Battling Nazis and white supremacists: A tale of two cities – Charlottesville and La Crescenta

August 17, 2017
Fritz Kuhn speaks at a Bund rally in April 1939 at Hindenburg Park in La Crescenta, CA.

La Crescenta, California is a long way from Charlottesville, Virginia, but both communities have recently had to deal with controversies involving Nazis, white supremacy, and the removal of a public monument that symbolized bigotry.  In Charlottesville, the controversy erupted in violence and became national news. In La Crescenta,  a suburb of Los Angeles, the dispute was resolved through spirited but nonviolent meetings and discussions. Not surprisingly, the La Crescenta experience generated few headlines.

Members of Nazi, Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups descended on Charlottesville last weekend purportedly to preserve a 26-foot tall statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederal general and traitor to his country, erected in a local park that was once named after him.  The statue of Lee, on his horse with hat in hand, had stood in the park since 1924, a time of resurgent white supremacy, KKK activism, and lynching.  In April, the Charlottesville City Council voted to sell and remove the statue and rechristen Lee Park as Emancipation Park.  Local white supremacists went to court to oppose the removal and a  circuit court judge issued an injunction prohibiting any sale or removal for six months.

Stopping the removal of the Lee statue was the excuse that Nazis and other white supremacists used to organize a march and rally in Charlottesville brandishing  torches, bats, and guns. One of them drove his  Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters that killed 32-year old Heather Heyer and injured  19 others.   The controversy was compounded when President Donald Trump refused to forcefully condemn the white supremacists, who then celebrated Trump’s remarks as signifying support for their views and actions.

This Friday – a week after the Nazis came to Charlottesville – people will gather in Crescenta Valley Community Regional Park to celebrate a victory over hate and bigotry.  A year ago, a sign at the park’s entrance said “Welcome to Hindenburg Park,” named for Paul von Hindenburg, Germany’s president from 1925 to 1934 who appointed Adolf Hitler as German chancellor in 1933.  The sign was erected last year, paid for by a German-American group who claimed that it was intended to celebrate the area’s German American heritage.  But the sign failed to mention the park’s ugly past as a site of Nazi rallies and a Nazi youth camp during the 1930s.

Few people knew about the six-foot sign until the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation erected it in March 2016 at the park’s entrance near the corner of Honolulu and Dunsmore avenues in La Crescenta, an unincorporated section of LA County, adjacent to Glendale.

The sign greeted visitors with the words “Willkommen zum,” written in a German typeface, followed by “Welcome to Hindenburg Park,” and below that “The Historic German Section of Crescenta Valley Park.” At the bottom of the sign was the county’s official seal and the words “Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.” 

Despite the official seal, the county did not pay for the sign, which cost $2,500.  The idea for the sign originated with the Tricentennial Foundation, a German heritage organization based in the North Hills section of Los Angeles. The foundation worked with the Crescenta Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Historical Society of Crescenta Valley to fund the sign. The foundation ‘s aim was to “preserve the historical integrity of the site,” Hans Eberhard, the group’s chairman, told the Glendale News-Press last year.

Some proponents of the sign argued that they heard no objections about it before the County approved it.

“That’s because hardly anyone knew about it until it was put up,” explained Jason Moss, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. “If it had been a public process, I’m sure people would have opposed it.  But soon after it was put up, we started voicing our concerns.”

Once it was installed, people in the area began to raise questions.  After several local residents brought the issue to Moss’ attention, what appeared to be a harmless historical marker became the subject of controversy.  They learned that, despite the sign, the park’s name is Crescenta Valley Community Regional Park, not Hindenburg Park, and it is owned and operated by Los Angeles County.  Moss and others brought their complaints to County officials.

“I think there’s a way we can honor German-American culture, but also not forget what took place at that park,” Moss explained last year.

