Clocking in at a concise 7 minutes and 6 seconds, including credits, A Night at the Garden is a compilation of pristine newsreel footage documenting a not-quite-forgotten moment in American history: the night of Feb. 20, 1939, which Americans at the time would have recognized as two days before George Washington’s birthday, when the German American Bund filled Madison Square Garden for a Nazi-themed party. Recently nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary short subject, the film is a minimalist exercise in archival retrieval: no voice-over narration, no talking heads, no digital eye candy, just the discreetly edited newsreel footage. Producer-director-editor Marshall Curry adopts a spare, bare-bones approach that permits what unspools on screen to speak, more or less, for itself.
Establishing shots on the streets outside the garden and close-ups of the period marquee advertise the evening’s entertainment, which is billed under an unassailable come-on, “Pro American rally,” below which are notices of upcoming hockey and basketball games. Police on horseback move among an unruly crowd of anti-Nazi activists, a glimpse into an age when even angry men at a street protest came dressed in suit, tie, and hat. The night-for-night exterior shots are gorgeous, a kind of flash forward to postwar urban film noir.
Inside, the show is just getting underway. The ritual and pageantry that the Nazis are justly famous for has crossed the Atlantic intact. Fetching mädchen in uniform parade down the aisles of the floor seats. An honor guard of homegrown storm troopers marches in lockstep up onto the stage, hitting their marks with martial precision. Dominating the set design, positioned dead center back of the stage, is a huge banner with a 30-foot-tall, head-to-toe portrait of George Washington, flanked by U.S. flags and Nazi swastikas.
So far, the newsreel footage has been accompanied only by the subliminally spooky musical score by James Baxter. The original soundtrack kicks in as a German-accented voice recites the Pledge of Allegiance. (The omission of the “under God” is not a Bund deletion; the phrase was not added to the pledge until 1954.) From a panoramic vantage in the nosebleed seats, a camera scans the arena, which is packed to the rafters with cheering, homegrown Nazis.
Fritz Kuhn, Bund leader and wannabe American fuehrer, walks to the podium; the crowd responds with upraised right arms. Kuhn opens with a bit of oily self-deprecation. Though his English articulation is perfectly clear, his words are written on the screen for emphasis. “You all have heard of me, through the Jewish-controlled press, as a creature with horns, a cloven hoof, and a long tail,” he joshes. The crowd laughs on cue, well aware that the satanic imagery is the legacy of centuries of European anti-Semitism and, more recently, the stuff of Der Stürmer caricatures.
Kuhn calls for a “white, gentile-ruled United States” and “gentile-controlled labor unions free from Jewish Moscow-directed domination,” but just as he warms to his themes, he is distracted by a disturbance to his right. A man has dashed onto the stage, seemingly to attack Kuhn with his bare hands. Before the attacker can reach his target, he is pounced on by Bund security—the so-called Order Division, the Bund’s equivalent of the SS—who surround and pummel him.
A phalanx of New York policemen rushes in from the floor to restore order and rescue the assailant. As they drag the man off the stage, we see that his clothes are in tatters and his pants have torn, exposing his bare legs and boxer shorts. In his only overt manipulation of the archival footage, director Curry slows down the motion and telescopes in to highlight the fear and anguish on the man’s face. On stage, buzzed by the excitement, an adolescent paramilitarist writhes in agitated delight. At the podium, Kuhn grins, unfazed, smug.
After the centerpiece action sequence, the film wraps up quickly. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung by a not-bad, not-blond soprano named Margarette Rittershaus, with live music from an orchestra in the pit. The balcony camera gives a final overview of the packed arena. By serendipity, one assumes, the shadow of an upraised arm slices into the motion picture frame from the left, creating a perfect metaphor for the shadow of Nazism looming over the all-American space that is Madison Square Garden.
The stark coda, printed in white on a black background, telegraphs the takeaway:
20,000 Americans gathered in Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939.
At the same time, in Europe, Hitler was finishing construction of his sixth concentration camp.
Seven months later, the Nazi army invaded Poland, triggering the bloodiest war in history.
