On July 26, 1935, about a thousand anti-Nazi demonstrators attacked the SS Bremen, a sleek, state-of-the-art German ocean liner that had docked in New York. The protesters succeeded in tearing the swastika flag off the ship and throwing it into the Hudson River. It was the climax to a long, hot New York summer of street fighting between pro-Nazis and anti-Nazis.
Five of the rioters in the Bremen incident were arrested, but when they appeared before Judge Louis Brodsky in September of 1935 something remarkable happened: Brodsky dismissed all charges, arguing that the swastika was “a black flag of piracy” that deserved to be destroyed, the emblem of “a revolt against civilization … an atavistic throwback to pre-medieval, if not barbaric, social and political conditions.”
The law behind Brodsky’s brave proclamation was questionable, and it wasn’t long before FDR’s Justice Department apologized to Germany for the judge’s decision. Hitler praised the Roosevelt administration for disavowing Brodsky’s ruling. But the Jewish Brodsky’s acquittal of the anti-Nazi vandals still became a cause celèbre for Hitler’s party. The Nuremberg Laws of September 1935, which imposed harsh restrictions on German Jews, were, so the Nazis claimed, a “reply” to Brodsky’s “insult.”
James Q. Whitman dedicates his new book Hitler’s American Model “to the ghost of Louis B. Brodsky.” But Whitman disagrees with Brodsky’s claim that the Nazism of the mid-1930s was a throwback to the Middle Ages. Whitman shows that the Nuremberg Laws, instead of being a barbarous anomaly, were in part modeled on then-current American race law. The Nazi regime saw itself at the cutting edge of racial legislation, and America was their inspiration. “Nazi lawyers regarded America, not without reason, as the innovative world leader in the creation of racist law,” Whitman remarks. In the 1930s, the American South and Nazi Germany were the world’s most straightforwardly racist regimes, proud of the way they had deprived blacks and Jews, respectively, of their civil rights. (more...)