Review- Whitman, “Hitler’s American Model”

James Whitman, “Hitler’s American Model: the United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law” (2017) – This book has a funny tone. Whitman, a prominent legal scholar, acts shocked and sickened by the very idea that anything American might have influenced Nazi Germany’s policies. He continually braces the reader to prepare themselves for the revelations he has in store. I don’t know- is it that weird of an idea that Hitler took inspiration from America? Maybe I’m just jaded or have just read too much about fascism to be shocked by that kind of thing anymore.

The warnings also serve to pad out this slim volume. When I think of American influence on Nazism, I think about the ways Nazis from Hitler on down cited the American westward expansion as an inspiration for their bloody campaign for lebensraum on the Russian steppes. But Whitman is a lawyer concerned with lawyerly things. And so he looks mainly to American race law, most notably immigration and citizenship law as well as the Jim Crow laws. He argues that the Nazis, when they looked abroad for examples, found the best developed sets of laws pertaining to race in the United States (and, he says, the British dominions- it’d be interesting to see more on that). He further argues that what they saw influenced Nazi race law.

This book stirred up a certain amount of controversy (perhaps why Whitman felt the need to do so much hand-holding), on some reasonable grounds. Influence is notoriously elusive. Whitman can find plenty of examples of Nazis praising American race law, citing it in legal research, and so on. But can he proves influence? He tries to, by showing how the Nuremberg Laws, the core Nazi anti-semitic legistlation, was preceded by a Nazi legal conference that discussed the American example extensively. But how much that really proved essential to the Nuremberg Laws — which, Whitman allows, are quite different from American race law, in some instances even softer (no “one drop” rule for Jews, for instance) — is up for debate. So is the influence of law and lawyers on Nazi Germany in general, given it’s “Fuhrer principle” and rebuking of “sterile legalism.”

From the cheap seats, I’d split the difference. Intellectual historians deal with influence all the time, and while they haven’t made it any less elusive they have learned to deal with its iffyness. From an intellectual history perspective, the Nazis saw themselves as part of a community of racist white states, of which they sought to be the most advanced. They saw the US as part of that community, an advanced part in terms of its techniques of racism, and not for no reason. But this is more along the line of the frontier-lebensraum connection. Whitman wants to establish an almost legal culpability for American law, and it’s unclear that he does. I’m not sure how much that matters- the courts being adjudicators of law and not necessarily justice. The American-Nazi connection passes the muster of justice, if not that of the notional letter of notional law. ****

Review- Whitman, “Hitler’s American Model”

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