Nuremberg’s Echoes

It's been 80 years since the Nuremberg Laws were passed. What are the lessons for antifascists today?

Propaganda illustrating the Nuremberg Laws, picturing a map of the central borders of Germany and a diagram of forbidden degrees of marriage between Aryans and non-Aryans. US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Vans filled with suffocated bodies. Frightened masses huddled in railcars, unsure of their final destination. Jews leaving Europe in response to heightened antisemitism. Xenophobic parties marching in public squares and issuing diatribes against non-white “outsiders.”

It has been impossible for students of history to miss the grotesque resemblance between these recent scenes and those of fascist Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. Much has been written about the rise of the political right, the bursts of anti-semitic and anti-Muslim violence in France and elsewhere, the plight of migrants, and appeals to nativist sentiments.

The anniversary of the passage of the Nuremberg racial laws provides an occasion to reflect on the state of racism and xenophobia in contemporary Europe and the United States. And it should remind us that attacking economic insecurity is central to the fight against nativism and bigotry.

Eighty years ago today, the German parliament — a barely functioning, rubber-stamp body for Hitler’s proclamations — approved the first two of several laws and emendations that would encompass the Nuremberg Laws. (Announced on the closing day of the annual Nazi party rally, the acts took the site of the event as their namesake.) The first, the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor, outlawed marriage and sexual relations between “Aryans” and “Non-Aryans” (namely Jews, but also — with later amendments — “gypsies, negroes, and their bastards”).

The other, the Reich Citizenship Law, stripped Jews of German citizenship and turned them into “subjects” of the Nazi Reich. Jews could no longer raise the German flag, now officially adorned with the swastika, or display the Reich’s colors. As non-citizens, Jews could also no longer vote (notwithstanding the meaninglessness of voting in a one-party state). And no Aryan woman under forty-five could serve as a domestic worker in a Jewish household, lest she be subject to the lecherous advances of Jewish men or be tainted by Jewish surroundings.

By regulating Jews politically, physically, and sexually, the Nuremberg Laws sought to curb their ostensibly disproportionate power and contain the threat of contamination, with the ultimate goal of engineering a pure Aryan race. From a legal standpoint, sexuality and citizenship coalesced in September 1935.

The Nuremberg Laws marked a turning point in the Führer’s assault on minorities. Most German Jews had been socially, culturally, economically, and emotionally integrated into their country — as veterans, community and business leaders, and as self-understood patriots. Almost overnight, the Nuremberg Laws wiped away over a century of expanding rights and shattered the dream that diasporic Jews could find a home in Germany.

To be sure, bursts of violent antisemitism and a suspicion of Jews as money-hungry, physically degenerate, and culturally decadent had existed alongside emancipation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But until Hitler’s rise to power, and even after the implementation of his first laws stripping “non-Aryans” of the right to practice many professions, some Jews had assumed that National Socialism was but a passing phase. Others weren’t so hopeful, fleeing Germany early on. For their part, by 1935 Zionists had long since given up a vision of German-Jewish integration — getting to British Palestine was of the greatest urgency.

At the heart of the Nuremberg Laws lay a dilemma that would occupy racial and legal “experts” for a decade to come: who actually counted as a Jew? In the months leading up to Nuremberg and into the early morning hours of September 15, the Nazis struggled with competing definitions. Was a Jew, they asked, someone with at least three Jewish grandparents or at least two? Was “Jewishness” a religion, a race, or both? What about someone who was “racially” Jewish but who had never set foot in a synagogue?

Ultimately, two months after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, the Nazis declared a Jew to be anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents — a compromise that disappointed hardcore Nazis who had favored the inclusion of half-Jews. Those with one or two Jewish grandparents were categorized as mixed breeds (Mischlinge) of different “degrees.” These Germans would largely be spared the persecution visited on “full” Jews, and they escaped murder in the camps and forests of Eastern Europe. But they and their spouses would still be subjected to a host of indignities and shifting taxonomies (from “privileged” to “non-privileged”) that affected whether they had to wear the Jewish star or live in hiding.

The Nuremberg Laws became the basis for extraordinary violence against Jews and other minorities. But its racial edifice was shaky. Despite Hitler’s obsession with biology, he had to rely on religious affiliation to work through the multiple gray areas of the laws. A massive bureaucracy was established to implement Nazi racial legislation.

