American Racism, a Model for Nazis
He once praised America as the white nation that “gunned down the millions of Redkins to a few hundred thousand.”
After Hitler gained power, his lawyers designed new laws to marginalize Jews and other minorities to keep them from polluting German blood. Looking abroad for models, the Nazis found one nation that stood out for its racist laws: America.
Some of our laws were so harsh that even the Nazis rejected them as extreme.
James Q. Whitman tells this story in a remarkable little book, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. A scholar at Yale Law School, Whitman carefully studied the letters and records of Hitler’s lawyers.
Not once does Whitman mention the Trump administration; still, he raises unsettling questions about the direction our nation is heading in a new century.
Like America in the 1920s and 30s, Germany was influenced by the international eugenics movement. The eugenicists railed against the contamination of the white race and urged that all immigrants deemed genetically inferior be turned away. These repugnant but popular beliefs had shaped U.S. immigration and citizenship laws.
Hitler’s lawyers were intrigued by our laws barring Asians, homosexuals, anarchists and the mentally retarded. They also liked our laws favoring “Nordic” whites over “undesirables” from southern and eastern European nations.
The Nazis took special interest in our citizenship laws assigning second-class status to blacks and other minorities. Further, America was a global leader in barring interracial sex and marriage. Thirty of our states banned mixed marriage.
But the Nazis found our segregation laws excessive. Isolating minorities in separate schools, neighborhoods, prisons and hospitals was too much for the Nazis in 1935. Lynching, a common practice in our South, was out of the question. The Nazis’ goal was to get the violence of anti-Semitic thugs off the streets and under state control. Similarly, the Nazis rejected Americans’ “one-drop” rule for determining racial status, as in the case of Negroes, a race the Nazis despised as much as white Americans did.
Using U.S. laws as a model, the Nazis created a new race state under the Nuremburg Laws of 1935. The new laws defined “citizens of the Reich” and separate “nationals.” A citizen had to have “German blood, or racially related blood” – whatever that means – and loyally serve the Reich. Only citizens enjoyed full political rights. Jews were treated as nationals of a separate race, a handy distinction to promote the emigration of all Jews, which the Nazis favored in 1935.
Nazi law also banned new mixed marriages and sex between Jews and citizens.
Five years later, Dr. Ludwig Fischer, a leading attorney in designing Nazi laws, was promoted to the position of governor overseeing the Warsaw District in Poland and the infamous Warsaw Ghetto of nearly a half-million Jews. “Jews will croak from hunger and misery,” Fischer vowed, and all that would remain of “the Jewish problem” would be the cemetery. After World War II, Fischer was convicted of war crimes and hanged.
A careful scholar, Whitman never equates the United States with Nazi Germany, and he never treats American democracy as a travesty. But he does argue that we should know that our historic racism had features so hideous that even the Nazis in 1935 regarded them as excessive.
Whitman’s book reminds Americans that our unsavory wrangling today over immigration and citizenship shows that our racist past still haunts us.
The crucial question is: Where do we go from here?