Civil rights, human rights, and faith-based groups mobilized a campaign to persuade County officials to take down the sign and replace it with another sign that would tell an accurate history of that site.  Local residents signed petitions, contacted local elected officials, and conducted research to uncover the park’s ugly but mostly forgotten history.

In April 2016, the county’s Human Relations Commission held a public hearing on the issue that attracted at least 200 people, the vast majority of them opposed to the new sign.  At the public hearing, many local residents recited versions of the famous statement by philosopher George Santayana:  If we don’t learn from the past, we’re doomed to repeat it.

Under pressure from the elected County Board of Supervisors, Parks and Recreation Department officials agreed to remove the sign and to appoint a committee to create a new display that accurately represented the park’s history with texts and photos. The sign was removed last November. The new display, explaining the site’s history, will be unveiled this Friday.

Had local political officials and business groups done their research, they might have predicted that the sign would generate controversy, given the park’s history as a gathering place for American Nazis and Nazi sympathizers.

Had the park simply been a place where German Americans celebrated their rich and fascinating cultural heritage, it would hardly be contentious. But the site also has a much more troubling history.

Although the German American League may have been founded to celebrate German culture, it always had a political side. According to a 1937 article in Life magazine, the group was “the Nazi organization in the U.S.,” previously known as the Friends of the New Germany.

This country’s major pro-Nazi group was the German-American Bund, which sought to promote a favorable view of Nazi Germany and urged Americans to boycott Jewish-owned business. Its rallies not only featured Nazi flags but also American flags, claiming that its members were patriotic Americans. In fact, the Bund claimed that George Washington was “the first Fascist.”

As early as 1936, the Bund operated 19 Nazi-inspired youth camps across the United States. One of them, Camp Sutter, was located at the German-American League’s Hindenburg Park.

In an interview last year, Arnie Bernstein, author of the Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund, explained that the purpose of these Bund youth camps was to “indoctrinate children in Nazi ideology.” Like most summer camps, the children participated in sports, hikes, arts and crafts and other activities. But they also were taught about Aryan supremacy and told to be loyal to the Bund, its leader Fritz Kuhn, and Adolph Hitler. They wore uniforms similar to those worn by the Hitler Youth group in Germany. They were forced to march around in the middle of the night carrying Bund and American flags, sing the Nazi anthem, give the Nazi salute, and shout “Sieg Heil.”  As part of their camp activities, they were inculcated with Nazi propaganda. A Congressional investigation also uncovered sexual abuse between the adults and campers, Bernstein said

In February 1939, Kuhn, who was often called the “American Fuehrer,” spoke at a pro-Nazi Bund rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City that attracted over 20,000 people. There he repeatedly referred to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as “Frank D. Rosenfeld,” called his New Deal the “Jew Deal,” and stated that “the Jews are enemies of the United States.”

Bund choir group sings at Hidenburg Park in 1936.

Later that month, the Bund held another rally at its West Coast headquarters at 634 West 15th Street in Los Angeles in building known as the Deutsch Haus (German House). The building was a site for pro-Nazi meetings and also housed a restaurant and beer hall as well as the Aryan Bookstore, where one could purchase the Bund newspaper, Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kamp, and other Nazi literature. The Deutsch Haus also screened German anti-Semitic propaganda films with titles like “Kosher Slaughter.”

A few months later, on April 30, 1939, the Bund held a rally in Hindenburg Park, promoted as a celebration of Hitler’s birthday ten days later. Over 2,000 German-American Bund members came to hear Kuhn and West Coast Bund leader Herman Max Schwinn.

According to the Los Angeles Times: “Clad in a gray-and-black storm trooper uniform and flanked by a dozen uniformed guards, Kuhn spoke from a stage draped in red swastika banners.” The crowd cheered Kuhn and booed as a low-flying plane, sponsored by the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, bombarded the park with thousands of anti-Hitler leaflets.

