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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Swastika Nation

Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund

Arnie Bernstein



Fritz Julius Kuhn

ON THE EVENING OF November 8, 1923, three thousand men packed the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer hall in Munich, Germany, waiting to hear a speech by Gustav Ritter von Kahr, the controversial leader of Bavaria's chaotic postwar government. Outside, where a uniformed and adversarial mix of stormtroopers and police uneasily mixed, it was wet and cold. Inside the hall was a choking miasma of stale smoke, beer, and sweat.
A foppish man outfitted with a Charlie Chaplin toothbrush mustache sat nervously at the bar and ordered three beers. In the wake of Germany's crippling postwar recession the price was hard: one billion marks per glass.1
Austrian by birth, German by choice, Adolf Hitler was a failed art student and veteran of the Great War; a brooder overflowing with ideas and prepared for action. It was time to live up to his name "Adolf," an old Teutonic word meaning "fortunate wolf."2 Tonight, within the packed confines of a Munich beer hall, this fortunate wolf felt poised to change the world. The dismal late autumn weather had compounded a daylong headache. What's more, his jaw throbbed from an ugly toothache. "See a dentist," his friends had implored, but Hitler had paid them no mind. There was work to be done, work of national importance—nay, world importance. His physical maladies were nothing compared to the rot pervading his adopted country.3
As Kahr outlined the aims of his government, a colleague approached Hitler at the bar. The time was now.
Hitler whipsawed one of the billion-mark beers to the floor, smashing the mug with a loud crash. Pulling his Browning pistol from its holster Hitler, surrounded by a thug entourage pushing and elbowing bewildered inebriates out of the way, defiantly took the stage. Hitler held his pistol high, squeezed the trigger, and sent a bullet into the ceiling.
The Browning's loud bang! did the trick. The confused and rambunctious crowd fell into uneasy silence, a moment that lasted all of an eye blink. From outside storm troopers poured into the packed hall, crying "Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!" It was a dictum more than a salute, barked out by loyalists to a cause greater than themselves.4
"The national revolution has broken out!" Hitler declared. "The hall is surrounded!"5
History would remember this night as the "Beer Hall Putsch," Hitler's attempt to seize the government for Nazi control. Though the night ended in failure with Hitler's arrest, it marked the beginning for a nascent movement that grew into a New World Order the fortunate wolf dreamed of: Germany's conquering Third Reich.
As the cult of Hitler expanded over the years, many of his acolytes would proudly say, "I was at Bürgerbräukeller. I stood with our führer from the start." Among those who declared he boldly followed the future dictator into the melee was a plump, nearsighted chemist named Fritz Julius Kuhn.6 In the end, it didn't really matter whether or not Kuhn was part of the putsch mob. Throughout his life, he would claim many things.
* * *
Fritz Julius Kuhn was born on May 15, 1896, in Munich to Karl and Anna Kuhn.7 The Kuhns raised a large brood; Fritz was one of Karl and Anna's twelve children.8 His childhood was nondescript at best. Certainly nothing emerged in later investigations of Kuhn's past that would show any glimmer of what he was to become.
In 1913, during Kuhn's high school years, Hitler moved to Munich from Vienna. He was twenty-four, a failed art student with a dismal future and completely taken with his new surroundings. "A German city!" he later rhapsodized in his autobiography/manifesto Mein Kampf. "[T]here was … heartfelt love which seized me for this city more than any other place that I knew, almost from the first hour of my sojourn there."9 Munich provided fertile ground for Hitler's growing Jewcentric ideologies. This "German city" was teeming with anti-Semitic salons and Hitler soaked it in.10 He plunged himself into studies, while eking out a meager living selling architectural drawings to afford the tiny room where he lived. After long days of creating art and voraciously devouring book upon book, Hitler would head to beer halls for the always lively, sometimes drunken political discussions hurled back and forth on any given night.11 In some quarters, a greeting was traded between friends to indicate their anti-Semitic political bonds. It was a simple but effective word: Heil!12
* * *
On June 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie paraded in an open car through the streets of Sarajevo. The pleasingly plump couple seemed not to have a care in the world as they soaked in the cheers of a mostly adoring crowd lining the streets. Yet among the happy faces were some stern looks, silently holding in their contempt for the royal pomposity.
