I am talking today about a small book by James Q. Whitman, Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale published by Princeton University Press this year and entitled Hitler’s American Model: the United States and the Making of Nazi race law. I have isolated some passages from the book which, used as quotes, sum up the structure of the argument. Under time pressure, I have made small changes and abbreviations.

From Mein Kampf onwards (with echoes going back as far as German colonized S.W.  Africa in 1905), early Nazi jurists and policy makers took a sustained interest in American race laws. Especially during the  early 1930s, the era of the making of the Nuremberg Laws, Nazis engaged in detailed study of race-based American immigration law, race-based American second class citizenship law and race-based American anti-miscegenation and mongrelization law. Some of them saw attractions in the Jim Crow segregation system. Certain aspects of American race law struck Nazis as appealing: in particular, the exceptional American practice of harshly criminalizing inter-racial marriage lay in the background of the Nazi Blood law. Other aspects, interestingly enough, like the one-drop rule, struck them as excessively severe. Nobody favored a wholesale importation of American practices and all were aware that America had liberal traditions in its Constitution that were at war with racism — but many approved America’s fundamental recognition of the imperative need of creating a legally enforced race order — with Nazi Germany’s task to build a fully realized race state. While America had concentrated on Native Americans; African Americans; American Asiatics etc. it would be left to Nazi Germany to recognize the immense peril posed by the presence of Jews in the culture.

There is currently one state, wrote Hitler, that has made at least the weak beginnings of a better order. The U.S had produced an admirably uninhibited racist jurisprudence, one that did not trouble itself about juristic niceties and that would therefore, as one Nazi jurist stated “suit us perfectly.” The National Socialist Handbook of law and Legislation recognized that the U.S. had provided the “classic example,” the natural first place to turn for anybody intending to plan a race-state and the Nazis never ceased to look at America’s “interesting innovations” in their search for their own system.

Whitman concludes that American white-supremacy (with a history going back to at least 1691 in Virginia with echoes, as a Nazi jurist saw in Jefferson and even Lincoln), and to some extent Anglophone white supremacy more broadly, provided working materials for 1930s Nazism. But in Nazi Germany, supremacist practices acquired the backing of a state apparatus far more powerful than anything to be found in the world of British Imperialism’s daughters and far more ruthless than any that had ever existed in Europe west of the Elbe. Nazi Germany ended by taking the racist exercise of modern state power in an unimaginably horrifying new direction.

As I am not a jurist, I can only mention Whitman’s fascinating arguments regarding the severity of European civil law compared to the looser nature of American common law. What is interesting to this case is that Nazi jurists, intent on getting away from civil law rigor in order to follow the spirit of the Fuhrer by evading civil law, admired the looseness of the American system. One American told a German that there was no need to be so open about policy thus needlessly antagonizing other countries and economies necessary to Germany’s economic progress. Much of this goes under the name of legal Realism. Many prominent American racists of the 1930s embraced this Realism. In that sense, argues Whitman, the American Legal Realism of that time was entirely at home in the early New Deal (there was plenty of early Nazi admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt), founded as it was on the Mephistophelean bargain between economic reformers and southern racists. The same allegedly “realistic” philosophy that could be invoked to defend the bold economic experiments of FDR could also be invoked to defend the racism of the Southern Democratic Party.

There is hardly any need to point out how relevant this little book is to our present situation. I gather from the media that we are at present daily facing social elements that are blatantly uncultured, illiterate, marginally schizoid, elephantinely narcissistic and not just obscene but dangerous in their mafiosofascistic leanings. This has to be a time in which we look more closely than ever before at our history, beginning with the massacre of Native Americans; slavery, Jim Crow, all the way to inter alia massive imprisonment; police brutality, massive homelessness and environmental uncertainties — thus continuing with murderous tendencies which never cease raising their heads. Such books call it time to look severely at American exceptionalism and take stock of what we really are and could still attempt to be.