The torch-lit rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this summer may have been surprising to many Americans. But for Academy Award-nominated documentary director Marshall Curry, it was a call back to an event he was already investigating: a 1939 Nazi rally on George Washington’s birthday that drew 20,000 Americans to Madison Square Garden. Curry collected together the existing bits and pieces of film footage from that rally and put them together into a short documentary called “A Night At the Garden,” that premiered on The Atlantic this week.
The film shows about six minutes of the rally, including the American Nazis marching into the hall in the party’s brown uniforms, reciting the pledge of allegiance and listening to the national anthem before giving Nazi salutes. It also includes a piece of a speech by Fritz Kuhn, the leader of the German-American Bund (the American wing of the Nazi party), in which he rails against the "Jewish-controlled media" and says it’s time to return United States to the white Christians who he says founded the nation. At one point during the speech a 26-year-old plumber’s helper from Brooklyn named Isadore Greenbaum charges the stage and yells, "Down with Hitler."
He is beaten up by Bund guards and his clothing is ripped off in the attack before New York police officers arrest him for disorderly conduct. (In court that night, the judge said, “Don’t you realize that innocent people might have been killed?” Greenbaum responded, “Don’t you realize that plenty of Jewish people might be killed with their persecution up there?”)
Over the whole scene looms a giant multi-story image of George Washington with Nazi emblems on either side. The entire mini-doc could easily be mistaken as a scene from the alternate history TV series "The Man in the High Castle," (based on Philip K. Dick's novel of the same name) which ponders what America would be like if the Nazis had won the Second World War.
Curry, who produced and edited the film, received support and a release for the mini-doc from Field of Vision, a production company that supports independent media. According to a Q&A on the film’s website, after hearing about the rally, Curry commissioned archival researcher Rich Remsberg to try and find footage of the event. Remsberg located film of the rally at the National Archives, UCLA and other sources. When the Charlottesville rally occurred, Curry wanted to get the film out as soon as possible, so he contacted Field of Vision which provided resources to help him complete the project.
Except for a few context-setting titles, the mini-doc shows parts of the rally without commentary. “I wanted it to be more provocative than didactic,” Curry tells the Atlantic's Emily Buder, “a small history-grenade tossed into the discussion we are having about White Supremacy right now.”
For Curry, the rally's significance goes beyond what happened in Charlottesville. “The first thing that struck me was that an event like this could happen in the heart of New York City, a city that was diverse, modern, and progressive even in 1939. The second thing that struck me was the way these American Nazis used the symbols of America to sell an ideology that a few years later hundreds of thousands of Americans would die fighting against,” he says in the Q&A.
“It really illustrated that the tactics of demagogues have been the same throughout the ages. They attack the press, using sarcasm and humor. They tell their followers that they are the true Americans (or Germans or Spartans or…). And they encourage their followers to “take their country back” from whatever minority group has ruined it.”
That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of people who condemned the rally at the time. A counter rally that took place in Carnegie Hall saw 3,500 people show up to denounce the Nazis, including New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who called the Bund rally an “exhibition of international cooties.” The Bund rally itself attracted a huge crowd of protestors who were held at bay by 1,500 police officers.
The German-American Bund was founded in 1936 by pro-Nazi ethnic Germans living in the United States. Estimates vary, but according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the organization counted 25,000 dues-paying members, including approximately 8,000 uniformed Sturmabteilungen or Storm Troopers. (The Bund itself claimed it had 200,000 members.) Besides the Madison Square Garden rally and subsequent march through the streets of New York, the group is best known for running several summer camps for Nazi youth throughout the United States including Camp Will and Might in Griggstown, New Jersey, a camp near Windham, New York, and Camp Hindenburg near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Linton Weeks reports for NPR.
In 1939, Kuhn was charged with embezzlement, imprisoned and stripped of his citizenship. Many of the Bund’s assets were seized. Without leadership, the Bund fell apart. Once Nazi Germany began invading other European nations that same year, support for Nazism in the United States diminished even more, and by the time American soldiers were deployed support for Nazi ideology was taboo. But that doesn’t mean support for the type of racism and nationalism supported by the Nazi’s ever went away, even in the years immediately after World War II.