Nazis

What Uncle Sam and Jim Crow Taught Hitler

When Nazi lawyers went looking for racial legislation to emulate, they turned to the United States.

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Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, by James Q. Whitman, Princeton University Press, 256 pages, $24.95

Princeton University Press

On June 5, 1934, leading Nazi jurists gathered for a meeting on Germany's "Jewish problem." They had one goal: to draft "unambiguous" legislation banning mixed marriages and sexual relationships. But they were split into two factions: the radicals, who wanted to criminalize miscegenation, and more traditional German jurists, who weren't sure this was workable. During the debates that followed, the radicals in the room repeatedly pointed to an example overseas: the United States of America. Uncle Sam and Jim Crow, they knew, had much to teach them.

In Hitler's American Model, a creepy work of comparative legal analysis, the Yale-based legal scholar James Q. Whitman argues convincingly that American jurisprudence—federal and state alike—provided both inspiration and a model for the most radical Nazi lawyers at the meeting. A little more than a year later, their discussions produced the Nazis' Citizenship and Blood Laws, known collectively as the Nuremberg Laws, which explicitly targeted Jews and separated them from the "true" German people, or volk.

The Law on the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, one piece of that legislation, criminalized sexual relations and marriage between a German and a Jew, defined as anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents. Jews who broke this law were punished with imprisonment or hard labor, sometimes both. Under the Reich Citizenship Law, Jews lost the status of citizen. Soon they were stripped of their political rights, including suffrage, as well. This is where the goose step toward the ovens of Auschwitz began.

Whitman is well aware that his provocative thesis could be dismissed as just another academic blaming the world's evil on America. As he notes, other historians have denied that the United States taught Nazi Germany anything. To these scholars, any favorable mention of the U.S. by the Nazis was a deflection. The German lawyer Andreas Rethmeier even argued that the United States' racist laws and jurisprudence couldn't have been a model for Nazis since America considered Jews white.

Whitman easily refutes them.

In fact, Hitler often applauded the United States for its racist state violence and oppression. In a 1928 speech, he admired how Americans "gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now keep the modest remnant under observation in a cage." In Mein Kampf, he wrote, "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."

Several of Hitler's followers sounded similar notes. The Nazi historian Albrecht Wirth believed the founding of the United States was the most important development of the last millennium up until World War I, writing in 1934 that "the struggle of the Aryans for world domination received…its strong prop" with America's birth.

More importantly, Hitler knew about the racism—both de facto and de jure—in American immigration, citizenship, and miscegenation law. "The American Union…simply excludes the immigration of certain races," he wrote in Mein Kampf. "In these respects America already pays obeisance, at least in tentative first steps, to the characteristic völkisch conception of the state." November 1933's National Socialist Monthly praised America's "draconian immigration law" and stated that "to these circles of tribally related Americans we reach out our hand in friendship."

Nazi lawyers also noted with approval that Anglo-Saxon America had reduced whole groups of people to second-class citizenship. The Democratic Party in the South had pioneered ways to keep black people in particular from voting. Voter suppression tactics included literacy tests, property requirements, voting roll purges, felon disenfranchisement, and poll taxes. Because of its "racist election law" and its one-party stranglehold over the South, Nazi lawyer Heinrich Krieger even wondered whether the Democratic Party would, like the Nazis, make "the Party an organ of the State."

Whitman doesn't argue the Nazis cut and pasted U.S. immigration and citizenship laws into their own legal code. The influence was more subtle. United States law, according to Whitman, served "as welcome evidence that 'race consciousness' had already begun to shape the law in a leading 'Nordic' polity" and that "the winds of history were blowing in their direction."

With the Blood Law, however, the influence was more direct. At that June 1934 meeting that led eventually to the Nuremberg Laws, the participants repeatedly discussed the America's racist legal codes, with the Nazi radicals in attendance the most enthusiastic in their approval of the American example. During the meeting, Justice Minister Franz Gurtner showed off a memo cataloging American race laws. "Almost all American states have race legislation," he said, according to a transcript of the meeting.

What most excited the radicals was that certain states criminalized miscegenation, which is exactly what the Nazis would do a year later. The more traditional lawyers at the meeting were skeptical of the idea, arguing that criminalizing such behavior would be impossible—judges had too much discretion to determine who was and wasn't Jewish. German law until then, notes Whitman, had been based on "clear and unambiguous concepts." The traditionalists wanted that feature to be preserved. Otherwise, the rule of law would become the rule of men.

