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A huge portrait of George Washington was hanging on Madison Square Garden, alongside swastika banners and American flags.

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A huge portrait of George Washington was hanging on Madison Square Garden, alongside swastika banners and American flags.

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On the evening of February 20, 1939, the marquee of Madison Square Garden was illuminated by the main event of the evening: a "pro-American rally". The organizers chose the date to celebrate George Washington's birthday and purchased a 30-foot tall banner from the first US president for the stage. More than 20,000 men and women flocked to the interior and took their seats. The view they had was beautiful: Washington was suspended between American flags … and swastikas.

The rally was sponsored by the German-German American Bund, an organization headquartered in Manhattan, and by thousands of members across the United States. In the 1930s, the Bund was one of many organizations in the United States that openly supported Hitler and the rise of fascism in Europe. They organized parades, bookstores and summer camps for young people. Their vision of America was a cocktail of white supremacy, fascist ideology and American patriotism.

The Nazi stormtroopers occupy the aisles as the crowd sings "The Star Spangled Banner" at the opening of the "Americanization Rally" of the German-American Bund at Madison Square Garden.

Larry Froeber / NY Daily News Archive


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The Nazi stormtroopers occupy the aisles as the crowd sings "The Star Spangled Banner" at the opening of the "Americanization Rally" of the German-American Bund at Madison Square Garden.

Larry Froeber / NY Daily News Archive

At Madison Square Garden, the rally opened on the pledge of fidelity to the American flag. The atmosphere was jubilant. Participants wore Nazi armbands, waved American flags and displayed posters with slogans such as "Stop the Jewish rule of Christian America". There were assault troops in the aisles, their uniforms almost identical to those in Nazi Germany. "It looked like any political rally – only with a Nazi touch," said Arnie Bernstein, author of the Swastika Nation.

The speeches were explicitly anti-Semitic and the tirades against "job-seeking Jewish refugees" were applauded by thunder. "They demanded a white America like Gentiles, they denounced Roosevelt as being" Rosenfeld ", saying that Roosevelt was in the pocket of the rich Jews," said Sarah Churchwell, author of Behold, America. On par with xenophobia, the speeches were loaded with American boosterism.

One of the keynote speakers, Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, Bund National Public Relations Director, emphasized the white supremacy present when America was founded as a nation. "The spirit that opened the West and built our country is the spirit of the white militant," he preached. Kunze has followed the thread of racism that runs through American history to reinforce his vision of an all-white America. He cited anti-miscegenation laws, China's Exclusion Act, Jim Crow's policies and immigration quotas. "It has always been very American to protect the Aryan character of this nation," Kunze told the audience.

A colored guard carrying American flags and a banner on which is engraved the Nazi swastika stands in front of a huge portrait of George Washington at the meeting of the German-American Bund at Madison Square Garden in New York.

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A colored guard carrying American flags and a banner on which is engraved the Nazi swastika stands in front of a huge portrait of George Washington at the meeting of the German-American Bund at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Bettmann / Contributor

This giant portrait of George Washington was not thought after the fact. "One of the things they tried to do was say that it was what America had always been and that the founding fathers would have supported," said Churchwell. Indeed, they called Washington "the first Fascist of America".

It should be mentioned that while there were 20,000 enthusiastic American Nazis in the garden, there were also thousands of protesters outside. The anti-Nazi contingent included everyone from veterans to housewives to members of the Socialist Workers Party. The New York Times reported that the streets of downtown Manhattan were crowded and that the orchestra of a Broadway musical near the garden interpreted an interpretation of "The Star Spangled Banner" for the protesters . A mysterious crusader even installed a speaker in a rooming house near the stage, sending out a Nazi denunciation from the window: "Be American, stay home." Police in New York had a record 1,700 police officers around the garden, enough to "stop a revolution," said the police commissioner.

The Mounted Police of New York City formed a solid line in front of Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939 to suppress a crowd that invaded the streets around the garden where the German-German Bund was organizing a rally.

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The Mounted Police of New York City formed a solid line in front of Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939 to suppress a crowd that invaded the streets around the garden where the German-German Bund was organizing a rally.

Murray Becker / AP

Fiorello LaGuardia, Mayor of New York, was criticized for allowing the rally. But LaGuardia, along with the American Jewish Committee, supported the Bund's right to assemble under the pretext of freedom of expression. "If we are for freedom of expression, we must be for everyone and that includes the Nazis," he said.

Police had virtually built a fortress around Madison Square Garden, but a man managed to get through. Isadore Greenbaum was a 26-year-old Brooklyn plumber. That night, he was Jewish and surrounded by 20,000 Nazis. Greenbaum attended the three-hour rally, listening and marveling at the fervor of the crowd. Eventually, he got up and slowly began to move towards the front of the arena.

Isadore Greenbaum with his family in 1943.

Courtesy of Brett Siciliano


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Courtesy of Brett Siciliano

Isadore Greenbaum with his family in 1943.

Courtesy of Brett Siciliano

Meanwhile, on stage, Fritz Kuhn approached the microphone. Kuhn was the leader, or Bundesführer, from the US-German Bund. "It was his rally," Bernstein said. "He wanted to be the Hitler of America." Kuhn's opening remarks gave no result. "You have all heard about me through the controlled Jewish press," he said, a line that has garnered the applause of the crowd. "Wake up, you, Aryans, Nordics and Christians, ask that our government be restored to those who founded it!"

Greenbaum arrived at the foot of the stage as Kuhn gathered the crowd to the height of fever. He made his way through the guards at the front, jumped onto the stage, fired on the cables for Kuhn's microphone to fall and shouted "Down with Hitler!" Immediately, Greenbaum was approached by the Bund security team. They brutally beat him and kicked him, or even snatched his pants off, to the delight of the crowd, before the NYPD put Greenbaum safe. "He had a black eye and a broken nose, but he said that he would have done it again," Greenbaum's grandson, Brett Siciliano, told Radio Diaries. After the rally, Greenbaum was arrested for disorderly conduct and fined $ 25 for disrupting the rally. When the United States entered World War II, Greenbaum enlisted in the Navy and fought the Nazis.

Isadore Greenbaum is taken off the scene by police after being punched and kicked by members of the German-American Bund.

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Isadore Greenbaum is taken off the scene by police after being punched and kicked by members of the German-American Bund.

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This gathering in 1939 was the culmination of the German-American Bund. Later that year, Fritz Kuhn was charged with embezzlement. He was denaturalized and deported in 1945. More broadly, world events made it more difficult to be a Nazi in America. "As soon as the United States went to war, all these fascist groups were discredited and dissolved," Churchwell said.

The Bund was largely forgotten until 2017, when director Marshall Curry stumbled upon the rally's image and released a short film, "A Night at the Garden", which is now considered as an Oscar.

The German-American Bund has faded, but the ideology of white supremacy that they defended remains. "They have discovered something that is part of America," said Bernstein, who pointed to the Nazi attempt to parade in 1978 in Skokie, Illinois, the resurgence of KKK in reaction to the move Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Unite the Right 2017 Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. "80 years later, philosophy is still there," said Bernstein. "All of these groups claim to be patriotic Americans – and it's America that they see."

This story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Newspapers, with the help of Joe Richman and Nellie Gilles. It was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Radio diary Podcast, you can hear an article about a fight that took place in front of Madison Square Garden on the night of the rally, produced by The palace of memory.

Thanks to Andy Lanset and the WNYC Archives for providing the audio of the rally. To see A Night in the Garden and learn more about the movie, go to https://anightatthegarden.com/


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