By Dave Kopel & Richard Griffiths
May 22, 2003, 10:50 a.m., National Review Online. In italiano. En français. More by Kopel on World War II and on genocide.
This week's CBS miniseries Hitler: The Rise of Evil tries to explain the conditions that enabled a manifestly evil and abnormal individual to gain total power and to commit mass murder. The CBS series looks at some of the people whose flawed decisions paved the way for Hitler's psychopathic dictatorship: Hitler's mother who refused to recognize that her child was extremely disturbed and anti-social; the judge who gave Hitler a ludicrously short prison sentence after he committed high treason at the Beer Hall Putsch; President Hindenburg and the Reichstag delegates who (except for the Social Democrats) who acceded to Hitler's dictatorial Enabling Act rather than forcing a crisis (which, no matter how bad the outcome, would have been far better than Hitler being able to claim legitimate power and lead Germany toward world war).
Acquainting a new generation of television viewers with the monstrosity of Hitler is a commendable public service by CBS, for if we are serious about "Never again," then we must be serious about remembering how and why Hitler was able to accomplish what he did. Political scientist R. J. Rummel, the world's foremost scholar of the mass murders of the 20th century, estimates that the Nazis killed about 21 million people, not including war casualties. With modern technology, a modern Hitler might be able to kill even more people even more rapidly.
Indeed, right now in Zimbabwe, the Robert Mugabe tyranny is perpetrating a genocide by starvation aimed at liquidating about six million people. Mugabe is great admirer of Adolf Hitler. Mugabe's number-two man (who died last year) was Chenjerai Hunzvi, the head of Mugabe's terrorist gangs, who nicknamed himself "Hitler." One of the things that Robert Mugabe, "Hitler" Hunzvi, and Adolf Hitler all have in common is their strong and effective programs of gun control.
Simply put, if not for gun control, Hitler would not have been able to murder 21 million people. Nor would Mugabe be able to carry out his current terror program.
Writing in The Arizona Journal of International & Comparative Law Stephen Halbrook demonstrates that German Jews and other German opponents of Hitler were not destined to be helpless and passive victims. (A magazine article by Halbrook offers a shorter version of the story, along with numerous photographs. Halbrook's Arizona article is also available as a chapter in the book Death by Gun Control, published by Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.) Halbrook details how, upon assuming power, the Nazis relentlessly and ruthlessly disarmed their German opponents. The Nazis feared the Jews — many of whom were front-line veterans of World War One — so much that Jews were even disarmed of knives and old sabers.
The Nazis did not create any new firearms laws until 1938. Before then, they were able to use the Weimar Republic's gun controls to ensure that there would be no internal resistance to the Hitler regime.
In 1919, facing political and economic chaos and possible Communist revolution after Germany's defeat in the First World War, the Weimar Republic enacted the Regulation of the Council of the People's Delegates on Weapons Possession. The new law banned the civilian possession of all firearms and ammunition, and demanded their surrender "immediately."
Once the political and economic situation stabilized, the Weimar Republic created a less draconian gun-control law. The law was similar to, although somewhat milder than, the gun laws currently demanded by the American gun-control lobby.
The Weimar Law on Firearms and Ammunition required a license to engage in any type of firearm business. A special license from the police was needed to either purchase or carry a firearm. The German police were granted complete discretion to deny licenses to criminals or individuals the police deemed untrustworthy. Unlimited police discretion over citizen gun acquisition is the foundation of the "Brady II" proposal introduced by Handgun Control, Inc., (now called the Brady Campaign) in 1994.
Under the Weimar law, no license was needed to possess a firearm in the home unless the citizen owned more than five guns of a particular type or stored more than 100 cartridges. The law's requirements were more relaxed for firearms of a "hunting" or "sporting" type. Indeed, the Weimar statute was the world's first gun law to create a formal distinction between sporting and non-sporting firearms. On the issues of home gun possession and sporting guns, the Weimar law was not as stringent as the current Massachusetts gun law, or some of modern proposals supported by American gun-control lobbyists.
Significantly, the Weimar law required the registration of most lawfully owned firearms, as do the laws of some American states. In Germany, the Weimar registration program law provided the information which the Nazis needed to disarm the Jews and others considered untrustworthy.
