The History of American National Socialism – Part III: Critical Assessment of the Pre-War Movement
The first period of development of American National Socialism came to an end with the entry of the United States into the Second World War.
By Martin Kerr
Although some tiny remnants of the pre-War movement continued on through the War years and into the post-War period, for all practical purposes, the attack on Pearl Harbor by Germany’s Japanese ally put an end to the American movement as a force on the political scene. A great divide separates pre-War National Socialism from its post-War counterpart. Therefore, before resuming a chronological account of NS development, it is appropriate to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the pre-War movement, its successes and failures.
With the benefit of 80 years of historical perspective, we can say that there were two optimal strategies that the Movement could have pursued in the pre-War period.
I. American National Socialists could have dedicated themselves to supporting National Socialist Germany by adopting a low profile, and working to weaken the economic boycott against the Reich, and by fostering German-American friendship. Those who wanted to play a more active role in building National Socialism could have relocated to Germany. This strategic role for the Movement is the one favored by Adolf Hitler.
II. Alternately, American comrades could have focused their resources and energy in building an authentic American NS movement, rooted in the broad masses of White America, that would have been separate from, but allied to, the Hitler movement in Germany. This is the course favored by Peter Stahrenberg of the American National-Socialist Party, and a small segment of the American movement.
But neither of these two strategies were pursued in a focused manner. Instead, American National Socialists, who were overwhelmingly German in ethnic or national origin, chose to support the German-American Bund. The Bund’s strategy (to the degree that it had any grand strategy) was to serve as a home for Germans in exile from their fatherland. It imitated the NSDAP in every way it could, and conducted no outreach to non-German-American Whites. It dressed its members in stormtrooper uniforms and attempted to reenact the German NS kampfzeit on American soil. Its public activities included marches and meetings, which often ended in brawls with Jewish and Marxist opponents. Such battles were then reported in newspapers, magazines and newsreels.
Although the coverage was always negative, the media gave an exaggerated portrayal of the Bund’s strength, implying that it posed a real threat to American democracy. Perhaps this publicity was in some way psychologically and emotionally fulfilling to ordinary Bund members. But if it pleased the Bund, it was a black eye to Hitler, who was trying to convince America and Western Europe that the New Germany was not the menace it enemies claimed it was.
Other Bund activities were low key and internal, such as those that strengthened the folk identity of German-Americans through an emphasis on German language and custom. But in the long run, these activities did not contribute to establishing National Socialism as a native movement on the shores of the New World.
From hindsight we can judge that the pre-War movement was a strategic failure in every sense. In failed to provide substantial aid to National Socialist Germany, and it undercut Hitler’s efforts to have normal diplomatic and economic relations with the US. Rather than building support for National Socialism among White Americans, it played into the Jews’ false narrative: Hitler was a dangerous, evil mastermind, and the “Bundists” were his willing goons and thugs. The Bund’s image convinced ordinary citizens that Hitler harbored sinister and aggressive designs on the US, and that the Bund itself constituted a “fifth column” that would aid the German military in the conquest of America in the event of an invasion. No concerted effort was made to explain National Socialism – either as a worldview or a political-economic system – to the American public.
In consequence, ordinary White Americans believed the lie that Hitler posed a threat to their lives and liberties. Little wonder that George Lincoln Rockwell dropped out of college in the months prior to Pearl Harbor, so that he could join the US Navy and help “stop Hitler” from conquering America!
Following the War, the tattered and beleaguered remnants of the pre-War movement tentatively came together to resume the struggle. But there were no Bund members among them. Of the 25,000 or so members that the Bund had at its height, none chose to actively resume the fight when the War was done. In the 1960s, Lincoln Rockwell waited in vain for a mass influx of former Bund members, whom he hoped would provide an initial membership base for his nascent NS party. I, personally, knew a half-dozen or so members of the original German Hitler Youth who joined the National Socialist White People’s Party and took part in its demonstrations in the 1970s, but I never met a single former member of the Bund’s Order Division or its youth organization who did so. August Klapprott, his family, and a handful of his comrades provided behind-the-scenes advice and moral support to the NSWPP. I am told that former Bund members also provided the initial impetus to the formation of Gerhard Lauck’s NSDAP-AO. But beyond that, the Bund failed to provide leadership, direction or even a meager physical presence to the post-War movement.
