Book Review: “Gun Control in the Third Reich,” by Stephen P. Halbrook
Published by The Independent Institute, 246 pp. $49.00
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
“Criminalization and incarceration are the ultimate weapons in marginalization.”
– Toronto lawyer Marie Henein, writing in the Globe and Mail, June 13, 2020
In January 1942, a group of top Nazi officials gathered at a conference held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. Presided over by Reinhard Heidrich, the head of the Reich Main Security Office, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the implementation of the now infamous “Final Solution”. Under the plan that was agreed upon, Jews in occupied Europe would be herded into densely packed ghettos in major cities throughout Poland, from whence they would be subsequently dispatched to extermination camps and murdered. The largest of these ghettos was in the capital city of Warsaw, where at its peak over 400,000 people were crammed into a space of little more than a square mile. Residents of the ghetto existed on a meager diet and every day several thousand were forced onto rail cars and transported, never to return.
By the spring of 1943, the ghetto’s occupants decided they had had enough. Recognizing that their alternatives under the Nazis involved either a slow but inevitable death by starvation in the ghetto or an equally unpleasant fate once the transports reached their final destination, a determined group of Jews resolved to fight back. Led by a handful who had served in the Polish Army, and using whatever weapons they could either make themselves or else beg, borrow, or steal from the nearby resistance, on April 19 they launched an uprising that would last for the better part of a month.
In the end, the rebels were overwhelmed by a force of Waffen SS, and the revolt was crushed at a cost of some 13,000 Jewish lives. The ghetto itself was burned on the orders of the German commander, Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, who later proudly reported to Hitler that “the Warsaw Ghetto is no more.” But although the uprising itself ended in defeat and death for its instigators, in later years it would take on a symbolic importance that was extraordinary. This heroic act of defiance in the face of unspeakable tyranny has been described by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as being “one of the most significant occurrences in the history of the Jewish people.”
Amid the widespread and systematic genocide that was taking place all throughout Nazi-controlled Europe, one has to wonder why other groups of Jews did not rise up and confront their oppressors in the same manner as did those in the Warsaw Ghetto. The likely answer is that while the Nazis’ intended victims may well have had the desire to fight back, for practical purposes they simply had no means with which to do so. For years leading up to the beginning of the Final Solution, Hitler’s government had implemented a wide range of policies to severely restrict civilian ownership of firearms, and deny them altogether to those deemed to be “enemies of the state”. In Gun Control in the Third Reich, Stephen Halbrook, a renowned U.S. lawyer, academic, and Senior Fellow at California’s Independent Institute, shows how the Nazis used a policy of aggressive civil disarmament to render the inhabitants of their dominions anxious, vulnerable, and totally stripped of the ability to render any effective form of opposition to the forces of evil.
As Halbrook’s book shows, rigorous implementation of gun control in Germany began during the time of the Weimar Republic, the nearly fifteen years that spanned the Armistice of 1918 and the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933. It was a time when Germany was beset by a multitude of problems, including widespread economic turmoil, civil unrest, and oftentimes violent confrontation between rival political fractions. Faced with these difficulties, and concerned that the situation could deteriorate into total chaos, in 1928 the government passed the Law on Firearms and Ammunition. Ostensibly, the new law was intended to harmonize a patchwork of vague and often confusing regulations that had been enacted by the various German states. In reality, the true intent was not to curb violent crime, but rather, to deny firearms ownership to members of groups that were considered to be politically unreliable.
When the Nazis got their chance to form a new government in January 1933, they moved quickly to further assert their control over the country. One of their first decisions was to pass the Enabling Act in March 1933; this granted the Cabinet the authority to pass new laws by decree without the approval of the Reichstag, thus effectively nullifying the Weimer Constitution and confirming Hitler’s status as Germany’s dictator. Almost immediately, the new government issued the Decree for the Surrender of Military Weapons, which ordered private citizens to turn in “military rifles” and “army revolvers” to local police. The definition of what constituted “military weapons” was left sufficiently vague that, for all intents and purposes, the authorities could effectively confiscate any firearm they wanted to.
