During the latter half of the 1930s, a surprising number of Nazi-themed summer camps sprouted across the United States. Organized locally and without the support of Germany, these summer outings bore a startling resemblance to the Hitler Youth. Here’s what these camps were like—and how, for a short time, the Third Reich came to America.
Parents lining up to give the Hitler salute. Children wearing uniforms adorned with swastikas. The stars and stripes raised alongside the Nazi flag. Looking back with hindsight, these images of summer camps appear ludicrous and deeply offensive. Yet, in the late 1930s, a small minority of Americans were subsumed by the same fascist fervor that had swept Nazi Germany.
While these retreats had obvious appeal to Nazi sympathizers, they were also part of a larger plan to awaken fascistic sensibilities in America and to foster the transition of the US into a Nazi stronghold.
These summer camps, organized by a grassroots organization called the Deutsche-Amerikanische Berufsgemeinschaft, or German American Bund (“bund” meaning “alliance” in German), were established in the US during the latter half of the 1930s.
By the time they were shut down at the onset of the Second World War, some 16 of these camps and family retreats had emerged, including Camp Siegfried in Yaphank, New York, Camp Hindenburg in Grafton, Wisconsin, Camp Nordland in Andover, New Jersey, the Deutschhorst Country Club in Sellersville, Pennsylvania, Camp Bergwald in Bloomingdale, New Jersey, and Camp Sutter near Los Angeles.
Children march at Camp Siegfried on Long Island (Credit: Marvin Miller)
Bund parents sent their children to the camps, which were compared to the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides of America, but in reality were more like the Hitler Youth camps of Nazi Germany.
At the camps, children were taught how to speak German and sing German songs. Phrases like “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhehrer” (translated to “One People, One Empire, One Leader”) were heard alongside the refrains of “Deutschalnd, Deutschland Über Alles.” It was as much an effort to celebrate German heritage as it was an attempt to teach Nazi ideology.
“Hitler is the friend of Germans everywhere,” noted a girl who attended Camp Hindenburg in Wisconsin. “And just as Christ wanted little children to come to him, Hitler wants German children to revere him.”
German Day celebrations. (Credit: Herald Tribune)
The campers consisted of boys and girls aged eight to 18, most of them the children or grandchildren of German immigrants.
The purpose of these camps, says Suffolk County Community College curator Steven Klipstein, was to keep the United States out of the looming European war and bring the Hitlerian idea of racial politics to America.
“Anti-Semitism was at its absolute peak at this time,” he says. “Jews were excluded, beaten and on the defense. Suffolk County was at the center of right wing politics then.”
(Credit: New York City Department of Records)
To enforce these “Hitlerian” ideals, campers wore official Nazi-style uniforms, practiced military-style drills, and greeted their superiors with Hitler salutes. Children marched up and down the grounds, engaged in rifle practice, were subject to regular inspections, and raised the official banners of the Hitler Youth. Campers would sometimes be awaken in the middle of night and forced to march through the woods.
Camp Siegfried postcards (Credit: Unknown)
Audrey Amidon, an archivist in National Archives’ Motion Picture Preservation Lab, described them this way:
The summer camps, complete with the official uniforms and banners of the Hitler Youth, might be the most visual and chilling example of the [Bund’s] attempts to instill Nazi sympathies in German-American children. Even though it happened more than 75 years ago, it’s unsettling to see American children raise a Nazi flag and know that it occurred just...outside New York City.
(Credit: New York City Department of Records)
Camp Siegfried, among the most prominent of the retreats, was situated in the particularly pro-German hamlet of Yaphank on Long Island. Its streets, which were the scenes of regular Nazi parades, were named in honor of Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels. Attendees of this camp planted swastika topiary lawns and constructed fake artillery installations comprised of tin cans.
Not the kind of picture you’re going to want to show your grandchildren (Credit: New York City Department of Records)
Prior to the onset of World War Two, a number of pro-Nazi organizations emerged in Western democracies, the United States being no exception. America was particularly vulnerable given its sizeable German population. During the 1930s, nearly a quarter of U.S. citizens were of German descent. In some regions, like Wisconsin, that number was closer to 43 percent—a figure that included German-born or first-generation Americans.
Not surprisingly, and given the fervor surrounding the Nazi movement, a number of German-Americans sought to promote this political sensibility, along with its attendant racism. Among these groups was the German American Bund, a grassroots organization that sought to position itself as an American arm of Hitler’s Third Reich even though it had no formal ties with Hitler or the Nazi regime.
A Bund parade in New York, October 30, 1939. At this point in history, Germany had already invaded Poland and war was declared in Europe. The U.S. would remain neutral for another two years. (Credit: Library of Congress)
The group was founded in March 1936 in Buffalo, New York. It chose a chemical engineer by the name of Fritz Kuhn to be its leader, or Bundesleiter. The American press soon chose a different title for Kuhn, however, addressing him as the “American Fuehrer.” Born in Munich, he fought for Germany in World War I and briefly worked in Mexico. He came to the United States in 1928 and became an official citizen in 1934.
