Sydney Barger

“It Can Happen Here”: the Rise & Fall of the German American Bund & the 1930s American Nazi Movement and its Interpretations in Modern Media

April 10, 2021   /  

Name: Sydney Barger
Major: German Studies
Advisors: Dr. Beth Muellner, Dr. Lisa Wong, Dr. Katy Holihan (second reader)

I discovered the German American Bund, or das Amerikadeutschen Volksbund, while researching my familial connection to the Nazi Regime within my junior thesis. My great-grandfather was a Bund member, German immigrant, and Nazi spy near Dayton, Ohio. In my senior thesis, I expanded on this topic to further explore the German American Bund’s history. The pro-isolationist and pro-Hitler Bund was active from 1936 to 1942. The Bund’s membership was primarily first-generation German Americans and German immigrants, who were blue-collar workers centered in the Midwest, the East and West Coasts. The antisemitic German American Bund pushed legislation to remove “non-Gentiles” in local government, built Hitler Youth camps in America, and printed Nazi propaganda from Germany. Many Bund members were active in other nationalist organizations such as Silver Shirts League, American Patriots, and the Christian Front. The Bund’s activities culminated in the February 1939 Madison Square Garden “Pro-American” Rally. Due to the changing climate in WWI and WWII, German Americans were discriminated against and their communities disintegrated, creating a rise in German nationalism which allowed for the Bunds creation. I observed modern depictions of the Bund within the period Donald Trump’s presidency, especially Marshall Curry’s film A Night at the Garden (2018), and German novel Der Empfänger (2020), by Ulla Lenze. I aim to promote the study of the Bund and American antisemitic organizations as integral parts of Holocaust and WWII studies, and, in the words of Marshall Curry, to show that “IT CAN HAPPEN HERE”.


 
Sydney will be online to field comments on April 16:
4-6pm EDT (PST: 1-3pm, Africa/Europe: late evening)

45 thoughts on ““It Can Happen Here”: the Rise & Fall of the German American Bund & the 1930s American Nazi Movement and its Interpretations in Modern Media”

  1. This is great work, Sydney. It is so interesting how your family history led you to this research. Congratulations on completing a great IS and best of luck in the future!

  2. Interesting project Sydney! It is neat to see your connection to the research. I wish you success as you leave Wooster and really enjoyed being able to work with you early in your Wooster career.

  3. Great job Sydney! I didn’t know how widespread the pro German movement during that time was. I am not surprised though. Very interesting and informative. I am impressed that you found combined all these different sources. Excellent work! How does your family history fit into this event?

    1. It’s a complicated history! My great-grandfather was a German spy in the Dayton area near the Wright Patterson Air Force Base from 1929-1943. My grandmother moved to America with her father in 1930, and completed her primary education until the whole family was sent back to Germany after an FBI investigation in 1943. My grandmother kept many of my great-grandfather’s documents from this time period and thanks to the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) my father was able to request the FBI case files in the 80’s. Through these files, I found that my great-grandfather was an active member of the German American Bund and was seen attending Bund conferences in California, Ohio, New York, and Michigan–all areas where the Bund was prominent. I decided to base my research on these documents as there are few studies on the Bund, even while it was a prominent organization in the 1930s.

  4. Fantastic work, Sydney! I am so impressed and so excited for your bright bright future. “It can happen here” is such a powerful sentiment and so important to remember now more than ever.

    Is there anything that you didn’t get to explain in your presentation that you want to explain more about?

    1. I wanted to explain much more about the accessibility of this information! Some of the best source materials and books published on this information are either in archives or are rarities that are extremely expensive. One book specifically I would’ve liked to use for research is Marvin D. Miller’s “Wunderlich’s Salute”, where Miller spent $14,000 trying to find information on the Bund’s Long Island camp, Camp Siegfried, and interviewed former members of the Bund to ask why they were involved in the first place. This book was published in the 1980s with only one edition, making it very expensive to purchase. I also wanted to use documents from the Bund, specifically their German-language newspaper Deutsche Weckruf und Beobachter as a primary German source. None of these sources are digitized and can mostly be accessed through archives.

      Both Miller’s book and these newspapers are stored in the US Holocaust and Memorial Museum’s (USHMM)archives, which closed on 13 March 2020 due to the pandemic. I initially received a Copeland Grant to study the archival materials on this topic, which I was unable to use. The main archives for these materials: USHMM, Library of Congress, and the National Archives, have also stopped their digitization process for documents due to the pandemic, making most of the primary information on the Bund completely inaccessible.

  5. Sydney! Knowing how much hard work and passion you put into this, I’m beyond proud. Congratulations, and thank you for being a fantastic friend. 🙂

  6. Sydney, thanks for sharing this incredibly important project with us. It obviously comes from a very personal place. I know how hard you’ve worked on this, and I’m so grateful to know you! Great job.

