The American ideas the Nazis borrowed

Hitler’s American Model
by James Q Whitman, Princeton, £19.95

You wonder what this book is about until you read the subtitle: “The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law”. We forget recent history – that the US has not just been the home of “liberty and democracy”, but also of its own brand of racism, particularly in the South. Whitman, a law professor at Yale Law School, puts it starkly: “In the early 1930s, Jews in Germany were hounded, beaten and sometimes murdered – the same goes for blacks in the American South.”

The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were planned by leading Nazi lawyers to target its Jewish population. They included the Citizenship Law, whereby Jews became second-class citizens, and the Blood Law, which criminalised marriage between Jews and “Aryans”. What is less well known or acknowledged is that the Nuremberg Laws were influenced by the example of the US.

As well as deploring many features of life in America, the Nazis also saw “much to emulate”. Indeed, on September 23, 1935, eight days after Hitler’s proclamation of the Nuremberg Laws, a delegation of 45 Nazi lawyers sailed to the US on a “study trip”. Unfortunately for them they docked at New York, “a hotbed of anti-Nazi sentiment” and “home to numerous ‘Jewish elements’”, so they were greeted with protests.

The protesters had themselves been emboldened by the words of a lowly Manhattan magistrate, a Jewish man named Louis Brodsky, who had stated three weeks earlier that the swastika was a “black flag of piracy” and that Nazism itself was “an atavistic throwback to pre-medieval, if not barbaric, social and political conditions”.

Whitman’s book is not simply a history of the appalling treatment meted out to African-Americans in the southern states. He points out that by the late 1870s, US immigration and naturalisation law had become more racist, in particular against Asians. As Whitman comments drily: “All borrowers start from foreign models and then reshape them to meet their own circumstances.”