Book Review – James Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, Princeton and Oxford, 2017
Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism states that one of the major contributions of the Western world has been “race-thinking”, as distinct from “class-thinking”. Race is a political, and not a biological, concept. ‘Race’, a concept without scientific foundation, does not lead to racism; rather it’s racism that creates race. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me that racism is not the innocent product of Mother Nature; race is not the father of racism but its child. And, Whitman observes (p. 117), unfortunately even mentally gifted individuals are not immune from the sickness of racism.
Whitman, a Professor of Law at Yale, is meticulously careful not to over-state the case in his study: influence does not mean exact imitation but, rather, selective borrowing and adaptation. The Nazis were not demons who suddenly erupted on stages: there were traditions within which they worked, continuities, examples and inspirations (p. 15). It must be borne in mind that contemporary Germany rests on the moral foundation of refusing to deny responsibility for what happened under the Nazis (ibid). Germany has repeatedly acknowledged guilt, expressed contrition, paid reparation. One recalls Willie Brandt, Chancellor of Germany, spontaneously kneeling (7 December 1970) at the monument to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was a silent but brave and eloquent gesture, most unusual for a head of state. Equally, it may seem strange to see America as an inspiration for the Nazis because the USA soon fought Germany, and has long set itself as a bastion of freedom and democracy (p. 140).
But in the 1930s, Nazi Germany and ‘Jim Crow’ America were similar in that both were “unapologetically racist regimes”. For example, “American blacks being de jure citizens, were de facto second class” (p. 39) while Nazi Germany had Reichsbürger who possessed full rights and mere Staatsangehörige. America was for the Nazis an excellent example of a country with racist legislation and practice. Prior to the Shoah, sporadic riots and attacks on Jews, condoned but not organised by the State, were equated with the lynch-mobs in America: one recalls the song “Strange fruit grows on Southern trees”, made famous by the 1939 Billie Holliday recording (now available on the ‘Net’). Hitler admired the way Americans had killed and reduced millions of Native Americans to a few hundred, and kept the modest remnant under observation in cages: Hitler, quoted on p. 9. (In passing, I would draw attention to The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andres Resendez, 2016.) To the Nazis, the very foundation of America was a fateful turning point in the worldwide rise of white domination: the US Naturalization Act of 1790 opened naturalization to “any alien, being a free white person” (p. 34). “America may have been the global leader in the creation of racist law, well known and much cited long before Hitler came to power” (p. 70). Germans paid “studious scholarly attention to American immigration Law”” (52), “hailing America as a forerunner of Nazism” (p. 54). On 23 September 1935, forty-five leading Nazi lawyers sailed to America on a first-hand study-tour (p. 132) because in the early twentieth century, America was “the leading racist jurisdiction” (p. 138, original emphasis). Characteristic of race-thinking the world over, a very small minority (here, the blacks) were seen as trying to “get the upper hand” (67).
But the nefandus (such shame or evil that it cannot be spoken of) both for Americans and Nazis was inter-racial sexual relationships outside and within marriage; more precisely, between individuals of different skin pigmentation. (Often what is meant by a “race” problem in the West means a “problem” of colour difference. Elsewhere, I have suggested that in such contexts, “colourism” is a more accurate word than “racism”.) Of course, American society turned a blind eye on children born of the rape of slave women: the incidence was too common.
The Nazis faced a problem in that the Jews were not always identifiable, visually and immediately. This difficulty has also been experienced in inter-ethnic conflict where the group-identity of the individual(s) has to be established – usually by linguistic or religious tests – before barbarity is unleashed. The Americans came up with the notorious “one drop” (of non-white blood) criterion. American law demonstrated that it was perfectly possible to have racist legislation even if it was impossible to come up with a scientifically satisfactory definition of race (p. 106). They did not trouble themselves about “the correct conceptualization of race”: a racist society can be built even in the absence of “any meaningful scientific conception of race” (p. 108). Consequently, the USA “offered the model of anti-miscegenation legislation” (p. 79, original emphasis). Thirty American states declared racially mixed marriages civilly invalid, and many of these states threatened such couples with harsh punishment (ibid) “The only other even partially comparable example that the Nazi literature highlighted in the early 1930s was found in South Africa which penalized extramarital sex between races, but not marriage” (p. 79). The film ‘Loving’ is the story of the marriage of Richard Loving, a white, and Mildred Jeter, an African-American. When the law raids their home and Richard produces their marriage license, he is curtly told that it has no validity in Virginia, and both are taken to jail. What surprised me was the date: the very end of the 1950s. (In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of ‘Loving versus the State of Virginia’ invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.)
On 4 July 1776 Americans declared their independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. Yet they denied the equality of the native peoples, and were a slave-owning society. They did not see them as people, human beings as they were. (Sri Lankans know well that in the mythical, foundational-text, The Mahavamsa, Buddhist monks offer the following consolation to the victorious but morally-troubled Sinhalese king: the thousands killed were not Buddhist; not being Buddhist, they were not human beings.) Francis Scott Key is the author (1814) of what has come to be the American national anthem containing the words, “the land of the free”. But Key publicly declared that Africans were an inferior people, the greatest evil to blight the country. Being morally and otherwise inferior, it was justified to mete ‘inferior’ treatment. What the Americans demanded for themselves, they did not grant others. History furnishes us with similar contradictions between protestation and practice; contradictions which arise from a denial of the full humanity of the ‘Other’. Barack Obama in a speech at the Jerusalem Convention Centre on 21 March 2013 urged vis-à-vis the Palestinians: “Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” (As I have written elsewhere, under an electoral system one cannot shift the entire blame onto politicians: that’s all too easy a “washing off” of hands. Finally, the people are responsible.
Professor Whitman, through his research and reminder, tries to dispel collective and selective forgetting; denial and minimizing.