Over the years that followed, the new regime spared no effort to intimidate the population and take firearms away from its perceived enemies. Enforcement of gun control laws was placed in the hands of the Gestapo, the secret police who operated outside the jurisdiction of the courts, and who had the power to arrest and detain citizens with impunity. Arbitrary searches and seizures became an almost everyday occurrence, and anyone found to be in violation of the law could expect to be rapidly dispatched to a concentration camp. In addition to these measures, the Nazis also used a variety of other creative tactics to compel firearms owners to submit to their will. For example, beginning in the spring of 1936, all privately-owned shooting clubs were required to either associate themselves with the state-controlled German Shooting League, or else shut down altogether.
For the first several years that the Nazis held power, Jews were permitted to own and use firearms, albeit it was exceedingly difficult to obtain permits that legally entitled them to do so. This changed with the proclamation of the Weapons Law of March 1938, which stated that, “Licenses to obtain or carry firearms shall only be issued to persons whose reliability is not in doubt, and only after proving a need for them.” Although the law did not expressly forbid Jews from owning firearms, events in Germany had by that time demonstrated beyond any doubt that in the eyes of the authorities, they were collectively deemed to be “undesirables”. And as subsequent events would show, it wasn’t long before the Nazis would move to make use of the new law as a tool for further oppression.
The case of Alfred Flatow offers a shocking illustration of the twisted logic which the Nazis used to pervert the administration of justice and persecute their enemies. A Jew born in 1869, as young man Flatow had served in the Prussian Army and had subsequently won a gold medal for Germany in gymnastics at the 1896 Olympics. By 1938, he was approaching 70 years of age, and had lived in Berlin for over 30 years, where he operated a small bicycle shop and was an influential and highly respected figure in the city’s athletic community.
On the night of October 4, in compliance with a recently-issued directive ordering Jews to turn in their firearms, Flatow reported to the local police station to voluntarily surrender three handguns and 22 rounds of ammunition. He was promptly arrested, even though it should have been obvious he had committed no crime. The arrest report acknowledged that Flatow had registered the weapons at the local police station in 1932, as was required by regulations at the time, but the fact that his firearms were legally owned made no difference to his fate. Evidently, the only thing that mattered to the authorities was that Flatow was a Jew who had handguns in his possession. Following a brief spell in the “protective custody” of the Gestapo, Flatow was promptly sent to a concentration camp, where he died of starvation at the end of 1942.
As the Nazis pressed their crusade to tightly regulate the ownership of firearms, they also continued to pass a series of laws designed to progressively marginalize the Jews and exclude them from German society. Finally, in November 1938, a convenient excuse to declare all-out war on the Jewish population presented itself when Herschel Grynszpan, a teenager whose parents had been forcibly deported to Poland, fatally shot a diplomat at the German Embassy in Paris. Two days later, in an event that would be remembered ever after as “Kristallnacht”, gangs of Nazi thugs fanned out all across Germany, unleashing a wanton onslaught of terror and destruction. As the police stood passively by and watched, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses were torched, and some 30,000 men were rounded up and herded into concentration camps.
It was an event unlike any other in Germany’s history, and one that shocked the entire world. Observing the carnage from exile in the Netherlands, former Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was no doubt well aware of the fact that during the Great War over 12,000 Jewish soldiers had given their lives in the service of the Fatherland, was appalled. “For the first time, I am ashamed to be German,” he commented with great sadness.
Thanks to the draconian firearms laws that the Nazis had so skillfully implemented, in the face of this orgy of violence members of the Jewish population were completely defenceless. There were some isolated acts of heroism, such as the Christian coal merchant in the town of Sontheim who, brandishing a firearm, stopped an attempt by Nazi goons to burn the local synagogue and accompanied a group of Jews away from the town to prevent their arrest. But one has to wonder how many others might have been able to forestall the destruction of their property, and avoid arrest and imprisonment, if only they had had some means with which to protect themselves.
The final straw came on November 10, the morning after the unprecedented night of terror. Germans across the land awoke to read of a new decree proclaimed in the nation’s newspapers:
By Order of Reichsfüher Himmler
Munich, November 10
“Persons who, according to the Nürnberg Law, are regarded as Jews, are forbidden to possess any weapon. Violators will be condemned to a concentration camp for a period of up to 20 years.”
