Alex Ross: How American Racism Influenced Hitler / The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law

First posted April 25, 2018

In 1928, Hitler remarked, approvingly, that white settlers in America had “gunned down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand.” When he spoke of Lebensraum, the German drive for “living space” in Eastern Europe, he often had America in mind.

History teaches, but has no pupils,” the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote. That line comes to mind when I browse in the history section of a bookstore. An adage in publishing is that you can never go wrong with books about Lincoln, Hitler, and dogs; an alternative version names golfing, Nazis, and cats. In Germany, it’s said that the only surefire magazine covers are ones that feature Hitler or sex. Whatever the formula, Hitler and Nazism prop up the publishing business: hundreds of titles appear each year, and the total number runs well into the tens of thousands. On store shelves, they stare out at you by the dozens, their spines steeped in the black-white-and-red of the Nazi flag, their titles barking in Gothic type, their covers studded with swastikas. The back catalogue includes “I Was Hitler’s Pilot,” “I Was Hitler’s Chauffeur,” “I Was Hitler’s Doctor,” “Hitler, My Neighbor,” “Hitler Was My Friend,” “He Was My Chief,” and “Hitler Is No Fool.” Books have been written about Hitler’s youth, his years in Vienna and Munich, his service in the First World War, his assumption of power, his library, his taste in art, his love of film, his relations with women…

Why do these books pile up in such unreadable numbers? This may seem a perverse question. The Holocaust is the greatest crime in history, one that people remain desperate to understand. Germany’s plunge from the heights of civilization to the depths of barbarism is an everlasting shock. Still, these swastika covers trade all too frankly on Hitler’s undeniable flair for graphic design. (The Nazi flag was apparently his creation—finalized after “innumerable attempts,” according to “Mein Kampf.”) Susan Sontag, in her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” declared that the appeal of Nazi iconography had become erotic, not only in S & M circles but also in the wider culture. It was, Sontag wrote, a “response to an oppressive freedom of choice in sex (and, possibly, in other matters), to an unbearable degree of individuality.” Neo-Nazi movements have almost certainly fed on the perpetuation of Hitler’s negative mystique.

Americans have an especially insatiable appetite for Nazi-themed books, films, television shows, documentaries, video games, and comic books. Stories of the Second World War console us with memories of the days before Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iraq, when the United States was the world’s good-hearted superpower, riding to the rescue of a Europe paralyzed by totalitarianism and appeasement. Yet an eerie continuity became visible in the postwar years, as German scientists were imported to America and began working for their former enemies; the resulting technologies of mass destruction exceeded Hitler’s darkest imaginings. The Nazis idolized many aspects of American society: the cult of sport, Hollywood production values, the mythology of the frontier. From boyhood on, Hitler devoured the Westerns of the popular German novelist Karl May. In 1928, Hitler remarked, approvingly, that white settlers in America had “gunned down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand.” When he spoke of Lebensraum, the German drive for “living space” in Eastern Europe, he often had America in mind.

Among recent books on Nazism, the one that may prove most disquieting for American readers is James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. On the cover, the inevitable swastika is flanked by two red stars. Whitman methodically explores how the Nazis took inspiration from American racism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He notes that, in “Mein Kampf,” Hitler praises America as the one state that has made progress toward a primarily racial conception of citizenship, by “excluding certain races from naturalization.” Whitman writes that the discussion of such influences is almost taboo, because the crimes of the Third Reich are commonly defined as “the nefandum, the unspeakable descent into what we often call ‘radical evil.’ ” But the kind of genocidal hatred that erupted in Germany had been seen before and has been seen since. Only by stripping away its national regalia and comprehending its essential human form do we have any hope of vanquishing it… read more:

Book review: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law
Reviewed by Thomas Christie Williams

In Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, legal scholar James Q. Whitman examines how Nazi Germany looked to the model of the Jim Crow laws in the USA when formulating the Nuremberg Laws in the 1930s. This is a carefully researched and timely analysis of how racist ideology can penetrate the political and institutional fabric of societies, furthermore underscoring its continued impact in the USA today

After the full horrors of Nazism were exposed at the end of World War II, eugenics – in Francis Galton’s words, the ‘science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race’ – as a social and scientific movement slowly faded from public view. The fact that Ronald Fisher, the founder of the modern discipline of genetics, and John Maynard Keynes, the economist whose ideas underpinned the New Deal, were active members of the Eugenics Society is now rarely discussed at Cambridge University, where they spent much of their academic careers. In 1954, the name of scientific journal the Annals of Eugenics was changed to the Annals of Human Genetics, and in 1965 the incoming recipient of the Chair of Eugenics at UCL, Harry Harris, became instead the Galton Professor of Human Genetics.

However, two groups of people have worked hard to keep memories of this great enthusiasm for a ‘scientific’ approach to institutionalised racism alive. The first are those who see understanding the history of the twentieth century as important, in order that we do not make the same mistakes again. They argue that whilst Nazism was the extreme end of the spectrum, it espoused views on nationality and race that were, if not mainstream, definitely recognised as acceptable by many sectors of society in Europe and the Americas. James Q. Whitman, author of Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, falls into this camp.A legal scholar, Whitman identifies many commonalities between Nazi legislation in the early 1930s, which sought to exclude Jews from German public life, and the ‘Jim Crow’ laws enacted to exclude African Americans in the United States. Moving beyond commonalities, he argues that Nazi lawyers and the German public had a keen interest in US race law. As an example, he cites a 1936 article on racial policy in Neues Volk (New Volk), a propaganda newsletter from the National Socialist Office, which included a US map labelled ‘Statutory Restrictions on Negro Rights’, detailing disenfranchise-ment and anti-miscegenation laws in the 48 mainland US states.

The second group is the far-right movements arguably edging into the mainstream in the United States and Europe (in Hungary or Holland, for example). The chants of ‘Blood and Soil’ from the recent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia were an explicit reference to the Nazi ideal of ‘Blut und Boden’, and those gathered there are united by their fascination with fascist ideology and rhetoric. Vanguard America argues in its manifesto for an economy ‘free from the influence of international corporations, led by a rootless group of international Jews, which place profit beyond the interests of our people’. Membership of the Nationalist Socialist Movement (described on their website as ‘America’s Premier White Civil Rights Organization’) is ‘open to non-Semitic heterosexuals of European descent’, and a popular blogger for the alt-right, Mike Peinovich, who spoke at Charlottesville, hosts a chatshow entitled ‘The Daily Shoah’.

Hitler’s American Model is therefore a timely and sobering outline of how racist ideology can make its way into the political fabric of a country. It focuses on the changes introduced by Nazi lawyers post-1933, but we also learn much about how this developed in the United States. Whilst in the latter the case law excluding non-whites from public life developed over decades, in Nazi Germany the Nuremberg Laws were drafted and introduced in 1935, just two years after Hitler became Chancellor. Whitman’s main premise is that in this accelerated process, German lawyers and officials took inspiration and concrete guidance from legal practice across the Atlantic… read more: