Eighty years ago, on February 20, 1939, about 20,000 Americans gathered at Madison Square Garden for a rally. The world was roiling. Hitler was in the midst of constructing his sixth concentration camp. Seven months later, he would invade Poland.
In the cavernous arena, the crowd faced a stage, on which a row of American flags stood against a backdrop bearing a towering image of George Washington. They said the Pledge of Allegiance together and sang the Star Spangled Banner. They listened to speakers and cheered. Young men in starched uniforms stood at attention.
And everyone gave the Nazi salute. The reason these 20,000 Americans had gathered, after all, was to join with their fellow “American patriots” in support of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization.
“We, with our American ideas, demand that our government shall be returned to the American people who founded it,” said the Bund’s leader, Fritz Kuhn, after decrying the “Jewish controlled press” for painting him as a cartoonish villain. Behind him, swastikas flanked George Washington and the American flag. As the crowd laughed and clapped, he continued: “If you ask what we are actively fighting for under our charter, first, a socially just, white, Gentile-ruled United States. Gentile-controlled labor unions, free from Jewish Moscow-directed domination.”
Kuhn was interrupted as a protestor rushed the stage. The man was tackled, beaten, and pushed off stage, and his pants were torn off his body in the process. He was escorted out by police and arrested for disturbing the peace. His name was Isadore Greenbaum, and he was a Jewish plumber from Brooklyn.
Few Americans seem to know this Bund rally happened eight decades ago. Footage of it plays like something from an old, dystopian film. But it’s not fiction. And it’s now the basis of a seven-minute long short documentary, A Night at the Garden, which stitches together archival footage from the evening and its events.
“I wanted to provoke people to think about our current times through the perspective of history,” the film’s director, Marshall Curry, told me. “I wanted them to be shocked, and surprised, and to ask, ‘How in the world did that happen in America?’”
Released in 2018, A Night at the Garden aired on PBS’s documentary show POV in October. The film simply shows the rally, without additional commentary, but its implication is clear, and especially resonant today. And now, the film is nominated for an Oscar, for Best Documentary Short.
Nazi ideas, in America’s most famous arena
Curry didn’t know about the rally either, until a friend alerted him. “I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of it,” Curry said. “It turned out that short clips from the night had been used in history documentaries before, and I figured if there were 10-second clips, there must be more than that.” So Curry asked a friend who is an archival researcher to help him locate more footage, which turned out to reside in archives around the country, including at UCLA and at the National Archives in Washington, DC, which had film that hadn’t been scanned into high definition before.
“He gathered it, and when I saw it I was shocked,” Curry said. “We see regular New Yorkers in their suits and ties and dresses — people who would be my neighbors today — laughing and cheering as a demagogue attacks Jews, who would be murdered by the millions in the next few years. It’s a reminder about the power of demagogues to use the symbols of patriotism to summon the darkest sides of people.”
That shock value is what the film is after, and it’s been effective. When the short premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, the festival’s director, John Cooper, called it “the most shocking thing I’ve seen of all the movies so far. It’s horrifying.”
“Most Americans assume that in the leadup to World War II, all of our countrymen and women were appalled by Nazi ideology,” Curry said. “But when you see 20,000 New Yorkers carrying swastika flags and cheering for Nazi ideas, you realize that things weren’t so clear back then. There was a significant minority of Americans who thought fascism and racism and anti-semitism were okay.”
This historical detail, Curry says, was largely erased from our collective memories once the war started and Nazis started killing American soldiers. But that particular turn of events wasn’t a foregone conclusion. And Curry says it’s important to remember because of the lessons it holds for today.
“We can’t be complacent. If things are going to work out okay now, it’s going to be because of the efforts of people who push back on the anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, anti-Muslim ideas that seem to be creeping back in our country,” he said.
The film’s contemporary resonance is why it was supported by Field of Vision, a documentary unit that commissions short documentary films on urgent matters around the globe. You can’t miss the echoes with current events. And that’s on purpose.
“When you see the leader take the stage and attack the press and tell the audience to take back America from the minorities who are destroying it — and then laugh and sneer when a protester is beaten up — this all feels very familiar,” Curry said. “And I hoped that when Trump supporters saw what this kind of behavior led to in 1939, it might make them more sensitive to it when they saw it today. And when casual Trump critics saw it, they might take the threat a little more seriously.”
But A Night at the Garden must still rely on viewers’ willingness to listen to its message in order for that message to land. And that willingness is far from certain. Indeed, the film recently made headlines when a trailer for it was rejected as an ad by Fox News, reportedly because an executive felt it was not appropriate to air.
“The ad in question is full of disgraceful Nazi imagery regardless of the film’s message,” Fox News president of ad sales Marianne Gambelli told IndieWire.
(The trailer was later modified slightly to include a title card saying the ad’s footage was from an Oscar-nominated short film, at the request of NBC Universal, and aired on CNN and MSNBC. You can watch the original ad here. The full film is also streaming online.)
Meanwhile, Curry hasn’t let up in his campaign to get his film seen. In an effort to literally project history into the present, he and the Night at the Garden team hatched a plan to project the film onto the side of today’s Madison Square Garden (located several blocks away from where the arena was in 1939). On Monday, February 18, they did it. “We thought it would be a powerful and public reminder that these ideas were once mainstream enough that they could be paraded in America’s most famous arena,” Curry said.
“We wanted the projection to feel like ghosts were coming back to remind Americans not to be complacent.”
A Night at the Garden is streaming in full at anightatthegarden.com.
Note: This article was updated to note that changes were made to the ad before it ran on CNN and MSNBC.