- - Sunday, December 29, 2013

Stephen P. Halbrook
The Independent Institute, $27.95, 246 pages

“Gun control caused the Holocaust.” That’s an argument, rather unhelpfully phrased, that American gun-rights supporters have been making for decades.

There’s no way to prove it. In fact, most of the time it’s not even clear what alternate history is being suggested. Are we talking about a world in which the Nazis behaved exactly the way they did, but inexplicably allowed their victims to remain armed? A world in which, as the Nazis came to power, Germany already had a widespread and passionate gun culture like America’s?

Unfortunately, this bold assertion obscures very serious questions about the role disarmament can play in oppression. And at last we have the historical information we need to investigate those questions, in the form of Second Amendment lawyer Stephen P. Halbrook’s “Gun Control in the Third Reich.” It is the most extensive history to date of Nazi Germany’s policies on firearms, drawing largely on original documents.

The book begins with the Weimar Republic, the democratic regime that preceded the rise of Adolf Hitler. Germany was in poor shape, coping with a bad economy and dealing with the fallout from World War I. Nazi and communist groups were gaining ground, and were becoming increasingly violent, both with each other and (in the case of the communists) with the government. Germany’s working class didn’t have much experience using guns, but firearms played a role in these confrontations.

In 1919, after repressing a communist uprising, the government instructed citizens to surrender “any and all firearms and ammunition,” under penalty of five years in prison and a fine. Then, after an attack on a police station, Berlin officers began shooting citizens who were caught with firearms on the spot. The next year saw the Law on the Disarmament of the People, followed by house-to-house searches and confiscations.

In 1928, the government enacted a new firearms law, strictly regulating the manufacturing and sale of firearms — but allowing citizens to own guns and ammunition, and even to carry them, if they first obtained the relevant licenses. However, authorities had full discretion over whether to grant these permits, and were instructed not to give licenses to “Gypsies or persons traveling like Gypsies.”

In 1931, the government authorized the states to require gun registration, and to confiscate weapons if they chose. Many jurisdictions, in particular the more urban ones, did enact registration. The next year, when the gun industry faced collapse, the government enacted a very limited deregulation.

The year after that, the Nazis came to power and aggressively attacked their political enemies, including searching homes for weapons. A 1933 decree ordered citizens to surrender their “military weapons,” including bolt-action rifles and revolvers. In April of that year, the police president of Breslau revoked the firearm permits of all the city’s Jews.

Also in 1933, Hermann Goering, who had been placed in charge of Prussia, ordered regional governments in the state to submit lists of firearms license holders. As Mr. Halbrook demonstrates through a case study of Brandenburg, the ensuing process was directed at disarming Jews and political opponents.

The campaign continued. In late 1935, a Gestapo directive informed police authorities that “as a rule, we have to assume that firearms in the hands of the Jews represent a considerable danger for the German people.”

In 1938, the Nazis formally updated the 1928 weapons law but changed surprisingly little and actually loosened some restrictions. Jews were officially excluded from the firearms industry, though they still were not categorically disallowed from firearms permits.

But later in the year, Berlin’s police president (who would go on to take part in the 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler) carried out what German newspapers called “a general disarming of Berlin’s Jews,” confiscating a reported 1,700 firearms. By November of that year, the groundwork for a pogrom had been laid, and the Nazis found the pretext they needed when a minor Nazi official was assassinated by a Polish Jew in Paris’ German Embassy.

On Nov. 9, 1938, the Nazis responded with Kristallnacht, destroying Jewish-owned stores, setting synagogues on fire, and taking tens of thousands of Jewish men to concentration camps. “All Jews are to be disarmed,” Joseph Goebbels ordered. Nazis ransacked Jews’ homes, looking for weapons, money and anti-Nazi literature.

Two separate decrees made it a crime for a Jew to possess weapons: One came with a 20-year concentration-camp sentence for violation, the other with a five-year prison term. The former was enforced by the Gestapo with no trial; the latter was enforced through the normal legal authorities. A 1941 Gestapo order required the registration of all gun owners.

The Holocaust had been set in motion, and the Nazis replicated their disarmament policies in the other territories they came to control. Hitler famously said in 1942 that “the most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms.”

There was very little armed resistance within Germany, but there was some. In the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, members of the Jewish Fighting Organization managed to fatally shoot some Nazis, halting deportations to a concentration camp until the Germans attacked with cannons and bombs. During Kristallnacht, two different synagogues were saved from destruction by people — one a town administrator, the other a Christian coal merchant — who defended them holding firearms.

It is hard to deny that these incidents would have been more plentiful if Germany had been more protective of gun rights over the preceding two decades. Would that have merely nudged the balance slightly in the right direction — a few dead Nazis, a few Jews saved from the concentration camps? Or could it have meant something more, in the context of 6 million people put to death?

The answer is lost to history. The broader lesson of this book should not be: As the American Founders suspected, civilian disarmament and tyranny often go hand in hand.

Robert VerBruggen (@RAVerBruggen) is editor of RealClearPolicy.

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