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Gun Control and the Holocaust

Gun-rights advocates cite Nazi laws in their defense of the Second Amendment. Is the comparison fair?

Michael Moynihan
December 18, 2012
Detail of photo of Abba Kovner holding gun in Vilna, 1944.(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Detail of photo of Abba Kovner holding gun in Vilna, 1944.(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Few noticed when Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, that bad penny of Republican politics, made a quixotic run for Congress earlier this year. In June, the Ohio everyman, who gained notoriety in 2008 when he challenged candidate Barack Obama on his tax policy, released what for me was an unforgettable campaign video in which he promised American Jews that, in the event of a neo-Nazi takeover of government, he would come to their defense.

As Wurzelbacher expended shotgun shells at an outdoor shooting range, a voice-over offered a chilling warning from history: “In 1939 Germany established gun control [sic]; from 1939 to 1945 six million Jews, seven million others, unable to defend themselves, were exterminated.” He ended with the impassioned non sequitur: “I love America.” In the ensuing media storm, Wurzelbacher took to Twitter to erroneously claim that his vindication could be found in Mein Kampf, where “Hitler wrote … that his agenda would not be possible unless the people were disarmed.”

Excepting his deep love for the United States, almost everything in Wurzelbacher’s potted history of gun rights and the Holocaust is either wrong or perfectly irrelevant. His lesson in 20th-century genocide was cribbed—almost word for word—from a much-forwarded and reproduced chain email, which claims to document measures taken by totalitarian governments in restricting firearm possession. As a result, it argues, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot waged campaigns of mass murder and met little resistance.

But in the wake of last week’s gruesome massacre in Newtown, Ct., and a reinvigorated push to further regulate the sale of firearms, social media and email in-boxes are again bursting with the claim that Europe’s Jews were the last century’s most prominent victims of gun control. If we should never forget the Holocaust, the argument goes, we should also not forget that governments possessed of a fascist instinct will inevitably come for your guns—and then they might very well come for you.

It’s a historical invocation with a long pedigree. In 1983, for example, when Chicago was feverishly debating an all-out handgun ban, the Chicago Tribune reported that the bill’s opponents were lobbying residents of Skokie, a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago, to oppose the prohibition. “Opponents of a proposed handgun ban, mindful of Skokie’s large Jewish population, are reminding village residents that the Nazis disarmed the Jews as a preliminary to sending them to the gas chambers during World War II.” A Jewish pro-gun organization agitated against the restrictive law with an image of Hitler, arm outstretched in a sieg heil salute, with the subtle caption: “All in favor of gun control raise your right hand.”

So, did the Nazis in fact enact draconian gun-control legislation that eased the path toward genocide? Or is the claim that Hitler disarmed Germany’s Jews simply junk history?

There are various degrees of myth and truth in both perspectives. Unfortunately, most recapitulations of National Socialist gun-control policy are written not by experts in German history but by various ideological players. Still, it is indeed true that in 1938, the Nazis expanded upon Germany’s already restrictive gun laws, most of which were established during the Weimar Republic. The Regulations Against Jews’ Possession of Weapons decreed that “Jews are prohibited from acquiring, possessing, and carrying firearms and ammunition, as well as cutting or stabbing weapons. Those now having in their possession weapons and ammunition must at once surrender them to the local police authority.”

Almost five years into their reign, the Nazis were still codifying into law the curtailment of Jewish civil rights. But to many current gun-rights advocates, it was this particular piece of legislation that ensured the Holocaust would be met with minimal Jewish resistance.

Fox News personality Judge Andrew Napolitano is typical of those who cite the prohibition on Jews owning weapons under Hitler when defending American gun rights. In his book It Is Dangerous to Be Right When the Government Is Wrong, Napolitano argues that Kristallnacht, the 1938 orgy of anti-Jewish violence that killed 1,000 people across the Reich, could only have happened to an unarmed minority. He further claims that the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising demonstrates that “those able to hold onto their arms and their basic right to self defense were much more successful in resisting the Nazi genocide.” According to Napolitano, members of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw “were able to kill about three hundred members of the German military and hold them off for almost a month,” from which he concludes that if other Jews “were able to maintain arms and fight for their lives like those of the [resistance] did, then perhaps the six million Jews would never have suffered their tragic horrific fate.”

