Their response was prompted by events like the meeting between William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of the day, and Hitler in the late summer of 1934. Hearst was tremendously impressed by the Nazi leader and his regime, commenting that at least in Germany there were “no riotous strikes”. This was in reference to the great strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco that year – strikes that shifted the balance of class forces in America.
After his meeting with Hitler, Hearst returned home to the US on the German luxury liner, the Bremen.
The Bremen sailed between Germany and New York twice a month and was very much seen as an advert for the new regime. Once in power, the Nazis had set about “Nazifying” the merchant fleet. They purged the workforce and established tight control over the crews, with regular propaganda meetings on board and a political director appointed to ensure everyone toed the party line. The Bremen carried the American rich to and from Europe and, while it was in New York, regularly hosted a late night farewell party before setting sail again. The ship carried up to 1,300 passengers, had over 900 crew and at the farewell party welcomed nearly 5,000 guests on board.
Anti-fascists organised demonstrations on the docks, condemning Nazi police terror and the brutal persecution of the Jews. On 26 July 1935, Communist Party members in New York planned to join the party, intent on taking down the Swastika flag and burning it on the dock. The ship was carrying its usual contingent of well-off passengers, among them President Franklin D Roosevelt’s two year old grandson and banker J P Morgan’s son, Henry.
What the Communists intended was for a dozen comrades, most of them seamen wearing their smartest clothes, to get on board by mingling with the guests. Then they would seize the Swastika flag at the bow. The seamen were particularly outraged by the recent arrest of a US seaman, Lawrence Simpson, by the Gestapo secret police in Hamburg. He had been taken off his ship, the Manhattan, for having anti-Nazi literature in his locker. This was done with the agreement of US officials. Simpson was to spend the next 18 months in a concentration camp, including 12 months in solitary confinement.
Meanwhile on the shore, some 2,000 people assembled to demonstrate against the Nazi regime,. They carried banners that read, “Nazism breeds war,” “Down with antisemitism,” “Free Lawrence Simpson,” and, “Free Thaelmann.” Ernst Thaelmann was the leader of the Communist Party of Germany, imprisoned along with thousands of other party members. The Communist International was running an international campaign calling for his release.
After the disembark whistle had sounded, a number of the Communists on board set about distracting the crew while Bill Bailey, a young seaman, seized the flag. He was assisted by another comrade, Adrian Duffy, but there was no way they were going to be able to get it off the ship. So Bailey threw the Swastika into the Hudson River to loud cheering from the shore. Duffy escaped capture, but Bailey was beaten unconscious and arrested along with five other comrades. One of their number, Edward Drolette, was shot and wounded by a New York policeman. Both on the Bremen and on shore, the New York police lived up to their well-deserved reputation for violence and brutality, with the notorious Red Squad leading the way.
The Communists were, of course, well aware of what the New York police were capable of, especially when dealing with the left. And so they had taken the precaution of carrying rosary beads and crucifixes to try and minimise the violence they were bound to be subjected to once in custody. One of the arresting officers was actually overheard remarking incredulously that all the prisoners were Irish, with not one Jew among them. One of the arresting policemen, ironically himself Jewish, was given a reward of $150 by the German shipping line for the bravery he had shown when trying to defend the Swastika.
The Roosevelt administration was outraged by this insult to a regime it was desperately trying to get on good terms with. It actually issued a statement that regretted that the Swastika had not received “the respect to which it is entitled”.
But worse was to come when the “Bremen Six”— Bailey, Drolette, Vincent McCormick, William Howe, Arthur Blair and George Blackwell—appeared before Judge Louis Brodsky. He was liberal and Jewish, known to be sympathetic to the poor and a supporter of anti-fascist organisations. He had publicly called for the boycotting of Nazi Germany.
To the outrage of the Roosevelt administration, he dismissed the charges and condemned the Nazi regime from the bench in the most ferocious language. Brodsky insisted that the Swastika had “sinister implications” and was no better than “the black flag of piracy”. He said it symbolised “war on religious freedom, the disenfranchisement of nationals solely on religious or ethnological grounds…the enslavement of women and workers…an international menace threatening freedom, a revolt against civilisation”. Flying it was a clear provocation.
And, then having justified what the Communists had done, Brodsky announced that the evidence against the accused was inadequate anyway. Drolette also stood trial separately, charged with assaulting the policeman who had shot him, and was duly found not guilty by a jury. The Roosevelt administration apologised to the Nazis for Brodsky’s remarks.
The anti-Nazi movement in the US was given a tremendous boost. Bailey and his comrades addressed a succession of mass meetings, including some 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden. Bailey was speaking at two meetings a day at one point, condemning the Nazis and celebrating the fact that the Swastika had been “ripped from its flag staff, torn in half and thrown overboard into the Hudson River sewage where it belongs”. And the International Labour Defence organisation that had defended the Bremen 6 produced a widely sold pamphlet, The Black Flag of Piracy.
Bailey was to later serve in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He remained a Communist Party member for many years despite often having serious doubts and reservations, not least regarding the Hitler-Stalin alliance between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia in 1939. He led strikes and faced victimisation and persecution for his political and union activities.
But Bailey finally left the Communist Party after Russia invaded Hungary in 1956 to crush a workers’ revolution against Hungary’s Stalinist dictatorship. He later remembered the many times he had been at odds with the party line, but had “turned my head…and bit my lip in shame”. The invasion of Hungary, with workers being shot down in the streets, was too much and he now bitterly condemned Stalin and his crimes. As far as he was concerned, the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were “pissing on Karl Marx’s grave”.
After he resigned his party membership, two FBI agents turned up on his doorstep, asking if he would give evidence against his one-time comrades. He slammed the door in their faces. It seems pretty certain that if Bailey had known the full story of Stalin’s crimes earlier, then he would have left the Communist Party years before he did. Certainly, if he had known that the Hitler-Stalin Pact was more than just a cynical diplomatic manoeuvre, one strongly suspects he would have broken with the party. It had seen the Russians secretly hand German Communists, including Jewish comrades, over to the Gestapo. The Nazis had actually offered to release Thaelmann, only for the Russians to tell them to keep him imprisoned. Thaelmann spent nearly twelve years in solitary confinement before being executed in Buchenwald concentration camp on 18 August 1944.
Bailey remained on the left, appeared in a number of documentary films and, after he retired, even got parts in some feature films. In one of them he played an elderly revolutionary trying to teach his parrot to say, “Workers of the World Unite.” He wrote a powerful memoir, The Kid from Hoboken, that was published in 1993 and died two years later.
For a powerful account of the Bremen episode read Peter Duffy’s book, The Agitator—William Bailey and the First American Uprising Against Nazism. The fight to tear down the Swastika on the Bremen—and the persecution of the anti-Nazi protesters afterwards—exposed the hollowness of the US state’s opposition to fascism and the far right.