The History of American National Socialism – Part I: 1924-1936
In order to chart a course for American National Socialism into the future, we must know where we stand today. And to have an accurate understanding of our present position we need to know where we came from.
By Martin Kerr
It is the goal of this series of articles to provide an outline of the history of the Movement in the United States. But we are not interested here in a simple timeline recitation of names and dates. Rather, we wish to provide a framework for a critical analysis of NS development. A hagiographical account, in which every event and decision is presented as being necessary and perfect, will not accomplish our purpose. Instead, we must be willing to ruthlessly examine the mistakes that were made as well as congratulating ourselves on the modest successes of our struggle. For only in recognizing where things have gone wrong can we hope to correct any missteps we have made.
Although any telling of our story will inevitably highlight the Movement’s leaders, we need to also keep in mind the countless thousands of rank-and-file members and supporters: the nameless street activists who time and again risked life and limb for the cause; the women comrades who labored behind the scenes in an often thankless support capacity; the financial benefactors who provided the economic wherewithal that financed our efforts; and the silent aid rendered to us by sympathizers whose employment situation or family obligations prevented them from openly proclaiming their National Socialist faith. If the well-known names of our leaders have provided the head of the Movement, these unknown and unheralded comrades have provided its body.
THE MOVEMENT’S BEGINNINGS: TEUTONIA
The earliest manifestation of organized National Socialism in the US dates back to the early 1920s. Various private associations – clubs, really – sprang up in cities with a high concentration of German nationals, many whom were newly arrived since the end of the First World War. Following the unsuccessful National Socialist revolt in Munich in November of 1923, a number of members of the Hitler movement emigrated from Germany to the US. Little clusters of like-minded men gradually found each other in the tightly knit German communities of cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and New York. These little groups were formed mainly for social reasons, and none of them amounted to much – and, indeed, expansion and recruitment were not really on their agenda.
One of these little groups was known as the American National-Socialist League, but like the others, it faded away almost as soon as it had arisen, and vanished without a trace. The first serious attempt at building National Socialism on these shores was the “Free Association of Teutonia.” It was founded in October of 1924 in Chicago by 21-year-old Fritz Gissibl and his brothers Peter and Andrew. Joining with them in the enterprise was 19-year-old Walter Kappe, who edited Teutonia’s small German-language newspaper Vorposten (“Picket”). That the group even had a publication, as modest as it was, placed it head-and-shoulders above earlier NS efforts. Teutonia quickly obtained a headquarters for itself by leasing a room in Chicago’s Reichshalle.
An early recruit to the group was Joseph “Sepp” Schuster. He had been a member the Sturmabteilung in Munich, and had participated in the fateful march that had ended so tragically. Schuster organized Teutonia’s equivalent of the SA. It was named the Ordnungsdienst, or “Order Service” in English. Eventually, the OD wore uniforms patterned on those of the SA, with similar insignia. No doubt at the time forming a uniformed paramilitary formation that copied the German model seemed normal and organic. But in hindsight it proved to be an unfortunate development, from which the Movement still has not recovered today, for it set a precedent that every subsequent NS group has followed – often to the Movement’s detriment, as we will discuss later.
Although it forthrightly supported the NSDAP in Germany – which was a political party – Teutonia itself was not political or outward-looking in any way. Rather, it limited itself to quietly building support for National Socialism among the sizeable German-American community. Semi-public meetings were held every two weeks, and the proceeds from the meetings were used to fund German cultural activities. On one occasion, at least, Teutonia used an airplane to drop leaflets. But its newspaper and other printed material were in German, and there was no thought of recruiting non-Germans, nor of expanding the group in a political sense beyond the German community.
In all, Teutonia only had 400 or 500 members. Most were in the Chicago area, but there were small local chapters in other cities throughout the Upper Midwest.
HEINZ SPANKNOEBEL AND GAU-USA
Another key figure in the establishment of American National Socialism was Heinz Spanknoebel. Although virtually unknown today, he played a pivotal role in the first decade of the Movement. Spanknoebel was a man of strong personality. Like all of us, he had human weaknesses and shortcomings. But these were more than offset by his strengths. One of these strengths was his insight into the true nature of National Socialism.
