A Look Back at the 1939 Pro-Nazi Rally at Madison Square Garden and the Protesters Who Organized Against It

U.S. flags, swastikas and a portrait of George Washington at a meeting of the German American Bund held at Madison Square Garden, New York City, Feb. 29, 1939. The American Nazi organization attracted 20,000 people to the meeting, which was addressed by its leader Fritz Julius Kuhn. (Photo by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

In late February 1939, roughly 22,000 people gathered at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for a rally, which included a 50-member drum and bugle corps and a color guard of more than 60 flags.

The event, which had been proposed the year before and—after much hand-wringing and debate—had been given the green light by NYC mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, drew scores of protesters and at least one thousand police officers which promised to turn the Garden into an “a fortress impregnable to anti-Nazis.”

What type of gathering would draw this much scrutiny and opposition? A pro-Nazi rally organized by the German American Bund, which festooned MSG’s interior with both American flags, swastika-bearing banners, and a thirty-plus foot high painting of George Washington. Also included were signs that read “Wake Up American. Smash Jewish Communism” and “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian Americans.”

The 1930s were a boon period for American supporters of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. A depressed work force coupled with little chance of upward mobility and an economy not yet on the rebound led to a majority that was fearful of their place in the world, and Hitler’s rhetoric added fuel to an already lit population.

In 1933, deputy fuhrer Rudolf Hess ordered Heinz Spanknobel, a German immigrant, to form Friends of New Germany, a group based in NYC, with the goal of spreading National Socialism throughout the United States. Though Spanknobel was eventually forced to leave the country—he had failed to register as a foreign agent—and his organization collapsed, the German American Bund, or Amerika-Deutscher Volksbund, emerged in the vacuum and coalesced FONG and the other American-based groups that supported the Reich.

According to historian Warren Grover, the German American Bund was “the largest and best-financed Nazi group operating in America,” financing youth summer camps and family retreats in states like New Jersey, Wisconsin, and California (among others) and espousing concepts of pan-Germanism and a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

A New York City mounted policeman outside Madison Square Garden during a pro-Nazi rally is shown attempting to take an American flag away from one of the demonstrators on Feb. 20, 1939. (AP Photo)

By the time of the rally at Madison Square Garden, the German American Bund had as many as 25,000 members nationwide. At that time, holding an event at the Garden and filling the cavernous space gave any group an air of legitimacy, and that’s what the leaders of the German-American Bund sought. “The Pro-American Rally” was scheduled to take place on George Washington’s birthday—the group considered the president to be the “first fascist“—and though NYC mayor La Guardia considered shutting down the event, he agreed to let the Bund proceed, arguing:

Our government provides for free speech, and in this city that right will be respected. It would be a strange kind of free speech that permits free speech for those we agree with.

LaGuardia then departed the city on what was described as a “western trip“. His constituents, though, certainly did not agree with the mayor’s rationale:

From 2/6/1939 New York Times.

Inside the Garden, the thousands who had gathered heard dozens of speeches denouncing “International Jewry,” while at least 100,000 protesters organized by the Socialist Workers Party—equipped with anti-Nazi posters and banners that read “Give me a gas mask, I can’t stand the smell of the Nazis“—picketed, held back from storming the Garden by police mounted on horseback. One protester named Isidore Greenbaum did manage to slip into the Garden and rushed the stage at one point, only to be badly beaten by “Bund storm troopers” who “ripped [his clothing] to shreds.”

According to Felix Morrow of the Socialist Appeal, the turnout was diverse and the protest unifying:

Among those who pressed against the horses, fighting for every inch of ground, were Spanish and Latin American workers, aching to strike the blow at fascism which had failed to strike down Franco; Negroes standing up against the racial myths of the Nazis and their 100% American allies; German American workers seeking to avenge their brothers under the heel of Hitler; Italian anti-fascists singing “Bandera Rossa;” groups of Jewish boys and men, coming together from their neighborhoods, to strike a blow against pogroms everywhere; Irish Republicans conscious of the struggle for the freedom of all peoples if Ireland is to be free; veterans of the World War; office workers, girls and boys, joining the roughly-clad workers in shouting and fighting; workers of every trade and neighborhood of the city.

Mounted police form a solid line outside Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 1939. To prevent any clash between bundsmen and counter-demonstraters, police surrounded the area with a force of 1,500. (AP Photo/Murray Becker)

The Pro-American Rally was the Bund’s final hurrah; its leader was convicted for tax evasion and embezzlement and the group dissolved after the United States entered World War II, but it never really disappeared. The recent violence in Charlottesville is a reminder that hate and fear don’t need many openings to cross from the shadows and into the mainstream. Once there, it is difficult to unroot.