The people of Princeton were on edge one summer in 1934. Six miles away on the banks of the Delaware & Raritan Canal in Griggstown, 200 boys ranging in age between 8 and 16 from New York, Buffalo, and Philadelphia were camping in tents that bore swastika emblems, wearing uniforms apparently modeled on the “Brown Shirts,” singing and speaking in German, and conducting daily military-style drills under the supervision of Hugo Haas, a 23-year-old German immigrant they referred to as “der Führer” (the Leader). The camp opened on a day that turned out to be significant for the American Nazi movement, August 6, 1934, the same date as mass rallies in New York’s Madison Square Garden and other cities nationwide, representing a notable escalation of Nazi activity in the United States. A group then named the Friends of the New Germany sponsored Camp Wille und Macht (which translates to “Will and Power” and was also the name of a Nazi youth magazine in Germany) as a pilot program to test out the idea of a Jungenschaft (the German Youth Movement) summer camp for American children of German descent. It quickly drew both local and national censure, but also raised important questions about American civil liberties.
Initially unaware of the German camp, a group of boys from the Princeton YMCA had their own campsite at the same time nearby. Rival campers routinely traded insults. As one of the YMCA boys later remembered it,
we tended to wonder if these people had any sort of a hold on reality. Again, although we knew these people were Nazis, we did not have the contempt for their philosophy which the events of subsequent years gave to us. … As we watched them parading down the road, we sometimes believed that they were, at best, simple-minded… We could not see it being possible that anyone with a normal degree of common sense would voluntarily become involved with such an outlandish collection of nuts.
After a few weeks of this, Haas and three of his assistants faced questioning by Rep. Samuel Dickstein, the head of a Congressional investigation into the camp’s activities. Dickstein co-chaired what was then named the Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities with John William McCormack (this later became the better-known House Committee on Un-American Activities). Dickstein said he’d paid a secret visit to Camp Wille und Macht and had received more than 2,000 letters protesting its existence. Dickstein was concerned about the lack of American patriotism on display. “We have found too much goose-stepping and no saluting of the American flag,” he said. “They have a four-inch American flag, but the Nazi swastika flags are four feet long.” Dickstein asserted that it might actually have been funded by the Nazi government, pointing to a story in the German magazine Die Gartenlaube about the camp.
For his part, Haas claimed camp activities were totally innocent. “We are merely teaching these boys to be good citizens.” It appeared that being “good citizens” meant preparing to reproduce the conditions of Nazi Germany in the United States. Haas reinforced this with some of his other statements. “There is only one leader, and that is Adolf Hitler” and “His ideas are our ideas, and his ideals are our ideals.” Still, Haas said that Americans misunderstood Nazis. “We are exactly what our name implies, friends of a new-found order in the Fatherland.” He said that Americans needed to learn from Germany and adopt Nazi reforms, but it was not the intent of the Friends of New Germany to bring this about by force.
Meanwhile, in the midst of escalating concerns about local Nazi activity, in 1934 the New Jersey Assembly passed a bill with the intent of banning Nazi propaganda, but with a much farther-reaching scope. Its language made it a misdemeanor to “write or publish any statements tending to subject any group to prejudice, shame, hatred, ridicule, disgrace or contempt by reason of race, color or religion, creed or manner of worship.” This included any statement that would cause “domestic strife or to disturb domestic tranquility.” It would further impose a fine or jail sentence on building owners who rented space to groups that violated the law, printers who published material in violation of the law, and people who displayed flags or pictures interpreted to violate the law.
The American Civil Liberties Union, though by no means supportive of Nazi ideology, was alarmed at the potential infringement on liberties in the bill and immediately began a letter-writing campaign to convince the New Jersey Senate to vote it down. Roger H. Baldwin sent a mass letter to New Jersey members of the ACLU warning, “in effect it outlaws all controversy.” Members were given suggested language: “This bill is an amazing proposal, unparalleled in American history. It violates every conception of free speech.” The lobbying campaign was not successful, and the law passed. Only one New Jersey senator voted against it.
Four years later, the ACLU noted that no Nazis had ever been prosecuted under the law, but a Jehovah’s Witness had. Finally, on July 4, 1940, New Jersey attempted to prosecute its first Nazis under what was known as the “Anti-Nazi Bill.” The ACLU filed an amicus brief defending free speech and on December 5, 1941, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the ACLU, striking down the law as a violation of both the state’s constitution and the U.S. Constitution. However, the ACLU remained concerned about the activities of American Nazis.
