It can happen here
I don't have a soother for you tonight. I have this instead, which is anything but soothing. It's from Jonathan Schwarz talking about a new film called "A Night at the Garden." The following is just an excerpt of his piece a accompanying the film. Be sure to click over for the rest of the story. It will haunt your dreams:
Curry’s film, watchable above, is just six minutes long, and is a tiny masterpiece. It should be taught in history and filmmaking courses, as well as in classes about human psychology.
On its surface, it’s simply about a rally held by the German-American Bund in February 1939 at the old Madison Square Garden at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street in Manhattan.
The Bund – meaning “federation” – never metastasized to any appreciable size. Estimates vary, but its dues-paying membership did not top 25,000. However, it was allied with the Christian Front, an organization inspired by the notorious anti-Semitic demagogue Father Charles Coughlin. Tens of millions of Americans tuned into Coughlin’s weekly radio show; one of his slogans was “Less care for internationalism and more concern for national prosperity.”
The Christian Front helped turn out a capacity crowd of almost 20,000 people. It’s particularly notable that this was possible in New York, then as now a symbol of liberalism, and suggests both organizations enjoyed significant passive local support far beyond those who attended.
The marquee outside reads that it is a “Pro American Rally” — to be followed the next day by the Rangers playing the Detroit Red Wings, and the day after that by Fordham facing Pittsburgh in college basketball. The night begins with marchers filing in with dozens of American flags and then standing before a huge backdrop of George Washington.
The main speaker is Fritz Kuhn, a naturalized German immigrant and head of the Bund. On the one hand, everything about him screams that he’s a buffoon and a grifter. He declares they are there “to demand that our government shall be returned to the American people who founded it” in a heavy accent that makes him sound exactly like Adolf Hilter. Even Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the U.S. found Kuhn embarrassing, once describing him as “stupid, noisy, and absurd.”
But on the other hand, no one in the Garden seems to notice or care. To the crowd’s delighted laughter, Kuhn speaks about how “the Jewish-controlled press” continually lies about him, depicting him as “a creature with horns, a cloven hoof, and a long tail.”
Then one man, 26-year-old Isadore Greenbaum, rushes the stage. Kuhn’s uniformed minions immediately seize and beat him. At some point, as the New York police grab Greenbaum and hustle him offstage, his pants are pulled down. Kuhn smirks, and the audience erupts in glee.
The movie ends with a soprano trilling the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
The next day the New York Times reported that the Bund had raised almost $8,500, the equivalent of about $150,000 now. Later that year Kuhn was convicted of embezzling all that and more — $250,000 in today’s money — from his devoted followers.
The Times article quotes leftist protesters claiming that they “were trampled by mounted police and brutally beaten by uniformed and plainclothes policemen” outside the Garden. A retired colonel complained that the costumes of many of the Bund men “would mislead the people” that they were “wearing a part of the United States uniform.”
Finally, the Times notes, the journalist Dorothy Thompson was present, and at one point was temporarily evicted for laughing. Years before, Thompson had been the Berlin bureau chief for the New York Post, and covered the rise of fascism before she was expelled from Germany in 1934. At the time of the Bund rally, she was married to Sinclair Lewis, who wrote “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Several years after the events of “A Night at the Garden,” Thompson contributed a famed article to Harper’s Magazine called “Who Goes Nazi?” In it she describes a “macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know.”
“Nazism,” Thompson said, “has nothing to do with race and nationality. It appeals to a certain type of mind. … The frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success — they would all go Nazi.”
Curry learned about the Bund rally six months ago from a friend writing a screenplay that takes place in 1939. At first, he says, he was incredulous, because he was sure that if there had been an enormous rally of American Nazis in the middle of New York City, “I definitely would have heard about that.”
But it had happened. It had simply dropped out of history. Curry found previous documentaries that used short snippets of film from that night, and engaged archival researcher Rich Remsberg to try to locate more.
Remsberg found footage scattered across the country, including at the National Archives and UCLA. There were two remarkable things about it. First, much of it was 35 mm, rather than the standard 16 or 8 mm for newsreels, so the images are surprisingly high-quality. Second, everything captured inside Madison Square Garden appears to have been shot by the Bund itself. The staging is done so skillfully it seems certain they had studied Nazi Germany’s cinematography.
Curry took the footage and used it to assemble a film that is crafty in the extreme. There are no talking head historians or narration to tell you what to feel. Instead, it leaves you with the space to decide how to feel about it for yourself.
Most notably, there is no mention of the present day United States. “Regular, nonpolitically minded Americans who watch it,” Curry hopes, “will become a tiny bit more aware of the way that, throughout history, demagogues [have] used sarcasm and humor and mob violence to whip up audiences that were otherwise decent people.”
In particular, he points to a pan of the roaring crowd after Greenbaum has been attacked and degraded: “You can see thousands of people who are in suits and dresses and hats who were probably nice to their neighbors.”