The suggestion last week by House Republican Don Young of Alaska, that more Jews would have survived the Holocaust had they been armed, is not a new argument.
Ben Carson made the same argument – twice – in October 2015, the first in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, and the second, on CBS’ Face the Nation.
It’s been made by author Stephen Halbrook and National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre. In fact, it’s been made enough times to have its own Wikipedia entry.
But repeating the argument doesn’t make it any less ignorant or less based on wishful thinking. Or less desparate.
As Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Emma Gonzalez would say, I call BS.
It's batshit crazy, really, and I'm sick of it.
I’m speaking about this as a Democrat, but also from the perspective of an educated female professional with degrees in history and public policy, and as someone who knows a thing or two about the Holocaust from my own family.
Full disclosure: My father and aunt are Holocaust survivors. Virtually the entire side of my father’s family was wiped out in Auschwitz. You could say I have intimate knowledge of the issue, although not firsthand knowledge, in the way the Stoneman Douglas students know what it’s like to have guns in their school.
So what exactly did Representative Young say to his constituents at an Alaska Municipal League meeting in Juneau last week, when he was responding to one constituent’s question about gun safety, to suggest that maybe I could have grown up with my grandfather, like any other young girl?
After briefly referencing the standard Republican talking points about the influence of violent video games and how a ban on AR-15s could lead to a ban on bows and arrows, he said:
“How many millions of people were shot and killed because they were unarmed? Fifty million in Russia because their citizens weren't armed. How many Jews were put into the ovens because they were unarmed?”
Forget batshit crazy. This is breathtakingly insulting to my grandfather; to the millions of Jews and non-Jews alike who died in the concentration camp ovens; to the millions of Russians who died; and to victims of violence anywhere, because let’s be real – this isn’t just an argument about the Holocaust.
This is a made-in-America political argument that was manufactured by someone in favor of arming citizens for their own protection, and then found the most egregious example of our time to rationalize it.
Here’s a quote, from a Feb. 27 NBC News article that covered Representative Young’s remarks, that shows how it’s rationalized:
Young spokeswoman Murphy McCollough told The Associated Press in an email Wednesday that Young's remarks were “taken entirely out of context... He was referencing the fact that when Hitler confiscated firearms from Jewish Germans, those communities were less able to defend themselves,” she said.
Taken entirely out of context? In fact, McCollough’s statement and Young’s comment assume a very simple reality made up of only two statements:
Statement 1: Hitler confiscated firearms from Jewish Germans.
Statement 2: Jews were not able to defend themselves from being thrown into ovens.
Statement 1 is correct and can be regarded as Fact 1.
Statement 2 is technically Fact 2, though it’s incredibly misleading, because those who were thrown into the ovens were already dead.
But even if we take both of these statements to be true, they still make up only a tiny fraction of the whole context of the Holocaust. Here’s a very quick summary:
Adolf Hitler rose to power through democratic means and widespread support of his anti-Semitic and racist ideas, created a government that systematically stripped Jews of their employment rights and citizenship rights, burned their books, segregated them into crowded, disease-ridden ghettos, banned them from possessing all weapons, carefully built the intricate and powerful Gestapo and SS infrastructure, built labor and death camps, rounded up and herded Jews into those camps, made pacts with Italy and the Soviet Union, invaded countries throughout Europe or saw them surrender, attacked England and the Soviet Union, and declared the Final Solution to exterminate as many Jews in Europe as possible. This final solution included gassing Jews with Zyklon-B and then putting them in ovens.
So fact 1 – that the Jews were indeed first barred from manufacturing arms and ammunition, and then from possessing any form of weapon, from firearms to knives – hardly led directly to the Jews not being able to defend themselves.
Meanwhile, in case you’re counting, the above summary paragraph contains facts 3-15.
Now, back to Representative Young’s quote: “How many Jews were put into the ovens because they were unarmed?”
Fact 16: As noted above, Jews were gassed before being placed in the ovens. So if you take him literally, Representative Young is suggesting that corpses should have been armed.
If you’re taking him metaphorically, you need some more background facts:
Fact 17: When the Jews were brought into the gas chambers before they were gassed and burned, they were naked, malnourished and diseased.
Fact 18: The camps were crawling with soldiers, and every one of the inmates’ moves was watched at every hour of the day.
Facts 19-21: If you want to go further back, before the Jews were brought to the camps - before they had their clothes and bags and hair and shoes ripped off - they were transported like sardines in cattle cars, where many died along the way of suffocation. And prior to being rounded up and taken, they were required to wear the yellow star of David, both as a form of identification and of humiliation.
Fact 22: Even further back, there was a famous example of state-sanctioned violence known as Kristallnacht, a vicious progrom that occurred on November 9-10, 1938, the day before a regulation against Jews possessing weapons came into force.
Kristallnacht, which is German for “The Night of Broken Glass,” was carried out by mobs of German civilians and forces across the country, who ransacked thousands of Jewish cemeteries, homes, shops, hospitals, schools and synagogues, broke down storefronts and buildings with sledgehammers, and burnt them down. They killed more than 90 Jews and assaulted hundreds more. Officials arrested more than 25,000 people and took them to concentration camps.
Fact 23: Sometimes Jews were poisoned. The Nazis would distribute candies to kindergarten schoolchildren and the next day, all the kids would be dead.
Fact 24-26: Jews were watched day and night by an SS that would go to great lengths to capture even one. The Nazis drained rivers looking for them. The only reason why my pregnant grandmother made it out of Paris alive was because she faked labour, and the Nazis didn’t want the mess all over their pristine Mercedes.
So let’s recap. In any of these scenarios, how would guns have helped? Regarding Kristallnacht, specifically:
Guns don’t guarantee protection against sledgehammers or frothing mobs.
