Hitler joins gun-control debate, but whose side he's on is unclear

2013-03-24T00:00:00Z Hitler joins gun-control debate, but whose side he's on is unclearThe Associated Press The Associated Press
March 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

When the president of Ohio's state school board posted her opposition to gun control, she used a powerful symbol: a picture of Adolf Hitler.

When a well-known conservative commentator decried efforts to restrict guns, he argued that if Polish Jews had been better armed, many more would have survived the Holocaust.

In the months since the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, some gun-rights supporters have repeatedly compared U.S. gun-control efforts to Nazi restrictions on firearms, arguing that limiting weapons ownership could leave Americans defenseless against homegrown tyrants.

But some experts say that argument distorts a complex and contrary history. In reality, scholars say, Hitler loosened the tight gun laws that governed Germany after World War I, even as he barred Jews from owning weapons and moved to confiscate them.

Advocates who cite Hitler in the current U.S. debate overlook that Jews in 1930s Germany were a small population, owned few guns before the Nazis took control and lived under a dictatorship commanding overwhelming public support and military might, historians say. While it doesn't fit neatly into the modern-day gun debate, they say, the truth is that for all Hitler's evil acts, his firearms laws likely made no difference in Jews' very tenuous odds of survival.

But comparisons between a push by gun-control advocates in the U.S. and Hitler have become so common they're often asserted as fact, rather than argument.

"Absolute certainties are a rare thing in this life, but one I think can be collectively agreed upon is the undeniable fact that the Holocaust would have never taken place had the Jewish citizenry of Hitler's Germany had the right to bear arms and defended themselves with those arms," former major-league baseball pitcher John Rocker wrote in an online column in January.

After some gun advocates rallied at New York's Capitol in February carrying signs depicting Gov. Andrew Cuomo as Hitler, National Rifle Association President David Keene said the analogy was appropriate.

Those comparisons between gun control now and under Hitler joined numerous other statements, including the one by the Ohio school board president, Debe Terhar, on her Facebook page in January and by conservative commentator Andrew Napolitano, writing in The Washington Times.

The comparisons recently prompted the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil-rights group, to call on critics of gun control to keep Hitler and the Nazis out of the debate.

But some gun-rights advocates firmly disagree.

"People who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it," said Tucsonan Charles Heller, executive director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, which has long compared U.S. gun control to Nazi tactics.

But the history of civilian gun ownership under the Nazis, scholars say, is far more complicated.

After World War I, Germany signed a peace treaty requiring dismantling of much of its army and limiting weapons import and export. But many of the 1 million returning soldiers joined militias, including a Nazi Party force that saw communists as the leading threat.

"Technically, they (the militias) were illegal and the guns were illegal, but a lot of government officials didn't care about right-wingers with guns taking on communists," said David Redles, co-author of "Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History," a popular college text. By 1928, however, officials decided they had to get a handle on the militias and their weapons and passed a law requiring registration of all guns, said Redles, who teaches at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.

Soon after Hitler was named chancellor in 1933, he used the arson of the Reichstag as an excuse to push through a decree allowing for the arrest of many communists and the suspension of civil rights. But as the Nazis increasingly targeted Jews and others they considered enemies, they moved in 1938 to loosen gun statutes for the loyal majority, said Bernard Harcourt, a University of Chicago professor of law and political science who has studied gun laws under Hitler.

With the 1938 law, Nazis seized guns from Jewish homes. But few Jews owned guns and they composed just 2 percent of the population in a country that strongly backed Hitler. By the time the law passed, Jews were so marginalized and spread among so many cities, there was no possibility of them putting up meaningful resistance, even with guns, said Robert Gellately, a professor of history at Florida State University and author of "Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany."

U.S. gun-rights advocates disagree, pointing to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising by about 700 armed Jews who were able to fend off a much larger force of German troops for days. The Nazis won out by systematically burning the ghetto to the ground.

"Once the Germans began adopting that strategy there really wasn't very much that people armed with pistols, or even rifles and machine guns, could do," said historian Steve Paulsson, an expert on the period.

Paulsson said if Jews had limited their resistance, Nazi troops might not have destroyed the ghetto, allowing more to survive in hiding or escape.

But to Heller, the gun-rights activist, the Warsaw uprising is proof of power in firearms. Giving Jews more guns might not have averted the Holocaust, but it would have given them a fighting chance, he said.

"Absolute certainties are a rare thing in this life, but one I think can be collectively agreed upon is the undeniable fact that the Holocaust would have never taken place had the Jewish citizenry of Hitler's Germany had the right to bear arms and defended themselves with those arms."

John Rocker,

former major-league baseball pitcher

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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