For most Americans today, Nazism and white supremacy are nothing more than fringe groups with little real impact on our nation. And with the passing of the “Greatest Generation,” the living memory of World War II and the terror of Nazi Germany is fading away. Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund by Chicagoan Arnie Bernstein serves as a good reminder that this dangerous and vile movement was alive and well (even if a pale imitation of Hitler’s Nazi Germany) in America in the pre-War years.
The story of the Nazi movement in America in the 1930s seems to have been largely forgotten. Swastika Nation tells the story of Fritz Kuhn, a native German who became a naturalized American citizen while remaining loyal to Germany, and the creation of the Nazi movement in America in the 1930s. Kuhn was clearly the driving force behind what was at that point a nascent Nazi movement. The book details Kuhn’s life story, his energy and skill in growing the Bund into a frightening movement supporting Nazism, the internal politics of American Nazism, and the organization’s final disintegration. In a twist, Bernstein conveys the sense that Kuhn and his minions were buffoons, despite the vileness of their opinions.
The author relies on a variety sources: FBI files, Congressional hearing transcripts, interviews, newspaper articles, and numerous books. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any deep analysis or insight of those sources. For the most part, Bernstein appears to accept these sources at face value, failing to evaluate these sources with a critical eye.
The book includes some mildly engaging stories. For example, we see Walt Disney’s welcome and then rejection (apparently out of business necessity) of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Several paragraphs are dedicated to describing the downward spiral of Walter Winchell’s family.
But these stories, while interesting, illustrate a key problem with Swastika Nation. The story of Fritz Kuhn could and should have been told with fewer words and a sharper focus. The book contains much entertaining but ultimately extraneous material. In The Writing Life, author Annie Dillard addresses “the necessity of throwing out the material you like that doesn’t fit in the book.” The author, she argues, must resist the temptation to retain material that lacks “the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to and unity with the book’s thrust.” Bernstein did not heed this guidance. His writing skill makes the book a quick read, and yet it is too long. The reader doesn’t need, for example, six to seven pages reviewing the life of gangster Meyer Lansky before getting to his role in fighting Fritz Kuhn. Similarly, and although a minor note, Bernstein mentions “a squadron of two score and ten OD men …” when surely “fifty” would have sufficed.
Swastika Nation is an edifying book in light of neo Nazi activities in the 1990s and 2000s. In the end, however, the book feels unsatisfying. It is a by-the-numbers account of what happened, when it could have been more.
September 2013, St. Martin’s Press
$27.99, hardcover, 368 pages
—Reviewed by Stephen Isaacs