How the Nazis Were Inspired by Jim Crow

How the Nazis Were Inspired by Jim Crow

In 1935, Nazi Germany passed two radically discriminatory pieces of legislation: the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. Together, these were known as the Nuremberg Laws, and they laid the legal groundwork for the persecution of Jewish people during the Holocaust and World War II.

When the Nazis set out to legally disenfranchise and discriminate against Jewish citizens, they weren’t just coming up with ideas out of thin air. They closely studied the laws of another country. According to James Q. Whitman, author of Hitler’s American Model, that country was the United States.

“America in the early 20th century was the leading racist jurisdiction in the world,” says Whitman, who is a professor at Yale Law School. “Nazi lawyers, as a result, were interested in, looked very closely at, [and] were ultimately influenced by American race law.”

In particular, Nazis admired the Jim Crow-era laws that discriminated against Black Americans and segregated them from white Americans, and they debated whether to introduce similar segregation in Germany.

Yet they ultimately decided that it wouldn’t go far enough.

“One of the most striking Nazi views was that Jim Crow was a suitable racist program in the United States because American Blacks were already oppressed and poor,” he says. “But then in Germany, by contrast, where the Jews (as the Nazis imagined it) were rich and powerful, it was necessary to take more severe measures.”

Because of this, Nazis were more interested in how the U.S. had designated Native Americans, Filipinos and other groups as non-citizens even though they lived in the U.S. or its territories. These models influenced the citizenship portion of the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jewish Germans of their citizenship and classified them as “nationals.”

But a component of the Jim Crow era that Nazis did think they could translate into Germany were anti-miscegenation laws, which prohibited interracial marriages in 30 of 48 states.

“America had, by a wide margin, the harshest law of this kind,” Whitman says. “In particular, some of the state laws threatened severe criminal punishment for interracial marriage. That was something radical Nazis were very eager to do in Germany as well.”

The idea of banning Jewish and Aryan marriages presented the Nazis with a dilemma: How would they tell who was Jewish and who was not? After all, race and ethnic categories are socially constructed, and interracial relationships produce offspring who don’t fall neatly into one box.

Again, the Nazis looked to America.

“Connected with these anti-miscegenation laws was a great deal of American jurisprudence on how to classify who belonged to which race,” he says.

Controversial “one-drop” rules stipulated that anyone with any Black ancestry was legally Black and could not marry a white person. Laws also defined what made a person Asian or Native American, in order to prevent these groups from marrying whites (notably, Virginia had a “Pocahontas Exception” for prominent white families who claimed to be descended from Pocahontas).

The Nuremberg Laws, too, came up with a system of determining who belonged to what group, allowing the Nazis to criminalize marriage and sex between Jewish and Aryan people. Rather than adopting a “one-drop rule,” the Nazis decreed that a Jewish person was anyone who had three or more Jewish grandparents.

Which means, as Whitman notes, “that American racial classification law was much harsher than anything the Nazis themselves were willing to introduce in Germany.”

It should come as no surprise then, that the Nazis weren’t uniformly condemned in the U.S. before the country entered the war. In the early 1930s, American eugenicists welcomed Nazi ideas about racial purity and republished their propaganda. American aviator Charles Lindbergh accepted a swastika medal from the Nazi Party in 1938.

Once the United States entered the war, it took a decidedly anti-Nazi stance. But Black American troops noticed the similarities between the two countries, and confronted them head-on with a “Double V Campaign.” Its goal? Victory abroad against the Axis powers—and victory at home against Jim Crow.


How American Racism Influenced Hitler

“History teaches, but has no pupils,” the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote. That line comes to mind when I browse in the history section of a bookstore. An adage in publishing is that you can never go wrong with books about Lincoln, Hitler, and dogs an alternative version names golfing, Nazis, and cats. In Germany, it’s said that the only surefire magazine covers are ones that feature Hitler or sex. Whatever the formula, Hitler and Nazism prop up the publishing business: hundreds of titles appear each year, and the total number runs well into the tens of thousands. On store shelves, they stare out at you by the dozens, their spines steeped in the black-white-and-red of the Nazi flag, their titles barking in Gothic type, their covers studded with swastikas. The back catalogue includes “I Was Hitler’s Pilot,” “I Was Hitler’s Chauffeur,” “I Was Hitler’s Doctor,” “Hitler, My Neighbor,” “Hitler Was My Friend,” “He Was My Chief,” and “Hitler Is No Fool.” Books have been written about Hitler’s youth, his years in Vienna and Munich, his service in the First World War, his assumption of power, his library, his taste in art, his love of film, his relations with women, and his predilections in interior design (“Hitler at Home”).

Why do these books pile up in such unreadable numbers? This may seem a perverse question. The Holocaust is the greatest crime in history, one that people remain desperate to understand. Germany’s plunge from the heights of civilization to the depths of barbarism is an everlasting shock. Still, these swastika covers trade all too frankly on Hitler’s undeniable flair for graphic design. (The Nazi flag was apparently his creation—finalized after “innumerable attempts,” according to “Mein Kampf.”) Susan Sontag, in her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” declared that the appeal of Nazi iconography had become erotic, not only in S & M circles but also in the wider culture. It was, Sontag wrote, a “response to an oppressive freedom of choice in sex (and, possibly, in other matters), to an unbearable degree of individuality.” Neo-Nazi movements have almost certainly fed on the perpetuation of Hitler’s negative mystique.

Americans have an especially insatiable appetite for Nazi-themed books, films, television shows, documentaries, video games, and comic books. Stories of the Second World War console us with memories of the days before Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iraq, when the United States was the world’s good-hearted superpower, riding to the rescue of a Europe paralyzed by totalitarianism and appeasement. Yet an eerie continuity became visible in the postwar years, as German scientists were imported to America and began working for their former enemies the resulting technologies of mass destruction exceeded Hitler’s darkest imaginings. The Nazis idolized many aspects of American society: the cult of sport, Hollywood production values, the mythology of the frontier. From boyhood on, Hitler devoured the Westerns of the popular German novelist Karl May. In 1928, Hitler remarked, approvingly, that white settlers in America had “gunned down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand.” When he spoke of Lebensraum, the German drive for “living space” in Eastern Europe, he often had America in mind.

Among recent books on Nazism, the one that may prove most disquieting for American readers is James Q. Whitman’s “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law” (Princeton). On the cover, the inevitable swastika is flanked by two red stars. Whitman methodically explores how the Nazis took inspiration from American racism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He notes that, in “Mein Kampf,” Hitler praises America as the one state that has made progress toward a primarily racial conception of citizenship, by “excluding certain races from naturalization.” Whitman writes that the discussion of such influences is almost taboo, because the crimes of the Third Reich are commonly defined as “the nefandum, the unspeakable descent into what we often call ‘radical evil.’ ” But the kind of genocidal hatred that erupted in Germany had been seen before and has been seen since. Only by stripping away its national regalia and comprehending its essential human form do we have any hope of vanquishing it.

The vast literature on Hitler and Nazism keeps circling around a few enduring questions. The first is biographical: How did an Austrian watercolor painter turned military orderly emerge as a far-right German rabble-rouser after the First World War? The second is sociopolitical: How did a civilized society come to embrace Hitler’s extreme ideas? The third has to do with the intersection of man and regime: To what extent was Hitler in control of the apparatus of the Third Reich? All these questions point to the central enigma of the Holocaust, which has variously been interpreted as a premeditated action and as a barbaric improvisation. In our current age of unapologetic racism and resurgent authoritarianism, the mechanics of Hitler’s rise are a particularly pressing matter. For dismantlers of democracy, there is no better exemplar.

Since 1945, the historiography of Nazism has undergone several broad transformations, reflecting political pressures both within Germany and abroad. In the early Cold War period, the emergence of West Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet menace tended to discourage a closer interrogation of German cultural values. The first big postwar biography of Hitler, by the British historian Alan Bullock, published in 1952, depicted him as a charlatan, a manipulator, an “opportunist entirely without principle.” German thinkers often skirted the issue of Hitler, preferring systemic explanations. Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” suggested that dictatorial energies draw on the loneliness of the modern subject.

In the sixties and seventies, as Cold War Realpolitik receded and the full horror of the Holocaust sank in, many historians adopted what is known as the Sonderweg thesis—the idea that Germany had followed a “special path” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, different from that of other Western nations. In this reading, the Germany of the Wilhelmine period had failed to develop along healthy liberal-democratic lines the inability to modernize politically prepared the ground for Nazism. In Germany, left-oriented scholars like Hans Mommsen used this concept to call for a greater sense of collective responsibility to focus on Hitler was an evasion, the argument went, implying that Nazism was something that he did to us. Mommsen outlined a “cumulative radicalization” of the Nazi state in which Hitler functioned as a “weak dictator,” ceding policy-making to competing bureaucratic agencies. Abroad, the Sonderweg theory took on a punitive edge, indicting all of German history and culture. William Manchester’s 1968 book, “The Arms of Krupp,” ends with a lurid image of “the first grim Aryan savage crouched in his garment of coarse skins, his crude javelin poised, tense and alert, cloaked by night and fog, ready waiting and waiting.”

The Sonderweg argument was attacked on multiple fronts. In what became known as the Historikerstreit (“Historians’ Dispute”), right-wing scholars in Germany proposed that the nation end its ritual self-flagellation: they reframed Nazism as a reaction to Bolshevism and recast the Holocaust as one genocide among many. Joachim Fest, who had published the first big German-language biography of Hitler, also stood apart from the Sonderweg school. By portraying the Führer as an all-dominating, quasi-demonic figure, Fest effectively placed less blame on the Weimar Republic conservatives who put Hitler in office. More dubious readings presented Hitlerism as an experiment that modernized Germany and then went awry. Such ideas have lost ground in Germany, at least for now: in mainstream discourse there, it is axiomatic to accept responsibility for the Nazi terror.

“It’s not what it looks like. The sex is horrible, and we’re miserable.”

Outside Germany, many critiques of the Sonderweg thesis came from the left. The British scholars Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn, in their 1984 book “The Peculiarities of German History,” questioned the “tyranny of hindsight”—the lordly perspective that reduces a complex, contingent sequence of events to an irreversible progression. In the allegedly backward Kaiserreich, Eley and Blackbourn saw various liberalizing forces in motion: housing reform, public-health initiatives, an emboldened press. It was a society riddled with anti-Semitism, yet it witnessed no upheaval on the scale of the Dreyfus Affair or the Tiszaeszlár blood-libel affair in Hungary. Eley and Blackbourn also questioned whether élitist, imperialist Britain should be held up as the modern paragon. The Sonderweg narrative could become an exculpatory fairy tale for other nations: we may make mistakes, but we will never be as bad as the Germans.

Ian Kershaw’s monumental two-volume biography (1998-2000) found a plausible middle ground between “strong” and “weak” images of Hitler in power. With his nocturnal schedule, his dislike of paperwork, and his aversion to dialogue, Hitler was an eccentric executive, to say the least. To make sense of a dictatorship in which the dictator was intermittently absent, Kershaw expounded the concept of “working towards the Führer”: when explicit direction from Hitler was lacking, Nazi functionaries guessed at what he wanted, and often further radicalized his policies. Even as debates about the nature of Hitler’s leadership go back and forth, scholars largely agree that his ideology was more or less fixed from the mid-twenties onward. His two abiding obsessions were violent anti-Semitism and Lebensraum. As early as 1921, he spoke of confining Jews to concentration camps, and in 1923 he contemplated—and, for the moment, rejected—the idea of killing the entire Jewish population. The Holocaust was the result of a hideous syllogism: if Germany were to expand into the East, where millions of Jews lived, those Jews would have to vanish, because Germans could not coexist with them.

People have been trying to fathom Hitler’s psyche for nearly a century. Ron Rosenbaum, in his 1998 book “Explaining Hitler,” gives a tour of the more outré theories. It has been suggested, variously, that the key to understanding Hitler is the fact that he had an abusive father that he was too close to his mother that he had a Jewish grandfather that he had encephalitis that he contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute that he blamed a Jewish doctor for his mother’s death that he was missing a testicle that he underwent a wayward hypnosis treatment that he was gay that he harbored coprophilic fantasies about his niece that he was addled by drugs or—a personal favorite—that his anti-Semitism was triggered by briefly attending school with Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Linz. At the root of this speculative mania is what Rosenbaum calls the “lost safe-deposit box” mentality: with sufficient sleuthing, the mystery can be solved in one Sherlockian stroke.

Academic historians, by contrast, often portray Hitler as a cipher, a nobody. Kershaw has called him a “man without qualities.” Volker Ullrich, a German author and journalist long associated with the weekly Die Zeit, felt the need for a biography that paid more heed to Hitler’s private life. The first volume, “Hitler: Ascent 1889–1939,” was published by Knopf in 2016, in a fluid translation by Jefferson Chase. Ullrich’s Hitler is no tyrant-sorcerer who leads an innocent Germany astray he is a chameleon, acutely conscious of the image he projects. “The putative void was part of Hitler’s persona, a means of concealing his personal life and presenting himself as a politician who completely identified with his role as leader,” Ullrich writes. Hitler could pose as a cultured gentleman at Munich salons, as a pistol-waving thug at the beer hall, and as a bohemian in the company of singers and actors. He had an exceptional memory that allowed him to assume an air of superficial mastery. His certitude faltered, however, in the presence of women: Ullrich depicts Hitler’s love life as a series of largely unfulfilled fixations. It goes without saying that he was an extreme narcissist lacking in empathy. Much has been made of his love of dogs, but he was cruel to them.

From adolescence onward, Hitler was a dreamer and a loner. Averse to joining groups, much less leading them, he immersed himself in books, music, and art. His ambition to become a painter was hampered by a limited technique and by a telling want of feeling for human figures. When he moved to Vienna, in 1908, he slipped toward the social margins, residing briefly in a homeless shelter and then in a men’s home. In Munich, where he moved in 1913, he eked out a living as an artist and otherwise spent his days in museums and his nights at the opera. He was steeped in Wagner, though he had little apparent grasp of the composer’s psychological intricacies and ambiguities. A sharp portrait of the young Hitler can be found in Thomas Mann’s startling essay “Bruder Hitler,” the English version of which appeared in Esquire in 1939, under the title “That Man Is My Brother.” Aligning Hitler’s experience with his own, Mann wrote of a “basic arrogance, the basic feeling of being too good for any reasonable, honorable activity—based on what? A vague notion of being reserved for something else, something quite indeterminate, which, if it were named, would cause people to break out laughing.”

The claims of “Mein Kampf” notwithstanding, there is no clear evidence that Hitler harbored strongly anti-Semitic views in his youth or in early adulthood. Indeed, he seems to have had friendly relations with several Jews in Vienna and Munich. This does not mean that he was free of commonplace anti-Jewish prejudice. Certainly, he was a fervent German nationalist. When the First World War commenced, in 1914, he volunteered for the German Army, and acquitted himself well as a soldier. For most of the war, he served as a dispatch runner for his regiment’s commanders. The first trace of a swing to the right comes in a letter from 1915, in which Hitler expressed the hope that the war would bring an end to Germany’s “inner internationalism.”

The historian Thomas Weber, who recounted Hitler’s soldier years in the 2010 book “Hitler’s First War,” has now written “Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi” (Basic), a study of the postwar metamorphosis. Significantly, Hitler remained in the Army after the Armistice disgruntled nationalist soldiers tended to join paramilitary groups. Because the Social Democratic parties were dominant at the founding of the Weimar Republic, Hitler was representing a leftist government. He even served the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. It is doubtful, though, that he had active sympathies for the left he probably stayed in the Army because, as Weber writes, it “provided a raison d’être for his existence.” As late as his thirtieth birthday, in April, 1919, there was no sign of the Führer-to-be.

