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The head of the American Nazi party during the late 1930s managed to embarrass his idol, Adolf Hitler
September 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 5
Kuhn liked nightclubs, liked drinking, and liked the company of women other than the one he married, who gave birth to his two children. He was often seen with a former Miss America who had had seven husbands; he was often with a Mrs. Florence Camp, whose moving expenses from California to New York he paid. (Wits dubbed her “Mein Camp.”) He was rarely out of uniform in public, a glowering, formidable figure. With two hundred followers he went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. As his group formed to march in review, he received the most thrilling news of his life. He was to halt at the Reichschancellory and go in. He did so to stand before Hitler, who took his hand and put another hand on his shoulder. Flashbulbs popped. The few minutes’ meeting meant nothing to Hitler, who had granted many brief audiences to people in town for the Olympics. But the pictures appeared in papers across America. Kuhn returned home to Yorkville seen as Adolf Hitler’s designate for the dictatorship of the United States.
The country took alarm. It was said that Kuhn had on hand 200,000 men ready to use guns, that there were 50,000 in Connecticut alone, that 25,000 had goose-stepped through Nassau County, New York. Martin Dies of the House Un-American Activities Committee declared that Fritz Kuhn had 480,000 followers. And he had allies: He held joint meetings with the Fascist Silver Shirts, with American units of Mussolini’s Black Shirts, with extreme right-wing Ukrainian separatists, Russian royalists, and the Ku Klux Klan.
To the old-line aristocrats who largely formed the German diplomatic corps, Kuhn was a great embarrassment. He was a colossal impediment to even minimally decent relations with the United States, said Ambassador Hans Heinrich Dieckhoff; he was “stupid, noisy, absurd.” Hitler told his associates he never wanted to see the fellow again. That didn’t stop Kuhn. He visited Germany in 1938 and returned offering hints of long conversations with Goering and Goebbels and one other whose name he need not mention. Ambassador Dieckhoff queried Berlin about these alleged meetings and received back: “Herr Kuhn was—as already on other occasions—consciously deviating from the truth… .”
In February 1939 Kuhn and his German American Bund had their greatest moment in the sun. Escorted by 3,000 uniformed men, who were to him, he said, what the skull-and-crossbones SS Elite Guard were to Heinrich Himmler, standing before a thirty-foot-high portrait of George Washington flanked by massed swastikas and American flags, the Bundesführer harangued 22,000 people in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. After that everything came tumbling down. As he shouted that he was being persecuted, the Un-American Activities Committee elicited from him admissions that on separate occasions he had been arrested for drunkenness, profanity, and grand larceny. A criminal investigation found that among other felonies, he had personally pocketed some fifteen thousand dollars of the Madison Square Garden receipts. He was sent to Sing Sing. After making a few feeble stabs at saying he was a prisoner of war, the Bund quickly and completely dissolved away. Without the Bundesfüfchrer it was nothing. In fact, it never had been much of anything. Its peak membership was 25,000 sorry little people, most of whom were later embarrassed that they’d ever been part of such a thing. The German American Bund was what New York’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia said it was: a racket.
Deported to a broken Germany as soon as the war was over, Kuhn lived there in obscurity until his death in 1951. Once someone in bombed-out Munich reprimanded him for his activities. “Who would have known that it would end like this?” the ex-BundesFührer answered.