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Volokh Conspiracy

Alan Steinweis's bad history


Yesterday, Holocaust historian Alan E. Steinweis wrote a New York Times op-ed which began "To anyone who studies Nazi Germany and the Holocaust for a living, as I do, Ben Carson's statements about gun control are difficult to fathom." However, Professor Steinweis does not speak for all Holocaust historians. His op-ed contained major factual errors, and demonstrates a lack of awareness of scholarly literature on Nazi gun control.

First of all, there are many historians who have studied the effect of Nazi gun prohibition on Jewish populations. The Nazis were obsessed with disarming the Jews, and for good reason. As conquered Jews came to recognize that the Nazis were exterminators, rather than just enslavers, many Jews fought back. When they could obtain firearms, they fought effectively. They constituted half of the guerrilla resistance in Eastern Europe in 1943. They shut down the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps. Among the scholars who have described this history are Nechama Tec, "Jewish Resistance: Facts, Omissions, Distortions" (United States Holocaust Museum, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, 1997); Tec, "Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust" (Yale Univ. Pr., 2003); Yehuda Bauer, "The Jewish Emergence from Powerlessness" (Univ. of Toronto Pr., 1979), Yuri Suhl, ed., "They Fought Back" (Crown Pub. 1967); Abram L. Sachar, "The Redemption of the Unwanted: From the Liberation of the Death Camps to the Founding of Israel" (St. Martin's Pr., 1983).

Professor Steinweis says that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising "saved few Jewish lives, and had little to no impact on the course of either World War II or the Holocaust." Well, the point of the Uprising wasn't to save the lives of the participants; they knew that they were almost certain to die to no matter what. They tied down Nazi forces for over fourth months—whereas the French and Polish armies had been unable to resist the Nazi invaders for even two months. In a world war, it is not easy to show that any partisan unit had a major impact on the outcome. But the nature of war is that small unit actions, while not decisive in themselves, may play an important role in weakening the enemy. The largest Jewish partisan unit in Eastern Europe, led by the Bielski Brothers, between the fall of 1943 and the summer of 1944 carried out 38 combat missions—destroying two locomotives, 23 train cars, 32 telegraph poles, and four bridges. Over the course of the war, the Bielski unit killed 381 enemy fighters and collaborators. That is a good record for a unit which had 149 armed combatants, and which sheltered and saved a thousand non-combatant Jews.

Perhaps the single most important Jewish partisan action which affected the war on the front lines took place in Greece. There, as everywhere else, Jews were disproportionately involved in the resistance, notwithstanding intense Nazi disarmament efforts. In Thessaly, a Jewish partisan unit in the mountains was led by the septuagenarian Rabbi Moshe Pesah, who carried his own rifle. The Athenian Jew Jacques Costis led the team which demolished the Gorgopotoma Bridge, thereby breaking the link between the mainland and Peloponnesian Peninsula, and obstructing delivery of supplies to Rommel's Afrika Korps. Among the biographies of Jewish resisters are Yechiel Granatstein, "The War of a Jewish Partisan: A Youth Imperiled by this Russian Comrades and Nazi Conquerors," transl., Charles Wengrov (Mesorah Pubs., 1986); Peter Duffy, "The Bielski Brothers" (HarperCollins, 2002); Nechama Tec, "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans" (Oxford Univ. Pr., 1993); Harold Werner, "Fighting Back: A Memoir of Jewish Resistance in World War II" (Columbia Univ. Pr., 1992).

Professor Steinweis writes: "If, as Mr. Carson maintains, the Nazi regime made it a priority to disarm the German population, why did it wait more than five years to issue" its own gun control law in 1938? He continues that "Mr. Carson also fails to mention that the democratic Weimar Republic, which had preceded the Nazi regime, had passed its own gun control law…." The answer to Professor Steinweis's question is that the Weimar law for comprehensive gun-owner licensing and gun registration worked very well for the Nazis. Almost as soon as they obtained power, they began using the gun registration lists to disarm all political opponents, such as Social Democrats. Opponents of Weimer gun registration had worried about registration lists falling into the hands of extremists; that happened in 1933, when the government itself fell to extremists.