When it was Schwinn’s turn to speak, he read a telegram he had sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Do everything in your power to quarantine the United States against alien influences which are at work to drag the nation into war.” By “alien influences” he meant Jews, whom the Bund correctly believed were trying to get the Roosevelt administration and Congress to oppose Hitler’s efforts to take over Europe.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times that week, Kuhn spouted typical Nazi ideas.  He falsely claimed that Jews occupied 62% of the high posts in the federal government and “have plotted to get hold of almost everything, especially in New York and Hollywood.”

That event was only one of many Bund and pro-Nazi events that took place at the park. These gatherings featured speakers from other American fascist organizations – including the Silver Shirts, White Shirts, and Khaki Shirts — as well as the Bund.

California State University-Northridge hosts a website and archive called “In Our Own Backyard: Resisting Nazi Propaganda in Southern California, 1933-1945” that includes photos of Nazi rallies at Hindenburg Park. One shows members of the Bund erecting a huge swastika in the park. A two-minute clip from the documentary film “Rancho La Canada” includes footage of activities at Hindenburg Park, including the 1939 Nazi rally.

In December 1939, Kuhn was sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison for embezzlement, but the Bund briefly continued without him. Two years later, after the United States entered World War 2 against the Nazis, the Bund disappeared. In 1943, while he was serving his prison sentence, the U.S. cancelled Kuhn’s citizenship and deported him to Germany in 1945.

Historian Bernstein is quick to explain that “most German Americans weren’t Nazis or Nazi sympathizers.” Many, he said, were “ashamed of Hitler and what was going on in Germany, and strongly denounced Kuhn and his followers.”

“The Bund was a small group compared with the number of German Americans living in the United States,” he noted. “But they were loud and noisy.”

After the war, Hindenburg Park continued to be the site for German festivals. Southern California’s first Oktoberfest was held there in 1956.

While the German American League owned the park, a five-foot bust of Hindenburg adorned the grounds. In 1957, Los Angeles County purchased the land from the German-American League for $91,000, and removed the bust. The Board of Supervisors also abandoned the name Hindenburg Park and incorporated that section of the park into the larger Crescenta Valley County Park.

Over the next half-century, memories of the American Nazis’ presence at the park faded. By the start of this century, few people recalled that the Glendale area had not only been a stronghold of Nazi activism but also a breeding ground for other hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the John Birch Society in the 1950s.

In the 1960s, Glendale was West Coast headquarters of the American Nazi Party. In 1962, when the KKK experienced a revival in response to the burgeoning civil rights movement, the Klan paraded down Glendale’s main thoroughfare, Brand Boulevard, with a horse brigade, marching band and burning cross.

As recently as 2012, a tiny hate group called the Crescenta Valley European American Society, promoting “white identity and white pride,” had a brief presence on the internet and sponsored a European American Heritage Festival at Hindenburg Park — which generated controversy at the time — but all manifestations of this group, including its website, soon disappeared.

The La Crescenta and Glendale areas are now more diverse than in earlier years, but the scars of racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and other forms of bigotry never completely heal, as reflected in the upsurge of protest after the appearance of the new “Welcome to Hindenburg Park” sign last year.

Hans Eberhard, the Tri-Centennial Foundation’s chairman, seemed either naïve or willfully ignorant about the significance of the site’s Nazi past.

He told the Glendale News-Press last year that people who hoisted flags bearing swastikas in the park did so because it was the German flag at the time, not because they were Nazis.

Seeking to downplay the dispute, Eberhard explained, “This is a welcome to Hindenburg Park. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s an indication this is a historic site.”

Steve Pierce, a Crescenta Valley Chamber of Commerce board member, told the Glendale News Press:  “The sign is just recognizing the German culture that was in our community.  I think that’s important. I’m very in support of that.”

Mike Lawler, former president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley, who has documented the area’s history of racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry, had a somewhat more nuanced view. The park’s history, he observed last year, is part of the “simple and recurring American story of an immigrant group celebrating their heritage as they assimilate.”

