Early in my research for The Ghost of Drowned Meadow, I asked my teenagers whether they knew who Charles Lindbergh was. Somewhat to my surprise, they did not. Back when I was in school, we were taught that Lindbergh was a great American aviator hero who made the first solo transatlantic flight, from New York to Paris. I can still picture the black and white photo in my textbook showing him standing gallantly beside his airplane. We also learned about the tragic kidnapping and death of his child, which was dubbed by the media of the day as the "Crime of the Century." But nowadays it seems that, at least where I live, he's no longer in the history books.
Why? Perhaps because his full impact on American history was...complicated, to say the least. While he never formally declared his sympathies for the Nazi party, he did adopt some of their talking points, including those about eugenics, antisemitism, and race. He was fervently against American's involvement in World War II, at least until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. And he was a big supporter of the America First Committee, which was launched in 1940 and, much like its current iteration in present day, was anti-interventionist, anti-immigration, antisemitic, and pro-fascist.
Lindbergh and the AFC were the less extreme examples of what some historians have called the American Nazi movement of the 1930's. Both Lindbergh and the AFC carefully (some might say artfully) skirted around anything that resembled outright allegiance to Hitler's Germany, and mostly seemed interested in adopting some of their policies.
But there were two other groups, the German American Bund and the Silver Legion, who were much more overt in their embrace of Nazism. On multiple occasions, these groups were known to march through American cities wearing Nazi-inspired uniforms, proudly flying Nazi flags beside American flags, goosestepping the whole way, as you can see in the picture taken above in NYC in 1939. They also held rallies from New York to California, and nearly every state between. They trained in firearms and combat. They incited violence. They perpetrated violence. They spread Nazi propaganda and attempted to sabotage American government institutions. One of them, William Pelley, founder of the Silver Legion, even tried to run for president against FDR (and thankfully lost).
As far as research goes, this was a lot of ground to cover. It can be very easy for a writer to get so swallowed up in the research that they never actually get around to writing the book. I've learned that for me, once I've gotten the general shape of the larger picture, I need to drill down on the things that are directly relevant to the story I'm trying to tell. In this case, it was but one location in one part of one faction of the American Nazi movement: Camp Siegfried.
The German American Bund actually ran several such camps. While I mostly focused on Siegfried in Yaphank, New York, I did need to touch briefly on Camp Nordland in Sussex, New Jersey in the book as well. There was also Camp Highland in Windham, New York; Camp Bergwald in Bloomingdale, New Jersey; Camp Hindenburg in Grafton, Wisconsin; and Deutschhorst Country Club in Sellersville, Pennsylvania.
Camp Siegfried wasn't only a summer camp for kids. It was also a beer hall and gathering place for German immigrants and German Americans (naturally, no one else was invited). And it was a training ground for the Ordnungsdienst (OD), which was the Bund's militia group modeled after Hitler's Sturmabteilung (SA) storm troopers. At its peak, Camp Siegfried's popularity was such that the Long Island Railroad ran a dedicated train on the weekends call the Siegfried Special, which brought folks from all over New York City to Yaphank.
It should be noted that very few residents of Yaphank were members of the Bund, or enjoyed the activities at Camp Siegfried. Initially there was a wary but amused acceptance from the locals. This was long before most Americans were aware of the terrible atrocities being committed by the Nazis, so the Bund members just seemed kind of silly at first, marching around in their little uniforms and shouting their slogans. But a search through local newspaper archives makes it clear that the amusement waned over the course of a few years until it turned into overt hostility. The city refused to grant additional building permits, and even tried to deny the Bund a renewed liquor license. The beer hall was one of the camp's big attractions, after all, and the town board figured that without it, the Bund might simply move out. But in a bizarre turn, the Bund threatened that if the town didn't stop "picking on" them, they would sell Camp Siegfried to "a Negro group".
Depressingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, the city backed off. The camp continued until 1939, when it was seized and shut down by the US Government after war was declared on Germany.
So that's more or less the big picture view of Camp Siegfried. Next week, I'd like to delve more into what went on at the camp, and introduce you to a few of the historical figures who appear briefly in The Ghost of Drowned Meadow, two of whom have earned my undying admiration, and the third, my unequivocal disgust.