Lurking within the crowd, slipping in and out of the throng, five teenagers all wracked by tuberculosis tightly held their coats, guarding secrets. The minutes dragged until one of the young men saw his chance. He hurled a pocket-sized explosive at the archduke's car. Evasive moves by Ferdinand's sharp-eyed driver couldn't stop the bomb from landing in the automobile. Quickly realizing what was happening, the archduke threw up his arm to shield Sophie from the incoming firepower. His actions had limited effect; shrapnel from the explosion cut her slightly along the neck. The chauffeur floored the gas pedal, smashed cars, and injured pedestrians in the confusion.
Not ones to let an assassination attempt ruin the day, Ferdinand and Sophie next attended a mayoral welcoming ceremony at Sarajevo's city hall. After the ritual pomp and circumstance, the archduke insisted on going to the hospital to meet people hit by his car during the royal getaway.
Apparently the change in plans confused the chauffer. He drove down the scheduled motorcade route but was corrected on his mistake and told to change direction.
The car stopped. Five feet away, Gavrilo Princip saw his chance.
Princip, the brains of the tubercular quintet, pulled a handgun from his coat and squeezed off two shots. Ferdinand, the intended target, was neatly hit. The second bullet penetrated the car door, then struck Sophie. Seconds after pulling the trigger the assassin tried to turn the gun on himself. A mob grabbed him, deflecting any chance for Princip to commit suicide. His second option, chomping down on a vial of cyanide, was an equal failure. The poison within was old, its lethal potency long evaporated.13
Princip's bullets cut down two people. The war sparked by this assassination ultimately would kill millions, military and civilian alike.
* * *
One month to the day after Ferdinand's assassination, Austria-Hungry declared war on Serbia. Four days later, on August first, Hitler joined the exuberant crowd in Odeonsplatz, Munich's central square, celebrating Germany's declaration of war on France and Russia.14
Like Hitler, and so many young men of his generation, eighteen-year-old Fritz Kuhn volunteered in the fight for his country. Joining a Bavarian combat unit, Kuhn developed adept skills as a machine gunner, providing firepower support to brethren in the war-torn trenches of France.15 He served four years, rising to the rank of lieutenant. For bravery on the field of battle Kuhn was awarded the Iron Cross First Class, the German military's highest honor. It surely was a proud moment, as this esteemed laurel was rarely bestowed on enlisted men.16 And in this award, Kuhn's life invisibly crossed Hitler's, another enlisted man who earned the coveted medal.17
Luster ultimately dimmed in the wake of German defeat in the Great War. The devastating loss was followed by the Treaty of Versailles, a forced contract on Germany from the American, French, and English victors demanding reparations be paid from a people shattered by postwar economic recession.
With no job and no future in sight, Kuhn joined many disillusioned veterans in the Freikorps, a paramilitary force determined to restore honor to the Fatherland. These freelance troops were funded surreptitiously with money funneled into an anti-Bolshevik movement by leaders of German heavy industry, including Alfred Krupp, Emil Kirdorf, Hugo Stinnes, Albert Vögler, and Hermann Röchling. The country may have been in turmoil and deep in an overwhelming recession, but the barons of business were taking no chances that upstart rebels might cut into their profits via revolution.18 Freikorps volunteers, still bitter from Germany's loss, were lured by patriotic broadsides and newspaper advertisements, crying out for men to defend honor of country and "prevent Germany from becoming the laughingstock of the earth."19
They operated under the eye of Gustav Noske, Germany's postwar Minister of Defense. In the terrible wake of Germany's humiliation in the Great War, the Freikorps served as a sort of internal protection force. Their law enforcement techniques were highly unorthodox, driven by a mob psychology specializing in intimidation and brutality.20
The bankrollers behind Freikorps had reason to worry. The Spartacus League, a leftist force that took its name from the leader of the ancient Greek slave revolt, was making inroads. Under the leadership of Rosa Luxemburg—a Jewish Russian–born Marxist—and her colleague, fiery German attorney Karl Liebknecht, a Bolshevik takeover similar to the recent Russian revolution loomed. The Spartacist movement was gaining momentum in Berlin, taking control of public utilities, transportation, and munitions factories. Friedrich Ebert, the postwar German Republic's first president, panicked. He fired Berlin's chief of police, declaring the man a Spartacist sympathizer.21
On Sunday, January 5, 1919, Spartacists held rallies and demonstrations throughout the streets of Berlin. Luxemburg issued a broadsheet imploring people throughout Germany to join the fight. "Act! Act! Courageously, consistently—that is the ‘accursed' duty and obligation…" she wrote. "Disarm the counter-revolution. Arm the masses. Occupy all positions of power. Act quickly!"
