80 years ago Nazis rallied in Manhattan. Now, these producers explore the parallels in recent years.
On February 20, 1939, more than 20,000 American Nazis rallied at Madison Square Garden, in the heart of New York City.
It was the eve of World War II, a few months after Kristallnacht in Germany and a few months before the invasion of Poland. The rally was sponsored by the German American Bund, one of several American organizations that openly supported Fascism and Hitler.
The Bund called their event a “Pro-American Rally.” The organizers had chosen the date in celebration of George Washington’s birthday and procured a 30-foot-tall banner of America’s first president for the stage. Washington was hung between American flags — and swastikas.
Thousands of protesters were also demonstrating outside Madison Square Garden against the rally, and the rise of fascism across the world. The NYPD had deployed a record number of 1,700 officers around the Garden, enough “to stop a revolution,” the police commissioner said.
Now, 80 years later, in a time when the number of hate groups in America is at a 20-year high, we’re looking back at this troubling event in American history.
In this post, hear from three creators, each of whom has told the story of the Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in a unique way.
Sarah Kate Kramer, a producer at Radio Diaries, talks about how she approached the story in a non-narrated format. Her story was also aired on NPR’s All Things Considered and the NPR Code Switch blog on the 80th anniversary of the rally.
Nate DiMeo, host of The Memory Palace on PRX’s Radiotopia Network, shares why this story struck him so deeply. Nate originally produced his episode in 2017, but is re-releasing it in collaboration with another Radiotopia podcast, Radio Diaries.
Marshall Curry is director of the Oscar-nominated short documentary “A Night at the Garden.” His film, constructed entirely from original footage of the rally shot by the Bund itself, was produced by Field of Vision.
Two podcasts and one short film help give us perspective into the resurgence of a white supremacy movement we’re seeing not only in America, but across the globe. A quick note: some of the answers have been edited for clarity.
When did you first learn about the Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden 80 years ago and what was that moment like for you?
Sarah Kramer of Radio Diaries: I first heard about the rally in the fall of 2017 when a friend shared Marshall Curry’s short film “A Night at the Garden” with me. I was shocked by the footage of so many proud Nazis in America and a little disturbed that I had never heard of the event. This was just a few months after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, and the parallels couldn’t be ignored.
Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace: I was vaguely aware of it for years. The first time may have been a quick mention in William Manchester’s The Glory and The Dream, which a fairly progressive history teacher in high school used as our textbook to teach us about the Depression.
As with a lot of Memory Palace stories, these ideas just kind of float around for me, looking for a place to land. Similarly, at some point I’d come across the story of “The Mighty Atom,” the Nazis and the Hank Greenberg bat and had it on a very long list of possible episodes but couldn’t crack it. In short, I knew there was a ripping yarn to be told about that night, but I hadn’t found it’s deeper meaning or other compelling, enervating urgency — I hadn’t found the thing that would turn it from an anecdote to a story. Then Trump got elected.
Filmmaker Marshall Curry: I first heard about the rally a year and a half ago when I was at dinner with a friend who was writing a screenplay that takes place in New York in 1939. He had come across it during his research, and when he told me, I didn’t believe him. But I went home and looked it up, and sure enough he was right. I found that there were historical documentaries that had used short 10 second clips from the rally, and I figured if there were 10 seconds there must be more than that. So I got a researcher friend to start looking around and he found some footage in the National Archive, some in UCLA’s archive, some in Grinberg and other places. We began piecing it together, and I was stunned when I saw it. I couldn’t believe how surreal and weird it was — and also how familiar.
What motivated you to create something around this night in history?
Sarah: At Radio Diaries, we specialize in buried history. We have a series called “The History of Now” where we dig up forgotten chapters of history that resonate today. So this was a perfect fit. The fact that February 20, 2019 is the 80th anniversary of the rally, plus Marshall’s film being up for an Oscar this coming weekend, made it a no-brainer. But the thing that made it possible is that Andy Lanset at the WNYC Archives had the entire audio of the rally in his collection.
