Hunter Savery ’20
One of the most vital and important movies to come out in recent memory is only seven minutes long and consists entirely of archival footage from the 1930s. A Night at the Garden is a short documentary film by director Marshall Curry. Originally released in 2017, it was nominated for Best Documentary Short at this year’s Academy Awards. The film, which is without narration, is comprised of shots from the “Pro-American Rally” sponsored by the German-American Bund at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which took place on February 20, 1939, George Washington’s birthday. The Bund was effectively the Nazi party’s American wing, supporting Hitler’s agenda in the United States. The little remembered event was attended by over 20,000 Americans and featured a massive image of George Washington flanked by swastikas. There are uniformed boy scout-like children on the stage and a sea of Americans giving the Nazi salute. The dizzying shots feel as though they are from The Man in the High Castle, but they are all too real.
It may only be seven minutes long, but every one of them is nauseating and eerily familiar. Leader of the bund Fritz Kuhn decries a “Jewish-controlled” media and demands the return of the government to “…the American people who founded it…” The packed house raucously applauds one fascist and nativist line after another. One of the more interesting and troubling moments in the spectacle is when a protester storms the stage. He is swiftly descended upon by the Nazi stormtroopers and others who beat him savagely. He is only saved when police officers rush the stage. The scene calls to mind incidents at President Trump’s campaign rallies where protesters have been similarly threatened with violence. Surprisingly, Fox News refused to air an ad for the documentary, deeming it inappropriate. CNN and MSNBC had no such qualms about America’s past.
In the 1939 Nazi rally, we find a striking parallel in foreign authoritarian governments stirring nativists sentiment in America, and more alarmingly, a large number of Americans supporting it. In recent years, America has faced a reckoning with the darker aspects of its past, perhaps in confronting the troubling present we have had to reconsider what has brought us to today. From the removal of Confederate monuments to the release of A Night at the Garden, the nation is grappling with the most insidious parts of its being. So often American exceptionalism extends to the belief that we are beyond authoritarianism, better than white supremacy, immune to fascism, but these have all been parts of the American experience. Not only can it happen here, but it already has.
It may seem obvious when watching footage of the American fascists at the rally that night that they were on the wrong side of history. The swastikas, sieg heil’s, and Nazi pageantry make for obvious red flags, but in 1939 the score was hardly settled. Germany was on the march and America was ardently neutral. To many Americans leaving the Great Depression, fascism may have seemed a viable alternative. Today, the symbols have changed, there are dogwhistles that mean the right thing to the wrong people. The Nazis have taken off their armbands and the Klan has left its hoods behind, but the threat of hate in America is back. The Southern Poverty Law Center is reporting that in 2019 the number of hate groups in America has hit an all time high. These far right groups are clever, they do not come solely in the form of skinheads and other alt-right losers. They code their message in patriotism and immigration concerns, in supposed fights for free speech, and in celebrations of America and Western Civilization, just as the eugenicists and fascists touted Aryan descent. Right-wing billionaires like the Koch’s funnel dark money into the nation’s universities in the hopes of coopting America’s youth and controlling academic policy. Trump holds massive rallies where the hordes bear more than a passing resemblance to those in Madison Square Garden in 1939. American democracy is not a given if you think that fascism cannot happen here, it has before and could again.
A Night at the Garden is available to stream for free on YouTube and Vimeo.