It might seem absolutely inconceivable that there was a time in Chicago in which a fascist rally would attract thousands of people. But on June 18, 1939, the American flag and Nazi swastika banner flew side by side in what is now known as Merrimac Park.
Chicago newspapers estimated that between 4,000 and 8,000 assembled to support the German-American Bund, an organization whose stated mission was to “defend the Constitution, Flag, and Institutions of these United States of America.” But as at other Bund gatherings, those that spoke showed nothing but contempt for American democracy. There was remarkably little ideological difference between the German-American Bund and the Nazi Party in Germany.
Several hundred men and boys dressed in uniforms resembling those worn by Nazi storm troopers. Vendors sold beer, brats, and anti-Semitic literature. At least 100 police officers were kept on reserve in case of a riot, but the only disturbance of the day involved a handful of brownshirts who had confiscated the film of a newspaper photographer. The crowd would be safe from hearing from the groups it wished to eliminate from American society. Praising Adolf Hitler, Bund leader Fritz Kuhn appealed to the enthusiastic crowd to carry on his organization’s “patriotic fight” to “free America.” The event, which began with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” ended with a Hitler salute and German hymns.
The story of Nazism in Chicago began nearly 15 years earlier with the foundation of the Chicago chapter of the Teutonia Society, a group made up of working-class German immigrants who supported the National Socialist Party in Germany. Its national leader, a Chicago printer named Fritz Gissebl, would eventually end up as a high-ranking SS officer in Nazi-occupied Poland, although the group functioned more as a Hitler fan club and anti-Semitic drinking society than a fearsome political organization. When it disbanded in 1932, it had only about 500 members nationwide.
The Nazi party’s seizure of power breathed new life into the movement. In July 1933, the Friends of New Germany held its first convention in Chicago, with the grandiose goal of unifying the millions of German-Americans under its banner. The group was no less hostile to Jews or leftists than were its counterparts in Germany. The historian Sander A. Diamond has suggested that skilled workers left economically insecure by the Depression formed the core of its membership. By April 1934, the Chicago chapter reportedly had 500 members, including 40 storm troopers that performed military drills each Thursday.
Although new members took an oath that affirmed the Führerprinzip—the principle that the leader’s word was above any written law—the Friends of New Germany was such a fractious mess that the German government, which had long collaborated with the group, ordered German nationals to resign their memberships in October 1935. In March 1936, the German-American Bund was formed. Kuhn, a Detroit chemist and naturalized American citizen who had proven himself a skilled organizer, was elevated as its leader. The new American führer was able to bring stability to the project of spreading Nazism in the United States, projecting the illusion that it was a rapidly expanding mass movement. “His bombast, propensity for exaggeration, and lies were part of his technique,” Diamond writes.
The Bund did not go unchallenged in Chicago. In September 1937, the Chicago Daily Times ran a ten-part series on the group. Two German-American brothers, James and John Metcalfe, went undercover and quickly rose in its ranks. Backed by the Bund’s own malignant propaganda, they characterized the organization as an “alien army” that considered not only Jews and Communists as its enemies, but also the Catholic Church and New Deal liberals. One Bundist told John Metcalfe that he had witnessed “men dumped out of windows and killed” in Germany. “The day will come over here when Jews get the same treatment on the street they get in Germany,” he said. The exposé intensified pressure for the federal government to investigate the group, particularly its ties to the German government.
While the group continued to portray itself as a deeply patriotic organization, its actions showed an alarming contempt for democratic traditions. At a meeting at the Germania Club in Lincoln Park that drew 1,000 participants in February 1938, William Kunze, the head of the Bund’s publicity office, declared that Jews, representing 4 percent of the population, controlled the press, radio, movie studios, schools, courts, and finance. Asked how the Bund proposed “to eliminate the Jews,” Kunze urged that legislation could be passed along the lines of those that excluded Asian immigration to the United States, adding that this might not be necessary “if the Jew learns his lesson.” During the meeting, a storm trooper from Glenview smashed a reporter’s camera. Two students were assaulted when they refused to salute the Nazi flag.
In October 1938, German-Americans and Czech-Americans protested a Bund celebration of the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland. Demonstrators attempting to bring an American flag into the hall were beaten by Bundists. As the streets around the hall filled with 5,000-plus demonstrators, more than 150 police officers were called in to prevent a possible riot. “We are not worried about those who want to break up our little volksfest,” Kuhn told his comrades.
He should have been. During a meeting of 20,000 supporters at Madison Square Garden, held in honor of George Washington’s birthday, Bundists violently attacked a Jewish-American protester who charged to the podium as Kuhn was speaking. The extreme views expressed by Kuhn and other orators simply hardened the public view of the Bund as a threat to civil society. The June 1939 mass meeting at Irving Park and Narragansett was meant to raise money for Kuhn’s defense, as he had been indicted for embezzlement from the Bund. While the organization took the official position that there was no crime because its leader exercised absolute power, a jury of Kuhn’s peers convicted him on the charges of larceny and forgery after eight and a half hours of deliberation.
Under intense federal scrutiny, the Bund was a broken organization by the time Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. In 1943, a federal court stripped Kuhn of his citizenship on the grounds that he had demonstrated complete allegiance to a foreign power. Deported to Germany in 1945, he died in obscurity and poverty six years later.
The rally in June 1939 would not be the last mass meeting of Nazis in Chicago, although these extremists often came from mixed ethnic and cultural backgrounds disdained by the Bund. George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, spoke in Marquette Park in August 1966 to an audience that may have been as large as 3,000. Although the National Socialist Party marches of 1977 still loom large in the public consciousness, there were only perhaps 30 marchers in total.
It would be nice to think that our city would never have to experience such a spectacle again, but you shouldn’t hold your breath. v