The radicals replied that U.S. law allowed judges to determine who was or wasn't "colored" even though race couldn't be scientifically determined. Roland Freisler, who would later become president of the Nazi People's Court, stated that the American model would "suit us perfectly." If the U.S. could institute explicitly racist legislation, then so could Nazi Germany. "What the American example showed," writes Whitman, "was that German judges could persecute Jews even without legislation founded in clear and scientifically satisfactory definitions."

Whitman's most terrifying observation may be that some of the radicals thought America's obsession with protecting its whiteness went too far. One Nazi writer bemoaned "the unforgiving hardness" of the idea that "an American man or woman who has even a drop of Negro blood in their veins" was considered black. Even the Nazi Blood Law limited its targets to people with at least three Jewish grandparents. Then again, there were Nazi hardliners who pushed for a more expansive classification in which just one Jewish grandparent defined you as a Jew.

In his conclusion, Whitman reminds readers of the dangers of a politicized legal culture. He argues that both the United States and Nazi Germany embraced legal realism, the idea that the law should evolve with the times, as opposed to legal formalism, where the law constrains the designs of ambitious legislators. Under legal realism, Germany fell victim to the totalitarian state of Hitler's Nazism, while the United States moved toward a Faustian bargain between the New Dealers and Southern segregationists. "The same 'realistic' legal philosophy that could be invoked to defend the 'bold [economic] experiments' of [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] could also be invoked to defend the racism of the Southern Democratic Party," Whitman notes.

"When the politics is bad," he writes ominously, "the law can be very bad indeed."

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  1. It’s my understanding that every Jim Crow racist was a Democrat. True?

    1. I suspect some were, um, independent. Or Nazis, of course.

    2. You lie so much and on so many subjects, there’s no way for us to know if it really is true that it is your understanding.

      1. The majority of the Jim Crow laws were passed and maintained by the Democrat party. The Republicans were the party of reconstruction and had instituted voting among blacks, and Jim Crow was a reaction against that. The Democrat party was the backbone of the first three incarnations of the KKK.

        Southern Democrats voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so that a greater percentage of Republicans voted for it than Democrats. In cold fact the hijacking of the Civil Rights issue by the Democrat Party is one of the great Political Coups of history; far reaching in its effects and stunning in its hypocrisy.

        And, judging by the long term effects of the Democrats’ Civil Rights policies, the Democrats are still racists. They just disguise it better.

        1. ” the Democrats are still racists. They just disguise it better.”

          They seem to have eased up on their hatred of Jews since the days of Hitler.

          1. Not one hell of a whole lot. Te anti-Israel movement is an anti-semetic movement with the thinnest of disguises.

            1. You think the Democrats are anti-Israel? Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders? It’s clear they hate blacks, they are Americans after all, but Jews? I think Sanders has at least 3 Jewish grandparents, himself.

              1. One note: Sanders isn’t a Democrat.

                1. “Sanders isn’t a Democrat.”

                  Clinton is. Is she also anti-Israel?

                  1. Clinton is for or against whatever she feels will improve her position. If cannibalism was popular she would barbecue her daughter on national television.

                    1. I don’t think she is anti-Israel. Are you insisting that she is?

              2. Do you think the BDS movement votes Republican?

      2. You lie so much and on so many subjects, there’s no way for us to know

        If you need to rely on DanO’s postings to figure out whether Jim Crow laws were progressive/Democratic or conservative/Republican, the problem is entirely with you. Get yourself at least a basic education in US history.

        (Of course, that’s assuming that your comment wasn’t meant sarcastically. With comments that stupid, it’s hard to tell the difference.)

      3. I draw your attention to the literal words I wrote:

        if it really is true that it is your understanding.

        and ask what I was really responding to.

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  2. Jews who broke this law were punished with imprisonment or hard labor, sometimes both.

    Sometimes both? How did they impose “hard labor” without imprisonment?

    1. “How did they impose “hard labor” without imprisonment?”

      Tax the living shit out of us, to the point where we are half-starving to death, and we have to work-work-work, to afford to keep a few scraps of bread for ourselves to eat…

      I’m not saying that we’re close to that just yet, but, THAT is how this is done! Also, by drafting us into the armed forces…

    2. You can have imprisonment without hard labor.

  3. Oh-oh. Progs aren’t going to be pleased with this.

    1. Au contraire, mon frere. I think the progs will use this as proof of white privilege. The alt-right, especially the Spencerites and Hoppites, will use this as proof that America has a long tradition of upholding their views. Everyone will see proof that they are right.

