Dear Straight Dope:
I've seen references to, and bumper stickers stating, that Hitler took all the guns away from law abiding Germans in 1936. The inference is that this led to the disarming of the populace and its fall into a dictatorship. I've read extensively about the Third Reich and have never seen a mention of this. Did he effect total gun control in Germany, or is this a bit of modern fiction to lend weight to the gun-lover crowd?
John Greenwood, Jacksonville, Florida
SD Staff DavidB replies:
The quote you are talking about is something along the lines of the following:
This year will go down in history! For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration! Our streets will be safer, our police more efficient, and the world will follow our lead into the future!
The reference is usually given as a speech by Adolf Hitler — alternatively, some say it was in Mein Kampf, but that is easily checkable and proven false — with citation information as follows (all parenthetical material in the original):
“Abschied vom Hessenland!” [“Farewell to Hessia!”], [‘Berlin Daily’ (Loose English Translation)], April 15th, 1935, Page 3 Article 2, Einleitung Von Eberhard Beckmann [Introduction by Eberhard Beckmann].
I’ve seen this quote pop up many times, from political discussions to gun shows, where a friend told me he’d found it emblazoned on signs. I don’t think anybody knows the origin of it, but several have tracked it back and found it to be completely false.
The talk.politics.guns FAQ (http://rkba.org/research/rkba.faq), which is pro-gun, includes a number of such false quotes in its “Pious Frauds” section and, to its credit, refutes them. The discussion there is based in large part on research done by Clayton Cramer for his book, Firing Back. Cramer is also a gun supporter, making his work in this area highly credible — and creditable.
The FAQ entry, which is duplicated in the archive of urbanlegends.com [Editor’s Note: archived page], notes the main problems with the supposed quote. First, the quote itself has changed over the years. Some versions start by saying, “This year will go down in history!” Others say, “1935 will go down in history!” (The former still has a 1935 date attached as a supposed reference.) That, in and of itself, doesn’t prove anything, but it’s a warning sign.
Another warning sign is the way the citation is generally messed up. The reference date isn’t even close to a major public speech by Hitler. Furthermore, the texts of Hitler’s various speeches have been checked, and no sign of this quote can be found.
An examination of the Berliner Tageblatt (reasonably close to “Berlin Daily”) for the cited date shows that the page referred to was the paper’s arts and culture page. There was no reference to a Hitler speech anywhere in the paper that day, or on days close to it.
The name given, Eberhard Beckmann, doesn’t seem to correspond to anybody who was in a position to write introductions of this nature. While a person of that name was found, and he did indeed write introductions, said introductions were for photography books and he worked for a German broadcaster after World War II.
OK, so the quote and cite are screwed up. What about the supposed law itself? Well, as described in the FAQ, 1935 “has no correlation with any legislative effort by the Nazis for gun registration.” (Nor, for that matter, does 1936, the year you mention in your question.) Indeed, there was no need for the Nazis to pass a law like that, because the earlier Weimar government had already passed gun registration laws. When I asked Cramer about his research, he said, “The laws adopted by the Weimar Republic intended to disarm Nazis and Communists were sufficiently discretionary that the Nazis managed to use them against their enemies once they were in power.” In other words, they didn’t need to pass additional laws. The Nazis did pass a weapons law in 1938, but that only added restrictions to the previous law, especially for Jews and other “non-citizens.”
Cramer also told me that since the publication of Firing Back, the quote has morphed again (more indication of it being an urban legend, not reality) and now has a more detailed date and location cite. He asked a friend in Germany to check out this new (mis)information. As we might have expected, the quote was not to be found.
Cramer further noted that although gun control laws helped the Nazis suppress political dissidents and round up German Jews for extermination, “they weren’t the major part of the process.” Later, when they invaded Eastern Europe, Cramer says the Nazis did indeed benefit from the inability of their victims to fight back. But that is tangential to the (un)reality of this quote.
