March 25, 2013

Godwin Damn It

A newspaper article attempts to provide a bit of fact checking to claims made concerning Nazi gun owner control laws.

"Objectively, it might have made things worse' if the Jews who fought the Nazis in the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising in Poland had more and better guns, said historian Steve Paulsson, an expert on the period whose Jewish family survived the city's destruction."

Paulsson doesn't stop there:

"Once the Germans began adopting that strategy there really wasn't very much that people armed with pistols, or even rifles and machine guns, could do,' said Paulsson, the historian and author of 'Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw.'

"Paulsson said it is possible that if Polish Jews had limited their resistance, Nazi troops might not have destroyed the ghetto, allowing more to survive in hiding or escape. When armed Jews shot at mobs or troops at other times in 1930s and 1940s Poland, it incited more vicious counter-attacks, he said."

When asked about a refutation of his previous statement, Paulsson responded thusly:

"But Paulsson, whose mother was freed from the Auschwitz concentration camp at the end of the war, dismisses that argument as twisting the facts.

'Ideologues always try to shoehorn history into their own categories and read into the past things that serve their own particular purposes,' he said."

Paulsson wasn't the only source of anti-resistance quotes:

"The comparisons recently prompted the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, to call on critics of gun control to keep Hitler and the Nazis out of the debate.

The rhetoric 'is such an absurdity and so offensive and just undermines any real understanding of what the Holocaust was about,' said Ken Jacobson, the ADL's deputy national director. 'If they do believe it, they're making no serious examination of what the Nazi regime was about."

To my surprise, the article did mention one group with some credibility on the matter:

"People who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,' said Charles Heller, executive director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, which has long compared U.S. gun control to Nazi tactics. 'I guess if you're pro-Nazi, they are right. But if you're pro-freedom, we call those people liars."

The basic premise in Paulsson and the Anti Defamation Leagues arguments is thus: if you fight back it'll just make things worse.

Without getting into a very lengthy analysis of Nazi gun control laws and their possible effects during the Holocaust, the Jews and other persecuted groups faced 2 problems: the first being they had no established gun culture, the second being they were further stunted in their ability to cultivate a gun culture due to government intervention (i.e. Nazi gun owner control laws that disarmed them).

The first problem is one that stemmed from a very bad idea; that if they didn't appear threatening they'd be tolerated if not accepted. A peace through weakness strategy if you will. This is not any sort of localized phenomenon as many individuals and groups have over many centuries attempted to make such a strategy pay off. That should be something spoken about as much as the gun control laws they had to endure, but it's not.

The second problem is the one that gets most attention, at least over here. Nazi gun owner laws weren't meant to be a general prohibition on all people. They didn't mind loyal citizens having guns for sporting purposes. It was the undesirables they wished to disarm. The average German, as long as there was no indication of disloyalty, could have any hunting weapon they wished. A weapon that was more suited for warfare though was another story.

The Nazi's weren't going to take away your hunting rifle; they just wanted to make sure those weapons of war had no place on the streets of the Fatherland and keep those who shouldn't have guns from getting them.

Getting into the particulars a little bit, the Warsaw Ghetto was in essence a holding facility. 400,000 Jews were crammed into an area about 1.3 square miles. The Nazi's intended that every last one of them that survived the harsh condition of the ghetto was to be sent to the extermination camp at Treblinka. The vast majority of inhabitants of the ghetto were sent to Treblinka.

The idea that if the Jews in the Ghetto hadn't resisted more would have lived is preposterous on its face. The Nazis wanted all of them dead. Period. Going quietly into the camps would not have saved a single life. In fact Treblinka only stopped its murderous routine when some Jews decided to fight back.

But Paulsson misses the entire point about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. The Jews realized that if they didn't resist they would be killed. I don't think they thought their fighting would liberate everyone that remained; rather they fought because it's better to make it hard on your murderers than to passively comply with your own destruction.

Again from the article:

"U.S. gun rights advocates disagree, pointing to the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising by about 700 armed Jews who were able to fend off a much larger force of German troops for days until retreating to tunnels or fleeing. The Nazis won out by systematically burning the ghetto to the ground, house by house."

It was probably over 1,000 fighters. The fighting started in January of '43, but the most concentrated fighting took place between April 19th and May 16th of '43. That's not days, that's weeks. For comparison, the entire country of Poland fought back against the Nazi's (and later the Soviets) from September 1rst 1939 to October 6th 1939. The Polish Army was better trained, better equipped and more numerous than the Warsaw Ghetto fighters. I'll grant that comparisons to a nations army engaged in battle with the army of two other nations is not a perfect analogy to a resistance movement, but saying that the Uprising only lasted for days is misleading.

The notion that the Nazi's loosened gun owner control laws is not entirely accurate. They changed them a bit from the Wiemar Republic's 1928 weapons laws, but the only significant changes concerned lengthening the duration of a permit from 1 to 3 years. Oh and of course if your shirt was brown you were exempt from needing a permit, as were government workers and folks who held hunting licenses. Otherwise a permit was still required, and a person's trustworthiness as well as need were ore-requisites for acquiring a permit. True, the age for a permit dropped to 18 (from 20) but all the conditions still applied.

That's not exactly what most folks knowledgeable about gun laws would call a liberalization, now is it? In fact it's somewhat reminiscent of New York's laws, as well as a few other states. Of course the JPFO has been pointing out for decades that the Gun Control Act of 1968 was largely copied from the Nazi Weapons Law of 1938. So it's not surprising that someone could not see the Nazi weapons laws as that much of a push for gun control, since we've been enduring similar laws since 1968, and in some places much worse laws.

