A friend of mine recently directed me to an offering in the PBS Short Film Festival entitled A Night at the Garden. From the title, you’d expect it to be bucolic. Images in my head include the sounds of crickets, fireflies flashing amongst the trees, a babbling brook, cows lowing in the distance. Peaceful.
Yeah. This video is not that. Not even close.
The video itself is only 6 minutes long. The rest of it is credits. I encourage you to take a few minutes to watch it. It is terrifying. It’s actual footage of the 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It’s an important film to watch, because history has been repeating itself of late, and since we have more access to misinformation, more of us are vulnerable to this type of false patriotism.
According to Wikipedia, 20,000 people attended that Fascist rally, and when you see the footage, the pomp and circumstance will give you the chills. People marching in lock step, American flags interspersed with Nazi flags. A gigantic image of George Washington, as if he were a god. People giving the Nazi salute to the American flag. Patriotism at its most terrifying.
And wait until you get to the part where the protester runs up on stage and is beaten up by about 20 to 30 Ordnungsdienst, the militia that was organized by the German American Bund to protect them at the rally. They throw the protester to the ground, kick him, and punch him. All this while the speaker looks on and smiles. If the local police hadn’t dragged the poor protester off stage, he may very well have been killed. Instead, they fined him 25 dollars for disorderly conduct (which is the equivalent of $505.66 in today’s money). That must have been a bitter pill to swallow given the conduct of the Nazis that the world would come to know.
At the time of this rally, the Nazis were operating 6 concentration camps. But Americans only stopped ignoring the constant drumbeat of news regarding these camps by around 1944 and by then there were almost too many to count. It’s not that we didn’t know. We just didn’t want to believe or think about it. But when Johnny came marching home with horror stories, there was no more room for denial.
But let’s go back to that Nazi rally on American soil in 1939. This time let’s avert our gaze from the stage. (Yes, please!) Let’s look at the 20,000 Americans in the audience.
One has to wonder how many people in attendance had already joined the German American Bund. This was, after all, pure propaganda, and it would serve that organization well to pack the Garden so people would think that this hatred was the prevailing attitude. Fortunately, Wikipedia tells us that there were 100,000 protesters outside, including WWI veterans wrapped in the American flag.
And this little tidbit from Wikipedia really had me intrigued: “One of the most mystifying disturbances came from a blaring speaker set up in a second-floor room of a rooming house at the southern corner of Forty-ninth Street and Eight Avenue. Shortly before 8 o’clock it began blaring out a denunciation of Nazis and urging “Be American, Stay at Home.” Upon investigation, the room was found untenanted: the voice of these ‘denunciations’ came from a record, timed to go off at 7:55 pm.”
I would dearly love to hear the story behind that.
Mayor LaGuardia hoped that by allowing the rally at the Garden, the disturbing spectacle would convince people that this group was one to be avoided. But he also knew that things were bound to get ugly, so he dispatched 1,700 uniformed officers outside, and 600 undercover officers inside.
There is really no way to know the makeup of the audience. The GAB’s membership rolls were already dwindling. (Hence the need for the rally.) One has to assume that a certain percentage were already members, and that a certain percentage had fallen for the disinformation campaign, and/or were anti-semites who were looking for like-minded friends.
It’s also important to remember that this was 1939, and people had been suffering the effects of the Great Depression for a decade. That’s a lot of disaffected countrymen who were longing to “Make America Great Again.” As we know at present, people are willing to swallow anything if they think it will bring them some relief.
But the attendees that I worry about the most are the very small percentage who had no idea what they were getting themselves into. The posters for this event called it a “Pro-American Rally.” It mentions “True Americanism.” World War II wouldn’t begin in Europe until September, which is a little over 6 months after this rally. And America wouldn’t join the war until December 1941.
But this must have been a really scary time, and one where a lot of people might feel instinctively more patriotic, because they were so afraid. They probably would think that going and rooting for America was a good idea. The poster did not contain Swastikas. The only telltale sign was that all the letters s in the poster are designed like those worn by the German SS. I suspect that those trying to ignore the existence of concentration camps were not likely to look at pictures of those terrorists long enough to focus on the font on their uniforms.
