How Jim Crow Inspired the Nazis

The American South’s version of Apartheid; Jim Crow was the role model for some of Nazi Germany’s instruments of oppression.

The Nazis modeled some of their worst laws on Southern Jim Crow Segregation laws, author Isabel Wilkerson claims. In her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Wilkerson shows how Nazi legal scholars modeled their infamous Nuremberg Laws on Jim Crow statutes.

To elaborate, the Nuremberg Laws were a set of statutes that stripped Jews and other Germans of their rights. Wilkerson believes there was nothing in German law that supported the Nazis’ efforts to strip German citizens of their rights.

Nazi Law Made in America

Consequently, Nazi Reich Minister for Justice Franz Gürtner had his lawyers investigate how American states stripped African-Americans and other racial minorities of their rights.*

The Nazi lawyers looked to America for guidance because there were few precedents in European law for their program of institutionalized racism. The Nazis’ principal role model; Lenin and Stalin’s Communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union, did not institutionalize racism.

However, by the 1930s many American states had legalized and institutionalized racism for decades. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court legitimized that racism with its loathsome Plessy vs. Ferguson decision.

Thus, the Nazis looked to America for guidance in segregation and oppression. The Nazi lawyers’ hope was that imitating American Jim Crow statutes could legitimize their actions in the eyes of outside observers.

The Nazis were not as Original as you think

Hence, the Nazi lawyers understood what they doing was wrong and were trying to hide their crimes behind an American precedent. Disgustingly, the Nazis made the horrible innovation of combining American Jim Crow racism with Soviet-style state terrorism.

Nazi Germany featured Jim Crow-type racial laws modeled on those of the American South, American-style lynching of Jews and other enemies of the Nazis, concentration camps modeled on the Soviet gulag, and a political police force modeled on Lenin’s Cheka and Stalin’s NKVD – the SS.

Another Russian innovation the Nazis adopted was a one-party state in which everybody had to be a member of the party. In the Soviet Union, nobody could work at a government job or serve as a military officer without joining the Communist Party.

In Nazi Germany, all government officials and military officers had to join the Nazi Party. The Nazis also demanded German officers sign an oath of loyalty to Adolph Hitler, another Communist innovation.

However, Hitler downplayed the debt he owed to Communism because it exposed him as a hypocrite. The imitation of Communism called Hitler’s anti-Communism into question. Moreover, Hitler was imitating the people he denounced as subhuman slaves – Russians.

Thus, the Nazis adopted the worst practices of other nations and refined them. However, there were some aspects of Jim Crow even the Nazis could not stomach.

The Nazi Jim Crow

To create the Nazi Jim Crow, Gürtner had a Nazi scholar named Herbert Keir make a comprehensive report on American race laws.

Ironically, Keir was one of several Nazi legal experts “who thought American law went overboard” on racial issues, Yale historian James Q. Whitman observes. To explain, Whitman thinks Keir thought U.S. laws that declared a person with a drop of African blood “black” were excessive.*

Interestingly, Keir and another Nazis did not realize that some American race laws were something of a fiction. To elaborate, the only tests for racial identity in Jim Crow America were skin color and birth certificates.

There was no organized or systematic effort to classify Americans by racial identity. In particular, American laws did not define what a drop of African-American blood was.

There was a huge loophole in American Jim Crow laws, the Nazis could not see. The loophole was that a light-skinned black could pass as white by saying he or she was white.

Furthermore, a light-skinned black could become “white” by acquiring a fake birth certificate proclaiming the person white. In the 1930s, all the average person needed to get a fake birth certificate was a $20 bill and a corrupt county clerk.

Nazi racial law; however, had no loopholes. A central organization, the vicious SS police force enforced the racial laws and went to great lengths to identify Jews and other racially pure elements.

Another confusing aspect of Jim Crow to Nazis was racist Americans’ refusal to classify Jews as non-whites or strip Jews of their rights. The Nazis could not understand why there were no Jews-only bathrooms in America. The Nazis could not understand how most Americans considered Jews white people deserving of the same rights as other whites.

