Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of the Nazi Race Law
by James Q Whitman
Princeton University Press £19.95
Hero and villain history is nice and simple, but it hides more than it reveals. The Second World War is described as if it was a single event, but it was a complex of interlocking events spanning a generation and more. Part was anti-fascist war, but concurrently and consecutively it was a vipers nest of imperialist conflicts as Japan, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US tried either to construct Empires or keep those they already had. Logically, in opposition were counterposed wars of national liberation. The main protagonists fought several wars at the same time.
Galileo said, “There are spots on the Sun”. Whitman just takes this realism back before the shooting started in Europe. The Nazi deep engagement with the American eugenics movement has been clear since Stefan Kühl’s The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism and German National Socialism (1994), but here Whitman demonstrates how Nazi lawyers and jurists likewise drew direct inspiration from US immigration and anti-miscegenation legislation as the model from which to fashion the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws that were the start of the long march to Dachau and Auschwitz.
The Law on the Protection of German Blood and German Honour – commonly called the Blood Law – banned mixed marriages and sexual relations between Jews (and other inferior races, such as negroes) and Germans, while the accompanying German Citizenship Law made these inferior races non-citizens. For those drafting these Nuremberg Laws until the coming of Hitler the United States had held “the leadership of the white peoples” in the “Aryan struggle for world domination”. For the Nazis the US demonstrated that the winds of history were blowing in their direction. What the US was applying to the Negroes they would merely visit upon the Jews.
The Germans, under attack later for the racist treatment of their Jews, grumbled that the US had got away with murder. The trick was that American legislation – outside of immigration and miscegenation – was not open about its racist goals. It was violence, intimidation, open bribery, stuffing ballot boxes, manipulation and falsification of election returns, rather than legislation, that eliminated negro voters and negro votes.
In Germany the 1935 Nuremberg Laws were designed to bring persecution under the rule of law partly in an attempt to displace anarchic anti-Jewish street violence. In the US they remained faithful to craft practice, rather than industrialising legal persecution, as lynchings rose noticeably in the period 1933-35.
At times the Nazi jurists thought the US went too far. While they liked the Cable Act, that until 1930 stripped American women of their citizenship if they married Asian men, they were less sure of the Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo’s (1935-47) views. A staunch supporter of the New Deal and author of Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, Bilbo believed that merely “one drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and palsies his creative faculty”. He was a lifelong member of the Ku Klux Klan.
In contrast, for the Nazis the test for being a Jew ranged from the definition in the 1933 Law on the Revocation of Naturalisation and the Withdrawal of German Citizenship of having a Jewish grandparent to the Reich Citizenship Law (1935) that classified as Jews those who were half Jewish and practiced the Jewish religion or married a Jewish spouse.
Hitler’s American Model shows the US as global leader of ‘white supremacy’ until the Nazis came along. This warrants several apologies to people of colour in the US and the worldwide – I’m not holding my breath waiting for President Trump – nevertheless it does not mean that ‘Jim Crow’ and the Nazis were one and the same thing. What it does tell us, however, is that in the past discrimination proved contagious.
The plague of persecution can be reborn as intolerant populism turns first to xenophobic bigotry and finally fascism. We just have to hope that the systematic voter suppression of minorities we are seeing in the US – and are threatened with in the UK – will not be this century’s ‘gateway legislation’ to a new racial madness.