Hitler’s American Model; The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law by James Q. Whitman. Princeton University, Press, 2017.

Hitler’s American Model; The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law by James Q. Whitman. Princeton University, Press, 2017.

The Nuremberg Laws were drawn up in the first years of the National Socialist Government in Germany. The inspiration for Nazi racial law was, James Whitman claims, was the racial regime in the US. In particular, Adolf Hitler admired the segregation in the public schools in the South, in transportation, restrooms, and even drinking fountains. The Nazi lawyers that drew up the earliest version of the Nuremburg Laws were, however, more interested in our interest in the “science of eugenics,  immigration law, and our decades-old success at pushing Native Americans out of tribal lands. The latter they found comparable to the Nazi geopolitical goal of lebensraum.

Provisions in American immigration laws were aimed at the feeblemindedness and other inheritable diseases. Strains of the American pseudo-science of eugenics and German racial murder.

Our exclusion of immigrants on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religion dated back to the early years of the Republic. But the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 clarified what had long been a series of federal and state laws, based on a percentage of the number of immigrants of that nationality that were already living here, 2%. That favored Immigrants from Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany. It penalized immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and particularly, Italians, Russians and Polish Jews. Our National Origins and Asian Exclusion Acts excluded all Chinese and Japanese immigrants from the West Coast and Hawaii, mostly at the urging of Californians concerned about the “yellow peril”.

Perhaps the Nazi Party official most responsible for the Nuremberg Laws and the interest in American models was the Nazi Minister of Justice, Franz Gürtner. He had been an early enthusiast for the National Socialist Party and had secured Hitler’s release from prison after his arrest for participation in the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Yet he argued for borrowing carefully from the American judicial practice. It was based on a longer tradition of liberal legal traditions with which he and his fellow jurists disagreed. He admired the independence of the American judiciary, but dubious of the harshness of our criminal law.

On the other hand, Gürtner found our separation of the US population into two categories, Caucasian and non-Caucasian, would have been far too simplistic for Germany. Whitman points out that the creation of a German race law must take into account the presence of substantial Jewish populations in eastern Germany. That was not an issue in the US.

The Nuremberg Laws had first to define the ethnic category “Jew.” Germans had lived amongst other ethnic groups for centuries, and found America’s “one-drop” rule impossible. In Germany you were deemed to be a Jew if either of your parents were Jewish or descended from two fully Jewish grandparents. Or, and this had nothing to do with ethnicity or race, if you belonged to a Jewish community or subsequent to the legislation were to marry into a Jewish family.

While the Germans who drew up the Nuremberg Laws found the legal and social structure of our Jim Crow South to be close to what they hoped to create, they were less admiring of the liberal outlook of the Amreican legal system in general. The US had many social-political arrangements that had matured over the decades and were worthy of German emulation. But the reverse was not so much the case. By the mid-1930s, there was considerable street violence in German cities which was abhorrent to most Americans.

In many ways German jurists believed our race laws to be “harsher” than theirs. For example the Germans were, even then, struck by the harshness of our criminal law and particularly our treatment of repeat offenders.

Wisely Whitman is careful not to exaggerate this, but Germans were, he reports, taken with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and its similarity to the German success in easing the severe depression with which both countries were contending. While there were no doubt more differences that congruencies between the two socio-economic programs, both involved authoritarian elements in their relief programs.

James Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model; The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law tells the story of forty-five Nazi lawyers put on a luxury ocean liner in September 1935 bound for the US on a “study trip” to look firsthand at the structure of American racial law. By the time it arrived at our shores, things were chaotic, and no doubt these German Nazi lawyers welcomed a return to the ‘order’ that the National Socialists brought to Germany.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s