Over the last twenty years, I have watched Stephen P. Halbrook’s scholarly work on gun control become more polished, more nuanced, and more methodical. His latest book, Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and “Enemies of the State” is an astonishing piece of scholarship: complete; careful; thoughtful.
For a very long time, Americans opposed to gun control have used the example of Nazi Germany’s gun control laws as a warning of what might happen here. Regrettably, not everyone has been careful enough. There is a quote purportedly from Hitler about gun control that starts out “1935 will go down in history” that used to float around the Internet. It does not appear so often anymore because a number of people, including me, demonstrated its falsity.
Part of what allowed bogus quotes like this to survive was that few historians have bothered to research the real history of the Nazis and gun control. Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership did a nice job of obtaining and translating the 1928 and 1931 Weimar Republic gun control laws, and the 1938 Nazi gun control law some years ago, but as useful as these were, they simply do not compare to what Halbrook has done with this new book.
Halbrook traces the development of German gun control law from the collapse of the Kaiser’s government in 1918, through the post-war chaos, the Weimar Republic’s efforts to prevent the violence of the Nazis and the Communists in the 1920s and early 1930s, and then the ways in which the Nazis used those laws to disarm anyone who they regarded as “enemies of the state” (which of course included all Jews). In doing so, Halbrook makes use of an astonishing set of sources. His secondary sources are impressive: scholarly histories of the period, such as The Berlin Police Force in the Weimar Republic, and specialized works that you might not even expect to exist, such as Der Weg des Sports in die nationalsozialistische Diktatur (The Way of Sport in the National Socialist Dictatorship). Halbrook goes far beyond that, however, with an impressive collection of primary sources, including diaries by people who lived through the time, surviving police records, internal government memos, and court decisions. Part of what makes a book like this possible is part of what made it so easy to convict Nazis war criminals: the German penchant for documenting everything – and the difficulty in making those documents disappear, when it became apparent that the war was lost.