In Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, James Q. Whitman compares the two nations’ jurisprudence and politics in the birth of the infamous anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws (Princeton University Press, 2017). In sum, German fascism took inspiration from stateside policies and practices.
In it, the author unpacks similar features of German laws to identify and exclude Jews in the first half of the 1930s with Jim Crow laws restricting African Americans from white society in the US. Ruling class divide and rule is not the half of this “unpleasant truth.”
The American example of maltreating nonwhites, from blacks to Natives, immigrant Chinese, Filipinos and Puerto Ricans, played a central role in the Germany of the mid-1930s, not part of the US narrative in and of the school system. Whitman aims to change that oversight, a slow slog, to be sure.
“My purpose is to chronicle this neglected history of Nazi efforts to mine American race law for inspiration during the making of the Nuremberg Laws,” he writes “and to ask what it tells us about Nazi Germany, about the modern history of racism, and especially about America.” The racialized presidency of Donald Trump, who claims America’s brown people such as Mexicans and Muslims are those whom whites must fear and fight is proof of that.
His subtext is that the capitalist system is fine. What is un-fine are the dangerous folks with darker skin. That resonates in the deafening silence of anti-capitalist critiques on the public’s radar screen.
In two chapters, Whitman sheds light on the connective tissue between the two nations and what that all means for the current moment. A comparative law professor at Yale, he makes clear that the operative concept is the US influence, not perfect congruence, with the Nazi drafting of the Nuremberg Laws that codified racist prosecution of Jews in the 1930s. The binational concept of race as a comparative concept in law and social policy is complex.
In American history, skin color was a visual marker undergirding a social order based on a system of chattel and free labor. Thus, blacks could not assimilate into the US mainstream as Jews did in Germany.
Under the Nazis, persecuting Jews via skin color was not an option. Still, as Whitman shows, German lawyers studied American race law for insights despite the fact that it did not marginalize Jews.
In some cases, in fact, German lawyers found the American example of race law too extreme. Think about that! For example, the Nazis steered clear of classifying who was Jewish via a “one-drop” rule whereby a single drop of African blood made a person black in the US.
Jews, as Roland Freisler, a German jurist wrote in 1935, “are not reckoned among the coloreds” as they were under US law. Yet America in the late 1920s and 1930s offered a striking example of “race consciousness” that influenced Nazi lawyers and Hitler, who in Mein Kampf wrote admiringly of America’s second-class treatment of blacks, Chinese and Filipinos as a model to emulate in shifting Jews to the status of outsider.
Whitman further clarifies two strands in German jurisprudence. One is conservative and the other radical. The latter were the Nazi ideologues who triumphed over conservatives who believed in the law retaining its juristic traditions. How each strand accepted and rejected American race law around immigration, miscegenation, naturalization and segregation makes for a sobering read.
As far-right law and politics loom large in the US, Whitman’s book elucidates the antecedents for today’s resurgent white nationalism and its handmaiden of fear and hate. His comparative narrative of Jim Crow law and the Nazi Nuremberg Laws is thus an antidote to the fact and fiction of race as a socially constructed reality.