The Nazi disarmament campaign that began as soon as Hitler assumed power in 1933. While some genocidal governments (such as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) dispensed with lawmaking, the Nazi government followed the German predilection for the creation of large volumes of written rules and regulations. Yet it was not until March 1938 (the same month that Hitler annexed Austria in the Anschluss) that the Nazis created their own Weapons Law. The new law formalized what had been the policy imposed by Hitler using the Weimar Law: Jews were prohibited from any involvement in any firearm business.
On November 9, 1938, the Nazis launched the Kristallnacht, pogrom, and unarmed Jews all over Germany were attacked by government-sponsored mobs. In conjunction with Kristallnacht, the government used the administrative authority of the 1938 Weapons Law to require immediate Jewish surrender of all firearms and edged weapons, and to mandate a sentence of death or 20 years in a concentration camp for any violation.
Even after 1938, the German gun laws were not prohibitory. They simply gave the government enough information and enough discretion to ensure that victims inside Germany would not be able to fight back.
Under the Hitler regime, the Germans had created a superbly trained and very large military — the most powerful military the world had ever seen until then. Man-for-man, the Nazis had greater combat effectiveness than every other army in World War II, and were finally defeated because of the overwhelming size of the Allied armies and the immensely larger economic resources of the Allies.
Despite having an extremely powerful army, the Nazis still feared the civilian possession of firearms by hostile civilians. Events in 1943 proved that the fear was not mere paranoia. As knowledge of the death camps leaked out, determined Jews rose up in arms in Tuchin, Warsaw, Bialystok, Vilna, and elsewhere. Jews also joined partisan armies in Eastern Europe in large numbers, and amazingly, even organized escapes and revolts in the killing centers of Treblinka and Auschwitz. There are many books which recount these heroic stories of resistance. Yuri Suhl's They Fought Back(1967) is a good summary showing that hundreds of thousands of Jews did fight. The book Escape from Sobibor and the eponymous movie (1987) tell the amazing story how Russian Jewish prisoners of war organized a revolt that permanently destroyed one of the main death camps.
It took the Nazis months to destroy the Jews who rose up in the Warsaw ghetto, who at first were armed with only a few firearms that had been purchased on the black market, stolen or obtained from the Polish underground.
Halbrook contends that the history of Germany might have been changed if more of its citizens had been armed, and if the right to bear arms had been enshrined it Germany's culture and constitution. Halbrook points out that while resistance took place in many parts of occupied Europe, there was almost no resistance in Germany itself, because the Nazis had enjoyed years in which they could enforce the gun laws to ensure that no potential opponent of the regime had the means to resist.
No one can foresee with certainty which countries will succumb to genocidal dictatorship. Germany under the Weimar Republic was a democracy in a nation with a very long history of much greater tolerance for Jews than existed in France, England, or Russia, or almost anywhere else. Zimbabwe's current gun laws were created when the nation was the British colony of Rhodesia, and the authors of those laws did not know that the laws would one day be enforced by an African Hitler bent on mass extermination.
One never knows if one will need a fire extinguisher. Many people go their whole lives without needing to use a fire extinguisher, and most people never need firearms to resist genocide. But if you don't prepare to have a life-saving tool on hand during an unexpected emergency, then you and your family may not survive.
In the book Children of the Flames, Auschwitz survivor Menashe Lorinczi recounts what happened when the Soviet army liberated the camp: the Russians disarmed the SS guards. Then, two emaciated Jewish inmates, now armed with guns taken from the SS, systematically exacted their revenge on a large formation of SS men. The disarmed SS passively accepted their fate. After Lorinczi moved to Israel, he was often asked by other Israelis why the Jews had not fought back against the Germans. He replied that many Jews did fight. He then recalled the sudden change in the behavior of the Jews and the Germans at Auschwitz, once the Russian army's new "gun control" policy changed who had the guns there: "And today, when I am asked that question, I tell people it doesn't matter whether you're Hungarian, Polish, Jewish, or German: If you don't have a gun, you have nothing."
Richard Griffiths is a doctor of psychology with research interest in gun issues. Dave Kopel is a NRO contributing editor.