All of these measures were taken, of course, in the name of “public safety”. The Nazis had already proven themselves quite adept at manipulating the fears of a German population who had been humiliated by their defeat in the Great War, and further traumatized by the chaos of the Weimar Republic. The Jews were targeted as convenient scapegoats for Germany’s numerous woes, and the firearms laws were supposedly designed to reassure the citizenry that the turmoil and unrest of the Weimer Republic was a thing of the past.
But as Halbrook’s book clearly shows, the real intent of the Nazis’ gun control policies was to do everything possible to take firearms out of the hands of individuals who were viewed as a potential threat to the regime’s authority. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the weapons that were confiscated from private owners were promptly re-issued to those who had been recruited as guards for the rapidly expanding network of concentration camps.
It is also worth noting that the Third Reich was by no means the only repressive regime in history to use highly restrictive gun control policies as a tool for consolidating its power over ordinary citizens. In December 1918, the Council of Peoples’ Commissars issued a decree ordering citizens of the newly-formed Soviet Union to surrender their weapons, on pain of up to ten years’ imprisonment. Shortly after seizing power in Cuba in 1959, Fidel Castro implemented a similar policy, using lists that had been compiled by the government of recently-deposed President Fulgencio Batista to identify and confiscate privately-owned firearms.
In South Africa, where Afrikaner settlers had used their Mauser rifles to wreak havoc on British troops during the Boer War, blacks were expressly forbidden by law from owning firearms until 1983. Even after that time, it was not until Nelson Mandela’s election as President in 1994 that they began to be granted the permits needed to legally own and use weapons.
In any democratic society, the debate over gun control policies is bound to be a contentious and emotionally-charged issue. Advocates for more restrictive firearms laws can be veritable masters at quoting all manner of statistics in support of their arguments, but it often seems that they are exceedingly reluctant to acknowledge the fact that the overwhelming majority of lawful firearms owners use their weapons in a safe and responsible manner. Certainly, no nation wants to allow itself to become a modern-day version of Dodge City, or to permit violent crime to continue unabated. But at the same time, as Halbrook’s book points out, civil disarmament can also be a very dangerous thing when it is arbitrarily imposed on citizens for the wrong purposes, or used as a tool by opportunistic politicians to serve their own agendas.
To conclude this review, I should also report that in the end, both Reinhard Heidrich and Jürgen Stroop got what they had coming to them. In late May 1942, a few months after the Wannsee Conference, Heydrich was ambushed by Czech partisans in Prague, and a week later, “Himmler’s Evil Genius” expired from his wounds at the age of 38. Tragically, in retaliation for his death, the Germans liquidated the Czech villages of Lidice and Lezaky, killing at least 1,300 civilians in the process. Under the Nazis ‘ firearms laws, we may safely presume that none of the victims had weapons with which they could have defended themselves.
In Jürgen Stroop’s case, he would go on to survive the remainder of the war and commit additional atrocities before finally surrendering to the U.S. Army in May 1945. Two years later he was extradited to Poland, and in the summer of 1951, he went on trial in Warsaw, the same city whose ghetto he had razed eight years earlier. He showed absolutely no remorse about his past misdeeds, and after a trial that lasted just five days, he was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death. On the evening of March 6, 1952, at the age of 56, Stroop met his fate when he was hanged at Mokotow Prison.
Four hundred years before the Holocaust, the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli famously wrote that, “Among other evils which being unarmed brings you, it causes you to be despised.” The truth of these words was something that the Jews of occupied Europe would come to know only too well as they suffered and died under the jackboot of the Third Reich. We will never know how the course of history might have been different, if only more of their number had had the weapons that would have enabled them to fight back in the same manner as did their heroic compatriots of the Warsaw Ghetto. But as Gun Control in the Third Reich shows, even in the best of times, civil disarmament can be a highly problematic issue, and under some circumstances, it can pose an even greater peril to civilized society than the evils it supposedly serves to eradicate.