Monday, November 23, 2015

Hitler and Guns

All right, I may be a little late to the game commenting on Ben Carson's notorious remarks that Hitler came to power because Germans lacked the guns to stop them, or that the Holocaust succeeded because the Nazis took away the Jews' guns.  The action usually cited was a 1938 law requiring guns to be registered.  It is alleged that the Nazis, having a list of who owned guns, then confiscated them and proceeds to subjugate the now-helpless population and exterminate the now-helpless Jews. Many refutations have rained in, but a lot of them miss important underlying assumptions and simply reinforce the gun culture's conviction that firearms are necessary to resist tyranny.  Others comments, however, are significant, as are some that the refuters have missed altogether.

In particular, it is not useful to point out that strict gun control began under Weimar, with a ban on all private guns in 1919 as part of the disarmament under the Treaty of Versailles, or that firearms registration began under Weimar in 1928 when the complete ban on guns was relaxed.*  Gun advocates would simply see this as supporting their point.  They see a democratically elected government as simply the Nazis waiting to happen.  Many incorporate this into their narrative.  The innocent and well-meaning Weimar government registered all firearms.  Then the Nazis were elected and confiscated the guns, as a prelude to imposing a total dictatorship.  We must therefore keep guns legal and free from registration, because you never know when the Nazis might be elected here, seize them, and institute dictatorship, if no genocide.

Gun advocates may also point out, with some justification, that Weimar's anti-gun laws were not very effective.  The Weimar ban on guns did not prevent Freikorps (private paramilitaries) from flourishing, or Freikorps from doing battle with Communist revolutionaries, attempting a coup, or from terrorizing their opponents in Bavaria.  Clearly there is some truth to statement that when guns are outlawed, only outlaws carry guns.

But there are other ways in which events in Germany clearly go against the NRA's preferred narrative.  These should be stressed.  First of all, the alleged confiscation of guns did not happen -- except for Jews.  The 1938 statute relaxed firearms restrictions for others, but barred Jews from owning guns.  This is significant, but I will get to it later.

In the NRA outlook, it is assumed not only that democratically elective government is simply tyranny waiting to happen (Hitler came to power by election!), but that private paramilitaries outside the control of government are the natural defenders of liberty.  The whole history of Weimar calls this assumption into doubt.  Because if there was one problem the Weimar Republic did not have, it was a shortage of private paramilitaries.  There were paramilitaries everywhere, the Freikorps, the Communists, and other extremists.  But they were not champions of liberty against an oppressive government.  They were the threats to liberty, terrorizing and killing whoever opposed them.  I suppose today's militia types might acknowledge that not all private paramilitaries are necessarily good guys but that simply shows that good guys need guns so they can defend themselves against the bad guys.

That runs into a definite problem.  The good guys in Weimar did, in fact, form their own paramilitary in an attempt to counter the bad guys.  The "Weimar coalition" of parties that supported the Republic formed the Reichsbanner following the Beer Hall Putsch in an attempt to counter the paramilitaries that were attacking the Republic.  Its initial years were ones of relative quiet, but with the onset of the Great Depression and the growing power of the Nazis, its role in fighting their violence and intimidation grew.  More hard line members broke off and formed the Iron Front to fight the Nazis. But these groups ultimately did not prove and effective counter-force, and when the Nazis came to power, the "good guy" paramilitaries were easily suppressed.

And no, this is not because Weimar gun control measures disarmed the good guy militias while leaving the bad guys untouched.  It was for two main reasons, both rather embarrassing to hardcore Second Amendment fans.

