Letter: Hitler, guns and my classroom
In the course on Nazi Germany I’m teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit, my students and I haven’t talked much about Hitler’s gun-related policies. According to Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, though, we need to do that to understand how the Nazis were able to do what they did. So what, then, have we discussed instead?
We have talked about how German militarism and an overzealous, nationalist desire for revenge after World War I helped create the best possible breeding ground for Nazism in the Weimar Republic, the first democracy on German soil that later succumbed to the so-called “Nazi seizure of power” in 1933. We have also spoken about the fact that the term “seizure of power” is somewhat of a misnomer, because, after all, the Nazi party did not come to power by means of a coup d’etat but rather with considerable backing at the ballot box.
For many contemporary observers, the logical conclusion of these electoral gains by the Nazi party was to give Hitler a shot as chancellor. It was then that the president of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg — who had still insisted in 1932 that he would not appoint Hitler as the head of a German government because of his fear that this “would inevitably develop into a party dictatorship” — did a dramatic about-face: on Jan. 30, 1933, he made the leader of the Nazi party the new chancellor of Germany.
At the time Hitler’s anti-Semitism was known to everyone. But with regard to securing its new power, the new Nazi government was not much worried about the approximately half-million Jews who made up less than 1 percent of the entire German population.
Let’s not forget that Germany had, at the time, one of the largest and most powerful working-class organizations in the world, and it was no secret that many of its members were outright foes of the Nazis.
This is why my students and I spent several class meetings discussing how worried Hitler and his cohorts were about a violent uprising by the German left and how, as a result, they immediately went about crushing working-class organizations and intimidating their leaders through repression, imprisonment and outright terror.
This happened immediately after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933. A year and a half later, the Nazi leadership moved against dissent within the party’s own ranks.
But what about German Jews? In fact, the Nazis already began disarming Germany’s Jewish population in 1933. This invidious policy was then made official in a new weapons law of 1938 specifically stating that Jews in Germany were not allowed to possess any guns or other weapons.
The motivation for this law was not because the Nazis believed the approximately 250,000 remaining Jews of Germany were a major threat. No, it was one of many steps on the long and sad road of discriminatory policies directed against Jews, which culminated, of course, in the Holocaust of the 1940s — the systematic murder of the European Jews.
To suggest that guns in the hands of the Jews who faced this Nazi onslaught could have made a difference is not just a false reading of history. It is shameful because it borders, intentionally or not, on blaming the victim.
Americans looking for historical lessons from German history to better understand developments in their own country would be better served taking a closer look at the tragic history of the Weimar Republic.
The failure of its democratically elected politicians to find compromise solutions for their country’s many problems — along with their inability to keep themselves and the population safe from assassinations and widespread violence on the streets — were important reasons why voters flocked to the Nazi party, which promised fast and easy solutions.
That is, to my mind, a useful historical analogy that may actually speak to the current political situation in the United States. It is one I certainly discuss with my students — right after reminding them of Wayne State’s guidelines for surviving an active shooter incident on campus.
Department of History
Wayne State University