Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and ‘Enemies of the State’

By Woody published on in Chronicle, General, Gun Rights, History, Legal Issues, News, Second Amendment

Dr. Stephen P. Halbrook’s new book, Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and “Enemies of the State”, presents the hidden history of how the Nazi regime made use of gun control to disarm and repress its enemies and consolidate power. Countless books on the Third Reich and the Holocaust fail even to mention the laws restricting firearms ownership, which rendered political opponents and Jews defenseless. A skeptic could surmise that a better-armed populace might have made no difference, but the National Socialist regime certainly did not think so — it ruthlessly suppressed firearm ownership by disfavored groups.

Dr. Stephen Halbrook

Dr. Stephen Halbrook

But Gun Control in the Third Reich is not polemic — it’s a scholarly work by Dr. Halbrook, a Research Fellow with the Independent Institute who has argued and won three constitutional law cases before the U.S. Supreme Court (Printz v. United States, United States v. Thompson/Center Arms Company, and Castillo v. United States). Halbrook has taught legal and political philosophy at George Mason University, Howard University, and Tuskegee Institute. He received his J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center and Ph.D. in social philosophy from Florida State University.

The book covers the historical periods of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich leading up to World War II. The book then presents a panorama of pertinent events during World War II regarding the effects of the disarming policies. Based on newly-discovered, secret documents from German archives, diaries and newspapers of the time, Gun Control in the Third Reich rolls Panzer-like over today’s gun-control arguments, simply by showing their similarities to decades-old Nazi propaganda.

By detailing the Reich’s 1930’s-era disarmament tactics in saddening and maddening detail, Halbrook makes the current AR-15 owner in California, the current Beretta M92 owner in New York, or the current PMag owner in Colorado worry what gun-controllers are plotting next.

Below is the book’s introduction, reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 2013, The Independent Institute.

IntroductionGun Control in the Third Reich

Alfred Flatow was a German Jew who won first place in gymnastics events at the 1896 Olympics. In 1932, he registered three handguns as required by a decree of the liberal Weimar Republic. The government had warned that the police must carefully store the registration records so that no extremist group could ever obtain them. That fear was realized, however, when an extremist group led by Adolf Hitler seized power the following year and used those very same registration records to disarm “enemies of the state.” In 1938, the records were used to disarm Jewish gun owners such as Flatow, whose arrest report stated: “Arms in the hands of Jews are a danger to public safety.”[1]

He would later die in a concentration camp.

Shortly after confiscating firearms from Flatow and numerous other Jews, the Nazis instigated the pogrom know as the Night of the Broken Glass (Reichskristallnacht) against a defenseless Jewish population, who were threatened with twenty years in a concentration camp for possession of a firearm.

Countless studies have documented how the Nazi dictatorship repressed its political opponents, Jews, and other “enemies of the state.” For whatever reason, historians have paid no attention to Nazi laws and policies restricting firearms ownership as essential elements in creating tyranny. A skeptic might surmise that a better-armed populace might have made no difference, but the Nazi regime certainly did not act on that premise. While many historically unique factors ultimately led to the Holocaust, Nazi policies prohibiting possession of firearms helped to consolidate Hitler’s power at home, exacerbated persecution of the Jews, aiding their arrest and deportation, and foreshadowed some of the more severe policies undertaken during the war.

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. [2] They did not have in mind the good of the people they disarmed, however. They were not concerned with Jews whose children might have ac- 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 citizens, 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.