Tragically, this failure was not foreordained, but largely was result of the moral shortcomings of two key Movement leaders, Heinz Spanknoebel and Fritz Kuhn
THE MORAL FAILINGS OF SPANKNOEBEL AND KUHN
The three leading figures in pre-War American National Socialism were Fritz Gissibl, Heinz Spanknoebel and Fritiz Kuhn. Spanknoebel and Kuhn were cut from the same cloth: both men were energetic and intelligent, with strong personalities and a flair for the dramatic. The two were sincerely dedicated to building National Socialism in the US, but only on the condition that National Socialism itself was subordinate to their own personal agendas. While they demanded to obedience from their followers in the name of Adolf Hitler, they themselves were not loyal to Hitler in an absolute sense.
Both Spanknoebel (as the leader of Gau-USA) and Kuhn (as Bundesleiter) falsely told their followers that they had a mandate from the Hitler to lead the American movement. While they were misrepresenting themselves to their followers as being the executors of the Fuehrer’s instructions, they were charting a course for the Movement that they knew contravened the Hitler’s express wishes. Simply put, they thought that they knew better than the Fuehrer, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Their ultimate loyalty was not to Hitler, but to their own egos.
In the end, Spanknoebel came to heel, and voluntarily subordinated himself to the will of the Fuehrer. His wartime service in the SS and eventual death in a Soviet gulag largely expiates his earlier hubris. But even so, the damage that he did to American National Socialism proved irreversible.
Kuhn, for his part, picked up where Spanknoebel left off, charting a course for the Bund that negated its domestic potential and made it a parody of the NSDAP. As with Spanknoebel, even in the face of direct criticism from the German movement, Kuhn willfully pursued a course of development that he found personally gratifying, but which was a dead end for National Socialism in the New World.
Kuhn’s decision to cheat on his wife with a mistress, whom he then supported with Movement funds, further underscores his fundamental flaw: when a conflict arose between what was best for the Bund, and what Kuhn believed to be in his personal interests, he followed the dictates of his ego.
In contrast to Spanknoebel and Kuhn is Fritz Gissbl, founder of Teutonia and briefly leader of the Friends of the New Germany. Gissibl was quiet and unassuming compared to the other two men. But though he lacked their flair, he was 100 percent loyal to Hitler, not just in word, but in deed as well. He carried out the directives that he received from the NSDAP in leading the American movement as well as he could. In 1936 he returned to Germany, where he worked with Deutsches Auslands Institut in encouraging other expatriate Germans to return to the Fatherland. When the War came, he joined the SS, rising to the rank of Obersturmbannfuehrer. His ultimate fate is uncertain, some sources saying that he perished on the Eastern Front in 1944, while other claim that he survived the War and was imprisoned for 18 months in a Soviet “denazification” concentration camp. Either way, it is clear that the Bund would have pursued a different course of development if he had been the Bundesleiter – a course that would been in keeping with Hitler’s will.
A CHINK IN OUR ARMOR
The failings of Spanknoebel and Kuhn point out a weakness in National Socialist doctrine that needs to be addressed. Under the leadership principle, a person in position of authority has both the absolute authority and the concomitant absolute responsibility in carrying out the job assigned to him. Someone who fails in successfully executing his mission is subject to removal from office. But what happens when that person is the supreme leader? Who removes him then? In the case of the pre-War American movement, there was no mechanism in place to remove a national leader who placed his own subjective desires above the objective good of the cause. Indeed, in the absence of any oversight, it is not clear whether the senior leadership of the FND or the Bund were even aware that Spanknoebel and Kuhn were disobeying the instructions given to them by the NSDAP.