There were two gun owner control laws in 1938 - the first dealt with general possession and was basically a revision of the 1928 law. The 2nd specifically barred Jews from owning arms and ammunition, or engaging in any related business. I should note that Jews were not only barred from owning firearms, but clubs and knives as well.

The article notes that Jews comprised around 2% of the German population as the Nazi's took power. There was not a widespread gun culture amongst those Jews, and the Jews were to some degree integrated into German society (at least to the extent where they didn't all live in segregated neighborhoods). Even if the Nazi's hadn't banned weapons ownership by Jews it would have been difficult to mount an effective resistance.

However, such a resistance wouldn't have saved Jews from the Holocaust by an outright victory of arms over their Nazi oppressors; instead it could have made genocide much more costly for the Nazi's. That would have meant expanding more resources to exterminate undesirable people, and since that was the Nazi's goal anyway I see no benefit for anyone to make things easier on the murderers.

The gun owner control the Nazi's used made establishing any sort of a gun culture much more difficult, and subsequently made any attempts at widespread resistance much harder. Not that such resistance would have made the Nazi's rethink their way of life, but they did go to some effort to pass a law disarming segments of the population (notably Jews) whom they were planning to attack. if the idea of Jews being armed wouldn't have mattered, they wouldn't have bothered disarming them by law would they?

Another situation prompted this quote (which I'll be surprised if you haven't read before) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

“And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?... The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin's thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If...if...We didn't love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation.... We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

The Nazi gun owner control laws weren't the only impediment to an effective resistance during the Holocaust. And an armed resistance may not have stopped the Holocaust. But it damn sure would have made it more expensive for the Nazi's and I see no reason why any of us should allow murders to be cheap.

The goal of the Nazi's was to murder any and everyone they thought was undesirable. Given that aim, it's not logical to say that fighting back would have made thing worse. How? Would the Nazi's have resurrected those who fought and murdered them again? Would they Nazi's have murdered them twice as dead? Would they have used twice as much Zyklon_B in the gas chambers? Would the fires have burned twice as hot? Would they have shot Jews int he back of the head twice?

No; I think the people who claim that fighting back would have been futile either severely misunderstand the situation or they are cowards. In the latter case they do not like to think that they may be expected one day to actually fight against undesirable odds, or perhaps even to fight at all. So it's easier to condemn any resistance s being futile to assuage their own shame and impotence, or to reinforce their feeling that they should not have to take responsibility for their own lives or the safety of those they care for.

That notion - the attempt to convince others not to resist a violent attack - is deplorable whatever the motivation is. It was disgusting when a Colorado senator told a rape victim she'd have just had her gun taken away from her, and it's just as depraved when trying to claim that a populace destined for the gas chambers would have made things worse by defending themselves.

The article presents itself as a factual (albeit brief) exploration of what Hitler thought about gun control. It cited both sides of an alleged debate on the issue, and tried to appear balanced while pushing the reader toward the conclusion that the Nazi's weren't gun control fanatics. So I'm not surprised that they didn't include the one verifiable quote that Hitler made on the subject:

"The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed the subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the supply of arms to the underdogs is a sine qua non for the overthrow of any sovereignty. So let's not have any native militia or native police"

Like most politicians today, Hitler wasn't concerned with taking guns away from everybody, just those he found undesirable, or who may make trouble.

Armed resistance against a modern state bent on oppression is not an easy endeavor. Nor is the outcome certain. In fact if you care for odds (and I don't) there's simply not a very good chance of a group of people being able to fight their way out of tyranny.

The article does mention how the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was finally put down: systematic burning of the ghetto. That wasn't the last time fire was used in an oppressive government action against an undesirable group, nor was it the last time fire was used against an individual.

Governments always have an advantage when it comes to using force against a subset of a population. A disarmed population increases that advantage, as the Nazi laws disarming Jews, as well as Hitler's own words, demonstrate.

Whenever anyone attempts placation with assurances that hunters won't be disarmed, or that they're just trying to make sure people who shouldn't have guns don't have access to them, I get the sense I've heard that kinda talk before. Seems so have a lot of Germans and Pols. I didn't like how things turned out back then, so naturally I'm not persuaded that things would be any different in the future if we adopted even more gun owner control than we have now.

The laws the Nazi's passed weren't to disarm the entire populace completely. They were designed to ensure that a viable gun culture, complete with its ideas of self sufficiency and self defense, didn't take hold in any undesirable group. I see no difference betwixt the aims of those laws then and the aims of similar laws now. Which is why we must fight these laws now, lest historians centuries hence argue about how much the reasonable regulation of weapons in the late 20th and early 21rst century had to do with the demise of our culture at the hands of an oppressive government.

Addendum: Uprising is a made for TV movie that dramatizes the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It's not for very young kids despite it being made for TV, but it is a very good movie. I usually watch it myself every year after April 19th and can't recommend it enough.

Posted by Publicola at March 25, 2013 12:35 AM | TrackBack

Sounds like a good flick. Too bad I can't get it from the library. Added it to my Amazon list though.

I often chuckle a bit at the 'hunting rifle' thing. Ignorance on the part of the gun-ban crowd of the lineage of such standards as the Model 70 and 700 is a good thing, as well as ignorance of the capabilities, vs. the "high power" AR-15.

Makes me want to hug my .243.

Posted by: jed at March 25, 2013 06:33 PM
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