By Robin Lindley, History News Network
The racially pure and unmixed German has risen to become master of the American continent, and he will remain the master, so long as he does not fall victim to racial pollution. – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
[O]ne drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and strikes palsied his creative faculty. – US Senator Theodore Bilbo (Mississippi, 1935-1947)
German dictator Adolf Hitler was notoriously and fiercely anti-Jewish, and he and his Nazi followers in the 1930s fashioned race laws that were designed to degrade and deprive Jewish people of all rights, making them second-class citizens. At the same time, American laws often enshrined white supremacy and discriminated against non-whites, and Black Americans in particular were seen as second-class citizens under law. Historians and others have long debated about the influence, if any, of racist American law and history on Nazi race policies.
The unsettling idea of American inspiration for the German Nazis was recently broached in the new PBS documentary series The US and the Holocaust, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein (See my recent interview of Director Lynn Novick on creation of the series on History News Network: https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154633). From feedback I read and heard, many viewers were stunned by the depth of racism and xenophobia in the US in the early twentieth century preceding World War II, as vividly depicted in the series.
Even before he came to power in Germany, Hitler and his followers were aware of the shameful racism in or behind American laws and policies. Prompted by Hitler’s own words on American law in his hateful screed Mein Kampf and other sources, celebrated Yale professor of comparative law and history James Q. Whitman conducted a meticulous study to determine the influence of American sources on Nazi jurists and scholars in the early years of Hitler’s Reich preceding World War II.
As set forth in his groundbreaking and disquieting 2017 book Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton University Press), Professor Whitman found—contrary to many previous historians—that the Nazis had carefully studied American race law and social policies in developing the notoriously racist and antisemitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and other racist policies. He cautions, however, that whatever the influence of American law, the Nazis were ultimately the authors of their own monstrous schemes.
The history Professor Whitman reveals is profound and often heartbreaking. Hitler and his Nazi adherents admired many aspects of US law and history while ignoring our constitutional restraints and the ideal of egalitarianism. In Mein Kampf, penned almost a decade before he became German Chancellor in 1933, Hitler openly praised the United States as the world leader in racist policies and laws and in establishing a racist social order. Hitler admired restrictive US immigration laws that favored Northern Europeans and mostly excluded other nationalities, ethnicities and races. He admired American criminal laws forbidding miscegenation and particularly the mixed marriages or sexual relations between white and Black citizens. He admired Jim Crow segregation laws and other white supremacist provisions that effectively robbed African Americans of civil rights and made them second-class citizens. He admired American eugenics that prized white supremacy and led to laws that encouraged sterilization of the “feebleminded” and others found somehow defective. And, as a devoted reader of Karl May—the German pulp fiction writer who romanticized the conquest of the American West by bold white men—Hitler admired the mass extermination of Native Americans by “Nordic” settlers in the nineteenth century and the subsequent isolation of most Indigenous survivors on reservations.
In his book, Professor Whitman carefully examines the evolution of American laws that discriminated against non-whites from the Naturalization Act of 1790 that specifically opened naturalization to “any alien, being a free white person” to the post-Civil War Jim Crow segregation laws, as well as miscegenation laws from as early as 1691, and extremely restrictive immigration laws such as the racist Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. He also notes the power of American eugenics and legalization of sterilization for the “unfit” in most states.
Professor Whitman also recounts the Nazi fascination with, and reference to, our law as they drafted racist laws that deprived Jews of rights of citizenship and, eventually, included other non-Aryans. He found ample evidence of serious discussion and frank modeling of legislation based on US law and policies that privileged white citizens at the expense of others. A notorious example, the Nazi Nuremberg laws of 1935, essentially robbed Jews of all rights of German citizenship and criminalized mixed marriages and sexual relationship between Jews and Aryans.
Ironically, Professor Whitman found that some Nazi race laws were less harsh than American legislation. For example, the Nazis found too extreme the American rule that “even one-drop” of African American blood made a person Black, as touted by fierce segregationists such as Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo. The Nazis went back two generations in tracing Jewish heritage rather than back countless generations as the American “one-drop” rule permitted.
Hitler’s American Model presents a thought-provoking and often chilling view of our past and the embrace of white supremacy in our law and policies that unfortunately inspired some similarly draconian and discriminatory laws in Nazi Germany.
