Fritz Kuhn, the self-styled “American Führer,” was the Leader of the German-American Bund (Federation), a group which, prior to its dissolution following Pearl Harbor, was directly connected to Adolf Hitler and the German National Socialist Workers (Nazi) Party. Under Kuhn, the Bund promoted fascism and anti-semitism while thumping the tub for Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party and promoting isolationism. Kuhn and his Bund were determined to keep the United States out of a rematch of the Great War, which climaxed with Germany’s humiliating defeat after the intervention of the U.S. on the side of Great Britain, France and Italy. Fritz Kuhn, who became the face of American fascism, was featured in the documentary film “Inside Nazi Germany,” the January 1938 March of Time newsreel called “the first commercially released anti-Nazi American motion picture.”
Born in Germany on May 15, 1896, the naturalized U.S. citizen was a stalwart supporter of the Nazi German government led by Reichschancellor Adolph Hitler, the Austrian former Army corporal, watercolorist, post-card artist & paper-hanger who had seized total power after being named chancellor (prime minister) by President Paul von Hindenburg in 1933. Kuhn had served in the German Imperial Army as an infantry officer during World War I, winning an Iron Cross for bravery. (Hitler also was a recipient of the Iron Cross during the Great War.) After the Armistice, Kuhn graduated from the University of Munich with a masters degree in chemical engineering. He moved to Mexico in the 1920s, then emigrated to the United States. becoming a naturalized American citizen in 1934.
Das AmerikadeutscherVolksbund had its roots in a group called “Friends of New Germany” when it was organized in the U.S. in early 1933 by Heinz Spanknobel. The Friends allegedly was dedicated to promoting the German language and culture among German-Americans who had lost touch with their ethnic roots, but actually, it sought to promote the agenda of the German Nazi Party, including fostering anti-semitism. Spanknobel created the group on the orders of Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess, and he received help from the German consul in New York City. However, Spanknobel was deported in October 1933 for failing to register as a foreign agent of the German government, and the organization was taken over the by the American Nazi Party, which was headed by German immigrant and non-citizen Fritz Gissibl, who made his headquarters in Chicago. Gissibl appointed Walter Kappe, one of his chief lieutenants, to take over the organization. (Kappe later returned to Nazi Germany, where he planned and oversaw the infiltration of the U.S. by two four-man teams of saboteurs in 1942. All eight were captured, given a drum-head trial and executed. This is the precedent President George W. Bush uses to justify the detainment of terrorists without recourse to habeus corpus.)
While most historians agree that the Bund made little inroads into mainstream German-American culture, it did establish itself as a significant public relations vehicle, though the incompetence of its leaders eventually undermined the organization. However, it was almost stillborn at birth.
The membership of the Friends of New Germany organization primarily were German citizens resident in the United States and recent German immigrants. Originally, the Friends of New Germany was a presence only in New York and Chicago. Members wore a uniform modeled after those sported in Germany: a white shirt and black trousers for men, topped with a black hat festooned with a red symbol, a white blouse and a black skirt for the women. Membership never exceeded approximately 5,000-10,000, and the American Nazi Party leadership was so inept, Hitler ordered that all German citizens quit the organization, and a new, more effective group be established in its place.
In March 1936, the Bund was formally established in Buffalo, New York, and on the express orders of Hitler, an American citizen was named to front the new organization. Thus, was Fritz Kuhn, out of necessity rather than to any achievement of his own, elevated to “Bundesleiter” (Federation leader). When the 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin, Kuhn attended and was introduced to Hitler. Reportedly, Hitler was not favorably impressed with Kuhn, a man who, unlike the German Führer, liked strong waters and loose women. (In fact, Hans Dieckhoff, Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., called Kuhn “stupid, noisy and absurd”.) However, schmoozing with Hitler further inflated Frtiz’s already swelled ego, and he returned to the States thinking of himself as Der Führer’s annointed one.
The Bund was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1937, but the Bureau — more obsessed with communists than it ever was with reactionaries ormafiaosi — found that it was not engaged in subversive activities against the government of the United States. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), however, claimed that Kuhn and his Bund had 480,000 “followers”, though the actual number of hardcore members was more akin to 1/100th of HUAC’s estimate. As much as a quarter of Bund membership were German citizens resident in the U.S., despite Hitler’s attempt to ban such membership. (Hitler ordered Kuhn, during a 1938 trip to Der Vaterland, to terminate the membership of German citizens in the Bund, as he had with the Friends of New Germany.)
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Kuhn was cited as “the leading antisemite in the country” by public opinion polls in 1939. Bund membership never exceeded 25,000, among whose dues-paying members included perhaps 8,000 paramilitaries modeled after Hitler’s Sturmabteilungen (SA), or Storm Troopers (colloquially known as “Brown Shirts”). Anti-semitism, fueled by such demagogues as the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, was more prevalent in the United States before World War II than after, and the Bund thrived by capitalizing on hate, as well as a German-American thirst for suds.
Many Bund meetings were held at beer halls in Chicago and Milwaukee, with their large German-American populations. However, German Ambassador Dieckhoff reminded the Fuhrer that there was no German minority in America as such, due to assimilation. The German minorities in Poland and the Sudetenland actually were Germans, with their own language and culture, subsumed in larger nation-states created after World War I. German-Americans, on the other hand, were immigrants, many with roots dating to before the American Civil War, and were not oppressed. The erosion of the German language and culture among German immigrants to the U.S. was similar to that suffered by every other non-anglophone group in America. Dieckhoff claimed that the Bund was an embarrassment that did more harm than good for promoting Nazi Germany’s image in the United States, as most Americans were fiercely anti-immigrant. Furthermore, Americans resented the meddling of other governments in America’s domestic affairs as most were steadfastly against their country’s entanglement in foreign affairs, a phobia first expressed by George Washington in his farewell speech.
