Hitler's American Model : A Book Review
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
James Q. Whitman, in Hitler’s American Model: The United States and The Making of Nazi Race Law, presents a fascinating analysis of the relationship between race law in the United States and Nazi Germany. It points to a troubling truth; that legal experts in Nazi Germany “regarded America as a prime exemplar” with regard to the application of race law (p.161). Nazi legal experts in Germany were particularly intrigued by the use of ambiguous and unclear legal definitions/concepts in United States Jim Crow laws (p.10). This challenged the German legal tradition, which was so committed to providing precise definitions and conceptualizations. Interestingly, it also sparked a significant amount of debate within legal conservative circles in Germany, who were struggling with providing a precise legal definition of a Jewish person.
Both the Nazi and American tradition were deeply committed to racial purity. However, in legal terms, the Americans took measures that “even Nazis regarded as exceedingly harsh classificatory measures”, such as the One Drop Rule embedded in Jim Crow Law. Nevertheless, legal experts in the Nazi Party clearly sought to model their Nuremberg laws from the architecture of race law developed by the United States.
On a personal note, Hitler's American Model was equally interesting as it was troubling. Whitman contributed a valuable point to the narrative we seem to hold about the U.S. in relation to Nazi Germany: that it was not purely a conflict of Good vs. Bad, or Democracy vs. Fascism. These dogmatic distinctions, which may have a degree of truth, keep us from thinking critically about both sides. Whitman does not indicate what was right or wrong, but very clearly illustrates similarities from which the reader may draw their own conclusions. A brief example of this is the second-class citizenship laws. Whitman (2018) writes “...Hitler in following the footsteps of Theodor Fritsch, admired American race law; and [Mark Mazower] is right that the treatment Native Americans and Puerto Ricans, both carefully discussed in the German legal literature, offered models of second class citizenship that intrigued Nazi policy makers.” (p.38).
Furthermore, whilst learning about WWII in school, I remember tales of the allied forces fighting for freedom and justice. It’s a good story, and I’m not disregarding those who lost their lives in WWII. However, we must not ignore the racist principles embedded in the United States’ political system at the time. The fact that it would have been illegal for my parents to get married in the U.S. until 1967 (22 years after WWII) is testament to this fact. Whitman recognizes that the Nazi movement saw itself as a mobilization for liberation. This should make all of us think critically about the movements we support which ambiguously proclaim to fight for ‘freedom’.
On one final note, I recommend this book to anybody interested in WWII, politics, history, citizenship laws, racism, and legal theory.
Title: Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law
Author: James Q. Whitman
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Whitman, J. Q. W. (2018). Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton University Press.
Thumbnail retrieved from:
.item_container.active .essay_sidebar .fp_subitem_subtitle. (2017, 13 maart). Did American Racism Inspire the Nazis? ». Mosaic. https://mosaicmagazine.com/observation/history-ideas/2017/03/did-american-racism-inspire-the-nazis/