The Bund: The American Arm Of The Nazi Party Before And During WWII

Published April 2, 2017
Updated January 22, 2018
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The Bund: The American Arm Of The Nazi Party Before And During WWII
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“Most people don’t even know any of this happened here," Robert Kessler, president of the German American Settlement League, told The New York Times in 2015. "It hardly comes up.”

The "here" in Kessler's comment is Yaphank, New York, a rural hamlet in the middle of Long Island, about 50 miles east of New York City. And as for what happened there, it is indeed little-known and, moreover, a little hard to believe.

Throughout the late 1930s and into the dawn of the 1940s — as the U.S. drew closer to entering the world war in which Europe was already mired — Yaphank served as one of the American strongholds of the group against whom that very war was waged: the Nazis.

Summer after summer, hundreds of Americans would flock to Yaphank's Camp Siegfried to raise swastika-adorned flags; hear and spout anti-semitic propaganda; walk down Adolf Hitler Strasse (street), make the Sieg Heil salute, and pledge their devotion to the Nazi cause.

None of this was confined to Camp Siegfried. In fact, approximately two dozen such camps operated across the U.S., all of them operated by the 70 local chapters that made up the nationwide group determined to promote Nazism in the U.S.: the German-American Bund.

Founded in 1936, the Bund sought to propagate Hitler's policies, stamp out communism, and keep the U.S. neutral in the impending war via rallies and publishing efforts.

To these ends, the group gathered some 25,000 dues-paying American members of German descent, 8,000 of them in its militarized "Storm Trooper" wing. All of these members, under the leadership of New York City-based Bundesführer Fritz Kuhn, fell into one of the group's Ortsgruppen (local chapters) in a system directly modeled on that of the Nazi Party.

Despite sharing its organizing principles — not to mention its iconography, rituals, and core beliefs — with the Nazi Party, Kuhn and the German-American Bund always insisted that they had little to no direct connection with their German counterparts, that they were not, in other words, the American arm of the Nazis.

However, the available evidence, as compiled by the FBI's master 1941 report on the group, suggests that there was far more Nazi influence on and control over the Bund than the latter's leaders let on.

After questioning group members and investigating financial records, the FBI determined that German officials sometimes requested and paid for trips of Bund members to Germany and that members were granted audiences with Hitler, Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, and other high-ranking Nazis while there.

Furthermore, the FBI found that all Bund members had to take an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler upon entering the group; that Nazi storm troopers sometimes attended Bund meetings, and that some Hitler Youth leaders went on to serve as leaders at Bund summer camps like those at Camp Siegfried.

In addition, the Foreign Organization of the Nazi Party officially supported the Bund's mission and sent a representative to rework the latter's finances and the Nazi propaganda ministry designed the Bund's uniforms.

Most damningly, a representative of the Nazi propaganda ministry reportedly instructed young Bund members visiting Germany that "Kuhn was recognized in Germany as the American Fuehrer and should be recognized by the group as their leader and as the representative of the Nazi Government or Nazi ideology in America."

Then, of course, there was the fact that the Friends of the New Germany, the direct forerunner of the German-American Bund, was known to have been authorized as an American Nazi organization by Nazi Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess in 1933.

With evidence like this and war on the immediate horizon, authorities were anxious to pounce on Kuhn and the Bund.

The House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings and used undercover informants to expose Bund operations. Local sheriffs nationwide raided Bund camps and shut them down. And the New York District Attorney's office proved in 1939 that Fritz Kuhn had stolen thousands of dollars from the Bund, landing Kuhn in prison for more than three years on charges of tax evasion, embezzlement, and forgery.

Earlier in 1939, mere months before the axe fell on Kuhn, the German-American Bund had staged its most successful, high-profile event to date: a massive rally of more than 20,000 people at New York's Madison Square Garden. But by the end of that year, with Kuhn behind bars and World War II underway, the Bund's days were numbered.

Just after the war, by which point the Bund had folded completely, authorities deported Kuhn to Germany, where he died in 1951.

And as German American Settlement League President Robert Kessler of Yaphank, New York reminds us, the German-American Bund has largely been forgotten today.

Yet in a few troubling ways, the Bund's legacy remains — especially in Yaphank. The very reason, for example, that Kessler was speaking to The New York Times in 2015 is because one of the hamlet's former residents was suing the league over its bylaws that prevented residents from selling their homes on the open market, instead restricting sales to (German, or at least white) friends of the league.

You see, the German American Settlement League started under the auspices of the Bund in the 1930s as a way to keep Yaphank German. And the same bylaws that served that purpose then were still keeping Yaphank German as recently as October 2015.

The following January, the lawsuit ended with the league being forced to change their bylaws, accept residents of all races, and refrain from displaying Nazi iconography in public.

And thus, 80 years after the Bund made Yaphank their own, the group's legacy is now finally starting to vanish in full.

Next, see what life was like inside one of the German-American Bund's camps with this footage taken in Windham, New York in 1937 and later recovered by the National Archives and Records Administration:

After this look at the German-American Bund, discover the story of George Lincoln Rockwell and his American Nazi Party. Then, read up on the American eugenics programs that helped inspire the Nazis.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.