SCHOLARSHIP NOVEMBER 10, 2013
Attempts to draw parallels between our political debates and Nazi Germany are, as is often lamented, a dime a dozen in contemporary discourse. Rarely, however, do they run to more than 200 pages, plus bibliography.
That distinction lies with a new book just published by the Independent Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Oakland: Stephen Halbrook’s Gun Control in the Third Reich. Oh no, you think. Oh yes, say the book’s marketers, who are not shy at all about framing the Nazi’s disarming of Jews and other political enemies as a giant, .950 caliber warning shot amid efforts in Washington and some states to pass new regulations on firearms. From the dust-jacket blurbs for the book:
“It provides a timely reminder that self-defense and the right to bear arms are fundamental human rights.” — Robert Cottrol, George Washington University law professor
“Halbrook’s important research should inform our contemporary debate on gun control.” — Steven Bowman, University of Cincinnati professor of Judaic Studies
“Everyone, including advocates of gun controls, should find this pioneering and thought-provoking book essential reading.” — James Jacobs, New York University law professor
I reached out to some of these academics to see if they were as worried about the parallels between Nazi Germany and contemporary gun control debates as these blurbs suggested. Bowman, for one, most certainly is. “All governments ultimately tend toward totalitarianism,” he told me. “Governments tend to assert more control, bureaucracies proliferate.” But does he really see signs of anything resembling 1930s Germany? “In the universities, I do. The rise of anti-Semitism in the universities, the proliferation of the barbarians who raid the campus. They’re actually beginning to shoot people in the area here.” What? Brownshirts and Einsatzgruppen roaming the streets of Cincinnati, perhaps confusing Over-the-Rhine for the land of vineyards and castles?
No, Bowman clarified: He was referring to traditional urban street crime encroaching on the University of Cincinnati. Still, he said, “the proliferation [on campus] of Palestinian propaganda with an anti-Semitic cast bodes ill…both in terms of the general propaganda and the Jewish students who are being treated violently. You can easily see the parallels.” What, I said again, violence against Jewish students in Cincinnati? No, he said, “what’s been going on in California, and other campuses with high proportions of Middle Eastern students.” I wasn’t sure what he was referring to, but it may have been this. “Arabs who enjoy free speech in this country, which they’re entitled to, use it to exploit that against other people,” he added. “Fortunately, most of the terrorists go back to the Middle East to kill themselves, but they may decide to start doing so here.”
I tried to steer things back to our government—did it really contain the seeds of what Halbrook’s book described happening in Nazi Germany? The book “shows what the government can do,” Bowman said. “It all depends on the political winds. If you’ve got the wind behind you, you can pretty much do what you want.”
The book itself is hardly less shy than the blurbs in making the comparison between Nazi disarmament measures and contemporary debates. On its first page, Halbrook remarks, “For whatever reason, historians have paid no attention to Nazi laws and policies restricting firearms ownership as essential elements in creating tyranny.” A few sentences later, he lets us know why such negligence is so dangerous today:
In those days, as now, controversy has raged about whether civilians should have a right to possess firearms at all and, if so, should register with the government any firearms they do possess or whether firearms should be prohibited except to the military and police. Prohibitionists contend that firearms harm civilians who possess them in crimes, suicides and accidents. Governments must disarm civilians for their own good.
The Nazis had policies to eliminate social ills of many kinds, from guns to cancer. They did not have in mind the good of the people they disarmed, however. They were not concerned with Jews whose children might have accidents with firearms, who might commit suicide, or who might have a gun taken away by criminals when trying to defend themselves. Instead, the Nazis confiscated firearms to prevent armed resistance, whether individual or collective, to their own criminality.
With selective memory of the historical events, a movement currently exists in the United States and Europe that denies the existence of any right to keep and bear arms and argues that firearms should be restricted to the military and the police. Yet considering the premises of that movement, it can hardly be argued that the Nazis disarmed Germany’s Jews for benign reasons or that the Jews were better off without firearms in their homes on the basis that firearms are allegedly more dangerous to their owners than to any aggressor. Nor would it be rational to contend that only the discrimination in the Nazi case was wrong and that not just Jews and other persona non grata, but all citizen, should have been disarmed for their own good. The paradigm that government should have a monopoly of small arms implies the surreal normative postulate that citizens – or, rather, subjects – should be treated as the Jews were in Nazi Germany. (emphasis mine.)
Got that? A couple pages later, Halbrook ventures a “to be sure” qualification of the distinctly mild variety:
The 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, 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.
And then he’s right back at it in the next paragraph:
Some polemicists might overstate the relationship between gun control and genocide, but what is worse is the failure of scholars to come to terms with the real connection between disarming policies and genocide.
Halbrook was even less subtle in an op-ed last week plugging the book, in the Washington Times, headlined: “What Made the Nazi Holocaust Possible? Gun Control”:
Today, gun control, registration and prohibition are depicted as benign and progressive. Government should register gun owners and ban any guns it wishes, Americans are told, because government is inherently good and trustworthy. The experiences of Hitler’s Germany and, for that matter, Stalin’s Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, are beneath the realm of possibility in exceptional America. Let’s hope so.
Nope, no "intrinsic connection between firearms restrictions and genocide or Nazism" suggested there, not at all. That's for the polemicists.
I did manage to reach Halbrook, who holds a law degree from Georgetown and a doctorate from Florida State University, has taught at George Mason University, and previously authored “That Every Man Be Armed” and “The Founders’ Second Amendment.” He was quite cordial. To my question about whether it was alarmist to compare Nazi disarmament to the current debate in this country, he noted that the Nazi actions actually traced to the policies of democratic Weimar Germany, a licensing law passed in 1928 and a gun registration law passed in 1931, two years before Hitler took power. “Those laws would have some similarities with what we have today and is proposed today,” he said. (Well, expanding background checks falls far short of registration, but yes, some of the most ardent gun control supporters here have on occasions proposed that, too.) He noted that the Nazi comparison was in fact made explicitly by Rep. John Dingell, the pro-NRA Michigan Democrat, when he opposed gun control proposals in the 1990s.
Still, Halbrook insisted that he wanted the book to be read as a work of historical scholarship and not only as fodder for the gun rights movement. “I would not say that what happened when the Nazis came to power has anything to do with what’s going on today,” he said. “But what can go wrong could go wrong, so we need to be mindful of abuses of power that can happen…The Nazis thought it was really important to disarm political enemies and Jews, but as far as contemporary comparisons, I’m very aware of how loosely people use these comparisons, and it does a disservice to the victims of the Holocaust.”
Yes, it does. And surely this book, now selling fairly briskly on Amazon, will have no impact whatsoever on the number of people making those loose comparisons.