A Night at the Garden plays like a message from a time capsule sent forward by a distant epoch, at once a rediscovery of erased history and a past-is-prologue warning to the present. “The footage is so powerful, it seems amazing that it isn’t a stock part of every high school history class,” says filmmaker Curry. “But I think the rally has slipped out of our collective memory in part because it’s scary and embarrassing.” After the events in Charlottesville, Curry decided it was time to put the pictures back into the collective memory.
Fair enough—but the absence of contextual wraparound, historical and cinematic, can obscure the full story behind what a laconic account in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle called “the liveliest six hours Madison Square Garden has known in recent years.”
A textbook example of a fifth column, the German American Bund was perhaps the best known of the troglodyte nativist groups sprung up in the soil of the Great Depression—kindred spirits being the Silver Shirts, the Black Legion, and, of course, the Ku Klux Klan. Founded in 1935, the Bund had the advantage of a vital nation-state model in Europe and financial subvention from its inspiration. Both its subversive political strategy (drape Nazism in American dress for domestic consumption) and propaganda campaign (wallpaper the streets with anti-Semitic leaflets smuggled off German liners landing at ports in New York and Los Angeles) came directly from Berlin.
The ranks of the Bund were filled mainly by first- and second-generation German Americans. The number of true believers on the rolls—how many paid dues and wore uniforms and how many were sympathetic fellow travelers—is hard to gauge. In 1937, when interrogated by the FBI, Kuhn initially insisted the Bund had 200,000 active members, an absurdly inflated figure. Later he confessed that total membership was a mere 8,229. In April 1939, estimates included in an FBI report made public by the Department of Justice placed the number of bundists, however defined, at between 15,000 and 20,000. The online Holocaust Encyclopedia of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum places the number at 25,000.
The full text of Kuhn’s speech at the garden gives a fair reading of the Bund’s animating agenda—to end the threat to “Christian America” posed by an unholy alliance of Jews, Communists, and New Dealers. “We must defy those who turned this country into a Bolshevik paradise,” Kuhn declared. The country was truly “in a deplorable state” when the Jewish Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau “takes the place of an Alexander Hamilton and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the place of Washington.” Also singled out for un-American activities were Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, financier and presidential advisor Bernard M. Baruch, and lawyer and Zionist Samuel Untermyer, all blood brothers in the same nefarious tribe. The closing ceremonies featured a salute to the swastika and a stirring rendition of “The Horst Wessel Song,” the unofficial Nazi national anthem.
As the snippets Curry shows from outside the garden illustrate, the Nazi rally in the heart of New York did not go unopposed by the locals. The Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party, never to be confused with the Stalinist Communist Party USA, rallied its troops for a massive counterprotest. Waving signs saying “Smash Anti-Semitism” and “Drive the Nazis Out of New York,” activists flooded the streets outside the garden. “An imposing, fighting demonstration of 50,000 workers assembled near Madison Square Garden on Monday evening to protest the first big fascist mobilization in New York City,” boasted the Socialist Appeal, the party newspaper, lauding a mass movement that “far exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic.”
Anticipating trouble, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia dispatched a force of 1,700 police officers to keep order. As usual, the cops were caught in the middle; the ensuing scuffles resulted in 13 arrests and a few cracked heads, a police action characterized by the Socialist Appeal as a “brutality recalling the days of Czarist Cossacks.”
In fact, were it not for the quick action of La Guardia’s “Cossacks,” there might have been a fatality—the man who jumped on stage to assault Kuhn. The attacker was one Isadore Greenbaum, an unemployed plumber from Brooklyn. “I’m no communist!” he yelled as the cops dragged him off stage, an exclamation not picked up by the newsreel microphones.
Later that night, Greenbaum was hauled before a New York magistrate who berated him for trying to deny the Bund its freedom of speech—and risking an eruption of lethal violence. “I did not go there with the intention of interrupting,” Greenbaum explained. “But when they were attacking the Jews—and so many Jews are being persecuted—I couldn’t stand it any longer. I lost my head. It was an honest mistake.” Greenbaum walked free after supporters paid his fine of $25 for disorderly conduct.