As Professor Whitman concludes, there has always been “tension between two racial orders in America, a ‘white supremacist order’ and an ‘egalitarian transformative order’.” That struggle continues, as do other challenges to our endangered democracy. Professor Whitman’s book provides an illuminating view of how racism can infect the political and institutional order of societies—and the wider world. The book is also a potent reminder that there are two currents in America—a commitment to equality for all and a competing tradition of deep racism—and we must be constantly vigilant against racism.
Professor Whitman’s book has been widely praised by historians and other readers for its extensive research and thought-provoking, original perspective on the past. For example, legendary journalist Bill Moyers commented: “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.” This history is especially relevant now in the wake of the recent emboldening of rightwing terrorists and white supremacists by former President Donald Trump.
James Q. Whitman is the Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale Law School. He earned his B.A. and J.D. from Yale University and Law School and also earned a Ph.D. in Intellectual History from the University of Chicago. From 1988-1989, Professor Whitman served as a clerk for the Hon. Ralph K. Winter of the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals, then began his teaching career at Stanford University Law School.
Professor Whitman’s has published many articles internationally and across disciplines, and has been honored with numerous prizes and fellowships throughout his career. His other books include Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide Between America and Europe; The Origins of Reasonable Doubt: Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial; and The Verdict of Battle: The Law of Victory and the Making of Modern War.
Professor Whitman generously discussed his work and his writing by telephone from his office.
Robin Lindley: I just came across your groundbreaking book, Hitler’s American Model, a few months ago thanks to an enthusiastic recommendation from a history professor at the University of Washington. I was very impressed by your book and it’s so timely now. Congratulations on this illuminating volume.
Professor James Q. Whitman: I wish it weren’t timely, but thank you.
Robin Lindley: I thought I knew something about this history, but you detail minutely the Nazi fascination with American history and law based on your meticulous, original research. I learned a lot. Before going to your book, I wanted to ask about your very impressive background. You have a law degree and a doctorate in history. What was the focus of your graduate work in history?
Professor James Q. Whitman: I mostly wrote about the history of Roman law, but in the modern world. The question that I tried to answer in my dissertation, which turned out to be my first book, was why Roman law was revived in Germany in the 19th century in the midst of industrialization. You would have thought that ancient law obviously had no direct bearing on the industrial society. I wrote a book about that and earned a law degree and got more deeply involved in understanding legal history.
Robin Lindley: Yes. You have a law degree and you had a prestigious position after law school as a clerk for a US Court of Appeals Judge.
Professor James Q. Whitman: That’s right. I did. And he was a wonderful human being too.
Robin Lindley: Did you practice law after your clerkship?
Professor James Q. Whitman: Not really. Just in the summers when I was in law school. But I really wanted to be a professor. The clerkship itself was of course a kind of practice, but a very rewarding and elevated kind of practice compared to what young lawyers mostly get to do.
Robin Lindley: Did the law degree come after your doctorate in history?
Professor James Q. Whitman. I finished the PhD while I was in law school.
Robin Lindley: Wow. You’re a dynamo.
Professor James Q. Whitman: Well, a nerd I think is the way we usually would put it.
Robin Lindley: You’ve written a range of books on comparative law and criminal matters. Did Hitler’s American Model grow out of your past research?
Professor James Q. Whitman: It did in a way, I was interested in the question of how not just race but the hierarchical ordering of human societies. And, for better or for worse, most human societies have not been egalitarian in the way that we like to think modern societies are. And there’s been lots of law on who counts as the upper class and who counts as the lower. But I was just curious about these things.
In the 20th century it seemed natural to compare two examples, namely Jim Crow laws in the United States and the race law of Nazi Germany. I started out just wanting to compare them, and honestly, I didn’t think that I would discover what I ended up discovering, namely that Nazis had actually taken not just interest in American law, but a kind of active, studious interest in American law with a desire to learn from what the Americans had done.
I went to the library and found Mein Kampf, and in the relevant chapter Hitler says that only one country has made even tentative progress for the creation of a healthy race order and, of course, that’s “the United States of North America,” as he put. So, I got interested and I started poking around to see what was there and, boy, was there a lot
Robin Lindley: I knew that the Nazis had applauded Jim Crow segregation but I didn’t know the depth of their focus on the US as a model, as you chronicle. You’ve been praised deservedly for the research you’ve done. You found documents that apparently had been overlooked or ignored by other historians. What was your research process?