They don’t do anything in a fire except melt.
If anything, guns would have helped Jews to commit suicide after those horrors (which some did.)
Even if Jews had guns during Kristallnacht, would the ensuing violence have been neat? Would there have been zero innocent casualties? Would the number of innocent casualties, however many or few, been worth the cost of the inevitable heavier Nazi reprisals?
In fact, Kristallnacht itself was a reprisal against the killing of one embassy official Ernst vom Rath by a teenage Jew named Herschel Grynszpan.
How would guns have protected Jews from the rampant spread of anti-Semitic ideas, and the removal of their right to be a citizen and earn an income?
How would these Jews have paid for guns and ammunition?
Where exactly would they have kept their weapons?
How would guns have protected them against being identified with their bright yellow badge?
How would guns have protected them against poison?
In the camp scenario, if Jewish inmates were either naked or wearing a thin uniform, exactly where would they have holstered their guns?
If they had managed to pull them out somehow, how would they have been protected from armed guards in their watchtowers, not to mention bombs and planes overhead? Even if they were well-trained in operating arms – and who on earth would have trained them, and where, and with what money – how would sick and malnourished inmates defeat their healthy adversaries?
And if you think trained resistance fighters could have smuggled or broken through the sheer number of guards and the barbed wire, tell me how? Tell me how they could have dug tunnels without any of the guards noticing, or where they would have kept their stash or weaponry, or, if they had managed to keep all that quiet, how they would have managed to survive the Germans fighting back with 100 times the firepower? How would they have managed to limit the reprisals that would have followed?
Tell me exactly, how would Jews having guns increased the number of survivors and given me a chance to meet my grandfather?
Fact 27: The Holocaust was not a Hollywood movie.
Let’s go back to Representative Young in that room in Juneau, Alaska, where he was speaking to a group of his constituents.
Fact 28: Representative Young was speaking to a group of American constituents, in Alaska, drawing a comparison between the arming of civilians in today’s America, which is not at war at home, to the arming of civilians in wartime Europe.
How preposterous is this?
Many conservatives who participate in and advocate for gun culture accuse liberals of being naïve. But any of them making this argument need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
In today’s America, gun owners who support their Second Amendment rights reference four main arguments: the hunting of animals and responsible sport, the self-defense argument, the protection of others argument, and the defense-against-a-tyrannical-government argument.
Notwithstanding the uncertainty of success these gun owners would face, for example, in protecting themselves in a slapdash street robbery or rape made at gunpoint, or in protecting others in a mass shootout, or in protecting themselves with an AR-15 from a “tyrannical government” that has all manner of data, riot police, drones, bombs and tanks at its disposal - notwithstanding all that - three out of four of these arguments are about the gun owner / civilian being on the defensive of an attack of some kind. None presumes the gun owner / civilian is on the offensive, attacking fellow humans.
Which is why it is so important to reiterate this next bit:
Fact 28: The Constitution was not written in the age of the AR-15. The Second Amendment was not designed to protect the rights of people who would go on the offense and rampage America’s public places, malls, theatres and schools, killing children and teenagers and teachers whose sole purpose is to educate and be educated. While more recent Supreme Court rulings have declared that the Second Amendment allows individuals the right to possess and carry bearable arms, the historical fact is that this amendment was written in support of self-defense rights and the civic duty to act in defense of the state. Neither of those apply in cases where a killer goes on the offense, and where the state isn’t involved. The Constitution did not foresee individual schools masquerading as militias, with armed guards, students and teachers.
(Fact 28 is related to another fact that is not the focus of the article only because it wasn’t the focus of the constituent’s original question: Mass shootings only make up a fraction of total gun deaths in America. More common are people committing suicide, and black and Latino young men dying disproportionally from gun violence.)
Back to wartime Europe.
In wartime Europe, there was a war. Wars generally imply the widespread use of arms, and aside from the Allied, German and Soviet armies, World War II included scrappy resistance movements across Europe with armed and trained civilian fighters. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, the war’s single largest Jewish uprising, Jews indeed had ammunition: heavy machine guns, light machine guns, rifles, pistols, grenades. But then: 13,000 Jews were killed, 6,000 of whom were burnt alive or died from smoke inhalation. Of the remaining 50,000 residents, most were captured and shipped to concentration and extermination camps.
So now we’ve come full circle: How would guns have made any significant difference in outcomes?
Counterfactual history serves a purpose: to study the “what ifs” to better understand what really happened.
But counterfactual arguments like this are pointless and inefficient. Representative Young and those who agree with him are less interested in what really happened than in winning a gun-control debate. The problem is, they can’t win this argument. Because this is a summary of the whole conversation:
If Jews had been armed, would some victims’ lives have been saved? Maybe.
Would more have been lost in reprisals? The historical evidence strongly suggests yes.
Would armed Jews have changed the intent of the Nazis to exterminate them, the trajectory of the war, or limited the number of Jews who burnt in ovens? The preponderance of historical evidence suggests a range of somewhere between highly unlikely to not a chance.
Context matters. The gun control debate in America cannot be so easily transferred to historical, complex wars. Representative Young’s suggestion that the Nazis would have killed less of my family had they been armed is as insulting and as ill-founded as the idea that arming teachers and students will end tragic deaths from school shootings in America.
Representative Young, do you know what works better at fighting evil than guns in today’s America?
Puncturing holes through shaky arguments.
An appreciation of historical context and complexity.
A willingness to resist the abuse of power through peaceful means.
The courage, effort and humility to discard wishful thinking and lazy conventional wisdom, even from your own team.
Representative Don Young isn’t the first to make this argument.
But he must be the last.
Never again, said Elie Wiesel.
Never again, say the students of Stoneman Douglas.