A new AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film tells the largely unknown story of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi group that was active across the United States in the 1930s, promulgating virulent antisemitism alongside patriotic values. Thousands of Americans joined local chapters, attended joint rallies with the Ku Klux Klan and sent their children to summer camps centered around Nazi beliefs and imagery. In 1939, the group drew 20,000 people to a “Pro-America Rally” at Madison Square Garden, the same year that Adolf Hitler was building his sixth concentration camp.

Peter Yost, the film’s producer, director and writer, said he was shocked when he first saw footage of the rally in New York City. “If you can get 20,000 of these believers into Madison Square Garden, what must be going on outside? What’s the broader context?” Nazi Town, USA, made with co-producer Edna Alburquerque, explores that question, capturing complex issues that we continue to wrestle with today. Albuquerque and Yost most recently partnered to produce the four-part PBS series Mysteries of Mental Illness and each has worked on projects for NOVA.

The economic hardships of the Great Depression left many Americans in the 1930s questioning whether democracy had failed and fearing that the social order might collapse. Extremist groups on both the right and the left found willing converts.

“I was struck by the realization that a significant number of people questioned whether democracy was done for,” said Yost. “That was at once disconcerting and in an odd way comforting that this country has been through existential crises before and managed to preserve democracy.”

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Photos courtesy of Peter Yost and Edna Alburquerque

Almost 100 years later, those issues still resonate. “The film raises questions that persist today — questions of free speech and what we are willing to tolerate and allow and to what degree,” said Alburquerque.

Featuring archival footage and interviews with historians and authors, the film captures the simmering antisemitism, anti-immigrant sentiment and racial segregation at a time when millions of Americans belonged to the KKK, including dozens of members of Congress.

“The social and political currents in the 1930s were in some ways a backlash to the diversification of America,” said Alburquerque. “But part of what saved the United States was its diversity of opinions. One of the reasons that these fascist groups didn't get the foothold they needed to succeed was because there were so many different factions.”

The film spotlights the compelling figures of the time, including Charles Lindbergh and his 800,000-member “America First” coalition; pioneering American journalist Dorothy Thompson, who warns millions of readers and radio listeners about the impending dangers of Hitler’s reign; and Rabbi Stephen Wise, who, increasingly alarmed, calls for boycott of German products. The momentum of the Bund and other isolationist groups continued to grow right up to the United States’ entry in World War II, when the Bund finally collapsed. Its ugly history was largely forgotten, and few ever reckoned with the appeal that fascist ideas had held for many Americans during the tumultuous 1930s.

“There’s a resonance in the film with today’s fractured times and I hope the story can serve as a reminder of both the fragility – and resilience – of American democracy,” said Yost.

“Films like these help us look at the past and provide a clearer lens on what's going on today,” said Alburquerque. “I hope that this film will allow people— with some remove — to look at these resonant questions.”

Watch the filmhere.