Overthrow of the government was quelled through efficient and merciless means.
During what became known as "Bloody Week," Freikorps volunteers from throughout the country flocked to Berlin. Forces amplified to thousands of men salivating for street battles against the paltry opposition.
Using an abandoned school as his headquarters, Noske took command as Freikorps men brought down wave upon wave of the enemy throughout the week. On January 11, Freikorps shock troops, armed with flamethrowers and machine guns, unleashed their furies on the headquarters of the leftist newspaper Vorwärts. Spartacist snipers scattered throughout the building held out as best they could. Finally seven of the rebels came out waving white handkerchiefs. One member of the group was sent back into the building, with the message that Freikorps would only accept unconditional surrender. The remaining six were beaten and shot. As they fell into gruesome heaps, three hundred remaining Spartacists inside the building were rounded up. Seven people in this final group were turned into helpless targets, blasted with a fusillade of ammunition as their comrades were taken into custody en masse.
Next were Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The duo, holed up in the flat of one of Liebknecht's relatives, was found on January 15th. They were hauled to the ironically named Hotel Eden in the center of Berlin. Liebknecht was clubbed insensible with rifle butts.22 Battered and helpless, he was dragged off to nearby Tiergarten, a public greenery described by author Erik Larson as "… Berlin's equivalent to Central Park. The name, in literal translation, meant ‘animal garden' or ‘garden of the beasts…'"23 Liebknecht was ordered to walk. As he stumbled forward Freikorps guns riddled his back with bullets. The bloodied corpse was dumped off at the Berlin Zoo like a slab of freshly butchered meat meant for animal feed.24
Once Liebknecht was dispatched attentions turned to Luxemburg. Like her now-dead comrade, she was slammed in the skull with merciless rifle butts. Bleeding from her nose and mouth, unconscious yet still alive, she was thrown into a car and spirited away. Hotel workers heard pistol shots as the automobile peeled off.25 Upon reaching Berlin's Landwehr Canal, Luxemburg's killers secured heavy stones around her body with tightly bound wire, and then threw the weighted corpse into the water. "The old slut is swimming now," sneered one of the assassins.26 Five months later Luxemburg's remains, a bloated caricature of a woman, were found in one of the canal locks.27
Emboldened by the unchecked Berlin slaughter, men throughout the country clamored to join Freikorps. Kuhn signed on with a unit organized by Colonel Franz Ritter von Epp, a highly decorated hero of Germany's doomed war efforts.28 The division—known as Freikorps Epp—was formed in the violent wake of Bloody Week. Its members were mostly former enlisted men such as Kuhn and became the largest Freikorps regiment in Bavaria.29 Determined not to let any rebels create new threats, Kuhn and his fellow soldiers in the Freikorps Epp kept tight and brutal rings surrounding cities throughout the region. "No pardon is given," one member of the group wrote. "We shoot even the wounded.… Anyone who falls into our hands first gets the rifle butt and then is finished off with a bullet. We even shot ten Red Cross nurses on sight because they were carrying pistols. We shot those little ladies with pleasure—how they cried and pleaded with us to save their lives. Nothing doing! Anyone with a gun is our enemy…"30
Like many of his Freikorps volunteers, Kuhn joined Hitler's growing Nazi Party, officially becoming a member in 1921. Intellectual ambition separated him from the majority of his peers, most of whom were working class men of limited schooling. Kuhn enrolled in the University of Munich and in 1922 earned the American equivalent of a master's degree in chemical engineering.31
Higher education afforded Kuhn opportunities outside the classroom. He developed a penchant for pilfering the overcoats of fellow students, a crime that earned Kuhn four months at Munich's Stadelheim Prison in 1921.32 Again, Kuhn and Hitler crossed inadvertent paths. On April 16, 1922, Hitler was arrested and taken to Stadelheim for inciting an Easter Sunday riot, shouting, "Two thousand years ago, the mob of Jerusalem dragged a man to execution in just this way!"33
Fearful for his son's future, Karl Kuhn sought out Reinhold Spitz, a Jewish manufacturer whose clothing factory was down the street from Kuhn's business. Spitz empathized with the situation, having known Fritz since he was four years old, and in 1924 hired the wayward young man as a shipping clerk.34
Within a few months Spitz noticed that bolts of cloth used in factory machinery were coming up short. On further investigation, he realized the actual lengths of cloth were not as stated on inventory tags. Spitz's first thought was that his suppliers were cheating him, but this proved wrong. Next he traced how the cloth bolts were transported within his factory. Somewhere between the first-floor stock room and the third-floor manufacturing plant on the top of the building, an employee was altering inventory. Watching carefully through a workroom door, Spitz found his culprit. Fritz Kuhn was using tailor's shears to remove several yards of cloth from each bolt, and then slip the purloined material to an accomplice outside the factory.