Camp Wille und Macht closed on schedule in August 1934, but Haas asserted that they’d learned all they needed to learn. The intent was to gather information in order to establish year-round camps throughout the United States to train German-American boys and girls in Nazi ways. Haas and the Friends of the New Germany would do just that, but not near Princeton, where press scrutiny had made it too challenging. The Princeton Herald was proud that its journalists had been able to discourage Haas. “The choice of a site for the camp near Princeton, a shrine of American liberty, was inappropriate. … On the marble walls of [Nassau Hall] Memorial Hall are inscribed the names of those who fell on the battlefield in defence of the ideals which ‘Der Fuehrer’ scorns [sic].”
In records maintained by the ACLU, we can see how the Friends of the New Germany—who changed their name to Amerikadeutschen Volksbund (German-American League or German-American Bund) in 1936—carried out their intentions. Most of the camps they established were in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, but there were camps for boys and girls in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and California as well by 1937.
In their Jahrbuch (yearbook) for 1937, Colin Ross wrote of the hope that Americans of German descent would realize they were not truly Americans at all:
Sie … nicht „Americans”, sondern „Amerikaner”, Menschen deutschen Blutes und amerikanischen Bodens. Sie warden den Bindestrich fallen lassen, den man ihnen anhängen wolte, und sich nicht mehr Deutsch-Amerikaner nennen, sondern einfach „Amerikaner” mit einem unübersetzbaren Wort.
[Translation: They are not “Americans,” but “Amerikaner,” people of German blood and American soil. They will drop the hyphen they were asked to attach, and will no longer call themselves German-Americans, but simply “Amerikaner,” an untranslatable word.]
As Sander Diamond has noted, for the American Nazi movement, the greatest hopes were in the youth, who could be shaped and molded into soldiers for Der Tag (The Day), when Hitler’s followers would rid North America of Jews, Communists, and “parasites,” just as he had done in Germany. Unlike other activities of American Nazis, those for children were deliberately kept out of mainstream American society. In camps, children would learn to be good German fighters who could defend against any attack and how to be worthy to inherit and pass on the ideal racial characteristics for the new society Nazis hoped to form. The Jahrbuch explained the value of military-style drilling for children: “In der Haltung zu den Leibesübungen, in der Zielsetzung jeder körperlichen Betätigung offenbaren sich uns Wesen und Charakter von Volkstum und Rasse” (Translation: “In their approach toward physical exercises, their objective in every physical activity, they reveal to us the nature and character of their national identity and race”).
As Nazi influence grew in America, the ACLU called for a united front against the threat. In a 1934 ACLU booklet entitled Shirts!: A Survey of the New “Shirt” Organizations in the United States Seeking a Fascist Dictatorship, Travis Hoke warned that Germany fell to the Nazis because the rest of Germany was too divided to prevent it, and America showed similar signs of weakness. The ACLU asked Americans to watch out for Nazi activity and report it to the national office of the ACLU, and also to let them know what they thought the ACLU should do about it, through a survey sent to its membership.
Responses were returned detailing local Nazi activity across America. Many, if not most, writers gave the ACLU a directive to do nothing, or to defend the civil liberties of Nazis. Others suggested the ACLU produce anti-Nazi literature and distribute it widely to warn people and try to dampen Nazi recruitment efforts. Frank E. Baker of Milwaukee urged that the ACLU help “persecuted minorities in Germany” to immigrate to the United States, but not to act against American Nazis.
The ACLU’s internal documents suggest broad agreement with those they surveyed. They observed that many anti-Nazi efforts served to fuel other forms of discrimination, where objections were made on the basis of people not speaking English or seeming to not fully assimilate into American culture rather than them committing any crimes. Existing laws should protect against violence and attempts to subvert the government, including the evident stockpiling of weapons occurring among American Nazis, the ACLU concluded, and ultimately, they did not engage in any sort of systematic anti-Nazi campaign.
In the midst of the surge in Nazism in the United States in the late 1930s, Camp Wille und Macht fell into obscurity. The few weeks in Griggstown proved insignificant in comparison to the years other camps were in operation. World War II severely weakened the American Nazi movement, but the tensions inherent in the questions the ACLU sent its membership remained. ACLU-affiliated Americans continued to ask, should people be allowed to express the hope to eradicate American civil liberties for some groups, while not being allowed to actually do it?
The translations in this post are my own, with thanks to my colleague, Regine Heberlein, for feedback on some challenging phrasing.
American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001)
Proceedings and Debates of the Fist Session of the Seventy-Fifth Congress of the United States of America, Vol. 81, Part 2. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1937.
For further reading:
Bernstein, Arnie. Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German American Bund. New York: St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2013.
Diamond, Sander. The Nazi Movement in the United States, 1924-1941. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974.
Glaser, Martha. “The German-American Bund in New Jersey.” New Jersey History 92 (Spring 1974): 33-49.
Grover, Warren. Nazis in Newark. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Hall, Austin Carter. “Swastikas and Silver Shirts: The Dawn of American Nazism.” M.A. thesis, Miami University, 2019.