In 2013, Chicago author Arnie Bernstein published his fifth book. Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund is the 1930s history of a small but threatening U.S. national socialist movement headed by a wannabe dictator, Fritz Kuhn. Kuhn thought the Bund could turn the U.S. into a fascist dictatorship; they had their own versions of the SS and Hitler Youth.
Today, four years after his research on U.S. Nazis was published by MacMillan, Bernstein has become a media darling, an expert on the U.S. Nazi movement. Since the Charlottesville, Virginia, “Unite the Right” rally and related protests in August, Bernstein has been interviewed by the Daily Beast, Politico, Christian Science Monitor and the Gothamist (RIP). He has done broadcast interviews for AM Joy on MSNBC and Radio Times on WHYY-FM, Philadelphia’s NPR station. He was also interviewed for BBC Radio’s Witness program in February 2017.
We interviewed Bernstein via email and asked him to start by responding to the question he gets most frequently: “How does today’s alt-right movement compare to the German-American Bund of the 1930s?”
“The short answer,” he says, “is similar ideology but with distinct differences.” The German-American Bund was an organized movement with a detailed constitution, membership levels, national and regional newspapers, and regional headquarters in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. They even wore uniforms based on their Nazi counterparts’ uniforms. In public, they espoused ‘American’ values and the Constitution, while in private they extolled Hitler and Nazi Germany. “They were a little scary but noisy and buffoonish at the same time.”
The Chicago Bund was among about 100 local units in 47 states. The Chicago Bund held a rally in a northwest side park in 1939 that attracted more than 4,000 people to hear Fritz Kuhn speak. He praised Adolf Hitler and appealed to the crowd to carry on the Bund’s “patriotic fight” to “free America.”
“Today’s alt-right groups are more disparate and not as unified as the Bund. Fritz Kuhn was the singular leader of that group; today’s groups have a lot of ‘leaders,’ such as Richard Spencer and David Duke.”
“What unites this group,” Bernstein says, “is the ideology of white supremacy and something Fritz Kuhn didn’t have: the internet. Via social media, chat rooms, and plain old email, today’s groups can organize and meet in ways the German-American Bund couldn’t imagine. ”
And there’s one more major difference, he continued. “In the 1930s, major politicians up to the President of the United States condemned the actions of the Bundists. Never once were they referred to as ‘some very fine people.’” Trump enables today’s alt-right movement, which Spencer, Duke, and their followers freely acknowledge.
You can see Bernstein’s AM Joy interview below. His fellow guest is the director of a new documentary, A Night at the Garden, about a huge Bund rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939. You can also watch the whole documentary.
Among Bernstein’s other books are Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing, the story of America’s deadliest act of school violence, the bombing of Bath Consolidated School in Bath, Michigan, on May 18, 1927 (University of Michigan Press, 2009); and Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100+ Years of Chicago and the Movies (Lake Claremont Press, 1998).
See Bernstein’s website for a sample chapter of Swastika Nation and a reader’s guide to its contents. Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund (368 pages, St. Martin’s Press, 2013; paperback, Picador, 2014) is available for $20 or less from major booksellers.