(Credit: LIFE Magazine)
A rabid anti-semite, he strove to bring Nazi-style fascism to the United States. To that end, and like other fascists elsewhere, he tried to incorporate his adopted country’s nostalgic sensibilities into a distinctly American style of fascism. During his speeches, he was backdropped by a portrait of George Washington, who he referred to as “America’s first fascist,” and as someone who never believed that democracy would work.
Kuhn’s ultimate goal was to establish the Nazis as the ruling party of the United States. Strangely, he acted as if the German American Bund was an official part of the Nazi party, which it never was. He even made the Bund function like the Nazis did in Germany, where absolute obedience to the leader was expected. Kuhn’s Bund also designated regional districts across the US, organized a paramilitary Order Division, and created a youth program with its summer camps.
With Kuhn at the helm, the Bund’s membership quickly expanded. The group wasn’t supposed to accept German citizens as members, but it did so anyway.
The Bund’s bark, however, was much louder than its bite, and even at its height, it only included a tiny portion of the German-American community, most of whom were either ambivalent or vehemently opposed to what Hitler was doing in their home country. Writing in America in WWII, historian Mark D. Van Ells writes:
Precise membership figures are not known. Estimates range from as high as 25,000 to as low as 6,000. Historians agree that about 90 percent of Bund members were immigrants who arrived in America after 1919. In Wisconsin, the most heavily German state, the Bund seems to have mustered barely 500 members, which would rule out the possibility of anywhere near 25,000 members nationwide.
At no time, however, did the Nazi regime in Germany establish formal ties with the American Bund. And in fact, it did its best to distance itself from the group, which it perceived as a liability from a PR perspective. During this precarious and uncertain time, the Germans were content to see the US re-affirm itself as a neutral nation. Writing in Traces, Jim Bredemus explains:
Although there was some unofficial contact between the Bund and Nazi officials, for the most part the Nazi government was uninterested in the organization and gave the organization no financial or verbal support. Most Third Reich officials distrusted Kuhn and the Bund, and Adolf Hitler himself made his displeasure with the organization known. On 1 March 1938 the Nazi government—partly to appease the U.S., partly to distance themselves from an embarrassing organization—firmly declared once again that no German citizens could be members in the Bund and, further, that no Nazi emblems and symbols were to be used by the organization.
Over the course of its short tenure, the Bund made its fair share of enemies, and most Americans—German-Americans included—were horrified by what its members were saying and doing.
Bund members parade through Madison Square Garden in February 1939 (Credit: University of Southern California Regional History Center)
At the apex of its success, the group staged a rally at Madison Square Garden. During the event, some 20,000 attendees—not all of them sympathetic—listened as Kuhn scolded President Roosevelt, referring to him as “Frank D. Rosenfield,” and calling the New Deal the “Jew Deal.”
German American Bund rally in Madison Square Gardens (Credit: U.S. Department of Defense)
Fights broke out in the crowd, as hundreds (and possibly thousands) of protesters stood outside (some accounts reported that 100,000 protesters rallied outside, but that’s a dubious claim).
As war loomed, the US government increasingly saw the Bund as a threat, and monitored it accordingly. Eventually, the group and its activities were shut down.
In 1938, Camp Siegfried officials were indicted on charges of violating the New York State Civil Rights Act.
In this 1938 British Pathé, the Assistant District Attorney talks about the prosecution of the American Bund Nazi who ran the camp.
The following year, the Wisconsin Federation of German-American societies—which had formally disassociated itself from the Bund—allied itself with local businesses and acquired the lease to Camp Hindenburg, renaming it Camp Carl Schurz in honor of the 19th century German-American political leader, and turned it into its own youth camp. The president of the Federation said that children would be taught “Americanism” and that the only acceptable flag would be the “stars and stripes.” The Bund reacted by claiming the camp had been stolen from it, and quickly established another camp nearby.
After Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, it was game over for the homegrown fascists. It officially became illegal to be a Nazi in the US, and American Bund members were arrested. Prior to that, the American Nazis were protected by 1st Amendment rights. But with war declared, it was illegal for American citizens to swear allegiance to Germany.
As for Kuhn, he was charged with tax evasion and embezzlement, and sentenced to between two and three years in prison. The FBI raided the camps, seized incriminating materials, and closed them down for subversive activities. Kuhn was eventually deported back to Germany after having spent most of the war in prison.
Sources: Jim Bredemus: American Bund (Traces) | Mark D. Van Ells: Americans for Hitler—The Bund (America in World War II) | Mike Stainkamp: A history of Nazi influence on Long Island at Camp Siegfried (Long Island Report | Ryan Shaffer: Long Island Nazis: A Local Synthesis of Transnational Politics (Long Island History Journal) | Cathryn J. Prince: When Hitler Youth Summered Near Long Island (Times of Israel)