This article concludes a series on the history of unconventional (for the United States) political ideologies in the Greater Talossan Area. First, we covered the unprecedented mainstreaming of democratic socialism in early 20th-century Milwaukee. Next, we covered the shocking story of Milwaukee’s revolutionary anarchist fringe during the same period. This issue’s story is about the less bloody but perhaps no less disturbing history of fascism in the GTA.
Friends of New Germany, an organisation to foster American support for the new Nazi regime in Germany, was established in 1 933 at the instigation of Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess. This organisation became controversial when it was accused of being unpatriotic and dominated by German nationals. It was dissolved in 1 936 and replaced with the German-American Bund, or Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, which only allowed U.S. citizens to become members.
The Bund was divided into three regional Gaue, based in Los Angeles, New York City, and Milwaukee. Each Gau was headed by a Gauleiter. The Gauleiter in Milwaukee was George Froboese. Fritz Kuhn was the Bundesführer, or national leader of the Bund. Kuhn and Froboese had both fought for Germany in World War I, and immigrated to the United States after the war. Indeed, most of the Bund’s support came from post-World War I German immigrants, rather than the more established German-American community. These recent immigrants tended to be nationalists who left Germany because they opposed the relatively liberal Weimar Republic that grew out of the German Revolution of 1918-1919.
The Midwestern Gau of the Bund operated out of two restaurants on the west side of the River in Kilbourntown: the Highland Cafe and the Forst Keller Restaurant. From these headquarters, the Bund attempted to infiltrate and co-opt pre-existing German-American social and cultural groups in the Greater Talossan Area. It created front organisations that attempted to join the Wisconsin Federation of German-American Societies, a Milwaukee-based network of several dozen groups across the state. It also repeatedly introduced resolutions to have the Nazi swastika flag displayed at Federation events.
These resolutions were soundly rebuffed, and the Wisconsin Federation of German-American Societies responded by expelling all Bund-related organisations. In 1 938, the Federation issued a statement declaring it had “nothing whatever in common with the propaganda of racial hatred and religious intolerance fostered by the Volksbund.” The Federation assured the public that the average German-American was “strongly opposed to the Nazi doctrine of hate” and pleaded, “America, please take notice! ”
Bernhard Hofmann, a Milwaukee radio salesman, was president of the Wisconsin Federation of German-American Societies and of one of its member organisations, the Milwaukee German-American Federation. Hofmann and Froboese had been close friends before the rise of fascism in Germany, but became archrivals afterward. In 1938, Hofmann went to the U.S. Congress to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about the Bund’s objective of instituting fascist government in the United States, and about its attempts to take over the Federation of German-American Societies and intimidate its members. In his testimony, he estimated that no more than 1% of Wisconsin’s German-Americans were sympathetic with the Bund.
Emblematic of the struggle by mainstream German-American groups against the Nazi sympathizers was the battle for Camp Hindenburg. Camp Hindenburg was a German-language summer camp operated by the Milwaukee chapter of the Bund on the Milwaukee River, about 25 miles north of downtown in Grafton, Wisconsin. There, children of Bund members learned to march and drill in paramilitary uniforms, and gave Nazi salutes under swastika flags. According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal from that time, 1 03 boys attended the camp in summer 1 937 — mostly from Chicago, but about 30 of them from Milwaukee.
After the 1938 summer session, however, Hofmann’s Federation managed to persuade the camp site’s owners to lease the property to them rather than to the Bund. The Federation renamed it Camp Carl Schurz, after the German liberal revolutionary turned Milwaukee attorney who served as a Union general during the Civil War and later as U.S. Senator from Missouri. “We will have no marching and drilling at Camp Carl Schurz,” promised Hofmann: “There will be only one flag — the American flag.” Milwaukee’s assistant city attorney, Carl Zeidler, spoke at the camp’s opening in 1 939. He would return to speak again the next year, this time as Milwaukee’s mayor. The Bund had to scramble to find an alternate location about half a mile downriver.
The German-American Bund must have had high hopes for Wisconsin in general and Milwaukee in particular, as the most German major city in the most German state. But it is estimated that Bund membership in Wisconsin probably never exceeded 500 members. And public sentiment against the Bund grew, as did official scrutiny of its actions, as war clouds drew closer to America. Once the United States entered World War II, any patience or tolerance for domestic flirtation with fascism was pretty much at an end. A Milwaukee Bund meeting in 1940 drew 100 attendees. A meeting scheduled for 10 December 1941, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and two days after Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S., was attended only by Froboese’s confidant Paul Knauer and the chapter secretary (who happened to be an informant for the Milwaukee Police Department).
Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze had succeeded Fritz Kuhn as leader of the German-American Bund in December 1 939, when Kuhn was convicted of embezzling Bund funds and sent to jail. But after Pearl Harbor, Kunze fled to Mexico en route to Germany (though he never made it to Germany: he was arrested in Mexico in 1 942, extradited to the U.S., and sentenced to 1 5 years in prison after being convicted of espionage). Milwaukee’s George Froboese then became the third, last, and shortest-serving American Bundesführer.
In June 16, 1942, while on his way to New York to testify before a federal grand jury investigating Bund operations, Froboese got off his train at a stop in Waterloo, Indiana, and committed suicide by laying his head on the rail in front of the train as it departed. Over the following months, the Milwaukee office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested more than 100 enemy aliens in Wisconsin, including Knauer and Milwaukee Bund officer Hans Behnke. What little influence the Bund had in the GTA was broken for good.