Next door to a Germans-only colony featuring streets named Hitler and Goebbels was a youth camp with swastikas on bunks and Hitler Youth short shorts.
For 14 million American kids and adults, summertime means camptime. Over these next two months, each of more than 14,000 day camps and sleepaway camps will initiate campers into their own particular, delightfully kooky, universes. The camps create 24/7 cocoons with their own lingo and songs, rituals, and codes, devoted to mastering computers or losing weight, to becoming better Zionists or learning golf, to recreating Native American traditions or designing software. Eight decades ago, during the 1930s, young German Americans attended Camp Siegfried. Their summer camp immersion entailed learning Nazi ideology, singing German folk songs, and wearing those creepy paramilitary Hitler Youth short-shorts. There they were, goosestepping and Heil Hitlering away, day and night, sleeping in bunks with swastikas emblazoned above the doorways. All this occurred a short walk from the intersection of Hitler Street and Goering Street, in Yaphank, New York, on Long Island, 60 miles from the Statue of Liberty.
Camp Siegfried was among the pro-Nazi summer camps affiliated with the German-American Bund, the homegrown organization that by 1941 had 25,000 members. Camp Siegfried was located next to a bigger German colony in Yaphank. Restricted to German Americans, “German Gardens,” as the neighborhood was called, named streets after prominent Germans, which then included Hitler, Goering, Goebbels. The Long Island Railroad even ran an 8 a.m. “Camp Siegfried Special” to ferry visitors from Manhattan. Only in January this year did a federal court invalidate the housing restrictions written into the original contracts which survived the repudiation of many German-Americans’ pro-Hitler orientation.
Considering Hitler’s monstrousness, it’s easy to condemn these Germans as moral pygmies. But Camp Siegfried and the Bund tell a subtler tale. The story begins with the pride uniting America’s largest ethnic group. The benign hybrid turns ugly with the bizarre crossbreeding between Nazism and Americanism, including mixing the American summer camp’s carefree innocence with Hitlerian evil.
In America as in Germany, few Nazis were born evil; their wickedness had to be nurtured step-by-step. Hitler cleverly hijacked neutral forces to advance his crimes. The German-American Bund sugarcoated Nazism’s coarseness with nostalgia for the German homeland. Founded in 1935 by the German American Settlement League, Camp Siegfried epitomizes this process. Its brochure promised: “You will meet people who think like you.”
That search for affinities can be lovely, especially during confusing times like the Great Depression. A pre-war visitor could have been charmed by the Bratwurst and beer, the hunting and hiking, the American flag flying high above any German symbols. Seeking, as many Americans do, to reconcile their Old World ties with New World realities, the Siegfrieders—like most Bundists—celebrated George Washington’s patriotic leadership. But they overstretched, distorting who Washington was and what America is by deeming him “The First Fascist.”
Here was the problem. In New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and other centers of Germanness, underlying the German folk movement’s sweet simplicity was the grotesquery of Hitler’s Aryan Volk and its pathological Jew hatred. Nazism turned positive nationalism negative; it was not just seeking a charming, usable German past, but building a menacing future cleansed of Jews, Bolsheviks, homosexuals, blacks, East Europeans—anyone who didn’t look or think “like you,” if you were a zealous German Aryan (or wannabe).
Nazi Germany did not have a monopoly on racism, anti-Semitism, or white supremacy. The Great Depression’s economic earthquake triggered an age of rage, with Jews especially blamed from Left to Right, as populist demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin soothed the pain caused by American modern economic woes with ancestral hatreds. “Wherver [sic] the Jews move in, the others move out. Would YOU rather have a Jew Colony at your town?” one Bund representative ranted. “Siegfried Colony has long been a eyesore to the lousy Jews and theywill just do sabotage of this kind to discredit the Germans.”
Fortunately, most Americans rejected totalitarianism and anti-Semitism. Franklin Roosevelt repudiated Adolf Hitler’s and Benito Mussolini’s fascism. Alas, for too many German Americans, it took Hitler’s declaration of war after his Japanese allies bombed Pearl Harbor to recognize Nazism’s evil and choose liberal democratic values over German loyalty. Some tarried longer, refusing to serve in the American army, even spying for the Nazi enemy. The authorities closed Camp Siegfried in 1941, seizing the land until the courts forced the return of this private property. Still, American placidity beat European perversity as Hitler Street eventually became Park Boulevard.
Aware that tens of millions of Americans had German ancestry, Roosevelt highlighted German-American patriotism. Heroes like General Dwight Eisenhower and Admiral Chester Nimitz upstaged the story of America’s homegrown pro-Hitler Bundist fascists. Eisenhower ignored his heritage. He wrote his wife Mamie: “God, I hate the Germans.” He recalled that after touring a German concentration camp, “I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.” The McGill University psychoanalyst and political scientist Blema Steinberg observes that when condemning the German “beast,” Eisenhower made “no mention of his own German ancestry, which may have been too painful to acknowledge.”
In December 1942, 50 leading German-Americans, including the Yankee legend Babe Ruth, signed a full page advertisement that appeared in 10 newspapers including TheNew York Times denouncing Hitler’s “policy of cold-blooded extermination of the Jews of Europe and against the barbarities committed by the Nazis against all other innocent peoples under their sway.” The ad recognized “these horrors” as a particular “challenge to those who, like ourselves are descendants of the Germany that once stood in the foremost ranks of civilization.” The American signatories urged their European cousins “to overthrow a regime which is the infamy of German history.”
Remembering Camp Siegfried reminds us that, in real time, the reel of history runs only forward. Perhaps, at least initially, few could foresee just how dastardly the Nazi regime would be. But for the Eisenhowers, the Ruths, and millions of others, basic morality or American patriotism quickly eclipsed German pride. Sadly, not enough Germans in Germany awoke early enough to stop the Nazi evil. Here, then, is the broader warning. As political beings, as moral actors, we all must think ahead, anticipating the implications of our political stances. And each of us must know when to break, how to turn from being a Siegfried goosestepper to being an Eisenhoweresque leader or a Ruthian critic, guaranteeing that, as finally happened in World War II, democratic ideals trump totalitarianism and bigotry.