In 1939, 20,000 Americans rallied in New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism – an event largely forgotten from American history. A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN uses striking archival fragments recorded that night to transport modern audiences into this gathering and shine a light on the disturbing fallibility of seemingly decent people.

Transcript provided by Sis Fay Berry

Field of Vision – A night at the Garden

A night at the Garden, New York City, Feb 20, 1939. 

“I pledge undivided allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and the republic of which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow Americans, America patriots,  I am sure I do not come before you tonight as a complete stranger, you all have heard of me through the Jewish controlled press as a creature with horns and cloven hoof, and a long tail. We with American ideals demand that our Government demand that our government shall be returned to the American people if founded it. If you ask what we are actively fighting for under our charter, first, a social just white, Gentile-ruled United States, second, Gentile-controlled labor unions free from Jewish-Moscow directed domination. 

The star spangled banner sung

on screen text…..

20,000 Americans gathered inn Madison Square Gardens on February 20, 1939.

At the same time, in Europe, Hitler was finishing construction of his sixth concentration camp. 

Seven months later, the Nazi army invaded Poland triggering the bloodiest war in history. “

The German American Bund, who held the rally, had a significant presence in the 1930s, with training camps in New Jersey, upstate New York, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and a huge march down East 86th Street in Manhattan. But their mainstream appeal was reduced by their leaders’ German accents and culture. As Halford E. Luccock famously said, “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism.’”

The group’s leader Fritz Kuhn was eventually arrested for embezzling Bund funds and sent to prison. He was stripped of his citizenship and, after the war, deported to West Germany where he died a few years later. The Bund disappeared soon after the start of World War II.

The footage is so powerful, it seems amazing that it isn’t a stock part of every high school history class. But I think the rally has slipped out of our collective memory in part because it’s scary and embarrassing. It tells a story about our country that we’d prefer to forget. We’d like to think that when Nazism rose up, all Americans were instantly appalled. But while the vast majority of Americans were appalled by the Nazis, there was also a significant group of Americans who were sympathetic to their white supremacist, anti-Semitic message. When you see 20,000 Americans gathering in Madison Square Garden you can be sure that many times that were passively supportive.

In a part of Fritz Kuhn’s speech that isn’t in the film, he applauds Father Coughlin whose radio shows praising Hitler and Mussolini reached audiences of 30 million. Henry Ford and Charles Lindberg expressed anti-Semitic beliefs. And press magnate William Randolph Hearst declared, “Whenever you hear a prominent American called a fascist, you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a loyal citizen who stands for Americanism.” (In a small ironic twist, we licensed some of the Bund footage from the Hearst collection at UCLA.)

These were ideas that, if not universally accepted, were at least considered legitimate points of view. But two years after this rally, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on the US, and at that point this sort of philosophy became unacceptable. When the Nazis began killing American soldiers, we started erasing the fact that any Americans had ever shared their philosophy.

In the end, America pulled away from the cliff, but this rally is a reminder that things didn’t have to work out that way. If Roosevelt weren’t President, if Japan hadn’t attacked, is it possible we would have skated through without joining the war? And if Nazis hadn’t killed American soldiers, is it possible that their philosophy wouldn’t have become so taboo here?

 See more from Field of Vision here: fieldofvision.org

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