  7. Congratulations Sydney! I know how much work you put into this and how challenging it was so I am SO proud of you. Your grandmother would be proud!

  8. Congratulations Sydney!! I know how hard you worked on this and I’m super proud of you!

    This is a really interesting topic that isn’t that well known in the public eye. Great job!

  9. Congratulations! I actually am also really interested in this topic so your IS was super engaging! Thank you for sharing and everything you do!

    1. Thank you for your kind words! If you’re interested in even more sources than what is in my PowerPoint, please let me know! There’s an astounding amount of source material surrounding this topic–it’s just not studied.

  10. Sydney, you’ve done a great job with a gutsy topic. I hope the archival documents on the Bund will be available and digitized when the current COVID crisis is over. We also got a look at the Bund MSG rally with the recent HBO dramatization of Philip Roth’s imagining Charles Lindbergh as the pro-Nazi President after his 1940 defeat of FDR. Congratulations.

    1. Thank you for the compliment! I wish to see these documents as soon as they are available again. I emailed NARA asking about files on the Bund and they have hundreds of documents that the FBI seized!

      I have been meaning to watch and read Philip Roth’s “The Plot on America”, especially as Ulla Lenze references it as a source to read at the end of Der Empfänger. I feel that it would give me a much broader understanding of where the Bund could have gone without the FBI’s intervention.

  11. As someone who also did their IS on WWII and the Holocaust, it is always startling that there is still so much more to learn. I was wondering if there were any specific locales the Bund operated in? If so, are there any parallels to the SPLC Hate group map (https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map)? I imagine that the Bund did not receive the same repercussions as the Nazis did in Germany, so it is disquieting to think about whether they disappeared, learned, or still continue to operate in some capacity. Also, did you see any connections between the “Pro-American Rally” and rallies that have happened in the last few years in the US? Great work!

    1. Hello Marloes! Your IS was very interesting and thank you for commenting!

      There were very specific locals the Bund operated in, and the FDR Archive has a series of charts made by the German American Bund that specifies how organized this group was on both national and local levels. (link: http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/_resources/images/psf/psfb000222.pdf )
      The primary places where these groups were centered was where Germans settled in America, specifically the Midwest, and the West and East Coasts. There was actually a larger branch in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio.

      In comparison to the SPLC Hate Group Map, some of the areas where these groups are located are similar. There is also a current rise of Nazi groups in Texas as that is also a center of German immigrants, although there is not much found on the Bund’s presence there.

      Bundists didn’t receive the same repercussions as the Nazis for sure! Many of them, such as my great-grandfather, were sent back to Germany. Prominent members, specifically those in spy rings and the Bunds leader, Fritz Kuhn, received jail time and had their citizenship revoked. Minor members received next to no punishment. My literary analysis of Der Empfänger by Ulle Lenze (not included in my presentation) shows some of the cushy punishments Bundists and German spies had in 1939/40 before being sent back to Germany. This book should soon be published in English as “The Radio Operator” and I highly recommend reading it.

      I saw connections between both the “Pro-American” rally and modern rallies, especially the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally and the 2021 Capitol Hill rally due to the references of language like “America First” and “Jew-controlled media” in both speeches. The anti-Communist/Socialist and extreme emphasis on white, Christian values is also similar in modern and Bundist nationalist ideals. Marshall Curry, director of Night at the Garden, was inspired by the “Unite the Right” rally and the attacks following it to finish his film.

  12. Congratulations Sydney. This follows along really well to my research into the Alt-Right in America. You did a great job! Keep up the great work!

  13. You did a great job, and I learned so much from your presentation. This is a scary topic, but you were able to effectively communicate this ugly part of our history to so many people; that’s such an important job!

  14. Wow, very impactful and very timely. Great job! This is really a fascinating study and an important reminder.

  15. Great job Sydney! It shows how much effort you put into your research and we’re so proud of you.

  16. Great job, Sydney! I am proud of how hard you have worked on this.

    What was the most difficult thing about your project?

    1. There were a lot of difficulties I encountered while finishing this project, one of them being a double major working on two different projects: a flute recital and a German studies thesis.

      One of the most difficult aspects of this topic is how hidden the information is, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. As I mentioned in a comment above, much of the material seized from the Bund by the FBI is in archives (USHMM, LOC, and NARA) and is not digitized. The digitization of these documents is also halted due to the pandemic. I had to use nearly 3 books and public FBI documents to complete much of my research, along with my two modern sources–Night at the Garden and Der Empfänger–which I actually found as I was completing my research. Some of the pictures from the Bund’s camps and rallies are also in the Bettmann Archive, which is owned by Getty Images and has hefty fees to use their images. I had to dig deep into digital archives from USHMM, LOC, and NARA to find much of this information and work around copyrights on these materials to complete my IS.

