From Jim Crow to Nazi Germany

A really interesting thing happened today in my senior level elective on the Holocaust. Over the summer students read Edward Larson’s book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, which tells the story of American ambassador, William Dodd, and his family during their stay in Germany between 1933 and 1934. Larson builds his narrative around the concept of Gleichschaltung, which roughly translates into “coordination” or “to bring into line.” Today students engaged in a seminar around the question of whether they believed that the Nazis had achieved Gleichschaltung among the German population. It was a fascinating discussion that took just about the entire class. I observed and took detailed notes that we will spend tomorrow unpacking.

With a few minutes left one of the students posed the question of why the United States did not intervene more aggressively in the 1930s to prevent the further harassment of and legal emasculation of the Jewish population. One student suggested that its easy to ask such a question in hindsight given that we know how all of this turned out, but a couple of students referenced passages in the book on the anti-semitism of members of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet and even Ambassador Dodd himself. Other students nodded in agreement. They had found their answer.

This was the only time that I interjected my own voice into the discussion since we were wrapping up the class and because I was utterly fascinated by what they ignored. I asked them to think about the reality of life for millions of African Americans in the United States at this time. Could we not make any number of connections between the challenges that both groups faced both in terms of their place within the legal system and the reality of physical harm? Were not both groups in some way second class citizens? Most of my students took AP history last year so they studied the history of Jim Crow and a few of them immediately made the connection and filled in some of the picture for the rest of the class. Finally, I asked them on what grounds could/would the United States possibly intervene because of the situation of German Jews.

I wonder why my students made the connection to anti-semitism and not the reality of Jim Crow in trying to answer the student’s question. No doubt, the reference to anti-semitism makes perfect sense given that I teach at a Jewish Day School, but I have to wonder if there is something more at work here. One of the tendencies that I see early on in this class is the move to think about Germany and Germans as an isolated event or to categorize the perpetrators (Nazi Party and beyond) as “the other.” The image of the important leaders and others as “moral monsters” serves to shield us from having to consider the important ways in which our histories overlap.

As students were packing up I left them with the following question: If the United States would have been justified to intervene on behalf of oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s would another nation have been justified to do the same thing here on behalf of the African-American population? Just a thought.

20 comments… add one
  • Good questions Kevin. Even in law school my students have a hard time coming to terms with how pervasive an influence racism has been in American history.

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    • Hi Pat,

      Here’s the thing. I think in a different context some of the students in this class would have little difficulty bringing up the horrors of Jim Crow racism. What I find interesting is that it didn’t come up in response to this question and I wonder if it is because we tend to resist comparing anything to the Nazis. That is one of the challenges of teaching this particular class.

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      • I think Americans resist comparing our outrages with those of anyone else. Were a Field of Lost Shoes to be made about child soldiers in Africa…

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        • I couldn’t agree more. It’s the central problem of seeing oneself as “Exceptional.”

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      • In my experience, the comparison of the Nazis to “the South” or to “the Jim Crow South”, or to the South today is not uncommon in US popular discourse. David Jansson, a geographer who studies this kind of thing once told me he’d found so many instances that he had “stopped counting”. So I think there is little resistance to Nazi comparisons in conversation about that region. If you decide to notice the nazi comparisons, you’ll see them.

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        • If you decide to notice the nazi comparisons, you’ll see them.

          One has to be very careful when making historical comparisons across the board, but in this case I thought that an understanding of race relations in the United States at this point in time was relevant to why the U.S. did not more strongly condemn Nazi policies.

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          • I read with interest your description of the lesson, and did not mean to make any statement about your lesson, which sounded fine to me.

            I wanted to address only whether there exists a reluctance to make nazi comparisons. I think such comparisons show up in comment about “the South”. Hence, on this sectional topic I suggest the reluctance doesn’t exist, though it may exist in other domains of discussion.

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  • I’d hate to be the guy, but the author’s name is ERIK Larson. Not Edward Larson.

    I think if another country had intervened in the Civil War, it would’ve been on the side of the south. The end goal would’ve been divide the U.S. and then retake it. Just my thoughts.

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    • Oops. Thanks for the correction. I wasn’t thinking about the 1860s, but the early 20th century.

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  • I didn’t read the book, but my Dad did. From what he told me, Larson said the one obstacle preventing the United States from intervening on behalf of the Jews were the Jim Crow Laws of the South. The Roosevelt Administration was justifiably certain that if they condemned the anti-Semitic practices of Nazi Germany, the Nazis would cite Jim Crow to point out Uncle Sam’s hypocrisy. This part of the narrative makes the students’ oversight all the more surprising.