Professor Steinweis accurately states that the Nazis introduced their own gun control law immediately after Kristallnacht in November 1938. He describes this law as less "restrictive" than the prior Weimar law. Although Professor Steinweis does not cite a source for his claim, he may be relying on an article by Prof. Bernard Harcourt, "On Gun Registration, the NRA, Adolf Hitler, and Nazi Gun Laws," 73 Fordham L. Rev. 653 (2004). As Harcourt demonstrates, the 1938 law was in some respects textually less restrictive for non-Jewish Germans than was its Weimar predecessor. But subsequent research has demonstrated that as enforced, the 1938 Nazi law was even more oppressive than the Weimar law, denying arms to anyone not verified as politically correct. See Stephen Halbrook, "Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and 'Enemies of the State'" (Oakland: Independent Inst., 2013).

Aggressive use of the Wiemar and the 1938 statutes was not the only form of Nazi gun control. The first years of the Nazi regime were dedicated to Gleichschaltung ("forcing into line")—to suppress any aspect of civil society which might offer resistance. That is why the Nazis required that every gun club and every hunting club submit to the supervision of a Nazi political officer. Some clubs disbanded rather than comply.

Pointing out that Jews constituted less than one percent of the German population, Professor Steinweis says that "It is preposterous to argue that the possession of firearms would have enabled them to mount resistance against a systematic program of persecution implemented by a modern bureaucracy, enforced by a well-armed police state, and either supported or tolerated by the majority of Germans…Inside Germany, only the army possessed the physical force necessary for defying or overthrowing the Nazis…" But that is the point! Using gun licensing and gun registration laws enacted by a democratic government, the Nazis by 1938 had disarmed everyone who was not a certified supporter of the regime. Once everyone except the pro-Nazis was disarmed, only the German Officer Corps had the ability to overthrow Hitler, and they did not choose to act. The point of the Second Amendment, as Dr. Carson rightly said, is that obstructing tyranny should not hang on the fragile thread of military good will.

Even if fully armed, the tiny Jewish minority could not by itself have toppled the Nazis. Yet, there are many forms of effective armed resistance short of immediately removing a tyrant. When Europe's Jews were able to obtain firearms, they caused the Nazis much trouble. In the Warsaw Ghetto, a revolt which began when the Jews acquired ten handguns tied down over 2,000 Nazi troops for months—troops which were therefore not available to help the Nazis defend against the Soviet offensive in eastern Ukraine. Whenever the Nazis had to fight Jews, or had to add extra guards for armories, depots, and trains—because of the risk of armed Jews—the consequence was fewer Nazi troops on the front lines in Russia, Africa, Italy, or France. The more fighters behind the lines, in enemy territory, the fewer resources for the enemy on the front lines. If the number of armed Jews had been ten times greater, so would the problems for the Nazis. That would not have shut down the Holocaust, but it would have contributed to ending the criminal Hitlerite regime and its Holocaust all the sooner.

Professor Steinweis's assertion that fighting Jews were made no difference is contrary to the historical record. His speculation that Jewish disarmament was irrelevant to Holocaust is belied by the intensity of Nazi efforts to disarm their intended victims. Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot and other 20th century mass murderers did not start their genocides until after they had disarmed whom they planned to exterminate. Murdering an armed person is harder than murdering the defenseless. The immediate victims may end up dead regardless, but they can still kill perpetrators, so that fewer perpetrators are available to murder the next victims. More guns, less genocide.

[This essay was partly based on my forthcoming book, The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action: The Judeo-Christian Tradition (Praeger, forthcoming 2016).]


[Update. Professor Steinweis wrote a reply to the above article. My responses are in italics, following the relevant paragraph, and preceded by -.]

Prof. Steinweis: As I sort through the hate mail received in response to my op-ed in yesterday's New York Times, let me take just a brief moment to respond to Mr. Kopel's assertions.

To refute my point that Nazi gun control measures have not been seen as important by experts in the field, Mr. Kopel cites a number of well-known works about Jewish resistance in eastern Europe. By doing so, he conflates two separate issues. Does Mr. Kopel believe that the Nazi regime's implementation of handgun registration inside Germany in 1938 prevented Jewish partisans fighting in the forests of White Russia in 1943 from acquiring more weapons?