The unprecedented anarchy of postwar Bavaria helps explain what happened next. Street killings were routine politicians were assassinated on an almost weekly basis. The left was blamed for the chaos, and anti-Semitism escalated for the same reason: several prominent leaders of the left were Jewish. Then came the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in June, 1919. Robert Gerwarth, in “The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), emphasizes the whiplash effect that the treaty had on the defeated Central Powers. As Gerwarth writes, German and Austrian politicians believed that they had “broken with the autocratic traditions of the past, thus fulfilling the key criteria of Wilson’s Fourteen Points for a ‘just peace.’ ” The harshness of the terms of Versailles belied that idealistic rhetoric.

The day after Germany ratified the treaty, Hitler began attending Army propaganda classes aimed at repressing revolutionary tendencies. These infused him with hard-core anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic ideas. The officer in charge of the program was a tragic figure named Karl Mayr, who later forsook the right wing for the left he died in Buchenwald, in 1945. Mayr described Hitler as a “tired stray dog looking for a master.” Having noticed Hitler’s gift for public speaking, Mayr installed him as a lecturer and sent him out to observe political activities in Munich. In September, 1919, Hitler came across the German Workers’ Party, a tiny fringe faction. He spoke up at one of its meetings and joined its ranks. Within a few months, he had become the leading orator of the group, which was renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

If Hitler’s radicalization occurred as rapidly as this—and not all historians agree that it did—the progression bears an unsettling resemblance to stories that we now read routinely in the news, of harmless-seeming, cat-loving suburbanites who watch white-nationalist videos on YouTube and then join a neo-Nazi group on Facebook. But Hitler’s embrace of belligerent nationalism and murderous anti-Semitism is not in itself historically significant what mattered was his gift for injecting that rhetoric into mainstream discourse. Peter Longerich’s “Hitler: Biographie,” a thirteen-hundred-page tome that appeared in Germany in 2015, gives a potent picture of Hitler’s skills as a speaker, organizer, and propagandist. Even those who found his words repulsive were mesmerized by him. He would begin quietly, almost haltingly, testing out his audience and creating suspense. He amused the crowd with sardonic asides and actorly impersonations. The musical structure was one of crescendo toward triumphant rage. Longerich writes, “It was this eccentric style, almost pitiable, unhinged, obviously not well trained, at the same time ecstatically over-the-top, that evidently conveyed to his audience the idea of uniqueness and authenticity.”

Above all, Hitler knew how to project himself through the mass media, honing his messages so that they would penetrate the white noise of politics. He fostered the production of catchy graphics, posters, and slogans in time, he mastered radio and film. Meanwhile, squads of Brown Shirts brutalized and murdered opponents, heightening the very disorder that Hitler had proposed to cure. His most adroit feat came after the failed Beer Hall Putsch, in 1923, which should have ended his political career. At the trial that followed, Hitler polished his personal narrative, that of a simple soldier who had heard the call of destiny. In prison, he wrote the first part of “Mein Kampf,” in which he completed the construction of his world view.

To many liberal-minded Germans of the twenties, Hitler was a scary but ludicrous figure who did not seem to represent a serious threat. The Weimar Republic stabilized somewhat in the middle of the decade, and the Nazi share of the vote languished in the low single-digit figures. The economic misery of the late twenties and early thirties provided another opportunity, which Hitler seized. Benjamin Carter Hett deftly summarizes this dismal period in “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic” (Henry Holt). Conservatives made the gargantuan mistake of seeing Hitler as a useful tool for rousing the populace. They also undermined parliamentary democracy, flouted regional governments, and otherwise set the stage for the Nazi state. The left, meanwhile, was divided against itself. At Stalin’s urging, many Communists viewed the Social Democrats, not the Nazis, as the real enemy—the “social fascists.” The media got caught up in pop-culture distractions traditional liberal newspapers were losing circulation. Valiant journalists like Konrad Heiden tried to correct the barrage of Nazi propaganda but found the effort futile, because, as Heiden wrote, “the refutation would be heard, perhaps believed, and definitely forgotten again.”

Hett refrains from poking the reader with too many obvious contemporary parallels, but he knew what he was doing when he left the word “German” out of his title. On the book’s final page, he lays his cards on the table: “Thinking about the end of Weimar democracy in this way—as the result of a large protest movement colliding with complex patterns of elite self-interest, in a culture increasingly prone to aggressive mythmaking and irrationality—strips away the exotic and foreign look of swastika banners and goose-stepping Stormtroopers. Suddenly, the whole thing looks close and familiar.” Yes, it does.

What set Hitler apart from most authoritarian figures in history was his conception of himself as an artist-genius who used politics as his métier. It is a mistake to call him a failed artist for him, politics and war were a continuation of art by other means. This is the focus of Wolfram Pyta’s “Hitler: Der Künstler als Politiker und Feldherr” (“The Artist as Politician and Commander”), one of the most striking recent additions to the literature. Although the aestheticizing of politics is hardly a new topic—Walter Benjamin discussed it in the nineteen-thirties, as did Mann—Pyta pursues the theme at magisterial length, showing how Hitler debased the Romantic cult of genius to incarnate himself as a transcendent leader hovering above the fray. Goebbels’s propaganda harped on this motif his diaries imply that he believed it. “Adolf Hitler, I love you because you are both great and simple,” he wrote.

The true artist does not compromise. Defying skeptics and mockers, he imagines the impossible. Such is the tenor of Hitler’s infamous “prophecy” of the destruction of the European Jews, in 1939: “I have often been a prophet, and have generally been laughed at. . . . I believe that the formerly resounding laughter of Jewry in Germany has now choked up in its throat. Today, I want to be a prophet again—if the international Jewish financiers inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Scholars have long debated when the decision to carry out the Final Solution was made. Most now believe that the Holocaust was an escalating series of actions, driven by pressure both from above and from below. Yet no order was really necessary. Hitler’s “prophecy” was itself an oblique command. In the summer of 1941, as hundreds of thousands of Jews and Slavs were being killed during the invasion of the Soviet Union, Goebbels recalled Hitler remarking that the prophecy was being fulfilled in an “almost uncanny” fashion. This is the language of a connoisseur admiring a masterpiece. Such intellectual atrocities led Theodor W. Adorno to declare that, after Auschwitz, to write poetry is barbaric.

Hitler and Goebbels were the first relativizers of the Holocaust, the first purveyors of false equivalence. “Concentration camps were not invented in Germany,” Hitler said in 1941. “It is the English who are their inventors, using this institution to gradually break the backs of other nations.” The British had operated camps in South Africa, the Nazis pointed out. Party propagandists similarly highlighted the sufferings of Native Americans and Stalin’s slaughter in the Soviet Union. In 1943, Goebbels triumphantly broadcast news of the Katyn Forest massacre, in the course of which the Soviet secret police killed more than twenty thousand Poles. (Goebbels wanted to show footage of the mass graves, but generals overruled him.) Nazi sympathizers carry on this project today, alternately denying the Holocaust and explaining it away.

The magnitude of the abomination almost forbids that it be mentioned in the same breath as any other horror. Yet the Holocaust has unavoidable international dimensions—lines of influence, circles of complicity, moments of congruence. Hitler’s “scientific anti-Semitism,” as he called it, echoed the French racial theorist Arthur de Gobineau and anti-Semitic intellectuals who normalized venomous language during the Dreyfus Affair. The British Empire was Hitler’s ideal image of a master race in dominant repose. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a Russian forgery from around 1900, fuelled the Nazis’ paranoia. The Armenian genocide of 1915-16 encouraged the belief that the world community would care little about the fate of the Jews. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Hitler spoke of the planned mass murder of Poles and asked, “Who, after all, is today speaking about the destruction of the Armenians?” The Nazis found collaborators in almost every country that they invaded. In one Lithuanian town, a crowd cheered while a local man clubbed dozens of Jewish people to death. He then stood atop the corpses and played the Lithuanian anthem on an accordion. German soldiers looked on, taking photographs.

The mass killings by Stalin and Hitler existed in an almost symbiotic relationship, the one giving license to the other, in remorseless cycles of revenge. Large-scale deportations of Jews from the countries of the Third Reich followed upon Stalin’s deportation of the Volga Germans. Reinhard Heydrich, one of the chief planners of the Holocaust, thought that, once the Soviet Union had been defeated, the Jews of Europe could be left to die in the Gulag. The most dangerous claim made by right-wing historians during the Historikerstreit was that Nazi terror was a response to Bolshevik terror, and was therefore to some degree excusable. One can, however, keep the entire monstrous landscape in view without minimizing the culpability of perpetrators on either side. This was the achievement of Timothy Snyder’s profoundly disturbing 2010 book, “Bloodlands,” which seems to fix cameras in spots across Eastern Europe, recording wave upon wave of slaughter.


How the Nazis Were Inspired by Jim Crow - HISTORY

by James Q. Whitman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017)

Whitman’s monograph challenges historians like Richard Bernstein, Jens-Uwe Guettel, and Mark Mazower who have argued that the creators of the Nuremberg Laws and the Nazi blood laws viewed America as only one of many countries with racist legislation, and that there was, therefore, no direct connection between the Nazi laws and the United States. Instead, as Whitman demonstrates, the Nazis looked to the United States with unbridled admiration for the way in which the latter kept “bloodlines pure.” “Nazi lawyers regarded America,” Whitman writes, “as the innovative world leader in the creation of racist law” (p. 5). This argument revolutionizes the discussion of comparative racism and our understanding of the influence of the United States upon the Third Reich.
According to Whitman, Nazis viewed this type of organized racism as unorganized and too extreme.

In chapter two, Whitman elucidates the strongest connection between the Nazi Blood Law, the third of the Nuremburg Laws, and the American racial and anti-miscegenation laws prevalent throughout the United States. He displays the influences that American racial policies had on the Prussian Memorandum, the predecessor to the Nuremburg Laws. Whitman goes further still to show that in a July 5, 1934 meeting between Nazi lawmakers, judges, and high-ranking officials, these men decided that the American racial policies were too drastic and disorganized. Whitman demonstrates that the creators of the Nuremburg laws wanted their racial legal statutes to be flawless, crisp, and direct. The evidence of this, Whitman shows, is through the Nazis’ viewpoint on the American “One-Drop Rule” which states that if anyone had one drop of African blood in them, they were considered an African-American.


How the Nazis Were Inspired by Jim Crow - HISTORY

Mainstream historical narratives around the rise of Nazism tend to reinforce the idea that Nazi ideology—a form of fascism based on scientific racism and a belief in the superiority of the Aryan race—was a foreign (i.e. un-American) concept. According to these narratives, Nazism was developed by Adolf Hitler and his followers in Germany during the 1930’s and 40’s, and was only put to an end when heroic American military forces liberated the Jewish people from their oppressors in 1945.

With Neo-Nazism again on the rise in the United States (especially since the emergence of the so-called Alt-Right and the election of Donald Trump), it is important to understand where Nazi ideology actually comes from. The idea of separating races into better and worse “types,” with the goal of eventually creating a “perfect Aryan race,” was actually not an idea that suddenly emerged with the election of Adolf Hitler. Instead, it had its origins in the American Eugenics Movement, which gained widespread credence in the United States during the 1920’s, the period preceding the rise of Nazi Germany.

The word eugenics is derived from the Greek word eu (“good” or “well”) and the suffix -genēs (“born”), and was invented by Francis Galton, known as the “father of Eugenics,” around 1883. Galton, a distant cousin of Charles Darwin, popularized the idea that if people with so-called “superior genes” (i.e. blond haired, blue-eyed, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual people) reproduced with other people possessing “superior genes,” then the gene pool of a particular society would eventually improve at a collective level. Just as plant and animal species could be directly improved through cross-breeding, thought Galton, so could humans.

It was no coincidence, of course, that Galton’s theory of eugenics gained widespread popularity in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century, just as it was undergoing the chaotic period of Reconstruction (following the emancipation of formerly enslaved people) as well as unprecedented waves of immigration from Eastern Europe and the Asian continent. Whiteness (specifically Western European, Protestant Christian whiteness) was being threatened, and, in ways that uncannily mirror the present, white people in power responded with state-sponsored violence against those it perceived as threatening.

In an astonishing twenty-seven states out of fifty, it became legal for medical practitioners to forcibly sterilize people they believed to be “unfit”—or in their words, people who were “diluting the gene pool.” The “unfit” basically included anyone who was non-white, poor (especially poor women), disabled, neuro-divergent, or accused of committing a crime. Collectively, approximately 60,000 people in the United States were forcibly sterilized (at least that we know about), with the state of California alone being responsible for almost a third of those. The idea of eugenics enjoyed widespread support by major public figures such as President Roosevelt, as well as financial backing by wealthy tycoons such as the Rockefeller family.

Today, it’s rare that the American Eugenics Movement is included in discussions of American history in public schools, let alone in popular discourse. Most Americans, it seems, don’t realize the extent to which Hitler drew on the “American model” of eugenics to enact the very laws and policies most liberals now look back on in horror. “Such a thing would never happen in the United States,” they say, and yet, it did—just prior to the rise of Nazi Germany, which was literally made in the image of Jim Crow-era America.

Sterilization of the “unfit” was not the only outcome of the American Eugenics Movement. We should also understand the pervasive racial segregation laws enacted under Jim Crow, as well as racist immigration policies barring Jews and Asians from entering the country, as inseparable from the goals of the eugenics movement at large. Many organizations were tasked with identifying so-called “defective” family trees, and subjecting whole families to lifelong segregation and sterilization programs so as too “kill off their bloodlines.” These plans—whose ultimate goal was to neutralize the viability of 10% of the American population to reproduce—were not considered at all extreme or far-fetched. Rather, they were backed by what was then considered to be cutting-edge science, and enshrined in legal and medical policy.

We should understand the United States as a settler-colonial project built on white supremacy from the outset. Nazi ideology as it developed in Hitler’s Germany was an extension of the ideas developed in this country, and it’s not all surprising that Hitler himself openly admitted as much: In “Mein Kampf,” published in 1924, Hitler quoted American eugenic ideology and openly displayed a thorough knowledge of American eugenics. “There is today one state,” he wrote, “in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception (of immigration) are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”


How the Nazis Used Jim Crow Laws as the Model for Their Race Laws

Belgian Jewish star. (Photo: DRG-fan, Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0)

To get to the core of race in America today, read this new book by James Whitman. Whitman is the Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale Law School. Prepare to be as startled as this respected legal scholar was when he came upon a meticulous record of a meeting of top lawyers in Nazi Germany after Hitler’s rise to power. Not only did those lawyers reveal a deep interest in American race policies, the most radical of them were eager advocates of using American law as a model. Scholars and historians have argued for years about whether American’s own regime of racial oppression in any way inspired the Nazis. Not only does Whitman throw a bright light on the debate, to this reader he settles it once and for all. Carefully written and tightly reasoned, backed up every step of the way with considered evidence and logic, Whitman reminds us that today is yesterday’s child, and that certain strains of DNA persist from one generation to another.

Bill Moyers: You begin the book with a meeting of Nazi Germanys leading lawyers on June 5, 1934, which happens, coincidentally, to be the day I was born.

James Whitman: Oh boy, you were born under a dark star.

To be sure. Adolf Hitler had been chancellor of the Reich for a year and a half. Nazis were rapidly consolidating their hold over Germany. And this was no gathering of everyday, garden-variety lawyers.

No, it wasn’t. It was chaired by Hitler’s minister of justice and attended by the leading figures among Nazi lawyers.

Why had they gathered? What was their mission?