Germany had no constitutional tradition similar to that expressed in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which declares: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” This is part of the Bill of Rights, which Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter wrote “reflects experience with police excesses. It is not only under Nazi rule that police excesses are inimical to freedom.” [3] The right to have arms, which reflects a universal and historical power of the people in a republic to resist tyranny, was not recognized in Hitler’s Third Reich. Reacting to the Nazi experience, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation in 1941, just before Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, authorizing the president to requisition certain property for defense but prohibiting any construction of the act to “require the registration of any firearms possessed by any individual for his personal protection or sport” or “to impair or infringe in any manner the right of any individual to keep and bear arms.” [4] A sponsor of the bill explained: “Before the advent of Hitler or Stalin, who took power from the German and Russian people, measures were thrust upon the free legislatures of those countries to deprive the people of the possession and use of firearms, so that they could not resist the encroachments of such diabolical and vitriolic state police organizations as the Gestapo, the Ogpu, and the Cheka.” [5]

What seemed obvious then was no longer so in 1968 when Congress debated whether to include a national firearms registration system in the Gun Control Act. Opponents raised the specter of the—at that time—more recent Nazi experience, [6] and proponents denied that the Nazis made any use of records to disarm enemies. [7] It would have been curious, however, had the Nazis, who had detailed blacklists on political enemies, not used registration and licensing records to disarm anyone perceived to be an “enemy of the state.” Although a 1968 Library of Congress study focused on Nazi policies in the occupied countries, it was “unable to locate references to any German use of registration lists to collect firearms.” [8] Its research was obviously minimal.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether the Second Amendment guaranteed only government-approved militias or an individual’s right to possess firearms. Arguing the former, a friend-of-the-court brief by pacifist Jewish and Christian organizations faulted Nazi Germany only for “discriminatory laws that barred Jews from having firearms,” referring to “the myth that arming everyone might allow an oppressed minority” to resist. [9] Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership argued the latter, focusing on the Holocaust and other genocides against unarmed populaces. [10]  The Supreme Court agreed with this approach, noting that “when the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny.” [11]

During World War II, Great Britain supplied its citizens with arms contributed by the United States and private American citizens to fight an anticipated Nazi invasion, [12] but it now bans most guns. In 2011 in Switzerland, whose traditional militia army consisting of a populace with arms at home helped to dissuade a Nazi invasion, more than 56 percent of voters rejected an initiative to require registration of all firearms and to prohibit many firearms. [13]  A proposal to ban civilian possession of firearms in Brazil in 2005 initially seemed headed to victory but was defeated near the end of the campaign. [14] The United Nations holds that whereas governments should be armed, individuals have no right to armed self-defense, and it seeks to repress private firearms ownership at the international level. [15]

Just a year before Hitler took power in 1933, the German interior minister directed “the secure storage of the lists of persons who have registered their weapons. Precautions must be taken that these lists cannot . . . fall into the hands of radical elements.” [16] As examined in this book, the minister’s caution was well founded: those records would fall right into the hands of the Nazi Party, which used them to disarm its political enemies and the Jews. In 2013, the eightieth anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power, Germany implemented a central database of all registered, lawful firearms, which is required of all European Union countries by the following year. [17] The German interior minister was said to have “promised to guarantee a very high level of security of the data,” although one skeptic noted that “everything that is registered can be taken away by the government.” [18]

In the wake of the domestic and international controversy about whether to require registration of firearms or even to prohibit civilian firearms ownership, interest by U.S. legal scholars on the subject of Nazi firearm policies has emerged. [19] In response to the theses they present, firearm prohibitionists have minimized the significance of Nazi firearms policies, contending that Hitler wished only to disarm and kill Jews. [20] Yet that would seem to be the most critical issue in the debate.

This book seeks to highlight hitherto unknown historical facts to advance the scholarly literature on the development of Nazism, particularly before World War II, which was the prelude to the Holocaust, with respect to the repression of civilian firearm ownership. Given the enormous literature in the related fields, it seems incredible that the disarming of the German Jews is rarely if ever mentioned. Virtually none of the many tomes on the Third Reich so much as hints at the role that Weimar-era legislation and decrees were used by the Hitler government to consolidate power by disarming political enemies, Jews, and other “enemies of the state.”

