When America’s Racist Immigration Law Inspired Hitler

A pro-Nazi group marches in New York City on East 86th Street in October 1939. (Photo/Public Domain)

The United States has been a leader in immigration law for decades, and European countries measured themselves by how closely they followed the American line. Now, we are seeing changes in United States practices that are being used to erode the way immigrants are treated around the globe.

Yale Professor James Whitman recently published a book on how the Nazis used American immigration and race laws to craft their own nightmare world of racial purity. Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law provides a cautionary tale of the international tragedies that can come from the world’s leading democracy embedding its people’s worst prejudices in its immigration laws.

Anyone who has read Nazi propaganda from the 1930s knows that when the international community condemned Germany’s laws against the Jews, the Nazis often responded with citations to American laws against blacks and other people of color. Historians often dismiss these citations as little more than the Nazis throwing American racism back in their critics’ faces. In reality, the Nazis not only used American law to defend their own racist codes, they used it to help craft those despicable laws. Whitman writes:

Awful it may be to contemplate, but the reality is that the Nazis took a sustained, significant, and sometimes even eager interest in the American example in race law… In fact…it was the most radical Nazis who pushed most energetically for the exploitation of American models.

Whitman makes clear that “Nazi references to American law were neither few nor fleeting, and Nazi discussions took place in policy-making contexts that had nothing to do with producing international propaganda…” The Nazis did not just use laws from the South as models, they also used federal laws restricting non-white immigration. Surprisingly, Whitman found some instances in which the Nazis rejected an American racist statute because they saw it as “overly harsh…For Nazis of the early 1930s, even radical ones, American race law sometimes looked too racist.”

Many Nazis admired the Americans because of their extraordinary economic productivity, their scientific acumen, and their devotion to the separation of the races. Many American states had strong prohibitions on interracial marriage. Thirty states prohibited whites and blacks from marrying. Nazis saw the United States as “the innovative world leader in the creation of racist law,” according to Whitman.

Much of the so-called “science” of racism came from the United States. The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island was a valuable resource for Nazi scientific thought. The work of the ERO, located where Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is today, provided the intellectual justification for the exclusion of non-white and Southern and Eastern European immigrants in the 1924 Immigration Act.

In the 1930s, America was at the forefront of race-based lawmaking. No other country had as many laws defining racial categories or creating disabilities. The United States led in creating “second-class citizenship for blacks, Filipinos, Chinese, and others.” This, Whitman found, “was of great interest to the Nazis, engaged as they were in creating their own forms of second-class citizenship for Germany’s Jews.” (p. 12)

Racialized laws concerning immigrants dated back to the 1790s. The first law relating to the naturalization of new citizens limited citizenship to white immigrants. Beginning in the 1880s, Congress barred whole groups of people based on the alleged racial characteristics of the group in question.

In 1917, Congress created the Asiatic Barred Zone from which no immigrant might come. “That was followed,” writes Whitman, “by two major pieces of ‘national origins’ immigration and naturalization law: the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924. The latter…was manifestly ‘race-based,’ favoring ‘the ‘Nordics’ of northern and western Europe…’”

Hitler himself admired the racial exclusions of the American immigration laws because they prioritized the supremacy of the Aryan race. He mocked Germany’s pre-Nazi laws regarding citizenship because they allowed someone to be recognized as German even if he or she was not white. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote:

There is currently one state in which one can observe at least weak beginnings of a better conception. This is of course not [Germany], but the American Union… The American Union categorically refuses the immigration of physically unhealthy elements, and simply excludes the immigration of certain races.

In 1928, Hitler wrote approvingly of how the 1924 Immigration Act excluded from the United States “strangers of the blood,” i.e. non-whites. Later, he wrote in a sequel to Mein Kampf that the image of the United States as a melting pot had been replaced by a scientific race-selection process embedded in the 1924 act. Hitler wrote that:

The capacity of assimilation for the American Union has given out…with regard to the Chinese…People feel this clearly and know it and for that reason they would most prefer to exclude these foreign bodies from immigration… That the American Union feels itself to be a Nordic-German…is also revealed by the apportionment of immigration quotas among the European [peoples]. Scandinavians, then Englishmen and finally Germans have been accorded the largest contingent. Latins and Slavs receive very little, and the Japanese and Chinese are groups that one would prefer to exclude entirely.

The U.S. of the 1930s prevented the entry of most non-white immigrants and barred them from citizenship, while at the same time allowing Western European immigrants to enter the coastal cities and move west to colonize regions which half-a-century earlier had been forcibly cleared of their Native American owners. The Nazi slogan of “race and land” was already American.

In 1933, the Nazis monthly journal said that “The United States [has] come to understand the monstrous danger of the ‘great melting pot of races’ over the course of the last decades, and put a check on bastardization through draconian immigration law…”

Otto Koellreutter, a leading Nazi scholar, wrote in 1933 that America’s earlier immigration policies had been replaced in 1924 by a legal framework that “represents a carefully thought-through system that…protects the United States from the eugenic point of view against inferior elements trying to immigrate…”

When the Nazis came to power, they drafted a handbook for legislation. In its section on naturalization, the handbook says that “it is opportune to direct the reader’s attention to the fact that the difference between desirable and undesirable naturalization has played an important role in the Immigration Law of the United States for some years.”

In its section on the crafting of racial purity laws, the handbook advises:

American immigration legislation shows that in the USA a clear understanding has been achieved that a unified…American [people] can only emerge…if wholly foreign racial population masses are not tossed in with the core population, which is English-Scandinavian-German…

The Nazi research into American immigration laws would eventually form the intellectual backing for the exclusion and attempted extermination of Germany’s Jews.