David Mikics reviews James Q Whitman's Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law:
Scholars have long known that the American eugenics movement inspired the Nazis; now Whitman adds the influence of America’s immigration policy and its laws about race....
Historians have downplayed the connection between Nazi race law and America because America was mainly interested in denying full citizenship rights to blacks rather than Jews. But Whitman’s adroit scholarly detective work has proved that in the mid-’30s Nazi jurists and politicians turned again and again to the way the United States had deprived African-Americans of the right to vote and to marry whites. They were fascinated by the way the United States had turned millions of people into second-class citizens.
Strange as it may seem to us, the Nazis saw America as a beacon for the white race, a Nordic racial empire that had conquered a vast amount of Lebensraum. One German scholar, Wahrhold Drascher, in his book The Supremacy of the White Race (1936), saw the founding of America as a “fateful turning point” in the rise of the Aryans. Without America, Drascher wrote, “a conscious unity of the white race would never have emerged.” Rasse and Raum—race and living space—were for Nazis the keywords behind America’s triumph in the world, according to historian Detlef Junker. Hitler admired the American commitment to racial purity, praising the anti-Indian campaigns that had “gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand.”
Hitler was not wrong to look to America for innovations in racism. “Early 20th-century America was the global leader in race law,” Whitman writes, more so even than South Africa. Spain’s New World Empire had pioneered laws tying citizenship to blood, but the United States developed racial legislation far more advanced than that of the Spaniards. For nearly a century African-American slavery was a monumental stain on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and its claim that “all men are created equal.” The Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that “any alien, being a free white person” could become an American—the Nazis noted with approval that this was an unusual case of racial restriction on citizenship. California barred Chinese immigration in the 1870s; the whole country followed suit in 1882.
World War I gave an added impetus to the focus of racialist doctrines on immigration and immigrants. The Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 banned Asian immigrants along with homosexuals, anarchists, and “idiots.” And the Quota Law of 1921 favored Northern European immigrants over Italians and Jews, who were mostly barred from immigrating. Hitler praised American immigration restrictions in Mein Kampf: The future German dictator lamented the fact that being born in a country made one a citizen, so that “a Negro who previously lived in the German protectorates and now resides in Germany can thus beget a ‘German citizen.’ ” Hitler added that “there is currently one state in which one can observe at least weak beginnings of a better conception … the American Union,” which “simply excludes the immigration of certain races.” America, Hitler concluded, because of its race-based laws, had a more truly völkisch idea of the state than Germany did.