Who knew the innocence and fun of summer camp could be twisted into something dark, hateful and dangerous? Read on for the astounding and little-known story of how Nazis planted the seeds of white supremacy in America.
In the 1920s and 30s, German-Americans disaffected by WWI and the Great Depression found support in a group called the Friends of New Germany. Most all members were American citizens, but they pledged loyalty to Adolf Hitler. Members had to swear they were of pure Aryan blood with no Jewish ancestry. In 1936, a new group absorbed these people, the Amerikadeutscher Bund, commonly known as the Bund.
These organizations worked to preserve German Culture. As you will see, they had a much more potent agenda.
Camp Nordland, possibly the first Nazi camp organized in America, set on the shore of MacDonald Lake and spread over some 200 acres in the countryside of Andover Township, New Jersey. Supporters of Adolf Hitler founded the weekend summer camp for adults in 1934, the year after Nazis came to power in Germany.
Below: Nearly 1,000 uniformed men wearing swastika arm bands and carrying Nazi banners parade through Camp Nordland in Sussex County, New Jersey on July 18, 1937.
Over the next several years Camp Nordland hosted Italian-American fascist leaders and held joint rallies with the Klu Klux Klan. In the evenings campers danced, drank beer and listened to anti-Semitic, white supremacist lectures.
But the prime reason for the founding of Camp Nordland was to assess public opinion in New Jersey. Would the locals accept Nazi activity?
New Jersey citizens eventually protested Nazi gatherings and tried to pass laws banning the dissemination of Nazi propaganda, but in 1934 local citizens took little notice of Camp Nordland.
Six weeks later, some 150 boys arrived at Camp Wille und Macht (Will and Power) at Griggstown, NJ., five miles from Princton. Boys slept in tents, picnicked, hiked, learned camping skills, plus the art and practice of goose-stepping. Dressed in Hitler Youth brownshirts and jackboots they turned out for required paramilitary training, including handling and firing rifle
By 1937, nearly two dozen Nazi summer camps welcomed boys and girls from around the country, including a third in New Jersey, Camp Bergwald, The Deutschhorst Country Club in Pennsylvania, Camp Highland in New York and Camp Hindenberg in Grafton, Wisconsin.
Most of the camp attendees were children or grandchildren of German immigrants and naturalized American citizens. Families connected with the Bund often kept their children isolated from mainstream culture.
The video below from the National Archives shows children enjoying innocent-looking summer activities. Don't believe your eyes.
Evening songs around the campfire for both youngsters and adults often included a Nazi anthem with the chilling lines: “When Jewish blood drips from the knife, then will the German people prosper.”
The flagship Nazi summer camp was located near Yaphank, Long Island, fifty miles east of New York City. Camp Siegfried was named for a medieval Germanic warrior and mythic hero popular in Nazi culture.
Every summer Sunday, the Long Island Rail Road ran a Camp Siegfried Special from Penn Station to Yaphank. Hundreds of passengers disembarked from the train to columns of men in Nazi uniforms giving the Nazi salute. Speakers denounced Jews and heralded an Aryan master race.
The German-American Settlement League in Yaphank, invited German-Americans to visit the camp on weekends for camaraderie, political discussion and special celebrations, one of which marked George Washington's birthday. They called the first US president the “first Fascist” and claimed he doubted democracy would work.
The man in charge at Camp Siegfried, Fritz Kuhn, headed the Bund and was known as the American Fuehrer. A naturalized citizen of the United States, he met personally with Hitler in Germany and was de facto representative of the German Nazi party in America.
Hitler's regime provide the camp with teachers, textbooks and uniforms. Young people from Camp Siegfried traveled to Germany, once in 1936 for the Olympics. The purpose was to indoctrinate Aryan children and prepare them as future leaders of America.
Leaders taught eugenics right along with training in physical fitness and outdoor skills, including hunting and shooting. The camp affiliated with the National Rifle Association.
According to a New York Times headline a crowd of twenty-five thousand people gathered August 39, 1937, for German Day festivities at Camp Siegfried. The newspaper reported they celebrated with marching and much Speechmaking. The headline declared: 50 BLACK SHIRTS ATTEND.
Organizers at camp Siegfried offered entertainment to keep visitors coming over the summer months. Nobody could misunderstand as they entered under a fluttering Nazi flag and walked streets named Adolf Hitler Street, Goebbels Street, and Goering Street.
German Day at Camp Siegfried nearly doubled attendance tforty-thousand the following year, August 1938, the New York Times headlined noted: About 2,000 uniformed Ordnungsdienst (Jewish Ghetto Police) storm troopers kept order.
Choosing to locate Camp Siegfried at Yaphank was not coincidence according to Jill Santiago, an educator at the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity, and Human Understanding.
She told the Long Island Press “You have to understand that at the time, during the 1920s and 1930s, one out of every seven residents living in the area was a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan. So, you can say that by choosing Yaphank they figured they are not going to face too much of a resistance from the local community.”
Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund continually argued they had no direct connection to Hitler's party in Germany. But FBI investigations found evidence that German government officials funded Bund members travel to Germany where they met with Hitler, Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, and other high-ranking Nazis.
The Bund's strength lay in the northeastern US, but the organization divided the county into three geographic areas, and one of the most active centered in Los Angeles, California.
Camp Sutter, a youth camp of the Jugenschaft or "Community of Youngsters" modeled after Hitler Youth was held at Hindenburg Park, now called La Crescenta County Park.
"There were forced marches in the middle of the night to bonfires where the kids would sing the Nazi national anthem and shout 'Sieg Heil.' Nazi propaganda was plentiful at these camps as well," according to Arnie Bernstein, author of Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German American Bund
The Bund members gathered to celebrate at the Deutsches Haus hall, restaurant and tavern, raising a stein to Third Reich advances, like th "liberation" of Sudetenland and the "Anschluss" of Austria.
The Bund celebrated Adolf Hitler's birthday in April 1935 with a torchlight parade attended by more than 2000 people.
The Nazi summer camps were for the most part protected by the 1st Amendment until Germany declared war on the US in December 1941 and it became illegal to swear allegiance to Germany.
Though many were closed earlier when local authorities nationwide raided the Nazi summer camps and shut them down after hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee and investigation by the FBI.
In 1939 Fritz Kuhn was convicted and imprisoned in New York for tax evasion, forgery and embezzling thousands of dollars from the Bund. The Bund officially disbanded when Germany declared war on the US in December 1941.
A good number of organizations resisted Nazi activities and intolerance throughout the 1930s, including the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy. That is another story!
I'll end with words from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's final 1940 campaign speech which sound relevant today: We Americans. . .are characters in the living book of democracy. But we are also its author. It falls upon us now to say whether the chapters…to come will tell a story of retreat or. . .of continued advance.
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