BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that's the sound of the Stonemasons March of the German American Bund. Founded in 1936, it had approximately 25,000 members and 70 chapters around the country. While the Nazis were building concentration camps the Bund held pro-Hitler retreats and summer camps. February 28th marked the 80th anniversary of the Bund's most notorious event. When 20,000 of its members gathered at Madison Square Garden for a quote 'pro-American rally' featuring speeches and performances staged in front of a 30 foot high portrait of George Washington. The rally is the subject of the Oscar nominated documentary short, or should I say very short, A Night At The Garden by filmmaker Marshall Curry. Marshall, welcome to OTM.
MARSHALL CURRY: Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can I start with the 30 second ad for your documentary? Because it's had a media moment of its own.
MARSHALL CURRY: Well, it was not exactly what we expected. We decided to put an ad on Sean Hannity's show and so we--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stop there, why?
MARSHALL CURRY: Well, we felt like the film was something that people who watched Sean Hannity's show needed to see. The film is about a rally in Madison Square Garden. It is. To me, a cautionary tale about the tactics that demagogues use to whip up Americans against each other. And when I saw the footage for the first time, I was really struck by how similar it seemed to Trump rallies today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mmhm.
MARSHALL CURRY: Not to say that Donald Trump is a Nazi but I do think that he uses similar tactics to the ones that we see in the film.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you wanted to put it on Hannity and then what happened?
MARSHALL CURRY: So we edited an ad that is literally just footage from the rally that night, historical footage and a couple of pull quotes from press reports about the film. And the CEO of Fox News stepped in and personally rejected the ad from airing on Hannity's show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fox says it just found the imagery too disturbing.
MARSHALL CURRY: Right. But reporters began surfacing other examples of Fox News advertisements that included imagery that was at least as disturbing. Dinesh D'Souza as quote unquote 'documentary' had Nazi imagery that was aired on Fox.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That suggested that the left were Nazis.
MARSHALL CURRY: That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
MARSHALL CURRY: And the ad on Tucker Carlson show showed Nazi imagery. So the reason that they were giving was on its face untrue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why do you think Fox rejected it? I think that they thought it was a little close to home. The Washington Post had written a story when we first were placing the ad and that story connected the dots between what was happening in 1939 and what I think is happening today. And I'm sure that that story made its way up the chain of command at Fox News and they decided that they didn't want their audience to see this moment of history for some reason or other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you come upon it?
MARSHALL CURRY: I have a friend who is writing the screenplay that takes place in New York in 1939 and we were at dinner and he asked me whether I knew about the rally. And I didn't. And in fact, I didn't even believe him until I got home that night and looked it up and discovered that there had been clips of that night. And so I got an archival researcher who is a friend to start digging around and he found some in the National Archive and some in UCLA's archive and some in Grinberg archive and other places. There were fragments that were in all these different places but nobody had ever pulled it together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You decided to develop the film even before the 2017 Charlottesville rally where somebody died when a white supremacist drove into a crowd.
MARSHALL CURRY: Right. When I saw the footage it struck me as Trump-ian. And then Charlottesville happened and suddenly I realized that it wasn't even just a metaphor for Trump-ism. There was an element of that world that was actually Nazi. And so I called Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cooke--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mmhm.
MARSHALL CURRY: --who run field of vision. And we finished the film and released it quickly as we could.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The national leader of the Bund, Fritz Kuhn, began his speech at the event by slamming the press with anti-Semitic slurs.
FRITZ KUHN: I'm sure I do not come before you tonight as a complete stranger. You all have heard of me. Through the Jewish controlled press as a creature with horns. A cloven hoof. And a long tail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we know Kuhn's speech at the Bund was a lot longer than the few minutes featured in your film. In fact, WNYC has all two hours of it, how did you choose which parts of the event to include?
MARSHALL CURRY: I was told that this is the shortest Oscar nominee in 50 years. I wanted to cut the event down to the bone and just show the essence of everything that happened for two reasons. One, is I didn't feel like we needed to give Fritz Kuhn a long platform and also I felt like if we could just get the essence of what was happening that night, a lot more people would share a seven minute film on Facebook and Twitter than would watch a 30 or 40 minute film. I decided to edit it as if it were a vérité documentary where there is no narration and instead the audience has just dropped into this world to puzzle it out. And there are a number of head fakes built into it. You know, the movie's called A Night At The Garden so you might think it's going to be about a basketball game. The marquee outside describes the event as a pro-America rally so you might think that it's just going to be a typical patriotic event. The film begins with a rally that is full of American flags and icons of America, a huge portrait of George Washington that has swastikas either side. The crowd comes in and they sing the 'Star Spangled Banner' and they recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: One nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
CROWD: [CHEERING] [END CLIP]
MARSHALL CURRY: And you get inside and you see, 'are those people doing the nazi salute?' I was just trying to get the pieces that would pull us into this story and provoke shock and also a sense of reflection about what those events tell us about today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It also shows us how the emblems of patriotism are so easily appropriated. I mean, even if patriotism means freedom of speech you can still use the emblems and then excoriate the press. There is one element that didn't make it into your film. That was particularly pointed to me and that was this sense of victimhood that was also appropriated by, here, the German American Bund.