They were there to begin crafting what would eventually become the notorious Nuremberg Laws, which were promulgated a little bit more than a year later, in September of 1935. Those laws would be the culmination of the first phase of the Nazi program of persecution directed against German Jewry. And they were there to respond to the demands of radical Nazis for the creation of a new kind of race state in Germany.

And the Nuremberg Laws would embody the full-scale creation of a racist state.

You bet. They did. And that’s how we remember them today.

A stenographer was present to record a verbatim transcript of that meeting. Reading that transcript you discovered a startling fact.

Yes — the fact is that they began by discussing American law. The minister of justice presented a memorandum on American race law that included a great deal of detailed discussion of the laws of American states. American law continued to be a principle topic throughout that meeting and beyond. It’s also a startling fact that the most radical lawyers in that meeting — the most vicious among the lawyers present — were the most enthusiastic for the American example.

And the laws they were creating —

There were three Nuremberg Laws eventually promulgated in 1935. The two that most concern us are usually called the citizenship law and the blood law. The citizenship law reduced Jews to second-class citizenship status in Germany. The blood law banned, and in fact criminalized, interracial marriage and sex. But there was a third as well, which was called the flag law for the Reich, the purpose of which was to install the swastika as the exclusive flag of Germany.

What were they interested in learning about American law?

American law, hard though it might be for us to accept it now, was a model for everybody in the early 20th century who was interested in creating a race-based order or race state. America was the leader in a whole variety of realms in racist law in the first part of that century. Some of this involved American immigration law, which was designed to exclude so-called “undesirable races” from immigration. In 1924 American immigration law in particular was praised by Hitler himself, in his book Mein Kampf.

But it wasn’t just about American immigration law. There was also American law creating forms of second-class citizenship — for African-Americans, of course, but also for other populations including Asians, Native Americans, Filipinos and Puerto Ricans. Not least, there were statutes in 30 American states forbidding and sometimes criminalizing interracial marriage. Those were of special interest to the Nazis.

And these lawyers saw America’s “Negro problem” as similar to their “Jewish problem?”

American law did not specifically target Jews, but —

But it certainly had a highly developed body of law targeting other groups. And the Nazis, although it is true they were unhappy with the lack of American interest in targeting Jews and deplored some aspects of American society, were quite interested in learning from what Americans did in targeting these other populations.

The Nazis believed American blacks were multiplying so significantly they would eventually overwhelm the US. There are photographs in your book from a Nazi magazine with images of American blacks at the time, and the caption reads: “The Negros are multiplying significantly more strongly than the white population of the United States. Their constantly growing numbers are a source of great concern to American statesmen.”

It’s certainly the case that there were American statesmen, if you want to call them that, especially in the South, who were concerned about the birthrate in the black population. And it’s certainly the case that the Nazis, when they encountered American uneasiness of that kind with regard to the black population, were seeing concerns akin to their own.

And that same Nazi magazine showed pictures of the world champion American boxer Jack Johnson, who was not permitted to return to the US because he had married a white woman in Paris. The caption reads, “Mixed marriage between white and black are forbidden in most states of the union.” This ban appealed to the Nazis, didn’t it?

It sure did. It was one of the great demands of the Nazis — and again, especially of the radical Nazis — that interracial marriage should be not only prohibited, but criminalized. When they looked for models around the world for the criminalization of interracial marriage, though, they only found one example — well, really 30, because there were 30 American states with anti-miscegenation statutes. And it was to these statues that the Nazi lawyers turned.

I was taken with the revelation that to these German lawyers, American blacks “were not a desperately oppressed and impoverished people, but a menacing alien race of invaders that threatened to get the upper hand and therefore had to be thwarted.” There were Americans who believed the same thing in that regard as those German lawyers believed — that blacks were a threat to white rule. Still are.

They sure did. Of course, this is the idea and the background of the notorious film Birth of a Nation, screened, as we all know, by President Wilson in the White House. What an awful thought! There were believers in this bizarre interpretation of the American race situation all over the country. Not just in the South, but in places like Columbia University. It was commonplace [for people to think] that America was threatened by this kind of takeover.

You quote the German writer Wahrhold Drascher, whose book was titled Supremacy of the White Race: “Americans took care to guarantee that the decisive positions in the leadership of the state would be kept in the hands of Anglo-Saxons alone.”

Yeah, that’s what he said. And the Nazis, in their interpretation of the American theme, thought that they were seeing concerns parallel to their own in Germany. What they were worried about in the early stages was precisely that Jews might take over Germany, so the Jews had to be kept out of government, out of the legal profession, and out of any other situation in which they might exercise what the Nazis always called influence. The Nazis used exactly the same language in discussing the situation of American blacks.

You quote one prominent Nazi lawyer who admired the Democratic Party of the South for using “racist election law” to build a one-party system.

Yes. And the Nazis weren’t the only ones to notice this. Other observers too, including much more palatable ones, looked at the South and saw what they thought was the creation of a one-party system very similar to what was emerging in fascist Europe.

So what did those German lawyers meeting in 1934 see when they looked at America in the early 1930s?

It has to be said that there was a kinship when it came to the writing of racist laws. There was especially, but not exclusively in the South, a tremendous interest among American legislators and American judges in guaranteeing what was sometimes called the Anglo-Saxon or white character of the country at the time. And American lawyers were quite ingenious, as American lawyers often are, in devising law that was intended to serve that end. The first thing that the Nazi lawyers saw to admire was precisely that ingeniousness, that innovativeness of American law, that willingness to look beyond the traditions of equality that we find in the law for new solutions to guarantee what they regarded as the proper racial purity of the United States.

There were many other currents, some very admirable currents that are still with us in the United States, that the Nazis saw and deplored. They were sort of mystified at how a country so clearly dedicated to white supremacy could also [have] something like the 14thAmendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal rights to American citizens — among whom, [after] the Civil War, were to be counted the freed black people of the South.

And how did the Nazi lawyers square that with their admiration 50 years later of American racist laws?

Well, many of them said exactly what American observers still say today, what political scientists will say today — that there were two competing currents in American law: on the one hand, a commitment to universal equality, but on the other hand, a deeply racist tradition, which the Nazis often called the realistic racism of the United States. They liked to think of themselves as realists and they admired the realist racism of the United States too.

The racism that existed and was practiced irrespective of law.

That’s it exactly. Realism from their point of view meant grappling not only with the world, with the real problems of the world as they presented themselves, rather than formalistic legal abstractions, but also giving effect to the deeply rooted, intuitive racism of the American population in general.

So what those Nazi lawyers creating the Nuremberg Laws saw and admired was the United States going about the political construction of race. Americans were using politics to shape laws that would result in a political system organized around race, despite the absence of any meaningful scientific definition of race.

That’s it exactly. And of course the problem that they faced involved precisely the difficulty in finding meaningful, reliable scientific definition according to which you could determine who belonged to which race. There were some moderate Nazis involved in the meeting on June 5 who claimed that you couldn’t have criminal statutes targeting Jews because it was impossible to define who counted as a Jew. The response of the radicals is exactly the response you mention: “Ah, but there’s a political imperative to construct some conception of race by which we can persecute Jews, even if it’s not clearly scientifically justifiable.”

And they saw America doing that in regard to people of color, particularly black people.

Boy, did they ever. In fact, they saw America doing it in a more radical fashion than any of the Nazis themselves ever advocated. I mentioned earlier the demands of the radicals during the early Nazi period in 1933, which were embodied in something called the Prussian Memorandum. Kind of a sinister name, but that’s what it was. The Prussian Memorandum specifically invoked Jim Crow as a model for the new Nazi program, and here’s the irony: The Prussian Memorandum also insisted that Jim Crow went further than the Nazis themselves would desire to go. They were planning to ban offensive socialization between the races if it took place in public but not in private. They went on to observe that the Americans went even further than that, banning interactions even in private. As Nazi debates continued, however, there was a great deal of disagreement over whether anything like Jim Crow segregation was appropriate for Nazi Germany. In fact, if you read the stenographic transcript of that meeting we’re talking about, you’ll come across a leading Nazi radical who denied that segregation would work in Germany. As he put it, “The Jews are just much too rich and powerful. Segregation of the Jim Crow kind could really only be effective against a population that was already oppressed and impoverished,” like the African-American population in America.

You point out that Germans defined sexual relations between a German and a member of a foreign race sexual intimacy as “race treason.”

Yes, they did. They had a bunch of terms for it, but “race treason” was certainly one of them. Race treason was the betrayal of one’s loyalty to the Aryan race as the Germans conceived it by engaging in sexual relations — particularly ones that might produce a child — with a non-Aryan, and especially with a Jew.

And Adolf Hitler writes in Mein Kampf: “The racially pure and still unmixed German has risen to become master of the American continent and he will remain the master as long as he does not fall victim to racial pollution.”

That was Hitler, alright. And he was not the only one. Other authors and political leaders on the far right spoke in similar terms. One Nazi writer described the founding of the United States as “the fateful turning point in the Aryan struggle for world domination.”

So to the Nazis, America had become the fountainhead for the worldwide rise of white supremacy.

America was the leader from their point of view. Now, many of the representatives of this far right wing thought that the US was doomed to decay on account of race mixing. Hitler himself, as it turns out, was relatively optimistic about the future of the United States, at least in the late 1920s and through the early 1930s. His views began to change later on, after clear hostilities with the United States took hold in the latter part of the 1930s. But in the late 1920s, he expressed some real optimism about the future of the US as a race state. Alternatively, sometimes he regarded the US as representing a major competitive threat to European countries that didn’t follow America’s lead in establishing the kind of racial purity that American law was designed to establish.

It’s important to emphasize too that when Hitler spoke of the American conquest of an entire continent, he was setting a tone for something that Nazis would continue to say down into the 1940s — this is something that ought to make us all really uncomfortable. It involves research that’s not mine but the research of others. As the Nazis rolled east to conquer other lands — in Ukraine and elsewhere — they often invoked the example of the American conquest of the West, even speaking of the Jews of Eastern Europe as Indians. As early as 1928 Hitler was speechifying in admiration of Americans who had “gunned down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now keep the modest remnant under observation in a cage.”

On reservations.

Yes. Now, we want to be very, very careful in interpreting Nazi invocations of the US. Many German historians have remarked on the fact that the Nazis often invoked the American example. It’s hard to miss when you look at the sources. Still, we really must not make this a story of causation in which the Nazis would never have committed the crimes they committed unless they had been able to draw inspiration from the United States. There were too many other sources for the evil crimes of Nazism. One wants to soft-pedal this a little bit. And yet it’s there. That’s what Hitler did say in l928. You can’t read this stuff without shuddering today.

So let’s pause there for a moment. You acknowledge in your book that none of this is easy to talk about, that it’s hard to digest the idea that American law might have exerted any sort of direct influence on the Nazi program of racial persecution and oppression. And no one, as you yourself say, wants to imagine that America provided any measure of inspiration for Hitler. So you conclude that it would be wrong to say that the Nazis directly borrowed from the Americans, that this is not a story of an exact transplant from one legal culture to another.

In fact, you tell this story very cautiously, with careful qualifications — the American and Nazi regimes were not the same. But you nonetheless conclude that from Hitler’s Mein Kampf on, the Nazis lionized American white supremacy and rummaged, as you put it, in American immigration and citizen laws. The National Socialist Handbook for Law and Legislation even described America as the country that had achieved a fundamental recognition of the historic racist mission that Nazi Germany was now called to fulfill. And we keep saying you can’t escape this as we go through the history. We cannot escape it.

Yes, that’s exactly right. I should say that I didn’t expect to write the book. I didn’t know I would find what I found. The universal view among American historians is that there had been no influence or no meaningful influence of American law on the Nazis. There patently was. I think that we hadn’t understood it, not only because it’s difficult for Americans to talk about it, but more importantly, in some way, it’s difficult for Germans to talk about it. The one thing that you want to avoid, if you want to make an honorable, reputable career in the German academic world, is to say anything that might seem to represent an apologetic for the Nazis or to deny German responsibility for Nazi crimes. That makes it hard for Germans who are really the natural scholars to work through this material to do so. You have to read an awful lot of German material. You have to read a lot of technical law, and you have to have some training in order to do it. And there are a lot of reasons not to want to do it. But boy, when you do start digging, and you find the stuff there, it’s exactly as you say — it’s painful. You mentioned The National Socialist Handbook for Law and Legislation — well, it indeed described the US as the country that had arrived at the fundamental recognition of the need for creating a race state, and then went on to explain that it was now the turn of Nazi Germany to do a more rigorous and efficient job of what the Americans had begun. That’s a characteristically German view of all of this.

Hitler himself, in Mein Kampf, described the US as the one state that had made at least some progress for creating the kind of race order he wanted to create in Germany. In fact, that’s how I started the research. I pulled Mein Kampf off the shelf, saw that phrase, and thought, “Maybe there’s something more here.”

Had you started to write this book before then?

No, that was how I started.

Reading Mein Kampf?

Yes. It’s obvious that American and the Jim Crow era had a race-based or racist regime that resembled what emerged in Germany, so the question of whether there was some influence was a natural one, or at least some resemblance. And I thought I’d just take a look to see what I found and once I began looking, I found a lot.

You quote the Nazi author of The Supremacy of the White Race, Drascher, who said that were it not for the contribution of the Americans, a conscious unity of the white race would never have emerged. Reading just that sentence, I can feel rumbles from American politics today, and it’s chilling.

It sure is. I didn’t expect to produce a book that would be timely in the way this one has turned out to be timely. But over the past year, the continuities in American history seem to have revealed themselves.

Let’s go back to these German lawyers and jurists in that meeting on June 5, 1934. Some historians have suggested that at around that time, Germany and the American South had the look of a mirror image. They were both unapologetically racist. At that time, the Jews of Germany were hounded, beaten and sometimes murdered by mobs and by the state alike and in the same years the blacks of the American South were hounded, beaten and sometimes murdered as well. There are parallels so powerful in our mutual histories that you just have to shake your head.

Yes, you do. I don’t know what to say. It’s hard for us to digest in the US. There’s a lot that we would prefer to forget. And I will say, not just that we would prefer to forget when it comes to our own history, but that we’d prefer to forget about American influence abroad because our example has not always been one for good in the rest of the world.

I watched the mayoral debate on Oct. 10 here in New York City. It was a noisy, raucous affair, and I remembered your writing that the Nazis didn’t like New York City. They saw it as a place where “the representatives of the races” gathered to create “a mishmash of ideas and people,” a place marked by a great influence of the Jews, which made institutions like Columbia University centers of radicalism, and they thought that the true America by contrast was Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.

That’s what they said. I’m sure New York was a fun place to visit regardless. Even if you were a Nazi. But it’s true, they regarded the city of New York as just a hotbed of what Hitler called “Jewish elements” and were very, very suspicious of that same brash New York culture you’ve just described in the debate.

Those particular quotes, which were typical, I should say, of the far-right wing in Germany — far-right wingers have been saying things like that about New York for a long time — were from a Nazi book written in praise of Franklin Roosevelt as someone whom the Nazis at first thought exemplified some of the same virtues of their Führer in the early 1930s. That’s another uncomfortable piece of this story.

They often described him as a dictator. So did Mussolini, in fact. They thought that New Deal policies, intended of course to address the horrors, or the economic difficulties let’s call them, of the Great Depression, resembled Nazi efforts to do the same thing, which in fact they did. I mean, these were in some ways similar programs, as historians have shown. Some of the Nazi literature at the time said Roosevelt obviously aspired to do the same sorts of things Hitler was doing but who lacked the sort of paramilitary organization, a party army, that was used in Germany to support Hitler’s efforts. This was a pretty widespread impression. The Italian fascists thought similar things of the early New Deal.

