Anne Laurie brought our attention to Dr. Carson’s recent comments regarding Jewish Armed resistance, or the lack thereof, against the NAZIs during World War II. Earlier today, between a conference call and doing some other work related stuff I came across Steve M’s much fuller treatment on the topic. Steve traces the history of the assertion that had Jewish Germans been allowed to keep and bear arms, then they would have been able to either provide significant resistance to the NAZIs. This argument originated, as Steve noted, with the founders of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO) who did an analysis of the German firearms laws and restrictions – both those from the late 1920s and the latter set from the late 1930s.
I recently dealt with this at another website – this is the unplanned guest post that I have mentioned a couple of times in comments. I want to follow up and address this here too and I’m adapting some of what I had written at the link above, as well as adding some new information. There are really three different issues to be addressed here: 1) is there really a historical analogy between the German context in the interwar period?; 2) what exactly was the context for Jewish Germans and based on that context would more permissive German firearms laws have made any difference?; and 3) was their actually any Jewish Armed resistance against the NAZIs during WW II? I’m not going to take these in order, in fact I’m going to go backwards (and jump around a bit) – it’ll make more sense this way.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum actually covers the topic of armed Jewish resistance against the NAZIs. This is how it is treated on its website:
So to does the Yad Vashem in Israel:
There was Jewish and non-Jewish armed resistance against the NAZIs. However, most of this resistance came late, after 1942, when it became very, very clear that the Final Solution was NOT simply ethnic cleansing through relocation, but ethnic cleansing through industrial scale extermination. Even where there was armed resistance, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, it was not effective for very long. And while I’m a big fan and supporter of the right of self defense, especially in extremis, in this case it simply would have prolonged the inevitable.
The reason for this is that the NAZIs were first fielding the powers of the state as they consolidated their control, then that of an actual military with the resources of the German state. Ultimately they were also able to utilize the resources of many of the states they had conquered. And all of this would eventually be directed to the support of the military, its needs, and its dual mission of conquering Europe and executing the Final Solution. So we know and can document as a fact there was significant, if somewhat belated resistance. This includes both the Jewish armed resistance and that of both non-Jewish Germans and non-Jewish citizens of other European countries. Some of this is the partisan activity of underground and irregular forces, but it also include the actual armed forces of a number of European states. These actual armies and militaries where unable to stop the NAZIs in one on one fights, so what chance would armed Jewish Germans have really had? Very little.
There are several reasons for this. Despite limiting formal party affiliation for several years out of internal security concerns, the NAZIs still managed to mobilize the vast majority of German society either explicitly or implicitly behind their activities. This is, essentially, the Goldhagen thesis, but even if the cooption of German state, society, and citizenry was not as complete as Goldhagen argues, it was still sufficient to have rendered any real Jewish German resistance futile. The NAZIs had a state and society as a resource, which allowed them to mobilize the power of the state through force – using all elements of national power (diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement/DIME-FIL) to achieve their ends.
Prior to Kristallnacht in November of 1938, and despite being very vocally anti-Semitic, the NAZIs held their cards pretty close to their vests. Kristallnacht was basically an internal, blitzkrieg like pogrom. It is important to note that only 1% of the German citizenry were Jewish – about 500,000 out of a total German citizenry of 67 million. Only a portion of this 1% were emancipated (secular/assimilated as Germans who’s religion just happened to be Jewish as opposed to the very visible ultra-orthodox Jewish Germans). This means that there were less than 500,000 Jewish Germans that might have been acculturated/socialized enough to modern notions of self defense and that might have been willing to resist. Aside from the fact that these are not good odds, and ignoring the fact that Jewish Germans began to flee or go underground or actually engaged in forms of resistance, it ignores a more important concern: there was no Jewish German, let alone Judaic, way of war at that time.
One of the things that I have both had to account for operationally in the work I’ve done for the Army, as well as teach US military personnel to think about, is how do people in other societies conceptualize war and/or warfare. It is true that at this time the Jews of the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine were in the process of developing a concept and understanding of war and warfare, the Jews of Germany had nothing to fall back on. The Rabbinic Judaism that had developed in Europe had little to say about the use of Force – either offensively or defensively – because Jews in Europe were never in control of a political entity. As a result it was simply not a real consideration. So while there was some minimal commentary and analysis in the Talmud based on commandments to the Israelites about the different types of war that they were ordered to undertake to make it to and then capture the Land of Canaan, these were very abstract portions of Judaica.
