Using archival footage, Marshall Curry has produced a seven-minute documentary A Night at The Garden about a rally that was held in Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939 that drew 20,000 people. It was a highly disturbing event but even more extraordinary is how it has disappeared from public consciousness. I had never heard of it. It is better to simply watch the documentary and let it sink in than me trying to describe it.
The documentary was produced by Field of Vision, part of First Look Media that is the parent company of The Intercept. Jon Schwarz at The Intercept describes the background to what was advertised as a “Pro American Rally” and the events that preceded and followed it, and its eerie prescience for what we see today as white nationalists and neo-Nazis rally people under patriotic flags and slogans.
The main speaker is Fritz Kuhn, a naturalized German immigrant and head of the Bund. On the one hand, everything about him screams that he’s a buffoon and a grifter. He declares they are there “to demand that our government shall be returned to the American people who founded it” in a heavy accent that makes him sound exactly like Adolf Hilter. Even Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the U.S. found Kuhn embarrassing, once describing him as “stupid, noisy, and absurd.”
But on the other hand, no one in the Garden seems to notice or care. To the crowd’s delighted laughter, Kuhn speaks about how “the Jewish-controlled press” continually lies about him, depicting him as “a creature with horns, a cloven hoof, and a long tail.”
Then one man, 26-year-old Isadore Greenbaum, rushes the stage. Kuhn’s uniformed minions immediately seize and beat him. At some point, as the New York police grab Greenbaum and hustle him offstage, his pants are pulled down. Kuhn smirks, and the audience erupts in glee.
The movie ends with a soprano trilling the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Times article quotes leftist protesters claiming that they “were trampled by mounted police and brutally beaten by uniformed and plainclothes policemen” outside the Garden. A retired colonel complained that the costumes of many of the Bund men “would mislead the people” that they were “wearing a part of the United States uniform.”
Schwarz describes how the documentary came about.
Curry learned about the Bund rally six months ago from a friend writing a screenplay that takes place in 1939. At first, he says, he was incredulous, because he was sure that if there had been an enormous rally of American Nazis in the middle of New York City, “I definitely would have heard about that.”
But it had happened. It had simply dropped out of history. Curry found previous documentaries that used short snippets of film from that night, and engaged archival researcher Rich Remsberg to try to locate more.
Remsberg found footage scattered across the country, including at the National Archives and UCLA. There were two remarkable things about it. First, it was 35 mm, rather than the standard 16 or 8 mm for newsreels, so the images are surprisingly high-quality. Second, everything captured inside Madison Square Garden appears to have been shot by the Bund itself. The staging is done so skillfully it seems certain they had studied Nazi Germany’s cinematography.
Most notably, there is no mention of the present day United States. “Regular, nonpolitically minded Americans who watch it,” Curry hopes, “will become a tiny bit more aware of the way that, throughout history, demagogues [have] used sarcasm and humor and mob violence to whip up audiences that were otherwise decent people.”
In particular, he points to a pan of the roaring crowd after Greenbaum has been attacked and degraded: “You can see thousands of people who are in suits and dresses and hats who were probably nice to their neighbors.”
Meanwhile, historian Thomas Childers discusses five myths about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis that are popularly held.
The debate over whether the current generation of white nationalists and neo-Nazis are a fringe movement that should be largely ignored and allowed to slowly fade into obscurity (as some mainstream commentators suggest) or whether they are a dangerous virus that should be directly confronted whenever and wherever they appear before they grow (as the Antifa movement argues) is one that is going to become increasingly loud. This documentary suggests that there are serious dangers in taking the former stance, especially as we now have a president and his political party whom the white nationalists and neo-Nazis think are sympathetic to them.