From Chicago to Miami – The Reichsbanner in the USA
During the Weimar Republic, the Reichsbanner stood up for the protection of the German Republic and for the fight against the enemies of republican democracy in general. But the Reichsbanner was also active beyond the borders of Germany. There were groups in the United States, Mexico, and Argentina. This article provides an insight into the life of the local Reichsbanner groups abroad, especially the Reichsbanner of Chicago.
By Marlon Bünck
On the 12th of March, 1932, in Chicago, a festive edition of the Reichsbanner newspaper called the “Black-Red-Gold” published its greetings from the then Federal Chairman of the German Reichsbanner, Karl Höltermann. It said, “I send my warmest greetings to the Chicago comrades at their rally. The Federal Board gratefully remembers the untiring willingness of the group there to work for the reputation of the German Republic in [the] U.S.A.”
In his detailed article Höltermann described the situation in Germany and the causes of the current political situation. According to Höltermann, the Treaty of Versailles and the massive economic crisis that occurred at the same time were the breeding ground for all extremists in the Republic because unpopular politics fueled the agitation of the Nazis. His text was primarily aimed at the Reichsbanner comrades abroad: Germans living abroad and German-Americans. He described in particular the increasing political violence in the Weimar Republic and warned urgently against a takeover of the government by the National Socialists led by Adolf Hitler.
The Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold has always seen it as its task to oppose this essentially untrue agitation and has taken the lead in the fight against National Socialism through the Iron Front. Far from Germany's borders, one can hardly imagine the terrorist methods with which the National Socialists have fought the political struggle for years and days. Daggers, revolvers, and brass knuckles have made the National Socialists into weapons of political struggle, and countless of our comrades have become the victims of these methods. If we oppose this movement, it is a fight for the prestige of the German people in the world. But it is also a fight for freedom. We don't want to create a fascist regime of violence. We are convinced that a state can only gain inner vitality if it is based on the free will of its citizens in the state. We defend this democratic basis of state life with all the passion that is in us because it seems to us to be the prerequisite for a new rise of Germany. Out of love for Germany we fight the battle for Germany's freedom.
The various club magazines of that time give an impressive insight into the active club life of the American Reichsbanner local groups. They pointed out, for example, that for comrades and friends of the Reichsbanner, the Reichsbanner Newspaper, and the Illustrated Reichsbanner are offered in the German-American bookstore "Anhalt" in Graceland at a retail price of 10 cents. Subscriptions of 75 cents per year were also possible. The Reichsbanner newspapers always advertised the products and businesses of German-Americans and "friends of the Republic" and also published the extensive action and event programs of the various Reichsbanner organizations. On the last page of the newspaper, there was always a declaration of accession published which said, “Friends of the German Republic, become Reichsbanner members!”
The local groups were also well connected among each other and informed in their papers about their activities. Thus the Reichsbanner New York advertised in the Chicago Newspaper: “The Reichsbanner New York, which is holding a big rally tonight, sends all Chicago comrades and friends brotherly greetings and a strong ‘Frei Heil!’”
The Reichsbanner Chicago offered its members a broad program of activities. In addition to the local group's swimming department (founded in 1932 and met every 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month from 10:00-1:00 at the Lincoln swimming hall), there were also visits to local businesses and excursions. For example, a handball and a boxing department were planned. The program for the second half of 1932 listed ten events in and around the Chicago area. Other local groups from St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Miami also offered bi-weekly or monthly regulars' programs, some in their own club rooms.
The Reichsbanner local groups often appeared at events of German-Americans and marched, for example, in August 1933 at the German Day in Chicago with the Reichsbanner and American flags flying next to each other over the running track of the stadium. Remarkable was the appearance of the Reichsbanner in 1932 at a car parade of the German-Austrian-Hungarian folk festival when a Reichsbanner show wagon with the Reichsbanner and American flags took part together in the parade.
Many such reports can also be found in the newspaper of other American Reichsbanner local groups. They show the Reichsbanner as an integral part of local social life. The other Reichsbanner groups in South America (mentioned above) called themselves, among others, the "Republican Association" in Mexico and the "Reichsbanner Black-Red-Gold" in Argentina. In the Mexican capital, the Reichsbanner had an office, and in Buenos Aires, Argentina, they regularly met in the Hanseatic Rooms.
