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The Dirty History of the Nuremberg Laws

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Posted on Oct 5, 2010
AP / Huntington Library

Gen. George Patton, right, presents Huntington Library Trustee Chairman Robert Millikan a packet containing the original copies of the Nuremberg Laws at the library in San Marino, Calif., on June 11, 1945.

By Tony Platt

Historical anniversaries are typically an occasion for remembrance, but the content of what and why we remember is always changing—and sometimes a matter of argument.

Take, for example, the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, whose passage 75 years ago in Nazi Germany transformed Jews from citizens to inferior subjects. To Hitler’s regime, the laws were a marker along the triumphant journey to the thousand-year Reich, to be celebrated as the purging of a deadly microbe from the political body of a resurrected Germany. To Jews, the laws represented a signpost pointing to the dead end ahead.

On Oct. 6, the National Archives will display the one-and-only original Nuremberg Laws for the first time in the nation’s Capitol. We can make sense of the documents only in historical context, but what context to choose? There are debates among historians about the significance of the Nuremberg Laws for the Nazi state, and among curators about the pros and cons of displaying icons of fascism. And let’s not forget the seamy story of how the documents ended up in the United States through the machinations of a celebrated American general and a world-famous library—or the even more disturbing story about the mutually appreciative relationship between the Nazi and American eugenics movements.

First, the facts about which there’s no dispute. The laws—so-called because Hitler ordered their passage in Nuremberg during the Nazi Party’s 1935 rally—consisted of three separate pieces of legislation that were rubber-stamped by the Reichstag in an atmosphere of fascist pomp. The Reich Flag Law replaced the colors of the Weimar Republic with the swastika. The Reich Citizenship Law established a distinction between “citizens of the Reich,” who were entitled to full political and civil rights, and “subjects” who were excluded from those rights. The third statute, known as the Blood Law, legislated the subordinated status of Jews by prohibiting marriage or sexual relations between Jews and German citizens, the hiring by Jews of German citizens under the age of 45 as servants, and flying the German flag by Jews.

The Nuremberg Laws codified segregation and anti-Semitism into legislation. It is only recently that popular histories of Nazism have identified the laws, in the words of Michael Berenbaum, as “the first step towards destruction.” But long before 1935, Hitler’s vitriolic hatred of Jews was a centerpiece of his politics. “The mightiest counterpart to the Aryan is represented by the Jew,” he wrote in “Mein Kampf” in 1925. And when the Nazis assumed power in 1933, they quickly barred Jews from public office and most professions. Two years later, the Reichstag confirmed racist policies that were already well under way. It may be symbolically powerful, but not the most accurate history, to suggest that the road to Auschwitz began in Nuremberg in 1935.

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As specialists in German history have observed, the Nuremberg Laws are important as an example of the 400 decrees and regulations through which the Nazi regime translated its obsession with racial hygiene into “a routine process of problem-solving,” in the words of Zygmunt Bauman. “Bureaucracy made the holocaust. And it made it in its own image.” The laws illustrate how the idea of genocide became a popular political project, requiring the mobilization of millions of active and passive supporters.

For descendants of victims of Nazism, the Nuremberg Laws have another kind of appeal: Hitler’s illegible signature scrawled on the four-page, typewritten laws. His signature is quite common to collectors, but in the absence of documents signed by Hitler ordering the mass murder of Jews, the Blood Law is widely regarded as a physical relic of the Holocaust. Consequently, for many people the documents themselves prompt memories of terror. But there’s also the danger that Hitler’s signature might pander to a fascination with notoriety among some history buffs and neo-Nazis. Not surprisingly, German museums, as well as the National Archives, are careful to limit public access to Hitler memorabilia.

There’s also an important American twist to the story that deserves remembrance. The original Nuremberg Laws ended up in the United States because Gen. George Patton pocketed them for personal use in violation of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s order to collect important Nazi documents for possible use as legal evidence. Patton stashed the laws at the prestigious Huntington Library in Southern California; after his 1945 death, library officials kept the documents off the books for 54 years, preserved in a bombproof vault, without disclosing their presence to scholars or the public.

In 1999, the Huntington announced its ownership of the Nuremberg Laws, but failed to carry out a title check, despite its suspicion that, in the words of a senior curator, the documents “seem pretty clearly to be war loot.” Moreover, the library publicized without verification a statement fabricated by Patton that he had received the documents lawfully from one of his generals in a “great public presentation.”

The Huntington chose not to display the Nuremberg Laws, instead loaning them “indefinitely” to the Skirball, a Jewish cultural center in Los Angeles, without informing the center of the documents’ dubious provenance. A few weeks ago, the Huntington yanked the Nuremberg Laws from the Skirball without consultation and did what should have been done in 1945: It turned over the laws to the National Archives, where they would have ended up with thousands of other Nazi materials. But even now, in full knowledge of the library’s role, the Huntington failed to acknowledge its own complicity in covering up the malfeasance of a war hero. No doubt, the close relationship of the Huntington and Patton families, and the centrality of Gen. Patton in the origins story of the library account for this selective amnesia.