In the late 1920s, the NSDAP was a struggling fringe movement in German politics, and although it had small chapters throughout the Reich, in practical terms it was largely limited to Bavaria. Hitler himself was considered a Bavarian firebrand, and not a national political leader. But already at this time, Spanknoebel recognized the fundamental, world-changing character of the NS worldview, and he recognized Hitler not just as the leader of a small extremist party, but rather as world-historical figure of the first order. He envisioned a future in which National Socialism controlled the entire Earth, with a National Socialist Germany dominating the eastern hemisphere and a National Socialist America dominating the western hemisphere. In his vision, Hitler would rule one half of the world, and he, Spanknoebel, would rule the other half.
And here we encounter Spanknoebel’s first shortcoming: he had a greatly exaggerated sense of his own importance and capabilities. But although we may today smile at his presumption to be Hitler’s equal, that should not detract from his realization that National Socialism was far more than just a vehicle to rectify the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles.
Like Gissibl and Schuster, Spanknoebel was a German National Socialist who had taken up residence in the US. He investigated Teutonia and decided that although it was well-intentioned, something on a grander scale was needed to create the NS America he envisioned.
Through the end of the 1920s, the NSDAP was a tiny party on the margins of the German political scene. In the 1928 national elections, the party won a scant 2.6 percent of the vote. It struggled just to survive in Germany, and had no resources for and no desire in establishing a functioning bridgehead in the US. It was distantly aware of the efforts of Gissibl and Teutonia on its behalf, as they occasionally sent modest contributions to the party’s Munich headquarters, but there was no official recognition of Teutonia as an NSDAP affiliate.
However, the 1930 election changed the party’s status. It went from being a fringe movement to the second-largest party in the Reichstag overnight. Spanknoebel decided that to was time for him to act. He journeyed to Munich, and sought out an audience with the NSDAP. He asked for permission to form an official branch of the NSDAP in the US. The details of the meeting have been lost to history. Did he explain his plan to divide the world between Hitler and himself? Who knows? But the result was that the party denied his request: there was to be no NSDAP chapter in America.
Undeterred, Spanknoebel returned to the US and dishonestly announced that he had, in fact, been given authorization to form an American unit of the Hitler movement. In April of 1931 he formed his group, which he called Gau-USA. Its headquarters was in New York City, which had a huge population of both German immigrants and multigenerational German-Americans.
Gau-USA and Teutonia existed as competing NS organizations until sometime in 1932. Gissibl, under the impression that Spanknoebel had official recognition from the NSDAP, voluntarily dissolved Teutonia and merged it with Gau-USA. Teutonia’s local chapters became chapters of Gau-USA, and its Order Division was absorbed intact into Spanknoebel’s group, with Sepp Schuster still at its head.
Gau-USA had a higher public profile than Teutonia, with a greater media presence. At the same time, more attention was being paid in the press to the Hitler movement in Germany, which had become a force to be reckoned with.
Following the party’s ascension to power in January 1933, a letter was sent by Rudolf Hess to Spanknoebel, asking him to stop falsely representing himself as the US leader of the NSDAP. It further requested that he cease operations and disband his group. In April 1933, after Spanknoebel ignored the letter, a second, more forcefully-worded letter was sent. This time Spanknoebel acquiesced, and disbanded Gau-USA.
Unfazed, Spanknoebel made a second pilgrimage to Munich, and again sought audience with Rudolf Hess. He convinced Hess that there was huge potential support for National Socialist Germany in the US among both German immigrants and among native-born Americans of German descent. He again asked for permission to organize this support on behalf of the NSDAP. This time Hess relented. Spanknoebel returned with a letter of authorization from Hess. With this letter as his foundational document, he reorganized the Movement in America as the League of the Friends of the New Germany, generally known by its German initials FND. It officially came to life at a convention in Chicago in July 1933. Like Gau-USA before it, FND was based in New York City.
FRIENDS OF THE NEW GERMANY
But rather than quietly organizing German-American support for Hitler’s Germany – which is what Hess undoubtedly had in mind – Spanknoebel proceeded to build an open, confrontational NS movement that mirrored the early history of the NSDAP. The Friends held uniformed marches and rallies that sometimes ended in bloody brawls with Jews and communists. When there was an outbreak of vandalism directed against synagogues, Jewish merchants and Jewish cemeteries, the FND was blamed. Much of the FND’s operations were conducted in the German language, which left many Americans thinking that the group was foreign, un-American and somewhat sinister. The publicity generated by the FND was unrelentingly negative. Rather than building sympathy for the New Germany, the overall impression it gave was that it was a subversive group that owed its allegiance to a foreign government.