Professor James Q. Whitman: Some of this material people had not looked at it all, but a great deal of the work had been done by German scholars. There was one particularly good German dissertation that I made use of. I took other routes of course to find material beyond it.
But Germans are generally very uncomfortable with any sort of argument that points to parallels, let alone influences on the Nazis, for very good reasons. They don’t want to be perceived as denying the unique horror of the Nazi experience. They just don’t want to talk about it. So, in that 500-page dissertation [I found] buried in a long footnote, on something like page 370, a reference to some of this material. I had to look through the whole dissertation to find that.
Also, one of tools that that was very useful is a tool that people didn’t used to have at all, and that’s Google Books, Advanced Search. You can do word searches. If you want, you can go through the entire 18th century, but also just for this period in Germany, you can find German material. It may not have as much detail as you want from that period, but you get snippets. You’ll get titles without really knowing what’s in them, and then you have to find a good library or more than one good library to find the books and articles. To find the material required some serious work. There’s also material in the German archives, and all of that involves what scholars have always done: travel and breathe in the dust of old books.
But I will say that having Google Book’s advanced search is like having nuclear weapons for scholars. A horrible comparison, but it’s a form of technology that makes discoveries possible that would have been extraordinarily difficult in the past
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those tips on research Professor Whitman—and especially your use of the internet. In terms of what you found, I think that many readers will be surprised about how much our racist laws inspired the Nazis and how much the Nazis admired our history and racist policies. You recount that the Nazis saw the United States as the most innovative leader in racist law. And they saw our founding as a turning point for Aryan world domination.
Professor James Q. Whitman: It’s that awful.
Robin Lindley: In your book, you recount our racist laws back to the colonial period in the seventeenth century and then in laws since the Constitutional Convention, such as the 1790 Naturalization Act that referred only to “white persons” as candidates for naturalization. What did you learn about the foundations of racism in our laws?
Professor James Q. Whitman: This topic worries a lot of people these days, and the conventional phrase for describing not just the American founding, but the foundings also, for example, of Australia and Canada, to some extent, is white settler colonialism.
British settlements in America and elsewhere were self-understood as representing European civilization over and over again, whatever was found in the place settled. And, in the United States, the form that this took was strikingly different from the form that colonialism took in Latin America, especially south of the border. Most of the Spanish settlement was not done by entire families, but by individual males. As a result, you had a lot of intermarriage and a much more complex racial scene, and much more so than you did in the United States where entire families came over to settle. As s a result, you got a society with a different complexion. We see that certainly in the 17th century, and certainly as mentioned in the first Naturalization Act, a self-understanding of America as a venture of white people and especially Northern European white people. That notion has survived for a very long time and, for some people, it still survives in the United States.
In some ways, what seems ugliest to us about this history was even more pronounced in Australia in the nineteenth century than it was in the United States. In fact, Australia was in some ways was the first pioneer with some of the legislation that I write about. And South Africa is obviously another example.
You don’t want to go full “1619 Project” on this history. American traditions are very complex. There were many persons of very high ideals that we would still admire involved in the making of the United States. It’s just a mistake to imagine that there was nothing but a kind of Hitlerism in America and, of course, there wasn’t. But this strain was strongly there. And you’re absolutely right in saying that historians, especially German ones of the history of white supremacy in the 1920s and 1930s, were aware of all of this and would say yes, the great turning point for the creation of the first of the great white policies was in the United States.
Robin Lindley: And, so we have this conflict between racism and unequal treatment versus the ideals of liberty and freedom and equal justice for all.
Professor James Q. Whitman: Yes. I think we do, and obviously there’s a problem we’re still living with the United States.
Robin Lindley: The pseudoscience of eugenics was widely embraced by many American and British scientists and others in early twentieth century. How do you see our infatuation with eugenics as an influence on the Germans and the Nazis in particular.
Professor James Q. Whitman: This is a very important story and we’ve been aware for a while of the strong Nazi interest in American eugenics. But a couple of things have to be said. You mentioned Great Britain. Sweden has to be brought into the picture here too. And then other countries as well. Eugenic ideas were very widespread in early 20th century. You find them all over the place.