But the collusion of the Huntington in Patton’s theft is not the only issue that should be remembered. More significantly, Patton and several academics at the Huntington—openly from the 1930s until U.S. entry into the war, and privately through the 1950s—supported the racist and anti-Semitic ideology embedded in the Nuremberg Laws. Patton grew up with a romantic affinity to the “lost cause” of the Confederacy, was a lifelong white supremacist, and flirted with fascist ideas. He remained convinced during the war that “a colored soldier cannot think fast enough to fight in armor.” And at the end of the war, he confided in his diary and letters home that Jews were “lower than animals” who “never had any sense of decency or else they lost it during their period of internment by the Germans.”

Meanwhile, back at the Huntington, leading members of the board of trustees—including the Nobel prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan—were active and enthusiastic supporters of the Human Betterment Foundation, a right-wing eugenics think tank in Pasadena with close ties to Nazi “racial scientists.” Like their counterparts in Germany, they too advocated sterilization of the “socially unfit,” bans on “miscegenation,” and policies of apartheid as a means to cleanse the body politic of racial impurities.

It’s fitting that the original Nuremberg Laws will now be preserved at the National Archives. Hopefully, the documents will be displayed on their 75th anniversary as more than a symbol of Nazi injustice. There are also lessons to be taught about what happened here as well as over there: low dealings in high places, homegrown racism, and the blurred line between fascism and democracy.

Tony Platt is the author, with co-researcher Cecilia O’Leary, of “Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, From Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial.” He blogs on history and memory at GoodToGo.typepad.com.

 


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BR549's avatar

By BR549, October 9, 2010 at 5:30 pm Link to this comment

October 9 at 6:54 pm
“America has always been low-level fascist since independence.”

You bring up some interesting points. It leaves me wondering as to whether the
fascist element was merely placating the revolutionaries by putting up less
resistance than what might have been expected of the Crown.

Methinks they dost abjure too much; ........ the Crown, that is.

Report this

By firefly, October 9, 2010 at 2:54 pm Link to this comment

America has always been low-level fascist since
independence. It’s vehemently anti-communist
mentality has always demonstrated that if it had to
choose between fascism and communism, it would
definitely opt for the former. This is one of the key
distinctions between America and Western Europe who,
since the Spanish Civil War and WWII found fascism to
be the greater of the two evils.

Another interesting fact is that German Americans
comprise about 17% of the U.S. population, the
country’s largest self-reported ancestral group.
Sympathy with Germany before WWII may have been
stronger than admitted.

On another point, it is interesting to note that
Israel’s recent “Loyalty Oath” which discriminates
against all NON jews and specifically Israel’s
Arab/Muslim population, is eerily similar (although
inversed) to the Nuremberg Laws.

Report this

By Rudolfo, October 7, 2010 at 4:24 am Link to this comment

y omygodnotagain, October 6 at 10:41 pm

“One of the most priceless bauble would be the lists of those killed in the concentration camps, the Nazis were nothing if not fastidious but they too seem to have gone missing.”

The lists are not missing, they were secured immediately after the war.  The Russians hid the Auschwitz Death Books till 1990 and released them then, they are summarized here ...

http://en.auschwitz.org.pl/m/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=109&Itemid=8

The records captured by the US / Brits are still being hidden at Bad Arolsen.  Over 60,000,000 documents.

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By omygodnotagain, October 6, 2010 at 6:41 pm Link to this comment

One of the many dirty secrets is that massive amounts of priceless artifacts were taken as souvenirs by GIs. For years treasure hunters have studied the obit columns of newspapers just in case a recently deceased GI brought home a priceless bauble, hordes of treasure hunters trolling estate sales and garage sales.
One of the most priceless bauble would be the lists of those killed in the concentration camps, the Nazis were nothing if not fastidious but they too seem to have gone missing.
My sense is that Patton and others don’t trust the Government, concerned that depending on sensitivities political pressures could make them disappear for good

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BR549's avatar

By BR549, October 6, 2010 at 2:26 pm Link to this comment

Rudolfo, October 6 at 6:15 pm
“Sounds to me a lot like modern day Israel, with two classes of citizens, Jews and
non-Jews.”

No, it sounds more like a practice run for what’s going on in the US today, only
with no particular discrimination except for US citizens instead.

Report this

By Rudolfo, October 6, 2010 at 2:15 pm Link to this comment

Yes, these Nuremberg laws were a scandal…. but, just how do they differ from the current laws in Israel ....

quoting ...

“The Reich Citizenship Law established a distinction between “citizens of the Reich,” who were entitled to full political and civil rights, and “subjects” who were excluded from those rights. The third statute, known as the Blood Law, legislated the subordinated status of Jews by prohibiting marriage or sexual relations between Jews and German citizens”

Sounds to me a lot like modern day Israel, with two classes of citizens, Jews and non-Jews.

Report this

By eecro, October 6, 2010 at 9:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Did I just land in a parallel universe? The one I’m associated
with has a historical record. One item in that record is the
columnist Drew Pearson outing Patton’s notorious slapping a
recuperating U.S. soldier upside his face and being cashiered?
demoted? shunted aside by President Truman. Another item in
that record is that It very conveniently happened that
Truman’s action rendered Patton no longer in a position to
carry out his own plan which was to continue the march of the
US army east of Germany all the way to the Soviet Union which
he intended to attack. At the time not a few of the more
knowledgeable reporters speculated that Truman didn’t want
any of his commanders pulling such antics at that moment.
Here in my parallel universe, the understanding about Patton
securing and sequestering his own copy of the 1935
Nuremburg Laws was that he was using his position to
suppress evidence—Hitler’s signed authorization— reaching the TRIBUNAL and sealing the fate of his good buddies from the
surviving top war criminals of the Nazis’ Thousand [minus
988] Year Reich then on trial at Nuremburg.  Truthdig’s take here on Patton and historical
reality ought to meet up somewhere, wouldn’t you agree? 
Geez… where’s Tom Tomorrow when we really need him?

Report this
BR549's avatar

By BR549, October 6, 2010 at 7:48 am Link to this comment

And how far away from these are we? Experimentation on the citizens,
sterilization, radiation exposures; all on the QT of course.

The same cast of dysfunctional characters are still pulling the strings.

Report this
BR549's avatar

By BR549, October 6, 2010 at 7:48 am Link to this comment

And how far away from these are we? Experimentation on the citizens,
sterilization, radiation exposures; all on the QT of course.

The same cast of dysfunctional characters are still pulling the strings.

Report this

By tedmurphy41, October 6, 2010 at 7:33 am Link to this comment

The Nuremburg laws were, indeed, a diabolical decision to disenfranchise German citizens who just maintained and followed a Jewish religion.
Is it not also diabolical in that the Israelis can do the same, by specifically designing laws which remove basic human rights from the Palestinian people that, in turn, do not and cannot affect the settled Jewish population. The Nuremberg laws are up and running and are now operating in Palestine.
Shame on you.

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peterjkraus's avatar

By peterjkraus, October 6, 2010 at 7:20 am Link to this comment

Well, gee, the Pattons and Huntingtons were Nazis?
Who coulda known? Not me: I got my little nine year
old ass kicked beginning in 1950 for a number of
years in Pasadena’s public schools for having been
born in Germany. To soothe the soul, I sought refuge
in neighboring Huntington Library (we lived on Bonita
Ave, ten bike minutes from the Huntington estate).

Thanks for this great story. My lifelong aversion to
hypocrisy has just received another accelerant.

Report this

By hlouisnini, October 6, 2010 at 6:23 am Link to this comment

I am reminded of something a teacher said to me many years ago - no matter how hard you try sooner or later your sins will out.

Report this
BalPatil's avatar

By BalPatil, October 6, 2010 at 5:41 am Link to this comment

I congratulate Tony Platt for his brave conclusion of the the parallel between the fascist Nuremberg Laws and the homegrown “‘sterilization of the “socially unfit,” bans on “miscegenation,”.And he missed mentioning the latest Guantanamo scandal. And by the way there is no reason why the cool and calculated dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki even when Japan was on the point of surrender should not be taken in this context:THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT OF STIMSON,  THE THEN SECRETARY OF STATE TO   THE THEN PRESIDENT TRUMAN PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS FEB.3, 1947:

    “THE FUTURE MAY SEE A TIME WHEN SUCH   WEAPON MAY BE CONSTRUCTED IN SECRET AND USED SUDDENLY AND EFFECTIVELY WITH DEVASTATING POWER BY A WILFUL NATION OR GROUP AGAINST AN UNSUSPECTING NATION   OR GROUP OF MUCH GREAT SIZE AND MATERIAL POWER.  WITH   ITS AID EVEN A VERY POWERFUL     AND UNSUSPECTING NATION   MIGHT BE CONQUERED WITHIN A VERY FEW DAYS BY A VERY   SMALLER   ONE…”

    QUOTING   THIS THE MOST DISTINGUISHED EXPERIMENTAL PHYSICIST AND NOBEL PRIZE WINNER IN 1948 P.M.S. BLACKETT SAYS IN HIS BOOK ‘THE MILITARY AND POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES OF ATOMIC ENERGY’  (1948):  “THE OBVIOUS RESULT HAS BEEN TO STIMULATE A HYSTERICAL SEARCH FOR 100 PER CENT SECURITY FROM SUCH ATTACK.  SINCE   THERE CAN BE NO SUCH COMPLETE SECURITY   FOR AMERICA EXCEPT THROUGH WORLD HEGEMONY BY AMERICA IN ONE FORM OR ANOTHER…”P.128 Please see my Blog:http://balpatil.sulekha.com/blog/post/2009/08/pax-americana-was-hiroshima-necessary.htm

I think racism is inbuilt in the American style of democracy. Permit me to give a link to my Blog:Scientific Support for Racism http://balpatil.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/scientific-support-for-racism/

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