It seems like something from an alternate reality imagined in the book and TV show The Man in the High Castle. But in the 1930s, the Nazis were literally marching across America.
Pro-Nazi U.S. citizens established large youth camps and organized parades and rallies, some of which drew thousands of supporters. Young adherents raised their hands to “Heil Hitler!” and proudly waved flags with swastikas. Much of this activity occurred under the direction of the German American Bund (Federation) formed in 1936 to promote Nazism here in the states. Protected by free speech laws, thousands of American Nazis who were members of the Bund spread their message of hatred with impunity.
Then they tried to come to Southbury.
In 1937, the small town in western Connecticut was a rural farming village of about 1,200 people (today it is home to about 20,000). In early fall of that year, a Stamford Bund official named Wolfgang T. Jung purchased a 178-acre parcel of land in the Kettletown section of Southbury. Jung and his fellow Bund members hoped to create the nation’s largest Bund camp and first in New England (more than 20 camps already existed in places including Long Island, New Jersey and California). The camp would accommodate up to 10,000 people and would draw from existing Bund chapters in Stamford, New Haven and several New York communities. The American Nazis also hoped to establish new chapters in Waterbury, Danbury, Hartford and Bridgeport.
While brokering the land sale, Jung bypassed local real estate agents, using out-of-town agents from Bethel and Danbury instead. Asked by a reporter why the land for the camp had been purchased quietly, Jung replied, “So that the Jews wouldn’t prevent the sale.”
But the sale couldn’t stay a secret forever.
In early November, 100 German American Bund members and their families converged on the town to begin clearing a road to their new property. Locals took notice and alerted Southbury’s first selectman, Ed Coer, who began exploring ways to keep the Bund camp from becoming a reality.
Members of the Bund claimed to be patriotic Americans and anti-communists. “We are a group of Americans who have only the benefit of the United States in our minds,” Herr Kuhn, leader of the Bund, told the New Haven Register. “We do not like the false reports about Germany.” But as Register reporter Stanley Allen noted, in existing Bund camps, youths were given uniforms and conducted drills, and the camps were guarded by a private, armed police force, each member wearing a gray uniform with a prominent swastika.
The Bund also did little to hide its inherent racism. A membership application form sent to Southbury residents required applicants to pledge: “I am of Aryan origin, free from Jewish or colored blood.”
At the time, Southbury did not have any formal zoning laws, but to keep the Nazis out, Coer and his fellow selectmen decided to try to establish some. The community rallied in support of these actions, and reverends at Southbury’s churches gave sermons harshly condemning the camp.
At a special town meeting on Nov. 23, the town established a zoning commission with a citizens’ vote of 122-41. As this new zoning commission worked to draft regulations that would hamper Nazi plans for the community, town officials looked for other ways to slow progress on the camp.
On Sunday, Dec. 5, two men working at the camp were arrested for violating Blue Laws prohibiting work on Sunday in Southbury. The laws were a holdover from the state’s puritanical past and never enforced by that time, and ultimately the charges were dropped. However, by then, the town’s newly established zoning commission had drafted a zoning code that only permitted residential and farming use for the area of the proposed Bund camp. Military training was prohibited. On Dec. 14, the new zoning code was established by a town vote of 142-91.
Construction of the camp stalled. Two years later, in 1939, the 178-acre tract of land was put up for sale. In 1940, it was sold to George Munk, the former Stamford Bund leader. Munk owned the property for many years, using lumber from it for his cabinet shop. Beginning in the 1970s, he began selling off pieces of the property for residential use.
More than 75 years later, the story of the defeated Southbury Nazi camp is still well known in town. In 2013, the documentary Home of the Brave: When Southbury Said No to the Nazis was made by Scott Sniffen with the Southbury Historical Society. Earlier this year, several items relating to the Bund camp from the Southbury Historical Society were loaned to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Americans and the Holocaust exhibit in Washington, D.C.
Ed Edelson, Southbury’s former first selectman, helped get the film made. He also traveled to Washington to view the museum exhibit. He says the story of the attempted Bund camp in Southbury serves as a guide to future generations of town residents “when groups that want to spread hate and fear to intimidate or push their views come to our community.”
As the New Haven Register wrote back in 1937: “With the same concert that their forebears threw off the yoke of British oppression in 1776, Connecticut Yankees, in no uncertain terms, are voicing their opinion of the apostles of Hitler’s Third Reich.” In none of the dozens of other towns where Bund camps had been set up, “have the ‘friends of new Germany’ encountered such a damp reception.”