Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Historian of Modern Germany Debunks the "Hitler was Pro-Gun Control" Mythology

Now that gun control is back on the national agenda, the Hitler metaphors are flying fast and furious again.  They were last lobbed about during the heady days of the Tea Party's ascendance and its attendant crusade against universal health care.  Back then the pea-brained likes of Louie Gohmert and Jim DeMint warned of a path to fascism, now it's the NRA and Drudge Report likening gun control to Nazism.

As someone who has spent years studying modern German history, and has the degrees to prove it, I feel it is my special duty to debunk this garbage.  Lying behind both the Tea Party and gun proliferators' use of Hitler is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and historical context of the Third Reich.  The misconceptions about that murderous regime are pretty much accepted in mainstream American life, and the Right has done an able job of exploiting them.

In our day the Nazis have been completely dishistoricized, turned into stand-ins for remorseless evil.  There is no more effective way to label your political opponents bad and dangerous than by making such comparisons.  Most Americans seem to think that Hitler was some kind of evil genius, that his followers were mindless automatons, and that his whole regime was one man's psychopathic power-trip.  This cartoon-villain understanding of the Hitler regime, reinforced in countless films like Inglorious Basterds and Raiders of the Lost Ark, makes it easy for the public to be swayed by the NRA's Hollywood scenario.  In their counter-narrative, ordinary Germans (and German Jews in particular) could have grabbed their guns and brought down the Third Reich, if only those guns hadn't been taken from them.

This view of history is idiotic and deluded at best.  The esteemed historian Omer Bartov, in a recent Salon article, makes it clear that even if Hitler's opponents had guns, it would not have changed a thing: “Just imagine the Jews of Germany exercising the right to bear arms and fighting the SA, SS and the Wehrmacht. The [Russian] Red Army lost 7 million men fighting the Wehrmacht, despite its tanks and planes and artillery. The Jews with pistols and shotguns would have done better?”  The people who bring up these misguided Hollywood scenarios are also likely ignorant of how the Nazi state treated insurgents.  Guerilla attacks on German troops on the Eastern Front often resulted in reprisal executions that killed hundreds for every German slain.  The conspirators against Hitler in the failed 1944 plot on his life ended up being horrifically tortured and killed, their agonies filmed for the Fuehrer's amusement.  Hitler responded to the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris at the hands of Herschel Grynszpan in 1938 by unleashing the horrific Night of Broken Glass as vengeance.  In the improbable scenario of German Jews (who were a very small part of the population) arming themselves and shooting Nazis, it only would have meant much worse visited upon the Jewish population.

One especially major problem with the pro-gun use of the Nazis as a cautionary tale is usually the case with other would-be invokers of the Third Reich.  Namely, they just take things completely out of context, that context being the Nazi ideology of racist nationalism.  Just as communism was the philosophy behind the Soviet Union, the Third Reich was a racial state governed by the principles of racialized nationalism.  For example, abortion rights foes like to invoke Hitler as a supporter of abortion because the Nazi state pushed "non-Aryan" and disabled women to terminate their pregnancies.  However, abortions were banned for Aryans, a change from the more liberal laws of the preceding Weimar Republic.  (In this light the Nazis were more anti than pro abortion.)  Anyone who tries to analogize about Nazi Germany without taking its ideological basis into consideration will inevitably go wrong.

Context greatly illuminates the issue of gun control in Nazi Germany.  As the Salon article notes, Germany's 1938 laws on firearms were actually less restrictive than those of the Weimar government, which had enacted strict gun control at a time when armed militias threatened the stability of the nation after World War I.  They were only more restrictive for Jews and other targets of Nazi oppression.  To contextualize further, German laws at the time restricted Jews in all kinds of ways, banning them from universities and other public places, and restricting them from engaging in most professions while effectively making it next to impossible to own their own businesses.  These restrictions are only the tip of the iceberg, and the restriction on guns a mere fleck on that tip.  The prohibition on Jews owning guns had little to do with any Nazi desire for gun control, and a whole lot to do with creating racial outcasts.

Here's one last bit of context, and one that's highly disturbing.  The evil villain view of Hitler leads one to believe that the majority of Germans did not like this tyrant, but were kept in line by the security appartus of the Nazi state.  On the contrary, while the Nazis never got a majority of votes in legitimate elections, once they consolidated power Hitler gained the support of the vast majority of the population.  The most disturbing thing to me about the Third Reich is that it needed popular support to enact its agenda, and the public was more than willing to oblige.  If ordinary Germans had greater access to firearms at the time, I can't imagine it would have made much of a difference.  Armed insurrections most likely would have been used by the state to justify even greater control and authority.

The decontextualized, inaccurate understanding of Nazi Germany used by the Right is one of their most pernicious tactics, since it abuses the historical record while poisoning our political discourse.  It also distracts from the fact that firearms kill thirty thousand people in America every year.  400,000 Americans died fighting against Hitler and his allies in World War II, at our current rate we're losing that number to guns deaths every thirteen years or so.  I think it's time we focus on the real carnage going on right now, rather than ghosts of tyrants based off of a willfully wrongheaded interpretation of the past.

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