New York City was changing in the 1930s – from the 1920s boom to the Great Depression, many people quickly went from a comfortable life to the breadline. And the Nazis entered this climate and tried to gain more influence. Terrence McCauley, author of the New York-based novel The Fairfax Incident (Amazon US | Amazon UK), explains.
One of the many reasons why I enjoy writing about 1930s New York is because of the complex social dynamics occurring in the city’s history at that particular time. By 1933, the city and the country were undergoing a period of great change. The Roaring Twenties had come to a screeching halt, Prohibition was repealed, a new president was in the White House and the Great Depression was beginning to tighten its grip on every strata of society.
For the first time since it had assumed control of the city’s modern political machine, Tammany Hall was beginning to lose its legendary power thanks to many of the reforms that had been set in place by former governor and then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The time of the omnipotent ward boss was on the wane and people like Mayor LaGuardia were poised to rise to power. The criminal underworld faced changes of its own as the Irish, whose immigrant population had been here the longest, began to leave the streets to become police officers, firemen, lawyers and yes, politicians. This criminal power vacuum was quickly filed by hungrier new immigrants like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.
As is usually the case in times of economic unrest, the middle class suffered the most. With their jobs gone and prospects of other employment scarce, many people lost their homes. Families were split apart as children were sent to live with relatives better suited to take care of them. Breadlines seemed to grow longer by the day. As the flop houses quickly filled, shantytowns known as Hoovervilles sprang up along the waterfront and even in the bucolic confines of Central Park. People accustomed to living in decent apartments were now forced to live in shabby structures comprised of any material the builders were fortunate enough to lay their hands on. The wolf was no longer at the door. It had blown the whole neighborhood down.
Germanic – and Nazi - Influence
The rest of the world faced revolutionary change of its own, especially in Europe. The monarchies of old had died away in the wake of the conflagration that came to be known as the First World War and a downtrodden Germany turned to a maniac they believed to be their savior. The man who vowed to restore their country’s dignity and make the world pay for punishing it so harshly in 1918. A man named Adolf Hitler.
As his Nazi Party took root in Germany, Hitler’s henchmen sought to export its philosophy to other parts of the world. America was no exception. Only here, its infiltration into society took a subtler, more devious approach. Knowing Americans would likely reject unpatriotic overtures from a foreign land, Hitler’s organization encouraged the formation of The Friends of New Germany, which spurred the American Bund movement. The Upper East Side of New York City, known as Yorkville, had a large German population and the organization found fertile ground there under the guise of a fraternal organization no different than the Knights of Columbus or the Ancient Order of Hibernians. They sought to encourage German immigrants and German-Americans to take pride in their heritage and cast off the shame of defeat in the Great War.
In New York, storefronts opened up featuring Bund material including Nazi propaganda and, of course Mein Kampf. It’s hard to believe such places could exist in as diverse a city as New York, but they did. Soon, the movement established Youth Camps in Long Island and New Jersey that claimed to be like the Boy Scouts, but more resembled the Hitler Youth in Germany.
The strength of the ties between the German Nazi Party and the Bund Movement have always been some matter of dispute. But there is no disputing the Bund’s power in organizing a large rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939 that drew 22,000 supporters who carried Nazi banners and saluted the evils of Hitler’s aims.
Despite the 22,000 people inside, over a hundred thousand protestors were outside, using their freedom of speech and assembly, not granted to the people in Germany, to voice their opposition to the movement. The event turned out to be a disaster, causing Germany to cut all ties with the movement, which collapsed completely when its members withdrew when the Second World War began.
A dark era in the city’s history was brought to an end by the brave citizens who took a stand against evil and promoted liberty.
I’m glad those ideas still exist in the city I call home today.
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