Race laws in the U.S. were a “blueprint” inspiring the Nazi regime’s racial oppression, according to author and Yale Law School professor James Q. Whitman.
He joined the show today to talk about his book “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law” and analyze the parts of U.S. law that were appealing to radical Nazi leaders at the time.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article provided courtesy of TheBlaze.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors.
GLENN: So Stu brought in a book that he was reading. And said, you’re going to love this. Hitler’s American model.
It has Hitler in it. It’s got the Nazis. Of course, I’m going to love this. The United States and the making of Nazi race law.
This is a really important book for — for several reasons. None of which, because of the person who authored it, a professor at Yale law, James Whitman, it is a very thoughtful book, a scholarly book, and one that I think — he’s probably not overcautious. I’m just too reckless. He makes the point over and over and over again, this does not mean the Americans were Nazis or anything else.
It just is documenting how much the Nazis loved our racist laws from the Jim Crow does and the Progressive Era. Not good.
James Whitman is with us now, author of Hitler’s American Model.
How are you holding up, James?
JAMES: Hello. Thank you for having me on the show.
GLENN: Yes. You bet.
How are you holding up?
JAMES: Oh, pretty well. You know, the book is keeping me busy, I got to say.
GLENN: Yeah, I bet it is.
I would imagine that there is many people on the right that are saying, this is nothing, but an American bashing book. And those on the left that maybe are in denial that they don’t want to see you expose, you know, FDR for, you know, his — you know, the outdated thinking of that era.
JAMES: Well, it’s certainly true that the book has created some discomfort on the left. There’s no doubt about that.
Although, there are people on the far left who have been quite excited about what I have to say in the book. It’s true enough though, that when the Nazis were looking at the US, in the early 1930s — my book is only about the early 1930s, it was in an era of substantial Nazi interest in the New Deal administration and occasional admiration for Franklin Roosevelt. That’s absolutely true. And a little bit hard to swallow, obviously, for a lot of Americans now.
GLENN: Stu, read — this is just on page six. Read the thing that you brought in today on page six.
STU: You’re talking, we have now long known the strange fact that the Nazis frequently praised Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal government in the early 1930s.
FDR received distinctly favorable treatment in the Nazi press, until at least 1936 or ’37. Lauded as a man who had seized dictatorial powers and embarked on bold experiments in the spirit of the furor. Similar things were said more broadly about what was sometimes labeled in the 1930s, the fascist new deal. The glossy Berlin illustrated magazine, seized from a Jewish publisher and converted to a kind of Nazi life magazine ran heroic photo spreads on Roosevelt, while Nazi rags like Will & Power, the newsletter of the Hitler Youth, described him as a revolutionary, who might fail only because he lacked a disciplined party army like our furor. Wow.
GLENN: So to defend Roosevelt in some regard, this was the new kind of thought that had come from Germany in the 1800s to America. This idea of a strong state and fascism was — had not been discredited yet, if you will, like it was under Hitler.
So nobody wants to really recognize that though, James. Do they?
JAMES: Well, you know, I can’t speak for anybody else. But the fact that there — it’s important to say that the Nazis were wrong about whether FDR was a fascist. They were wrong about a lot of other things.
JAMES: You know, they — and it’s also important to say that Germany, like the US, was facing the Great Depression. And in some ways, it’s not surprising that they came up with similar programs, programs that, you know, are now regarded as not very effective. But at the time, were the best people could come up with. So, you know, it’s not — this is not a story of deep brotherhood between —
GLENN: No, no, no.
JAMES: — Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt or anything like that.
The other thing you have to emphasize in all of this is that Roosevelt, especially in the early ’30s again, depended entirely on the support of the segregation of the Southern Democratic Party.
GLENN: So here’s the thing — and you do a really good job. I mean, for me, I’m a little more reckless. That’s why you’re a Yale professor.
But you make — you do a good job of all the way through saying, this does not mean — we’re not comparing the two, et cetera, et cetera. It’s a very thoughtful book.
But when you get into the Nuremberg Laws. I have, you know, studied the progressive movement and it’s entanglement in eugenics for a long, long time. I was not aware of all of the things that you exposed in the Nuremberg Laws. I mean, they really looked at our laws to round up Jews.
JAMES: Yeah, they sure did. I mean, there were — it’s important to emphasize that in the early ’30s — the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, the idea of mass extermination of the Holocaust was not in anybody’s head yet. The Nazis were simply trying to — simply — the Nazis were trying to introduce forms of persecution short of death camps. You really have to remember that. And what the Nuremberg Laws were involved in particular was the creation of a new form of second class citizenship for Jews, and bans on sex and marriage between Jews and, you know, Aryans as the Nazis defined them. And in those respects, there were all kinds of interesting things to look at in American law, and they did.
GLENN: You know, I want to take issue with one thing that you said. Or maybe you can clarify that nobody was thinking about gas chambers yet.
In some ways, they were. I mean, George Bernard Shah is shockingly deeply into this. And talks about an actual gas chamber or some way of humanly putting people down that were no longer worth — or worthy of — of the support of the mass of people. And that was in England, right after the turn of the century.
I mean, there was this idea of, let’s get rid of people, you know — let me — let me — Theodore Roosevelt — so let me take on a Republican, wrote, at some point, we’re going to be looked at like a crazy cattle rancher who would just let his best stock breed with the worst stock. You don’t allow that to happen. Why would we now? And others took it further to extermination.