Gun control laws are depicted as benign and historically progressive. However, Nazi firearms laws and policies, together with hysteria created against Jewish firearm owners, played a unique role in laying the groundwork for the eradication of German Jewry. Disarming political opponents was a categorical imperative of the Nazi regime. National Socialist leaders and police officials saw the disarming of such “enemies of the state” as an essential component of the consolidation of Nazi power. Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Werner Best, Wilhelm Frick, and other members of the Nazi hierarchy were deeply involved in this process. This is the first book to address Nazi firearms laws and policies that functioned to disarm German citizens, in particular political opponents and Jews.

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, the 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.

This book does present the first thorough treatment of Germany’s gun control policies before the Second World War, and the first extensive exploration of how Hitler used these policies in coordination with his persecution of Jews and political opponents. 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 oppression.

The book is divided into four parts representing distinct historical periods from 1918, at the birth of the Weimar Republic, through 1938, at the time of the Night of the Broken Glass. Part I, “Dancing on a Volcano: The Weimar Republic,” describes the post–World War I chaos, in particular the repression of Communist insurgency and the rise of the Nazi Party. In 1928, the liberal Weimar Republic adopted Germany’s first comprehensive gun control law. The era ended with a decree requiring registration of all firearms and authorizing officials to confiscate all firearms, which could only have been enforced against persons who had registered them. Officials warned that the registration records must not fall into the hands of an extremist group.

Part II, “1933: Enter the Führer,” describes how just such an extremist group seized power. Chapters tell about the massive searches for and seizures of firearms from Social Democrats and other political opponents, who were invariably described as “Communists.” Nazi raids on Jewish quarters to search for firearms also took place in this period, and Nazi power was consolidated in part by disarming “the politically unreliable” and the “enemies of the state.”

Part III, “Gleichschaltung: Forcing into Line,” concerns the next five years of repression. Nazi leaders leisurely conferred on amendments to the Weimar Fire- arms Law, which could be revised as society was cleansed with National Social- ism. But that theoretical legal discussion was a sideshow. The significant events were the Night of the Long Knives (Nacht der langen Messer), which verified that Hitler could murder any opponent, and the Nürnberg Laws, which reduced the rights of citizenship from Jews. The Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo) banned independent gun clubs and decreed against issuance of firearm permits to Jews. In 1938, Hitler signed a new gun control law that benefitted Nazi Party members but denied firearm ownership to the perennial “enemies of the state.”

Part IV, “Reichskristallnacht: Night of the Broken Glass,” sets forth how the groundwork for the pogrom against the Jews was laid weeks beforehand by the systematic disarming of Germany’s Jews. With the shooting of a German diplomat in Paris by a teenage Polish Jew, Hitler approved and Joseph Goebbels orchestrated a massive search-and-seizure operation, allegedly for weapons, entailing the ransacking of homes and businesses. Himmler decreed the punishment of twenty years in a concentration camp for possession of a firearm by a Jew. Diaries and other sources record how the Jewish victims themselves, including gun owners as well as those not remotely connected to gun ownership, described the onslaught.

The book’s conclusion presents a potpourri of events during World War II, the second half of the “thousand-year Reich,” to explore effects of the disarming policies of the previous two decades. Why was there no armed partisan movement in Germany against Hitler? Did the prior disarming of the Jews facilitate his widening aggression against them? In the occupied countries, the Nazis decreed the death penalty for possession of a firearm, but there were instances of heroic resistance, from various resistance movements to the heroic Warsaw ghetto uprising.

Hannah Arendt perceptively observed: “It was not until the outbreak of the war, on September 1, 1939, that the Nazi regime became openly totalitarian and openly criminal.” [21] Yet that was possible in part because of policies adopted in the prewar period, which is the focus of this work. While the Nazi regime’s repression of civilian gun ownership in the occupied countries represents a complex history that is beyond the scope of this book, [22] it is yet another “hidden history” that has been ignored but should be brought to light.