      1. Oh Lord. What a hive of scum and villainy.

    2. The close ties between European fascism and American progressivism are extremely well documented and blatantly obvious. For example, FDR praised Mussolini (and was praised by him); Goebbels explicitly used the propaganda techniques developed by US progressive governments to manipulate Americans; eugenics was widespread among American progressives and academics (“three generations of imbeciles”); FDR’s WPA and Hitler’s make-work programs were very similar; and the political program of the Nazi party mostly reads like a Hillary campaign poster.

      Progs don’t care. They either deny these obvious historical facts, or they point to the magical “Southern Strategy”, which (in their minds) magically turns all pre-1970 progressive sins into sins of Republicans and conservatives. It’s very hard to break through that defensive barrier of deliberate ignorance, self-righteousness, self-serving ideology, and irrationality.

      1. “It’s very hard to break through that defensive barrier of deliberate ignorance, self-righteousness, self-serving ideology, and irrationality.”

        Try a ball-peen hammer.

  4. America is horrible. Just horrible.

    Why would anybody live here?

    Why do people clamor and risk their lives to live here?

    People are just not rational.

    1. ^ I can’t quite tell whether you’re being sarcastic or serious.

      President Davis (to ailen invaders): “Our planet is decaying in its own filth, and is best avoided by all aliens.”

      1. It was sarcasm. Hard to tell when written, especially when briefly written.

        It might be true that Hitler was inspired by the Jim Crow laws put in place by the Democrats. Never the less, America is the least racist, and simultaneously the most race obsessed country on this blue planet.

        Morgan Freeman was born a poor black child in Memphis. He is now a rich black man who lives in Mississippi. Don Lemon was born in Baton Rouge, LA, and now he is knocking down the big bucks on CNN defending Susan Rice from her obvious crimes.

        Even Steve Martin, another child born poor and black, grew up to be a rich white comedian.

        What a country!

        1. It might be true that Hitler was inspired by the Jim Crow laws put in place by the Democrats. Never the less, America is the least racist, and simultaneously the most race obsessed country on this blue planet.

          US society is very tolerant and accepting of many races.

          The US government is one of the most racist Western governments, precisely because of all the race-based policies that progressives and Democrats still implement and push to this very day.

    2. Why do people clamor and risk their lives to live here?

      Not “here”. California, mostly.

  5. In his conclusion, Whitman reminds readers of the dangers of a politicized legal culture. He argues that both the United States and Nazi Germany embraced legal realism, the idea that the law should evolve with the times, as opposed to legal formalism,

    The problem with fascists and progressives is that they are willing to sacrifice minorities for the benefit of the majority. “Hey, a few percent of the population get screwed, but the majority of the population is healthier/wealthier/safer/whatever.”

    Once people widely believe in collectivism, that is the idea that it’s the job of government to improve the life of a community, rather than protect the rights of individuals, they will make whatever changes to the legal system and legal reasoning are necessary to support those policies.

    That is, you’re not going to stop fascism/progressivism by insisting on legal formalism, you are only going to stop it by persuading people that collectivism is a bad idea.

  6. Didn’t we learn this week that comparisons to Hitler were counter-productive? Or, in the LP’s case, quoting a Satanic cult?

  7. The [all right, A] problem with exceptionalism is that what is exceptional can be exceptionally bad.
    Exceptional, in and of itself, is no sign of virtue. Not that such a clue could ever penetrate the shining apparatus of the “American exceptionalism” volk.

    1. The “Exceptionalism” term doesn’t refer to the adjective in the sense of “Super/very/unusually”, but the noun “exception” – which requires understanding what the US is an exception to/from.

      he term is meaningless unless you identify the thing the US is excepted from. It has typically meant “European political history”. But there have been other applications.

      People who use it in the sense you’re referring to don’t understand it any better than you seem to. Basically, you’re responding to a misconception with a misconception.

  8. “The Law on the Protection of German Blood and German Honor”

    Almost like it did exactly the opposite. I think I remember reading something about how laws always do the opposite of their purported purposes. Im thinking it was one of those George Reissman pamphlets amazon keeps trying to sell me. Often successfully. I like my economics like I like my sex – short and to the point.

