Books: Nuremberg in America

A Yale professor says Nazis found inspiration for their laws in US statutes on race

Nazi paramilitary officers stand outside a Berlin store in 1933 posting signs reading ‘Germans! Defend yourselves! Do not buy from Jews!’ (photo credit: GERMAN FEDERAL ARCHIVES)
Nazi paramilitary officers stand outside a Berlin store in 1933 posting signs reading ‘Germans! Defend yourselves! Do not buy from Jews!’
Introduced by the Reichstag in September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws codified the racist policies of the Nazis. The laws declared that the swastika was the national symbol of Germany, consigned German Jews to second- class citizenship, and criminalized marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Aryans.
In Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, James Whitman, a professor at Yale Law School, makes a stunning and unsettling claim about the Nuremberg Laws. The Nazis who promulgated these laws, he maintains, “found precedents and parallels and inspirations” in the immigration and miscegenation legislation of the United States.
Whitman acknowledges that the tale he tells “has to be told cautiously.” He supplies frequent reminders that Nazism was not a transplant of American racism into Central Europe and that the Nazis certainly would have committed heinous crimes even if they had not found “interesting” examples of American race law. That said, he makes a compelling case that “seeing America through Nazi eyes” in the 1930s reveals things about “the nature and dimensions” of racism in the legal culture of the United States and about America’s place “in the larger world history of racism.”
The Nazis, Whitman demonstrates, frequently cited American statutes “regulating” the citizenship and sexual relationships of blacks, Native Americans, Filipinos, Japanese and Chinese as models of race-based legislation that could be applied to Jews. The immigration quotas of 1921 and 1924, they reported, manifestly favored the Nordics of northern and western Europe over eastern and southern Europe’s “undesirable” races. In Mein Kampf, Whitman points out, Hitler singled out the United States for recognizing that the “melting pot fails as soon as fundamentally different types of humans are involved” and refusing to admit “physically unhealthy elements” and “certain races.”
The United States, Whitman insists, “did in fact set the standard” for race-based immigration and citizenship laws in the early 20th century. Although the US “did not so much serve as a direct template,” the American example was “welcome evidence,” offering “confirmation that the winds of history were blowing in their direction.”
For the Nuremberg “Blood Laws,” Whitman provides substantial evidence of more direct influence, despite the absence of an anti-Jewish jurisprudence. Although they rejected Jim Crow-like segregation of Jews as impractical, Nazi legal experts emphasized, repeatedly, that 30 American states declared racially mixed marriages invalid, with a sizable number of them criminalizing miscegenation. And “the beauty of the American example” was that it managed to build a racist order without advancing a meaningful scientific conception of race (dividing the population into two fundamentally different categories, “white” and colored,” and deploying a “remarkable mix” of “geographical origins” and “blood relatedness” to pigeonhole individuals and groups).
The Nuremberg Laws, Whitman reminds us, defined a Jew as a person “who descends from at least three grandparents who are racially full Jews,” or a “mongrel” as one who descended from two fully Jewish grandparents and belonged to the Jewish religious community and/or was married to a Jew at the time the laws were promulgated. This definition, Whitman notes, shielded some Jews, presumably those who had embraced German cultural values (and Aryan spouses).
The United States, Nazi legal scholars acknowledged, had failed to target the Jews “so far.” But they maintained – before it became clear by the end of the 1930s that president Franklin D. Roosevelt was implacably opposed to the Third Reich – that a lot could be learned from America.
“There is currently one state that has made at least the weak beginnings of a better order,” wrote Hitler. “The racially pure and still unmixed German has risen to become master of the American continent, and he will remain the master, as long as he does not fall victim to racial pollution.” Whitman shows, moreover, that a considerable number of the Führer’s colleagues declared that laws on immigration, citizenship, marriage and sexual relationships that did not trouble themselves with jurisprudential niceties, like those in the United States, would “suit us perfectly.”
“Of course,” Whitman concludes, as well he should, the United States had a liberal democratic tradition and legal institutions that “the Nazis found contemptible.” And, “of course,” the United States was often, although by no means always, a refuge for millions of people trying to escape tyranny. Nevertheless, Whitman adds, America’s approach toward blacks, Asians, Native Americans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and others did constitute a modern exercise of state power that “has to be a part of its national narrative” – and did provide a model of sorts for those prepared to take it “in an unimaginably horrifying new direction.” ■
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Hitler’s American Model
By James Q. Whitman
Princeton University Press
208 pages; $24.95