Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, March 10, 2017

Can Counterfactuals Help Explain the Relationship Between American and Nazi Racism? On James Whitman's "Hitler's American Model"

James Q. Whitman’s new book, Hitler’s American Model, raises important issues that are worth exploring about the influence of American racism on the policies of the Nazi regime.  One way of testing the causal relationship is to borrow from Max Weber’s time honored method of altering a variable in a causal relationship and seeing how a changed antecedent would affect the consequent.

One critic, Joshua Muravchik has already done so in a perceptive, if imperfect, review in Moment Magazine.  In challenging Whitman’s claim that segregationist American laws pertaining to Blacks and whites in the U. S. influenced Nazi legal minds drafting the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 (not 1934, as Muravchik mistakenly writes), he declares:

"Suppose for a moment that the Nazis had found no “inspiration” in American examples. What then? The German lawyers had a mandate, flowing from the Führer, to draft laws that would strip Jews of their citizenship and prevent them from further contaminating German blood through sexual contact. Had there been no American “models” to guide them, would the lawyers have reported back to their superiors that, however desirable it might be to protect the Aryan race from the Jews, they could recommend no measures because they could find no foreign precedents? Would there have been no Nuremberg laws? Would the Führer have backed down and away?"

The suggestion, of course, is that Nazi policy would have unfolded exactly as it did in reality.

Similarly, in The Journal of Genocide Research (2013), Thomas Kühne critiqued the claim of Carroll Kakel’s book, The American West and the Nazi East, that the story of 19th century American colonial activity in North America (ie. western expansion) inspired Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum in World War II. 

As Kühne put it:

“Apart from few Hitler quotations, Kakel relies on a likewise scanty body of secondary sources on the reception and the images of America in Nazi Germany and by the Nazi movement. The far-reaching, implicit consequence of his comparison—if there had been no American West, the German East and possibly the Holocaust would not have materialized, or if so, only in a different way—is thus based on astonishingly thin evidence. Hence, Jens-Uwe Guettel, author of rather differently conceptualized book on transnational exchanges between German and American imperialism and expansionism, is able to quickly deflate the foundation of Kakel’s thesis: in Hitler’s first 800-page book, North America is mentioned three times, each ‘brief, superficial and metaphorical’. America is invoked a little more often in Hitler’s second book (unpublished during his lifetime), but not with reference to German expansion in the East.”

My point in drawing attention to these counterfactual critiques is not to question to value of comparing American and Nazi racism.  Such a comparison can be highly instructive.  Rather, I seek to show how establishing causal influence can be aided by counterfactual analysis. 

Muravchik's and Kühne’s observations suggest that, even without the American precedents, Nazi policy would have probably proceeded as it did in semi-deterministic fashion.  Their observations suggest that any Nazi references to American precedents served less as sources of inspiration than rhetorical justification.


  1. Even if there were't the indians(native people of america) wars Hitler would have used another exemple. Hitler said he admired the Mongols and the arabic invasion of the medieval times. Hitler also said that he wanted Russia to be Germany India(a colony to plunder).

  2. I forgot, Hitler also liked the authoritarian society of Sparta that did eugenics.