Bund rallies often touched off violence, usually with American Jews fed up with Kuhn’s egregious anti-semitism. On February 20, 1939 — to mark George Washington’s birthday — the Bund held a rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City. During the rally, which attracted between 17,000 and 22,000 participants (some visitors to the Garden that night were anti-Bund activists), Kuhn declared that George Washington, the Father of His Country, was “the first fascist” in American history. Outside the Garden, 10,000 protestors had to be kept in check by 1,700 blue-shirted members of New York City’s finest, and 13 people were arrested due to skirmishes between the pro- and anti-Nazi legions.
The Establishment took notice of the self-proclaimed “American Führer” strutting before a 60-foot banner of General Washington, the American Cincinnatus, in a Madison Square Garden festooned with swastikas, the symbol of Hitler’s Nazi Party. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been denounced by one Bund rally speaker as “Rosenfeld” and whose New Deal had been called the “Jew Deal”, already had been the target of an assassin’s bullet on February 15, 1933 in Miami, Florida (Chicago mayor Anton Cermak had been mortally wounded by Giuseppe Zangara, who was executed by electrocution less than five weeks after his dastardly deed) and of a planned putsch (the so-called “Businessman’s Plot” of 1933, as revealed the following year by retired Marine Major General Smedley Butler before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities Committee, the precursor to HUAC). Powers inside and outside government decided that enough was enough. A potential Fifth Column would not be tolerated.
The pro-Hitler Bund was considered a substantial threat by anti-fascist forces in the United States. The Bund, with its rallies and summer camps modeled on the practices of the German Nazi Party, was seen as fostering a fascist underground among German-Americans should the United States go to war with Nazi Germany, which many Americans felt was historically inevitable. German-Americans constituted the largest ethnic group in terms of numbers of immigrants entering the U.S. since such numbers were kept in the early 19th-century, and a good many German-Americans in the wake of World War I had no desire for a second German-American war. (However, public opinion polls revealed that the majority of German-Americans were no more fascistic or pro-Hitler than the American population at large.) When combined with the large groups of isolationists who desired that the U.S. stay out of European affairs, Kuhn and the Bund was considered as constituting a major potential stumbling block to those who desired immediate and direct action against Hitler’s regime and the spread of fascism.
Hitler was right to distrust Fritz Kuhn. Fritz had a taste for wine, women and song, and his pursuit of the high life would prove his undoing. It was a situation that the monorchic esthete Adolph Schicklgruber never found himself in, since allegedly polishing off his niece Geli Rabaul with a beating that triggered her suicide in the halcyon daze before the erstwhile artist, who had sketched Geli in the nude, consolidated power. Hitler had first hand knowlege of what dabbling with dangerous dames could do to a German fellow. He himself had almost forfeited his destiny because of a dalliance with his young mächen in and out of uniform.
The beginning of the end for Fritz Kuhn was near. His appearance in the March of Time newsreel “Inside Nazi Germany” in early 1938 elucidated the threat of Kuhn and his Bund to the American public, no fans of foreigners, even those like Woody Allen’s Zelig who were determined to “assimilate like crazy”. Fritz Kuhn’s “foreigners” (he spoke poor English with a German accent) seemingly were not here to assimilate, but were determined to create an American Reich. While the newsreel contains some footage shot in Nazi Germany, the “documentary” featured staged re-enactments shot in the United States, using anti-Nazi German-Americans. Kuhn was inveigled to stage some scenes in his German-American Bund office. When he discovered he had been tricked, Walter Winchell reported that he was recorded screaming, “I will be ruint. Ruint!” at a screening in the March of Time building.
The House Un-American Activities Committee under chairman Martin Dies began an investigation of the Bund in 1938, establishing its link with a foreign power, i.e, Nazi Germany. As for Fritz Kuhn, his own troubles preceded those that led to the downfall of the Bund. New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who was half-Jewish, launched an investigation of the Bund in 1939 after the massive Washington’s Day rally at the Garden. Evidence that Kuhn had pilfered $14,000 in Bund funds was discovered, but the Bund — loyal to its Führer — refused to prosecute.
Undaunted, District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey indicted Kuhn on charges of embezzlement, charging that he had allegedly spent part of the $14,000 on his mistress. Kuhn was convicted, and although members of the Bund believed it was a politically motivated frame-up and continued to hold him in high regard, he was a spent force, politically. Kuhn reportedly confessed to spending the embezzled money on women, and also to stealing $15,000 from the ticket sales of the big Washington’s Birthday rally. To anyone outside of his loyal Bund followers, Kuhn now seemed ridiculous. The man who had dreamed his Benedict Arnold dreams of one day becoming “America’s Führer”, the man who proudly proclaimed to an audience at Madison Square Garden that “George Washington was the first fascist”, was shipped off to Sing-Sing state prison in Ossining, New York. At the Bund, he was unceremoniously replaced by Gerhard Kunze.
A year after the outbreak of World War II, Congress enacted a peacetime military draft in September 1940. The Bund counseled members of draft age to evade conscription, a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine. Gerhard Kunze fled to Mexico in November 1941, and after Germany and America went to war in December of that year, Kuhn was incarcerated at an internment camp in Texas for the duration. In 1946, he was released and deported to the future Bundesrepublik Deutschland (West Germany), where he was imprisoned. He was released shortly before his death in 1951.