Jack Gross writes: Amidst a string of pat introductory reflections to his recent book, Hitler’s American Model, which tracks the influence of American race law on the drafting of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, James Q. Whitman makes one that is revealing. The crimes of the Nazis, he writes, are the “nefandum,” a Latin word that denotes the unsayable, by which he means unfathomably evil. According to Whitman, the function of this unsayability is the maintenance of a “dark star”—his image, not mine—against which modern liberal democracies orient their own actions and histories. The point of Hitler’s American Model, then, is to bring the very often spoken horrors of the Holocaust—in this case the legal apparatus that enabled a genocidal state—into contact with the also unsayable, and surely less said, international influence of United States race laws.
Comparisons of things that aren’t fascist dictators to fascist dictators are made as commonly as they are condemned. When it comes to comparing people to Hitler, there is a rule of internet discourse that strongly discourages it. In liberal media outlets, with pseudo-earnest concern—Is Trump like Hitler?—the comparison is both energizing and reassuring: energizing because it denotes the clear radicality of Nazi evil, comforting because of the implicit anticipation of the triumph of liberal norms. The impulse to make the Nazi comparison is so common in part because it is understood almost invariably to be hyperbolic. (No, or at least not yet, is the most frequent response.) What is less common are claims to the messier truth of continuity, which fail to offer the sharp and spectacular relief that separates the horrors of the Nazi regime from the more common pace and texture of devastation by state violence. On one side of the comparison is generational immiseration, imprisonment, exile and death tempered by civility; on the other, the right-angled arm-band and the death camp.
Whitman’s history of influence contributes to a growing body of work that demonstrates links between America and Nazi ideology: most commonly cited are the prominent role of Americans in the global eugenics movement and Hitler’s admiration for the slaughter of indigenous people central to westward expansion. Before the Nazis had gripped complete control of Germany, America was receiving world-historical praise from German historians. Albrecht Writh, for example, understood the founding of the United States to be a key achievement in “the struggle of the Aryans for world domination”; in a volume titled The Supremacy of the White Race, Wahrhold Drascher wrote that, if not for America, “a conscious unity of the white race would have never emerged.” [Continue reading…]