  17. Hey Sydney, your project is so interesting and on such an important topic to cover due to the fact that it is part of our history as a country yet so hidden. Does this have anything to do with current media/news networks? Is there a clear political line when it comes to covering this topic?

    1. Hi Fiona! The film “A Night at the Garden” (2018) had an ad spot on CNN and MSNBC titled “IT CAN HAPPEN HERE”, which is where I got part of my IS title from! This ad spot was also offered to FOX News to show during the Hannity show, which FOX rejected calling it “unsuitable for air” due to its Nazi imagery. I find it bizarre that a network that actively advertises American history books on its networks rejects an ad for an Oscar-nominated film about American (Nazi) history. In my option, this points out the clear divide between right and left and covering negative, “un-patriotic” histories of America. It’s eerily similar to how America swept any awareness of the German American Bund under the rug after WWII, almost as if to save face.

      The Washington Post has an interesting viewpoint covering this incident, which you can find here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/02/14/fox-news-loves-american-history-just-not-nazi-american-history/?noredirect=on
      You can also find the ad spot here: https://vimeo.com/316176375

  18. Dear Sydney,
    I’m so proud of you – and this presentation is great because there are so many visuals that you were not able to include in the I.S. itself. And your readers need to understand that ALL OF THIS you wrote over the year was AUF DEUTSCH to boot! So kudos on many fronts! I look forward to our discussion of the project next week.
    Professor Muellner

  19. What a fascinating topic! Great job Sydney! What is something that you wish you had explored more when writing your paper?

    1. Hi Meghan! There is SO MUCH that I want to explore with this topic! One of the sources I really want to analyze is the German American Bund’s own newspaper, Deutsche Weckruf und Beobachter, as it served as a record of their meetings, views on politics, rallies, camps, and general activities as a whole. Sadly, these papers are not digitized and in the US Holocaust Museum archives, which closed on 13 March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I would also like to read Marvin Miller’s “Wunderlich’s Salute” where he interviews former members of the Bund and looks closely into Camp Siegfried in Long Island. I also would like to look at the general American and Jewish-American reactions to the Bund through newspapers and community protests against the group. I was able to observe some of this through digital copies of the Chicago Tribune from 1930-1940, but there is much more research to be done.

  20. Sydney, it is very neat how your family history relates to your I.S. Overall, your research was very interesting. Thanks for sharing with us. Great job!

  21. Hey sis! The pups and I are very proud of all the time and effort you put into finalizing this difficult and harrowing project. Do you think you will ever try to visit the archives or borrow the books that were inaccessible to you after the pandemic is over? Also, would you ever be interested in expanding upon this project outside of a class environment? Like as a book or film or art work?

    1. Hi sister! I miss you a lot! Thank you for your kind words.

      I would like to visit the archives once the pandemic ends, especially the USHMM archives. Looking at these documents would give me a greater perspective on this topic as a whole.

      I also would like to make a book on this in the future, if possible! Especially as there is very little research on this book, especially in German.

  22. Sehr interessant! It looks fantastic and I can’t imagine how much work it was doing the whole project in German. Well done. I’m curious if you could say more about the role of non-German Americans in the Bund and about how integrated the Bund members were in American society. There’s a tendency to think about fascism as coming from “outside,” that these weren’t “real Americans.” How much was the Bund serious when they called themselves “pro-American” and how much was it just cover for their pro-German activities?

    1. It was surely a lot of work to complete this project entirely in German!

      The German-American Bund consisted primarily of American-born children of German immigrants, as the organization it was based on, Freude des Neue Deutschland (Friends of New Germany), was both German nationals and German-Americans. This group also attracted recent German immigrants, but I do not know what percentage of the group was German-born versus American-born.

      The Bund’s leader Fritz Kuhn has switched between calling the Bund a “Pro-American” organization and calling it an organization for “Americans of German Blood” in public versus private rallies and meetings. The FBI court cases on the Bund deals with this duplicity further, which you can find here: https://archive.org/stream/investigationofu193802unit#page/n3/mode/2up.

  23. Very interesting and important study! Do you have any ideas for future research?

    1. Thank you Emma!! I would like to research further on why this information has been obscured through time, and why is has it not been included in WWII and Holocaust studies.

  24. This is incredible Syd!! I am so so beyond proud of you and the work you put into this project!!

    Hopefully you can come visit DC soon and maybe see the archives I know you were supposed to look into!!

    So much love!
    Abby

  25. Awesome Job Sydney!! Your I.S. is very interesting and thought provoking. I know this road was stressful and I am proud of what you’ve accomplished.

  26. Fantastic project Sydney! I’m elated to have the opportunity to work with someone as talented as you. Your work is impressive, and very cautious warning for the future of our country…I really hope more folks can get access to your research, and pay attention to the dangerous rise in hate in our nation.

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