Spitz called Fritz Kuhn to his office, promptly fired him, then summoned Karl Kuhn to come fetch his son.35 All told, Kuhn had stolen some three thousand marks' worth of material. Karl implored his son's boss not to press charges. Spitz was a forgiving man, for he agreed to help give Fritz a fresh start and helped raise money so his now ex-employee could move to Mexico.36 Perhaps this radical change in scenery was what Fritz needed to get on the straight and narrow. Besides, the man now had a wife to support, having gotten married May 28, 1923.37
Kuhn's move to Mexico with his new bride, Elsa, was not an unusual strategy for the times. Strapped by their Fatherland's battered economy, many Germans of his generation sought better opportunities in the United States.38 The American consulate told Kuhn a quota system regulated immigration so it might be easier if he first went to Mexico. In theory Kuhn would only have to wait a few months to establish Mexican residency, and then relocate to the United States.39
In Mexico Kuhn was hired as a laboratory chemist with the La Corona Oil Company. He later found work with a cosmetics firm, and briefly taught at the College of Mexico City.40 The Kuhns' two children, daughter Waltraut and son Walter, were born in 1924 and 1928 respectively. On May 8, 1928, three days after his thirty-first birthday, Fritz Kuhn at last arrived in America, officially checking in at the immigration office of Laredo, Texas.41 Elsa, Waltraut, and Walter joined him seven months later on December 8.42
* * *
The America Kuhn found was not the paradise he might have imagined. Rather, it was an oppressive, almost totalitarian world when it came to Germans, both newcomers and generations-old Americans with Teutonic lineage alike. Americans with a German background numbered one-fourth of the United States population at the dawn of the twentieth century.43 Holding close ties to the Old World, they banded together through national German-American organizations and newspapers, extolling the beauty of their heritage within this adopted homeland. This was hardly unique; the United States was the "nation of immigrants" and just about every ethnic or émigré group had similar outlets. But as war raged throughout Europe the American frame of mind radically changed on Germany, Germans, and German-identified citizens within the United States. Although the United States was officially neutral in the conflict, it was clear the government sided with the Allied cause. That position ratcheted up in May 1917 after a German U-boat torpedoed the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, killing 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 American citizens. And once United States forces hit the battlefields of Europe the following year, rhetoric exploded into a homeland security that cared little for rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
In the fall of 1917, six months after the United States officially entered the war, all German-born U.S. citizens or foreign nationals over age fourteen had to register with the government; any property they owned was subject to governmental control.44 Music by German composers was removed from symphony repertoires, schoolbooks eliminated any favorable mentions of German history, and even food fell under suspicion.45 The ethnic sounding "sauerkraut" was rechristened to the more patriotic name "liberty cabbage." Frankfurters became "hot dogs," a lasting moniker that over the decades evolved into a symbol of American culinary culture.46 German language books were removed from public libraries, then torched in patriotic celebrations. In some towns, German-Americans were ordered to confess their love of country by kneeling in public squares to kiss the Stars and Stripes.47
Throughout the postwar United States, German-Americans were still looked upon in some circles as pariahs. President Woodrow Wilson led the way declaring, "… any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready. If I can catch any man with a hyphen … I will know that I have got an enemy of the Republic."48 Wilson had spoken out strongly against these "hyphenates" in the past, a not-too-subtle phrase many German-Americans took as a code word aimed directly at them. Some members of the German-American press were publicly outraged over this scurrilous insult; others, such as the Express und Westbote, a Columbus, Ohio newspaper, urged its readers to "quietly and coolly refute all attacks against us."49
Respect and tolerance, a path back to the American mainstream, was forged through the work of conscientious groups like the German-American Citizens League and the Steuben Society of America, the latter symbolically named after the Hessian hero of the Revolutionary War. In August 1920, leaders of these and other groups convened a national meeting in Chicago for the purpose of developing avenues to mainstream German-Americans back into acceptable circles.50
But in other pockets of German-America, resentments of these persecutions did not go away. Out of dogmatic and jingoistic discrimination, friends grew and new alliances were forged. And for inspiration they looked back to the Fatherland and Hitler's expanding Nazi movement.