Despite the significance that the Nazis themselves perceived of the need to ruthlessly disarm political enemies and Jews, no historian has addressed the subject. This book, the first comprehensive account of this topic, is based on never-before-used documents from archives in Germany, German firearms laws and regulations, German and foreign newspapers from the period, diaries, and the historical literature. It presents the first scholarly analysis of the use of firearm laws and policies to pave the way for, establish, and consolidate the Hitler regime, rendering all “enemies of the state” defenseless.

Every manner in which the Hitler regime created a tyranny during 1933–1938 should need no justification as a legitimate historical topic. How significant portions of the German population were disarmed in this process, particularly Social Democrats and other political opponents beginning in 1933 and the Jews most prominently in 1938, has hardly been so much as mentioned in the vast literature on the Third Reich. That would not be an extraordinary omission if only the police and military had firearms but substantial portions of the German population did not. But a significant number of Germans, including persons of all political persuasions as well as both “Aryans” and Jews, did possess rifles, handguns, and shotguns. [23]

Subject to ambiguities, much of this private possession of firearms was lawful, and they included everything from bolt-action rifles and multi-barrel guns to semiautomatics and revolvers. But much of it was not, such as machine guns left over from the Great War and secreted by paramilitary groups. The term “assault rifle” (Sturmgewehr, or storm rifle) would not enter the lexicon until introduced by Hitler in World War II. [24] But well before that, extremist groups were adept in using any kind of weapon to assault their opponents.

Both the Weimar and Nazi regimes sought to regulate, register, and prohibit firearms, differing of course on who would be subject to such measures and the outer extremes of the punishment for violation. The end result was the monopolization of firearms by the Nazi dictatorship so that it could dispense them to favored groups and deny them to disfavored groups.

As to its relevance today, some may warn that history may repeat itself and has indeed done so elsewhere, while others may suggest that the Nazi experience was unique and not capable of repetition. Other than to note this divergence of opinion, this book says nothing more about current controversies. But denial of what actually occurred in the historical record is not an option.

