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When 20,000 New Yorkers Attended a Nazi Rally—and 50,000 Joined the Trotskyist Counterprotest

Eighty years ago, American fascists filled Madison Square Garden. The short documentary film “A Night at the Garden” shows disturbing scenes from the Nazi rally. What it doesn’t show: The Trotskyists led a protest of 50,000 all around the arena.

Nathaniel Flakin

March 1, 2019
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New York City police on horseback protect the Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden from tens of thousands of protesters. (AP Photo/Murray Becker)

The seven-minute film “A Night at the Garden” was nominated for Best Documentary Short at this year’s Oscars. It didn’t win, but it’s worth watching. It shows scenes from a Nazi rally of over 20,000 people, mobilized by the German-American Bund, at New York’s Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939.

It’s disturbing to see these scenes from 80 years ago: fascist stormtroopers waving U.S. and swastika flags while saluting Adolf Hitler and George Washington. But it’s even more disturbing to see the rally’s similarities with fascist politics today. When a protester jumps onstage and is tackled and dragged off by guards and police—who can’t think of a Trump rally? In times of crisis, middle-class mobs let themselves get riled up by authoritarian and xenophobic slogans.

The documentary shows only a few snippets of the protests outside Madison Square Garden. More than 50,000 New York City workers had joined protests. Almost 1,800 cops on horseback—the largest police operation in the city’s history—were brought in to protect the Nazis.

Who organized these protests? Not the Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party, which refused to take part, as did Jewish organizations. The mayor—who had been nominated by the American Labor Party—supported the Nazis’ right to “free speech.”

Organizing the counterprotest fell to the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). They were a small organization, but they called for a broad working-class united front to defeat fascism. They denounced the capitalist police and fought to organize workers’ defense guards.

Below, we republish a report that first appeared in the SWP newspaper Socialist Appeal on February 24, 1939. It was reprinted in the Education for Socialists Bulletin in 1976 and later on the Marxists Internet Archive.

50,000 Anti-Nazis Answer SWP Call

1,780 LaGuardia Cops Protect Nazis from Workers Wrath in Brutal Attack on Demonstrators

An imposing, fighting demonstration of fifty thousand workers assembled near Madison Square Garden on Monday evening to protest the first big fascist mobilization in New York City.

In addition to the fifty thousand demonstrators who responded to the call of the Socialist Workers Party for a labor rally against the fascist concentration, official police estimates given to the press counted another fifty thousand among the spectators. With few exceptions, the latter made clear their sympathy with the aims and slogans of the demonstrating thousands. With a brutality recalling the days of Czarist Cossacks, 1,780 of Mayor La Guardia’s police, the largest number of cops ever collected in the city against a single demonstration, slugged and trampled under horses’ hooves scores of workers in an unsuccessful attempt to break up the demonstration. From 6 p.m. until 11, the workers engaged in a series of bitter clashes with police.

Size exceeds all hopes

The size of the workers’ counterdemonstration far exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic.

Efforts had been made on all hands, prior to the Nazi meeting, to minimize the significance of the call issued by the Socialist Workers Party, to smother it by a campaign of silence, and to sabotage it directly.

Supercilious critics of the “Trotskyists” in the social-democratic camp sought to dispose of the counterdemonstration by ridicule and disdainful talk of our alleged insignificance. Neither the Socialist party of Norman Thomas nor the Social-Democratic Federation would take any cognizance of the call for the demonstration, much less endorse it. They were nowhere to be found in the demonstration.

CP Role Despicable

The Stalinists played a particularly despicable role, which aroused widespread bewilderment and confusion in their own ranks, which contain thousands of workers who really want to fight against fascism.

On the day of the demonstration, all that the Daily Worker had to say was its report of a speech in favor of democracy by acting Mayor Newbold Morris. Not a single word about the “Trotskyists” or their call. It would have been a little embarrassing even to such brazen pen-slaves as Stalin employs in New York to write, on this occasion, diatribes against the “Trotsky-fascists”!

As for the Monday edition of the Freiheit, Yiddish organ of the Stalinists, it solved the whole annoying problem by not printing one line about the Nazi demonstration or about the counterdemonstration. It just shoved its head into a deep pile of sand.

The three other Jewish daily papers in New York City—the conservative Morning Journal, the “progressive” Day, and the social-democratic Forward —united in printing virtually the same news stories and editorials, using, in all cases, the same arguments and in many cases even the same words. Instead of a call to the Jewish workers to demonstrate against their sworn enemies, the fascists, they joined hands in a sniveling, cowardly appeal to their readers to do anything in the world Monday evening—go to the movies, stay at home, go to the mountains or the seashore—anything except go to the anti-Nazi demonstration.

Morris’ Radio Appeal

Acting Mayor Newbold Morris issued a special last minute appeal to the population of New York City to stay away from our rally.

