The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Great Gun Debate: Even Brutal, Totalitarian Regimes Have Trouble Defeating Well-Armed Insurgencies

In response to Espionage Case

Charlie, I enjoyed your characteristically thoughtful posts on Ben Carson’s comment that the “likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” and I agree wholeheartedly that this should not be a point about mere practicalities. As you note, I have the right to resist tyranny regardless of whether that resistance will succeed. In other words, I have the right to go down fighting. On the practical point, however, I’d note that an awful lot of Carson’s critics are granting the German military machine godlike powers that it simply did not possess. Resistance movements throughout Europe and the Soviet Union hampered the Wermacht to varying degrees, with the Yugoslav resistance perhaps the most notable (and costly) for Hitler. When men had access to weapons, sufficient numbers, and sufficient motivation, they were able to do real damage to the German military — to diminish Hitler’s ability to “accomplish his goals.” Certainly partisan movements weren’t dispositive to the outcome (the Red Army did more to break the Wermacht than any other single military force), but they were important nonetheless.

Moving beyond Germany, it’s remarkable how often even the most brutal of regimes have struggled to suppress insurgencies — think the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where they unleashed hell on the Afghans yet were ultimately driven out. While Assad the father was able to brutally suppress an Islamist insurgency during his regime, Assad the son has lost most of his nation despite a willingness even to use chemical weapons against his enemies. Sometimes dictators can suppress insurgencies. Sometimes they can’t. But history shows that one can’t simply look at theoretical relative military strengths and determine the course of history, even when the dominant power is completely unrestrained by any sense of humanity or decency.

Regarding the Jews of Germany or any other European country, I think it’s fair to say that if (1) they had sufficient weaponry to mount initial resistance; and (2) sufficient knowledge of the looming oppression (not of the Holocaust, which no one really suspected until much later), then they would have fought like lions. After all, not only did Jews who obtained weapons fight hard in World War II, let’s not forget that the founding generation of the Israeli state contained many, many Jews who’d fled Europe and then fought with insufficient and obsolete weapons to successfully stave off a second genocide in 1948. Once an insurgency starts, its contours can’t be predicted, not even against the strongest of armies. And even insurgencies that don’t overthrow regimes (an extraordinary challenge for Germany’s dissenters) can still substantially disrupt the regime’s operations. 

I’ll close with an extended — and poignant — quote from David Kopel, who relates the story of successful Jewish uprisings in Nazi death camps — places where all hope was lost until Jewish prisoners threw themselves at their Nazi guards:

“Violence never solves anything” is a platitude which American schoolchildren are taught. Sobibor and Treblinka show the platitude is a deadly falsehood. Violence solved Sobibor and Treblinka. The solution to Hitler’s Final Solution was violence — the violent destruction of the Nazi regime. The Jews at Sobibor and Treblinka did their part. By shutting down two extermination camps, those fighting Jews may have saved more lives per capita than did other anti-Nazi combat unit, ever. Even the revolts that did not have such spectacular success helped defeat the Nazis. Every revolt delayed and impeded for at least some time the machinery of extermination. Every extra guard that was assigned to a camp because Nazi fear of revolts was one less soldier on the front lines against the Allies.

Some people claim that firearms did not make, and could not have made, any difference in the Holocaust. Sobibor and Treblinka show the opposite. Once the formerly-unarmed Jews got their hands on firearms, the extermination camps were on their way out of business. There is a reason that people in death camps are not allowed to have arms. There is a reason why governments which intend to send people to death camps always disarm them first. Once the genocide targets are armed, genocide becomes much more difficult. Killing armed victims is much more difficult than killing unarmed ones.

It is a hallmark of the modern Left to believe in the power of “people’s revolutions” against even modern militaries. So why the conviction that when it comes to the Jews of Europe that resistance — had it been available — would have been futile? Had the Jews of Germany, Poland, and elsewhere been as armed as, say, the American public is today, then history could — and likely would — have been quite different indeed.

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