References

  1. Bericht über einen polit. Vorfall, 4.10.38, Alfred Flatow. A Rep PrBrRep. 030/21620 Bd. 5 Haussuchungen bei Juden 1938-39. (FB Bd. 5). Landesarchiv Berlin. For details on Flatow, see chapter 10.
  2. See Robert N. Proctor, The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).
  3. Davis v. United States, 328 U.S. 582, 597 (1946) (Frankfurter, J., dissenting).
  4. Property Requisition Act, P.L. 274, 55 Stat. 742 (1941). See Stephen P. Halbrook, Congress Interprets the Second Amendment: Declarations by a Co-equal Branch on the Individual Right to Keep and Bear Arms, 62 Tenn. L. Rev. 597, 618–31 (Spring 1995).
  5. Statement by Representative Edwin Arthur Hall, 87 Cong. Rec., 77th Cong., 1st Sess., 6778 (Aug. 5, 1941).
  6. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) argued that “sportsmen fear firearms registration. We have here the same situation we saw in small degree in Nazi Germany.” In Federal Firearms Legislation: Hearings before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 90th Cong., 2nd Sess., 478 (1968).
  7. Senator Joseph Tydings (D–MD) disputed “that registration or licensing of guns has some connection with the Nazi takeover in Germany.” Federal Firearms Legislation, 478–79.
  8. Federal Firearms Legislation, 483. The study included a translation of the Nazi Waffengesetz. (Weapons Law) of 1938 (Reichsgesetzblatt 1938, I, 265). Federal Firearms Legislation, 489. (The Reichsgesetzblatt was the official publication of German laws.) Senator Thomas Dodd (D-CT), who had been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials and would be a chief sponsor of the Gun Control Act, supplied his own copy of “the original German text” to the Library of Congress to translate. Federal Firearms Legislation, 489.
  9. Brief Supporting Petitioners of Amici Curiae American Jewish Committee, et al., District of Columbia v. Heller, No. 07-290, at 31 n. 11.
  10. Brief of Amicus Curiae Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership in Support of Respondent, District of Columbia v. Heller, No. 07-290.
  11. District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783, 2801 (2008).
  12. Winston Churchill, The Second World War: Their Finest Hour (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 272; “Sporting Guns Sought: Group Here Also Wants Pistols to Send to Britain for Defense,” New York Times, Sept. 12, 1940, 9.
  13. “Swiss Voters Stick to Their Gun Tradition,” SwissInfo.com, Feb. 13, 2011, (visited Jan. 31, 2013); Stephen P. Halbrook, Citizens in Arms: The Swiss Experience, 8 Tex. Rev. L. & Politics 141, 162–74 (2003).
  14. Todd Benson and Terry Wade, “Violence-Torn Brazil Votes to Keep Gun Sales Legal,” (visited Feb. 9, 2013).
  15. See Human Rights Council, Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, 58th sess., agenda item 8, Adoption of the Report on the Fifty-Eighth Session to the Human Rights Council, A/HRC/Sub.1/58/L.11/Add.1 (Aug. 24, 2006) (advocating prohibition of civilian firearms as a “human right”); David B. Kopel, Paul Gallant, and Joanne D. Eisen, The Human Right of Self Defense, 22 BYU Jour. of Public Law 43 (2008).
  16. Reichsminister des Innern(RMI) to Landesregierungen, Feb. 8, 1932, Massnahmen gegen Waffenmissbrauch, Bundesarchiv (BA) Lichterfelde, R 1501/125940, Gesetz über Schuß- waffen und Munition Bd. 4, 1931–32, 416–17. Throughout this work, “ss” or “ß” is used de- pending on the original German source.
  17. “German Weapon Registry to Take Effect in 2013,” Deutsche Welle, Dec. 18, 2012,(visited Feb. 9, 2013).
  18. Michael Birnbaum, “New Gun Database ‘Not a Problem’ for Owners in Germany,” Washington Post, Jan. 20, 2013, A16 (visited April 17, 2013).
  19. Stephen P. Halbrook, “Arms in the Hands of Jews Are Danger to Public Safety”: Nazism, Firearm Registration, and the Night of the Broken Glass, 21 St. Thomas Law Review 109 (2009); David B. Kopel, Lethal Laws, XV NYL Sch. J. Int’l & Comp. L. 15 (1995); Don B. Kates and Daniel D. Polsby, Of Genocide and Disarmament, 86 Crim. L. & Criminology 297 (1995).
  20. See Stephen P. Halbrook, Nazi Firearms Law and the Disarming of the German Jews, 17 Ariz. J. Int’l & Comp. L. 483 (2000), This article was criticized in Bernard E. Harcourt, On Gun Registration, the NRA, Adolf Hitler, and Nazi Gun Laws: Exploding the Gun Culture Wars (a Call to Historians), 73 Ford- ham L. Rev. 653 (2004); Deborah Homsher, Response to Bernard E. Harcourt’s “On Gun Registration,” 73 Fordham L. Rev. 715 (2004); Robert J. Spitzer, Don’t Know Much about History, Politics, or Theory: A Comment, 73 Fordham L. Rev. 721 (2004). I responded to Harcourt and the others in Stephen P. Halbrook, Nazism, the Second Amendment, & the NRA: A Reply to Professor Harcourt, 11 Tex. Rev. L. & Politics 113 (2006).
  21. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 68.
  22. See Stephen P. Halbrook, Why Can’t We Be Like France? How the Right to Bear Arms Got Left Out of the Declaration of Rights and How Gun Registration Was Decreed Just in Time for the Nazi Occupation, 39 Fordham Urban Law Journal, 101 (2013).
  23. Obviously no statistics are available about levels of gun ownership in Germany or any other country in the 1920s and 1930s, and even estimates of current levels in various countries would be somewhat speculative.
  24. Peter R. Senich, The German Assault Rifle 1935-1945 (Boulder, CO: Paladin, 1987), 79.

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