By Jack R. Johnson
A short documentary up for an Oscar this year, A Night At The Garden, tells a chilling historical tale that many Americans still don’t know about. In 1939, some 20,000 Americans gathered in Madison Square Garden for what was billed as a “Pro-American Rally.” According to NPR, the organizers had chosen the date, February 20th, in celebration of George Washington’s birthday and had procured a 30-foot-tall banner of America’s first president for the stage. More than 20,000 men and women streamed inside and took their seats. The view they had was stunning: Washington was hung between American flags — and swastikas.
At the time, gatherings like this had been happening with the regularity of today’s MAGA rallies. The German American Bund, an organization with headquarters in Manhattan and thousands of members across the United States, created such rallies in support of Adolf Hitler, and the rise of fascism in Europe. The German Bund in America was surprisingly well-organized, with parades, bookstores, and even summer camps for youth. They tapped into pro-Nazi agitators across America: in the isolationist ‘American First’ movement, headed by the famous pilot, Charles Lindbergh who was also a fierce anti-Semite. The ‘America First’ motto originated with people who were often sympathetic to Hitler and interested in keeping America out of World War II, prior to Pearl Harbor. The Bund also gained support through the ‘talk’ radio star of that era—Father Charles Coughlin, who bitterly denounced socialists and Jews.
According to NPR, “Their vision for America was a cocktail of white supremacy, fascist ideology and American patriotism.” A surprisingly familiar canon.
Sarah Churchwell, author of “Behold, America”, noted the frequent use of Fascist tropes and their rabid anti-Semitism. She also pointed out that the oversized image of George Washington that dominated the garden on that evening was no accident.
“One of the things they tried to do was to say that this is what America has always been, and this is what the Founding Fathers would have supported,” said Churchwell. Indeed, they referred to Washington as “America’s first fascist.”
But this is America, of course, so they weren’t the only ones rallying that evening.
Protestors who opposed fascism also gathered outside Madison Square Garden, where they had their own rally.
According to the New York Times, the anti-Nazi contingent included everyone from veterans to housewives to members of the Socialist Workers Party. The New York Police Department had deployed a record number of 1,700 officers around Madison Square Garden that night, enough “to stop a revolution,” the police commissioner said.
Although the police had built a veritable wall around Madison Square Garden, one anti-fascist managed to squeeze through to protest the Nazi rally. This man’s name was Isadore Greenbaum, a 26-year old plumber from Brooklyn. In the short seven minute documentary, there’s a vivid scene where Greenbaum leaps to the stage, and yells “Down with Hitler!” Almost immediately, Greenbaum is tackled by the Bund’s security team who punch and kick him, and drag him off stage where they rip his pants off while the crowd laughs and jeers until the police intervene.
Greenbaum’s grandson, Brett Siciliano, told Radio Diaries, “He [Isadore] had a black eye and a broken nose, but he said he would have done it again,” After the rally, Greenbaum was arrested for disorderly conduct and fined $25 for disrupting the rally. He later joined the U. S. Army where he had the opportunity to fight fascism once again, this time wearing a U. S. military uniform.
Although the movie did not win an Oscar, the poignant image of the singularly vulnerable Greenbaum disrupting a rally of 20,000 Nazis is both inspiring, and a warning. Not only can this happen here, it already has.