So take the first programs of 1933 and 1934 — in particular what was called the National Recovery Administration, eventually struck down by the Supreme Court — when Mussolini was shown the plan for it, he said, “É un dittatore.” “That’s a dictator.” The perception that Roosevelt really was moving in the same direction as Central European dictators was pretty widespread in those countries in the early 1930s. Later on it became clear that it wasn’t the case. But, again — we don’t like to remember it, but especially in the early years of the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration depended very, very heavily on the support of the segregationist South. Roosevelt was very careful not to cross those Southern Democrats and that may also have contributed to the impression in Nazi Germany and elsewhere that there was something kindred in the New Deal regime to what they were doing.

There was traffic back and forth between Germans and Americans who promoted eugenics — you know, the sterilization of the mentally defective and the exclusion of immigrants said to be genetically inferior. You quote a German author who declared in 1935, “The Americans have begun to think about the maintenance of race purity and thus to ask not only about eugenics, but also about membership in individual races. It can be seen in their immigration laws, which completely forbid the immigration of yellows” — meaning Asians — “and place immigration from European countries under sharp supervision. The American knows very well who made his land great. He sees that the Nordic blood is drying up and seeks to refresh that blood through his immigration legislation.”

Yes, the passage you quote is from a Nazi-sympathizing doctor in 1935, saying things that Nazis frequently said at the time. American immigration law had been admired on the European far right wing for a long time, including in particular in a book called The Handbook of the Jewish Question. This was a kind of a minor bible of the Nazi movement, going back to the late 19th century, because already by then the US was restricting immigration in ways that inspired radical Nazis.

And yes, you are absolutely right in saying that eugenics, American eugenic theories played a big role in all of this. Other historians have shown this. American eugenic theories were influential in many parts of the world, not just in Nazi Germany. Eugenic approaches at the time, as difficult as it is for us to imagine now, were respectable. Sweden, for example, was a center of eugenics legislation. So the eugenics business didn’t just involve the Nazis and the US, but it is absolutely true that the Nazis were great admirers of American eugenic theories. There was a lot of back and forth as you say. American eugenicists went to Germany. German eugenicists came to the US. They conferred and discussed and compared notes.

So that in the early ’30s, when these Nazi lawyers were engaged in creating a race law founded in part on anti-miscegenation law and race-based immigration, they came looking for foreign models and found some in the US.

Yes, and studied them very, very carefully. That’s not only true of anti-miscegenation law. The passage that you just quoted earlier on about American immigration law was the product of a lot of very careful study of that law. They worked hard to learn what was going on in the US. And in particular, as you say, they worked very hard trying to understand or to master American anti-miscegenation law. Thirty American states had anti-miscegenation statutes. These were by no means limited to the American South. They were found all over the country. They didn’t target only blacks. They were also particularly devoted to banning and sometimes criminalizing marriages and sex between Caucasians and Asians, Caucasians and Native Americans — it goes on and on. Anti-miscegenation laws were a national phenomenon. At the meeting on June 5, 1934, the memorandum discussed by the minister of justice was accompanied by a list which detailed the anti-miscegenation provisions found in all 30 of the states that had them. And the law of those states was discussed in detail — I would almost say excruciating detail. They were really looking to see what they could learn from the US.

You have a quote from that transcript of this meeting. One Nazi says to the state secretary, “I’m reminded of something an American said to us recently. He explained, ‘We do the same thing you Germans are doing, but why do you have to say it so explicitly in your German laws?'” And the state secretary answered, “But the Americans put it in their own laws even more explicitly.” Was he right?

He was. It’s quite a memorable exchange, I have to say.

You write that the Nazis were obsessed with the state enforcement of racial and sexual purity. Mixed marriages and mixed sex could lead to imprisonment. They included in the Nuremberg Laws “a blood law,” and you write, “It is with the blood law that we discover the most provocative evidence of direct Nazi engagement with American legal models and the most unsettling signs of direct influence.” Would you elaborate on that?

Sure. So again there were two principle Nuremberg Laws apart from the flag law that we mentioned before. The first we usually call the citizenship law — the creation of second-class citizenship for Jews was the object of that law. The second law — what we call “the blood law” — was precisely the law about interracial sex and marriage. When it came to the first, the citizenship law, there was plenty of inspiration the Nazis could find in a general way in the United States. But only in a general way, because although the US had no shortage of legal provisions effectively depriving American blacks of voting rights for example and other pertinences of citizenship, and although the US created a special kind of second-class citizen status for certain populations, notably the Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, those aspects of American law for the most part involved legal subterfuges. You couldn’t actually come into court in the US and say blacks are not citizens because after the Civil War the citizenship of blacks was guaranteed in the US, so you had to find tricks. The Nazis were of course not going to use tricks. They were simply going to say openly that Jews are not citizens. They didn’t have any difficulty saying that at all and for that reason when it came to their citizenship program they weren’t going to borrow directly from the United States.

Matters were very different when it came to banning interracial marriage and sex because, as we just said, American anti-miscegenation statutes were completely unapologetic and open about race-based aims. They said “no sex or marriage” between Caucasians and Africans, as they often called them, or between Caucasians and Mongols — that was a typical term for Asians — and so on and so forth. The Nazis had something from which they did not hesitate to borrow and they studied these laws very, very carefully.

You write that the US Supreme Court entertained briefs from southern states whose arguments were indistinguishable from those of the Nazis.

They were. The sorts of things the Nazis said, often using terms like mongrelization and bastardization of the population were also often said by Southern racists. It was exactly the same vocabulary.

Let me read to you. Here’s a quote from a Maryland statute in 1957 — 1957! — that you include in the book:

All marriages between a white person and a Negro, or between a white person and a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, or between a white person and a member of the Malay race or between a Negro and a member of the Malay race, or between a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, and a member of the Malay race, or between a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, and a member of the Malay race or between a Negro and member of the Malay race, or between a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, are forever prohibited and shall be void and and any person violating the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of an infamous crime and be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary for not less than eighteen months or more than 10 years.

That was Maryland law.

Yes, and it wasn’t the only one. Laws of that kind weren’t ruled unconstitutional until 1967 by the Supreme Court in the famous case of Loving v. Virginia. You could find them all over the United States and they were of great interest to the radical Nazis. The idea that racially mixed marriage was somehow objectionable was pretty widespread in the world in the early 20th century. Racism was something you found everywhere. But criminalization of the American kind was something that you just couldn’t find elsewhere, particularly criminalization of such harshness as to threaten 10 years of imprisonment. That was was of tremendous interest to radical Nazis who wanted exactly the same thing for Germany.

Some of them talked about how America’s long history of sexual relations between masters and slaves left the US “groaning under the weight of an enormous mass of mongrels.” Which brings us to Sen. Theodore Bilbo from Mississippi, one of the most powerful of all Southern politicians.

He figures in my book as he does in some other very important work by Ira Katznelson. Sen. Bilbo was a dyed-in-the-wool racist and a great pillar of the New Deal government in the early 1930s and thereafter. You’re absolutely right — the huge mass of “mongrels” was something the Nazis recognized in the United States. That’s a German phrase, it’s not a Nazi one, but it’s a German phrase for describing the American situation. One of the shocking things about my research was to come to terms with the fact that American definitions of who counted as black or members of other races were much more far-reaching and draconian than anything the Nazis themselves came up with.

Bilbo said, “One drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and palsies his creative faculty.” Is it true that the Nazis thought the one-drop rule too extreme?

They did indeed. They never proposed anything nearly as extreme as the one-drop rule. In fact the standard, the most far-reaching Nazi definitions of who counted as a Jew, matched the least far-reaching ones to be found in the American states. Virtually all American definitions of who counted as a black were far more draconian than anything found in any Nazi proposal. At the same time, the Nazi literature expressed real discomfort about the so-called one-drop rule, which, I have to say, was not found in every American state, as there were a variety of approaches in the US. But it was understandably notorious. The Nazis, difficult as it is to imagine, described the one-drop rule as inhuman, as “involving human hardness that’s going much, much too far, you couldn’t do that kind of thing,” they said. And their own definitions for who counted as a Jew, especially those that were ultimately attached to the Nuremberg Laws, were more restricted than anything to be found in American states at the time.

Talk about The Cable Act of 1922. I never heard of it until I read your book.

The Nazis were interested in it. The Cable Act was the American version of something found throughout the world at the time — certainly in Europe and the United States. The Cable Act dealt with a standard problem in the law of the day. According to traditional legal definitions in the 19th century, a married woman acquired the citizenship of her husband and lost her native citizenship. That was part of the general submersion of a wife’s legal personality into the personality of her husband. That rule was being abrogated everywhere in the early 20th century and it was abrogated in the United States, too, but the Cable Act included an exception. It said, “Although women retain their American citizenship ordinarily when they marry a non-American citizen, if they stoop so low as to marry a Japanese person or an Asian, they have to be deprived of citizenship in that case.”

It’s one of a few examples the Nazi lawyers talk about that I think may have played a role in the formation of the ultimate regulations implementing the Nuremberg Laws. In determining who counted as a Jew, the Nazis decided that anybody with two Jewish grandparents would only count as a Jew if that person practiced the Jewish religion or married another Jew. This idea of who counted as a member of a given race depending on their marital history was something for which we could find a bunch of examples in American law and the examples are discussed in the Nazi literature.

The Prussian Memorandum we discussed earlier declared that causing harm to the honor of the race could also be made criminally punishable. When I read your take on this, I thought of the current debate over athletes taking a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem. There are people on the right, including the president of the United States, who say they are dishonoring the flag, dishonoring the history of the country. How little they know of our history. We’re still fighting over legacies from the past.

Yes. I handed in the corrected proofs of this book the day before Election Day, so although I knew that some of these undercurrents in America were erupting once again, I didn’t understand how much that was the case. What you say is quite true. Things obviously have improved immeasurably. We’re not back in the 1930s and I wouldn’t want anyone to read my book as suggesting we are. We’re certainly not. There are nevertheless obvious resemblances and obvious continuities. and it’s interesting that you mention the controversy over the national anthem and the flag. It’s worth emphasizing that the swastika flag played a big role in the Nuremberg Laws as well. The Nazis were very, very concerned with demanding obeisance to the symbols of the regime. They even discussed how people might be required to show respect for the heroes of the Nazi movement and of German history that discussion played a role in that June 5, 1934 meeting. But these kinds of things mattered to them just as they matter now on the American right wing.

White supremacists have been emboldened by Trump. There were the storm troopers marching through Charlottesville searching for Jews. The far right gains support over issues such as immigration, identity, nationality, even greatness: “Make America Great Again.” All reverberations from our past.

At that Charlottesville rally, people were chanting, “Blut und Boden,” which is “Blood and soil” — that’s the Nazi slogan. Obviously consciously borrowing it from the Nazis and displaying flags that barely alter the swastika symbol. There’s no question that they at least want to trumpet their sense of kinship with the Nazi movement. How much they really know about it, I don’t know. But in researching for this book I learned that it’s not just a matter of Americans borrowing from Nazis the Nazis were borrowing from the Americans too. A lot of this unfortunately got started in our country.

So tell me about Heinrich Krieger. He’s one of the most fascinating personalities to appear in your book.

Yes, he was a young Nazi lawyer who somehow in the year 1933–34 found himself an exchange student in Arkansas. He obviously loved international travel. He was particularly interested in indigenous legal traditions so he worked on American Indian law. Published a perfectly good article on American Indian law in an American law review, one that was certainly written from a Nazi point of view but that showed real mastery of the law and said some intelligent things about American Indian law. I hope I don’t offend anybody in observing that there were smart and gifted people who were Nazi lawyers. He returned to Germany where somebody in the justice ministry heard about this kid off in Dusseldorf who knew something about American law. He then wrote a memorandum describing American law and displaying real mastery of American law and American race law. He followed that with a thick book called Race Law and the United States, which is a Nazi book but a Nazi book full of acute observations. You don’t want to say anything good about any Nazi scholars but the truth is that Nazis were able to see things in America, precisely because they were looking at them from a Nazi point of view.

His heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Explain that.

Isn’t it hard to take? Well, so it’s important here as background to explain the aims of the early Nazi program. When the Nazis first came to power, the Holocaust was not yet on the horizon. Hitler, as we’ve seen, had spoken of the Americans gunning down the millions of redskins. But despite that, the idea of mass murder wasn’t really practical or much discussed. The early aim of the Nazi program was to force the Jews to emigrate. It was to expel the Jews as had been done in Europe in the Middle Ages or to make life so miserable for them in Germany that they would flee.

Here is the hard part in talking about American history: The reason that Heinrich Krieger admired Jefferson and Lincoln is that both Jefferson and Lincoln repeatedly said that the only real hope for the US lay in resettling the black population somewhere else. And he quoted both Jefferson and Lincoln to that effect. His view of American history was that if only Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated Lincoln would have instituted something like the order the Nazis wanted — that is, he would have found some way to resettle the black population, now freed, in the United States. In particular there was some contemplation of establishing a colony in Central America. He said, “If only Lincoln had survived, then America would be the kind of place that Nazi Germany aimed to be as well.” I tell you, it’s a shock to read these things but that is what he said.

He was fond of Jefferson’s declaration in 1821 on the impossibility of racial coexistence: “It is certain that the two races equally free cannot live in the same government.”

Yes, that’s just one quote from Jefferson, he said similar things earlier on as well. So you know, they remain our heroes but their world and their mindset were sometimes difficult for us to approve of.

In your book you write: “Sometimes the American democratic political process produces admirable legislation but to have a common-law system like that of America is to have a system in which the traditions of the law do indeed have little power to ride herd on the demands of the politicians and when the politics is bad, the law can be very bad indeed.” You go on: “The resulting dangers have not vanished and it would be wrong to close this book without pointing to at least one contemporary realm of American law in which those dangers are still making themselves felt. The realm is American criminal justice. American criminal justice is spectacularly and frighteningly harsh by international standards. It includes practices that are sometimes uncomfortably reminiscent of those introduced by the Nazis.”

What is it that makes contemporary American justice so exceptionally harsh?

Oh boy! Certainly one critical answer is the sheer capacity of American politics and politicians to shape American criminal law and American criminal justice. Politicians in the US run on tough on crime platforms. It has to be added as well that both judges and prosecutors are elected officials in much of the US. That’s something unheard of in the rest of the world. And frankly, more humane traditions of the law do very little to stand in the way of translating the demands of politicians into law. In that respect, the situation in the US is really quite different from what we find now in Europe, where professional lawyers, professional criminologists and the like still manage criminal justice. I simply have to say it: the accessibility of the legal system to political influence was exactly what the radical Nazis admired most about America in the 1930s and that’s still doing tremendous damage to our criminal justice system today.


The racism of the Jim Crow South and Nazi Germany are compared and analyzed at seminar co-led by USC Shoah Foundation’s Wolf Gruner

In the segregated American South, racist laws banning blacks from public places such as libraries and swimming pools were instituted at the local level.

In Germany, laws placing similar prohibitions on Jews were also – initially – a matter of municipal control.

But whereas the U.S. federal government reversed the local segregation laws with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Nazi-run centralized government in Germany universalized its local laws with the adoption of several decrees after the Nuremberg Laws in 1935.

Exploring such comparisons between Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South is the focus of an ongoing two-week seminar at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. that began today.

Co-led by USC Shoah Foundation’s Wolf Gruner – as well as a professor from Harvard and a professor emeritus from the University of California – the event is for university faculty from across the nation who teach Holocaust studies or U.S. Civil Rights history.

The aim, Gruner said, is to introduce concepts that enable instructors to make meaningful comparisons, as well as to expand awareness among U.S. university students of Holocaust history.

The 2018 Curt C. and Else Silberman Seminar for Faculty, which runs through June 15, will pay special attention to how these practices sharply diverged as Nazi antisemitic policies turned into widespread, state sanctioned murder and genocide in the 1940s.

