I have one great party trick. Anytime someone asks me if I’ve ever come across something really cool while working in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, I tell them about the time we had what looked like footage of a Boy Scout camp and then the Boy Scouts raised a Nazi flag along with the red, white, and blue. Without fail, I get the attention of anyone in within earshot. Then, I tell the assembled crowd that in the late 1930s the East Coast was home to many summer camps for the junior Nazis of America and the National Archives holds the film evidence. They might have been hoping that I would tell them about footage of the Roswell aliens, but the reaction to “American Nazi summer camps” is just about the same.
In Volks-Deutsche Jungen in U.S.A. (German Youth in the U.S.A) you’ll see what first appears to be an unremarkable story of a boys’ summer camp. The film starts with the camp under construction and excited children piling onto chartered buses to make the journey from New York City to Windham, New York in the summer of 1937. The boys pitch tents, unload crates of baked beans, and perform physical fitness drills. If you pay close attention, you might notice that some of the boys are wearing shorts bearing the single lightning bolt insignia that marked the younger contingent of the Hitler Youth, but it’s not until the “Flaggenappell” (flag roll call) at 13:47 that the affiliation becomes clear.
After researching what we called the “Nazi Boy Scout” film, I was able to find out a bit about these American Hitler Youth. First, they were most certainly not Boy Scouts. The camp the boys and young men in this film attended was operated by the Deutsche-Amerikanische Berufsgemeinschaft (DAB), more commonly known as the German-American Vocational League or the German-American Bund. The DAB, which came to include more than 70 local chapters, was founded in 1936 to promote Germany and the Nazi party in America. The most well-known of the organization’s activities was the 1939 pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden that drew a reported 20,000 attendees.
Less well-known is that the DAB also operated as somewhat of a cultural indoctrination organization for German-American children, with activities that are depicted in several of the films we hold. The summer camps, complete with the official uniforms and banners of the Hitler Youth, might be the most visual and chilling example of the DAB’s attempts to instill Nazi sympathies in German-American children. Another film, intended to encourage boys to attend the camp, includes a perhaps unintentionally ominous intertitle that translates to “German boy you also belong to us.” Even though it happened more than 75 years ago, it’s unsettling to see American children raise a Nazi flag and know that it occurred just 150 miles outside New York City.
Since these films were the property of an independent organization, you might wonder how they ended up at the National Archives. The sequence of events that led to the film coming to the Motion Picture Preservation Lab began when the U.S. government searched the DAB’s national headquarters on January 5th 1942. Under Federal Grand Jury Subpoena, agents seized scores of 16mm films and sound recordings that documented the activities of the DAB. The audiovisual material comprised what was labeled “EXHIBIT 147” in the case against the DAB’s un-American activities. These films and sound recordings are held at the National Archives as records of that investigation. An archivist discovered them in the textual holdings in the late 1980s and transferred to the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Branch at that time.
A handful of the DAB films came to the lab for preservation in 2006, which is when I first encountered them. As you can probably tell from the video, Volks-Deutsche Jungen in U.S.A. is in rather rough shape. Excessive projection (probably while the film was actively used by the DAB) caused heavy scratches on the film, while time led to physical and chemical deterioration. We copied the reels onto new film stock to ensure that the images would be preserved into the future.
If you want to see more films of the DAB youth camps, we also transferred a couple of reels to show what the girls were up to. There aren’t any swastikas, but small German dogs abound.
Have you been surprised by something you found at the Archives? Let us know in the comments!