James Q. Whitman’s new history, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, investigates the origins of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws of 1935. These laws essentially deprived Jews of their citizenship, reducing them to nearly the same status held by African Americans in the South prior to the Supreme Court’s prohibition of segregation in the 1950s.
This parallel was no coincidence. Whitman, the Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale Law School, argues that although Nazi Germany despised the United States’ democratic form of government, they were extremely interested in American racial policies such as the Jim Crow laws and the National Origins Act of 1924, as well as the secondary status of Native Americans and U.S. policy toward the Chinese and the Japanese at the turn of the last century. In Mein Kampf, Hitler praised American racial policies, and Nazi lawyers debated whether they could be used as models for what subsequently became the Nuremberg Laws.
Whitman writes that although the Nazis were critical of the United States for not forging discriminatory policies for its own Jewish population, they were attracted by “the exceptional American practice of harshly criminalizing interracial marriage.“Both American citizenship laws and miscegenation laws proved relevant to the two principle Nuremberg Laws, the Citizenship Law and the Blood Law. Whitman notes the irony of the Nazis finding certain American discriminatory practices too brutal to imitate: The Nazis criticized the American “one drop rule,” which defined who was an African American, as overly severe compared to the Nuremberg law, which created the racial category of “Mischling” to define who was considered a Jew.
In this important and thoughtful book about the circumstances that led to the Nuremberg Laws, Whitman repudiates the notion that American and German racial laws were unconnected. Whitman concludes, “Seeing America through Nazi eyes does tell us things…about the nature and dimensions of American racism.”