Hitler’s American inspiration

There have been a huge number of books devoted to Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Nazis, trying to understand what drove his thinking and how he was able to win the allegiance of the nation in his monstrous plans and almost succeed. In the April 30, 2018 issue of The New Yorker Alex Ross reviews a series of books and focuses on the American sources of inspiration that Hitler drew upon to justify his policies and to believe that the world would overlook his actions. In particular he felt that American racism, with its extermination of Native Americans, subjugation of the black population, and exclusion of non-white immigrants, was pursuing the same policies of trying to create racial purity that he sought to implement. Furthermore, he was impressed with American insouciance, the ability to practice utterly racist policies while acting like it was a deeply religious nation and a beacon of freedom and equality. He felt that he too could ride out any opprobrium by simply asserting that what he was doing was actually virtuous.

As with many New Yorker articles, this one is very long and I will excerpt just one section.

The Nazis were not wrong to cite American precedents. Enslavement of African-Americans was written into the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson spoke of the need to “eliminate” or “extirpate” Native Americans. In 1856, an Oregonian settler wrote, “Extermination, however unchristianlike it may appear, seems to be the only resort left for the protection of life and property.” General Philip Sheridan spoke of “annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction.” To be sure, others promoted more peaceful—albeit still repressive—policies. The historian Edward B. Westermann, in “Hitler’s Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars” (Oklahoma), concludes that, because federal policy never officially mandated the “physical annihilation of the Native populations on racial grounds or characteristics,” this was not a genocide on the order of the Shoah. The fact remains that between 1500 and 1900 the Native population of U.S. territories dropped from many millions to around two hundred thousand.

America’s knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death struck Hitler as an example to be emulated. He made frequent mention of the American West in the early months of the Soviet invasion. The Volga would be “our Mississippi,” he said. “Europe—and not America—will be the land of unlimited possibilities.” Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine would be populated by pioneer farmer-soldier families. Autobahns would cut through fields of grain. The present occupants of those lands—tens of millions of them—would be starved to death. At the same time, and with no sense of contradiction, the Nazis partook of a long-standing German romanticization of Native Americans. One of Goebbels’s less propitious schemes was to confer honorary Aryan status on Native American tribes, in the hope that they would rise up against their oppressors.

Jim Crow laws in the American South served as a precedent in a stricter legal sense. Scholars have long been aware that Hitler’s regime expressed admiration for American race law, but they have tended to see this as a public-relations strategy—an “everybody does it” justification for Nazi policies. Whitman, however, points out that if these comparisons had been intended solely for a foreign audience they would not have been buried in hefty tomes in Fraktur type. “Race Law in the United States,” a 1936 study by the German lawyer Heinrich Krieger, attempts to sort out inconsistencies in the legal status of nonwhite Americans. Krieger concludes that the entire apparatus is hopelessly opaque, concealing racist aims behind contorted justifications. Why not simply say what one means? This was a major difference between American and German racism.

American eugenicists made no secret of their racist objectives, and their views were prevalent enough that F. Scott Fitzgerald featured them in “The Great Gatsby.” (The cloddish Tom Buchanan, having evidently read Lothrop Stoddard’s 1920 tract “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy,” says, “The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged.”) California’s sterilization program directly inspired the Nazi sterilization law of 1934. There are also sinister, if mostly coincidental, similarities between American and German technologies of death. In 1924, the first execution by gas chamber took place, in Nevada. In a history of the American gas chamber, Scott Christianson states that the fumigating agent Zyklon-B, which was licensed to American Cyanamid by the German company I. G. Farben, was considered as a lethal agent but found to be impractical. Zyklon-B was, however, used to disinfect immigrants as they crossed the border at El Paso—a practice that did not go unnoticed by Gerhard Peters, the chemist who supplied a modified version of Zyklon-B to Auschwitz. Later, American gas chambers were outfitted with a chute down which poison pellets were dropped. Earl Liston, the inventor of the device, explained, “Pulling a lever to kill a man is hard work. Pouring acid down a tube is easier on the nerves, more like watering flowers.” Much the same method was introduced at Auschwitz, to relieve stress on S.S. guards.

When Hitler praised American restrictions on naturalization, he had in mind the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed national quotas and barred most Asian people altogether. For Nazi observers, this was evidence that America was evolving in the right direction, despite its specious rhetoric about equality. The Immigration Act, too, played a facilitating role in the Holocaust, because the quotas prevented thousands of Jews, including Anne Frank and her family, from reaching America. In 1938, President Roosevelt called for an international conference on the plight of European refugees; this was held in Évian-les-Bains, France, but no substantive change resulted. The German Foreign Office, in a sardonic reply, found it “astounding” that other countries would decry Germany’s treatment of Jews and then decline to admit them.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans died fighting Nazi Germany. Still, bigotry toward Jews persisted, even toward Holocaust survivors. General George Patton criticized do-gooders who “believe that the Displaced person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews who are lower than animals.” Leading Nazi scientists had it better. Brian Crim’s “Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State” (Johns Hopkins) reviews the shady history of Wernher von Braun and his colleagues from the V-2 program. When Braun was captured, in 1945, he realized that the Soviets would become the next archenemy of the American military-industrial complex, and cannily promoted the idea of a high-tech weapons program to ward off the Bolshevik menace. He was able to reconstitute most of his operation Stateside, minus the slave labor. Records were airbrushed; de-Nazification procedures were bypassed (they were considered “demoralizing”); immigration was expedited. J. Edgar Hoover became concerned that Jewish obstructionists in the State Department were asking too many questions about the scientists’ backgrounds. Senator Styles Bridges proposed that the State Department needed a “first-class cyanide fumigating job.”

These chilling points of contact are little more than footnotes to the history of Nazism. But they tell us rather more about modern America. Like a colored dye coursing through the bloodstream, they expose vulnerabilities in the national consciousness.

It is comforting for people to think that Hitler and Nazi Germany were some kind of freak occurrence, arising from a combination of factors that would not have occurred here even if our present-day white supremacists and neo-Nazis are taking inspiration from that period. What Ross’s article suggests is that the inspiration went both ways, from the US to Germany before returning here.

But not just here. Ryan Gallagher writes about the rise of violent neo-Nazi groups in the UK and across Europe, fanned by right-wing politicians similar to Donald Trump who have energized these movements by granting them legitimacy.


  1. says

    I’m still struggling to understand when the US was ever great.

    As for that bit about Jefferson, I once made a comment about the American founders being mere men (I believe it was at Pharyngula, possibly even on the old SB site but it could have been here on FtB) and another commenter got very angry at me. They weren’t “mere” men, damn it! Yes they were. They wrote about freedom and liberty while owning slaves and conducting wholesale slaughter of the people whose land they were stealing. Hell, calling those murderous thugs “mere” might have been too much of a compliment.
    I knew Jefferson was a hypocritical rapist, but this new information (to me) is just more damning evidence to his utter lack of character.

  2. busterggi says

    If America wasn’t exceptional then it couldn’t have inspired Hitler so take that critics of American exceptionalism!

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ 1 Tabby Lavalamp

    I’m still struggling to understand when the US was ever great.

    Donny is working on it. The “Again” in MAGA was just thrown in since MAG didn’t sound that good.

  4. rjw1 says

    @1 Tabby Lavalamp.

    Yes. I’ve pointed out to Americans that their country wasn’t founded as a democracy, but as a slave-owning oligarchic republic.

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