The American Influence on Nazi Race Law

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 4:10 PM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park)
James Whitman, Yale University
Nazism triumphed in Germany during the high era of Jim Crow in the United States. Did the American regime of racial oppression influence the Nazis? Scholars have maintained that there was no meaningful influence, but in my book Hitler's American Model (2017) I dissent. My presentation will discuss the implications of my findings for the global history of racism.

As my book shows, the Nuremberg Laws were crafted in an atmosphere of lively interest in American race law. In the early twentieth century the United States, with its deep-rooted white supremacy and its creative legal culture, was the leading racist jurisdiction in the world. Much of American race law targeted blacks; but other groups were disfavored as well, including Asians, Native Americans, Filipinos and Puerto Ricans. European right wingers touted the American example from the late nineteenth century onward, and Hitler did the same in Mein Kampf. During the early 1930s the most radical Nazi lawyers were the most eager advocates of the use of American models. Two aspects of American law especially appealed to them: The United States boasted a sophisticated law of second class citizenship, both de facto for blacks, and de jure for others, as well as anti-miscegenation laws of unparalleled harshness. This American law lies in the background to the two principal Nuremberg Laws, the Citizenship Law and the Blood Law. In particular, the drafting process of the Blood Law reveals detailed engagement with American statutes. It is an ugly irony that when Nazis rejected American practices, it was sometimes because they found them to be, not too enlightened, but too harsh.

My presentation will argue that this history raises uncomfortable questions about the role of American legal culture, and American democracy, in the making of global racism.