JAMES: Those are appalling quotes. Yeah, it’s not that the Nazis and Hitler, in particular, might not in principle have gone along with that sort of thing, but in the early ’30s, it wasn’t a practical possibility for them.
JAMES: You know, exactly why they eventually turned to — to the death camps, under cover of war, really, in World War II, is a subject of great debate among historians. I don’t address that problem in the book. But in the early ’30s, this just couldn’t possibly have been a program they could have gotten through in Germany. And they didn’t talk about it.
STU: It was really one of those things, this was what they believed they could get away with at the time, the leadership. And what was — is so disturbing about that is one of the reasons they thought they could get away with this part of it, the Nuremberg Laws was because, hey, here’s this other country. They’re advanced. They’re a first world country and they’re doing these things. It was something they could bring with justification of the United States in their policy. As a backing to — these were sensible laws. People were doing this all over the world.
JAMES: You bet. And not only in other First World countries, but the most powerful country in the world. Of course, when the Nazis tried to understand how the US had risen to whatever measure of world domination they had at the time, they figured it’s obviously American racism that’s made the country so successful. What else would Nazis conclude?
GLENN: So there’s also a story that you write about that I had no idea. They — they actually used a judge in New York who was an activist judge, who very rightly stood up and talked about the Nazis when a ship came in.
However, you know, he kind of overreached his position. But that’s kind of what set the Nuremberg laws, really, in place. Is it not?
JAMES: That sure is. It’s a heck of a story, really. This is a Jewish judge. A really minor figure in American law. He was actually a magistrate in the tombs, the detention center in Manhattan.
GLENN: He was like a night court judge, right?
JAMES: Night court judge.
JAMES: What happened was there had been a riot in which the rioters tore the swastika flag off a Nazi German ocean liner and threw it into the Hudson River. The rioters had been arrested. They came before him, and he released them. And issued a statement denouncing Naziism, which he had no business doing whatsoever.
JAMES: Not what a night court judge is supposed to be doing.
JAMES: But the Nazis seized on this as an insult, as justification for making the swastika flag at last the sole flag of Germany and as the reason for promulgating these Nuremberg Laws. So the Nuremberg Laws were indeed the Nazi response to this, you know, in many ways admirable, but completely legally unjustified opinion delivered by a night court judge in Manhattan.
GLENN: So, James, did that play into — by the way, we’re talking to Yale law professor James Whitman, author of the book Hitler’s American Model. Did that incident play in at all with the — the idea that the Jewish community should just remain quiet? Don’t cause trouble here in America.
Did people see that at the time in the Jewish community at all of, oh, crap, you did the wrong thing, but you said the right thing. And look at the trouble. It’s made things worse now in Germany.
JAMES: Not that I know of. In fact, he became something of a hero. Not just in the US, but in France. He sailed off to France and was celebrated as a champion of the values of humanity against the threat of Naziism. I don’t think people were yet thinking that it was important to keep quiet at that stage in 1935.
GLENN: What was the thing that — as you were doing your research, you shake your head and you say, I can’t believe how wrong we have history, or I can’t believe this happened and nobody really knows?
JAMES: Yeah, well, that was my reaction, I have to say. I didn’t expect to find the stuff that I found. But, boy, did it turn out that there was a lot of it. In particular — I mean, I started just by — out of curiosity, looking at Mein Kampf, in which one finds the phrase, “There is one country that has made progress toward the creation of a healthy race order, and that country was the United States.”
So Hitler was praising the US already in Mein Kampf. And when you start to track down the legal records in the early ’30s, it’s all over the place. Including in the — we have a stenographic transcript of a planning meeting for the Nuremberg Laws. The meeting begins when the minister of justice presents a memorandum on American law, and they discuss what lessons they can learn from the US there.
GLENN: So, James, this is going to make people uncomfortable.
I like books and thinking that makes me uncomfortable. It makes me grow. It makes me think. And it makes me question.
Why is this important that we learn this?
JAMES: First of all, it’s just a big part of American and world history. You know, no insignificant thing.
JAMES: And it does help us to — it doesn’t help us explain why Hitler happened or anything like that. I mean, I think Hitler would have happened regardless.
JAMES: But it does help us understand the course of development. And come back to something you said earlier, it shows that the extent to which in the early 1930s, creating a race order of that kind was quasi-respectable.
GLENN: Yeah. Yeah. It was.
JAMES: I mean, which is easy for us to forget.
It tells us things about the US too. About the history of American racism. So the Nazis weren’t just interested in Jim Crow’s segregation.
It turns out that there was racist law of all kinds. In immigration law, for example. Not all of it directed against blacks. It was a vast national body of law, not just limited to the South. And that’s something we’ve forgotten too.
And that’s important to see that. You know, I think it also tells us things about where the dangers lie in — in American values and American traditions. The things the Nazis liked so much in the ’30s are still with us in some ways, even though segregation is gone. There’s no more Jim Crow.
GLENN: James, thank you very much. It’s a great read. And something that I think everybody should have in their home library, and not something that necessarily you’re going to drill down in, anyplace else. And I hope this furthers the conversation about who we have been and the mistakes that we’ve made and how others have capitalized on that.
JAMES: Well, thanks so much. I really appreciate the kind words.
GLENN: You got it. Buh-bye.