On this day in 1935, the German government adopted the Nuremberg Laws, which gave legal definition to racism in the Nazi state. The laws included the Nuremberg Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, which (among other provisions) banned intermarriage and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans [eta: as defined by the laws and state of the time] as well as the employment in a Jewish household of any German woman under 45 years of age. In writing the final draft of the law, Adolf Hitler deleted the sentence, “This law is only valid for full Jews,” this spurring debate over who, legally, qualified as a Jew.

In his War of the World, Niall Ferguson goes on from his discussion of such laws in Germany to note

… the United States could hardly claim to be a model of racial tolerance in the 1930s. As late as 1945, thirty states retained constitutional or legal bans on interracial marriage and many of those had recently extended or tightened their rules. In 1924, for example, the state of Virginia redefined the term “white person” to mean a “person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian” or “one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and … no other non-Caucasic blood”. Henceforth even a single “Negro” great-grandparent made a person black. It was not only African-Americans and American Indians who were affected; some states also discriminated against Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, “Malays” (Filipinos) and “Hindus” (Indians). How profound were the differences between a case of “racial defilement” in 1930s Hamburg and a case of miscegenation in 1930s Montgomery? Not very. Was it so very different to be in a mixed marriage in Dresden and to be in one in Dixie? Not really. Moreover, the influence of eugenics in the United States had added a new tier of legislation which was not only similar to that introduced in Germany in the 1930s, but was also the inspiration for some Nazi legislation. No fewer than forty-one states used eugenic categories to restrict marriages of the mentally ill, while twenty-seven states passed laws mandating sterilization for certain categories of people. In 1933 alone California forcibly sterilized 1,278 people. The Third Reich, in short, was very far from the world’s only racial state in the 1930. Hitler openly acknowledged his debt to US eugenicists.1

One may want initially to protest casual moral equivalence between these two regimes; one even wants to say, of course, that the US did not descend that further step into racist depravity represented by the Final Solution. But Ferguson’s parallel poses an interesting challenge: suppose he is right that short of industrialized genocide the two states did not substantially differ. What made the Germans take that step, and what stopped the Americans from taking it? Was it merely that the Germans went first, became our antagonists in a war for survival, and only thus showed the US whither its racial laws were tending?


1Niall Ferguson, The War of the World, 273-274.

If you want a compendium of US miscegenation and similar legislation, this is a good place to start.