What was distinctive about the United States, according to the work of other historians, was American interest in legislating eugenics, and coming up with a legal framework that would enforce and effectuate the creation of a genetically healthy general population. Almost everybody was in favor of something like that, but in Great Britain that mostly involved preaching and not law. The Swedes were more interested in passing actual laws and other aspects of race law. And, of course race law is not just about eugenics, but it’s also about creating social hierarchies and humiliating people and developing notions of second-class citizen status and all those sorts of things.
But what made the United States such an interesting model to a regime like the Nazi regime was that the Americans were really unembarrassedly interested in passing laws on these topics and spent a lot of time developing legal doctrines that could be used not only to the ends of creating a eugenically healthy population–which I don’t endorse myself–but also to develop hierarchical laws.
Robin Lindley: And we had laws that permitted sterilization of the so-called the feeble- minded or criminals or others seen as somehow inferior or genetically damaged.
Professor James Q. Whitman: Yes, you bet. And there’s the famous line from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” So that was from the Supreme Court [Buck v. Bell (1927)] in a case upholding a sterilization law, whereas European countries before the appearance of the Nazis had the legal systems that simply could not accommodate that sort of racism.
The law in a country like France or Germany before Hitler spoke of plaintiffs and defendants, of citizens, and so on. The general understanding of lawyers was that one couldn’t draft laws that made reference to racial differences or regarded them of any legal consequence. That’s still the case in France and the state makes a point of not keeping records on the racial composition of the population.
Robin Lindley: You’re very careful in your writing about the American law. Although the US endorsed some of the principles of eugenics, we never got as far as the Nazis with their campaign of euthanasia of those “unworthy of life” and then mass extermination.
Professor James Q. Whitman: We certainly never did. And again, it’s important to emphasize, even though everything about American eugenics looks pretty ugly to me, that doesn’t mean that we got as ugly as the Nazis did with regard to extermination.
When we read what Hitler had to say in particular, and other Nazis, the model for extermination policies in Eastern Europe didn’t have to do with eugenics as such. It had to do with the American conquest of the West in particular.
Robin Lindley: As you wrote, Hitler admired the extermination of millions of Native Americans and then isolating the survivors on reservations. And he saw that conquest of the West as a “Nordic” victory.
Professor James Q. Whitman: He did indeed. And, of course, the US looked like a model for a German like Hitler because the American empire was, for the most part, not an overseas empire like the British one, but was a continental empire. And the view of the Nazis was that Germany should be spreading east in the way the American spread west, and they should be at a minimum displacing and possibly eliminating the local populations as they did it.
Robin Lindley: As the Nazi campaign of mass killing began, Hitler supposedly said that nobody remembered the genocide targeting Armenians in Turkey beginning about 1915. But he had an even earlier model for genocide—the American “winning” of the West and conquest of Native Americans.
Professor James Q. Whitman: He did. And, if I may emphasize it, that was a more attractive model to the extent that the US had made itself the dominant superpower in the world, and that’s what Hitler wanted for Germany as well. Being a Nazi, like other Nazis, and like other hard right-wingers, in trying to explain America’s tremendous geopolitical success, Hitler ascribed it naturally to American racism.
Robin Lindley: And our history of taking the continent ties into Hitler’s plan to expand Lebensraum or “living room” and by conquering more territory for Germany.
Professor James Q. Whitman: Yes.
Robin Lindley: You also explain in your book how the United States became a leader in adopting racist immigration laws in the early 20th century. What did those laws accomplish?
Professor James Q. Whitman: The laws in the early 20th century in particular were Hitler’s special focus in Mein Kampf. These were not expressly racist because it was difficult to make them expressly racist given the terms of American law. Instead, the laws introduced national quotas. There were earlier laws that directly and expressly targeted Asian immigrants. But these 20th century laws created national quotas with the open intent of keeping out the wrong kind of people—those who didn’t fit the Nordic ideal.
Robin Lindley: You go into that in some depth in your book on the exclusionary treatment of some Asians under immigration laws from the nineteenth century. And you describe how the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act established immigration quotas that basically favored Northern European countries with strict quotas for most other nations, including those in eastern and southern Europe.
Professor James Q. Whitman: That 1924 Act was repealed in 1965, and the repeal didn’t take effect, I think, until 1968. So that law was in effect from the mid-twenties until then and American immigration was entirely governed by these ideals during that time. Things changed radically at the end of the 1960s.
