Many are familiar with the history of Adolf Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust. But chances are your school glossed over the story of the simultaneous rise of Nazism in the United States and the struggle to stop it.
During Hitler’s rule, a variety of Nazi groups pushed his anti-Semitic, fascist agenda in the United States. While numerous organizations opposed American Nazis, one group took the fight further than the rest — Jewish gangsters. Once Hitler came to power, Jewish mobsters in cities from New York City to Los Angeles violently disrupted Nazi meetings and attacked Nazis, determined to stop the rise of fascism in the U.S.
In 1933, Hitler became the chancellor of Germany, and pro-Hitler groups popped up across the United States. They often targeted German Americans for recruitment and intimidated Jewish communities, historian Warren Grover tells Teen Vogue. By 1939, the German American Bund — one of the largest pro-Hitler groups in the country — had grown big enough to pack Madison Square Garden with 20,000 supporters.
Anti-Jewish sentiment in the U.S. wasn’t restricted to pro-Hitler groups, however. Until the U.S. entered World War II, in 1941, countless Americans opposed U.S. involvement in the war — despite relatively widespread media coverage of Hitler’s terror — including groups like the America First Committee, whose membership included anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers. Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford, who in the 1920s distributed half a million copies of anti-Jewish rants, was among the group’s members. Charles Coughlin, an Irish Catholic priest, used his national radio show, which reached millions, to stir up anti-Jewish sentiment. His supporters formed a group called the Christian Front, which created a “Christian Index,” of non-Jewish stores to support and whose members attacked Jews in the streets of cities like New York, historian Tony Michels tells Teen Vogue.
“There were a shockingly high number of Americans who were not Nazis but felt sympathetic,” said Michels, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and author of Jewish Radicals. Before the war, law enforcement mostly saw the activities of American Nazis as a freedom-of-speech issue, Grover said, and so it initially unlikely to get involved.
With Hitler building concentration camps in Europe and U.S. supporters holding rallies , thousands of Americans began fighting back. A group called the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League organized a boycott of German products and pro-Nazi businesses, Grover said. Plenty of groups — from the NAACP to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party — were anti-Nazi, Michels says, and thousands of Jewish Americans attended protest rallies against Hitler in cities like Detroit, Cleveland, New York, and Chicago, according to Tablet magazine. A group called the Jewish Labor Committee was formed and raised money to rescue hundreds of socialists — Jews and non-Jews alike — from across Europe and help them escape to the U.S., Michels explains.