A new section of the security service, headed by Adolf Eichmann, was established to enact a solution to the “Jewish problem,” and the secret police set up “Jewish desks” to oversee race laws and to process the appeals of half-Jews who would be pushed into the category of “full Jew” if they either practiced Judaism or were married to a Jew. Aided by genealogical tracing services that were sprouting up around the country, some Germans were relieved to discover that they had no damaging Jewish ancestry, while others who had never identified as Jewish or hadn’t known of Jewish relatives were transformed overnight into outcasts.

The myriad legal quandaries presented by the Nuremberg Laws could take on absurd dimensions. Under the terms of the September 15 legislation, for example, the Nazis had to consider the meaning of sexual intercourse. Did mutual masturbation between an Aryan and non-Aryan violate the law? And what of the role of religion? What if someone converted to Judaism and then converted back to Christianity? Would their brief affiliation with the Jewish community taint them or their offspring?

Yet however riddled with contradictions and confusion, the Nuremberg laws provided a powerful framework for the “legal” racism that would eventually drive Jews from Germany altogether. It also served as a template for other anti-semitic laws throughout Nazi-occupied and allied Europe. The destruction of Jewry required the coordination of hundreds of thousands of politicians, scholars, party hacks, clerks, legal administrators, guards, soldiers, and train conductors, not only in Germany but across the European continent.

The Nuremberg Laws were a signal moment in the history of European Jewry, marking what some scholars have described as a well-planned march toward extermination and what others have characterized as a devastating improvisation in an ever-radicalizing path toward Auschwitz. The laws undeniably constituted a Jewish tragedy, but it is worth recalling that in 1935 Nazi Germany was not the only country where color lines were becoming more rigid. Indeed the international dimensions of these laws are key to understanding how fundamental race and racism were to modern industrial societies.

Despite the subsequent universal horror at what we now know as the Holocaust, it is important to recognize that National Socialists never saw themselves as constituting an isolated, rogue movement, on the vanguard of a German biological reordering that found no parallels abroad. Rather, Nazi understandings of race and space drew selectively from models of colonial exploitation that predated the regime and transcended Germany’s borders.

Long before 1933, Germans studied official policies toward Native Americans and African Americans, looking for lessons they could apply to their own empire. Germans turned to settler colonialism and plantation economics abroad in order to puzzle through their own questions about racial separation, labor exploitation, and sexual prohibitions.

For the Nazis, the racial order of the United States was of particular interest. Well into the 1930s, thirty states had anti-miscegenation laws on the books, barring intermarriage between whites and African Americans, Native Americans, and South and East Asians.

German visitors to the United States in the 1930s happily reported that not every American believed in the “melting pot” ideal; plenty of them shared a disdain for ethnic mixing. Far-right xenophobes drew inspiration from the work of some in the Progressive Movement for whom population management, notably through forced sterilization, entailed cleansing the body politic of degenerates. From Indiana to California, forcible sterilization of the mentally and physically disabled had become acceptable public policy.

Accordingly, the German foreign office collected and catalogued articles and commissioned reports dealing with racial engineering, ethnic mixing, and legal segregation around the world. They left behind bulging files of newspaper clippings dealing not only with African Americans, but also with Australia’s measures against aboriginals, Scandinavian sterilization laws, and Japanese views of race. And the Nazis sent students to the United States, South Africa, and Latin America to collect information about racial persecution and color barriers.

One of these students, Heinrich Krieger, spent a year at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he surveyed the confusing patchwork of state-by-state racial laws in the South and then returned to Germany determined to design a more legally consistent and orderly racial system. Until 1945, Nazi writers wrote constantly about race riots in northern US cities, African-American persecution in the South, and the challenge of exploiting black labor on the African continent (where they assumed whites would expand their rule).

The Nuremberg Laws were thus promulgated in a transnational setting where prejudice, racial ostracizing, and social engineering transcended geographical and political boundaries. They also took shape against the backdrop of extraordinary economic upheaval.

In Nazi Germany, racism was not simply a reflection of deep-seated views about biological difference; rather it served as a repository for fears about the precariousness of one’s socioeconomic status. The Nuremberg Laws were issued at a time when the country was still recovering from the Great Depression and ingrained stereotypes about Jewish “overrepresentation” in the economy triggered violence.

The acts went hand-in-hand with the Nazis’ relentless equation of racial danger with Jewish financial power. Kicking Jews out of their businesses was justified in the name of limiting rapacious forms of big capital and leveling the playing field for shopkeepers and small and medium-sized producers.