Called “Racial Practice: Theory, Policy, and Execution in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South” the seminar will introduce the audience to the many ways in which the two experiences were products of a global movement based on pseudo-science that legitimized racism and violence in the name of eugenics.

The event will include lectures on racism and antisemitism in the early 20th century, race laws in Nazi Germany, spaces of segregation, perpetrators in Nazi Germany, and lynching as a spectacle.

In his lectures, Gruner – a professor of German-Jewish history at the USC and Institute’s founding director of the Center for Advanced Genocide Research – will share the results of his research, much of which defies conventional wisdom about anti-Jewish laws of Germany in the 1930s.

“People think (anti-Jewish laws are) all coming from Berlin from Hitler, and local governments just implement it,” Gruner said. “It’s quite the opposite, really. The government of Germany eventually picked up ideas from the bottom.”

The severity of anti-Jewish laws didn’t just vary city-by-city – they varied according to the personal prejudices of the department heads. In Hamburg, for example, because the head of the welfare department was especially racist, it was very difficult for Jews or Roma families to get welfare benefits, Gruner said. But in the same city, the economy department was less so, and Jewish-run businesses fared better than their counterparts in other cities.

Occasionally – before 1935 – the anti-Jewish strictures of local governments were even blocked by Berlin.

“They were too far ahead,” Gruner said. “Foreign correspondents would pick up on the incidents and write articles in newspapers. And in Berlin they would kind of be asked by the diplomats in Germany, ‘What are you doing there?’”

Leading the seminar with Gruner is Evelynn Hammonds, an African American studies and history professor at Harvard University and Clarence Walker, a professor emeritus of American History at the University of California, Davis.

This is the second time Gruner has been asked to co-lead the seminar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Several years ago, Gruner – who published a book in 2015 about the discrimination against the the indigenous population in Bolivia – spoke at a seminar geared toward Hispanic serving higher education institutions.

Gruner has authored 12 books. His latest, “Anti-Jewish Persecution in the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia - Local Initiatives, Central Decisions, Jewish Responses,” has won three distinguished prizes.

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How the Nazis Were Inspired by Jim Crow

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Nazis Based Race Laws on U.S. Jim Crow Policies

To get to the rowore of race in America today, read this new book by James Whitman. Whitman is the Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale Law School. Prepare to be as startled as this respected legal scholar was when he came upon a meticulous record of a meeting of top lawyers in Nazi Germany after Hitler’s rise to power. Not only did those lawyers reveal a deep interest in American race policies, the most radical of them were eager advocates of using American law as a model. Scholars and historians have argued for years about whether American’s own regime of racial oppression in any way inspired the Nazis.

Not only does Whitman throw a bright light on the debate, to this reader he settles it once and for all. Carefully written and tightly reasoned, backed up every step of the way with considered evidence and logic, Whitman reminds us that today is yesterday’s child, and that certain strains of DNA persist from one generation to another.

Bill Moyers: You begin the book with a meeting of Nazi Germany’s leading lawyers on June 5, 1934, which happens, coincidentally, to be the day I was born.

James Whitman: Oh boy, you were born under a dark star.

Moyers: To be sure. Adolf Hitler had been chancellor of the Reich for a year and a half. Nazis were rapidly consolidating their hold over Germany. And this was no gathering of everyday, garden-variety lawyers.

Whitman: No, it wasn’t. It was chaired by Hitler’s minister of justice and attended by the leading figures among Nazi lawyers.

Moyers: Why had they gathered? What was their mission?

Whitman: They were there to begin crafting what would eventually become the notorious Nuremberg Laws, which were promulgated a little bit more than a year later, in September of 1935. Those laws would be the culmination of the first phase of the Nazi program of persecution directed against German Jewry. And they were there to respond to the demands of radical Nazis for the creation of a new kind of race state in Germany.

Moyers: And the Nuremberg Laws would embody the full-scale creation of a racist state.

Whitman: You bet. They did. And that’s how we remember them today.

Moyers: A stenographer was present to record a verbatim transcript of that meeting. Reading that transcript you discovered a startling fact.

Whitman: Yes — the fact is that they began by discussing American law. The minister of justice presented a memorandum on American race law that included a great deal of detailed discussion of the laws of American states. American law continued to be a principle topic throughout that meeting and beyond. It’s also a startling fact that the most radical lawyers in that meeting — the most vicious among the lawyers present — were the most enthusiastic for the American example.

Moyers: And the laws they were creating —

Whitman: There were three Nuremberg Laws eventually promulgated in 1935. The two that most concern us are usually called the citizenship law and the blood law. The citizenship law reduced Jews to second-class citizenship status in Germany. The blood law banned, and in fact criminalized, interracial marriage and sex. But there was a third as well, which was called the flag law for the Reich, the purpose of which was to install the swastika as the exclusive flag of Germany.

Moyers: What were they interested in learning about American law?

Whitman: American law, hard though it might be for us to accept it now, was a model for everybody in the early 20 th century who was interested in creating a race-based order or race state. America was the leader in a whole variety of realms in racist law in the first part of that century. Some of this involved American immigration law, which was designed to exclude so-called “undesirable races” from immigration. In 1924 American immigration law in particular was praised by Hitler himself, in his book Mein Kampf.

But it wasn’t just about American immigration law. There was also American law creating forms of second-class citizenship — for African-Americans, of course, but also for other populations including Asians, Native Americans, Filipinos and Puerto Ricans. Not least, there were statutes in 30 American states forbidding and sometimes criminalizing interracial marriage. Those were of special interest to the Nazis.

Moyers: And these lawyers saw America’s “Negro problem” as similar to their “Jewish problem?”

Whitman: You bet they did.

Moyers: American law did not specifically target Jews, but—

Whitman: But it certainly had a highly developed body of law targeting other groups. And the Nazis, although it is true they were unhappy with the lack of American interest in targeting Jews and deplored some aspects of American society, were quite interested in learning from what Americans did in targeting these other populations.

Moyers: The Nazis believed American blacks were multiplying so significantly they would eventually overwhelm the US. There are photographs in your book from a Nazi magazine with images of American blacks at the time, and the caption reads: “The Negros are multiplying significantly more strongly than the white population of the United States. Their constantly growing numbers are a source of great concern to American statesmen.”

Whitman: It’s certainly the case that there were American statesmen, if you want to call them that, especially in the South, who were concerned about the birthrate in the black population. And it’s certainly the case that the Nazis, when they encountered American uneasiness of that kind with regard to the black population, were seeing concerns akin to their own.

Moyers: And that same Nazi magazine showed pictures of the world champion American boxer Jack Johnson, who was not permitted to return to the US because he had married a white woman in Paris. The caption reads, “Mixed marriage between white and black are forbidden in most states of the union.” This ban appealed to the Nazis, didn’t it?

Whitman: It sure did. It was one of the great demands of the Nazis — and again, especially of the radical Nazis — that interracial marriage should be not only prohibited, but criminalized. When they looked for models around the world for the criminalization of interracial marriage, though, they only found one example — well, really 30, because there were 30 American states with anti-miscegenation statutes. And it was to these statues that the Nazi lawyers turned.

Moyers: I was taken with the revelation that to these German lawyers, American blacks “were not a desperately oppressed and impoverished people, but a menacing alien race of invaders that threatened to get the upper hand and therefore had to be thwarted.” There were Americans who believed the same thing in that regard as those German lawyers believed — that blacks were a threat to white rule. Still are.

Whitman: They sure did. Of course, this is the idea and the background of the notorious film Birth of a Nation, screened, as we all know, by President Wilson in the White House. What an awful thought! There were believers in this bizarre interpretation of the American race situation all over the country. Not just in the South, but in places like Columbia University. It was commonplace [for people to think] that America was threatened by this kind of takeover.

Moyers: You quote the German writer Wahrhold Drascher, whose book was titled Supremacy of the White Race: “Americans took care to guarantee that the decisive positions in the leadership of the state would be kept in the hands of Anglo-Saxons alone.”

Whitman: Yeah, that’s what he said. And the Nazis, in their interpretation of the American theme, thought that they were seeing concerns parallel to their own in Germany. What they were worried about in the early stages was precisely that Jews might take over Germany, so the Jews had to be kept out of government, out of the legal profession, and out of any other situation in which they might exercise what the Nazis always called influence. The Nazis used exactly the same language in discussing the situation of American blacks.

Moyers: You quote one prominent Nazi lawyer who admired the Democratic Party of the South for using “racist election law” to build a one-party system.

Whitman: Yes. And the Nazis weren’t the only ones to notice this. Other observers too, including much more palatable ones, looked at the South and saw what they thought was the creation of a one-party system very similar to what was emerging in fascist Europe.

Moyers: So what did those German lawyers meeting in 1934 see when they looked at America in the early 1930s?

Whitman: It has to be said that there was a kinship when it came to the writing of racist laws. There was especially, but not exclusively in the South, a tremendous interest among American legislators and American judges in guaranteeing what was sometimes called the Anglo-Saxon or white character of the country at the time. And American lawyers were quite ingenious, as American lawyers often are, in devising law that was intended to serve that end. The first thing that the Nazi lawyers saw to admire was precisely that ingeniousness, that innovativeness of American law, that willingness to look beyond the traditions of equality that we find in the law for new solutions to guarantee what they regarded as the proper racial purity of the United States.

There were many other currents, some very admirable currents that are still with us in the United States, that the Nazis saw and deplored. They were sort of mystified at how a country so clearly dedicated to white supremacy could also [have] something like the 14 th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal rights to American citizens — among whom, [after] the Civil War, were to be counted the freed black people of the South.

Moyers: And how did the Nazi lawyers square that with their admiration 50 years later of American racist laws?

Whitman: Well, many of them said exactly what American observers still say today, what political scientists will say today — that there were two competing currents in American law: on the one hand, a commitment to universal equality, but on the other hand, a deeply racist tradition, which the Nazis often called the realistic racism of the United States. They liked to think of themselves as realists and they admired the realist racism of the United States too.

Moyers: The racism that existed and was practiced irrespective of law.

Whitman: That’s it exactly. Realism from their point of view meant grappling not only with the world, with the real problems of the world as they presented themselves, rather than formalistic legal abstractions, but also giving effect to the deeply rooted, intuitive racism of the American population in general.

Moyers: So what those Nazi lawyers creating the Nuremberg Laws saw and admired was the United States going about the political construction of race. Americans were using politics to shape laws that would result in a political system organized around race, despite the absence of any meaningful scientific definition of race.

Whitman: That’s it exactly. And of course the problem that they faced involved precisely the difficulty in finding meaningful, reliable scientific definition according to which you could determine who belonged to which race. There were some moderate Nazis involved in the meeting on June 5 who claimed that you couldn’t have criminal statutes targeting Jews because it was impossible to define who counted as a Jew. The response of the radicals is exactly the response you mention: “Ah, but there’s a political imperative to construct some conception of race by which we can persecute Jews, even if it’s not clearly scientifically justifiable.”

Moyers: And they saw America doing that in regard to people of color, particularly black people.

Whitman: Boy, did they ever. In fact, they saw America doing it in a more radical fashion than any of the Nazis themselves ever advocated. I mentioned earlier the demands of the radicals during the early Nazi period in 1933, which were embodied in something called the Prussian Memorandum. Kind of a sinister name, but that’s what it was. The Prussian Memorandum specifically invoked Jim Crow as a model for the new Nazi program, and here’s the irony: The Prussian Memorandum also insisted that Jim Crow went further than the Nazis themselves would desire to go. They were planning to ban offensive socialization between the races if it took place in public but not in private. They went on to observe that the Americans went even further than that, banning interactions even in private. As Nazi debates continued, however, there was a great deal of disagreement over whether anything like Jim Crow segregation was appropriate for Nazi Germany. In fact, if you read the stenographic transcript of that meeting we’re talking about, you’ll come across a leading Nazi radical who denied that segregation would work in Germany. As he put it, “The Jews are just much too rich and powerful. Segregation of the Jim Crow kind could really only be effective against a population that was already oppressed and impoverished,” like the African-American population in America.

Moyers: You point out that Germans defined sexual relations between a German and a member of a foreign race sexual intimacy as “race treason.”

Whitman: Yes, they did. They had a bunch of terms for it, but “race treason” was certainly one of them. Race treason was the betrayal of one’s loyalty to the Aryan race as the Germans conceived it by engaging in sexual relations — particularly ones that might produce a child — with a non-Aryan, and especially with a Jew.

Moyers: And Adolf Hitler writes in Mein Kampf: “The racially pure and still unmixed German has risen to become master of the American continent and he will remain the master as long as he does not fall victim to racial pollution.”

Whitman: That was Hitler, alright. And he was not the only one. Other authors and political leaders on the far right spoke in similar terms. One Nazi writer described the founding of the United States as “the fateful turning point in the Aryan struggle for world domination.”

Moyers: So to the Nazis, America had become the fountainhead for the worldwide rise of white supremacy.

Whitman: America was the leader from their point of view. Now, many of the representatives of this far right wing thought that the US was doomed to decay on account of race mixing. Hitler himself, as it turns out, was relatively optimistic about the future of the United States, at least in the late 1920s and through the early 1930s. His views began to change later on, after clear hostilities with the United States took hold in the latter part of the 1930s. But in the late 1920s, he expressed some real optimism about the future of the US as a race state. Alternatively, sometimes he regarded the US as representing a major competitive threat to European countries that didn’t follow America’s lead in establishing the kind of racial purity that American law was designed to establish.

It’s important to emphasize too that when Hitler spoke of the American conquest of an entire continent, he was setting a tone for something that Nazis would continue to say down into the 1940s — this is something that ought to make us all really uncomfortable. It involves research that’s not mine but the research of others. As the Nazis rolled east to conquer other lands — in Ukraine and elsewhere — they often invoked the example of the American conquest of the West, even speaking of the Jews of Eastern Europe as Indians. As early as 1928 Hitler was speechifying in admiration of Americans who had “gunned down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now keep the modest remnant under observation in a cage.”

Moyers: On reservations.

Whitman: Yes. Now, we want to be very, very careful in interpreting Nazi invocations of the US. Many German historians have remarked on the fact that the Nazis often invoked the American example. It’s hard to miss when you look at the sources. Still, we really must not make this a story of causation in which the Nazis would never have committed the crimes they committed unless they had been able to draw inspiration from the United States. There were too many other sources for the evil crimes of Nazism. One wants to soft-pedal this a little bit. And yet it’s there. That’s what Hitler did say in l928. You can’t read this stuff without shuddering today.

Moyers: So let’s pause there for a moment. You acknowledge in your book that none of this is easy to talk about, that it’s hard to digest the idea that American law might have exerted any sort of direct influence on the Nazi program of racial persecution and oppression. And no one, as you yourself say, wants to imagine that America provided any measure of inspiration for Hitler. So you conclude that it would be wrong to say that the Nazis directly borrowed from the Americans, that this is not a story of an exact transplant from one legal culture to another.

In fact, you tell this story very cautiously, with careful qualifications — the American and Nazi regimes were not the same. But you nonetheless conclude that from Hitler’s Mein Kampf on, the Nazis lionized American white supremacy and rummaged, as you put it, in American immigration and citizen laws. The National Socialist Handbook for Law and Legislation even described America as the country that had achieved a fundamental recognition of the historic racist mission that Nazi Germany was now called to fulfill. And we keep saying you can’t escape this as we go through the history. We cannot escape it.

