It has happened here

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday February 26, 2019
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Scene from director Marshall Curry's short documentary "A Night at the Garden." Photo: Courtesy the filmmaker
Scene from director Marshall Curry's short documentary "A Night at the Garden." Photo: Courtesy the filmmaker

Marshall Curry is a filmmaking jack-of-all-trades who has garnered a couple of Oscar nominations for documentaries that push the envelope on explosive subjects like a militant environmental group ("If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front"). Most recently Curry has released a seven-minute film, "A Night at the Garden," that was nominated for the Oscar for best documentary short subject. The film explores a night in February 1939 when over 20,000 members of the American Nazi Party filled Manhattan's Madison Square Garden convention and sports arena. The event featured rousing tributes to Hitler just six months before the German dictator plunged the world into war by invading the democratic republic of Poland.

In 2006, Curry completed a full-length profile of New Jersey Senator and current Democratic candidate for president Corey Booker, "Street Fight." He recently appeared at a San Rafael screening of both "A Night at the Garden" and "Street Fight." I sat down with Curry to explore the doc's implications as we approach another presidential election cycle.

David Lamble: Your short documentary "A Night at the Garden" captures a little-known event: a full-fledged American Nazi Party rally staged in Manhattan at the then-existing Madison Square Garden, in February 1939, a time when Adolph Hitler was making ominous plans for the future of Europe.

Marshall Curry: He was finishing his sixth concentration camp as this rally was happening. The tone of the speeches at this rally was clearly and explicitly anti-Semitic. There was no "We didn't know" that could have come out of the crowd there that night.

And this was taking place in a city with the largest Jewish population outside of Israel.

Yeah, and that's what's so shocking about it, that in New York City, an international, progressive city, 20,000 Americans gathered to celebrate Nazism.

The mayor of New York at that time was Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947), who would go on to serve three terms, a man who was part-Italian and part-Jewish.

He actually had some great quotes at the time. There was a lot of discussion about whether the group [the Nazi Party] should be allowed to have their event at Madison Square Garden, and his line was that this group was the largest assembly of "international cooties" ever in a single room, and that the way you kill cooties is with sunlight. So, in America, where everyone is allowed to speak their minds, we can best confront them by exposing them to the sunlight, rather than denying them the right to speak.

Was this Nazi rally broadcast over network radio? In the 1930s, Father Coughlin, a virulently anti-Semitic Roman Catholic priest, was allowed to speak to the nation from WJZ in Detroit.

I don't know if this rally was aired. In parts of the speeches that are not in the film, they do give a shout-out to Father Coughlin. [His radio ministry] reached 30 million people at the time, as he was saying great things about Hitler and Mussolini.

This event was held at the second Madison Square Garden, not the one we know today at the site of the old Penn Station. Why was that allowed?

Right. I believe it was around Eighth Avenue and 50th Street. It held between 20 and 22,000 people, so that's where we get the estimates for the attendance.

Madison Square Garden was home to pro basketball and hockey. The African American Heavyweight Boxing Champ Joe Louis fought there. An American Nazi rally seems like an odd fit for such an important venue.

Right. One of the intriguing things about that night is that outside, on the marquee, the audience doesn't quite know what to make of it. They see the marquee for Madison Square Garden that announces a "Pro America Rally." And as you mention, right underneath it says, hockey game on Friday night. You go inside and you see American flags and a huge portrait of George Washington, and they say the Pledge of Allegiance, and the national anthem is sung, and then you notice there's a swastika next to Washington, and some of those flags have swastikas on them, and the crowd is doing the one-hand Nazi salute. They managed to intermingle the symbols of American patriotism with a philosophy that is completely un-American.

Who is the main Nazi speaker in the film?

His name is Fritz Kuhn, he was the head of the German American Bund, the group holding the rally. He later got arrested for embezzling money from the Bund, went to prison during WWII, was deported after WWII to West Germany, and died unknown and penniless.

Right at the time the West German government was, in theory, rounding up old Nazis, somewhat comically, at least according to gay filmmaking giant Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

The thing that's so disturbing, I think, to people who watch the film, is that this rally attracted a crowd of 20,000 Americans. You know if 20,000 Americans attend a rally, there's many times that who support the ideology but just didn't make it to the rally. These are people who would be my neighbors. I live in Brooklyn. You see them in the audience wearing hats and ties, and dresses, yet they have been spellbound by a demagogue who attacks the press, and attacks minorities, and wraps hate and casual violence in the symbols of patriotism.