As Nazi legal theorists debated the definition of a Jew, rioters smashed Jewish-owned shops, young men scrawled graffiti on store windows, party members produced anti-semitic placards, hooligans kidnapped storeowners, and citizens pillaged stores on their way to work. The Nuremberg Laws may have been riddled with inconsistencies, but they provided a legal rationale to Aryans already predisposed to seeing Jews as the illegitimate hoarders of the nation’s vital economic resources.

In the United States too, lynch mobs often — if not always consciously — predicated their murder of African Americans on the anxiety that blacks might challenge the economic status quo. While white supremacists in the South rationalized lynching by appealing to the myth of the black male who sexually violated white women, writers like Ida B. Wells had long recognized lynching as a way for whites to reinforce their own power amid economic displacement.

In the cases of both the United States and Germany, then, racial separatists were able to marshal the resentments of constituents who perceived themselves as economically under siege.

Biological concepts of race were inherently unstable — something that both the architects of the Nuremberg Laws and American racists recognized. The very fact that racial fictions served as the foundation for twelve years of persecution in Germany and decades of lynching in the US South suggests that more than “race” alone was at work. Racism festers in the context of economic insecurity.

This insight about the Nuremberg Laws contains lessons for our own times. Obviously, contemporary Europe and the United States are not 1935 Germany. Much has changed. In the United States, the two-time election of an African-American president is just the most prominent manifestation of an embrace of multiculturalism, racial tolerance, and harmony, at least in the abstract.

In Europe, more and more countries are making it a crime to deny the Holocaust (an admittedly contestable move on free speech grounds), and when there is an attack on migrants and asylum seekers, marchers come out by the thousands to insist that their Europe has learned the lessons of Auschwitz. Most notably, Germany has tied its democratic rebirth since 1945 to a culture of remembrance. It is ironic — if not surprising, given its relative wealth — that the architect of the Holocaust has become the land of milk and honey for those seeking a better life.

This isn’t just true of the migrants from the Global South escaping war and famine. Even Israelis, particularly those on the Left, are finding in Germany a vibrant cultural life, an open political culture, and an affordable cost of living that they feel is absent in Israel. It is moving to see a trainload of migrants arriving in Munich to cheers, balloons, and offers of food and shelter, having been driven first from home and then from neighboring European countries.

But today, commitments to racial tolerance and inclusion are also being tested across the Global North. Anti-miscegenation laws are gone, but neo-Nazis have endorsed Donald Trump because he speaks of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. In the US, voter suppression movements disenfranchise racial minorities under the guise of preventing tainted elections. Dylann Roof, a self-proclaimed white supremacist inspired by neo-Nazi literature, murdered nine people in a Charleston church.

Such vicious acts and toxic rhetoric can’t be understood outside of the economic paranoia that also gave rise to the Nuremberg Laws. Donald Trump has become the face of the Republican Party not because conservative voters all subscribe to abstract notions of whiteness (though some do), but because they feel that at a time of economic instability — diminishing jobs opportunities, depressed wages, and little power on the job — it is immigrants who are exploiting ever-diminishing resources that should be reserved for “true” Americans. History has taught us time and again that during periods of acute economic anxiety, one can readily find scapegoats.

The same sort of enmity is being directed at refugees fleeing to Europe. According to Viktor Orban, the right-wing prime minister of Hungary, foreigners threaten the Christian foundations of Europe. And the Polish government is only partial to Christian migrants, a tiny minority among those fleeing conflict and famine in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. While these anti-immigrant sentiments are about religion and race, they too are driven by profound socioeconomic disruption. The wealthier countries of Northern Europe hold out the promise of a new, secure life for asylum seekers, but even in traditionally progressive Scandinavian countries like Denmark we see blocked border-crossings to prevent the entry of migrants.

Immigrants, many Europeans feel, threaten the affluence that has marked Western and Northern Europe since the end of World War II. Meanwhile in Hungary, Serbia, Greece, and other parts of Central and Southeastern Europe, living standards are not as high, and here xenophobia merges with worries about shrinking economic resources and with resentments against the wealthier parts of the continent. The austerity measures enacted across Europe have created a rhetoric of limits that proceeds from the premise that redistributive policies are untenable.

All of these developments make for a toxic mix, and they draw out the base instincts that fuel xenophobic political movements. If the Nuremberg Laws reveal anything today, it is how remarkably quickly the institutions of civic life — the courts, the government, and professional organizations — can be co-opted by fascist elements.

At a time when anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant hatreds are on the rise, to be vigilant means not just welcoming “the other” by rhetorically embracing the ideal of tolerance. It also means naming and condemning the neoliberal policies that exacerbate economic chasms and that create the conditions in which xenophobia flourishes in the first place.