“In the years between the World Wars when National Socialism under Adolf Hitler was transforming Germany, a dedicated group of German-American citizens and expatriated German nationals were busy trying to foment at least some of the same changes occurring overseas into the United States. The most vocal of these groups was the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, also called the German American Volksbund, the German American Bund, or just the Bund for short” (Petrie, 1). These establishments were set up throughout all of the United States in an attempt to assimilate German culture into the United States after World War I.
The Beginning of the German-American Movement
This movement began as an organization known as “The Friends of New Germany.” Organizations were created to bring the German community together; however, the U.S government did not see it that way. “The Friends of New Germany… have been the most active center of Nazi activities in the United States. The Congressional Committee found ‘that it was for all practical purposes, if not in fact, the American section of the Nazi movement of Germany, designed to influence, if necessary and possible, our governmental policies’” (Foreign Affairs). Bunds were created after the dissolution of The Friends of New Germany, in order to help raise German children in a German environment as if they were back h0me and promote culture. In a way, these Bunds were like the Boy Scouts of today but for German children at the time and facilitated meetings with parents like the parent teacher meetings of today in order to begin the immersion of Nazi culture into the whole family.
The Nazi party never “officially” identified itself with the German American Bund. However, George Froboese (Bund Regional Leader) wrote, “He [Hitler] shook hands with each of us, looked straight in our eyes and placed his hand on the shoulder of our Bund leader…He asked us about our comrades of German blood across the sea, thanked us for our strong opposition to immoral press and its infamous lies, and inquired in detail about the future plans of our Bund and our excursion through Germany… The Fuhrer thanked us for the presentation of the book of testimonials and for the accompanying donation” (Petrie, 1).
The Bund was very committed to its German and American culture. At their meetings the stages would be decorated with large pictures of George Washington and the American Flag right next to the Nazi Swastika. “While the Bund announces its adherence to the American system of government and displays the American flag, there can be no doubt that it is a linear successor to the Friends. It has all the customary Nazi trimmings. Thus at one of its first meetings in the Schwabenhalle in Brooklyn on April 1, 1936, the hall was decorated with both swastikas and the American Flag, and patrolled by uniformed men of the Ordnungsdienst (“Service of the Order”), a body not unlike the Storm Troopers” (Foreign Affairs). The leader of the Bund at the time, Bundesführer Kuhn stated, “The aim of the German-American Bund is to unite all Germans and Americans in our country to a united front against Communism. We do show the Nazi emblem alongside of the American flag, with the biggest respect for Hitler and his movement in Germany, fighting the world’s madness, Communism” (Foreign Affairs).
Throughout the nation bunds were created and classified into different regions in order to keep track of them in accordance with other bunds. “The Bund was organized into three main regions, East, West, and Midwest, each with their own regional headquarters and a number of local branches scattered throughout the region. The Midwestern region was centered in Chicago, but had three local branches in Wisconsin, Kenosha, Sheboygan, and Milwaukee” (Canedy, America’s Nazis, 83).“The regional leader of the Bund in the Midwest was George Froboese, an active voice in Milwaukee since at least 1924 when he published an overview of Nationalist Socialist goals in Germany.” (Berninger, Dieter)
Camp Hinderburg was established in Grafton, Wisconsin just outside of Milwaukee. A large percentage of the Wisconsin population at the time was of German descent so this camp was popular to many families. This camp like many was a part of the American German Bund and supported the German ideology at the time. “In its first year, it served a total of 103 boys from Milwaukee and Chicago with the intention of functioning similar to a youth camp in Germany with German being spoken on the premises. Despite some similarities, the Bund was careful to highlight certain distinctions in an attempt to avoid conflicts. First of all, the camp denied that it was some sort of military camp and stressed that the inspections, flag raisings, and limited marching taking place at the camp could not be considered as such and there simply was an emphasis on athletics as a cornerstone of their routine.” (Petrie, 9)
“At these camps, children dressed in Nazi uniforms and drilled military-style, with marching, inspections, and flag-raising ceremonies. Although the Bund denied it, children were taught Nazi ideology” (The Bund). “Hitler is the friend of Germans everywhere,” one girl in a Nazi youth camp remembered being told, “and just as Christ wanted little children to come to him, Hitler wants German children to revere him.” This goes to show how the children were immersed and convinced in the German Nazi ideology. The adults who sent their children here also had frequent meetings while their children were at these camps training. They would hold picnics and rallies and talk about more of the political ideology and purpose of the camps.
The Bund Conflict and Investigation
Right from the start of the establishment, Camp Hindenburg faced many challenges from the community. The challenges ranged from peaceful protests, to violent actions, law cases, and FBI investigations.
The media played a big role in the way society around the bund reacted to its placement in Grafton. The bund thought it would be good to use the media as a way to reach out to the community in order to gain a better reputation and potentially more followers. However, the use of media comes with the fall back and backlash from listeners. As stated before the bund never officially stated that it was a part of Hitler’s Plan but rather just a means to bring Germans together in a community based on their heritage. That however did not stop the media from saying that the bund was militaristic, anti-American, or even Nazi sympathizers which created tension with the people who heard these stories.