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    • I am going to have to go back and double check, but I don’t remember reading any references to the Jim Crow South. That said, I could have missed it. Larson does emphasize the anti-semitism in the Roosevelt administration.

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  • I’m a bit surprised these students had to seek a positive motive for American non-intervention, such as anti-Semitism in the cabinet, rather than the negative one of isolationism. The United States wasn’t even a member of the League of Nations, which sends a pretty strong message that it’s not going to do anything about bad things happening in Europe. You might find out if these students are aware that it was Nazi Germany that eventually declared war on the US, not vice-versa. I wonder if Americans’ view of what the US could or should have done in the past is influenced by the current Liberal Interventionist narrative?
    As for connecting Nazi race ideology with Jim Crow, it might be worth looking at the close relationship that developed between the German-American Bund and the Ku Klux Klan.

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    • Isolationism came up as well during the seminar.

      As for connecting Nazi race ideology with Jim Crow, it might be worth looking at the close relationship that developed between the German-American Bund and the Ku Klux Klan.

      Interesting. Thanks for the suggestion.

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  • Hi Kevin:
    This subject of African Americans and their treatment in the US during the Holocaust in Europe is one that I’ve explored.

    First let me state clearly that behind every anti-Semite lurks a racist. Right and even left wingers assume that all Blacks are stupid and naive and know nothing about world history. Therefore they believe that we can be seduced by tales of Jewish injustice to satisfy their often transparent agendas.

    Stating the above, I’d like to add some of my research and experience to this discussion.

    The US was hardly concerned about being labeled a racist country by the Nazis. There was certainly enough evidence about anti-Semitic thinking and practices. America’s Jim Crow laws were not in the forefront of their thinking. Why the US didn’t try to save more Jewish people, I don’t know. But it was heartless and disgraceful. However the mistreatment of Black Americans had nothing to do with the US position on the European Holocaust.
    When we entered the war, sure there were accusations by Germany and Japan. I remember being chastised on AfriGeneas about my posting about a Japanese broadcast to black soldiers telling them to lay down their arms and why are you fighting for a country that subjugates you. (It may have been Tokyo Rose)

    The response from most Black Americans was. We fight because America is OUR country. As bad as we are treated, this is still our country.

    We all know about Hitler’s refusal to shake Jesse Owens’ hand at the Olympics. But Germany also had its sterilization program against the “Rheinland Bastards” who were the offspring of African soldiers and Germans from WWI. Did the American military ignore the torture and murder of Black GI’s by by the Panzers in WWII? The murder of the Wereth 11 (spelling) and other brutal atrocities was documented by the late Robert Kesting from the US Holocaust Museum. Hans Massequoi, editor of Ebony Magazine wrote Destined to Witness, his autobiography on growing up as a black child in Nazi Germany. When asked why he didn’t suffer the same fate as the Jews, he said that they hadn’t gotten around to us yet. (Meaning that the Nazis were still caught up in the exhaustive task of murdering a nation of people).

    I had the privilege of knowing two black men who survived the Holocaust. James Arthur Briggs was a family friend and famous jazz musician. He was living in Paris and thought he was under the radar. He was betrayed by a Parisienne and was arrested one night by the Gestapo still wearing his pajamas. He survived two concentration camps. He survived the Nazi brutality because he was assigned to the kitchen sneaking bits of food scraps. A personal irony was that he left America’s racism for freedom, only to face it at its worst in France.

    Leonard “Smitty” Smith was a soldier in Patton’s segregated 761St Tank Battalion. He was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery at the Battle of the Bulge. For many years I was the publicist for the 761st Veterans Chapter. The US Holocaust Museum in Washington cites the 761st as the liberator of Gunskirchen, a sub-camp of Mauthausen. In his later years, Smitty would visit schools and synagogues as a living witness to the Holocaust. When I asked him why did he volunteer to fight for America that treated Blacks as second class citizens, his answer was the same as echoed by many black soldiers. I fought for the right to die for my country. Yes, America treated us badly. But it still is a good country.

    I was at Arlington with Smitty’s biographer, Kareem Abdul Jabbar when he was laid to rest. At my request, Arlington contacted a Rabbi from the Navy to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead for Smitty.