Whitman: Yes, that’s exactly right. I should say that I didn’t expect to write the book. I didn’t know I would find what I found. The universal view among American historians is that there had been no influence or no meaningful influence of American law on the Nazis. There patently was. I think that we hadn’t understood it, not only because it’s difficult for Americans to talk about it, but more importantly, in some way, it’s difficult for Germans to talk about it. The one thing that you want to avoid, if you want to make an honorable, reputable career in the German academic world, is to say anything that might seem to represent an apologetic for the Nazis or to deny German responsibility for Nazi crimes. That makes it hard for Germans who are really the natural scholars to work through this material to do so. You have to read an awful lot of German material. You have to read a lot of technical law, and you have to have some training in order to do it. And there are a lot of reasons not to want to do it. But boy, when you do start digging, and you find the stuff there, it’s exactly as you say — it’s painful. You mentioned The National Socialist Handbook for Law and Legislation — well, it indeed described the US as the country that had arrived at the fundamental recognition of the need for creating a race state, and then went on to explain that it was now the turn of Nazi Germany to do a more rigorous and efficient job of what the Americans had begun. That’s a characteristically German view of all of this.

Hitler himself, in Mein Kampf, described the US as the one state that had made at least some progress for creating the kind of race order he wanted to create in Germany. In fact, that’s how I started the research. I pulled Mein Kampf off the shelf, saw that phrase, and thought, “Maybe there’s something more here.”

Moyers: Had you started to write this book before then?

Whitman: No, that was how I started.

Moyers: Reading Mein Kampf?

Whitman: Yes. It’s obvious that American and the Jim Crow era had a race-based or racist regime that resembled what emerged in Germany, so the question of whether there was some influence was a natural one, or at least some resemblance. And I thought I’d just take a look to see what I found and once I began looking, I found a lot.

Moyers: You quote the Nazi author of The Supremacy of the White Race, Drascher, who said that were it not for the contribution of the Americans, a conscious unity of the white race would never have emerged. Reading just that sentence, I can feel rumbles from American politics today, and it’s chilling.

Whitman: It sure is. I didn’t expect to produce a book that would be timely in the way this one has turned out to be timely. But over the past year, the continuities in American history seem to have revealed themselves.

Moyers: Let’s go back to these German lawyers and jurists in that meeting on June 5, 1934. Some historians have suggested that at around that time, Germany and the American South had the look of a mirror image. They were both unapologetically racist. At that time, the Jews of Germany were hounded, beaten and sometimes murdered by mobs and by the state alike and in the same years the blacks of the American South were hounded, beaten and sometimes murdered as well. There are parallels so powerful in our mutual histories that you just have to shake your head.

Whitman: Yes, you do. I don’t know what to say. It’s hard for us to digest in the US. There’s a lot that we would prefer to forget. And I will say, not just that we would prefer to forget when it comes to our own history, but that we’d prefer to forget about American influence abroad because our example has not always been one for good in the rest of the world.

Moyers: I watched the mayoral debate on Oct. 10 here in New York City. It was a noisy, raucous affair, and I remembered your writing that the Nazis didn’t like New York City. They saw it as a place where “the representatives of the races” gathered to create “a mishmash of ideas and people,” a place marked by a great influence of the Jews, which made institutions like Columbia University centers of radicalism, and they thought that the true America by contrast was Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.

Whitman: That’s what they said. I’m sure New York was a fun place to visit regardless. Even if you were a Nazi. But it’s true, they regarded the city of New York as just a hotbed of what Hitler called “Jewish elements” and were very, very suspicious of that same brash New York culture you’ve just described in the debate.

Those particular quotes, which were typical, I should say, of the far-right wing in Germany — far-right wingers have been saying things like that about New York for a long time — were from a Nazi book written in praise of Franklin Roosevelt as someone whom the Nazis at first thought exemplified some of the same virtues of their Führer in the early 1930s. That’s another uncomfortable piece of this story.

Moyers: How so?

Whitman: They often described him as a dictator. So did Mussolini, in fact. They thought that New Deal policies, intended of course to address the horrors, or the economic difficulties let’s call them, of the Great Depression, resembled Nazi efforts to do the same thing, which in fact they did. I mean, these were in some ways similar programs, as historians have shown. Some of the Nazi literature at the time said Roosevelt obviously aspired to do the same sorts of things Hitler was doing but who lacked the sort of paramilitary organization, a party army, that was used in Germany to support Hitler’s efforts. This was a pretty widespread impression. The Italian fascists thought similar things of the early New Deal.

So take the first programs of 1933 and 1934 — in particular what was called the National Recovery Administration, eventually struck down by the Supreme Court — when Mussolini was shown the plan for it, he said, “É un dittatore.” “That’s a dictator.” The perception that Roosevelt really was moving in the same direction as Central European dictators was pretty widespread in those countries in the early 1930s. Later on it became clear that it wasn’t the case. But, again — we don’t like to remember it, but especially in the early years of the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration depended very, very heavily on the support of the segregationist South. Roosevelt was very careful not to cross those Southern Democrats and that may also have contributed to the impression in Nazi Germany and elsewhere that there was something kindred in the New Deal regime to what they were doing.

Moyers: There was traffic back and forth between Germans and Americans who promoted eugenics — you know, the sterilization of the mentally defective and the exclusion of immigrants said to be genetically inferior. You quote a German author who declared in 1935, “The Americans have begun to think about the maintenance of race purity and thus to ask not only about eugenics, but also about membership in individual races. It can be seen in their immigration laws, which completely forbid the immigration of yellows” — meaning Asians — “and place immigration from European countries under sharp supervision. The American knows very well who made his land great. He sees that the Nordic blood is drying up and seeks to refresh that blood through his immigration legislation.”

Whitman: Yes, the passage you quote is from a Nazi-sympathizing doctor in 1935, saying things that Nazis frequently said at the time. American immigration law had been admired on the European far right wing for a long time, including in particular in a book called The Handbook of the Jewish Question. This was a kind of a minor bible of the Nazi movement, going back to the late 19 th century, because already by then the US was restricting immigration in ways that inspired radical Nazis.

And yes, you are absolutely right in saying that eugenics, American eugenic theories played a big role in all of this. Other historians have shown this. American eugenic theories were influential in many parts of the world, not just in Nazi Germany. Eugenic approaches at the time, as difficult as it is for us to imagine now, were respectable. Sweden, for example, was a center of eugenics legislation. So the eugenics business didn’t just involve the Nazis and the US, but it is absolutely true that the Nazis were great admirers of American eugenic theories. There was a lot of back and forth as you say. American eugenicists went to Germany. German eugenicists came to the US. They conferred and discussed and compared notes.

Moyers: So that in the early ’30s, when these Nazi lawyers were engaged in creating a race law founded in part on anti-miscegenation law and race-based immigration, they came looking for foreign models and found some in the US.

Whitman: Yes, and studied them very, very carefully. That’s not only true of anti-miscegenation law. The passage that you just quoted earlier on about American immigration law was the product of a lot of very careful study of that law. They worked hard to learn what was going on in the US. And in particular, as you say, they worked very hard trying to understand or to master American anti-miscegenation law. Thirty American states had anti-miscegenation statutes. These were by no means limited to the American South. They were found all over the country. They didn’t target only blacks. They were also particularly devoted to banning and sometimes criminalizing marriages and sex between Caucasians and Asians, Caucasians and Native Americans — it goes on and on. Anti-miscegenation laws were a national phenomenon. At the meeting on June 5, 1934, the memorandum discussed by the minister of justice was accompanied by a list which detailed the anti-miscegenation provisions found in all 30 of the states that had them. And the law of those states was discussed in detail — I would almost say excruciating detail. They were really looking to see what they could learn from the US.

Moyers: You have a quote from that transcript of this meeting. One Nazi says to the state secretary, “I’m reminded of something an American said to us recently. He explained, ‘We do the same thing you Germans are doing, but why do you have to say it so explicitly in your German laws?’” And the state secretary answered, “But the Americans put it in their own laws even more explicitly.” Was he right?

Whitman: He was. It’s quite a memorable exchange, I have to say.

Moyers: You write that the Nazis were obsessed with the state enforcement of racial and sexual purity. Mixed marriages and mixed sex could lead to imprisonment. They included in the Nuremberg Laws “a blood law,” and you write, “It is with the blood law that we discover the most provocative evidence of direct Nazi engagement with American legal models and the most unsettling signs of direct influence.” Would you elaborate on that?

Whitman: Sure. So again there were two principle Nuremberg Laws apart from the flag law that we mentioned before. The first we usually call the citizenship law — the creation of second-class citizenship for Jews was the object of that law. The second law — what we call “the blood law” — was precisely the law about interracial sex and marriage. When it came to the first, the citizenship law, there was plenty of inspiration the Nazis could find in a general way in the United States. But only in a general way, because although the US had no shortage of legal provisions effectively depriving American blacks of voting rights for example and other pertinences of citizenship, and although the US created a special kind of second-class citizen status for certain populations, notably the Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, those aspects of American law for the most part involved legal subterfuges. You couldn’t actually come into court in the US and say blacks are not citizens because after the Civil War the citizenship of blacks was guaranteed in the US, so you had to find tricks. The Nazis were of course not going to use tricks. They were simply going to say openly that Jews are not citizens. They didn’t have any difficulty saying that at all and for that reason when it came to their citizenship program they weren’t going to borrow directly from the United States.

Matters were very different when it came to banning interracial marriage and sex because, as we just said, American anti-miscegenation statutes were completely unapologetic and open about race-based aims. They said “no sex or marriage” between Caucasians and Africans, as they often called them, or between Caucasians and Mongols — that was a typical term for Asians — and so on and so forth. The Nazis had something from which they did not hesitate to borrow and they studied these laws very, very carefully.

Moyers: You write that the US Supreme Court entertained briefs from southern states whose arguments were indistinguishable from those of the Nazis.

Whitman: They were. The sorts of things the Nazis said, often using terms like mongrelization and bastardization of the population were also often said by Southern racists. It was exactly the same vocabulary.

Moyers: Let me read to you. Here’s a quote from a Maryland statute in 1957 — 1957! — that you include in the book:

All marriages between a white person and a Negro, or between a white person and a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, or between a white person and a member of the Malay race or between a Negro and a member of the Malay race, or between a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, and a member of the Malay race, or between a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, and a member of the Malay race or between a Negro and member of the Malay race, or between a person of Negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive, are forever prohibited and shall be void and and any person violating the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of an infamous crime and be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary for not less than eighteen months or more than 10 years.

Whitman: Yes, and it wasn’t the only one. Laws of that kind weren’t ruled unconstitutional until 1967 by the Supreme Court in the famous case of Loving v. Virginia. You could find them all over the United States and they were of great interest to the radical Nazis. The idea that racially mixed marriage was somehow objectionable was pretty widespread in the world in the early 20 th century. Racism was something you found everywhere. But criminalization of the American kind was something that you just couldn’t find elsewhere, particularly criminalization of such harshness as to threaten 10 years of imprisonment. That was was of tremendous interest to radical Nazis who wanted exactly the same thing for Germany.

Moyers: Some of them talked about how America’s long history of sexual relations between masters and slaves left the US “groaning under the weight of an enormous mass of mongrels.” Which brings us to Sen. Theodore Bilbo from Mississippi, one of the most powerful of all Southern politicians.

Whitman: He figures in my book as he does in some other very important work by Ira Katznelson. Sen. Bilbo was a dyed-in-the-wool racist and a great pillar of the New Deal government in the early 1930s and thereafter. You’re absolutely right — the huge mass of “mongrels” was something the Nazis recognized in the United States. That’s a German phrase, it’s not a Nazi one, but it’s a German phrase for describing the American situation. One of the shocking things about my research was to come to terms with the fact that American definitions of who counted as black or members of other races were much more far-reaching and draconian than anything the Nazis themselves came up with.

Moyers: Bilbo said, “One drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and palsies his creative faculty.” Is it true that the Nazis thought the one-drop rule too extreme?

Whitman: They did indeed. They never proposed anything nearly as extreme as the one-drop rule. In fact the standard, the most far-reaching Nazi definitions of who counted as a Jew, matched the least far-reaching ones to be found in the American states. Virtually all American definitions of who counted as a black were far more draconian than anything found in any Nazi proposal. At the same time, the Nazi literature expressed real discomfort about the so-called one-drop rule, which, I have to say, was not found in every American state, as there were a variety of approaches in the US. But it was understandably notorious. The Nazis, difficult as it is to imagine, described the one-drop rule as inhuman, as “involving human hardness that’s going much, much too far, you couldn’t do that kind of thing,” they said. And their own definitions for who counted as a Jew, especially those that were ultimately attached to the Nuremberg Laws, were more restricted than anything to be found in American states at the time.

Moyers: Talk about The Cable Act of 1922. I never heard of it until I read your book.

Whitman: The Nazis were interested in it. The Cable Act was the American version of something found throughout the world at the time — certainly in Europe and the United States. The Cable Act dealt with a standard problem in the law of the day. According to traditional legal definitions in the 19 th century, a married woman acquired the citizenship of her husband and lost her native citizenship. That was part of the general submersion of a wife’s legal personality into the personality of her husband. That rule was being abrogated everywhere in the early 20 th century and it was abrogated in the United States, too, but the Cable Act included an exception. It said, “Although women retain their American citizenship ordinarily when they marry a non-American citizen, if they stoop so low as to marry a Japanese person or an Asian, they have to be deprived of citizenship in that case.”

It’s one of a few examples the Nazi lawyers talk about that I think may have played a role in the formation of the ultimate regulations implementing the Nuremberg Laws. In determining who counted as a Jew, the Nazis decided that anybody with two Jewish grandparents would only count as a Jew if that person practiced the Jewish religion or married another Jew. This idea of who counted as a member of a given race depending on their marital history was something for which we could find a bunch of examples in American law and the examples are discussed in the Nazi literature.

Moyers: The Prussian Memorandum we discussed earlier declared that causing harm to the honor of the race could also be made criminally punishable. When I read your take on this, I thought of the current debate over athletes taking a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem. There are people on the right, including the president of the United States, who say they are dishonoring the flag, dishonoring the history of the country. How little they know of our history. We’re still fighting over legacies from the past.

Whitman: Yes. I handed in the corrected proofs of this book the day before Election Day, so although I knew that some of these undercurrents in America were erupting once again, I didn’t understand how much that was the case. What you say is quite true. Things obviously have improved immeasurably. We’re not back in the 1930s and I wouldn’t want anyone to read my book as suggesting we are. We’re certainly not. There are nevertheless obvious resemblances and obvious continuities. and it’s interesting that you mention the controversy over the national anthem and the flag. It’s worth emphasizing that the swastika flag played a big role in the Nuremberg Laws as well. The Nazis were very, very concerned with demanding obeisance to the symbols of the regime. They even discussed how people might be required to show respect for the heroes of the Nazi movement and of German history that discussion played a role in that June 5, 1934 meeting. But these kinds of things mattered to them just as they matter now on the American right wing.

Moyers: White supremacists have been emboldened by Trump. There were the storm troopers marching through Charlottesville searching for Jews. The far right gains support over issues such as immigration, identity, nationality, even greatness: “Make America Great Again.” All reverberations from our past.

Whitman: At that Charlottesville rally, people were chanting, “Blut und Boden,” which is “Blood and soil” — that’s the Nazi slogan. Obviously consciously borrowing it from the Nazis and displaying flags that barely alter the swastika symbol. There’s no question that they at least want to trumpet their sense of kinship with the Nazi movement. How much they really know about it, I don’t know. But in researching for this book I learned that it’s not just a matter of Americans borrowing from Nazis the Nazis were borrowing from the Americans too. A lot of this unfortunately got started in our country.

Moyers: So tell me about Heinrich Krieger. He’s one of the most fascinating personalities to appear in your book.