Robin Lindley: And, as you write, Hitler takes from our laws that the US sees itself as “a Nordic German country.”
Professor James Q. Whitman: And many Americans also did. Although, if I can just add once again, all of this is but one side, the nightmare side of the American story, and the Nazis were aware of that too. They were often puzzled by the competing currents in American political lives, some of which looked very much like the Nazi currents that they owed allegiance to, and some of which looked entirely incompatible with Nazi ideals. They thought two souls dwelled within the American breast and they had a hard time knowing how to interpret that.
Robin Lindley: In addition to the immigration laws, Hitler and his Nazi advisors also studied Jim Crow segregation laws that created second-class citizenship for Black people. Blacks were effectively deprived of political rights. And Nazis admired those laws, as you stress.
Professor James Q. Whitman: Yes, they did, although I must emphasize one thing that’s important to note is that the Nazis were not only interested in Jim Crow laws, but there were plenty of other American race laws that weren’t necessarily directed against African Americans. The Nazis were interested in the entire suite of American race practices. Some American laws targeted Asians and some of them, of course, targeted Native Americans, and there was a whole lot there. They were just everything.
Robin Lindley: You mentioned that Hitler and the Nazis looked to our Indian law as well.
Professor James Q. Whitman: Oh, yes. Did they ever. But with regard to second-class citizenship, the Americans faced the problem that the 14th amendment makes it clear that you can’t deprive someone of citizenship and, as a result, the American creation of the second-class citizenship of the kind where you’re depriving someone of voting rights and the like had to be done through subterfuges. And it was done very effectively through subterfuges, but the Nazis didn’t feel the need for subterfuges themselves. They could find the American policy inspiring, but there was nothing they needed to copy from American law because they were entirely open about the creation of second-class citizenship for Jews especially, of course.
Robin Lindley: And of course, as you stress, our laws forbidding and criminalizing miscegenation were very attractive to the Nazis.
Professor James Q. Whitman: Boy, were they ever. It’s astounding. And those laws were expressly racist and directly served as inspirations for Nazi legislation. And we know this in particular because of one of the most telling bits of archival evidence I found was the transcript of a meeting in the summer of 1934 in which the Nazis discussed what sort of criminal law they should create in order to bring the new Nazi order into existence. And there, they specifically studied American laws and particularly American anti-miscegenation laws.
And you’re absolutely right. The desire of the most radical Nazi was to criminalize mixed marriage, and America offered not only a model, but pretty much the only model in the world for doing that. And some of the penalties were extraordinarily tough.
Robin Lindley: What did you learn about the United States and antisemitism in the pre-war period? We had laws regarding Black people but it seems that Jewish people weren’t discriminated against specifically in most US laws. You mention, however, that Jews were deprived of opportunities such as many jobs and promotions in academic and other settings because they were seen as occupiers of “subordinate social positions.” How did that work?
Professor James Q. Whitman: Right, and the Nazis were aware of that and they wrote about it. The Nazis said that the Americans have a lot of race law, but they don’t have race law targeting Jews. Yet. The expectation was that, given the noticeable prominence of antisemitism in American daily life, eventually antisemitic laws would happen. The Nazis were quite aware of the disabilities that Jews effectively faced. For example, in trying to join prestigious law firms and things like that, they were precluded.
I’ll say one more thing about it. I didn’t really talk about it in the book because I wasn’t sure quite what to say about it, but when the Nazis first came to power, they did talk about Jews some of the time, but they actually used a larger category, which was “colored.” They said they were going to keep the colored people out of the corridors of power in German society. They gave up that language of colored because there was a threat of boycott against German industries, particularly in India and in Japan.
In the summer of 1933, Nazis were calling Jewish people colored as well, and some Jews said, at the time, I can’t understand why they’re calling me colored. That is possible, but I don’t know that it’s true. And Jews were not the only ones baffled by the idea that they were called colored under the German laws. There was a debate among the Nazi officials about that too. The Nazi idea of classification of the subordinate peoples was colored. They would have been barred from the United States too because we use the term colored all the time.
Robin Lindley: And our miscegenation laws were not found unconstitutional until the Loving v. Georgia case in 1967.
