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How a public panic can cast a long shadow: The Nazi summer camp story

Not your average summer camp: German-American Bund campers, 1937.
(National Archives)

Audrey Amidon of the National Archives has unearthed and documented a fascinating glimpse of pre-World War II America--films of a Nazi summer camp in upstate New York in 1937, built to indoctrinate the children of German American families in Nazi values. (H/t to Erik Loomis for bringing Amidon’s post to our attention.)

But there’s a bit more to the story than Amidon mentions. As it happens, this camp and others like it in rural New York and New Jersey were directly responsible for the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which cast a very dark shadow over America for many decades.

I filled in the story in my 2011 book “The New Deal: A Modern History.” In brief, rumors about these Nazi youth camps reached the public in 1937 and 1938, creating a surge of panic about foreign subversion of American youth.

As Amidon reports, the camps were operated by the German-American Bund, which had been founded in 1936 “to promote Germany and the Nazi party in America.... The summer camps, complete with the official uniforms and banners of the Hitler Youth, might be the most visual and chilling example of the (Bund’s) attempts to instill Nazi sympathies in German-American children.”

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In Washington, panic about the camp rumors struck Rep. Martin Dies Jr. as a career opportunity.

Dies, a Democrat from the Texas gulf coast, was a slovenly excuse for a congressman. But he had made it onto the powerful House Rules Committee thanks to his connection with Vice President John Nance Garner, who had served in Congress with Dies’ father.

Dies Jr. made himself the leader of the anti-New Deal bloc in the House, a sort of proto-Tea Party group who swore never to vote “aye” on a tax bill or support any New Deal legislation. In May 1938, he offered a resolution calling for an investigation of the purported Nazi summer camps. House leaders saw a chance to keep the indolent Dies out of their hair, by providing him with a distraction. The probe was approved with Dies as chairman, and given a paltry $25,000 for investigating, enough for about a month.

Thus was born the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities.

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As I wrote in “The New Deal”:

“It was assumed that Dies would expose the Nazi camps and return to his customary stupor. He was cleverer than that. He managed to stretch the appropriation indefinitely by the simple expedient of not spending it on actual investigating. Instead he hired volunteers to collect testimony for free, accepting as gospel the words of anyone with a grievance against the New Deal, the American Civil Liberties Union, progressive politicians, or organized labor. ‘From all over the country, labor-baiting individuals wrote and telegraphed Mr. Dies, asking to appear as witnesses and offering to pay their own carfare,’ reported an early chronicler of the committee.”

The committee began as something of a comedy act; one of its first efforts involved investigating the Communist connections of Shirley Temple, who was 10 years old at the time.

But it soon became no laughing matter. HUAC’s techniques of intimidation, smearing of targets, presumption of guilt, and forcing witnesses to “name names” became part of the red-baiting arsenal of the Fifties. The same techniques were appropriated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and stand today as a lasting blot on civil liberties in the United States. The committee was not formally disbanded until 1975.

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The lesson shouldn’t be lost on Americans in today’s hyper-partisan, security-obsessed times: A moment of public panic can have deep and lasting consequences. Those who stir up these panics should be viewed with suspicion.

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