First off, people who genuinely respect democratic norms and the rights of others don't want to contest power through paramilitaries.  They want to contest power through the orderly democratic process.  Militias shooting it out on the streets are an immistakable rejection of the democratic process.  (And it is a sad commentary on the state of our political discourse that anyone even needs to point out this obvious fact).  Well, so what, NRA types may say.  When the bad guys have guns and start shooting, do good guys want to be helpless before them?  Bad guy paramilitaries can't be wished away, after all; they must be confronted by force.  But this misses the point.  When the state of a country's politics reach the point of good guy paramilitaries and bad guy paramilitaries shooting it out in the streets, liberty is already lost.  What is left is not liberty at all, but the law of the jungle, which is freedom only for people at the top of the food chain.

And second in a direct confrontation between paramilitary and regular military, the paramilitary doesn't have a chance.  Because this didn't just apply to "good guy" paramilitaries.  It applied to bad guy paramilitaries as well.  Most famously, consider the Beer Hall Putsch.  Hitler's paramilitary marched.  The army fired.  The paramilitary scattered, and the revolt was over.  A crackdown ensued. It persuaded Hitler not to attempt violent revolution again, but to seek power through the electoral process.  And, as with the Ku Klux Klan, the only successful paramilitary revolt in our own history, the point is not moral, but tactical.  Our own militia movement need not have anything morally in common with the Nazis to learn some tactical lessons from them.  Or consider Hitler's Stormtroopers or SA.  They were his paramilitary that terrorized opponents.  They numbered three million, versus the small 100,000 man army.  They were armed.  Many were WWI veterans.  Yet when Hitler allowed the army to crack down on the SA, they went down without a fight.  Others have commented that many people in occupied countries did offer armed resistance, to little avail.  As for Jews, they made up about 1% of the German population.  Armed resistance would certainly have been easily defeated.  The much-admired Warsaw Ghetto Uprising did not even slow down the Holocaust.

And all of this raises yet a third point.  The Jews were so few as to make armed resistance hopeless. Some people move this question to the German people in general and say that the German people were not able to resist the Nazis because they were disarmed.  But the real reason the Nazis did not meet with resistance was that they were generally popular.  Insurrectionist types tend to assume that their fantasied armed rebellion will the by The People (good guys) against The Government (bad guys), and that the people will all agree when the time for revolution is ripe and be able to act with unity.  But the simple fact is that no domestic government can endure without the support of at least a significant minority of the population.  The glorious uprising will invariably take the form, not of the People against the Government, but of the people against each other.

And this means some uncomfortable things.  Given that (1) paramilitaries are no match for regular militaries and (2) a significant sub-section of the population will support the government, this means that armed rebellion by a private paramilitary will have to start out hitting soft targets, i.e. terrorizing government supporters.  That is precisely what Hitler's paramilitary did, and quite successfully.  It was only when they took on the armed forces directly (and prematurely) that they were crushed.  This is the pattern any revolt by irregular forces will have to take.  It ain't pretty.

Note that I qualify this statement by saying that it refers to domestic governments.  A foreign occupation is a different matter.**  A foreign occupation may very well rest on brute force alone and not have the support of even a significant minority of the population.  But even the worst occupation will have collaborators, and an irregular resistance will have to start out by targeting them. Furthermore, there is the tendency of revolutions to devour their children.  People who fully agree in hating the government in power my bitterly disagree on what is to replace it.  And once people get in the habit of resolving disputes by violence, it can be hard to break.  The same applies even to resistance movements fighting a foreign occupier.  Certainly in WWII, resistance movements were severely divided between pro- and anti-Communist forces.  In Yugoslavia and Greece, where resistance forces managed an effective guerrilla warfare, the forces of the resistance fought each other as much as they fought the Germans, and civil war co-existed with resistance.  The opposite side won in these respective countries, but neither were nice guys or champions of liberty.

All of which is a way of saying that the theory that private paramilitaries are the natural champions of justice and the final defense against oppressive government falls apart as soon as one learns anything about actual, real-world paramilitaries.  So it often is when beautiful theories are brought face-to-face with ugly facts.

*The 1938 registration law actually relaxed firearms restrictions for non-Jews even further.
**A government of collaborators installed and supported by an occupying force is an intermediate category.

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