Although the pre-War movement was a strategic failure in building National Socialism in America, it enjoyed success on a tactical or operational level on several fronts.
We have previously noted that the Bund established a nationwide organizational structure that included 163 local chapters in 47 of the 48 states. It had 18 summer youth camps, and facilities that provided for Bund members to live in a National Socialist community year-round if they desired. There was a weekly bilingual newspaper and other publications. In the 1930s, America had a population of roughly 100 million – less than a third of what it has today. Thus, the Bund membership of 25,000 would be 75,000 in today’s terms. The 3,000 men of its Order Division would be 9,000 strong. Especially impressive was the Bund’s success in organizing its local chapters as folk communities, which included cultural, social and youth activities. There was a place in the Bund for women, children, veterans and the elderly – not just for military-age males.
AUGUST KLAPPROTT’S CRITIQUE
In the 1970s, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity on two occasions to speak privately at length with August Klapprott concerning the Bund. Klappott’s credentials were impressive: leader of the Bund in the eastern third of the US; editor of the Free American; proprietor of the largest Bund camp – Nordland – in New Jersey; and head of security at the mammoth Madison Square Garden rally. In the final months before the entry of the US into World War II, Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, who had succeeded Fritz Kuhn as leader of the group, quietly drifted away, allowing his erstwhile comrades to fend for themselves. It was August Klapprott who stepped in and helped to lead the Bund during its final days.
I asked him what he thought were the greatest successes and failing of his movement. It is interesting to note that he refused to criticize Kuhn by name, even 30 years later: such was his sense of personal loyalty to his former leader. But although he did not criticize Kuhn by name, he was not slow in criticizing his policies.
Klapprott said that, in retrospect, the uniformed marches and street battles with communists were counterproductive. At the time they took place, however, he said, this was not so clear. The Bund had the legal right to conduct its public activities and to defend itself when physically attacked. The bad reputation that this brought to the Bund was unavoidable, he said, as the Jews controlled the media and would have painted the Bund in a bad light, no matter what its activities were.
He told me that, realistically speaking, the Bund did the best that it could under difficult circumstances. Even if it had forgone activities that brought it negative publicity, and concentrated on a low-profile support of Hitler’s Germany, the outcome would have been the same: the Japanese would still have attacked Pearl Harbor, and four days later Hitler would still have declared war on the US.
I found another critique by Klapprott especially surprising. Although he had organized Camp Nordland, the most successful of the Bund’s facilities, he said that the underlying premise of the Bund’s camps was flawed. The Bund sank every available dollar into purchasing the land for the camps. Consequently, the Bund was always strapped for cash. When the time came for it to defend itself from legal attacks by the government, sufficient funds were not at hand for a full-scale legal defense. And in the end, the government just seized the Bund’s properties anyway, so that that the financial investment that the camps represented was lost without benefiting the Movement.
The Bund maintained four camps in the state of Michigan alone, for example. It would have been better, he said, for the Bund to have had fewer but larger camps, and to have rented the land. That way, money could have been set aside to fend off federal attacks.
I asked him for his opinion of non-Bund NS groups, such as Peter Stahrenberg’s American National-Socialist Party, that sought to build an authentically American NS movement. Klapprott was scornful of such efforts, saying that they drained manpower and resources from the Bund, and in the end amounted to nothing. On this point I must disagree with comrade Klapprott, for if this course of action had been followed from the beginning, it is possible that the movement could have survived the War intact in some form.
Regardless of the personal failings of its leaders, and despite the strategic blunders that rendered it ineffective in building National Socialism in America in the long run, there is something positive to learn from the Bund’s history. The lesson of the Bund is this: It is possible to build a functioning National Socialist movement in the United States, even in the face of aggressive semi-legal persecution by the federal government and the open hostility of the media, the Jews and other committed anti-NS forces.
The America of 2017 is not the America of 1937, and today’s NS movement would have to adapt itself accordingly. But it could be done.