Professor James Q. Whitman: And that constitutional reasoning was just rejected in the Dobbs case [on abortion].
Robin Lindley: In fashioning the so-called Blood Laws of the 1935 Nuremberg Code, The Nazis found the US law on race and Black people was too harsh—particularly the “one drop” rule. How were our laws more harsh than Nazi law?
Professor James Q. Whitman: That was a shocking discovery on my part. Some states, not by any means all, defined any person as Black if that person had even one drop off Black blood, which meant looking to any Black ancestor at all however far back who was Black. Other states had less far-reaching definitions, such as having one Black grandparent or something like that, but every single American definition went beyond what the Nazis themselves ever embraced. When Nazis discussed the far-reaching notorious American one-drop rule, they said things that you would never imagine hearing from a Nazi, such as, “That’s completely inhumane. How could you do that?” So, in that sense, Nazis thought Americans went too far in their racism and refused to go as far themselves.
Robin Lindley: How did the one-drop rule work in the US as a practical matter? Was it just basically looking at physical characteristics of people in determining that they were Black or looking at their family lineage?
Professor James Q. Whitman: Sometimes American courts would just look at physical characteristics, and that’s something that the Nazis also refused to do. The Nazis thought you needed more scientific evidence. And sometimes courts in the United States would just base their decision on whether a person was widely thought to be Black in the community in question. The Nazis thought you needed a better basis than that, something that would give you more secure information about the genetic background of the individual in question.
Sometimes American courts just made seat of the pants decisions, and that seat of the pants approach was very much admired by the very radical Nazis, but was inconsistent with basic German legal principles. The Nazis, being German—excuse me, I hope I don’t offend any of your readers saying this–were committed to doing a very, very thorough, careful bureaucratically ordered job of determining who counted as a member of which ethnic group.
And for that reason, they had a whole bureaucratic setup for determining the ancestry of the population of Germany and in other parts of Europe, as well, as they conquered. Their decisions were supposed to be based on well-established material found in the bureaucratic records or offered through proof by persons whose racial identity was in question.
In the US, the definitions were much more open-ended than that in ways that made it especially difficult for Americans to contest their classification as Black or African American.
Robin Lindley: Do you have a sense of how often racially mixed couples were prosecuted in the United States under miscegenation laws?
Professor James Q. Whitman: It’s been a little while since I did the research and I relied on the secondary sources, but the severe criminal penalties were not applied, but there were also lesser criminal penalties, which were applied for most people.
The critical issue was not whether they’d be exposed to criminal prosecution, but whether they could form a valid marriage at all. In most cases, that was much more the live issue. They couldn’t find officials who would perform the marriage and any prohibited marriage would not be regarded as valid, so none of the rights and duties that follow from having a valid marriage would apply in their case. That was much more frequent than criminal punishment, but there was criminal punishment at the time.
Robin Lindley: And that approach also interfered with the idea of preserving families.
Professor James Q. Whitman: Oh, sure. It was deeply inconsistent with respecting family autonomy, as the Supreme Court understood in the Loving v. Virginia decision. And once again, the constitutional basis for respecting privacy and autonomy was rejected in the Dobbs decision about abortion.
Robin Lindley: Yes. Dobbs was a stunning decision. What’s your sense of how the Nazis viewed mixed marriages between Jews and Aryan “Germans?” Were the couples punished, and did the Jewish spouse face harsher punishment that the “German?”
Professor James Q. Whitman: Mixed marriages that had been formed before the Nazis came to power were respected and, indeed, the Jewish spouses were protected against some of the Nazi persecution until quite late in the history of the regime. Some of them were still in effect in the last years of the war and survived.
But the Nazis did not permit later mixed marriages to form at all. And there was a big debate about when the last day was before which you had to have entered into the mixed marriage when you should have understood that this was a violation of healthy norms of the German people. Basically, you weren’t allowed to marry, but people occasionally tried to. There was a big decision in about 1938 that I talk about in the book, which made it clear that violating this law was violating a German principle of the highest constitutional magnitude and that people would be criminally prosecuted. And they were criminally prosecuted. They were also just criminally prosecuted, of course, for having interracial sexual relations, and there was probably a lot more of that.
