’s existence. Radio star and celebrity columnist Walter Winchell, his ire stoked every time he saw Kuhn living it up in Broadway nightspots, delighted in whipping up anger, caricaturing the celebrity fascist as “Fat Fritz,” the “Shamarican.” The Bund press declared the columnist their worst enemy, but it became obvious words weren’t going to be enough.
From a historical standpoint, some of the book’s most interesting passages are the testimonies of Jewish gangsters and tough guys like Meyer Lansky, Mickey Cohen, Bugsy Siegel and others; antiheroes who did with fists and lead pipes what America’s honor plainly demanded. Bernstein situates these direct-actionists in the Golem myth of the-monster-that-protects, but their resistance thumpingly disproved literary titan Sinclair Lewis’s admonitory 1935 bestseller It Can’t Happen Here/em>. In hindsight, Nazism had no way in hell of happening here.
Berlin had distanced itself from the Bund by the time the org drew attention from the F.B.I., but Kuhn continued to front doing the Führer’s will in the Land of the Free. Converts included a teenaged Charles Bukowski, who in his later years would cheerily reminisce about helping lead a torchlight parade in Hollywood when fellow Hitler-fan Charles Lindbergh came to town in 1941.
Chief beneficiary of America’s motley Hitler cult, the Bund had a hard time restricting their following to ethnic Germans and even engaged in a bizarre Native American outreach. Homegrown Christian rightists like William Dudley Pelley and Gerald Winrod were already mainstreaming fascism, but the Bund’s militancy and frank allegiance to a foreign power set off official alarm. New York district attorney Thomas Dewey, arch-Republican and future candidate for president, did FDR and America a favor by putting Kuhn away in 1939 for a series of embezzlements and payoffs to lady friends and his organization disintegrated with the inevitable wartime indictments. Released from Sing Sing in 1943, Kuhn was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and spent the rest of World War II in federal custody before being sent back to face the music in post-Hitler Deutschland. In hindsight, it might’ve been a mercy to have simply handed this twice-damned renegade over to the East Berlin stasi, since West Germany merely kept him in prison until shortly before his death in late 1951.
What do we learn from Fritz Kuhn? Bernstein draws few conclusions, leaving the reader to consider his subject’s oddly familiar conspiracy-mongering as part of a long-running shuck run by the American far right on a perpetually cranky lower middle-class. Swap out Kuhn’s SA uniform for over-sized camo and what remains is fit for a WorldNetDaily column or grunting jawohl alongside Glenn Beck or Mancow Muller. Hitler-era cosplay isn’t all that popular anymore and today’s domestic fascist is more likely to resemble some varmint from a Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino western than the Nazis of TV yesteryear. Some few still throw the occasional Heil Hitler, no doubt for old times’ sake.
Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund By Arnie Bernstein St. Martin’s