Nazi Gun Control: Three Words that Go Together
Ben Carson is in the crosshairs for his candid, principled comments on gun control — which included a statement that the Nazis could have been resisted more effectively had Europe’s Jews not been disarmed by their own governments before the Nazis took over their respective countries. Some have leveled the absurd charge of anti-Semitism against Dr. Carson, distorting his words to suggest that he accused Europe’s Jews of cowardice. Quite the contrary is true.
No one, including Dr. Carson, thinks that an unarmed man is a coward for obeying the orders of thugs carrying weapons. The fact that Jews and millions of other victims were forced into passivity is a matter of grim historical record — confirmed by survivor accounts, and recent accounts of Nazi genocide such as Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, and Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire. The latter documents precisely how much resistance the Nazis encountered as they tried to implement Hitler’s delusional racial anti-utopia — which aimed at turning all of Eastern Europe into a depopulated frontier, where surviving Slavs were illiterate helots of German colonists, and Jews were a vanished race. The answer is: surprisingly little, in almost any country that they occupied, with a few glaring exceptions.
What did those countries where the Nazis saw armed resistance have in common? The resistance forces had access to private weapons. Polish resistance forces such as the Home Army had stored caches of military-grade weapons before the country’s final surrender. Jewish militias that would later rise up in the Warsaw ghetto had also obtained weapons, sometimes from other sympathetic Poles. In Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Belarus, and the parts of Western Russia that saw serious partisan activity, the resisters were also armed with leftover military weapons or smuggled arms from Stalin. French resistance forces — which only became a serious threat when Hitler broke his alliance with Stalin in 1941 and French Communists stopped collaborating — had stockpiled caches of arms, and received more via airdrops from Britain.
Of course, the Holocaust could never have been implemented had the Nazis not come to power, and managed with little resistance to overturn the key protections of Germany’s constitution. It is here that the issue of private gun ownership was even more critical. World War II scholar Stephen Halbrook performed a detailed analysis of the impact of gun control laws on the Nazi seizure of absolute power in his book Gun Control in the Third Reich. In it, he shows how crucial Nazi officials such as Josef Goebbels considered the effort to disarm private citizens — especially those in groups that the Nazis considered their worst political enemies. Halbrook cites statement after statement from Nazi leaders about the urgency of confiscating private weapons from the Iron Front (a Social Democrat militia), from Communist groups, from Catholic conservatives, and from individual, law-abiding Jews.
The build-up to the first national Nazi pogrom, the brutal Kristallnacht, included a frenzied effort on the part of leading Nazis to track down all the registered firearms owners of Jewish descent, and seize their weapons so that there could be no real resistance when Nazi stormtroopers attacked Jewish businesses and burned historic synagogues.
But the Nazis’ job was an easy one, because virtually all of Germany’s Jews who owned any guns had dutifully registered them, years before, in compliance with the laws of the Weimar Republic — which was trying to disarm extremist groups. As Halbrook writes:
The decree also provided that in times of unrest, the guns could be confiscated. The government gullibly neglected to consider that only law-abiding citizens would register, while political extremists and criminals would not. However, it did warn that the gun-registration records must be carefully stored so they would not fall into the hands of extremists.
The ultimate extremist group, led by Adolf Hitler, seized power just a year later, in 1933. The Nazis immediately used the firearms-registration records to identify, disarm and attack “enemies of the state”.
Read Halbrook’s heart-breaking account of patriotic German Jew Alfred Flatow, who had won his fatherland a gold medal at the 1896 Olympics, and later obeyed the Weimar law by registering his guns:
Flatow walked into a Berlin police station to comply with the command and was arrested on the spot, as were other Jews standing in line. The arrest report confirmed that his pistols were duly registered, which was obviously how the police knew he had them. While no law prohibited a Jew from owning guns, the report recited the Nazi mantra: “Jews in possession of weapons are a danger to the German people.” Despite his compliance, Flatow was turned over to the Gestapo.
Anti-gun activists claim that it is absurd to suggest that firearms in private hands could be used to resist a totalitarian government. In fact, the opposite is the case. There is no single example of a country where firearm ownership was widespread among the general population which developed into a totalitarian state — except after a wide-scale civil war (as in Russia) or foreign conquest (such as Poland). Nations that move in an authoritarian direction typically seize private firearms long before they dare to suppress other civil liberties. Conquerors disarm the conquered. (The Nazis, upon their occupation of France, gave citizens 24 hours to turn in their weapons, on penalty of death.)
But we have countless examples of countries where moves toward more authoritarian government were thwarted by private citizens’ rebellions: From the Swiss resistance to the Habsburgs in the Middle Ages, and Holland’s revolt against Philip II in the 17th century, to our own War of Independence. Even within our history, we see that Jim Crow laws included restrictions on black citizens’ owning guns, which they could have used for self-defense against lynch mobs, unjust police and the Ku Klux Klan.
The issue of gun rights turns, finally, on a question about human nature — about common citizens like you and me. Are we responsible adults made in the image of God, with the primary right and responsibility of caring for ourselves and our dependents? Or are we dim-witted, passive sheep, who must look to our protectors in the government for food, protection, and guidance in our everyday decisions? May we defend ourselves and our loved ones when confronted with threats of violence, or is it our duty to surrender passively, then wait for the police to come tag their bodies? Are we free citizens, who may arm ourselves in self-defense and when absolutely necessary resist acts of tyranny? Or are we helpless peasants?