April 23, 2018


How American Racism Influenced Hitler  : Scholars are mapping the international precursors of Nazism. (Alex Ross, 4/30/2018, The New Yorker)

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. [...]

As for Hitler and America, the issue goes beyond such obvious suspects as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. Whitman's "Hitler's American Model," with its comparative analysis of American and Nazi race law, joins such previous studies as Carroll Kakel's "The American West and the Nazi East," a side-by-side discussion of Manifest Destiny and Lebensraum; and Stefan Kühl's "The Nazi Connection," which describes the impact of the American eugenics movement on Nazi thinking. This literature is provocative in tone and, at times, tendentious, but it engages in a necessary act of self-examination, of a kind that modern Germany has exemplified. [...]

Jim Crow laws in the American South served as a precedent in a stricter legal sense. Scholars have long been aware that Hitler's regime expressed admiration for American race law, but they have tended to see this as a public-relations strategy--an "everybody does it" justification for Nazi policies. Whitman, however, points out that if these comparisons had been intended solely for a foreign audience they would not have been buried in hefty tomes in Fraktur type. "Race Law in the United States," a 1936 study by the German lawyer Heinrich Krieger, attempts to sort out inconsistencies in the legal status of nonwhite Americans. Krieger concludes that the entire apparatus is hopelessly opaque, concealing racist aims behind contorted justifications. Why not simply say what one means? This was a major difference between American and German racism.

American eugenicists made no secret of their racist objectives, and their views were prevalent enough that F. Scott Fitzgerald featured them in "The Great Gatsby." (The cloddish Tom Buchanan, having evidently read Lothrop Stoddard's 1920 tract "The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy," says, "The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be--will be utterly submerged.") California's sterilization program directly inspired the Nazi sterilization law of 1934. There are also sinister, if mostly coincidental, similarities between American and German technologies of death. In 1924, the first execution by gas chamber took place, in Nevada. In a history of the American gas chamber, Scott Christianson states that the fumigating agent Zyklon-B, which was licensed to American Cyanamid by the German company I. G. Farben, was considered as a lethal agent but found to be impractical. Zyklon-B was, however, used to disinfect immigrants as they crossed the border at El Paso--a practice that did not go unnoticed by Gerhard Peters, the chemist who supplied a modified version of Zyklon-B to Auschwitz. Later, American gas chambers were outfitted with a chute down which poison pellets were dropped. Earl Liston, the inventor of the device, explained, "Pulling a lever to kill a man is hard work. Pouring acid down a tube is easier on the nerves, more like watering flowers." Much the same method was introduced at Auschwitz, to relieve stress on S.S. guards.

When Hitler praised American restrictions on naturalization, he had in mind the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed national quotas and barred most Asian people altogether. For Nazi observers, this was evidence that America was evolving in the right direction, despite its specious rhetoric about equality. The Immigration Act, too, played a facilitating role in the Holocaust, because the quotas prevented thousands of Jews, including Anne Frank and her family, from reaching America. In 1938, President Roosevelt called for an international conference on the plight of European refugees; this was held in Évian-les-Bains, France, but no substantive change resulted. The German Foreign Office, in a sardonic reply, found it "astounding" that other countries would decry Germany's treatment of Jews and then decline to admit them.

Posted by at April 23, 2018 4:21 AM