But Lawler also understood why the sign triggered a protest movement. “My overall feeling is that by burying uncomfortable events in history, we risk repeating past mistakes. Obviously, I don’t have the perspective of having been the victim of a mass genocide, so I cannot relate to the Jewish Federation’s feelings of offense. But I would hope that bringing attention to the park’s history would provide an opportunity for educating future generations about the dangers of nationalism and hate groups like the Bund.”

The Department of Parks and Recreation’s six-member advisory committee spent months debating what words and photos to include on the new display and how much to focus on the park’s Nazi activities.

Through the months of discussion, “we got a vivid reminder of the fruitful collaboration that can come from listening to others with care and respect,” said committee member Mark Strunin, a consultant for nonprofit groups and former president of a nearby synagogue.

“All four of my kids frequently go to the park and I was surprised when the sign suddenly appeared,” said Sophal Ear, an elected member of the Crescenta Valley Town Council who was appointed to the advisory committee.  “I had no clue as to the history of the Nazi activities in the park.”

A Cambodian refugee and a professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Ear said it was important to create a display that “doesn’t gloss over the past but illuminates it.  It’s absolutely crucial that we learn the lessons of history.”

Mona Field, a retired political science professor at Glendale College who helped lead the campaign to remove the offensive sign, called it a “grassroots victory against those who would whitewash history.” The new display, she said, “tells the full story, good and bad, and makes clear that ideologies of hatred have no place in our community.”

The display, recounting the park’s history, mentions that in its early days the park was owned by German-American League, who used it for festivals and other events for the local German-American community. But it also explains that “it was also used for more controversial activities” including “the promotion of Nazi beliefs through political rallies and the Sutter Youth Camp.”  There, the display notes, American youth were “indoctrinated into theories of Aryan superiority,” which is described as “part of Adolf Hitler’s racist ideology.”   These were not simply harmless theories but, the display  explains, “led to persecution and murder of European Jews and any other group or individual who opposed Hitler’s Third Reich regime.”

The display includes photos of the entrance to the park, the park caretaker’s residence in the 1930s, an Easter Sunday service in the park in 1952, a musical comedy performance in the early 1950s, and a bust of Beethoven that was erected in the park.  There’s also a 1944 photo of German American bomber  pilots in front of a plane.  This photo has nothing to do with the park or the Glendale area. One member of the advisory committee insisted that it be part of the display, no doubt to show that German Americans were loyal patriots who served  in the U.S. military during World War 2.

But the marker also includes photos of pro-Nazi activities that took place in the park in the 1930s – a German American Bund Party choral group, in front of a swastika, a gathering that includes both American and Nazi flags, and a group of children in uniforms looking at the German American Bund Party flag.  It does not include a well-known photo of German-American Bund leader Fritz Kuhn speaking at a pro-Nazi rally in Hindenburg Park in April 1939.  Only three of the display’s nine photos deal with the park’s Nazi past.

The display concludes with this statement: “Although the events of the 20th century may seem distant, there continues to be a need to guard against all forms of hatred, racism, and totalitarian ideologies of all types. The American ideals of justice and equal opportunity still require our vigilant support.”

When the ad hoc committee appointed by the LA County Parks and Recreation Department began deliberating over the design, photos, and wording of the new display, nobody could have anticipated that its unveiling would occur as the nation was reeling from an upsurge of neo-Nazi and white supremacist activism, emboldened by a president who failed to display moral leadership.

“The events in Charlottesville are a sad reminder that Nazism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and racism still exist in our country,” said the Jewish Federation’s Jason Moss.  “We cannot erase our history. But the new display in the park is a reminder of past events that took place in the community, and hopefully a way to ease the pain.”

“We showed that there are ways to work together through dialogue,” observed Moss, “instead of with torches and violence.”

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is “The 100 Greatest American of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame” (Nation Books).

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