America’s Jim Crow was vicious and horrific, but it had limits. There was no limit to the Nazi racial terror because the Nazis adopted the Soviets’ totalitarian methods of enforcement.

Hitler’s Jim Crow

One German who admired Jim Crow and did not understand it was the Fuhrer; Adolph Hitler, himself. Hitler admired America’s racism and even called an American racist book Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race “my bible.”

In September 1935, Hitler used the infamous Nazi Party conference at Nuremberg to unveil the Nazi Jim Crow to the world. At the conference, Hitler announced “The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor.”  

That law defined a person anybody with three Jewish grandparents as a Jew, regardless of religion. A person with two grandparents who practiced Judaism was also declared a Jew.

Thus, many people who did not consider themselves Jewish suddenly found themselves declared Jews. The same law stripped such a person of all of his or her rights as a German citizen.

Jim Crow and the Holocaust

In imitation of American Jim Crow, the Nuremberg Laws made it illegal for Germans to marry Jews or have sex with Jews.

Similarly, it was illegal for German women under 45 to work as servants in Jewish households. The Nazis did not want German women serving racially inferior Jews.

Under the Nuremberg Laws, persons branded Jews could not work at government jobs, serve in the military, or teach school. Many people found themselves stripped of businesses and professional licenses.

With the Nuremberg Laws, the Nazis began cleansing Germany of Jews. The process ended in the extermination camps of World War II. By 1942, the Nazis exceeded even Stalin’s horrors by converting their camps into death machines that killed people and destroyed bodies on an industrial scale.

The Nazis and the American South

The Nazis admired many aspects of American Southern culture and history, including slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and lynching.

Ironically, there was little admiration for Nazi Germany in the South. Southerners were staunch backers of anti-Nazi American President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) and FDR’s war effort.

Almost all the support and sympathy for Nazi Germany in the United States came from German immigrants in Northern and Midwestern Cities. The German American Bund, a pro-Hitler movement in the United States, came from New York and had almost no Southern members.

Conservative Americans, including Southerners, viewed Nazism as they did Communism, an alien ideology that threatened their way of life and their freedom. Ironically, as Nazism became more powerful and more totalitarian in the 1930s, it became more repellent to Americans. The newsreel footage of the Nuremberg rallies, goose stepping Nazi soldiers, and Hitler’s speeches convinced most Americans that Germans were warmongers and barbarians and that Hitler was a lunatic.

Instead, when World War II broke out, Southerners formed a large percentage of the United States military and a disproportionate number of the officer corps. Thus, the Southern Racists Hitler and his ilk admired became some of Nazi Germany’s deadliest enemies.

The Aftermath

World War II fatally weakened Jim Crow and American racism in several ways.

First, the revelations of the horrors of Nazi Germany discredited scientific racism. After 1945, racism lost whatever intellectual respect it had. Instead, most American racists began spreading the ridiculous myth that there is no racism in America. Thus, today’s American racists spread two lies; first there is no racism, and second we are not racist.

Second, exposure to the ugly realities of Nazi Germany; and its role model, the Soviet Union, caused Americans to question many aspects of their national life, including Jim Crow. One consequence of the knowledge of Nazi Germany was that Americans who had accepted racism for decades now rejected it.

Finally, during World War II, many white Americans found themselves on the receiving end of racism for the first time and they did not like it. To elaborate, Japanese Imperialists, who regarded all non-Japanese as racially inferior, captured many American prisoners and subjected them to many brutalities.

Consequently, many white Americans realized that racism could turn against them. The images of white people, including European Jews, and American soldiers, being herded into concentration camps, forced into slavery, tortured, and murdered by racists, offered a powerful lesson in the dangers of racism.

Hitler’s Jim Crow collapsed along with the Third Reich in 1945. The American Jim Crow collapsed in the 1960s, when the American political system turned against racism. However, vestiges of America’s Jim Crow survive to this day and some people want to revive it.

Americans need to face the sorry truth that one of their creations Jim Crow inspired some of Nazi Germany’s policies.

*See Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, Chapter Eight the Nazis and the Acceleration of Caste for details.