There were some Jewish German veterans of World War I. Their understanding of war, provided they were involved with the German military long enough and at a high enough level to worry about such things, would have been German, not Jewish. So even had a good portion of that less than 500,000 Jewish Germans been armed (which they weren’t as it wasn’t part of the Jewish German tradition), and had they had advanced warning of Kristallnacht and the beginning of the Final Solution (which they didn’t), there was no context other than sheer survival for Jewish Germans to have acted on. And while sheer survival instinct is powerful, we begin to stretch the counterfactual assertions to argue that uncoordinated Jewish German resistance, that was not widely or uniformly engaged in across a very small minority population, would have yielded positive results. This argument just isn’t logically or historically persuasive. Even had that portion of 1% of Jewish Germans been armed, and all of them situationally aware enough to somehow pick up on what the NAZIs were really planning, and kept their weapons where they could be brought to bear in an emergency, just how many brownshirts are you going to take out in the middle of the night when your store, above which is your home, has just been firebombed? Additionally, there is a bit of victim blaming here. If only Jewish Germans had fought back, had exercised their natural rights to self-defense (ignoring, of course, that Judaism has no concept of natural rights), and had somehow been able to arm themselves in violation of German law, they wouldn’t have gone like sheep to the slaughter. Frankly, that’s just insulting, as well as being a gross misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what actually went on.
Now this discussion of understanding of war or way of war is somewhat abstract, it is still important to understand the dynamic here. It took hundreds of years for the emancipated Jewish Germans to be accepted as Germans. And part of their understanding of their emancipated status was that the religiously based anti-Semitism had been largely left behind so it was safe to assimilate and become Germans that just happened to be Jews. This turned out to not be the case, but we have the actual history and know what actually transpired. Yes there were firearms restrictions on the books. The first batch from the late 1920s were NOT instituted by the NAZIs. Rather they were put in place by the Weimar Republic and applied to all Germans – not just Jewish Germans. It was only the latter NAZI instituted restrictions from 1938 that specifically targeted Jewish Germans.
It is important to remember, as Harcourt does in his article linked to above, that the actual historiography and reality is not as simple as: Jewish Germans were disarmed and they couldn’t fight back. It is for this reason that the ADL issued a statement in 2013 requesting that because the historiography is ambiguous, it is exceedingly unclear how many of the even assimilated Jewish Germans were firearms owners (a fraction of the 1% of all Jewish Germans), that the experience of Jewish Germans in the Holocaust should not be politicized. The historiography makes it very difficult to figure out if the NAZI recodifications beginning after 1938 were symbolic or not and just how the reimposed restrictions were carried out. It therefore becomes impossible to determine if in a coordinated, planned surprise event like Kristallnacht a shocked and terrorized community, even one that that included firearm owners, would have been able to actually respond in any meaningful way as events unfolded. It is because of this that the ADL has asked that these assertions not be used to score political points.
Regardless of the ADL’s request, an armed population of less than 500,000 out of a total population of 67 million was not going to hold off the NAZIs and even pockets of resistance weren’t going to hold out for long. While armed resistance might have bought time for some to escape or slowed things down a bit, what happened in the 1930s in Germany is not analogous to any arguments over the 2nd Amendment here in the US. The historical context is just far too different. The US has not suffered a battlefield defeat in an interstate war followed by the imposition of unconditional surrender with severe and severely disproportionate terms imposed upon America at the cessation of hostilities as was the case with Germany post WW I. These terms were so out of proportion that instead of allowing the WW I allies to win the peace it in fact made the post war peace impossible and set the conditions for future war with Germany in Europe. Moreover, the foundational post WW I German law did not speak to issues of implicit or explicit firearms/weapons ownership, so the creation of laws pertaining to firearms and weaponry through the normal legislative process would not create any sort of constitutional crisis or raise a constitutional concern. The experience of Jewish Germans prior to and during World War II may have much to teach us about implied rights to self defense, and even though self defense is now part of the current Constitutional understanding of the 2nd Amendment as a result of the Heller opinion, the historical reality of Jewish Germans and pre World War II German firearms restrictions cannot be stretched far enough to inform us about 2nd Amendment jurisprudence in the US in 2015. The problem with historical analogies is that they are never perfect and context always matters. In this case the actual historical differences are a bridge too far.