* * *
This was the America where Fritz Kuhn hoped to reestablish himself. After crossing the border into Laredo, Kuhn headed north to Michigan at the suggestion of a Mexican acquaintance. Jobs in Detroit were plentiful in the many branches of Henry Ford's sprawling automobile empire. There was a strong community of new German immigrants living in the area, so culture shock would be minimal.
In short, Detroit and the Ford Motor Company was a place where Kuhn could begin to forge his new life.
Kuhn was hired as an X-ray technician at the Henry Ford Hospital, a health institution funded by its namesake.51 Given Kuhn's Nazi party membership, Ford Hospital must have been his version of the ideal employer. The facility, operating under the direction of Henry Ford's right-hand hatchet man Ernest Liebold, had a strict policy against hiring Jewish doctors.52
Ford's well-known anti-Semitism permeated his vast operations, from the close-knit leadership at the top to workers on factory floors. The Ford-backed newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, was probably best known for its ongoing feature "The International Jew," a personal screed by the automobile magnate (cowritten with Ford's ghost collaborator, William J. Cameron) warning of Jewish influence throughout every stratum of modern American society and around the globe. Public outrage over "The International Jew" boiled over into a consumer boycott with significant impact on national automobile sales. Ford felt the bottom line pressure. He publicly claimed to renounce "The International Jew" and all it stood for via a widely disseminated letter to prominent Jewish officials. However, Ford neither read nor signed the letter. It was drafted and affixed with Ford's name by Harry Bennett, head of the company security and a master at replicating his employer's signature.53 Regardless of Ford's pretense of contrition he continued propagating the screed via a sly loophole. The newspaper series was published as a four-volume book set in the early 1920s but never copyrighted, an unusual choice for a man of Ford's business acumen. With no legal means to prevent anyone from reprinting, distributing, or translating his work, in essence Ford vaulted The International Jew into worldwide perpetuity.54 His supposedly renounced views spread freely from country to country through many editions and translations, eventually winding up in the hands of Adolf Hitler. A voracious reader of all things anti-Semitic, Hitler dived into The International Jew with gusto, finding revelation and inspiration on every page. In his own book, the 1925 volume Mein Kampf, Hitler paid homage to Ford's visionary understanding of social forces. "It is Jews who govern the stock exchanges of the American Union," Hitler wrote in a typical phrase for the tome. "Every year makes them more and more the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty millions; only a single great man, [Henry] Ford, to their fury, still maintains full independence."55
Employment at Ford provided a good life for Kuhn. The security of a steady paycheck and anti-Semitic work environment aside, this new career offered other benefits: women.
Remarkably, in spite of his pudgy frame, fleshy face, weak eyes, and marital status, Kuhn possessed an arousing spark that ignited feminine passions. He brazenly flirted with female coworkers. Perhaps realizing that his status as a lowly X-ray technician with thick glasses, thick middle, and thick German accent did not exactly make him movie-star attractive, Kuhn inflated his credentials with faux allure, proffering himself to potential conquests as "Doctor" Fritz Kuhn. Some would-be paramours repelled the sexual overtures. Others reciprocated his affections, swept off their feet by Kuhn into broom-closet liaisons.
Despite his flirtations and affairs with female staffers at Ford Hospital, not all of Kuhn's peers were impressed with his Romeo handiwork. One former coworker with clear disdain for Kuhn's hyperactive sex drive viewed the technician-cum-physician not as a conquering ladies' man, but rather "a queer."56
Kuhn had a mixed employment record in the Ford Corporation. Hired on August 20, 1928, he was subsequently out of a job the following year on December 12. Official reports indicated Kuhn was "laid off because of slow hospital and laboratory work." He was rehired in July 1930 for a position at the Ford Heat Treatment department, a job that lasted all of four weeks. Six months later, in February 1931 he came back to Ford, landing a position in his trained field as a chemist. This proved to be Kuhn's longest tenure with the company, a position that lasted through July 1936. At that time new circumstances demanded a leave of absence. Kuhn never returned and in January 1937 his employment with Ford Motor Corporation was officially terminated.57
Though his employment within the company came to an eventual end, leaving Ford Motors would not be Fritz Kuhn's concluding moment with its founder Henry Ford.

Copyright © 2013 by Arnie Bernstein