Excerpted From: Eric L. Muller, The Nazi Analogy in Japanese American Civil Rights Discourse, 1 North Carolina Civil Rights Law Review 94 (Spring, 2021) (132 Footnotes) (Full Document)


EricLMullerOn Saturday, April 25, 1942, 852 people from the German city of Würzburg and its environs boarded trains heading east under armed guard. The passengers had been forced from their homes because they were Jewish. They had already lost much of their property to rapacious neighbors. They had been allowed to take with them to the train station only what they could carry. At their destination they faced confinement.

The next day, Sunday, April 26, 1942, almost 6,000 miles away, a group of 800 people from the American city of Santa Monica boarded buses heading east under armed guard. They had been forced from their homes because they were of Japanese ancestry. They too had already lost much of their property to rapacious neighbors. They too had been allowed to take with them only what they could carry. At their destination they too faced confinement.

I am anxious as I draw this analogy between the World War II deportations of German Jews and Japanese Americans. The enormity and mechanization of the Nazi genocide dwarf anything placed alongside it. The abjectness of Nazi evil and the scope of Jewish suffering eclipse everything in their shadows. To compare anything to the Holocaust invites the prompt and derisive accusation of reductio ad Hitlerum that is so effective at ending discussion.

This anxiety has stalked academic and popular discussion of the wartime removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans for decades. While community activists and scholars have succeeded in establishing this program as one of America's biggest civil rights violations rather than the justified military measure most Americans deemed it during and after the war, one strategy has repeatedly encountered resistance. It is a linguistic strategy. During the war, many people in the United States referred to the government's ten confinement sites for Japanese Americans as “concentration camps.” Today, for most Americans, the term “concentration camp” calls up images of Auschwitz. Seeking to strip the Japanese American camps of any veneer of pleasantness, advocates and scholars have increasingly come to call them “concentration camps” rather than the euphemistic “assembly centers” and “relocation centers” of government parlance. And this effort to restore the common colloquial usage has triggered periodic waves of conflict with people who see it as an attempt to establish a false and insulting equivalence.

Today the conflict stands largely, even if still a bit uncomfortably, resolved. Those who call the Manzanar Relocation Center or the Heart Mountain Relocation Center a “concentration camp” typically make clear that they are not trying to invoke Nazism. They emphasize that the problem is one of semantic change over time, with the connotation of “death camp” replacing the original meaning of the term “concentration camp” as the world came to understand the horrors of Auschwitz.

These arguments about changed meaning have successfully resolved the conflict over the term “concentration camp.” But they have had an unfortunate side-effect. They have masked the important fact that in the early 1940s there actually was a civil rights discourse that dared to compare American policies towards Japanese Americans with Germany's contemporaneous policies towards Jews. In judicial filings and in newspapers between 1942 and 1945, critics and observers of the mass removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans invoked the tactics of the Nazis and the deprivations visited on German Jews. Not surprisingly, this rhetorical strategy ruffled official feathers, and did so even though the horrors of Auschwitz were not yet widely known.

This essay unearths the analogies to Nazi policies that advocates for Japanese American civil rights deployed even while the Nazi depredations were ongoing. It shows that what we now call the Holocaust was the stuff of civil rights conversation in the United States, not just years after the Holocaust ended but while it was happening. It also shows that Nazi policies and practices served as a touchstone for public discussion of the civil rights of Asian Americans, and not just African Americans. And in doing these things, it sheds new light on an enduring exceptionalism in America's understanding of its own civil rights history, one that insists the nation is immune from the repressive ills that afflict other countries.

[. . .]

For a brief moment, a more honest look inward seemed possible. Kerstin Fermaglich has documented how, in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Nazi Germany became a lens through which Americans allowed themselves to look critically at their own society. The concentration camp became a legitimate (if hotly contested) analogy for the slave plantation in the work of Stanley Elkins and the American home in the work of Betty Friedan; Stanley Milgram's famous electroshock experiments revealed a bit of the concentration camp guard in the American Everyman. That window closed later in the 1960s and remained tightly shut in the decades that followed, as Nazi Germany came to be seen as a singular, analogy-defying regime in the history of human evil.

Jewish and Japanese Americans were able to settle the debate over the term “concentration camp” only by agreeing that the window should remain closed. Analysis of the wartime civil rights of Japanese Americans more generally has had to proceed under the assumption of an exceptional America. The result is an impoverished historical account that flinches from comparisons that the historical actors themselves were not afraid to draw.

Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics, University of North Carolina School of Law.