Exploring James Q. Whitman’s “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law”

A few years back, in front of an audience of a hundred school administrators and educators focused on implementing Holocaust education, one thoughtful participant shared how the study of the Holocaust, particularly the study of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policy, can be an important opportunity for students to connect this to the US’s Jim Crow laws passed after the Civil War.  I didn’t scan the room but I imagined that his remarks may have landed uncomfortably on some participants for reasons ranging from the unsettling idea of the US as a “beacon of freedom” being a model of racist policies and practices for Nazi Germany to the discomfort and insufficient knowledge and ability to broach such a discussion in the classroom.  Without skipping a beat, I smiled and agreed with him wholeheartedly, and encouraged folks to read James Q. Whitman’s book Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (2017). 

The book’s title can easily offend those who believe in the idea of America as the land of the free.  Just the hint of a connection between America and Nazi Germany can make such persons uneasy.  Because Holocaust survivors in the US found safe haven and in many cases thrived in this country, so the logic goes, how could this same country be the source of inspiration and guidance for Nazi Germany’s efforts to dehumanize and destroy the Jewish people? But if those same people read this book, they would be confronted with a well-researched, evidence-based documentation of how Nazi politicians and lawyers tackled the creation of their “race law” by looking to the US.  Early on in the book, Whitman states, “In the early 1930s the Nazis drew on a range of American examples, both federal and state.  Their America was not just the South; it was a racist America writ much larger.  Moreover, the ironic truth is that when Nazis rejected the American example, it was sometimes because they thought the American practices were overly harsh”(5).

As educators, we may have heard our students – particularly students of color and LGBTQ+ students – advance a burgeoning connection: How an anti-Jewish law or decree reminds them of our country’s racist segregation laws or our ban on interracial and same-sex marriages.  This is the moment where we are confronted with a choice: how do we respond?  

Do we provide a tepid acknowledgment or else a statement that this is not the same thing, and continue with the prepared lesson?  Are we even confident and competent enough to navigate this huge “aha” moment? Whitman implores us to dive right into the discussion without hesitation. “America was the leader [in racist law making] during the age of the rise of Hitler. That is the truth, and we cannot squirm away from it” (139). There are consequences to racist, dehumanizing policies, not only on targeted communities whose lives were severely compromised or cut short because of them but also on other countries watching closely to gauge the effectiveness and success of these policies.  Simply put, that’s what the Nazis did with our country’s racist policies. There is a need to reckon with this truth, that the US inadvertently but nonetheless significantly became a model for the anti-Jewish policies in Germany.

Whitman does a huge service by evidencing the intentional and thorough discussions of US racist policies – not just Jim Crow segregation laws but also its racist immigration laws, citizenship laws, and miscegenation laws – in key Nazi reports, articles, memos and meetings that contributed to the crafting of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. He explores the crafting of the Reich Citizenship Law – the second of the three Nuremberg Laws – by highlighting the Nazis’ keen interest in America’s anti-immigration laws (namely its race-based quotas) and citizenship laws with its creation of de jure and de facto forms of second-class citizenship – not only for Black Americans, but also for Puerto Ricans, Filipina/o/x, Chinese and Native Americans – that maintained our country’s racial hierarchy and power.  While these anti-immigration laws were more inspirational rather than serving as a blueprint for the Nazis, more critical and closely examined were the US anti-miscegenation laws that informed the third of the Nuremberg Laws – the Blood Law, which banned race mixing in sex and marriage between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans.  Here, Whitman argues, is where “we discover the most provocative evidence of direct Nazi engagement with American legal models, and the most unsettling signs of direct influence” (76).  He highlights the legal techniques — policies and procedures — that Americans employed to justify their “race madness” as the source of influence for the Nazis.  Simply put, Whitman writes, “The United States offered the model of anti-miscegenation legislation…and it is in the criminalization of racially mixed marriage [in the US] that we see the strongest signs of direct American influence on the Nuremberg laws” (78-29). 

Whitman’s book provides educators with a valuable opportunity to connect with the Holocaust, particularly the anti-Jewish laws, within US history of race-based immigration, segregation, citizenship, and interracial marriages.   Connection points to consider include:

1. The invitation to students to connect these two histories is as easy as using the worksheet  “What Rights are Important to Me” in the Nazi Germany unit. Many educators who have used this in their classrooms have shared stories of students seeing the natural connection: “Voting wasn’t allowed by the Black community after Reconstruction,” or “Asians who were able to immigrate to the US weren’t eligible for citizenship and couldn’t even vote,” or even “This country didn’t allow people of the same sex to get married for a long time.”  This is the actualizing of one of our pedagogical principles: Making the Holocaust relevant. 

2. Encourage inquiry-based learning and critical thinking, specifically when viewing visual history testimony.  Students, with their US-centric 21st-century lens, need brave educators to guide them in applying the lessons of the Holocaust to our own racist history without “squirm(ing) away from it.” This connection is not saying that the anti-Jewish laws and the assortment of US racist laws are the same; Whitman states very clearly that they are not carbon copies. However, we should not downplay or brush aside these connections as they are truly linked.  Let’s use these moments to face our own ugly truths and discuss them openly and critically, knowing that our country’s racist laws and practices played a significant role in providing the Nazis with a model that informed their efforts to create their own dehumanizing legal system.

We as educators can no longer rely on the excuse that because we were not taught about racism in our elementary and high school classes, we are ill-equipped to teach and navigate these discussions in our classrooms. It may be an explanation of our shortfalls, but not an absolution of taking on this mantle.  We also cannot turn our heads from the indignities that many Americans suffered in our country’s history while exalting inspirational values and focusing only on the good.   Such silence is a practice in denial, and is an anathema to the education profession.  Current legislation in some states to restrict teaching about the realities of the racism embedded in our laws, policies and practices is codifying this silence, and denies students a robust and honest education.  

Our student population – growing in its racial and ethnic diversity, and its connection to the global community – cannot be burdened by and held back because of our denials, fears, and excuses.  We owe it to them to put our learner hat on, find our courage, and delve into this history and its implications, to guide our students to become critical historians and work toward a model of justice and human dignity for all.

About the author: Esther K. Hurh is a highly seasoned education consultant with over 25 years of experience in facilitation, training, curriculum development and program management.  In addition to her work with Echoes & Reflections as its senior trainer since 2014, she is deeply interested in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), social justice education, and Asian American history. 

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