Dr. Alan E. Steinweis, a University of Vermont professor who specializes in the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, penned an Op/Ed in The New York Times addressing presidential hopeful Ben Carson’s recent comments suggesting if Jews had guns in Nazi Germany they would’ve been ok.
Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933, but it was only in March 1938 that the Third Reich promulgated its Waffengesetz, or weapons law, which required police permission for ownership of a handgun. Other firearms were left unregulated. If, as Mr. Carson maintains, the Nazi regime made it a priority to disarm the German population, then why did it wait more than five years to issue such a law, and why did it limit licensure to handguns? Mr. Carson also fails to mention that the democratic Weimar Republic, which had preceded the Nazi regime, had passed its own gun law, which in some respects had been more restrictive than the later Nazi version.
On Nov. 11, 1938, on the basis of the weapons law, the regime issued an order prohibiting Jews from owning weapons of any kind, including swords, which many Jewish army veterans had kept as mementos from World War I. This order was issued just one day after the Kristallnacht pogrom, during which Nazi mobs attacked Jews and destroyed synagogues.
The newly imposed ban on Jewish ownership of weapons must be understood as an element of the propaganda campaign launched by the Nazi regime in the wake of the pogrom. As a pretext for the Kristallnacht, the Nazis had seized upon the assassination of a low-ranking German diplomat by the Jewish teenager Herschel Grynszpan in Paris on Nov. 7. Then, in order to justify the orgy of anti-Jewish violence retroactively, the regime tried to depict German Jews as posing a physical danger to the German population as a whole.
The Jews of Germany constituted less than 1 percent of the country’s population. It is preposterous to argue that the possession of firearms would have enabled them to mount resistance against a systematic program of persecution implemented by a modern bureaucracy, enforced by a well-armed police state, and either supported or tolerated by the majority of the German population. Mr. Carson’s suggestion that ordinary Germans, had they had guns, would have risked their lives in armed resistance against the regime simply does not comport with the regrettable historical reality of a regime that was quite popular at home. Inside Germany, only the army possessed the physical force necessary for defying or overthrowing the Nazis, but the generals had thrown in their lot with Hitler early on.
The failure of Jews to mount an effective defense against the Waffen-SS in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 provides a good example of what happens when ordinary citizens with small arms go up against a well-equipped force. The uprising in the ghetto possesses enduring symbolic significance, as an instance of Jews’ determination to resist their oppression. But the uprising saved few Jewish lives and had little to no impact on the course of either World War II or the Holocaust. Jews around the world did, to be sure, react to the Holocaust by concluding that they needed to protect themselves from anti-Semites more effectively. But they understood that this would be accomplished not through the individual acquisition of firearms, but rather through the establishment of a Jewish state with an army to defend it.
Mr. Carson’s remarks not only trivialize the predicament in which Jews found themselves in Germany and elsewhere in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. They also trivialize the serious, prolonged and admirable efforts undertaken by many Germans to work through the causes of their country’s catastrophic mistakes of that period.