“Information has come to me,” said this pompous professional democrat, “that some citizens, indignant at tonight’s Bund meeting at Madison Square Garden, are planning to be present at or about the Garden entrance to express displeasure. In the interest of public order, I want to urge all citizens having no business at the meeting to remain away from the Garden and its immediate vicinity.”

This statement, broadcast on the radio before the meeting and of course prominently featured later by the Daily Worker , was calculated to reduce the demonstration called by the SWP to an insignificant handful of individuals who could be dispersed by the army of cops with a wave of the hand.

Yet, in spite of this imposing array of sabotaging talent from the ranks of the fireside “democrats” whose efforts were supplemented by the repeated emphasis given in the capitalist press to the fact that, as the World- Telegram put it, “neither the Socialist party nor the Communist party in this city had announced up to this morning (Monday) any intention to demonstrate or otherwise take cognizance of the meeting,” and that “only” the Trotskyists would be there— thousands of New York workers began converging upon Madison Square Garden even before 6 o’clock in the evening, that is, more than two hours before the Nazi meeting was scheduled to open!

It goes without saying that they were not Trotskyists, these thousands who, by 8 o’clock, reached enormous proportions. But their presence around the Garden, in response to the appeal of a comparatively small organization, showed that the Socialist Workers Party had correctly gauged the sentiments of the best sections of the New York working class.

Rank and File Comes

Rank and file Stalinists, perplexed and irritated by the criminal sabotage of their officialdom, but nevertheless determined to demonstrate “unofficially” against the Nazis, whom they realize to be the menace they are, came to our rally by the thousands.

No less gratifying was the fact that one of the banners borne in the demonstration signified that the youth organization of the Thomasite Socialist party had come to the anti-Nazi rally in spite of the shabby indifference of the party elders.

Equally inspiring was the contingent of Negro workers who came spontaneously to the tumultuous gathering, bearing their own posters and placards, including one signed by the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

Squadrons Move on Garden

By 6 p.m. the first organized squadron of members of the Socialist Workers Party and Young People’s Socialist League (4th International) left from a central assembly point for the Garden area. It was followed in swift succession by three other squadrons—each assigned to a specific concentration point.

Upon their arrival, they found what the New York Times subsequently described as a wall of cops, in uniform, in plain clothes and mounted, “who made of Madison Square Garden an almost impregnable fortress to anti-Nazis.”

The Garden was blocked off for blocks around in all four directions. Traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, was detoured in the most elaborate way.

Cops versus Workers

Nobody was allowed to penetrate the solid wall of cops who was not in possession of a ticket to the Nazi meeting, purchased in advance. The smallest gathering of workers, even of ordinary passersby, was instantaneously broken up by the cops in order to prevent a concentration.

But in spite of all their efforts, thousands of workers from all parts of greater New York did begin to collect along the streets immediately outside the blocked-off quadrangle—primarily on 48th Street on the south and 51st Street on the north, pressing in both cases towards 8th Avenue, on which the main entrance to the Garden is located.

Thousands Cheer SWP

The placards and posters of the Socialist Workers Party were uplifted amid the cheers of thousands. Almost simultaneously, on both streets, which by this time were choked to capacity by huge crowds reaching from Broadway to 8th Avenue, a spontaneous drive was launched to get through the police lines and into the immediate Garden area.

Action began on 48th Street. From the corner of 8th Avenue where a solid line of mounted cops was stationed, stirrup to stirrup, they made a furious attack on the assembled demonstrators. Moving in both directions, one group of cops trampled down a throng of patriotic war veterans and cut their American flag to ribbons, while another group smashed brutally into the mass of workers.

Masses Reform Ranks

Although the Cossacks made repeated sallies into the workers’ crowd, the mass formed and reformed, stoutly determined to hold their own until they gathered sufficient strength to exercise their right to assemble and to picket whether the cops granted it or not.

Meanwhile, 51st Street was jammed from Broadway to 8th Avenue with a crowd so densely packed together that it was virtually impassable. Just as close a line of Cossacks stood at the 8th Avenue end, backed by hundreds of police on foot. The forward surge of the workers bent that line over and over again but did not succeed in breaking through.

Defense Guards Needed

It was evident, especially at this point, that even a large gathering of workers cannot easily attain its objective unless these workers have been organized thoroughly in advance and trained to act in sharp coordination. It was evident, in other words, that for the complete success of such a demonstration a militant, organized Workers Defense Guard is indispensable.

The fury of the workers increased with every minute. They kept shouting angrily at the Cossacks, and booed them for every vicious plunge into the crowd.

“Down with the Nazi terrorists!” they roared the cry of the Socialist Workers Party.

“We demand the right to picket!” they shouted.

