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Review: James Q. Whitman’s “Hitler’s American Model”

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James Q. Whitman’s chilling account of American influences on Nazi policy formulations about the extermination of European Jews, Hitler’s American Model, lays to rest any doubt about America being anything besides the most racist country civilization has ever known. The Nazis were inspired by American models (especially laws in Southern states designed to thwart any advancement of African-Americans).  The Nazis had “a shared commitment of white supremacy” in part because they realized that it had been successful in helping create America’s dynamism, especially its economic power.

For the Nazis, America was “a beacon of anti-miscegenation law” that could be emulated. As Whitman states at the conclusion of his opening chapter, “We will not understand the history of National Socialist Germany, and more importantly the place of America in the larger history of world racism, unless we reckon with these facts. In the early 1930s, Nazi lawyers were engaged in creating a race law founded on anti-miscegenation law and race-based immigration, naturalization, and second-class citizenship law. They went looking for foreign models, and they found them—in the United States of America.”

Hitler himself observed, in 1933, “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.” The Nuremberg Laws of the same era were “to create a new Nazi law of citizenship, alongside a new Nazi law of sex and intermarriage…” There was plenty to draw upon from the United States, beginning with the extermination of Native Americans. Hitler had noted this in a 1928 speech, admiring Americans who had “gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now kept the modest remnant under observation in a cage.” The American Immigration Act of 1924 “conditioned entry into the United States on race-based tables of ‘national origins,’” earning the praise of Hitler in Mein Kampf. There would subsequently be Chinese exclusion legislation, restrictions on immigration through literary tests (think of the way some states still today try to control voting by such onerous qualifications). Even the horrifying “lynch justice” that Whitman defines as “the natural resistance of the Volk to an alien race that is attempting to gain the upper hand.”

If you still doubt America’s on-going racism and status as the leader of the pact, consider our country’s blood laws. Nazis considered Jews as “vectors of mongrelization,” but “much of America was infected with the same race madness.”  Thirty states declared “racially mixed marriages civilly invalid.” The lovely state of Maryland where I have lived for close to a half a century had this gobbledygook on its books:

“All marriages between a white person and a Negro, or between a white person and a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, or between a white person and a member of the Malay race or between a Negro and a member of the Malay race, or between a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, and a member of the Malay race, or between a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, and a member of the Malay race or between a Negro and a member of the Malay race, or between a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, and a member of the Malay race, are forever prohibited, and shall be void; and any person violating the provisions of this Section shall be deemed guilty of an infamous crime, and be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary for not less than eighteen months nor more than ten years.”

The release late last year of the movie Loving should be enough of a reminder that intermarriage was anathema to most Americans, by which I mean white Americans.

The Germans moved our miscegenation laws a step further: “Every form of sexual mixing between a German and a member of a foreign race is to be punished as race treason, and indeed both parties are to be subject to punishment….” In the early 1930s, Nazis were not yet preaching extermination of Jews, which would come later, but what they were preaching “arguably did represent a logical extension of much of American race law, much though we may want to pretend otherwise.”

Tragically, the American pretenders are operating with almost no visible cover today, pretty much with Republican complicity. It’s difficult to read Whitman’s book without gagging. As he concludes, there has always been “tension between two racial orders in America, a ‘white supremacist order’ and an ‘egalitarian transformative order.’”

Think of all the racist talk during the recent election, and if you are still uncomfortable with what I’ve been writing, look back no further than May 31st, when LeBron James responded to racist graffiti spray-painted outside his LA home: “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America—it’s tough.” And he added, “We got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America.”

Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model won’t be read by the people who need to read it, including our president who doesn’t read anything at all. And that makes some of us believe that we are back in the 1930s about to embark once again into a horrific future.

James Q. Whitman: Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of   Nazi Race Law
Princeton, 208 pp., $24.95

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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