BundesfÜhrer Kuhn

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There are adherents of even the most repellent concepts who with a stretch can be seen as motivated by perverted idealism. No such claim can be made for Fritz Julius Kuhn of the German American Bund. Great liar, thief, forger, adulterous womanizer, braggart, lout, and boor—even Hitler didn’t like him. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry: a jackanapes Nazi charlatan in boots strutting around beneath swastikas to denounce Franklin D. Rosenfelt’s Jew Deal while declaiming that one day he, the Bundesführer , would run things.

He was born in Munich in 1896. He served from 1914 to 1918 as a lieutenant of machine guns in a Bavarian outfit in France, joined the fledgling Nazi party in 1921, enrolled at the University of Munich to study chemical engineering, and went to Mexico to work as a chemist there for four years. Then he came to America. By 1934 he was a citizen.

Kuhn moved exclusively in German-background circles—his spoken and written English was always terrible—and particularly in ones excited and energized by Hitler’s accession to power. Nazi theory held that blood was far more important than citizenship or place of birth and that it was the blood-dictated responsibility of all facial brothers away from Germany to acknowledge their obligations toward the fatherland. In America this view was enthusiastically accepted by the Friends of the New Germany, the Swastika League, and the Teutonia Association. But the groups were hopelessly divided as their leaders squabbled for power. “Sometimes I think during the night,” Karl Neumann wrote sadly in the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund , “that if our Führer , Adolf Hitler, ever saw the mess in New York, he would cry.” By 1936 there was no more mess in New York or anywhere else: Kuhn ruled.

A forceful and dynamic organizer, he took all those who titled themselves not German-Americans but the Germans in America, all who believed in the Third Reich and waited and prayed for der Tag (the day), a morning that would find Nazism triumphant in the United States, and made them into the German American Bund. Big, powerful-looking, pounding his fist on a podium, he shouted that even as Germany was now awake—“Deutschland erwache!” had been Hitler’s rallying cry—so must America follow; Hitler’s Führerprinzip (leadership principle) must apply here and to himself, the American Führer , a “historic personality.”

Soon there was Camp Siegfried in Long Island, and Deutschhorst in Pennsylvania, Efdende North in Michigan, Nordland in New Jersey, Hindenburg in Wisconsin, men in black leather jackboots and Sam Browne belts with “ BLOOD ” and “ HONOR ” on the buckles, and uniformed children in columns marching down Hermann Goering Strasse for the Bundesführer to swastika-bedecked platforms, where they flung out their arms in palm-down salute. “Youth, Youth—we are the future soldiers,” sang the children, the Youth Organization and Girls’ League members, some as young as six years. “Yes, by our fists will be smashed whoever stands in our way. Führer , we belong to you.” At Ebling’s Casino in the Bronx, at Fesel’s Pavilion in Suffern, New York, at Hermannson’s Park in Oakdale, California, in beer and dance halls in Buffalo, Milwaukee, and Chicago, the Bund held beer evenings, coffee hours, comradeship meetings; showed movies made in Berlin; sponsored soccer, tennis, hockey, swimming, and ski teams; went to the mountains for martial drill and hiking; and paraded in honor of Hitler’s birthday. There were lectures on Nazi art and music. “ PATRONIZE ARYAN STORES ” handouts were distributed in front of Jewish-owned establishments.

It cost money to be a herald of the Third Reich, with uniforms, insignia, chevrons, rings, pins, emblems, and certificates of membership. It was not for the mechanics and watchmakers, the waiters and clerks and small shopowners who formed the Bund to complain; for, thundered the Bundesführer , all charges should be borne happily: “[In] a spirit of joyous self-sacrifice … we shall prevail; the Jewish spirit of materialism must not be permitted to enter the Bund.” Admission was charged for the use of the camps and attendance at the torchlit rallies of throbbing drums, passionate speeches, marching displays, fierce singing, and shouts of “Sieg Heil! Heil Hitler!” The money ended up in the national headquarters in the Yorkville section of New York City, along with the substantial advertising revenues realized from the Bund’s many newspapers and magazines and funneled through half a dozen Bund corporations. There was little accounting of what came in and where it went, and few questions were asked. The Führerprinzip obtained.

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.