Surrounded by an unbreakable phalanx, one SWP speaker after another, lifted on the shoulders of huskies, made terse and militant speeches to the workers, who cheered so lustily that they could be heard, literally, for blocks away.

Max Shachtman, editor of the Socialist Appeal , was the first to speak. He pointed out that the La Guardia administration, elected to office by the vote of New York labor, was showing an amazing concern over the so-called “democratic rights” of the Nazi assassins to hold a mobilization meeting- which was an insult and a provocation to the working people of the city. The same administration, however, which gave such unprecedented police protection to the Fascist gang, was using the police to deprive the workers of their democratic rights, notably the right to assemble and to picket—rights supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution and by several decisions of the Federal and Supreme courts.

He warned the workers of New York against being caught asleep in the struggle against Fascism, as was the case in so many countries of Europe. It can happen here, he cried, but it will be too late to stop it~ when the concentration camps are being filled. His appeal for the Workers Defense Guards as protection against fascist assaults, so strikingly underscored by the conduct of New York’s “democratic” police, was enthusiastically, hailed by the crowd.

Shachtman was followed by other spokesmen of the party. The speakers included James Burnham, Martin Abern, manager of the New International, Nathan Gould, National Secretary of the YPSL, B.J. Widick, the party’s labor secretary, Bill Morgan, leading militant in the unemployed movement, Richard Ettlinger, prominent among the progressive office workers, Paul G. Stevens, Irving Pankin of the YPSL, and numerous others.

Parade Down Broadway

Suddenly, after having stood their ground for three hours, the workers veered around upon the signal of the demonstration’s spokesman and marched down the street in a tremendous column for a parade down Broadway.

It is a long time since New York’s most famous avenue has seen such a militant, vociferous, determined, and large working-class parade. The police, concentrated around the Garden, were so scattered along Broadway that they did not even attempt to halt the parade.

Shouting their slogans as they marched along the almost equally crowded sidewalks, the paraders, led by the banner-bearers of the Socialist Workers Party, turned south from 51st Street and, after reaching 42nd Street with unbroken ranks numbering thousands, moved west to 8th Avenue again. At that point, the marchers turned north and proceeded in the direction of the Garden, which is located between 49th and 50th Streets.

Cops Attack

Just as the head of the march reached 47th Street, it ran smack into a newly-formed line of cops. Without a word of warning, they plunged into the parade, mounted cops in the lead, with rows of foot cops behind them. The horses were driven straight into the ranks of the marchers, first in the center of the street and then on the sidewalks. Shop windows were shattered to smithereens, and workers wounded by jagged splinters. Others went down under the horses, as is so graphically revealed by the sensational photographs which were published in the press. Clubs were drawn and swung freely and viciously.

This was not in Czarist Moscow, in Hitler’s Berlin or Mussolini’s Rome. No! This took place in the domain of “democratic” New York, under the administration of “progressive” Mayor La Guardia, successful candidate of the American Labor Party in the last election!

Notwithstanding the assault, the lines of the march were still reformed. The parade turned down 47th Street and proceeded once more to Broadway. There a fresh attempt was made to organize a meeting at the Duffy Monument. But another police concentration was on hand and a violent struggle ensued.

The workers refused to be shoved around. They had seen many of their comrades seriously injured and beaten. When the police sought to disperse the marchers, they encountered the stiffest resistance.

March Terminates

Finally, after breaking through the police line, the crowd drove through to 49th Street, where the march was terminated by an announcement from an SWP speaker whom the police, helplessly trying to break through the firm block of workers, sought in vain to reach so that he could be torn down from the taxicab he had mounted in order to address the marchers.

As the militants disbanded, along about midnight, the Tuesday edition of the Daily Worker appeared on the street. Unbelievable as it sounds, while the Stalinist sheet had a report of what went on inside the Garden at the Nazi meeting, it did not even mention the fact that there had been tens of thousands of workers gathered near the Garden in a stormy, anti-Nazi protest meeting! From its report, one would conclude that the Nazis held their mobilization undisturbed by the presence of a single worker. The encouragingly huge protest demonstration, the police brutality, prominently featured by every capitalist newspaper, was deliberately and completely suppressed by the Stalinist paper!

Stalinists Sabotaged

But that incredibly stupid device will not save Browder and Co. from giving an accounting to their members as well as the workers in general. Everybody in and around New York knows about the demonstration, who initiated, sponsored, and led it. Everybody knows that the Stalinists sabotaged it from first to last. And thousands, including rank-and-file Stalinists of the party and the Young Communist League, are so disturbed by this policy, so ashamed of it, that they will demand an answer to the question that is being asked on all sides.

Meanwhile, the answer to the bigger question—How to fight Fascism?—was given in thunderous tones by the magnificent demonstration which reached its highest note on the cry: Workers Defense Guards to crush the fascist danger!

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.


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