The German American Bund: Our Forgotten Embarrassment

Posted on November 8, 2013

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Back in 1936, with Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of an increasingly powerful and nationalistic Germany, Rudolf Hess authorized the formation of the Friends of New Germany in the United States.  As that name was soon deemed insufficiently patriotic toward America, the organization was redesignated as the German American Bund.  The purpose was to promote favorable views toward Nazi Germany, and in keeping with typical Nazi attitudes, the organization was open only to Americans of German descent.  Pro-Nazi activities included (among other things) training camps and rallies featuring the Nazi salute, uniformed marches, and a lot of propaganda.  Check out these images taken from a History Channel video.  But for the abundant  presence of the American flag, one might very well mistake the scene for one from Nazi Germany itself.  Yet it was right here in the good ol’ USA.  Within a couple of years, the organization became so blatant in its activities that the Nazi government in Germany began to distance itself.

Bund-SpeechBund-Salute-USFlag

bund-parade

Bund-Flags

We sure did not learn about this in school.  Lila had some inkling of it only because of Dad’s direct experience.  And what an experience it was.  How the heck did Dad get mixed up with this?

It happened that his family lived for several years in Buffalo, New York, which was exactly where the Bund was initially established as the replacement for Friends of New Germany (the Bund was most active in the Northeast and the Chicago area).   Lila’s Dad’s name was of Welsh extraction, but his maternal grandparents had immigrated from Saarbrucken in the 19th century.  His grandmother – still living in the 1930s – had never learned much English, and read every day from her German-language Bible.  Dad’s mother grew up speaking German and had a very thoroughly German maiden name.  Of course neighbors know these things, and they talk.  Before long, a very nice man came along and approached Dad’s parents, asking if young Dad would like to attend a summer camp with other boys his age.  No need to worry about cost; this was open and free to all boys of German heritage.

Bund-Kids

Well.  Dad’s parents were both naive and poor; the Depression was still ongoing; they felt terribly guilty about not being able to provide more for their only son, who was an active Boy Scout.  Here was an opportunity for a summer camp experience, and it wouldn’t cost them a thing!

So off Dad went.  As he recalled it, it was immediately apparent what this was all about, with the swastikas and uniforms, the marching and patriotic (German) songs, the propaganda, the criticism of President Roosevelt, of Jews, of trade unions; the never-ending Nazi salute.

Bund-Camp-Marching

“It was basically a Brown-Shirt indoctrination camp,” he told me decades later.  “So what did you do?”  I asked.  He just went along with it for his several weeks there, seeing no other viable option; and he never uttered a word to his parents about what the camp really was.  He just said he had a nice time, thanked them, and avoided all mention of the subject afterward so as not to embarrass them.

I suspect that when World War II broke out, and prominent Bund members ended up incarcerated, interned, and eventually deported as enemies of the United States, his parents might – maybe – have harbored doubts about Dad’s summer camp experience.  But nothing was said.

The Bund had encouraged German-American youths to avoid the draft; Dad, at the ideological polar opposite, went down to his local recruiting station and enlisted in the US Army right after the Pearl Harbor attack.  Several years after the war, he joined the newly-formed CIA and was assigned to postwar Germany as his first duty station.  “So in your interview, when they asked you about having ever belonged to certain kinds of organizations, did you tell them about this?” I asked him.  “Oh, hell, no!”  he replied.  Even though he had not actually been a member, “Nothing good could come of that.”

Naturally, in today’s electronic, hyper-connected society, this sort of thing could scarcely be buried, but buried it was, and became Dad’s secret little embarrassment – perhaps more on behalf of his parents than himself – for decades.  I think the only vestige of his summer experience was that he knew all the words to the long-since-outlawed Horst Wessel Lied, and Ich Hatt Einen Kameraden – a traditional military lament to the fallen – actually remained a lifetime favorite of his.

I expect that there are many more German-Americans out there with the same secret buried in their own past histories.

Better German-American relationships:  US and German troops on joint operations in Afghanistan

Better German-American relationships, six decades later: US and German troops on joint operations in Afghanistan

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