­-Kopel: No. The Nazi gun control measures in Germany, implemented over a six-year period before the war began, ensured that there was virtually no forcible resistance from inside Germany. The Nazi gun control measures in newly-conquered territory were carried out by orders for everyone to surrender all firearms immediately or be executed. Gun registries created by the previous governments were used to enforce compliance.

Obviously there were instances of resistance that saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Kopel notes, for example, the group led by the Bielski brothers, which saved about 1,200. But these were exceptional instances, and must be considered in the larger context of a genocidal campaign that took millions of lives. (I will remind Mr. Kopel that a million is a thousand times a thousand.) Even more Jews, including the Bielski partisans who managed to survive, would have died had the western Allies and the Red Army not defeated Nazi Germany.

-Certainly true. The partisans were never going to defeat the Nazis by themselves. They simply did their best to weaken the Germans behind the lines, and thus assist the Allied militaries on the front lines.

A word about Mr. Kopel's argument that the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto was a militarily significant event that affected the outcome of the war. The uprising was put down by two Waffen-SS battalions supported by Order Police and other small units. At the time of the uprising, Germany and its allies had about 300 divisions engaged in military operations around Europe. The German forces that were mobilized against the ghetto fighters —for a few weeks in April and May 1943, and not, as Mr. Kopel writes, for four months—were a drop in the bucket. I will refer Mr. Kopel to the table "Comparative Strengths of Opposing Forces in the Warsaw Ghetto: Germans," on page 537 of volume 2 of Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews (2003 Yale Univ. Press edition). According to the German records cited by Hilberg, the average daily deployment of German and allied forces in the ghetto and at the perimeter during the operation was 2,090 persons. Mr. Kopel is free to assert that this amounted to a significant diversion of German forces, but I do not share this opinion.

-By 1943, the German army was understrength by 470,000 men, due to combat losses. In March, the German Commander of Army Group Center refused to initiate an offensive in support of the Army Group South offensive because Center's forces were too weak. Did keeping 2,000 Nazi soldiers busy in Warsaw spell the difference between victory and defeat on the Eastern Front? No. Did it aggravate the German manpower shortage, thus reducing German chances of success, and contributing to German combat losses? Yes, to the same extent as any other Allied maneuver which prevented German soldiers from being able to participate in the decisive 1943 campaigns on the Eastern Front.

Finally, I want to be clear that I do not discount the historical significance of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Bielski partisans, and similar acts of Jewish resistance. As I wrote in my op-ed, "The uprising in the ghetto possesses enduring symbolic significance, as an instance of Jews' determination to resist their oppression." Had the NYT granted me more than 900 words, I would have developed this point more fully, especially with regard to the uprising's legacy as an inspiration for Jewish self-defense in the form of the State of Israel.

-We agree. Or stated another way: If the Nazis had succeeded in preventing all would-be Jewish partisans in Warsaw and elsewhere from obtaining firearms, the State of Israel might not have been created.

The Jews were a tiny minority who were overwhelmed by the Nazis and their collaborators. Mr. Kopel suggests that had more Jews been armed, instances like the Warsaw ghetto uprising would have been more common, and therefore more Jews would have been saved. But I would ask Mr. Kopel the following question: Had individual gun ownership been more widespread among the general population of Europe than it in fact was, then what does he think the anti-Semites would have done with THEIR guns?

-For anti-Semites who supported the Nazis, and were interested in helping to kill Jews, the Nazis gave them arms. As I noted in a previous article, some of the extermination camp guards at Sobibor were Ukranian. The Nazis formed a number of combat units consisting of supporters in conquered nations, including Ukraine and Croatia. As for anti-Semites who wanted their nation to be independent of Germany, many of them fought as partisans. The gentile Polish resistance included plenty of anti-Semites, and this was also true elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Sometimes they killed Jewish partisans, but much more often they killed Nazis, which indirectly helped the Jews. So if on September 1, 1939, every home in Poland, Lithuania, France and so on had contained a rifle and ammunition, then the situation there would have been more like in Yugoslavia. There, about 150,000 partisans tied down 30 Axis divisions. If anti-Semites have arms "is it good for the Jews"? Yes, when the arms are used to fight Nazis.