Regardless of one’s view of Napolitano’s broader defense of gun ownership, his invocation of the Holocaust is factually and logically flawed. First, only around 20—not 300—Germans were killed during the Warsaw Uprising (historian Peter Longerich estimates that the Nazis “suffered several dozen fatalities”), while approximately 13,000 Jews were killed in the ghetto, and the 50,000 surviving captives were quickly deported to concentration camps. Second, it is optimistic to think that revolt from poorly armed, poorly trained, and undermanned citizens against the mighty German military would have substantially altered the fate of German or Eastern European Jews. (Curiously, Napolitano’s footnote for his section on the uprising cites French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson’s article “The Warsaw Ghetto ‘Uprising’: Jewish Insurrection or German Police Operation?”).

Gun-rights advocate David Kopel, who has written extensively on the issue of Nazi firearms laws, rightly points out that Jewish partisans and prisoners periodically managed to cobble together arms—often stolen or crudely manufactured—to resist their oppressors, belying the myth of Jewish passivity. But he too vastly overstates the effectiveness of a tiny minority resisting a genocidal machine. When some of the 600 remaining inmates of Sobibor revolted in 1943, killing 12 German guards, the death camp “was put out of operation forever,” Kopel writes. It was “violence [that] solved Sobibor,” he continues, again claiming that it was “put out of business early” by armed rebellion.

The rebellion—which began when a prisoner attacked an SS man with an ax, not a gun—was one of the reasons that the Germans closed Sobibor, but the brave prisoners cannot alone claim credit for scuppering one of the Holocaust’s most notorious killing centers. Himmler had already ordered the camp transformed from a death camp to a concentration camp in 1943 and was keen to destroy evidence of mass killings as the Soviets advanced from the east.

The heroism of those who resisted the Nazis in Warsaw and Sobibor is undeniable and should be honored. But these actions were taken after it became undeniably clear that the “final solution to the Jewish question” was mass murder; what these examples prove is that against-all-odds resistance is often attempted when desperation demands it. Indeed, as Longerich noted in his biography of SS leader Heinrich Himmler, “Under the impact of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, from April 1943 onwards the SS accelerated the bloody liquidation of those ghettos that still existed.”

The ordeal of deported and imprisoned Jews in 1943 simply isn’t comparable to that of those who, in 1938 during Kristallnacht, witnessed the first spasms of mass anti-Jewish violence—a state-sanctioned pogrom that was presented as a spontaneous outpouring of violence from the German public. An armed response could have made matters even worse given that Jews made up only around 1 percent of the total German population. And it’s curious that those who invoke restrictive Nazi guns laws don’t actually provide figures for how many guns were actually seized from “non-Aryan” homes. Was the disarmament of Jews a largely symbolic act, or was a previously armed group rendered impotent by the 1938 law?

Napolitano, Kopel, and others are surely correct that if a tyrannical government is determined to eliminate a race or class of people, such a goal is best achieved by stripping their quarry not only of political rights and civil liberties, but of any means of self-defense. An unarmed population is undeniably more passive. But whatever gun legislation Congress is formulating in the aftermath of the barbarism in Newtown, there will be no Gestapo knocking on doors, rifling through attics and closets, requisitioning handguns. America isn’t Nazi Germany, and it cheapens the experience of Holocaust victims to suggest otherwise. By all means, let the debate on gun control roil, but for once, let’s leave Hitler out of it.


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Michael Moynihan, Tablet Magazine’s “Righteous Gentile” columnist, is the cultural news editor of Newsweek/The Daily Beast.

Michael Moynihan, Tablet Magazine’s “Righteous Gentile” columnist, is the cultural news editor of Newsweek/The Daily Beast.

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