In Berlin, the original Nazis condemned the attempted assault on Kuhn as another sinister instance of Jewish terrorism, likening it to the assassination the previous November of Ernst vom Rath, third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, the incident that served as a pretext for Kristallnacht. “The Jewish lust for murder always concentrates upon the Germans,” lamented the Nazi mouthpiece Der Angriff.
The Bund’s night at the garden was interrupted by another incident, unfortunately not captured by the motion picture cameras. Standing below the stage in the press section, covering the rally for the New York Evening Journal, was the liberal columnist Dorothy Thompson, a fierce and early opponent of Nazism. In her 1932 book I Saw Hitler! she had sized up her subject as an insecure poseur, “the very prototype of the little man.” Two years later, she was honored to be the first American journalist expelled from Nazi Germany.
As Bundsman after Bundsman took to the podium and assumed the mantle of true Americanism, Thompson could no longer contain her contempt (she probably didn’t try very hard) and burst into laughter. Insulted storm troopers had the police eject her from the hall, though she was allowed back in later. Thompson issued a statement asserting her “constitutional right to laugh at ridiculous statements in the public hall” and explained that she laughed because “these Nazis were exercising the free speech which one day they would deny everyone.” She believed Americans were “plain saps” to permit the Bund to hold rallies—much less to have the New York police protect the speakers. Mayor La Guardia disagreed. Allowing the Bund its freedom of assembly, and even providing police protection, he argued, was an instructive “contrast between the way we do things here and the way they do things there.”
Curry—and we—would have no filmed record of that night at the garden were it not for the sharp focus of the newsreel cameramen who took the original footage. During the classical Hollywood era, five newsreel outfits practiced the still embryonic art of screen journalism: Fox Movietone, Universal Newsreel, Paramount News, RKO-Pathé News, and News of the Day, which was distributed by MGM and owned by media mogul William Randolph Hearst.
Issued twice weekly, running eight to 10 minutes in length, newsreels played at the top of what motion picture exhibitors called “the balanced program”—the menu of cartoons, travelogues, and comedy shots that served as appetizers for Hollywood features. Curry and his ace archival researcher, Rich Remsberg, culled the source footage from the National Archives; two commercial services, the Grinberg Film Library and Streamline Films; and the Hearst vaults at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Interestingly, Hearst’s News of the Day covered the rally, and saved the footage, but did not, in the end, include the story in its regular newsreel issues. Of the five newsreel companies, only Pathé released an issue that included the Bund rally.
Curry bemoans the fact the Bund rally slipped away from motion picture memory, but in truth the images were never really a part of it. According to Daily Variety, Pathé deemed the newsreel segment on the Bund “too inflammatory” and, after a couple of days in release, withdrew it from circulation.
“The shots we took presented only a partial picture of the Bund meeting,” Pathé explained in an official statement. “We didn’t want to present anything that would in any way assist the Bund or give it any favorable publicity.”
Actually, they didn’t want to present anything that would in any way disturb an atmosphere conducive to happy movie-going. By 1939, especially in New York—at least outside of the German enclave of Yorkville—boos, hisses, and catcalls greeted any images of Hitler and his henchmen projected on the newsreel screen. Motion picture exhibitors, who always dreaded any heated outburst that might lead to fisticuffs, preferred to keep incendiary images of Nazism off the screen to prevent “violent reactions from theater patrons.” In excavating the Bund footage, Curry makes visible in 2019 an event that almost no one in 1939 saw.
For Fritz Kuhn, the Bund rally at Madison Square Garden was the zenith of a career that crashed quickly to earth. A former German machine gunner in the Great War, who falsely claimed to have marched as an alte Kämpfer with Hitler in the abortive Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, Kuhn came to America in 1926 and found employment as a chemist with the Ford Motor Company, which makes a certain kind of sense. In 1935, he found his calling as Nazi missionary in America. After the outbreak of war in Europe, American law enforcement conspired to shut him down. In November 1939, he was convicted of larceny and embezzlement (of Bund funds) and sentenced from three to five years in prison. Upon conviction, he “marched off to the Tombs with the stoical attitude of a good German soldier,” as The New York Times enjoyed reporting. In 1945, he was deported to Germany where, in 1951, he died in such obscurity that his death was not reported, or noticed, in the American press until 1953.
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Thomas Doherty, a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, is the author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 and Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century.