Ben Carson’s ignorance of the historical facts of the Holocaust is every bit as appalling as his insensitive exploitation of the memory of that genocide to score political points in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Arguing against any form of gun control, Carson wrote in his new book, “A More Perfect Union,” that “German citizens were disarmed by their government in the late 1930s, and by the mid-1940s Hitler’s regime had mercilessly slaughtered six million Jews and numerous others whom they considered inferior… Through a combination of removing guns and disseminating deceitful propaganda, the Nazis were able to carry out their evil intentions with relatively little resistance.”
Carson then told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the son of Holocaust survivors whose paternal grandparents were murdered in an Auschwitz gas chamber, that Hitler’s genocide of European Jews “would have been greatly diminished” if the Nazis’ victims had been armed.
Carson’s statements parrot an erroneous myth propagated by the gun lobby for decades. More than 20 years ago, the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre wrote, “In Germany, Jewish extermination began with the Nazi Weapon Law of 1938, signed by Adolf Hitler, that required police permission of ownership of a handgun.”
To begin with, the law in question actually loosened rather than tightened the ability of most Germans to own and sell guns. Prior to the Nazis’ advent to power in 1933 and for the first five years of the Third Reich, relatively strict gun control and registration laws had been in effect in Germany. True, the March 1938 law to which Carson and LaPierre refer barred Jews from manufacturing firearms and ammunition, and regulations promulgated by the German Ministry of the Interior later that year prohibited Jews from owning weapons altogether. But the same law also deregulated ownership of rifles, shotguns and ammunition — it applied only to handguns — for many other Germans, and exempted members of the Nazi party, government workers and holders of hunting permits from any regulations whatsoever for the acquisition or transfer of firearms.
Precisely those Germans most likely to persecute and kill Jews (and others the Nazis considered inferior) were given unrestricted access to deadly weapons. If anything, the 1938 law appears to have been the type of “pro-gun” legislation that should be catnip for Second Amendment zealots.
More to the point, the argument that the 1938 law in any way facilitated the perpetration of the Holocaust is historically false and morally offensive. As Carson might have learned if he had bothered to read up on the history of the Holocaust, access to guns would not have saved the lives of Jews in Poland, Hungary, France, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Romania, and elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The German military was one of the mightiest in the world for most of World War II. It was also one of the most ruthless. And it used its power to terrorize and annihilate not just Jews but other perceived enemies under its control.
I would like Carson to explain to me what he thinks my parents and grandparents could or should have done when heavily armed SS men forced them and their families into the ghettos of their respective hometowns in Poland. And what exactly would he have expected my mother, her parents, her first husband, and her five-and-a-half-year-old son to do upon their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau? Take out a smuggled handgun and shoot at one of the hundreds of armed SS guards who were waiting for them with vicious dogs? And then what?
In fact, there were armed uprisings in many of the ghettos, but these were all Pyrrhic in nature, symbolic acts of defiance by the doomed. The most the Jewish ghetto fighters could do was delay the inevitable in bursts of glory. There were also armed rebellions at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, and other Nazi death and concentration camps. Virtually all who took part in these acts of defiance were killed as they knew they would be.
After World War I, Germany was disarmed. Had it remained disarmed it would not have been able to launch another war in which it murdered tens of millions across Europe. In other words, it was not Hitler’s “removing guns” from anyone, let alone Jews, that resulted in genocide, but rather his ability to use firearms and other lethal weaponry to his heart’s content.
Perhaps most important, as our nation begins yet another presidential campaign cycle, all candidates and their supporters would be well advised to keep Holocaust memory and Holocaust imagery off limits. The genocide of European Jewry is not an appropriate subject for political grandstanding. Simply put, my murdered grandparents and brother deserve better than to be used as props in sound bites to win votes.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, editor of “God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors,” teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.