An ancient symbol. It can be found in many cultures, known variously as the Fylfot, the Gammadion and Hakenkreuz. In China it’s called the Wan, in Japan the Manji. We know it as the Swastika, a term derived from Sanskrit. The figure is in the lore of the Navajo and in some Eastern faiths. Suggested as an image for the flag of the Nazi Party — a black Swastika in a white circle on a red background — in Hitler’s hands, it became synonymous with a vile legacy of violence, hate and bigotry.
Germany’s losses in World War I were substantial. Much of what was left of its navy became property of other nations. In spite of the economic chaos following the war, Germany was determined to rebuild its fleet. The luxury liner christened the Bremen was impressive. Three football fields long with a crew of close to 950, the vessel could accommodate 2,200 passengers. It was the time of the Weimar Republic and President Paul von Hindenburg held sway. At the ship’s launch the aging president intoned: “May this ship convey the German will of friendly cooperation to peoples over the ocean and may it be another bond uniting us with transoceanic lands.”
For a time, the Bremen flew Germany’s traditional flag. But by the summer of 1935 the Swastika was flying at the fore. In July of that year the Bremen made its way into New York Harbor. To growing numbers of Americans in the Jewish community and in leftist and liberal circles the vitriol and racism of the Nazis were glaringly apparent. Although many chose to ignore fascism’s threat, there were some mightily affronted by this ship bearing the Nazi rag. One of those citizens was a young seaman by the name of Bill Bailey. For him, Hitler’s pernicious emblem would have to go.
Bailey was born into an impoverished Irish Catholic family. He knew unrelenting hardship. As a juvenile, he got into trouble and did time. Later he wrangled his way into a job and went to sea performing arduous tasks on ships. Bailey found his way into organized labor and eventually the American Communist Party. Down-to-earth and outspoken, this committed activist was well on his road as a life-long advocate for the poor, beaten and bullied.
Author Peter Duffy has resurrected this marvelous tale of righteous defiance from the days before the outbreak of World War II. In addition to Bailey, other remarkable individuals are rendered in this captivating story. Along with Bailey’s tough seagoing comrades there is the distinguished Samuel Untermyer who headed up the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League, which stated plainly the right-wing threat: “To trade with Germany is to trade with the enemy of civilization.”
Not everyone agreed. Newspaperman William Randolph Hearst commented foolishly that the Nazi dictator might do “a measure of good not only for his own people but for all humanity.” Choosing to be oblivious, U.S. Senator Homer Bone, D-Washington, averred that he would “have nothing to do with the poisonous European mess.” Regarding Franklin D. Roosevelt, says Duffy: “FDR said nothing about the militarization of the Hitler state. Not one word.”
“The Agitator” also tells of native Seattle leftist seaman Lawrence Simpson. His intent to spread anti-fascist propaganda was thwarted while in German jurisdiction. After being arrested on an American ship by Gestapo police, Simpson spent a grueling 18 months in German custody. After his release, he gave speeches throughout the U.S.: “I thought it my duty to aid my fellow workers abroad in their efforts to throw off the fascist yoke and to establish democratic government.”
Perhaps the weirdest character detailed in Duffy’s account is Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl. From the upper class, he had an American mother and German father. A Harvard graduate, back in Germany he would become enamored with Hitler. As “Hitler’s piano player,” he claimed to have been the source of the “Seig Heil!” roar that he said was inspired by cheers heard attending Harvard football games. After falling out of favor with the Fuhrer, Hanfstaengl made his way back to the United States and provided intelligence about the Reich.
The Bremen was scheduled to depart the Big Apple on the night of July 26. As was customary, a huge party was held on board attended by paid passengers, their families, well-wishers and the curious who paid 10 cents for the privilege to drink, dance and cavort amid all the glamor. Thousands of revelers were present as Bailey and his friends, dressed uncharacteristically in suits and ties, came aboard and made their way through the crowd. Dockside another large crowd of anti-fascist protesters expressed their outrage. Among them was anarchist Dorothy Day and some of her fellow Catholic Workers.
After considerable jostling, and aware of the proximity of German crewmen, Bailey finally got to the bow where hung in spotlight the malefic flag. With help from one of his co-conspirators, Bailey wrested the flag and sent it fluttering into the harbor to the boisterous delight of the folks on the dock. A melee ensued. Bailey and company were taken into custody. One of the group was shot but survived. New York judge Louis Brodsky would oversee the trial and wound up dismissing the case of the so-called Bremen Six. They would speak at many left-wing gatherings after that. Said Bailey: “No matter where an anti-Nazi rally was being held, somehow, one of the guys was there. You know, rallying the people, telling them, ‘Don’t stop now! We got the bastards on the run!”
Bailey would fight in Spain as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Throughout World War II he did hazardous duty as a merchant seaman. During the Sen. Joseph McCarthy hysteria Bailey suffered harassment and unemployment. After leaving the Communist Party he remained an inveterate radical and never lost his human touch. Currently, while correctional employees in West Virginia are photographed giving the Nazi salute and when a murderous duo attack a kosher grocery in Jersey City, the kind of dedication and conviction exemplified by Bailey is sorely needed.
I met Bill Bailey once. I’m glad I did.
Read the full Jan. 15-21 issue.
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