Whitman: Yes, he was a young Nazi lawyer who somehow in the year 1933–34 found himself an exchange student in Arkansas. He obviously loved international travel. He was particularly interested in indigenous legal traditions so he worked on American Indian law. Published a perfectly good article on American Indian law in an American law review, one that was certainly written from a Nazi point of view but that showed real mastery of the law and said some intelligent things about American Indian law. I hope I don’t offend anybody in observing that there were smart and gifted people who were Nazi lawyers. He returned to Germany where somebody in the justice ministry heard about this kid off in Dusseldorf who knew something about American law. He then wrote a memorandum describing American law and displaying real mastery of American law and American race law. He followed that with a thick book called Race Law and the United States, which is a Nazi book but a Nazi book full of acute observations. You don’t want to say anything good about any Nazi scholars but the truth is that Nazis were able to see things in America, precisely because they were looking at them from a Nazi point of view

Moyers: His heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Explain that.

Whitman: Isn’t it hard to take? Well, so it’s important here as background to explain the aims of the early Nazi program. When the Nazis first came to power, the Holocaust was not yet on the horizon. Hitler, as we’ve seen, had spoken of the Americans gunning down the millions of redskins. But despite that, the idea of mass murder wasn’t really practical or much discussed. The early aim of the Nazi program was to force the Jews to emigrate. It was to expel the Jews as had been done in Europe in the Middle Ages or to make life so miserable for them in Germany that they would flee.

Here is the hard part in talking about American history: The reason that Heinrich Krieger admired Jefferson and Lincoln is that both Jefferson and Lincoln repeatedly said that the only real hope for the US lay in resettling the black population somewhere else. And he quoted both Jefferson and Lincoln to that effect. His view of American history was that if only Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated Lincoln would have instituted something like the order the Nazis wanted — that is, he would have found some way to resettle the black population, now freed, in the United States. In particular there was some contemplation of establishing a colony in Central America. He said, “If only Lincoln had survived, then America would be the kind of place that Nazi Germany aimed to be as well.” I tell you, it’s a shock to read these things but that is what he said.

Moyers: He was fond of Jefferson’s declaration in 1821 on the impossibility of racial coexistence: “It is certain that the two races equally free cannot live in the same government.”

Whitman: Yes, that’s just one quote from Jefferson, he said similar things earlier on as well. So you know, they remain our heroes but their world and their mindset were sometimes difficult for us to approve of.

Moyers: In your book you write: “Sometimes the American democratic political process produces admirable legislation but to have a common-law system like that of America is to have a system in which the traditions of the law do indeed have little power to ride herd on the demands of the politicians and when the politics is bad, the law can be very bad indeed.” You go on: “The resulting dangers have not vanished and it would be wrong to close this book without pointing to at least one contemporary realm of American law in which those dangers are still making themselves felt. The realm is American criminal justice. American criminal justice is spectacularly and frighteningly harsh by international standards. It includes practices that are sometimes uncomfortably reminiscent of those introduced by the Nazis.”

What is it that makes contemporary American justice so exceptionally harsh?

Whitman: Oh boy! Certainly one critical answer is the sheer capacity of American politics and politicians to shape American criminal law and American criminal justice. Politicians in the US run on tough on crime platforms. It has to be added as well that both judges and prosecutors are elected officials in much of the US. That’s something unheard of in the rest of the world. And frankly, more humane traditions of the law do very little to stand in the way of translating the demands of politicians into law. In that respect, the situation in the US is really quite different from what we find now in Europe, where professional lawyers, professional criminologists and the like still manage criminal justice. I simply have to say it: the accessibility of the legal system to political influence was exactly what the radical Nazis admired most about America in the 1930s and that’s still doing tremendous damage to our criminal justice system today.


How the American Jim Crow System Inspired Hate and the Alt-Right

Source: theblackevolutionary.wordpress.com

Although it is common knowledge that modern-day Nazis in America draw their inspiration from Nazi Germany, far less widely known is that the Jim Crow South inspired Hitler. For all the outrage over the rise of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the alt-right — and the legitimization of these groups in the halls of power in Washington — ultimately the underpinnings of Nazi ideology are homegrown and very American. The Nuremberg laws — which segregated Jews and discriminated against them in all aspects of life, stripped them of citizenship, banned interracial marriage between Aryans and Jews, and laid the groundwork for genocide — originated in the Jim Crow segregation laws. While the white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, looked to Nazi Germany as their guide, the original Nazis used the United States as their template.

In his book “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law,” James Q. Whitman, a professor of comparative and foreign law at Yale Law School, delves into the neglected history of Nazi Germany borrowing from American race law. It is unfathomable for some that the United States, regarded as the beacon of democracy and liberty, would play and integral role in the development of Germany’s fascist, genocidal legal system. However, the two societies were very similar, as Whitman detailed in his book:

In the 1930s Nazi Germany and the American South had the look, in the words of two southern historians, of a “mirror image”: these were two unapologetically racist regimes, unmatched in their pitilessness. In the early 1930s the Jews of Germany were hounded, beaten, and sometimes murdered, by mobs and by the state alike. In the same years the blacks of the American South were hounded, beaten, and sometimes murdered as well.

In the early 20 th century, the United States was the world’s foremost racial jurisdiction and the leader in overtly racist citizenship and immigration policies, which explains why Germany would want to emulate elements of its legal system. In “Mein Kampf” (1925), years before he seized power, Hitler said the United States was “the one state” that had progressed in creating a healthy racist society.

A copy of the Nazi-issued Nuremberg Laws. (Credit: Fine Art Images)

The Nuremberg Laws were introduced on September 15, 1935. Two specific laws are worth noting with regard to U.S. influence: The Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor.

The Reich Citizenship Law revoked citizenship for Jews. America, with its second-class citizenship and segregation for Black people, inspired the Germans. Moreover, the United States had people such as Native Americans and Filipinos who lived in the country and its territories, yet were non-citizens, and other minority groups such as Japanese, Chinese and Puerto Ricans who were subjected to second class or colonial status. The Reich had a particular interest in second-class citizenship in America, and decided to strip Jews of their German citizenship and recategorize them as “nationals.”

Sign: “Jews are unwelcome in our town” (Source: Deutsches Historisches Museum)

Under the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, marriages between Jews and German citizens were forbidden, as was extramarital sexual relations between the two groups. Punishment for breaking the law included imprisonment and hard labor. The law was enacted on the grounds that “the purity of German blood is essential to the further existence of the German people.” These German restrictions on intermarriage and sexual relations reflect the influence of the American anti-miscegenation laws which were on the books in 30 of the 48 states, including outside the South, and were the most severe laws of their kind, with draconian criminal punishment for interracial marriage.

Source: NoSue.org

Whitman noted that the American legal system of racial classifications was more severe than what the Nazis were willing to codify. “Moreover, the ironic truth is that when Nazis rejected the American example, it was sometimes because they thought that American practices were overly harsh: for Nazis of the early 1930s, even radical ones, American race law sometimes looked too racist,” Whitman writes. For example, under the Nuremberg Laws, a Jew was defined as someone with at least three Jewish grandparents. In contrast, many states in the United States, particularly in the Jim Crow South, had the ”one drop rule” to determine who was Black.

In his book, Whitman discusses the Nazi preoccupation with “race defilement” and the harm of “mixing” German and Jewish blood, particularly German women and Jewish men. The Nuremberg Laws were designed to prevent prevent “any further penetration of Jewish blood into the body of the German Volk [people].” The author characterizes the extent of American influence over the Nazi legal system as “depressing,” though not surprising to those who are familiar with early 20th century U.S. race history. “It is a familiar fact that much of America was infected with the same racial madness: as the Nazi literature noted, there were many Americans who simply ‘knew’ that black men regularly raped white women. American courts, as German authors were aware, were capable of delivering matter-of-fact holdings such as ‘the mixing of the two races would create a mongrel population and a degraded civilization.'”

Southern states would file briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court that were indistinguishable from Nazi propaganda, while Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi sounded very much like a Nazi philosopher when he spoke of the horrors of white racial decay due to mongrelization, offering that “one drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and palsies his creative faculty.”

The American anti-miscegenation laws were not eradicated until 1967 with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, which invalidated laws against interracial marriage that were still on the books in 16 states. In Loving, the Supreme Court noted that according to the Virginia courts, the purposes of the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924 — that state’s anti-miscegenation statute — were “‘to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,’ and to prevent ‘the corruption of blood,’ ‘a mongrel breed of citizens,’ and ‘the obliteration of racial pride,’ obviously an endorsement of the doctrine of White Supremacy.”

“The racially pure and still unmixed German has risen to become master of the American continent,” wrote Hitler in Mein Kampf, “and he will remain the master, as long as he does not fall victim to racial pollution.” The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 impressed Hitler, with its preference for Northern European immigrants and restrictions for people from Southern and Eastern Europe, and outright bans for all others. The Nazi leader found the American immigration policy consistent with the Nazi Party Program of 1920.

German propagandists hoped to normalize Nazi policies by using the U.S. as a model, assuring fellow Germans that America also had racist politics and policies, such as “special laws directed against the Negroes, which limit their voting rights, freedom of movement, and career possibilities.” One Nazi official even justified the practice of lynching: “What is lynch justice, if not the natural resistance of the Volk to an alien race that is attempting to gain the upper hand?”

The strong influence of Jim Crow on Nazi Germany is a testament to the potency and toxicity of American racism. Germany enacted strict laws after World War II banning Nazi symbols such as the swastika and banning hate speech that encouraged racial/religious violence. In America, the symbols of white supremacy remain, including Nazi emblems, and the Confederate flags and monuments that promote Black oppression. These symbols of American racism endure because of a failure to acknowledge a history of racial injustice against Black people, and a legal system that allowed it to happen.


Contents

The phrase "Jim Crow Law" can be found as early as 1884 in a newspaper article summarizing congressional debate. [13] The term appears in 1892 in the title of a New York Times article about Louisiana requiring segregated railroad cars. [14] [15] The origin of the phrase "Jim Crow" has often been attributed to "Jump Jim Crow", a song-and-dance caricature of black people performed by white actor Thomas D. Rice in blackface, which first surfaced in 1828 and was used to satirize Andrew Jackson's populist policies. As a result of Rice's fame, "Jim Crow" by 1838 had become a pejorative expression meaning "Negro". When southern legislatures passed laws of racial segregation directed against black people at the end of the 19th century, these statutes became known as Jim Crow laws. [14]

In January 1865, an amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery in the United States was proposed by Congress, and on December 18, 1865, it was ratified as the Thirteenth Amendment formally abolishing slavery. [16]

During the Reconstruction period of 1865–1877, federal laws provided civil rights protections in the U.S. South for freedmen, African Americans who had formerly been slaves, and the minority of black people who had been free before the war. In the 1870s, Democrats gradually regained power in the Southern legislatures, [17] after having used insurgent paramilitary groups, such as the White League and the Red Shirts, to disrupt Republican organizing, run Republican officeholders out of town, and intimidate black people to suppress their voting. [18] Extensive voter fraud was also used. In one instance, an outright coup or insurrection in coastal North Carolina led to the violent removal of democratically elected non-Democratic party executive and representative officials, who were either hunted down or hounded out. Gubernatorial elections were close and had been disputed in Louisiana for years, with increasing violence against black people during campaigns from 1868 onward.

In 1877, a compromise to gain Southern support in the presidential election (a corrupt bargain) resulted in the government's withdrawing the last of the federal troops from the South. White Democrats had regained political power in every Southern state. [19] These Southern, white, Democratic Redeemer governments legislated Jim Crow laws, officially segregating black people from the white population. Jim Crow laws were a manifestation of authoritarian rule specifically directed at one racial group. [20]

Blacks were still elected to local offices throughout the 1880s in local areas with large black populations, but their voting was suppressed for state and national elections. Democrats passed laws to make voter registration and electoral rules more restrictive, with the result that political participation by most black people and many poor white people began to decrease. [21] [22] Between 1890 and 1910, ten of the eleven former Confederate states, starting with Mississippi, passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised most black people and tens of thousands of poor white people through a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements. [21] [22] Grandfather clauses temporarily permitted some illiterate white people to vote but gave no relief to most black people.

Voter turnout dropped drastically through the South as a result of such measures. In Louisiana, by 1900, black voters were reduced to 5,320 on the rolls, although they comprised the majority of the state's population. By 1910, only 730 black people were registered, less than 0.5% of eligible black men. "In 27 of the state's 60 parishes, not a single black voter was registered any longer in 9 more parishes, only one black voter was." [23] The cumulative effect in North Carolina meant that black voters were completely eliminated from voter rolls during the period from 1896 to 1904. The growth of their thriving middle class was slowed. In North Carolina and other Southern states, black people suffered from being made invisible in the political system: "[W]ithin a decade of disfranchisement, the white supremacy campaign had erased the image of the black middle class from the minds of white North Carolinians." [23] In Alabama tens of thousands of poor whites were also disenfranchised, although initially legislators had promised them they would not be affected adversely by the new restrictions. [24]

Those who could not vote were not eligible to serve on juries and could not run for local offices. They effectively disappeared from political life, as they could not influence the state legislatures, and their interests were overlooked. While public schools had been established by Reconstruction legislatures for the first time in most Southern states, those for black children were consistently underfunded compared to schools for white children, even when considered within the strained finances of the postwar South where the decreasing price of cotton kept the agricultural economy at a low. [25]

Like schools, public libraries for black people were underfunded, if they existed at all, and they were often stocked with secondhand books and other resources. [6] [26] These facilities were not introduced for African Americans in the South until the first decade of the 20th century. [27] Throughout the Jim Crow era, libraries were only available sporadically. [28] Prior to the 20th century, most libraries established for African Americans were school-library combinations. [28] Many public libraries for both European-American and African-American patrons in this period were founded as the result of middle-class activism aided by matching grants from the Carnegie Foundation. [28]

In some cases, progressive measures intended to reduce election fraud, such as the Eight Box Law in South Carolina, acted against black and white voters who were illiterate, as they could not follow the directions. [29] While the separation of African Americans from the white general population was becoming legalized and formalized during the Progressive Era (1890s–1920s), it was also becoming customary. For instance, even in cases in which Jim Crow laws did not expressly forbid black people to participate in sports or recreation, a segregated culture had become common. [14]

In the Jim Crow context, the presidential election of 1912 was steeply slanted against the interests of African Americans. [30] Most black people still lived in the South, where they had been effectively disfranchised, so they could not vote at all. While poll taxes and literacy requirements banned many poor or illiterate Americans from voting, these stipulations frequently had loopholes that exempted European Americans from meeting the requirements. In Oklahoma, for instance, anyone qualified to vote before 1866, or related to someone qualified to vote before 1866 (a kind of "grandfather clause"), was exempted from the literacy requirement but the only persons who had the franchise before that year were white, or European-American males. European Americans were effectively exempted from the literacy testing, whereas black Americans were effectively singled out by the law. [31]

Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat elected from New Jersey, but he was born and raised in the South, and was the first Southern-born president of the post-Civil War period. He appointed Southerners to his Cabinet. Some quickly began to press for segregated workplaces, although the city of Washington, D.C., and federal offices had been integrated since after the Civil War. In 1913, for instance, Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo – an appointee of the President – was heard to express his opinion of black and white women working together in one government office: "I feel sure that this must go against the grain of the white women. Is there any reason why the white women should not have only white women working across from them on the machines?" [32]

The Wilson administration introduced segregation in federal offices, despite much protest from African-American leaders and white progressive groups in the north and midwest. [33] He appointed segregationist Southern politicians because of his own firm belief that racial segregation was in the best interest of black and European Americans alike. [34] At the Great Reunion of 1913 at Gettysburg, Wilson addressed the crowd on July 4, the semi-centennial of Abraham Lincoln's declaration that "all men are created equal":