And sometimes, the accusations of prohibited relationships were based on entirely false information. In the US, that happened to Black males all the time, and it happened to Jewish males in Germany. But sometimes, it was based on actual sexual relations and there were criminal and extra-criminal penalties. By criminal I mean not running through the ordinary criminal justice system, but just involving casual brutality.
Robin Lindley: Jewish people are as light skinned as the Nazi “Aryans” with the same physical features for the most part despite contrary Nazi propaganda. So, the issue in Germany was quite different than in the United States with Black people who are usually readily identifiable based on skin color and other physical characteristics.
Professor James Q. Whitman: Of course, there are differences. The Nazis were very concerned in a way that Americans were not concerned to the same degree about Jews deceiving others by not revealing their Jewish identity because it was, of course, possible to pass in a way that was much less commonly the case with Black people in the US.
Robin Lindley: How did the Nazi blood laws work as a practical matter? Were the Nazis basically looking at family history to determine Jewish ancestry? If so, how far did they go back to trace Jewish lineage?
Professor James Q. Whitman: As a matter of law, they went back two generations. As a matter of social status, some people could show that they had been in Jewish families since the 13th century, or whatever, but that wasn’t important as a matter of law to demonstrate anything like that. And the people did their own research into that. I don’t think that the Nazis did that research.
Robin Lindley: Why were Jewish people seen as a serious threat?
Professor James Q. Whitman: That’s one of the great mysteries of Western history. I don’t have a good answer to it. I honestly don’t know. Some people devote their careers to try to explain this. But this hatred and fear was very deep hatred.
There’s a very deep history of antisemitism in the Christian tradition that goes back to antiquity. There’s no doubt about that. The difficulty is in explaining just how it did or didn’t motivate what happened in Germany, beginning in the late 19th century.
Human behavior is difficult to explain. Of course, there’s a long history of antisemitism. David Nirenberg, a medievalist, has a recent book on antisemitism and he traces it back to Alexandria in the fourth century BC. There are other ideas and it’s a topic of ongoing research and it’s hard to be confident that we’ll ever come up with a secure answer.
Robin Lindley: I never thought we’d see Nazi rallies in 21st century America. And we’ve seen incredible attacks on our venerable democratic institutions in the past six years. Given the tenuous state of our democracy and ongoing struggles with racism and antisemitism and xenophobia, how do you see the resonance of your book now?
Professor James Q. Whitman: In my view, we must recognize what happened in Germany and understand how intriguing Germans found the American example as ways of reminding us of the basic, really terrifying truth that it can happen here. It did not happen here in the 1930s, although we don’t remember how dangerous and uncertain the situation was in 1932 or 1933. But despite the danger and the uncertainty, it didn’t happen then. And, one hope is that there are foundations to American liberal culture that are ultimately unshakeable. And I hope that’s true.
But I think we would be very foolish not to recognize that there are very great dangers and more uncertainties now than there were in 1933 so that we must stay on our guard. I don’t think that any thoughtful historian would claim to be able to predict the future, and I wouldn’t claim to predict the future, but the history certainly can bring home to us the full and uncomfortable range of possibilities in the making a human society.
Robin Lindley: I sometimes wonder if we’re at a moment as when the democratic Weimar Republic in Germany collapsed.
Professor James Q. Whitman: The experience of Germany with the collapse of the Weimar Republic in the interwar period had an awful lot to do with the defeat of Germany in World War I, and also with the militarization of society that took hold during World War I.
The experience of defeat and the desire for revenge and for restoration of German power played an enormous role in what happened. That’s something that you see going on in Russia right now. The US just hasn’t had that experience of defeat. That doesn’t mean that we can’t see American democracy collapse, but at least one of the critical factors in the emergence of fascism and Nazism in interwar Europe is not present in the US right now.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your insights. Is there anything you’d like to add for readers about your book or your work as a historian?
Professor James Q. Whitman: This takes away from the topic of the book, but I’d like to wait and see how the election of 2022 turns out.
Robin Lindley: It’s an anxious time, indeed. I appreciate your devotion to illuminating our past for readers so we can better understand our present. Thank you very much for bearing with me and for your thoughtful comments and insights Professor Whitman. And congratulations on your powerful groundbreaking book.
Editor’s note: This article was republished from History News Network under a Creative Commons license.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, social justice, war and peace, medicine, art, and culture. Robin’s email: [email protected]