The Nuremberg Laws

On this day in 1935, Nazi Germany passed two radically discriminatory laws—the “Reich Citizenship Law” and the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor”— better known as the Nuremberg Laws, after the German town where the Nazi Party held a special meeting promulgating them. Together these laws laid the legal groundwork for the persecution of Jewish people, Romanies (Gypsies), and other undesirables during the Holocaust and World War II.

These laws declared Jews—and in later amendments Romanies and Africans—as “enemies of the race-based state,” and forbade any marriage or intercourse with them. German women under the age of 45 were banned from working in Jewish households. Only those of German or Germanic blood were eligible to be citizens of the Reich—the remainder were classified as “state subjects” deprived of citizenship rights. Those violating the marriage laws were imprisoned, and after completing their sentence were rearrested and sent to concentration camps.


1935 chart shows racial classifications under the Nuremberg Laws: German, Mischlinge, (mixed or “mongrel”) and Jew. Wikimmedia Commons.

The Nazis did not conceive of these laws on their own: they closely studied the United States, especially the “Jim Crow” laws of the American South, which they greatly admired for segregating racial undesirables from social, economic, and political life. They also borrowed the anti-miscegenation laws enacted in most U.S. states, which banned marriage and intercourse between whites and nonwhites (especially blacks). The Nazis were interested in how the U.S. designated Native Americans, Filipinos, and other groups as non-citizens despite living in the U.S. or its territories. These models influenced the citizenship portion of the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship and classified them as lesser “nationals” without certain rights.

As for determining how to distinguish between Jews and Aryans, the Nazis looked to America’s “one-drop” rule, which stipulated that anyone with any black ancestry was legally black and could not marry a white person. Similar laws also defined what made a person Asian or Native American, to prevent these groups from marrying whites. (Interestingly, Virginia had a “Pocahontas Exception” for prominent white families who claimed to be descended from Pocahontas.) In this area, the Nuremberg Laws ultimately ended up being less harsh—though of course no less bigoted—than the U.S. “one-drop rule,” decreeing that a Jewish person was anyone who had three or more Jewish grandparents.


A Nazi poster from the 1930s assuring Germans they “do not stand alone” with respect to racist eugenics laws. Note the flags. Wikimmedia Commons

Needless to say, the results of the Nuremberg Laws were swift: non-Jews gradually stopped socializing with Jews or shopping in Jewish-owned stores, leading to widespread economic deprivation. Jews were locked out of many forms of employment, forcing them to take menial jobs. Jews wishing to leave were required to pay a 90 percent tax on all their wealth; but 1938, it was almost impossible for Jews to find a country willing to take them, damning them to eventual extermination shortly after.

Unsurprisingly, the Nazis were initially not wholly condemned by Americans before the war. American eugenicists of all political stripes welcomed Nazi ideas about racial purity and even republished their propaganda. Famed American aviator Charles Lindbergh was an admirer of Adolf Hitler and even received a swastika medal from him in 1938. Henry Ford’s The International Jew, a collection of pamphlets and booklets that described the insidious Jewish menace, was cited as an inspiration by Nazi leaders; in fact, Ford is the only American mentioned in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where he writes, “Every year makes [American Jews] more and more the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty millions; only a single great man, Ford, to their fury still maintains full independence.” (Ford also subsequently received a medal from the Nazis.)

Of course, once the U.S. entered the war, it took a decidedly anti-Nazi stance. But African American troops noticed the similarities between the two countries, and subsequently devised a “Double V Campaign“: victory abroad against the Axis powers, and victory at home against Jim Crow.


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