How complete the union has become and how dear to all of us, how unquestioned, how benign and majestic, as state after state has been added to this, our great family of free men! [35]

In sharp contrast to Wilson, a Washington Bee editorial wondered if the "reunion" of 1913 was a reunion of those who fought for "the extinction of slavery" or a reunion of those who fought to "perpetuate slavery and who are now employing every artifice and argument known to deceit" to present emancipation as a failed venture. [35] Historian David W. Blight notes that the "Peace Jubilee" at which Wilson presided at Gettysburg in 1913 "was a Jim Crow reunion, and white supremacy might be said to have been the silent, invisible master of ceremonies". [35]

In Texas, several towns adopted residential segregation laws between 1910 and the 1920s. Legal strictures called for segregated water fountains and restrooms. [35] The exclusion of African Americans also found support in the Republican lily-white movement. [36]

Early attempts to break Jim Crow

The Civil Rights Act of 1875, introduced by Charles Sumner and Benjamin F. Butler, stipulated a guarantee that everyone, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, was entitled to the same treatment in public accommodations, such as inns, public transportation, theaters, and other places of recreation. This Act had little effect in practice. [37] An 1883 Supreme Court decision ruled that the act was unconstitutional in some respects, saying Congress was not afforded control over private persons or corporations. With white southern Democrats forming a solid voting bloc in Congress, due to having outsize power from keeping seats apportioned for the total population in the South (although hundreds of thousands had been disenfranchised), Congress did not pass another civil rights law until 1957. [38]

In 1887, Rev. W. H. Heard lodged a complaint with the Interstate Commerce Commission against the Georgia Railroad company for discrimination, citing its provision of different cars for white and black/colored passengers. The company successfully appealed for relief on the grounds it offered "separate but equal" accommodation. [39]

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law requiring separate accommodations for colored and white passengers on railroads. Louisiana law distinguished between "white", "black" and "colored" (that is, people of mixed European and African ancestry). The law had already specified that black people could not ride with white people, but colored people could ride with white people before 1890. A group of concerned black, colored and white citizens in New Orleans formed an association dedicated to rescinding the law. The group persuaded Homer Plessy to test it he was a man of color who was of fair complexion and one-eighth "Negro" in ancestry. [40]

In 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket from New Orleans on the East Louisiana Railway. Once he had boarded the train, he informed the train conductor of his racial lineage and took a seat in the whites-only car. He was directed to leave that car and sit instead in the "coloreds only" car. Plessy refused and was immediately arrested. The Citizens Committee of New Orleans fought the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. They lost in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Court ruled that "separate but equal" facilities were constitutional. The finding contributed to 58 more years of legalized discrimination against black and colored people in the United States. [40]

In 1908 Congress defeated an attempt to introduce segregated streetcars into the capital. [41]

Racism in the United States and defenses of Jim Crow

White Southerners encountered problems in learning free labor management after the end of slavery, and they resented African Americans, who represented the Confederacy's Civil War defeat: "With white supremacy being challenged throughout the South, many whites sought to protect their former status by threatening African Americans who exercised their new rights." [43] White Democrats used their power to segregate public spaces and facilities in law and reestablish social dominance over black people in the South.

One rationale for the systematic exclusion of African Americans from southern public society was that it was for their own protection. An early 20th-century scholar suggested that allowing black people to attend white schools would mean "constantly subjecting them to adverse feeling and opinion", which might lead to "a morbid race consciousness". [44] This perspective took anti-black sentiment for granted, because bigotry was widespread in the South after slavery became a racial caste system.

World War II and post-war era

In 1944, Associate Justice Frank Murphy introduced the word "racism" into the lexicon of U.S. Supreme Court opinions in Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944). [45] In his dissenting opinion, Murphy stated that by upholding the forced relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Court was sinking into "the ugly abyss of racism". This was the first time that "racism" was used in Supreme Court opinion (Murphy used it twice in a concurring opinion in Steele v Louisville & Nashville Railway Co 323 192 (1944) issued that day). [46] Murphy used the word in five separate opinions, but after he left the court, "racism" was not used again in an opinion for two decades. It next appeared in the landmark decision of Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967).

Numerous boycotts and demonstrations against segregation had occurred throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The NAACP had been engaged in a series of litigation cases since the early 20th century in efforts to combat laws that disenfranchised black voters across the South. Some of the early demonstrations achieved positive results, strengthening political activism, especially in the post-World War II years. Black veterans were impatient with social oppression after having fought for the United States and freedom across the world. In 1947 K. Leroy Irvis of Pittsburgh's Urban League, for instance, led a demonstration against employment discrimination by the city's department stores. It was the beginning of his own influential political career. [47]

After World War II, people of color increasingly challenged segregation, as they believed they had more than earned the right to be treated as full citizens because of their military service and sacrifices. The Civil Rights Movement was energized by a number of flashpoints, including the 1946 police beating and blinding of World War II veteran Isaac Woodard while he was in U.S. Army uniform. In 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed services. [48]

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and used federal courts to attack Jim Crow statutes, the white-dominated governments of many of the southern states countered by passing alternative forms of restrictions. [ citation needed ]

Historian William Chafe has explored the defensive techniques developed inside the African-American community to avoid the worst features of Jim Crow as expressed in the legal system, unbalanced economic power, and intimidation and psychological pressure. Chafe says "protective socialization by black people themselves" was created inside the community in order to accommodate white-imposed sanctions while subtly encouraging challenges to those sanctions. Known as "walking the tightrope," such efforts at bringing about change were only slightly effective before the 1920s.

However, this did build the foundation for later generations to advance racial equality and de-segregation. Chafe argued that the places essential for change to begin were institutions, particularly black churches, which functioned as centers for community-building and discussion of politics. Additionally, some all-black communities, such as Mound Bayou, Mississippi and Ruthville, Virginia served as sources of pride and inspiration for black society as a whole. Over time, pushback and open defiance of the oppressive existing laws grew, until it reached a boiling point in the aggressive, large-scale activism of the 1950s civil rights movement. [49]

Brown v. Board of Education

The NAACP Legal Defense Committee (a group that became independent of the NAACP) – and its lawyer, Thurgood Marshall – brought the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) before the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren. [9] [10] [11] In its pivotal 1954 decision, the Warren Court unanimously (9–0) overturned the 1896 Plessy decision. [10] The Supreme Court found that legally mandated (de jure) public school segregation was unconstitutional. The decision had far-reaching social ramifications. [50]

Integrating collegiate sports

Racial integration of all-white collegiate sports teams was high on the Southern agenda in the 1950s and 1960s. Involved were issues of equality, racism, and the alumni demand for the top players needed to win high-profile games. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) of flagship state universities in the Southeast took the lead. First they started to schedule integrated teams from the North. Finally, ACC schools – typically under pressure from boosters and civil rights groups – integrated their teams. [51] With an alumni base that dominated local and state politics, society and business, the ACC schools were successful in their endeavor – as Pamela Grundy argues, they had learned how to win:

The widespread admiration that athletic ability inspired would help transform athletic fields from grounds of symbolic play to forces for social change, places where a wide range of citizens could publicly and at times effectively challenge the assumptions that cast them as unworthy of full participation in U.S. society. While athletic successes would not rid society of prejudice or stereotype – black athletes would continue to confront racial slurs. [minority star players demonstrated] the discipline, intelligence, and poise to contend for position or influence in every arena of national life. [52]

Public arena

In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. This was not the first time this happened – for example, Parks was inspired by 15-year-old Claudette Colvin doing the same thing nine months earlier [53] – but the Parks act of civil disobedience was chosen, symbolically, as an important catalyst in the growth of the Civil Rights Movement activists built the Montgomery bus boycott around it, which lasted more than a year and resulted in desegregation of the privately run buses in the city. Civil rights protests and actions, together with legal challenges, resulted in a series of legislative and court decisions which contributed to undermining the Jim Crow system. [54]

End of legal segregation

The decisive action ending segregation came when Congress in bipartisan fashion overcame Southern filibusters to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A complex interaction of factors came together unexpectedly in the period 1954–1965 to make the momentous changes possible. The Supreme Court had taken the first initiative in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) making segregation of public schools unconstitutional. Enforcement was rapid in the North and border states, but was deliberately stopped in the South by the movement called Massive Resistance, sponsored by rural segregationists who largely controlled the state legislatures. Southern liberals, who counseled moderation, were shouted down by both sides and had limited impact. Much more significant was the Civil Rights Movement, especially the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headed by Martin Luther King, Jr.. It largely displaced the old, much more moderate NAACP in taking leadership roles. King organized massive demonstrations, that seized massive media attention in an era when network television news was an innovative and universally watched phenomenon. [55] SCLC, student activists and smaller local organizations staged demonstrations across the South. National attention focused on Birmingham, Alabama, where protesters deliberately provoked Bull Connor and his police forces by using young teenagers as demonstrators – and Connor arrested 900 on one day alone. The next day Connor unleashed billy clubs, police dogs, and high-pressure water hoses to disperse and punish the young demonstrators with a brutality that horrified the nation. It was very bad for business, and for the image of a modernizing progressive urban South. President John F. Kennedy, who had been calling for moderation, threatened to use federal troops to restore order in Birmingham. The result in Birmingham was compromise by which the new mayor opened the library, golf courses, and other city facilities to both races, against the backdrop of church bombings and assassinations. [56] In summer 1963, there were 800 demonstrations in 200 southern cities and towns, with over 100,000 participants, and 15,000 arrests. In Alabama in June 1963 Governor George Wallace escalated the crisis by defying court orders to admit the first two black students to the University of Alabama. [57] Kennedy responded by sending Congress a comprehensive civil rights bill, and ordered Attorney General Robert Kennedy to file federal lawsuits against segregated schools, and to deny funds for discriminatory programs. Doctor King launched a massive march on Washington in August 1963, bringing out 200,000 demonstrators in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the largest political assembly in the nation's history. The Kennedy administration now gave full-fledged support to the civil rights movement, but powerful southern congressmen blocked any legislation. [58] After Kennedy was assassinated President Lyndon Johnson called for immediate passage of Kennedy civil rights legislation as a memorial to the martyred president. Johnson formed a coalition with Northern Republicans that led to passage in the House, and with the help of Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen with passage in the Senate early in 1964. For the first time in history, the southern filibuster was broken and The Senate finally passed its version on June 19 by vote of 73 to 27. [59] The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the most powerful affirmation of equal rights ever made by Congress. It guaranteed access to public accommodations such as restaurants and places of amusement, authorized the Justice Department to bring suits to desegregate facilities in schools, gave new powers to the Civil Rights Commission and allowed federal funds to be cut off in cases of discrimination. Furthermore, racial, religious and gender discrimination was outlawed for businesses with 25 or more employees, as well as apartment houses. The South resisted until the last moment, but as soon as the new law was signed by President Johnson on July 2, 1964, it was widely accepted across the nation. There was only a scattering of diehard opposition, typified by restaurant owner Lester Maddox in Georgia. [60] [61] [62] [63]

In January 1964, President Lyndon Johnson met with civil rights leaders. On January 8, during his first State of the Union address, Johnson asked Congress to "let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined." On June 21, civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where they were volunteering in the registration of African-American voters as part of the Freedom Summer project. The disappearance of the three activists captured national attention and the ensuing outrage was used by Johnson and civil rights activists to build a coalition of northern and western Democrats and Republicans and push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. [64]

On July 2, 1964, Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. [64] [65] It invoked the Commerce Clause [64] to outlaw discrimination in public accommodations (privately owned restaurants, hotels, and stores, and in private schools and workplaces). This use of the Commerce Clause was upheld by the Warren Court in the landmark case Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States 379 US 241 (1964). [66]

By 1965, efforts to break the grip of state disenfranchisement by education for voter registration in southern counties had been underway for some time, but had achieved only modest success overall. In some areas of the Deep South, white resistance made these efforts almost entirely ineffectual. The murder of the three voting-rights activists in Mississippi in 1964 and the state's refusal to prosecute the murderers, along with numerous other acts of violence and terrorism against black people, had gained national attention. Finally, the unprovoked attack on March 7, 1965, by county and state troopers on peaceful Alabama marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge en route from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, persuaded the President and Congress to overcome Southern legislators' resistance to effective voting rights enforcement legislation. President Johnson issued a call for a strong voting rights law and hearings soon began on the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act. [67]

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended legally sanctioned state barriers to voting for all federal, state and local elections. It also provided for federal oversight and monitoring of counties with historically low minority voter turnout. Years of enforcement have been needed to overcome resistance, and additional legal challenges have been made in the courts to ensure the ability of voters to elect candidates of their choice. For instance, many cities and counties introduced at-large election of council members, which resulted in many cases of diluting minority votes and preventing election of minority-supported candidates. [68]

In 2013, the Roberts Court removed the requirement established by the Voting Rights Act that Southern states needed Federal approval for changes in voting policies. Several states immediately made changes in their laws restricting voting access. [69]

African-American life

The Jim Crow laws and the high rate of lynchings in the South were major factors that led to the Great Migration during the first half of the 20th century. Because opportunities were so limited in the South, African Americans moved in great numbers to cities in Northeastern, Midwestern, and Western states to seek better lives.

Despite the hardship and prejudice of the Jim Crow era, several black entertainers and literary figures gained broad popularity with white audiences in the early 20th century. They included influential tap dancers Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and the actress Hattie McDaniel. In 1939 McDaniel was the first black person to receive an Academy Award when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. [70]

African-American athletes faced much discrimination during the Jim Crow period. White opposition led to their exclusion from most organized sporting competitions. The boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis (both of whom became world heavyweight boxing champions) and track and field athlete Jesse Owens (who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin) earned fame during this era. In baseball, a color line instituted in the 1880s had informally barred black people from playing in the major leagues, leading to the development of the Negro leagues, which featured many fine players. A major breakthrough occurred in 1947, when Jackie Robinson was hired as the first African American to play in Major League Baseball he permanently broke the color bar. Baseball teams continued to integrate in the following years, leading to the full participation of black baseball players in the Major Leagues in the 1960s. [ citation needed ]

Interracial marriage

Although sometimes counted among "Jim Crow laws" of the South, statutes such as anti-miscegenation laws were also passed by other states. Anti-miscegenation laws were not repealed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court (the Warren Court) in a unanimous ruling Loving v. Virginia (1967). [64] [71] [72] Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the court opinion that "the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State." [72]

Jury trials

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution grants criminal defendants the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. While federal law required that convictions could only be granted by a unanimous jury for federal crimes, states were free to set their own jury requirements. All but two states, Oregon and Louisiana, opted for unanimous juries for conviction. Oregon and Louisiana, however, allowed juries of at least 10–2 to decide a criminal conviction. Louisiana's law was amended in 2018 to require a unanimous jury for criminal convictions, effective in 2019. Prior to that amendment, the law had been seen as a remnant of Jim Crow laws, because it allowed minority voices on a jury to be marginalized. In 2020, the Supreme Court found, in Ramos v. Louisiana, that unanimous jury votes are required for criminal convictions at state levels, thereby nullifying Oregon's remaining law, and overturning previous cases in Louisiana. [73]

Later court cases

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court (the Burger Court), in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, upheld desegregation busing of students to achieve integration.

Interpretation of the Constitution and its application to minority rights continues to be controversial as Court membership changes. Observers such as Ian F. Lopez believe that in the 2000s, the Supreme Court has become more protective of the status quo. [74]

International

There is evidence that the government of Nazi Germany took inspiration from the Jim Crow laws when writing the Nuremberg Laws. [75]

Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, houses the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, an extensive collection of everyday items that promoted racial segregation or presented racial stereotypes of African Americans, for the purpose of academic research and education about their cultural influence. [76]