Fritz Bremer - Enemy of the Nazis
One of the most active and leading heads of these foreign comrades was Fritz Bremer, who was the chairman of the Chicago Reichsbanner. From Chicago he maintained contact with, among others, Reichstag member Anton Erkelenz, who later transferred from the liberal DDP to the SPD and also wrote foreign policy articles for the Reichsbanner-Zeitung. As early as 1932, Bremer also found words on the significance of the Reichsbanner abroad in an article on the activities of the Reichsbanner in Chicago.
We Germans living abroad are aware that we no longer live in our old homeland and are therefore retiring from active participation in German politics. Although the country of our birth is behind us, it must be the duty of every German immigrant to stand with fraternal loyalty to the German Republic. ... We want nothing more than that the flag of the black, red, and gold be accorded the same respect that every American expects from abroad for his star-spangled banner.
On January 4, 1933, Bremer was re-elected chairman. The board of directors included the following comrades:
- Comrade Fritz Bremer - 1st chairman
- Comrade O. Rieger - 2nd chairman and librarian
- Comrade Carl Leich - 1st secretary
- Comrade Wermuth - 2nd secretary
- Comrade Krug - 1st cashier
- Comrade H. Rieger - 2nd cashier
- Comrade P. Wolf - assessor
- Comrade Schneider - material manager
- Comrades Weil, Schrep, and Wurster - auditors
Several sources reveal Bremer's work and also the conflicts he had with the National Socialists after they came to power in Germany. His work came to the attention of the new German ambassador to Washington D.C., former Reich Chancellor Hans Luther. The Nazis insulted Bremer in press articles as a traitor and celebrated his expatriation in April 1933.
In order to avoid confusion, the Reich Ministry of the Interior points out that the expatriated Fritz Bremer is the leader of his local group of the Reichsbanner, is living in Chicago, has insulted the German government in public lectures, and has attempted to stir up public opinion against the new Germany through his horror propaganda.
In retrospect, however, it turned out that Bremer had already taken American citizenship.
When the National Socialists came to power and the Reichsbanner was dissolved in March 1933, the Reichsbanner ceased to exist within the German borders. However, the work continued in distant Chicago. The Reichsbanner groups abroad became, so to speak, exile groups reporting on the conditions in Germany at a time when the American press was still reserved in its assessment of the new rulers in Berlin.
The Chicago chapter of the Reichsbanner called itself "Friends of the German Republic." In their April 1933 communications – the Reichsbanner in Germany had been banned shortly before – the following moving words appeared on the front page of the Chicago chapter’s newspaper:
BLACK-RED-GOLD is for the German republican a symbol of personal freedom, which is anchored in the Weimar Constitution. He will not rest until this flag flies over a free people again. In the fight for freedom, it will be waved in front of him and will be a holy symbol. FREEDOM.
It also impressively demonstrated that despite the ban and the dissolution of the Reichsbanner in the home country, the work in other places was not interrupted.
In its April 1933 communications, the Reichsbanner Chicago also reports on the mood during a March meeting in Chicago. Many comrades felt that one had to mesh more closely with local Social Democratic groups, to publicly denounce the National Socialists' persecution of Jews, and to provide more information about the situation in Nazi Germany. According to participants, Fritz Bremer wrote a protest letter to the then Reich President Hindenburg. The Chicago group disseminated texts underneath the heading "What is going on in Germany" and thus did valuable work. On several pages, the situation of the election campaign of March 1933 was described in detail, already under the signs of the Nazi dictatorship, and in particular Hitler's seizure of power was discussed.
Thus election day came closer. Until the very last moment the Republicans still hoped that the people would not give in to jingoism and empty phrases of personal freedom, but all hope was in vain. The terror and deception of the Nazis and the allied monarchists and heavy industrialists, etc. did its duty. Hitler came to power with the appearance of legality. Now the dictatorship could begin immediately.
Furthermore, the local group also shows grave disappointment that Hindenburg, as part of the democratic republic, contributed to its demise.
Thus he thanks the Republicans for his re-election. He has repeatedly and deliberately broken the oath he took to the Constitution. "Where is the officer's honor that has always been bragged about? Better dead than without honor, it used to be said, but today, a people that is dishonored by its highest officer still demands the respect of the world. Never, ever. Today Hindenburg has nothing more to say. ... The circles behind the Hitler cabinet are now free to carry out their plans.
