Hitler’s American Model by James Q. Whitman

31951513Nonfiction – print. Princeton University Press, 2017. 224 pgs. Library. 

The title of Whitman’s book is bold, and it immediately caught my attention while browsing the shelves at a local bookstore. It was hard to pass over a book with the subtitle “The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law”, and I only managed to put it back on the shelf after assuring myself that the local public library had a copy available.

The Holocaust professors I had in my academic experience rarely discussed the jurisprudence for Nazi race laws and, rightfully, focus on the impact Nazi race laws had on European Jewry and other victims of the Holocaust. When evolution of Nazi thought has come up, the lectures I attended focused on the debunked The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Treaty of Versailles, the history of pogroms in Poland, and the “science” of eugenics.

On the latter topic, I remember one professor saying eugenics was rising in popularity in the United States during the 1930s, championed by men like Henry Ford and the pilot Charles Lindbergh. But we never discussed how the Nazis could have been inspired by the Jim Crow laws of the United States and the Supreme Court codified practice of “separate but equal” for black citizens.

According to Whitman, the reason professors skip over these discussions is because, historically, scholars have tried to make an apples-to-apples comparisons. They’ve looked to American laws towards to Jews, found the discrimination was not codified in legal statues, and go on to assert that the Nazis concocted their legal framework on their own.

Whitman asserts that such apples-to-apples comparisons are incorrect. Instead, as he documents in the book, the Nazis completed an apples-to-oranges comparison and drew inspiration from American race laws as applied to blacks for their own against Jews. In their view, American law was constructed to “protect” whites from blacks and other undesirable groups through separate schools and facilities, voting disenfranchisement, tiered citizenship, and bans on interracial marriage.

“[Nazi lawyer] Klee viewed segregation as a form of Nazi-style “race protection”, intended to alert the white population to the menace poised by blacks. Jim Crow, he argued, was the American equivalent of one of the principal “race protection” strategies Nazis were using on the German streets in 1933-34, the boycott. Nazi storm troopers aimed to “educate and enlighten” the populace by staging intimidating boycotts in front of Jewish shops. Under Jim Crow, Klee argued, Americans were doing the same thing, but on a grander social scale.” (pg. 104)

The lawyers crafting Hitler’s Nuremberg laws were certain they would escape international condemnation in the 1930s if they crafted their laws similar to those used by the Americans (and other Anglophile nations like Australia). They were also certain, according to Whitman, that America would eventually awake to the other “threat” among them from the Jews given how aware they were able the threat posed by blacks and other “Mongrel” races.

The assertions by the Nazis and the way they crow about the brilliance of American race law is difficult to read. It was especially shocking to read conversations and documents cited by Whitman that assert American race laws are simultaneously too barbaric – the orderly, judicially focused German people would never accept public lynching and mob rule – and too lenient given the educated, wealthy foothold that Jews in Germany were starting from.

“Segregation would simply never succeed in Germany; German Jews, unlike American blacks, were too wealthy and arrogant; the only hope was that they be put down by “severe criminal punishment”. Jim Crow segregation – such was this striking Nazi judgement – was a strategy that could work only against a minority population that was already oppressed and impoverished.” (pg. 99)

As interesting and important as Whitman’s thesis is for Holocaust scholarship (and America’s reckoning with its racial history), the writing style of the book leaves much to be desired. It is written in a tedious, academic tone with clunky sentences and repetitive passages. The book is comprised of only three chapters plus an introduction, but it could have easily been trimmed down to one scholarly article with a stronger argument and impact.

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