Rewriting history: A Night at the Garden

Marshall Curry's Oscar-nominated short documentary might be the most jarring seven minutes of cinema you'll ever see

20th February 2019

A sea of fists and boots are upon the man before he’s even hit the floor. It’s 20 February 1939 — 80 years ago today — and a massive crowd jeers and screams as what look like military men in brownshirts beat the protestor on the ground, before police drag him from the stage. Once order is restored, the crowd roars louder again in anticipation as a man in a military uniform in the middle of the stage resumes his speech about the “Jewish-controlled press”.

The man in uniform is Fritz Julius Kuhn, leader of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi group. The man dragged from the stage is Isadore Greenbaum, a plumber’s helper in his mid-20s, and a jew. Greenbaum isn’t the main focus of the film, but he is — apart from a mass of protesters briefly shown in the opening moments — the sole hero among many villains in Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated short documentary, A Night at The Garden.

At just over seven minutes long, it is maybe pound-for-pound the most jarring film you’ll ever see and there’s no real excuse not to watch it. Though it is nominated for an Academy Award this year it was made in 2017, just months after neo-nazis marched freely through the streets of Charlottesville, culminating in the death of a counter-protester.

Compiled from archive footage scarcely seen in decades, the film shows a 22,000-strong pro-Nazi rally in 1939, complete with giant swastika banners and sieg-heils. But this isn’t Nuremberg, it’s Madison Square Garden, in the heart of New York City. Thanks to a fairly longstanding fixation in pop culture with reimagining history in the worst possible ways, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking this was yet another “What if the Nazis had won” alt-history movie. But, as the film attests, nobody needs to reimagine our history to find the stain of fascism and vocal support for it, in the US and many other allied countries, at the same time as Hitler was building and filling up his early concentration camps.

Another director might have decided to take this footage and string it out with commentary and interviews to painstakingly spell out haunting parallels and spoon-feed the viewer a bitesize conclusion. But A Night at The Garden is so effective because it just unfolds chaotically in front of the viewer with no real explanation at all until a few lines of text at the end, designed to give a fragment of precise historical context.

It has been received with shock, shame and anger in the US, as many are learning that, prior to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour, plenty of Americans were supportive of Hitler and the Nazis.

Brits would do well not to look too harshly on this episode of US history, and its people’s ignorance of it. We have our own Night at The Garden, no doubt. It might not make quite as striking a film, because when 30,000 filled Earl’s Court for an event billed as “Britain First” in what was then described as the largest indoor meeting in human history, the sole speaker on the night didn’t stand in front of swastikas or prompt a sea of sieg heils from his audience, but Oswald Mosley was a fascist all the same.

It’s true that, by this time, when war with Hitler’s Germany seemed all but inevitable and his evil was clear to the world, not many Brits supported the British Union of Fascists, Mosley’s fascist political party which had long been supportive of Hitler and the Nazi project. But Mosley’s fascist bile still attracted significant numbers to London’s West End, largely because it was, as ever, thinly veiled by nationalism and scapegoating.

Neo-Nazis at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlotesville, 2017 📸 Anthony Crider

He framed his speech that night around not wanting Britain to join the war. Mosley criticised the British government and defended Hitler, describing him in slavishly favourable terms and decrying the war which would soon erupt as merely “a jew’s quarrel”. It was 16 July 1939, Hitler had already annexed Austria, invaded Czechoslovakia and the Kristallnacht had taken place more than a year earlier in which thousands of German Jews had been murdered, with many more shipped off to concentration camps which would, within a year or two, become the horrific scene of one of history’s greatest atrocities.

In A Night at The Garden, early on, a sign outside the stadium advertises the event as a “Pro American Rally”, and that’s clearly what it will have been billed as. Yes, huge swastikas adorned the stage, but there were dozens of American flags too, and a huge picture of George Washington, referred to by Kuhn as “the first fascist”. The speech starts with the pledge of allegiance and finishes with the US national anthem.

As referenced in a Q&A on the film’s website by director Marshall Curry, just six months before the events in the film, an American minister named Halford E. Luccock said: “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labelled ‘made in Germany’, it will not be marked with a swastika, it will not even be called fascism, it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.”

We’d like to believe that there are sharp lines between good people and bad people

Curry also said that he wants A Night at The Garden to be taken more as a warning about what we might do in the future than an indictment of the past. He says, to him, the most shocking thing about the footage is not the Nazis, but the crowd.

“Twenty-thousand New Yorkers who loved their kids and were probably nice to their neighbours, came home from work that day, dressed up in suits and skirts, and went out to cheer and laugh and sing as a speaker dehumanized people who would be murdered by the millions in the next few years.”

He goes on: “We’d like to believe that there are sharp lines between good people and bad people. But I think most humans have dark passions inside us, waiting to be stirred up by a demagogue who is funny and mean, who can convince us that decency is for the weak, that democracy is naïve, and that kindness and respect for others are just ridiculous political correctness.”

The reason it’s important to acknowledge these ragged, dark corners of our past is that to be ignorant of history is to be doomed to repeat it. To remind us that complacency is not an option when it comes to the creep and slither of fascism, and that no society has been truly immune to its allure.

In its obvious parallels to certain aspects of Trump’s presidency and the rise of the alt-right that just happens to have coincided with it, it warns us off the idea that fascism and its dangers are purely historical artefacts.

But, it also shows us that for as long as there have been gatherings of cowards, there have been brave people like Isadore Greenbaum ready to confront them.

20th February 2019