Restrictive gun laws, imposed by a well-meaning government, deprive people of the means of self-defense. So say Second Amendment advocates. Modern history and recent headlines alike support their argument.
The recent atrocities in Israel, where terrorists slaughtered four unarmed Jewish citizens at prayer — three of them rabbis — have led that nation’s government to peel back some of its draconian laws restricting the private ownership of firearms.
The new proposals do not go nearly far enough, extending only to a small group of Israelis already licensed to carry firearms, such as security guards. It’s doubtful that such a reform would prevent a repeat of this week’s slaughter.
With all due respect to a grieving, embattled nation, Israeli lawmakers — and freedom-loving Americans — should remember some tragic events of history.
In 1943, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels fulminated, “The Jews have actually succeeded in making a defensive position of the Ghetto . . . It shows what is to be expected of the Jews when they are in possession of arms.” He was outraged at the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which impeded deportations to the death camps and allowed partisans to escape and fight from the forests.
Goebbels had long seen the importance of rendering his victims helpless. He had personally orchestrated the prewar Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) that was sparked on Nov. 9, 1938. It was preceded several weeks before by the general disarming of German Jews to preclude any resistance. This made it safe for Nazi goon squads to ransack Jewish homes, wreck Jewish businesses, and burn synagogues.
Two legacies of the Weimar Republic had made the Nazi’s job much easier. Spooked by the mobs of extremists (Nazis and communists) who fought in the streets, that liberal democratic government had authorized its executive branch to bypass the legislature and issue “emergency decrees.” With such power Hitler would later suspend Germany’s constitution and institute rule by decree.
One of Weimar’s emergency decrees imposed strict registration of firearms, and gave the state authority to confiscate them if “public security” so required. But the decree backfired: Law-abiding citizens had duly registered their guns, while the private armies maintained by the Nazis and communists had not. Worse still, this decree put obedient citizens at risk.
As the Weimar Interior Minister warned about the registration records: “Precautions must be taken that these lists cannot . . . fall into the hands of radical elements.”
Just a year later, in 1933, the worst “radical elements” in Germany indeed came to power.
The Nazis immediately used the registration records to disarm and crush the Social Democrats and other political opponents whom they deemed “enemies of the state.” The turn of the Jews came in 1938. A patriotic German named Alfred Flatow was both an eyewitness and a victim.
Flatow’s accomplishments debunked Nazi stereotypes of Jews. He had won gold medals for Germany in gymnastics at the 1896 Olympics, and served as a prominent mentor in the German sport scene thereafter.
In 1932, he duly registered three handguns, as required by the Weimar decree. His life was turned upside down the following year when the Nazis came to power and began repressing Jews.
The regime would tone down its anti-Semitic rhetoric in time for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and invite Flatow to a reunion of former medalists. But Flatow was not fooled: He refused to attend and endorse the farce.
By fall 1938, the Hitler regime was again increasing pressure against Germany’s Jewish community, confiscating their assets and working to expel them from Germany.
An organized nationwide pogrom was clearly in the works. Part of the planning for it — a part till now ignored by historians — was the disarming of all German Jews.
In compliance with Berlin police chief Wolf Helldorf’s order that all Jews surrender their weapons, Alfred Flatow walked into a police station on Oct. 4 to turn in his three handguns. The arrest report confirmed that his pistols were properly registered; that’s how the police knew he had them. The document cited no law against Jews having guns, but simply asserted: “Jews in possession of weapons are a danger to the German people.” Flatow was turned over to the Gestapo for interrogation.
Other Jews who did not turn in their registered guns were subjected to house searches, arrest and harsh treatment. That happened to Alois Adler, who had secreted his hunting gun with a trusted “Aryan” friend. Both men were likely treated with “the greatest severity,” the term used by Police Chief Helldorf to describe the fate of citizens who did not comply.
The pretext for the Nazi’s planned pogrom came with an assassination in Paris of a German diplomat by a Pole of Jewish origin. The Nazis would not let this tragedy go to waste.
Hitler ordered Goebbels to launch what became known as Kristallnacht. The attacks began on Nov. 9, 1938. On the pretext of searching for weapons, storm trooper thugs vandalized Jewish homes and stores and torched historic synagogues. Thousands of Jews were terrorized and beaten, and hundreds were murdered. Police and firefighters were forbidden to intervene, unless the arson threatened neighboring “Aryan” property. Any Jews who resisted were ordered shot.
In the wake of Kristallnacht, SS head Heinrich Himmler decreed that possession of a gun by a Jew was punishable by 20 years in a concentration camp. Some 20,000 Jewish men were quickly incarcerated; Goebbels would claim that this was because they had not turned in their firearms. The actual motive was to make the Jews pay ransom to be released.
Hitler’s war of racial conquest began in 1939, and by 1942 his “final solution of the Jewish question” was fully underway. That year, the German Olympic hero Alfred Flatow was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he starved to death.
Free people throughout the West, and especially in Israel, should remember the bitter lessons of Weimar gun control.
Democratic governments that wish to protect their citizens by depriving them of firearms sometimes accomplish the very opposite — and leave the law-abiding at the mercy of those who will flout any statute, tell any lie, engage in any conspiracy, to gain power over the innocent. Good people, rendered helpless, are history’s victims.
Stephen P. Halbrook is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and author of "Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and 'Enemies of the State.'”
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