  9. You know who else… wait, never mind.

    1. You know who else was taught by America?

      1. Russia – China – Britain – France – Israel – Pakistan – India – N.-Korea, etc., on how to build nuclear weapons?

  10. I suspect they actually got many of them from Islam

  11. I can certainly see Hitler admiring American racism just as Progressives admired the centralized economies of Hitler and Mussolini. I also don’t doubt they used Jim Crow laws as models for their own racist legislation. What I would disagree with is the idea that America “influenced” Germany’s Aryan purity ideology and anti-semitism. That would be like saying Islam “infuenced” Christianity’s hatred of gays. If America never existed, German philosophy and nationalism would have taken the exact same path.

    1. Not true. The first wave of Germans who emigrated to the US were the 48’ers – middle-class, educated, and strong ‘classical liberals’. The positive ideals underlying the US had motivated them to start the 1848 revolutions and when those failed they left Germany and settled (mostly) in the Midwest. Their influence was profound in both places. They were shocked at slavery, threatened by Dred Scot, and formed an outsized portion of the Union Army. Longer-term, they reinvigorated the ideal of classical liberalism in the US.

      In Germany, their exit left a vacuum in German thought/politics – filled from the top by the Junkers/monarchists and from the bottom by poor who adopted socialism and antidemocratic forms of it. Bismarck never gains traction as a politician if 1848 succeeds. After it fails, he changes his mind from opposing unification (one goal of the 1848 revolution) to making it happen under terms that make Prussia dominant and that eliminate democracy for 70 years (and make the Weimar version fail). In that vacuum also, the liberal idea of nationalism (since Kant) disappears and is replaced by romantic/socialist/volk nationalism (Wagner, Kulturkampf, von Sch?nerer, etc). It is the strains/failures/mindsets of that post-1848 Germany/Austria that creates Hitler and makes his vision appealing. And that make it possible for him to misunderstand even the influence of German emigrants to the US which was the opposite of what he thought.

      1. As an aside – that exit of Germans to the US directly influenced German communists too in the 1920’s. The Russian revolution shocked German communists who tried to find explanations for why the revolution didn’t happen in Germany where it was ‘supposed to happen’. Willi M?nzenberg settled on the idea that emigration had acted as a safety valve. Had it not occurred, the proletariat would have become discontented faster and made change happen earlier. His solution (via Comintern) was to create front organizations of American intellectuals to ‘badmouth’ the idea of the US to potential emigrants from Europe and to use nativism/race incidents (eg Sacco/Vanzetti) in the US as CP propaganda in Europe. It is that CP use of ‘Amerika’ for domestic politics in Europe that directly drove Hitler to also use ‘Amerika’ for his own domestic politics. Neither of them gave a crap about reality. Only about the symbolism.

  12. Some of this was brought up in Judgment at Nuremberg, a 1961 flick starring Judy Garland, Boit Lancaster and William Shatner. Much of what Germany practiced in the 1930s was taken from the Teddy Roosevelt Administration.

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  17. “…Roland Freisler, who would later become president of the Nazi People’s Court…”

    Finally, Judge Wapner’s racist origins have been brought to light.

  18. I’ll bet Whitman gets lots of invitations to the parties for his thesis that the Nazi’s got their ideas about how to separate the races from the ‘Mericans, but a few blank looks and lots of invitations revoked when he says:

    “The same ‘realistic’ legal philosophy that could be invoked to defend the ‘bold [economic] experiments’ of [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] could also be invoked to defend the racism of the Southern Democratic Party”

  19. Yup. It was always America. I’ll bet that even the snake who charmed Eve in the Garden was an American snake, –as yet another malcontented Ivy Leaguer will no doubt argue soon enough.
    Still, just to be obstreperous, I suggest that the author needs to look up and think bout the meaning of the word “inspired,” (The idiot reviewer should do the same!) since only the claim that America ‘inspired Hitler’ makes the book even slightly noteworthy. Simply saying the Nazi lawyers noted American statutes as possible models for legal formality doesn’t plow new ground. ‘Inspired’ however, rocks the anti-American, Progressive world!
    But Hitler and the Nazis had anti-Semitic models aplenty in their own (and world) history and culture, most of which pre-date the existence or even the discovery of this putative hell-whole we call America. Nazi wickedness was not inspired by American evil. It had its own roots. And any attempt to say otherwise is ridiculous on its face!
    The gall of this Ivy League nitwit – i.e. average contemporary asshole – writing a book that causally links historical American racial injustice to Naziism is staggering, even for a Yalie . This unrelenting self-hatred among members of the Progressive Left is simply stupefying.
    When will enough be enough?

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