What America Taught the Nazis
In the 1930s, the Germans were fascinated by the global leader in codified racism—the United States.
NOVEMBER 2017 ISSUE
Pushing back against scholarship that downplays the impact in Nazi Germany of the U.S. model of legal racism, Whitman marshals an array of evidence to support the likelihood “that the Nuremberg Laws themselves reflect direct American influence.” As race law’s global leader, Whitman stresses, America provided the most obvious point of reference for the September 1933 Preußische Denkschrift, the Prussian Memorandum, written by a legal team that included Roland Freisler, soon to emerge as the remarkably cruel president of the Nazi People’s Court. American precedents also informed other crucial Nazi texts, including the National Socialist Handbook for Law and Legislation of 1934–35, edited by the future governor-general of Poland, Hans Frank, who was later hung at Nuremberg. A pivotal essay in that volume, Herbert Kier’s recommendations for race legislation, devoted a quarter of its pages to U.S. legislation—which went beyond segregation to include rules governing American Indians, citizenship criteria for Filipinos and Puerto Ricans as well as African Americans, immigration regulations, and prohibitions against miscegenation in some 30 states. No other country, not even South Africa, possessed a comparably developed set of relevant laws.
Especially significant were the writings of the German lawyer Heinrich Krieger, “the single most important figure in the Nazi assimilation of American race law,” who spent the 1933–34 academic year in Fayetteville as an exchange student at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Seeking to deploy historical and legal knowledge in the service of Aryan racial purity, Krieger studied a range of overseas race regimes, including contemporary South Africa, but discovered his foundation in American law. His deeply researched writings about the United States began with articles in 1934, some concerning American Indians and others pursuing an overarching assessment of U.S. race legislation—each a precursor to his landmark 1936 book, Das Rassenrecht in den Vereingten Staaten (“Race Law in the United States”).
Whitman’s “smoking gun” is the transcript of a June 5, 1934, conference of leading German lawyers gathered to exchange ideas about how best to operationalize a racist regime. The record reflects how the most extreme among them, who relied on Krieger’s synoptic scholarship, were especially drawn to American legal codes based on white supremacy. The main conceptual idea was Freisler’s. Race, he argued, is a political construction. In both America and Germany, the importance and meaning of race for the most part had been determined less by scientific realities or social conventions than by political decisions enshrined in law.
but even indisputable evidence of the Germans’ intense interest in American models doesn’t clinch a formative role for U.S. racial law, as Whitman himself is careful to acknowledge. After all, Nazism’s intellectual and political leaders may well have utilized American examples merely to make more legitimate the grotesque designs they already planned to pursue. In any case, answering the question of cross-national influence is ultimately less important than Whitman’s other goal, which is to examine the status of racial hierarchy in the United States through Nazi eyes. “What the history presented in this book demands that we confront,” he writes, “are questions not about the genesis of Nazism, but about the character of America.”
His disturbing report thus takes its place within the larger history of the United States as a polity founded on principles of human equality, Enlightenment reason, and constitutional limits on state power, yet molded by the prodigious evil and long-term consequences of chattel slavery based on race. To read Hitler’s American Model is to be forced to engage with the stubborn fact that during the 1933–45 period of the Third Reich, roughly half of the Democratic Party’s members in Congress represented Jim Crow states, and neither major party sought to curtail the race laws so admired by German lawyers and judges.
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/ar ... is/540630/