February 22, 2019

When Nazis Came to Madison Square Garden

A Still from the short documentary film, "A Night at the Garden."

A few years ago, I taught a college course on anti-Semitism, and obviously I spent a few classes on Nazism. Some students questioned how it could possibly be that people believed such twisted ideas — What was wrong with them? I respectfully jumped down their throats, telling them that if they had been living in Germany at the time, they likely would have been Nazis too.

Hate works that way. It plays on our proclivity to define the world as in-groups and out-groups, rendering the dehumanization and demonization of “others” as self-defense. Evolutionary psychology teaches that human beings are hardwired to hate — those who stoke this instinct identify the targets and normalize the process.

I wish I could have shown my students the seven-minute documentary just nominated for an Academy Award: “A Night at the Garden.” It’s more troubling than Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” because it shows a Nazi rally in New York City, not Nuremberg. 

The film’s producer and director Marshall Curry and his colleagues found snippets of film from a German Bund rally in Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 1939. Expertly combined and edited, without commentary, it is chilling, showing how easily hate can be rendered acceptable, even recast as something noble.

“[The film] is chilling, showing how easily hate can be rendered acceptable, even recast as something noble.”

The film shows 20,000 people in the Garden. Swastikas are frequently seen, and the speakers — from the German American Bund — have distinctly German accents. But this was not billed as a pro-Hitler gathering. The arena’s marquee called it a “Pro-American” event. American flags are ubiquitous, as are Nazi salutes. The pledge of allegiance is recited, “with liberty and justice for all.” A massive backdrop shows George Washington in American Revolutionary War uniform, between banners on either side sporting swastikas.

Audience members are addressed as “American patriots.” They are told the Jews — described in Satanic terms — control the press, that the government must be “returned to the American people who founded it,” and that they are fighting for a “socially just, white Gentile-ruled America.” A protester storms the stage, is dragged away as people cheer, and a boy dressed like a stormtrooper in the background gleefully dances, clearly enjoying the roughhouse treatment of the protester. This image is important for Curry, who sees it as “the giddy excitement that comes from being part of a mob.” The film ends as the Star Spangled Banner is sung, the conclusion of the anthem an occasion for more Nazi salutes.

 “The most striking and upsetting part of the film is not the anti-Semitism of the main speaker or even the violence of his storm troopers,” Curry said. “What bothers me more is the reaction of the crowd. Twenty-thousand New Yorkers who loved their kids and were probably nice to their neighbors came home from work that day, dressed up in suits and skirts, and went out to cheer and laugh and sing as a speaker dehumanized people who would be murdered by the millions in the next few years.”

Obviously, the film’s Oscar nomination comes at a time when Donald Trump (first as a candidate, then as president) has demonized Mexicans as rapists, suggested that Muslims be registered, portrayed brown-skinned refugee-seekers (including women and children) as dangerous invaders, and withheld criticism of white supremacists marching with tiki torches, Confederate flags and Nazi symbols

The film’s point is not that a repeat of what transpired at Madison Square Garden 80 years ago is inevitable. It is that what happened then, including the transforming of American symbols into images of hate, is still possible.


Kenneth S. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate.