Nazis in the Heartland: The German-American Bund in Indianapolis
On March 11, 1938 the Indianapolis Times‘ front page was dominated by reports that the German Wermarcht stood poised at the Austrian border, prepared to annex Austria into a “greater German Reich.” As Americans warily watched the Nazis’ expansion into Austria, the Times’ front page also reported on an Indianapolis meeting of an organization known as the German-American Bund (that is, Amerikadeutscher Volksbund). The organization of ethnic Germans was resolutely pro-Nazi, advocating American isolationism, repudiating communism, and voicing deeply anti-Semitic sentiments. Perhaps 25,000 Americans were members on the eve of World War II, and Indianapolis boosters hoped to swell membership with an appeal to “clean American nationalism against Communist international outlawry.” Indianapolis had a large German-American and German immigrant community since the 19th century, including a wave of Germans who migrated to the Midwest after World War I. However, the German-American Bund secured very few followers, and there was little sympathy for the cause. Indiana had a well-deserved reputation for xenophobia and white nationalism that is most clearly reflected in the Ku Klux Klan’s ascent to power just over a decade before the Nazis marched into Austria. The number of Hoosiers in league with the German-American Bund was certainly much smaller than the number of members of the hooded order in the early 1920s, but the Bund was committed to many of the same ideological issues as the Klan, and its history confirms the complex range of xenophobic sentiments that simmered in the 20th century Circle City.
The roots of the German-American Bund began in 1924, when the Free Society of Teutonia was formed in Detroit by brothers Fritz, Andreas, and Peter Gissibl. Fritz arrived in the United States in December 1923, and his brothers followed a month later. Hitler’s failed Munich Beer Hall putsch had occurred just a month before Fritz arrived in New York, but Fritz had no affiliation with the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (that is, the Nazis) until he joined the party in 1926, when the group’s name changed to the Nationalist Society of Teutonia. The group claimed 500 members in October 1932, when they became the Friends of the Hitler Movement. Three months later, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in January 1933.
In May 1933 Nazi Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess approved the formation of an American organization to support the National Socialist cause. The Friends of the Hitler Movement was renamed the Friends of New Germany, and the group claimed it had 14 chapters in cities including Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, and Cincinnati. The first evidence of Friends of the New Germany activism in Indiana came in November 1934, when the group sponsored a concert and flag dedication ceremony in Hammond, Indiana. Fritz Gissibl spoke to 500 people gathered in the Chicago suburb for the dedication of a US flag alongside “the flag of new Germany and that of the old empire.” In July 1935 in neighboring Calumet City the “boys auxiliary of the Friends of the New Germany of Chicago” appeared at an event at which 3500 people gathered for a parade at which “both the American and the German flags were raised.” A day later the Indianapolis Star was sufficiently unsettled by these Friends of the New Germany events to argue that the league “should be prohibited from using American soil for their political propaganda.”
The organization became the German-American Bund in March 1936, with membership divided into three groups (known as Gaue). The Midwestern Gau included 19 local groups, and Indiana memberships had been established in Hammond, Gary, and South Bend. Those Bund memberships in northwest Indiana were especially active, and a 1938 Department of Justice investigation of the German-American Bund revealed that Hoosier members were gathering for pseudo-military training at a camp in Michigan (probably the camp that opened near Bridgman in June 1938). The Indianapolis Star reported that the group was “in disfavor” in Indianapolis and suggested that there had been “no effort to form” a chapter in the Circle City. However, on February 23rd it was reported that German-American Bund representatives were seeking a meeting hall in Indianapolis for a rally, and fliers had been distributed promoting a March 14 meeting at the Athenaeum. The fliers trumpeted the visit of Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, the German-American Bund’s national public relations officer, who was touring the country on a recruitment drive. In January 1938 the Attorney General had announced the conclusions of an FBI investigation and cleared the Bund of any federal wrongdoing, and the emboldened Bund launched membership drives that included Kunze’s trip through the Midwest.
On February 23rd, Kunze appeared in Chicago at a rally that resulted in five arrests following a fight between uniformed Bund members and protestors, including two teenagers who refused to deliver the Nazi salute. This followed violence at a recruitment rally in Syracuse, where a group of American Legion veterans clashed with Kunze, who told the crowd that “The bund is organized to fight subversive influences in the United States. We want to make sure no small racial group gains control of the United States.” Fights likewise followed at a Kunze rally in Buffalo, where Legionnaires once again led the resistance to the Bund. Kunze then headed Midwest, speaking in Cleveland where he appeared “beneath two lighted swastikas and flanked by men wearing nazi belts.” He told a closed meeting that “the bund was against any and all atheism, against all subversive internationalism and against the indiscriminate mixture of Aryan and Asiatic or African races. `We want to preserve the culture in which America has been built and keep people of our own kind controlling the public mind.’”
In Indianapolis, the Athenaeum hastily cancelled the Bund’s reservation; other Indianapolis meeting halls including the Liederkranz and Syrian-American Brotherhood had previously refused to host the event. The Indianapolis Star reported on February 25th that “an American-born Nazi agent” who was “born in Indiana” attempted to rent a hall “to organize Brown Shirt Nazi units in Indianapolis.” That local German-American Bund organizer was revealed to be Charles William Soltau, and Soltau, his father William Albert Soltau, mother Laura Hansing Soltau, and sisters Opal and Pearl resolved to hold the meeting at their own home on Summit Street on the near-Eastside. Charles Soltau wrote a letter to the Star that appeared on March 1st complaining that “the German-American Bund has been accused, maligned and condemned without a trial.” Soltau suggested that the Bund’s right to meet had been undermined by Jewish business interests, arguing that “a certain powerful minority group, which seems to have gained almost complete control of the press, fears the effect of public enlightment [sic].” A meeting invitation circulated announcing that the Soltau family was “anxious to have our house filled with German-Americans who have enough backbone to assert their constitutional right of peaceable assembly in the face of opposition by these boycott racketeers.” The invitation ended proclaiming “Yours for a cleaned-up, white man’s U.S.A.” alongside Charles Soltau’s signature.
Some Bund members were recent German immigrants bitter over their wartime loss and the Versailles treaty. The Soltau family, though, had lived in Indianapolis for more than a half-century by the time the German-American Bund gathered in their Summit Street home. John Albert Soltau (1847-1938) was born in Germany in 1847, migrating with his family to Minnesota in 1857 and then moving to Indianapolis in 1873. Soltau opened an Indianapolis grocery chain that eventually included 12 different stores. He was a Republican Ward delegate in 1894, and in 1902 he ran unsuccessfully for Marion County Recorder on the Prohibition ticket. In 1916 he was a delegate to the national Prohibition Party convention, and his long-term commitment to the temperance cause suggests he was socially conservative, but there is no particularly clear evidence for why his descendants would eventually embrace Nazi ideology. Some Prohibitionists allied themselves with the Klan’s cause in the 1920’s, and John Soltau’s brother James Garfield Soltau (1881-1932) was unmasked in 1923 as one of the first 12,208 Ku Klux Klan members in Indianapolis; nevertheless, there is no evidence any other family members joined the hooded order.
The oldest of John Soltau’s five sons, William Albert Soltau, was born in 1875. William worked in his father’s grocery stores and married Laura Hansing in June 1903. The family moved to 339 North Summit Street in 1916, by when they had two children Pearl (born 1905) and Charles William (1909); a third child, Opal, was born in 1920. William Albert Soltau became a real estate agent around 1924 and had his own real estate firm until his death in 1950.
Just a few days before Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze appeared at the Soltaus’ home in Indianapolis, the Indianapolis News suggested that the Soltau family had been quietly purchasing property in Brown County to create a German-American Bund camp. Bund camps including Camp Nordland in New Jersey and Camp Siegfried on Long Island were part of a network of camps where men, women, and youth exercised, received para-military training, and were steeped in Nazi ideology (Camp Nordland even hosted a joint Klan and Bund rally in 1940). The German-American Bund members in Hammond and Gary, Indiana opened a camp on Lake Michigan near Bridgman in June 1938, where Midwestern Bund members met until it closed in December 1941. By 1938 the Soltau family had assembled a tract east of Nashville near Gnaw Bone. Charles Soltau denied they planned to create a Bund camp at the site, and they had indeed been purchasing property well before the rise of the Bund, but it certainly was part of the Bund’s ambitions to expand the number of camps throughout the country.
A week before the planned Bund meeting the Indianapolis News ran a picture of the Soltau home on the front page of the newspaper, and two days before the meeting the Indianapolis Star reported that a neighbor indicated that “she was called on by a well-dressed young man carrying a brief case, who said that he represented the Bund.” Two days before the Kunze meeting Charles Soltau told the Indianapolis press that the meeting had been cancelled, but Kunze and a small circle of prospective members at their home on Monday March 14, 1938. After Kunze arrived Soltau called the police when protestors threw rocks through the home’s windows. The police arrived to find only seven people present and reported to the press that they found “a number of application forms for the Bund, several of which were filled out, and a number of German newspapers bearing Swastika emblems.” The substance of the Summit Street meeting was unreported, but two nights later Kunze held a recruitment meeting in a Dayton, Ohio hotel at which he referred to Jews “as `an atheistic international movement threatening the United States.’”
Despite the underwhelming Indianapolis recruitment session, the Soltau family remained committed to the cause. In November 1938, for instance, Charles William Soltau and his youngest sister Opal returned from a trip to Germany. The Bund held a series of trips to Germany to indoctrinate young members in Nazi ideology. For example, in April 1938 a party of 15 young men and 15 young women went to Germany on a trip that was paid for by the Bund. Realizing that the Bund was under surveillance by the FBI, the group was instructed not to board the ship together. Several days into that trip, though, they began to don their uniforms at midnight each evening and gather for marching and saluting drills (see pp. 65-71, FBI Report Section 10). When the group was in Germany they attended an event at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in a section alongside Hitler’s box, which included Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Robert Ley. They met Goebbels afterward and attended a youth event at which Hitler spoke. The group spent six weeks at a Nazi youth camp near Storkow, which was a Hitler Youth camp between 1934 and 1945. Opal Soltau graduated from Arsenal Tech High School in 1938, but her brother Charles William Soltau was nearly 30, so she may have attended a German youth camp without her brother in tow. The siblings may simply have celebrated Opal’s graduation with a trip to Germany, but their connections to the German-American Bund make it likely the trip had links to the Bund. The brother and sister departed from Hamburg on November 3rd and arrived in New York on the 11th.
The Soltau family quietly supported the Bund cause. For instance, the A.V. Publishing Corporation (i.e., Amerika-Deutscher Volksbund) was a German-American Bund press incorporated in March 1937. A.V. Publishing printed the weekly newspaper The Free American (also known as Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter and the Free American) as well as Nazi propaganda, including Mein Kampf and one of the most influential anti-Semitic tracts, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The press offered up 5000 shares of preferred stock at $10 a share in 1937, and a November 1941 FBI report identified William A. Soltau and each of his three children as four of 38 stockholders in the press (p.13 FBI Report Section 11). It is not clear when the Soltaus first invested in the press, but they were identified by the FBI as the only stockholders from Indiana. The Free American had local news columns for Fort Wayne and South Bend, but not Indianapolis.
The German-American Bund was at its height in 1938-1939, and in February 1939 20,000 people gathered for a German-American Bund rally at Madison Square Garden (the subject of the 2017 documentary A Night at the Garden). However, FBI investigations accelerated afterward, and New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was fiercely anti-Nazi. He spearheaded a tax investigation that placed the Bund’s leader Fritz Julius Kuhn in jail in December, and Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze assumed leadership of the Bund. Kunze was ambitious to secure leadership of the organization, and he provided the New York District Attorney access to Bund accounting records knowing that Kuhn was guilty of graft.
The war began in September 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland, and the FBI and federal government stepped up its monitoring of the Bund. Kunze was detained by the South Bend Police on May 12, 1941, and in the inventory of materials confiscated by the Police was a series of index cards with seven Bund members’ addresses (pp.2-5, FBI Report Section 10). These included the Indianapolis address for William A. Soltau, the only Bund member from Indiana identified in Kunze’s papers. Kunze was soon accused of espionage, and in November 1941 he fled to Mexico, hoping to escape to Germany just a month before Pearl Harbor (he was captured by the United States in Mexico in June 1942 and spent the war in jail for espionage). The German-American Bund disbanded officially immediately after Pearl Harbor, but the federal government took aim on former Bund members throughout 1942. Some Bund members lost their American citizenship and were deported, but others were prosecuted for refusing to register for the draft. After draft registration began in September 1940 the Bund had instructed its members to resist registering for the draft, and when the draft began former Bund members began to be prosecuted for failure to register for the selective service.
Charles William Soltau was among the former Bund members who refused to report for induction, and in August 1942 Soltau was arrested. US Marshals discovered an enormous volume of Nazi propaganda in the Soltau home including issues of The Free American, a portrait of Hitler, and Nazi banners. In a four-page letter to President Roosevelt Soltau argued that “in all my association with the German-American Bund I never was guilty of any subversive activity.” Soltau posted $5000 bond, but when he appeared in court in November he argued that “`My conscience will not permit me to bear arms against the German people.’” He informed the court that “`This war is a war of aggression by the United States against the Germans. I am a man of German blood and I don’t think it is right or fair or just for a man of German blood to bear arms against the German people.’” The jury deliberated just six minutes and delivered a five-year sentence to Soltau. Judge Robert C. Baltzell concluded that “I have never seen a more contemptuous fellow in this court,” and he resolved that “I am going to do all I can to see that you serve as much as possible.” While Soltau was serving his sentence in a federal prison in Milan, Michigan, his mother Laura Hansing Soltau died in December 1943. William Albert Soltau moved to a home on Woodlawn Avenue in about 1948, and he continued to sell real estate in Indianapolis and Brown County. His son Charles was released in 1946, and Charles moved with his sisters Opal and Pearl to their secluded Brown County property near Gnaw Bone. Their father died there in October 1950.
The Soltau siblings quietly lived together in Brown County for the remainder of their lives, and none of the three ever married. In May 1961 Indianapolis News columnist Myrtie Barker reported on goat dairies in Brown County, and one of the dairies, the Pleasant Valley Goat Farm, was a 200-acre farm managed by the three Soltau siblings. Barker reported that the Soltaus had purchased three goats in 1952 that had expanded to 44 head by 1961, and the family sold goat’s milk and yogurt in local farm markets. Pearl Soltau worked as an accountant and was preparing tax returns at the farm.
Pearl was 62 when she died at the Gnaw Bone farm in May 1968. Charles William Soltau died in July 1971, with an obituary identifying him as a member of the “German-American National Congress” (i.e., Deutsch-Amerikanischer National Kongress), a heritage group founded in 1959. The two oldest siblings betrayed no history of continued xenophobic activism after World War II, but the youngest of the three Soltau children, Opal, remained connected to unsettling political causes after her siblings’ deaths. In the 1980s Opal Soltau was accused of mailing propaganda authored by neo-Nazi Gary Lauck from the post office in Nashville. Lauck headed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party-Overseas Organization, which mailed neo-Nazi literature from its base in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1996 Opal was identified as an associate of Lauck after he was arrested in Denmark and extradited to Germany. Lauck stood trial for distributing propaganda, and his lawyer argued in a German court that “one of the witnesses, Opal Soltau, sent the anti-Semitic literature that Lauck is charged with distributing in Germany”; however, the judge rejected that argument and determined that Lauck was the source of the neo-Nazi propaganda. Soltau sold 120 acres in Brown County in September 1996 and completed the transfer in January 1997, and she apparently moved to Nebraska around the time of that sale. On January 1, 1997 she became a Director for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party-Overseas Organization. Soltau died in Lincoln in August 2008.
The Indianapolis press was certainly correct that there was little sympathy for the Nazi cause on the eve of World War II, and many groups like the American Legion and the Jewish War Veterans took a firm stand against the Bund from the very beginning. Nevertheless, the German-American Bund voiced many xenophobic social sentiments that were quietly accepted by many Hoosiers. Opal Soltau’s apparent lifelong affection for Nazi ideology was perhaps distinctive, but there is little evidence that the Bund members or earlier Klansmen universally reconsidered their deeply held feelings when the organizations fell apart. We risk ignoring the persistence of such sentiments if we fixate on these organizations, focus on a few individual personalities. and ignore all of the everyday people who were in league with such groups socially and politically.
Leland Virgil Bell
1968 Anatomy of a Hate Movement: The German-American Bund, 1936-1941. PhD dissertation, West Virginia University.
Susan Canedy Clark
1987 America’s Nazis: The German-American Bund. PhD dissertation, Texas A&M University.
Sander A. Diamond
1970 The Years of Waiting: National Socialism in the United States, 1922–1933. American Jewish Historical Quarterly 59(3):256-271.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
James E. Geels
1975 The German-American Bund: Fifth Column or Deutschtum? Master’s Thesis, North Texas State University.
Bradley W. Hart
2018 Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States. St. Martin’s Publishing, New York.
Eliot A. Kopp
2010 Fritz Kuhn, “the American Fuehrer” and the rise and fall of the German-American Bund. Master’s Thesis, Florida Atlantic University.
Irwin Suall and David Lowe
1987 The hate movement today: A chronicle of violence and disarray. Terrorism 10(4):345-364. (subscription access)
Charles William Soltau Arsenal Tech Yearbook 1926 image and Opal Soltau Arsenal Tech Yearbook 1938 image, Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library
German-American Bund Parade, New York City 30 October 1937, Library of Congress
German-American Bund Rally, Madison Square Garden February 1939, still from 1943 Department of Defense film “The Nazis Strike”