And yet, for those in denial, it would take a special level of moral blindness and an utter lack of independent judgment to walk past 100,000 protesters to go to this rally and still be shocked at what one was walking into. Still, I’d like to think (for our sakes, if not for theirs) that there were a certain number of clueless donkeys who attended that rally and looked on in horror. What must it feel like to suddenly be completely surrounded by people who you are convinced are warped, twisted and crazed? You certainly wouldn’t want to speak up. Here you’d be, expecting to root, root, root for your country, only to discover that this was no baseball game. Under those circumstances, watching someone beaten on stage must have been terrifying.
But please don’t think that this infamous Nazi rally was the only one that ever occurred in America. Far from it. These rallies occurred all over the country. In fact, here in Seattle several rallies were held, albeit with protesters outside. I encourage you to read this fascinating series of articles in Crosscut. The series of six articles is about the forgotten history of the Nazis in the Northwest, and it will make you blink more than once.
Among the things discussed in this series is the fact that one of the local diplomats from Nazi Germany, Baron Manfred von Killinger, was a known Nazi stormtrooper. It was later discovered that he was posted in the San Francisco office to invigorate the already existing spy network in the United States. Later, he killed himself after being charged with implementing the Final Solution in Romania.
It seems that Seattle was lousy with Nazis before the war. In fact, in 1937 there was a Nazi rally at the Masonic Temple, and the Mayor of Seattle was in attendance, and it is alleged that he gave the Nazi salute. I first learned of this disturbing event while I was sitting in that very theater, now called the Egyptian. It was in 2018, and I was there to see Rick Steves do a talk and a prescreening of his upcoming documentary entitled, The Story of Fascism in Europe. This film is not your usual Rick Steves upbeat travelogue. It’s a fascinating documentary that I highly recommend. I blogged about it here.
Crosscut also wrote about Steves’ talk at the Egyptian, and went into more detail about Seattle’s Nazi sympathizers in this article, which was written two years after the series of articles mentioned above. It talked about the Nazi rallies in town, and also that even back then, the NRA was heavily involved with the far right, and would help arm these groups, just as they do to this very day.
It goes on to describe another creepy Seattle/Nazi connection in the form of William Dudley Pelley, a presidential candidate in 1936 who called himself “American Hitler”. He was also the founder of the Silver Shirts, and their headquarters were in Redmond, Washington for a time, right across the lake from Seattle. (Interestingly, Redmond is now home to the Microsoft headquarters.) The Silver Shirts also got a lot of their arms from the NRA and they planned to overthrow the American government. Thank goodness their man was never elected.
According to this article, there has been a fascist streak running through this country since the 1700’s. McCarthyism, with its witch hunt of communists, was fascism pure and simple. But as Rick Steves says, “Fascism is incremental. It’s a slow chipping away of your rights, until one day you look up and you have none.”
Our strongest flirtation with fascism to date was when Trump was elected president in 2016. This article, and thousands of others on the web, make a great case for his unapologetically fascist tendencies. Any time you hear someone shouting about fake news, ask yourself what they are trying to keep you from knowing. It’s a safe bet that these chaos-mongers are fascists. Never let anyone replace your access to professional reporting that is well-investigated and backed up with facts, with their pretty words based on nothing but opinion and rumor.
And, again, beware of false patriotism. We step over its shadows everywhere we go. Sitting in that seat at the Egyptian where known Nazis had sat and saluted both the Nazi and American flags made me want to leap up and run to the nearest shower. I’m sure Germans today feel that way all the time. Or maybe they’ve reconciled themselves with their dark past. I’m sure there are a wide range of attitudes, just as there are in this country.
But if someone is patriotic in the extreme, let your BS antennas go up. I have been saying this for years: A true patriot is one who can look at the country with an unjaundiced eye and criticize it when it needs to be criticized. That person truly wants the best for the country, and would never fall for these rallies that serve up food for thought that has no real nutritional value.
Don’t take the easy way out. Question authority. Exercise the critical thinking skills that so many are trying to prevent us from being taught in schools. These skills, although hard-won, will serve you well. No doubt about it: Nazi flags still fly in America. We need to be ever-vigilant of fascism and resist it at every turn.
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