FRITZ KUHN: I hear sometimes the question, 'why don't you go back to Germany if you don't like the way we run things here.' And I ask who is we? It's the communist, the Jews, the [inaudible], the socialists, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Methodists, or the Baptists, [inaudible] Are not the American citizen of German extraction included in the we's that have a right to run things here?
CROWD: [CHEERING] [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He basically goes on to say that German Americans are the most persecuted minority. The laughter and the jeering that comes from his audiences was all so familiar and upsetting. In the background of one of the shots, I noticed a little boy who sort of jumps up and down and rubs his hands excitedly and does a little jig as Isadore Greenebaum is being beaten up and thrown off stage. It was a warning about human nature. You know, if we're honest there is a part of us that is thrilled by being part of a mob and we need to be aware of that if we want to diffuse that mob mentality that sometimes overtakes politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We see Isadore Greenebaum stormed the stage. What's his story?
MARSHALL CURRY: He was a Jewish plumber's assistant from Brooklyn who went down to the rally that night to see what was going on and was so outraged by what he saw on stage that he ran out to try to say something and was grabbed by the, I guess, stormtroopers onstage and they beat him up, rip off his pants and throw them offstage. He was arrested that night for disturbing the peace and fined $25 the next day. In the New York Times reports they said that the magistrate who was sentencing him said to him, 'don't you realize that someone could have been hurt by what you were doing out on stage?' And Greenebaum said to him, 'don't you realize that someone's going to be hurt from what was being said on that stage?'
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you were doing your research, you were reading some of the coverage of the event at the time, right?
MARSHALL CURRY: And it's so interesting to see how contemporary some of that coverage seems. One big debate was whether a group like the Bund should be allowed to have a rally in Madison Square Garden. There were many people who felt that they shouldn't, though leading Jewish groups at the time and many others felt the difference between the United States and fascist Germany is that in the United States even idiots are allowed to say what they think. And of course there are other people who said sure let them say what they think but don't give them Madison Square Garden. That brings instantly to mind debates on college campuses and places like that where we're having this exact same argument 80 years later.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's a history to the German American Bund. It was a presence in various parts of the country, especially Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. So what happened to the organization after the rally?
MARSHALL CURRY: Well once German soldiers started killing American soldiers, America's tolerance for this kind of ideology disappeared very, very quickly. Fritz Kuhn, the speaker during the rally, he was arrested for embezzling money and actually had his citizenship stripped from him and was deported to Germany after World War II where he died.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were talking about how the tolerance for these kinds of views waned after America joined the war. But let's talk about that tolerance. You had people like Henry Ford and Lindbergh and the notorious Father Coughlin inveighing against the Jews or standing in solidarity with Germany.
FATHER COUGHLIN: My dear friends, we are Christian as so far as we believe in Christ principles. Of love your neighbor as yourself. And with that principle, I challenge every Jew in this nation to tell me that he does not believe in it. [END CLIP]
MARSHALL CURRY: You know this was not a majority point of view in America by any stretch but it was considered a legitimate point of view. These were the kind of people who probably would have been booked on cable news to offer the other side to the Nazi question if they had been around today. It was an opinion held by many public leaders including Father Coughlin whose show was carried into the homes of 30 million Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you think we've largely erased that part of our history.
MARSHALL CURRY: But of course the ideology didn't completely go away. And if you don't know that any Americans ever supported Nazi ideology it's easy to assume that there's no threat today. When you see this footage and you see the spell that these kinds of people can cast, the reason that we avoided falling into the trap is because of people's hard work pushing back on those ideas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Press magnate William Randolph Hearst declared, 'whenever you hear a prominent American called a fascist, you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a loyal citizen who stands for Americanism.'
MARSHALL CURRY: I think one of the reasons that the Bund did not catch on even more is because of the German-ness of it. When you hear the leader Fritz Kuhn talking he has a German accent. There were a lot of German cultural trappings in the Bund and I think that probably kept many non-Germans from embracing it. But that is part of what frightens me so much about the current super right-wing part of America. They understand American culture very well, how to use memes and the Internet and sarcasm. There's a famous line that I'm paraphrasing is essentially--
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MARSHALL CURRY: --when fascism comes to America, it won't have a German accent and it won't use swastikas. It will be called Americanism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marshall, thank you very much.
MARSHALL CURRY: Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marshall Curry is the director of the documentary short film A Night At The Garden which you can see ANightAtTheGarden.com.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Asthaa Chaturverdi. We had more help from the Xandra Ellin and our show was edited by Brooke. Our executive producer is Katya Rodgers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Han.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On The Media is a production of WNYC studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.