Spanknoebel further made things worse by enraging established German-American organizations and publications by insisting that they subordinate themselves to him as Hitler’s American representative.
The members of the Friends, however, had faith that they were on the right path – a path that they believed had been specifically charted by Hitler himself. They threw themselves into the struggle with great enthusiasm and self-sacrifice, unaware that Spanknoebel had misrepresented the nature of his mandate from Munich.
German diplomats in the US followed the disastrous progress of the FND, and dutifully reported it to Berlin, where the bad news was brought to the attention of Hitler and Hess. Eventually, Spanknoebel was ordered by Munich to cease operations until further notice, as his efforts were doing more harm than good to the cause of National Socialism.
Spanknoebel finally got the message. He resigned as leader of the FND and returned to Germany, where he enlisted in the SS. He survived the War and settled in the shattered ruins of Dresden. There he was betrayed to the Soviet secret police by a German traitor. He was arrested and died of starvation in a Soviet concentration camp in 1947.
In early 1934, Fritz Gissibl took the reins of the FND. Some 10 years after first forming Teutonia, he was again the leader of American National Socialism. Under his renewed tenure, the FND made some tentative steps to Americanize its image. German citizens and members the NSDAP were first discouraged from being members of the FND, and later were formally prohibited from joining. Gissibl himself began proceedings to obtain American citizenship. Printed materials from the time show that English was used as well as the German language in Friends literature.
Gissibl also began to steer the FND away from the confrontational activities favored by Spanknoebel and to focus more resources and energy on building an NS community. In 1934, a women’s auxiliary, the Frauenschaft, was formed, as well as youth organizations for male and female youngsters, the Jugendschaft and Maedschenscaft, respectively.
Not all members were happy with Gissibl’s leadership, and in 1935 Anton Haegele and a small band of followers broke away to form the American National Labor Party, which was later renamed the American National-Socialist Party. Their newspaper was the National American, and it set a high standard of quality for Movement publications that was to last the rest of the decade. The ANLP/ANSP was short-lived, but it was important in that it was the first attempt to create an American National Socialism that as not simply an extension of the German movement and that was open to all Aryan Americans, not just Germans.
The FND membership threw itself behind Gissibl’s new initiatives, and the organization began to grow. This growth spurt did not go unnoticed by the Movement’s numerous and powerful enemies, who did everything they could to hamper and thwart its efforts. A congressional investigation designed to undermine and cripple American National Socialism was begun in 1934 at the behest of Congressman Samuel Dickstein of New York. Dickstein’s stated goal was to eradicate all traces of National Socialism in America. He was a Jew, and most observers felt that his zeal in persecuting the Friends was simply a manifestation of the racial animosity that all Jews felt towards the Hitler movement. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, documents came to light in Moscow that revealed that Dickstein was a paid agent of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. It seems likely that this employment contributed to his enthusiasm in trying to strangle American National Socialism in its infancy.
Dickstein convened hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington. Gissibl and other prominent members of the Friends were ordered to appear for public interrogation in full light of the news media. There they were insulted and berated. Although the committee was unable to find any evidence that the FND was engaged in illegal activities, they published a report in February of 1935 that described the group “Un-American” in its orientation.
The blatant persecution of the Movement by HUAC split the German-American community. Many remembered the dark days of World War I, when all German-Americans had been suspected of being spies and traitors, and were treated accordingly. Consequently, some German-Americans put as much distance between themselves and the Friends as possible. However, others rallied behind the FND, as it defended itself in the face of the government and media onslaught against it.
In Berlin, the NSDAP reacted adversely to the overwhelmingly negative publicity. In the eyes of Hitler, Hess and other party leaders, the FND was doing more to hurt the cause then to help it. Accordingly, in October 1935, an edict was issued severing all ties between the Friends on one hand and the German government and NSDAP on the other. Gissibl resigned as the League’s leader, and made a trip to Germany in a futile attempt plead his case. (Like Spanknoebel before him, Gissibl eventually settled in Germany, and likewise joined the SS.)
In December, Fritz Julius Kuhn became the new Bundesleiter (League Leader). In March 1936, the Friends held a national convention, where it was dissolved. A new organization was formed in its place, the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund (German-American Folks League) which was to be popularly known as the German-American Bund.