Sunday Book Review: Gun Control in the Third Reich

courtesy Robert Farago for TTAG

To say Gun Control in the Third Reich is tough sledding is like saying the Jamaican bobsled team was an unlikely entry into the 1988 Olympics. A light read, it ain’t. An academic work on the legal and historical progression of gun control before the Third Reich through to disarmament under Nazi domination, it is. As such, Gun Control in the Third Reich is an important book for gun rights advocates. It gives them the ammunition they need to help others connect the dots between gun registration, gun confiscation and state-sponsored mass murder. Strangely, author Stephen P. Halbrook begins by warning readers against that very line of thinking . . .

This book does not crudely argue that gun control led inexorably to the Holocaust, nor does it claim an intrinsic connection between firearms restrictions and genocide or Nazism, as some polemicists would have it. Of course, the Holocaust itself was in many respects a singular event that was only possible due to a very large number of factors that historians are still attempting to understand.

As a Jew reading this introductory caveat, I was astounded and angered. To suggest that the Holocaust is a “singular event” is to deny that the opposite is true: state-sponsored mass murder is as old as humanity itself and as fresh as Guatemala or Rwanda. To downplay the role of disarmament in mass murder generally and the destruction of European Jewry in specific gives aid and comfort to those who say “it couldn’t happen here” while putting Americans on the same slippery slope into the abyss that claimed my family.

Reading on, I was reassured. It’s certainly true that Gun Control in the Third Reich doesn’t “crudely” argue that firearms restrictions lead to genocide. It makes the point by providing a sophisticated and detailed road map from one to the other, drawing on thousands of source materials. There can be no denying (now) that the Nazis’ systematic disarmament program capitalized on gun control laws passed by well-meaning liberals in the Weimar Republic. The Nazis used the previous government’s registration records to confiscate firearms and send their owners to concentration camps.

One of the truly frightening aspects of this account: the arguments against gun control in the pre-Nazi era are exactly the same as the arguments mooted by gun rights advocates today. Here’s a protest from Dr. Flege (Senior Court Martial Judge for the Navy) against the 1931 Law Against Unauthorized Use of Weapons – establishing a police permitting system and firearms registry – signed by Reich president Paul von Hidenburg.

Are the authorities justified to call the carrying of weapons a “misuse” that is subject to punishment if the person carries the weapon exclusively for the purposes of self-defense, a right that every citizen has by law? May a state, which is unable to protect life and liberty of its citizens from unlawful attacks, keep those citizens from exercising their right of self-defense? It is clear that even a strong, but unarmed man will be helpless when confronted by an armed attacker. The fact that peaceful citizens who respect the law are forced to forego weapons because of the penalties contained in the weapons laws. On the other hand, peace breakers who intentionally violate law and order are not deterred by a prison term.

Dr. Flege’s plea not to leave good men defenseless focuses on criminal assault, not government violence against its citizenry. The same rule applies. Halbrook’s tome shows how the popularly elected Nazi party abandoned the rule of law to tighten their grip on the populace, declaring that the Führer’s will superseded any and all written laws, while making the Gestapo the ultimate authority in matters of enforcement. Which brings us to the central question: could the Nazis have assumed that kind of power without first disarming the general populace?

It is this conundrum that elevates Gun Control in the Third Reich above the “normal” debate over whether or not the Jews of Germany and Europe could have avoided mass extermination (and horrific scientific experimentation) had they been armed. Truth be told, the Nazis’ relentless disarmament campaign applied to all German citizens, preventing any and all of the regime’s opponents from mounting effective resistance to the Nazi Party’s totalitarian policies – including the Holocaust.

This is the hidden history of  German gun control. The assumption that the German people were, as one, brainwashed into blindly and willingly following Hitler’s genocidal mania is false. A segment of the German population detested the Nazi regime but could do nothing about it – because they were disarmed and, in many cases, destroyed. Gun control gave the Nazis free reign to impose their reign of terror, free from dissent.

As Berlin Jewish socialite Bella From wrote in her diary,

“They’ve arrested Pastor Neimoller [the man who wrote the poem ‘First they came for the communists . . .’] charging him with subversive activity! They dare anything, knowing that there is no armed minority strong enough to oppose their most outrageous acts.”

Critical to that wider gun control campaign: the disarmament of German shooting clubs and war veterans. The National Socialists considered anyone who wasn’t a Party member with skill at arms and arms to hand an enemy of the state. As they consolidated power, Hitler’s minions “strengthened” gun control laws to reflect that fact. Eventually, anyone who didn’t surrender their guns to the authorities who was later found to have a firearm was shot, hung, garroted, sent to a concentration camp, starved or gassed. The same applied to nationals in Nazi-controlled territories.

It’s gun control as a means of guaranteeing subservience to the state. Halbrook explores this connection in the section on Kristallnacht, the night the Nazis began their move towards the “final solution” for the Jews. A pogrom that was predicated on the assassination of a Nazi Party member by an armed Jew (Heschel Grynszpan) in Paris.

The people at large generally did not participate, and most appeared gravely disturbed by the attacks. Some members of the public helped Jews leave their stores unmolested. But citizens who protested against the attacks on Jews were threatened and silenced by the Rollkommandos [wrecking crews].

Observing that the people at large took no part in and were repulsed by the pogrom, anti-Hitler plotter Hans Gisevius later reflected that they could also see what might happen to themselves if they spoke out or resisted. In addition to the mortal blow to the German Jews, “the cowed middle class stared at the Nazi monster like a rabbit at a snake. A general psychosis had been created, under which the populace was reduced to absolute submission; and this effect was valuable to the Nazis. The class was doomed, but for the present it had its uses and would be made to serve.

In that context, you can almost forgive Halbrook for a glaring omission in his scholarly work, one that would have addressed lingering doubts about potential Jewish resistance to Nazi genocide. How many Jews were armed before the crackdown? Gun Control in the Third Reich provides anecdotal evidence of Jews surrendering arms and Nazi propaganda claims from [alleged] confiscations in Berlin. The information doesn’t paint a picture of an armed populace ready to do battle – with criminals or Nazis – for their survival.

Does that matter? I don’t think so. Those who say the Nazis would have exterminated the Jews even if they’d been armed to the teeth miss the point: the Nazis used gun control to gain, establish and consolidate power. There wouldn’t have been a Third Reich, nor a Jewish holocaust, without gun control. Gun Control in the Third Reich establishes this fact clearly, in nightmarish detail. But the final word belongs to Hitler himself, allowing that you can substitute the word “citizens” for “subject races” without changing the meaning of his rant.

“The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared for their own downfall is so doing.”