Gun Control, Genocide and Genuine History

If you’re a right winger on Twitter, you’ve seen the memes. “This is what happens to an unarmed populace” plastered on a picture of Nazis murdering Jews. Or “gun control enacted; [fill in] genocide commences.” Recently, Presidential candidate Ben Carson argued that if Jews were armed, they could have prevented the Holocaust, to the cheers of supporters of the Second Amendment and the jeers of historians (not just left-wing ones) who point out the absurdity of the idea.

Here’s the thing: they’re both right. And they both miss the point by a mile and a half.

Self defense, militias and civil rights

At least so far as I could find, public discussions of “gun control” tend to be very limited in both history and scope. They either focus entirely on the United States, or they refer to Europe after WWII. This creates three utterly false impressions:

1) the idea of the right to bear arms is a uniquely American one;

2) it is restricted to the political right wing;

3) and that the belief of arms as a defense against tyranny is an insane and paranoid invention bereft of utility.

Few might know this, but until the 20th century, the right — nay, the duty — to bear arms was just as sacred a right in Europe as it was in the United States. France considered it one of the rights won by the Revolution, where free citizens cannot be denied their right of self-defense by the evil nobility or the government. In Great Britain, purchase of arms was extremely easy — again, based on the Common Law idea of a free citizen’s rights.

Nor was this an exclusively “right-wing” idea. Yes, classical liberals were big on it, but traditional aristocratic conservatives were certainly not enthusiastic on the idea of giving the “lower sort” so much firepower. To the contrary, it was left-wing movements, both socialist and anarchist, who saw the people bearing arms in a militia as an important guarantee against tyranny. So thoroughly ingrained was this idea among socialists, that many even in the Bolshevik movement preferred such a militia over a standing army which might bring back “Bonapartism” (i.e., a military coup).

As for gun control being a tyrannical weapon — yes, until very recently, governments or people in charge explicitly disarmed the people in order to keep them compliant. This is true regardless of whether they were knights and lords keeping down the peasantry, democracies fearing “troublesome” minorities (often on a racist basis), or autocracies in Russia and Turkey (or modern dictatorships to this day). That the governments in question would likely win most fights against rebellions is beside the point — wars are bloody, messy and costly and worth avoiding if possible. The belief that an armed people can deter or at least be a focal point of resistance to tyranny is a belief shared by those same tyrants.

Disarmament and genocide

Which brings us to the Holocaust.

Let’s start with one myth that needs to die a thousand times: Jews are not and never were Old Testament Quakers. There is nothing in Jewish law which denies the idea of self-defense. Whenever Jews could defend themselves, they did, whether in the Crusades or otherwise. Martyrdom only happened when resistance was hopeless. Jews proudly served in all armies in WWI, and over a million and a half fought the Nazis in various forces. Jews not only revolted in the camps, but joined partisan groups of all kinds.

But. But. Here we come to a painful reality. First, the idea that armed resistance could stop or at least slow the Nazi death or war machine is not an invention of the right. Left-wing movements of all stripes glorified the resistance and blew their military contribution out of any proportion to reality for decades. It is only recently that we know how much they needed the help of sovereign states and conventional forces to really win or make a dent. This is not to say their resistance was “pointless” — more on that soon — but their military effect was limited.

But the idea that armed resistance could have stopped the Holocaust cannot stand. German Army fanboys — a population that is largely concentrated in the US and UK, strangely — may continue to delude themselves that it was only a small number of SS units and their collaborators who were responsible for the slaughter, and that the German Army was a clean, moral (and “kick-ass”, “awesome” &c) army that knew nothing of it. We know better today.

For one thing, there were the Waffen SS units, extremely well-trained and well-armed forces who could dish out Hell at Kursk in the morning and slaughter innocents in the evening, and did so quite often. But even “regular” Wehrmacht units had no problem wiping out whole villages on the Eastern Front simply because partisans “may” have gone to the bathroom there. It’s not hard to imagine their willingly wiping out “resistors” in the name of the “war effort.”

National resistance forces, packed with officers and soldiers with much military experience, and often enjoying the backing of the local population and the Allied countries, could do little against the Nazis until late in the game. To imagine that the Jewish people, spread across the continent, divided by language, religion and ideology, could have made a serious dent and survive in the millions until the conventional armies came to save the day is lunacy.

But again, that’s missing the key point, once a mainstay of the left: a people about to be crushed have the right to resist — to exact a cost in blood, even if they ultimately lose. The point of the armed populace was not that every revolt would be successful — even the most rabid pro-gun people in the US would acknowledge that — but that it would cost. Yes, all the ghetto and camp revolts were crushed, but some of the mechanism was slowed, and at least some SS people got a dirt nap instead of living out their lives in peace in the Eastern Bloc or in the west after ludicrously short sentences (or when they belonged in a home, not a jail). A few thousand here, a few thousand there did manage to escape and live beyond the war.

Maybe people on the new left believe the Jews should have gone meekly to their deaths. But I suspect that literally every people who have endured genocide or violent persecution would agree with the above sentiments.

Time for honesty

Which brings us back to today. As we’ve established, armed revolt would not have prevented the Holocaust. But the threats against which citizens arm themselves today — criminals, drug cartels, terrorist organizations, mass shooters — are not the Wehrmacht. They are not a millions-strong armed force with devastating weapons of war. They possess neither the training, nor equipment, nor the territory to be thus. Most gun attacks involve at most a few individuals. Against this, even a pistol-armed citizen with some training can be useful — after all, a Waffen SS unit will not be coming in after a successful thwarting. So the comparison has little value for either side.

It is past time we understand that the right to bear arms, resist evil and defend oneself and one’s loved ones is a proud tradition in Europe no less than the US, and that it has resonance not only on the right but especially on the left as it once was. It is past time we cease to laugh at a long tradition of self-reliance and individual responsibility that goes back to ancient Greece and Medieval city-states, to British Common Law and the French Revolution. And that right has no bearing on whether you make it out alive or not. To understand and have a reasonable discussion about guns in the present, we must first understand their past.