Nate: The events around and immediately after Trump’s inauguration snapped this story into focus for me. I had travelled to participate in the Women’s March in D.C., and I was well aware of the anti-fascist protests of the inauguration many days earlier. Having come up going to punk rock and hardcore shows in my early twenties, I was really familiar with and had a relatively nuanced understanding of what has emerged as the Antifa movement. I watched reports of those protests and some of the vandalism that went along with it and was wary of both how it was being reported and how it would be spoken about and dealt with by the new administration. And in those protests and in that moment, the first public airing in forever of a clash between anti-facists and would-be facists, of anti-racists and white supremacists, of Antifa and Proud Boys… I knew where I stood. I watched every meme of Richard Spencer being punched put to a different song. I watched the hell out of them. They never stopped being funny. They never stopped being bracing in their moral clarity. And suddenly this little anecdote about a strong man and a bat and a Nazi had a clarifying purpose for me. The meaning of the story was clear: history is written by the winners, and in the late thirties and forties, anti-Nazism won out. As a result, nights and rallies like the one at the Garden in 1939, have receded in our memory and been relegated to weird curiosities. Fodder for listicles. But we were suddenly in a time where forces of straight-up evil were finding comfort again in the public square. They should be made uncomfortable. They should get punched.
Marshall: I was really shocked by the similarities between the rally and current-day Trump rallies. In both settings, we see leaders take the stage, attack the press, laugh at violence against protesters, and tell their supporters to take back America from the minorities who are ruining it. We see leaders wrapping hate and division in the symbols of American patriotism. I thought that maybe if I made a film that showed these tactics used in 1939 — and we know what happened after that — maybe it would make people more vigilant about resisting similar tactics today.
Did the story take you somewhere you didn’t think it would? Did you find anything you weren’t expecting?
Sarah: Yes. The real moment of drama in our story is when Isadore Greenbaum, the Jewish plumber who snuck into the rally, jumps up on stage to protest. I am so glad that I was able to track down Isadore’s grandson, Brett Siciliano, who was raised by his grandfather and knew all the details about what happened that night. His personal connection to this history really made the piece come alive.
The other piece that was unexpected — and maybe shouldn’t have been — was how much of the rhetoric at the rally was about American patriotism. These Nazis really felt that their racist ideology was as ‘American’ as George Washington.
Nate: A couple of years on, nearly all my fears about having a government that allows white supremacist voices into polite society have come true. There is a body count. This is a time of choosing, yet so much of the discourse around racism and anti-semitism is about the politics of politeness. There is a body count. There is a lot of hand wringing about the language we use around racism and anti-semitism. There is a body count. For all its reductiveness, for all the power of non-violent responses to violence, I think it’s important to remember this: Nazis should get punched. That could mean zero-tolerance. That could mean relentless public condemnation, that could me all manner of polite, definitive rebuke (driving racists off social media, revoking privileges of non-profit status and the like from groups that align themselves with white-supremacists). That could mean punching them in the face.
Marshall: I was surprised by every frame of footage that I found. But most of all I was also surprised by the audience’s reaction. The crowd there is wearing suits and ties and dresses — they are people who would be my neighbors in Brooklyn today — but they laugh and cheer when the see violence and hear violent rhetoric against a group of people who would be killed by the millions in the next few years.
What do you hope people take away from your work ?
Sarah: There is a thread of racist ideology that runs all through American history, and I hope this story sheds some light on that. History is messy, and often uncomfortable. But we need to understand our past in order to start to understand the madness we live in today.
Nate: I want people to draw from this story the same thing I want them to draw from any Memory Palace story: the people who lived before you, the times in which they lived, were just as muddled and confused and confusing as you and your times. Today will be history tomorrow. Behave accordingly.
Marshall: I hope that viewers will be sensitized to the the ways that some leaders try to turn us against each other. I think most humans have dark passions inside us, waiting to be stirred up by a demagogue who is funny and mean, who can convince us that decency is for the weak, that democracy is naïve, and that kindness and respect for others is just ridiculous political correctness. Events like this should remind us not to be complacent — that the things we care about have to be nurtured and defended regularly — because even seemingly good people have the potential to do hideous things.
Watch Marshall’s Oscar-nominated short film “A Night at the Garden” below and find more resources and information on hate movements in America on the Anti-Defamation League’s website.