New Documentary Chronicles the Rise and Fall of the Pro-Nazi German American Bund
(BOSTON, MA) — In February 1939, more than 20,000 Americans filled Madison Square Garden for an event billed as a “Pro-American Rally.” Images of George Washington hung next to swastikas and speakers railed against the “Jewish controlled media” and called for a return to a racially “pure” America. The keynote speaker was Fritz Kuhn, head of the German American Bund. Nazi Town, USA tells the largely unknown story of the Bund, which had scores of chapters in suburbs and big cities across the country and represented what many believe was a real threat of fascist subversion in the United States. The Bund held joint rallies with the Ku Klux Klan and ran dozens of summer camps for children centered around Nazi ideology and imagery. Its melding of patriotic values with virulent anti-Semitism raises thorny issues that we continue to wrestle with today. Produced, directed and written by Peter Yost, produced by Edna Alburquerque, and executive produced by Cameo George, Nazi Town, USA premieres on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, January 23, 2024, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App.
The German American Bund emerged in the 1930s, a period that tested the fabric of American democracy. The economic hardships of the Great Depression left many Americans fearing that the whole social order might collapse and extremist groups on both the right and the left found willing converts. Many, like the Bund, saw European fascism and Nazism as models that could and should be emulated in the United States.
1930s America was also a place of deep anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and racial segregation. Millions of Americans belonged to the KKK, including dozens of members of Congress. The popular right-wing radio priest Charles Coughlin told listeners that Jews were destroying their country, and industrialist Henry Ford devoted his time and money to the widespread dissemination of anti-Semitic conspiracies. All of this led members of the Bund to believe that America offered fertile ground for their ideas.
Headquartered in the Yorkville neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the Bund was organized into over 50 districts across the country and made great efforts to appeal to families and children, running summer camps nationwide. Some of the largest — including Camp Siegfried in Long Island and Camp Nordland in New Jersey — essentially functioned as indoctrination centers for young and old alike. The Bund also created a network of storm-troopers that marched openly in cities across America and a front organization called the German American Settlement League to establish planned communities for German-American families. In Yaphank, Long Island, they built a community called German Gardens, with streets named after prominent Nazis including Adolf Hitler.
The isolationist sentiments of the Bund’s leader, Fritz Kuhn, known as “The American Fuhrer,” aligned with the ideas of “America Firsters,” including Charles Lindbergh, who pushed to keep the United States out of the war in Europe by fanning nativist sentiment. Ultimately, the Bund opposed democracy and believed government was best when organized hierarchically, with a powerful dictator at the top. Kuhn imagined that America would be a kind of star in a constellation of pro-Nazi governments around the world, and his leadership climaxed with the massive 1939 rally in Madison Square Garden when some 20,000 Bund supporters gathered — only to be opposed by tens of thousands of counter-protesters outside.
By then, grassroots resistance to the Bund was gaining steam, including actions organized by Jewish mobsters and investigations by intrepid journalists who infiltrated the Bund to expose its inner workings and call out American fascism. Soon after the Madison Square Garden rally, Fritz Kuhn was jailed on embezzlement charges and ultimately deported as an unregistered foreign agent. Many Americans, however, continued to support right wing organizations like the Bund and isolationist groups like Lindbergh’s “America First” right up to the United States’ entry in World War II, when the Bund finally collapsed. Its ugly history was largely forgotten and few ever reckoned with the appeal that fascist ideas had held to many Americans during the tumultuous 1930’s.
Says director Peter Yost, “Nazi Town, USA traces the rise and fall of the German American Bund and the threat posed by domestic fascism in the 1930’s. There’s a resonance in the film with today’s fractured times and I hope the story can serve as a reminder of both the fragility — and resilience — of American democracy.”
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Nazi Town, USA will stream for free simultaneously with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. The film will also be available for streaming with closed captioning in English and Spanish.
About AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
For more than 35 years, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been television’s most-watched history series, bringing to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including 30 Emmy Awards, five duPont-Columbia Awards and 19 George Foster Peabody Awards. PBS’s signature history series also creates original digital content that innovates new forms of storytelling to connect our collective past with the present. Cameo George is the series executive producer. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is produced for PBS by GBH Boston. Visit pbs.org/americanexperience and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to learn more.
Major funding for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE provided by Liberty Mutual Insurance and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Funding for Nazi Town, USA provided by members of The Better Angels Society, including The Fullerton Family Charitable Fund. Additional funding for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE provided by The American Experience Trust, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers.
Nazi Town, USA is distributed internationally by PBS International.