<p>A segregated drinking fountain on the county courthouse lawn in Halifax, North Carolina. Photographed by John Vachon in April 1938.</p>
Theme: Other Topics

How did different goals and political systems shape racism in Nazi Germany and the United States?

The meanings of “race” and “racism” have varied over time and in different political, social, and cultural settings. Racism in Nazi Germany and racism in the United States are distinct and complex topics. This discussion question focuses on the history of racial antisemitism in Germany and its relationship to racism in the United States. Learn more about how racism developed in ways specific to each country.

See related articles for background information related to this discussion.

Some discriminatory and segregationist practices in Nazi Germany and the United States in the same period were similar. However, the goals of the racist policies and the nature of the political systems within which they existed were different. The goal of racism in the United States was to permanently segregate and exploit African Americans in virtually every aspect of society, often through violent means. (A small minority in the United States wanted to deport Black people to Africa.) In Nazi Germany, the initial goal was a racially pure Germany free of Jews. Isolation, impoverishment, and terror were used to pressure Jews to leave. At the height of German domination of Europe during World War II, the goal became the genocide of all European Jews.

Nazi Germany was a dictatorship. Hitler and the Nazi Party thus had control over political, social, and cultural institutions. Nazi leaders overtly and repeatedly rejected the equality of people. They aggressively promoted and implemented racism as national law. The Nazi regime regarded Jews as a deadly threat to the German people. They also targeted other groups they deemed biologically “inferior.” As the Nazis consolidated their hold on power, German Jews and anyone who opposed Nazi racial practices had few avenues for recourse through the political system.

Despite being a much heralded ideal in the United States, the concept that “all men are created equal” did not apply to African Americans. Under American democracy, those who were against unjust laws and practices had avenues to try to make their voices heard. For example, there are constitutional rights such as a free press and free speech. Often at risk for their lives and livelihoods, African Americans worked against overwhelming odds to resist racism. They  attempted to advance their civil rights by underscoring how their situation exposed the hypocrisy of the American ideal of “equality under the law.”

The role of the national government in organizing and perpetrating violence also differed in the two countries. In Nazi Germany, it was Hitler and other Nazi leaders who organized and perpetrated intimidation and violence. They also supported violent actions by grassroots activists. State-organized violence included Kristallnacht on November 9–10, 1938. There were nationwide terror attacks against Jews and Jewish property. It was also Nazi leaders who were responsible for developing and implementating the “Final Solution.” This was the systematic, genocidal program that targeted Europe’s Jews during World War II. 

In the United States, especially the Jim Crow South, grassroots violence and terror was longstanding. Groups of white Americans, animated by white supremacist ideology, took action on their own. At times they did this in response to perceived racial boundaries being crossed by Black Americans. But often they did this for no reason at all. These hate-filled, white people beat, humiliated, tortured, and lynched Black people without punishment by law. Local authorities demonstrated their explicit or implicit approval. Lynchings were often advertised in newspapers in advance. Local, state, and national authorities saw the advertisements and took no action to prevent the murders.

Racism and Antisemitism Endure

Racism and antisemitism persist in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, despite the fact that modern science has totally rejected 20th century notions of biologically determined distinct “races.”

After World War II and the Holocaust, eugenics was discredited for several reasons. It was in part due to the genocide and other crimes committed in the name of Nazi racial ideology. Another reason eugenics was discredited was because of more advanced scientific understandings of human genetics. Research has shown that distinct genetic pools as markers of “race” do not exist. Across all humans, DNA is approximately 99.9% the same. In addition, research has shown that all human populations can trace their genetic roots to common origins in East Africa.

Today, the consensus among scientists is that “race” is not a genetic or biological concept. Rather, “race” is a cultural and social concept that has varied depending on time, place, and circumstances—a human invention.

Over the course of history, group targeted hatreds have endured, even if the rationale has sometimes changed. Regardless of the rationale, the targeting of individuals on the basis of skin color, religion, ethnicity, or nationality continues to result in discrimination, persecution, and violence, including mass atrocities and genocide.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • How were racist laws and practices in Nazi Germany different from racist laws and practices in the United States? How were they similar? How did these distinctions affect the people the laws targeted?
  • How can governments and citizens counter the rise or existence of racist political parties and beliefs?
  • How can knowledge of the events in Germany and Europe before the Nazis came to power help citizens today respond to threats of genocide and mass atrocity in the world?

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