Some gun proponents like this quote because it compares current gun control attempts to those of the Nazis. But as the pro-gun FAQ cited above freely concedes, “This quotation, however effective it may be as propaganda, is a fraud.” Instead of propagating a falsehood, Cramer says he encourages people to read a book by Jews for Preservation of Firearms Ownership on “the curious parallels between the U.S. Gun Control Act of 1968 and the 1938 Nazi weapons control law.” But that’s another issue altogether.
(Anybody who is interested may find Mr. Cramer’s web site at http://www.ggnra.org/cramer/.)
It occurred to me, with the help of a sharp-eyed member of the Teeming Millions, that I didn’t completely answer this question, but instead focused on the part about the quote. I did this because the quote had been circulating for so long and provoked Mr. Greenwood’s question. However, he and the Teeming Millions deserve a fuller answer.
Most of the answer can already be found above. Hitler didn’t need to impose gun control because gun laws were already in effect (ironically, those original laws were in part designed to disarm the Nazis). Gun control helped the Nazis keep weapons out of the hands of their enemies, but as Cramer notes, it wasn’t a major factor in Hitler’s success.
That said, and a bit tangential to this question (but I’d hate to leave something out AGAIN), Cramer says the Nazis did benefit significantly from gun control in Eastern Europe in terms of “the inability of their victims to fight back.” He cites The Holocaust, a book by Leni Yahil (translated by Ina Friedman and Haya Galai, Oxford University Press, 1990), which has a chapter discussing armed resistance by Jews, including rebellions with just a few firearms and a lot of courage. In addition, he talks about Israel Guttman’s book, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which discusses the difficulty the Jews faced in obtaining weapons.
Cramer believes that “if the population of Eastern Europe were as well armed as the average American, the Nazis would have lost much of their military capacity attempting to implement the Holocaust.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s certainly difficult to have an uprising without weapons.
What about Germany proper? According to a review by David B. Kopel of the book Lethal Laws, by Jay Simkin, Aaron Zelman, & Alan M. Rice, and available from Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, the law already in place required a permit to obtain guns or ammunition, and another to carry a gun. (This was not the book referenced by Cramer above — that one is Gun Control: Gateway to Tyranny, J.E. Simkin & A. Zelman, 1992, also available from JPFO.) Guns were required to have serial numbers, and anybody owning one without a serial number had to have one stamped on it. Permitting was mostly left up to the police. Permits were only given to people of “undoubted reliability” who demonstrated a “need” for a gun. The law made it easy for Hitler to make sure his opponents couldn’t get permits and thus had no access to firearms.
Did gun control, then, pave the way for the Nazi rise to power? If guns had been readily available, would the people have risen against their oppressors? That seems dubious. The Nazis had a great deal of popular support. Much of their campaign of intimidation involved old-fashioned strongarm tactics, not guns. Had opponents of the regime been armed, and had there been a tradition of armed resistance in Germany, the Nazis might have had a tougher time of it. But that gets us into a pretty speculative realm.
When the Nazis enacted their own law in 1938, they added restrictions aimed at Jews, such as not allowing Jews to work in any business involving guns. They also prohibited those under eighteen from buying guns, added yet another permit for handguns, and banned silencers and small hollow-point ammunition. Of course, Nazi officials were exempted from all gun permits. Later that year, after “Kristallnacht,” Hitler forbade Jews to possess pretty much any weapons.
To summarize, Hitler did “effect total gun control,” but only for the Jews, and only after his regime had been in power for several years. For the rest of the population he relied on laws already in place.
To focus exclusively on gun control is to lose sight of the larger picture. The Nazis controlled EVERYTHING. If you went through the Bill of Rights you’d find that most of them were abridged in Hitler’s Germany. Did the loss of one particular right have more impact than the others? That’s a question we here at the Mailbag can’t answer. I doubt anybody can.
SD Staff DavidB, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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