The Nazis studied US eugenics and Jim Crow laws as a model for their policies. When they were criticized, one historian says, 'they pointed to Mississippi.'

Photographs of a segregated store for migrant workers in Belle Glade, Florida, in 1941 and of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of all the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.
Top: A segregated store for migrant workers in Belle Glade, Florida, in 1941. Bottom: The Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of all the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.MPI/Getty Images, Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images
  • A new Ken Burns documentary explores how the Nazis drew inspiration from US policies.

  • The PBS doc, "The U.S. and the Holocaust," was directed by Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein.

  • One historian noted that when criticized for their policies, the Nazis "pointed to Mississippi."

The antisemitic Nazi policies that preceded the Holocaust were inspired, in large part, by segregationist laws and ideals from the US.

That's one of the most prominent arguments in "The U.S. and the Holocaust," a new documentary directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein. It premiered Sunday on PBS. The three-part, six-hour series includes testimony from Holocaust survivors and, with the help of historians, examines the initial public apathy in the US toward the World War II-era humanitarian crisis in Europe and the government's reluctance to open its doors to those seeking refuge.

It also probes how the German Nazi Party looked to race laws in the US when crafting its own measures.

While imprisoned in 1924 for attempting a coup, Adolf Hitler learned of new US immigration laws that created quotas to limit the number of immigrants. The documentary highlighted that while the Immigration Act of 1924 didn't specifically mention Jewish people, it was fueled by antisemitic sentiment in the US as leaders feared they would outnumber white Anglo-Saxon Americans.

In the early 1900s many in America were weary of new immigrants as cities like New York began to be overcrowded and people competed for jobs.

Americans embraced eugenics — and the Nazis picked it up

The historian Peter Hayes said in the documentary that many in the US at the time came to believe that the issues of urbanization, including the spread of disease, were the fault of immigration.

In 1910, for instance, over a million Jewish immigrants were living in New York City — about a quarter of the city's population — and concerns grew that these new immigrants would eventually replace Protestant Americans.

Some Americans, including ones as prominent as Henry Ford, Helen Keller, and Alexander Graham Bell, began championing eugenics — a pseudoscientific ideology arguing that genetically "inferior" people should be sterilized to prevent offspring with undesirable traits.

The documentary quoted a writing from roughly 1914 attributed to former President Theodore Roosevelt: "I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized and feeble-minded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them."

Many states also passed sterilization laws. Historians said the eugenics preached in the US gave Nazis a blueprint of sorts.

"The idea was that the bad people have to stop reproducing and the good people need to reproduce more," the historian Nell Irvin Painter said in the documentary, noting the view of the practice in the US.

"Negative Eugenics says sterilize the wrong people — snuff them out — and that's the eugenics that the Nazis would pick up on."

Hitler, who wrote "Mein Kampf" during his imprisonment, was apparently pleased with the development and was happy the US saw itself to be a "Nordic-Germanic state and had acted to preserve its purity by excluding certain races," which reflected his own beliefs, the documentary said.

Nazis studied Jim Crow laws to model segregation in Germany

The Nazis' anti-Jewish efforts escalated with the September 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which among other things largely stripped Jewish people of their German citizenship. The documentary directly compared those laws to America's Jim Crow laws, which created strict segregation between Black and white Americans in the South.

The German laws, for instance, sought to maintain racial purity by barring Jews and those of "German or kindred blood" from getting married or engaging in sex — mirroring miscegenation laws in the US.

"Even as the Nazis are writing the Nuremberg laws that stripped Jews of their citizenship at the end of 1935, they're looking to Jim Crow laws in the United States to understand segregation here," the historian Daniel Greene said in the documentary.

The documentary added that in some respects the Nazi policies at that time were less harsh than some of the Jim Crow laws implemented in the US.

The historian Hayes also added that when the Nazis were criticized for their policies they "pointed to Mississippi."

"They were able to say: 'You say that we should not treat these people who we regard as inferior badly, but you do it,'" Hayes said. "'You have lynchings in the United States. You make it difficult for them to vote. So, how dare you reproach us for this?'"

The documentary, "The U.S. and the Holocaust," airs on PBS.

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