A new book examines how Hitler’s early regime in the 1930s looked to US laws on immigration, citizenship and mixed marriage to legitimise itself. It is a crucial history in the era of Trump, writes Roddy Slorach.
“In the early 1930s, the Jews of Germany were hounded, beaten and sometimes murdered by mobs and the state alike. In the same years the blacks of the American South were hounded, beaten and sometimes murdered as well.” So reads the introduction to a revealing new book by James Q Whitman.
Today’s debates on the nature of Trump’s presidency and the way it has boosted far-right parties across the globe lends urgency to this story: how Hitler’s new Nazi state drew on US state racism to help consolidate and legitimise its new regime.
In 1994 a book by Stefan Kühl caused a scandal by exposing the extent of cooperation between US and Nazi eugenicists. Other authors since then have shown the complicity of US big business in Nazi crimes.
Whitman’s research, however, breaks new ground by demonstrating how the infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935 drew inspiration not just from the Jim Crow South, but from a range of US federal and state legislation on immigration, citizenship rights and mixed marriage.
The US emerged from the First World War as the world’s dominant imperialist power. Like other states, the Nazi regime looked to emulate US successes. Like the US, it resorted to massive state intervention to stabilise the economy in the wake of the Great Depression. For much of the 1930s the regime praised President Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) and the New Deal government. FDR, for his part, remained largely silent about Hitler’s crimes at the time.
Nazi historians saw the founding of the US as key to the rise of the Aryan race. The Naturalisation Act of 1790, one of the first laws passed by the US Congress, granted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person”. Admiring the series of racist laws which followed, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf in 1925, “The American Union categorically refuses the immigration of physically unhealthy elements, and simply excludes the immigration of certain races. In these respects America already pays obeisance, at least in tentative first steps, to the characteristic völkisch conception of the state.”
The most important of the Nuremberg Laws — the Citizenship Law (which made Jews second-class citizens) and the Blood Law (criminalising marriage and sexual relations between Jews and “Aryans”) — drew on a range of US precedents.
The Citizenship Law found legitimacy in the Insular Cases, a notorious series of Supreme Court decisions in the wake of US victory in the Spanish-American war of 1898. These designated people from the new US colonies of Puerto Rico and the Philippines as “non-citizen nationals” — a category already established for blacks, Native Americans and Chinese.
In drafting the Blood Law, Nazis studied, catalogued and debated the legislation of 30 US states, many outside the South, which outlawed — and sometimes harshly punished — racially mixed marriages.
Whitman emphasises that none of this is to “relativise” Nazi crimes. On the contrary, it is to explode the myth that Hitler’s Germany was a uniquely barbaric atrocity, defying attempts at explanation. However, given the increasing parallels between today’s crisis-ridden world and that of the 1930s, examining the factors that helped legitimise the Nazi state is more urgent than ever.
Neither is any of this to suggest that the US of the 1930s, even the South, was fascist. Once in power, the Nazis favoured orderly, state-sponsored persecution. As Gunnar Myrdal remarked in his 1944 study of US racism, from then on they saw persecution not as a task for Brownshirt street gangs or lynch mobs, but as one for the “centralised organisation of a fascist state”. To those who labelled Jim Crow’s South as fascist because of its racist one-party system and attacks on civil liberties, Myrdal pointed out that Southern politics was “on the contrary, decentralised and often even chaotic”.
While Whitman is highly critical of FDR’s governments, he omits any discussion of its alliance with Southern segregationists, its refusal to help Germany’s Jews and its deportation of millions of undocumented Mexican migrant workers — as well as the radicalisation to the left and labour militancy which also characterised that same period.
Whitman’s forensic and near-exclusive focus on legal parallels accounts for the many strengths of his book. It is also, however, its main weakness. The implication throughout is that differences such as those above were due to constitutional traditions. They were, on the contrary, a consequence of class struggle.
The Jim Crow laws were the tragic result of a revolutionary Civil War that destroyed slavery but left economic inequalities intact. The laws of the newly established Nazi state, in contrast, were the product of a much more profound counter-revolution — the historic defeat of one of the world’s most advanced working class movements. This was yet to result in far greater atrocities.
In the era of Trump in particular, a full account of what shaped such past horrors is an essential part of ensuring they are never repeated in the future.
Hitler’s American Model by James Q Whitman is published by Princeton University Press, £19.95