The Perception by Nazi Germany of Racial Violence in the US

To conclude its German History Lecture Series for the fall semester, the Center for German and European Studies (CGES) at IES welcomed Jonathan Wiesen, Chair of the Department of History at Southern Illinois University. His talk, which centered around perceptions of lynching, covered the role of racial violence in the United States in the development of the Nazi imaginary. Specifically, he considered the question of how Americans’ treatment of minorities carried over into the German context.

Lynching in particular, which first appeared in Nazi propaganda and writings in the 1930s, pushed the party to puzzle through its own project of racial engineering, leading to their identifying and learning from the successes and failures of the American example. As a party that promoted street justice as a valid extension of courtroom justice, the Nazis did not fully disapprove of the practice of lynching; however, they did have some accompanying reservations. On the one hand, they admired the way in which Americans both employed restrictions against intermarriages as well as implemented deportation as means of addressing their “problematic” minority populations. On the other hand, however, they saw many problems with the American system. Wanting to stabilize racial order in the German nation, Nazis were unnerved by the fact that white people carrying out such acts of violence in the States did so in a chaotic manner. While the methodology behind lynching in the United States could, in the Nazis’ opinion, be applied in their local context, there were some major differences between its application in the two nations. For example, Hitler wanted to establish segregation law on a national, not state or municipal, level, something the Americans had not managed to accomplish. Hitler also argued that, because German Jews were not as disadvantaged societally as the African Americans were, segregation alone would not prove productive. Propaganda served as the primary means of addressing this, with Jews being portrayed as the major contributors to the moral and physical degeneracy of the German population.

In conclusion, Wiesen argued that the Nazis’ views of lynching and anti-black racism in the US were confused and incoherent. While the “negro problem” in Germany by no means mirrored the “Jewish problem,” the Nazis were able to exploit attitudes towards African Americans in the in their efforts to maximize on the lessons lynching had to offer. In conjunction with his sharing of some of the propagandistic images discussed, the fifteen in attendance came away with a much more enlightened understanding of the interrelatedness of American and German racial violence.