German Americans Giving Nazi Salute

When 20,000 Nazis Rallied in NYC

On the eve of WWII, 20,000 Hitler fans packed New York's Madison Square Garden. Real Americans were not amused.

It Can Happen Here Rex Hardy Jr./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images It Can Happen Here Seeing white supremacists and Nazis parading through America's streets in recent years caught some people by surprise. It shouldn't have. Far-right ideologies have always appealed to a small, unwavering minority in the U.S. The violence that erupted at an "alt-right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 was simply the latest example of American extremists in action. But the most notorious and still the largest-ever gathering of American fascists took place in New York's Madison Square Garden. (Pictured: Members of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund in Yaphank, New York, in 1937.) In Step Bettmann/Bettmann Archive In Step On February 20, 1939, 20,000 men and women associated with the German-American Bund filled Madison Square Garden in what the organizers called a "mass demonstration for true Americanism." Seventeen-hundred policemen surrounded the arena as tens of thousands of anti-Nazi demonstrators rallied outside. (Pictured: Parading a swastika banner through the Garden.) Long Island Bund Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Long Island Bund The German-American Bund, "an organization of patriotic Americans of German stock," formed in 1936, and within a few years had tens of thousands of members and operated youth camps around the country. The Bund was, in effect, the face of Hitler's backers in the U.S. (Pictured: A crowd salutes Nazis at Camp Siegfried on Long Island, mid-1930s.) Beyond the Fringe New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images Beyond the Fringe At the 1939 rally in New York, uniformed Nazis filled the aisles and the stage as the crowd cheered speeches warning of the Jewish conspiracy to "change this glorious republic into the inferno of a Bolshevik paradise." The "Seig Heil!" that greeted Hitler overseas was replaced in New York with chants of "Free America!" — but the straight-armed salute adored by fascists everywhere remained in full effect. American Führer Bettmann/Bettmann Archive American Führer Principal speakers arrive at the New York rally, flanked by young Bund members. Left to right: Fritz Kuhn (in uniform), the "Bundesführer," or leader of the German-American Bund; unidentified (perhaps Rev. Sigmund Von Sosse); Gustave Elmer, a prominent figure in the Bund. What Would Washington Think? Bettmann/Bettmann Archive What Would Washington Think? A color guard in Nazi garb stands before an immense portrait of George Washington. Fritz Kuhn, the German-American Bund's charismatic and adamantly anti-Semitic leader, called the February 1939 rally a "pro-American celebration of George Washington's birthday." The Bund revered Washington as "the first Fascist" because, in Kuhn's fanciful re-imagining of history, the father of the country "knew democracy could not work." Resistance Fox Photos/Getty Images Resistance Bund members, anti-Nazi protesters, and police clashed in the streets before, during, and after the February 1939 rally. Inside the Garden, a young man named Isadore Greenbaum rushed the stage during Kuhn's speech, but was tackled and beaten before he reached the podium. The moment was captured on newsreel film, and in the following weeks Americans were shocked by footage of Nazis beating a Jewish protester in the heart of New York City. Later, Fritz Historical/Corbis via Getty Images Later, Fritz In late 1939 — a few months after Germany invaded Poland and after Britain, France, and others declared war on the Reich — Fritz Kuhn was sentenced to prison for tax evasion. He was later re-arrested as an enemy agent when the U.S. entered WWII. The Bund, which had openly supported the ideology and policies of a fascist foreign regime, collapsed. Arrogant, Unheralded, Unsung Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Arrogant, Unheralded, Unsung The 1939 rally at Madison Square Garden proved to be the high point — or low, depending on one's perspective — of the Bund's popularity in America. Fritz Kuhn died in Munich, Germany, in 1951. (Here he is seen on the day he left the U.S. for Germany, where he was born in 1896.) Noting his death, the New York Times reported that "the arrogant, noisy leader of the pro-Hitler German-American Bund died ... a poor and obscure chemist, unheralded and unsung." He was 55 years old.