The Bund was not only facing problems from the media and community but also from other German organizations who did not side with the bund. The main opposition was called the Federation of German-American Societies, which was founded in 1932, “it was a local organization without any affiliation outside of the regional area unlike the nationally connected Bund. Furthermore, it was composed out of a conglomeration of around seventy to ninety separate societies all working together for a few more generalized objectives including the promotion of the German language both in and out of schools and a youth program” (Petrie, 12). Since both of these organization basically served the same purpose they opposed each other. It was even said that the Federation of German-American Societies, was the group that bought out the land that Camp Hindenburg was located on and forced Camp Hindenburg to move to a new location. The Federation of German-American Societies then started a camp on the land they bought and called it Camp Carl Schurz forcing Camp Hindenburg to relocate about a mile down the road. This began a rivalry between the two camps competing for the best parades or most followers.
As World War II tensions grew higher, resentment grew towards these Bunds and soon protests began at the rallies were held in an effort to shut down these camps that were created. The Government began to take a closer look at these Bunds that had been established across the nation and monitored them closely. Once war was officially declared, it was made illegal to be a Nazi in the United States. Although the Bund continued to say it was adhering to the American way, the press took hold of these new findings and doing what it could to promote resentment towards these organizations. The Chicago Tribune did an article saying that witnesses say that Hitler ruled the Bund. Gissibl (witness and former bund unit leader) stated “All bund meetings would start with the German national song, like the ‘Horst Wessel.’ Then there would be a marching, followed by a Sig Heil for our movement, for the Fuehrer, and for the United States of America” (Chicago Tribune). Gissbl testified in a court case against nine bundists in a denaturalization trial. The government contended that membership in the bund is sufficient cause to cancel naturalization citizenship. Articles all over the United States called for action against these German-American installments because of the culture and values they were promoting.
Camp Hindenburg was also looked into by the United States government. In total the FBI released over 16,000 total pages of reports that were related to the activities of the bunds across the nation and the people involved. “Included in the papers of former FBI agent Kenneth Walker, who was tasked with investigating the Bund and later prosecuting certain members, is a number of documents that attest to the fact the FBI was spying, or at the very least taking stock of, the Milwaukee Bund. The photographs in this collection include a picture of a Bund meeting on May 27, 1939 as well as a march by the Bund the following day at Camp Hindenburg” (Petrie, 17). The Milwaukee Police Department even became tasked with looking into the meetings that the bund was holding. They had their own set of reports made out about the extent of the meetings that took place and the content that was discussed.
Across the nation, German-American bund members began to be arrested and questioned in order to find out what was truly happening in the camps. Although never deemed an extreme threat to the American Government, it was reported that, “the Nazis in the United States engage frequently in semi-military activities… for the most generous estimates give the American Nazis 4,700 Storm Troopers” (Foreign Affairs). The FBI raided camps and seized incriminating material shutting down each camp that was set up throughout the states.
The downfall of the bunds across the nation were due to the many scandals that broke out related to the operation of the bunds and the people involved. In Milwaukee, twenty-five of the bund members were put on trial for denaturalization, and some of these cases even made it as far as the Federal District Court. The bunds around the nation were slowly brought down and torn apart by the American people due to the war and the fact that the bunds were promoting the Nazi’s.
The creation of the German-American Bunds across the nation began as a movement to help naturalize Germans to America while keeping some of the same traditions and values as would be seen in Germany. With the beginning of the National Socialism movement and soon the impact of World War Two on the country the German-American Bund began to experience issues and backlash from the American citizens. The Bund made a prominent effort to survive through all of these challenges but ultimately succumbed to the issue that supporting a varying opinion of culture in America in a time of war, especially when that culture is the one taught by the enemy of the United States, would not survive the ideals for the American citizen force against the Germans.
- Hanighen, Frank C. “Foreign Political Movements in the United States.” Oct 1937.
- Griffin, Eugene. “HITLER RULED AMERICAN BUND, WITNESS SAYS: Open Move to Cancel Citizenship of Nine.” Chicago Daily Tribune. (1923-1963), 11 May 1943
- “Youth Rally on Sunday at Camp Hindenburg,” Milwaukee Journal, August 23, 1939.
- “Bund was a Foe of America, Duffy Finds in Citizen Cases,” Milwaukee Journal, May 25, 1944.
- “Paul Knauer Goes Home,” Milwaukee Journal, July 10, 1948.
- “Exiled as Pro-Nazi, Paul Knauer Back,” Milwaukee Journal, August 16, 1957
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. Freedom of Information/ Privacy Acts Release: German American Bund, 1939-1941.
- Canedy, Susan. “America’s Nazis: A Democratic Dilemma, A History of the German American Bund.” Menlo Park, CA: Markgraf Publications Group, 1990.
- Van Ells, Mark D. ” Americans for Hitler – The Bund.” America in WWII Magazine. 310 Publishing, Aug. 2007.
- Petrie, Stephen L.R. “Nazis among the Cedars: The Inability of the German American Bund to Find Acceptance in Pre-War Milwaukee.”
- Dvorsky, George. “There Were American Nazi Summer Camps Across the US in the 1930s.” Gizmodo. N.p., 19 Nov. 2015.
- Berninger, Dieter. “Milwaukee’s German-American Community and the Nazi Challenge of the 1930’s.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History. Vol. 71, No. 2. Wisconsin Historical Society. 1987.
- American Bund Camp:Nazi Youth Salute Hindenburg 1934. Digital image.
For Further Reading
- Wikipedia entry on the German American Bund