The perennial gun-control debate in America did not begin here. The same arguments for and against were made in the 1920s in the chaos of Germany’s Weimar Republic, which opted for gun registration. Law-abiding persons complied with the law, but the Communists and Nazis committing acts of political violence did not.
In 1931, Weimar authorities discovered plans for a Nazi takeover in which Jews would be denied food and persons refusing to surrender their guns within 24 hours would be executed. They were written by Werner Best, a future Gestapo official. In reaction to such threats, the government authorized the registration of all firearms and the confiscation thereof, if required for “public safety.” The interior minister warned that the records must not fall into the hands of any extremist group.
In 1933, the ultimate extremist group, led by Adolf Hitler, seized power and used the records to identify, disarm, and attack political opponents and Jews. Constitutional rights were suspended, and mass searches for and seizures of guns and dissident publications ensued. Police revoked gun licenses of Social Democrats and others who were not “politically reliable.”
During the five years of repression that followed, society was “cleansed” by the National Socialist regime. Undesirables were placed in camps where labor made them “free,” and normal rights of citizenship were taken from Jews. The Gestapo banned independent gun clubs and arrested their leaders. Gestapo counsel Werner Best issued a directive to the police forbidding issuance of firearm permits to Jews.
In 1938, Hitler signed a new Gun Control Act. Now that many “enemies of the state” had been removed from society, some restrictions could be slightly liberalized, especially for Nazi Party members. But Jews were prohibited from working in the firearms industry, and .22 caliber hollow-point ammunition was banned.
The time had come to launch a decisive blow to the Jewish community, to render it defenseless so that its “ill-gotten” property could be redistributed as an entitlement to the German “Volk.” The German Jews were ordered to surrender all their weapons, and the police had the records on all who had registered them. Even those who gave up their weapons voluntarily were turned over to the Gestapo.
This took place in the weeks before what became known as the Night of the Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht, occurred in November 1938. That the Jews were disarmed before it, minimizing any risk of resistance, is the strongest evidence that the pogrom was planned in advance. An incident was needed to justify unleashing the attack.
That incident would be the shooting of a German diplomat in Paris by a teenage Polish Jew. Hitler directed propaganda minister Josef Goebbels to orchestrate the Night of the Broken Glass. This massive operation, allegedly conducted as a search for weapons, entailed the ransacking of homes and businesses, and the arson of synagogues.
SS chief Heinrich Himmler decreed that 20 years be served in a concentration camp by any Jew possessing a firearm. Rusty revolvers and bayonets from the Great War were confiscated from Jewish veterans who had served with distinction. Twenty thousand Jewish men were thrown into concentration camps, and had to pay ransoms to get released.
The U.S. media covered the above events. And when France fell to Nazi invasion in 1940, the New York Times reported that the French were deprived of rights such as free speech and firearm possession just as the Germans had been. Frenchmen who failed to surrender their firearms within 24 hours were subject to the death penalty.
No wonder that in 1941, just days before the Pearl Harbor attack, Congress reaffirmed Second Amendment rights and prohibited gun registration. In 1968, bills to register guns were debated, with opponents recalling the Nazi experience and supporters denying that the Nazis ever used registration records to confiscate guns. The bills were defeated, as every such proposal has been ever since, including recent “universal background check” bills.
As in Weimar Germany, some well-meaning people today advocate severe restrictions, including bans and registration, on gun ownership by law-abiding persons. Such proponents are in no sense “Nazis,” any more than were the Weimar officials who promoted similar restrictions. And it would be a travesty to compare today’s situation to the horrors of Nazi Germany.
Still, as history teaches, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
— Stephen Halbrook is a research fellow with the Independent Institute and the author of the new book, Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and “Enemies of the State.”