Racist US Laws Provided Inspiration To The Nazis: An Interview With James Q. Whitman

James Q. Whitman is the Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale Law School

At a time when white supremacist ideas are thriving in the United States, a recently published book by James Q. Whitman, professor of comparative and foreign law at Yale Law School, provides a chilling account of the way US race law provided inspiration for the Nazis, including Hitler himself, in the making of the Nuremberg Laws and their pursuit of a “perfect” racist order. In an exclusive interview for Truthout, Professor Whitman explains the connection between the centerpiece anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi regime – the Nuremberg Laws – and US race law.

C.J. Polychroniou: Professor Whitman, most scholars before you have insisted that there was no direct US influence on Nazi race law, yet Hitler’s American Model argues something quite the opposite: that the Nazis not only did not regard the United States as an ideological enemy, but in fact modeled the Nuremberg Laws after US racist legislation. First, can you briefly point out some of the evidence for your thesis, and then explain why others have failed to see a direct connection?

James Q. Whitman: The evidence is pretty much in plain sight. Hitler himself described the United States in Mein Kampf as “the one state” that was making progress toward the creation of a racial order of the kind he hoped to establish in Germany. After the Nazis came to power, German lawyers regularly discussed American models — not only the model of Jim Crow segregation, but also American immigration law, which targeted Asians and southern and Eastern Europeans; American law establishing second-class citizenship for groups like Filipinos; and American anti-miscegenation statutes. Some of the most dramatic evidence comes from a stenographic transcript of a planning meeting for the Nuremberg Laws in 1934. In the very opening minutes of that meeting, the Nazi minister of justice presented a memorandum on American law, and the participants engaged in detailed discussion of the laws of many American states.

As for why other scholars haven’t seen the connections: One reason is that they have focused too much on the question of whether the Nazis were influenced by Jim Crow segregation. The answer, for the most part, is no – though there were some Nazis, including some especially vicious ones, who did want to bring Jim Crow to Germany. Another reason is that America did not have law [specifically] persecuting Jews. That is true enough, but it did not prevent the Nazis from taking an interest, and sometimes a pretty enthusiastic interest, in the law that America did have. Maybe the biggest reason is that it just seems too awful to be true.
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