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Republican Ben Carson has been criticized for suggesting that gun control enabled the rise of the Nazis and led to the extermination of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.
But does he have a point?
In his book, A More Perfect Union, Carson wrote that "German citizens were disarmed by their government in the late 1930s, and by the mid-1940s Hitler's regime had mercilessly slaughtered six million Jews and numerous others whom they considered inferior.
"Through a combination of removing guns and disseminating deceitful propaganda, the Nazis were able to carry out their evil intentions with relatively little resistance," he wrote.
"You know, mid- to late-30s, they started a program to disarm the people and by mid- to late 40's, look what had happened," he said at the Press Club.
PolitiFact decided to analyze Carson’s claim on its Truth-O-Meter.
German gun laws
As the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, it inherited a 1928 gun registration law that had replaced a total ban on gun ownership imposed on a defeated Germany after World War I. The 1928 law created a permit system to own and sell firearms and ammunition.
"But this order was followed quite rarely, so that largely, only newly bought weapons became registered," said Dagmar Ellerbrock, an expert on German gun policies at the Dresden Technical University. "At that time, most men, and many women, still owned the weapons they acquired before or during the first World War."
When they came to power, the Nazis used whatever gun records they had to seize weapons from their enemies, but Ellerbock told us the files included very few of the firearms in circulation.
"In my records, I found many Jews who well into the late 1930s possessed guns," Ellerbock told us.
The Nazis adopted a new gun law in 1938. According to an analysis by Bernard Harcourt, a professor at Columbia University School of Law, it loosened gun ownership rules in several ways.
It deregulated the buying and selling of rifles, shotguns and ammunition. It made handguns easier to own by allowing anyone with a hunting license to buy, sell or carry one at any time. (You didn’t need to be hunting.) It also extended the permit period from one year to three and gave local officials more discretion in letting people under 18 get a gun.
The regulations to implement this law, rather than the law itself, did impose new limits on one group: Jews.
On Nov. 11, 1938, the German minister of the interior issued "Regulations Against Jews Possession of Weapons." Not only were Jews forbidden to own guns and ammunition, they couldn’t own "truncheons or stabbing weapons."
In addition to the restrictions, Ellerbrock said the Nazis had already been raiding Jewish homes and seizing weapons.
"The gun policy of the Nazis can hardly be compared to the democratic procedures of gun regulations by law," Ellerbrock told us. "It was a kind of special administrative practice (Sonderrecht), which treated people in different ways according to their political opinion or according to ‘racial identity’ in Nazi terms."
The power of a police state
In short, Nazi-era Germany imposed greater gun restrictions for Jews (and other perceived enemies) at the same time it loosened gun restrictions for other groups.
But that’s not what Carson said. He made a more sweeping claim about Nazis disarming German citizens.
Carson then goes on to say that the lack of guns allowed the Nazis to "carry out their evil intentions with relatively little resistance."
But a key turning point in the Nazi path to power illustrates that the availability of guns was not a pivotal issue.
Paramilitary organizations were part of the Nazi operation from its earliest days in the mid 1920s. The Sturmabteilung, or Brownshirts, was a founding Nazi street fighting organization. Another outfit, the Schutzstaffel, or SS, provided protection to Nazi officials as they moved about the country. After Hitler won office, the SS under Heinrich Himmler became part of Hitler's inner circle, and Himmler felt the Sturmabteilung was too difficult to control. He and his collaborators concocted a rumor that the Sturmabteilung was plotting a coup.
In 1934, in a span of three days, Himmler’s SS units killed between 85 and 200 Sturmabteilung leaders and other perceived enemies.
Hitler himself oversaw the arrest of one of his oldest comrades, Ernst Roehm, the head of the Sturmabteilung. In the middle of that arrest, a truckload of armed Sturmabteilung troops rolled up, but not a shot was fired. Roehm was executed days later.
The staff at the German Historical Institute wrote that with this operation, Hitler had managed to "legitimize outright murder on a large scale – without any legal proceedings whatsoever – and that the country largely accepted the Nazi propaganda that presented this strike as necessary."
Carson said that under the Nazis, "German citizens were disarmed by their government in the late 1930s," which allowed the Nazis to "carry out their evil intentions with relatively little resistance."
This is a misreading of history on two levels. First, German citizens as a whole were not disarmed by the Nazis. Jews and other supposed enemies of the state were subject to having their weapons seized. But for most German citizens, the Nazi period was one in which gun regulations were loosened, not tightened.
Second, a lack of guns was not the issue. If the majority of Germans had wanted to use these guns to fight the Nazis, they could have. But they didn’t. Carson ignores that the Nazis enjoyed significant popular support, or at least, broad acquiescence.
We rate this claim False.
Ben Carson, A More Perfect Union, Oct, 2015
C-SPAN, National Press Club - Ben Carson, Oct. 9, 2015
CNN, Ben Carson explains Holocaust comments, Oct. 9, 2015
Fordham Law Review, On gun registration, the NRA, Adolf Hitler and Nazi gun laws, June 2004
German Federal Statistical Office, Gebiet und bevolkerung, 1871-1971
Yizkor Book Project, German security services, undated
Gordon Williamson, World War II German Police Units, 2006
German Historical Institute, Nazi Germany 1933-1945, undated
German History in Documents and Images, Erich Kempka’s Eyewitness Description of "Operation Hummingbird" on June 30, 1934, 1954
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, German police in the Nazi state, undated
Martin Collier and Philip Pedley, Hitler and the Nazi State, 2005
National Review, The Weimar Republic’s well-intentioned gun registry became a tool for evil, Dec. 2, 2013
Salon, The Hitler gun control lie, Jan. 11, 2013
Huffington Post, Ben Carson Blames Holocaust On Gun Control, Oct. 8, 2015
New York Times, Ben Carson Is Wrong on Guns and the Holocaust, Oct. 14, 2015
German Federal Archives, Arrest of Communists, March 6, 1933
Email interview, Dagmar Ellerbrock, professor of history, Technical University of Dresden, Oct. 17, 2015
Email interview, Klaus Weinhauer, professor of history, University of Bielefeld, Oct. 18, 2015
Email interview, Bernard Harcourt, professor of law, Columbia University School of Law, Oct. 16, 2015
Email interview, Dietrich Oberwittler, professor of sociology, University of Freiburg, Oct. 16, 2015
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