The next meeting had already been announced for Wednesday, April 5, 1933, at 8 p.m. "Recent events make it necessary for us to discuss the steps to be taken in order to support our comrades in Germany effectively. Now the cooperation of every single comrade is all the more necessary; every comrade is therefore requested to appear punctually."
Even weeks after the banning of the Reichsbanner in Nazi Germany, events and lectures were held in the various local groups in the United States. Particularly noteworthy was a lecture given by Fritz Bremer on April 23, 1933, entitled "The Suppressed Truth about the Events in Germany." It was a moving text full of anger, desperation, and pain about the events of the last weeks. He described the long years of the Weimar Republic as a "struggle for existence," to which the Republic ultimately fell victim. The result was now a "form of government of arbitrariness and despotism."
His speech revolved around the consequences of the First World War, from which, in his opinion, the Republic was "born." He also referred to the “Dolchstoßlüge,” a conspiracy theory which was intended to shift the blame for the military defeat of the German Reich in the First World War onto the Social Democrats and other democratic politicians by quoting an excerpt from a telegram from the Supreme Army Command in 1918 in which Hindenburg recommended aborting the war due to the hopeless military situation. He described the rage many republicans had against Hindenburg. They had elected him and now felt betrayed. In the second part of his speech, Bremer became very emotional and denounced the racial ideology and anti-Semitism of the National Socialists with the words, "A stigma that will remain for generations is the vile racial struggle."
He described the enrichment through Jewish culture in German history and the deployment of Jewish men as soldiers during World War I, which could also be found in the form of articles in Reichsbanner newspapers. Interestingly enough, part of his speech also made a strong reference to the American Constitution and its freedoms when he accused German-Americans, for example, of supporting the National Socialists and their anti-Semitism as an "attack on the American Constitution."
He concluded his lecture with an urgent appeal:
We call out a warning to the German people, “Back to Reason.” And when everyone is intoxicated, we Republican, expatriate Germans want to stay sober. Even if everyone takes the broad path of the great multitude and of the incited masses, we want to take the narrow path of truth, the path of understanding, of peace, justice, and freedom, in defiance of the mass spirit.
Astonishing and impressive things can be seen in the example of the Reichsbanner local group in Chicago. On the one hand, the club life far away from the German homeland was active. The local groups published newspapers and maintained strong networks. They were also visible in American society and were involved in a variety of events. Many traces of these Reichsbanner networks can no longer be found, although the Lincoln Gym, the meeting place for the Chicago Reichsbanner and their sports activities, still exists today. A small detail reminds one of this time. The entrance of the building shows above it the lettering "Lincoln Turn-Verein." The Turn movement worked together with the Reichsbanner in Chicago back in those days. Even today sports are still practiced in this building.
Many more of the known addresses of the official Reichsbanner organizations in the US still exist. For example, the former bookstore, which sold Reichsbanner newspapers, has become an acting school. However, the many traces of Reichsbanner comrades are as good as unexplored and certainly offer many starting points for further research.
But one thing that will certainly be remembered most about the Reichsbanner Chicago is the fact that even after the ban of the Reichsbanner in Germany under the Nazis, their comrades thousands of miles away still believed in the ideals of the Reichsbanner, still held events, and still informed the world about the dramatic developments in Germany. The view that the history of the Reichsbanner simply ended with its dissolution and destruction in Germany in March 1933 must therefore be reconsidered by the examples of international Reichsbanner organizations such as the one in Chicago. They bear witness to the fact that comrades continued to fight for freedom, for democracy, and for the republic, even after the Nazis unfolded their dictatorship in Germany.
- Schwarz-Rot-Gold. Festschrift der Reichsbanner-Ortsgruppe Chicago. 12.3.1932.
- Hans-Holger Paul. 2012. Inventar zu den Nachlässen der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung für die zehn westdeutschen Länder und West-Berlin.
- Keilmann, Axel. 2007. Anton Erkelenz: ein Sozialliberaler im Kaiserreich und in der Weimarer Republik. Berlin.
- Schwarz-Rot-Gold. Festschrift der Reichsbanner-Ortsgruppe Chicago. 12.3.1932.
- Mitteilungen des Reichsbanners Chicago. 1.4.1933.
- Zeitungsartikel. Autor unbekannt. Archiv der Sozialdemokratie. Bonn.
- Vortrag Fritz Bremer. 23.4.1933. Die unterdrückte Wahrheit über die Vorgänge in Deutschland.