    Kevin, I guess I expanded a bit on your observations about Blacks being a motivation for America’s ignoring the plight of European Jews. Again I write that it wasn’t.
    Kathleen

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    • However the mistreatment of Black Americans had nothing to do with the US position on the European Holocaust.

      I appreciate the comment, but I am not at all clear what argument you are making about US foreign policy. I am certainly not suggesting that reflection on racial justice on the home front was discussed among Roosevelt’s foreign policy team. Rather, I was reminding my students to remember the racial climate here as they contemplated similar questions about Germany.

      Thanks again.

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  • “The Impact of Racist Ideologies: Jim Crow and the Nuremberg Laws”

    http://www.hmh.org/viewexhibits.aspx?id=81

    The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics

    http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/1796

    The Nazis’ extermination programme was carried out in the name of eugenics – but they were by no means the only advocates of racial purification. In this extract from his extraordinary new book, Edwin Black describes how Adolf Hitler’s race hatred was underpinned by the work of American eugenicists

    http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2004/feb/06/race.usa

    http://www.learntoquestion.com/class/discussion/showthread.php?t=1446

    Jim Crow, Nuremberg, and Other Unjust Laws

    http://www.laprogressive.com/prop-8-jim-crow-nuremberg-and-other-unjust-laws/

    The Presence of the Past: Confronting the Nazi State and Jim Crow

    http://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/332-the-presence-of-the-past-confronting-the-nazi-state-and-jim-crow

    American Eugenics and the Nazi Connection

    http://www.constantinereport.com/foundations-of-holocaust-american-eugenics-and-the-nazi-connection/

    Eliminating the Inferior: American and Nazi Sterilization Programs

    http://www.ferris.edu/isar/archives/eliminating-inferior.htm

    American pseudo-science and the crimes of the Third Reich.

    http://www.motherjones.com/media/2003/09/supremacist-science

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  • Trying to avoid the, um, “interesting” arguments posted above, but seriously – the US had intervened in Europe in 1917-19, and after that experience, the general conventional wisdom in the 1920s and much of the 1930s was that Europe was no place for the US to try and intervene.

    The US chose not to intervene when the Japanese militarists oppressed their own internal political opponents and invaded China in the 1930s and French Indochina in 1940; chose not to intervene when the Italian fascists invaded Ethiopia and Spain; chose not to intervene when Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece – all nation states – much less oppressing all and sundry of the men, women, and children who fell onto the “enemy” list of Nazism; chose not to intervene when the Soviets oppressed their own and went to war against Poland, Finland, etc.

    The Holacaust leaps out at us today as the prime example of “never again” because of what happened in 1939-45, not so much what happened in 1933-38, and suggesting there was much in the way of a desire in the US to go to war in Europe or Asia absent the events of Dec. 7-11, 1941, is missing the realities of American life in the 1930s.

    Isolantionism was completely discredited by the events of 1941-45, but the reality is one of the two major parties and quite a few American Democrats had tremendous reservations about intervening against the realities of power politics in the eastern hemisphere, for reasons that – one would think after the past decade of land wars in Asia – can be understood, if not respected.

    I would expect the students at the Gann Academy are presumably on college tracks – any of them considering any of the federal academies, or ROTC scholarships? Much less simply enlisting?

    Or are any of them refugees, or the children of refugees?

    The perspectives, I presume, would be a little different in other parts of the Commonwealth.

    Best,

    Reply
    • The Holacaust leaps out at us today as the prime example of “never again” because of what happened in 1939-45, not so much what happened in 1933-38, and suggesting there was much in the way of a desire in the US to go to war in Europe or Asia absent the events of Dec. 7-11, 1941, is missing the realities of American life in the 1930s.

      This was the first response by one of my students in response to the question. It’s a good point.

      I would expect the students at the Gann Academy are presumably on college tracks – any of them considering any of the federal academies, or ROTC scholarships? Much less simply enlisting?

      The vast majority of Gann students are college bound, but a few of them with family in Israel spend time in the army.

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      • Many thanks – not too many kids from Southie, I take it? 🙂

        At my favorite institution, we have an interesting mix – part safety school, part first generation at college from the “other side of the tracks,” and a fair number of veterans on the Bill. Makes for some interesting discussions when we get into the realities of politics by other means. For what random directional state u. Is, we have a fairly sizable ROTC contingent as well, so there are often an eclectic mix.

        Makes things enjoyable, certainly.

        Best,

        Reply

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