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Gun Control in the Third Reich
Disarming the Jews and "Enemies of the State"
By Stephen P. Halbrook
The Independent Institute Copyright © 2013 Stephen P. Halbrook
All rights reserved.
Insurrection and Repression
IT MAY HAVE been "all quiet on the Western Front," but it would be anything but quiet in Germany. Defeat in World War I heralded the demise of the Second Reich and the birth of the Weimar Republic. The reforms enacted in the early days of the republic to bring the country under control and into compliance with the Treaty of Versailles were both chaotic and draconian. In a country with no strong tradition for keeping private arms and certainly no established, protected right to do so, the Weimar Republic laws and policies regarding firearms were vague and at times enforced harshly. Like the country itself, the legal status and political significance of arms were in constant flux. A decade and a half of dancing on a volcano would pass before Hitler seized power, but the groundwork would be laid for Nazi rule.
In the November Revolution of 1918, workers and soldiers' councils assumed political power and proclaimed the republic. The drive to democratize the military and establish civilian militias was countered by the military command's plans to use combat troops to seal off Berlin, disarm the population, and assume dictatorial powers. Although the armistice signed by Germany and the Allies allowed the troops to return home, collecting the weapons was something else.
"The recovery and surrender of weapons and other army materiel have been very slow," explained a German legal periodical. "Large numbers are still held by private citizens, without title or right, and are a danger to public security." The Reich government thus issued an emergency decree on December 14, 1918, authorizing the German states to set a deadline for surrender of arms. Anyone in illegal possession of a firearm after the deadline expired would be subject to five years imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 marks.
In January 1919, the National Assembly (Nationalversammlung) was elected, and Friedrich Ebert of the German Social Democrat Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) became chancellor. The German Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) instigated the Spartacist Uprising, which was brutally suppressed by government forces and volunteer Free Corps (Freikorps) under the leadership of Social Democrat Gustav Noske.
As part of the repression, the Decree of the Council of People's Representatives on Weapons Possession of January 13, 1919, provided that "[a]ny and all firearms and ammunition of all kinds to be used with firearms must be surrendered immediately." The states were directed to set another deadline to surrender weapons, to designate the checkpoints, and to enact exceptions. Once again, whoever kept a firearm or ammunition was subject to imprisonment for five years and a fine of 100,000 marks. The decree would remain in force until repealed in 1928.
Two days after the firearm ban was decreed, in Berlin Freikorps members murdered the Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The Freikorps defeated the poorly armed Communists in street fighting in several other cities, including Weimar itself.
When Spartacists attacked a Berlin police station in March, killing five officers, Gustav Noske, who was now Reich minister of defense, declared that "any person who bears arms against government troops will be shot on the spot." This order was simplified by the Garde-Kavellerie-Schützen Division to state that anyone who merely possessed a firearm would be executed. Based on these orders, hundreds of civilians in Berlin were indiscriminately killed, many just for owning firearms.
A Communist uprising in Bavaria in April was also easily repressed and produced more atrocities. Referring to the decree by Freikorpsgeneral Burghard von Oven, Lieutenant Rudolf Mann, a regimental adjutant, found humor:
The supreme commander tacked proclamations to the walls: "Warning! All arms are to be surrendered immediately. Whoever is caught with arms in his possession will be shot on the spot!" What could the poor citizen of average intelligence do? Surrender — but how? If he took his rifle under his arm to take it to the place where arms were collected, he would be shot on the steps of his house by a passing patrol. If he came to the door and opened it, we all took shots at him because he was armed. If he got as far as the street, we would put him up against the wall. If he stuck his rifle under his coat it was still worse. ... I suggested that they tie their rifles on a long string and drag them behind them. I would have laughed myself sick if I had seen them go down the street doing it.
In periods of calm, persons caught with a firearm were prosecuted in court rather than shot on the spot. Mere possession of a pistol was interpreted to violate the decree requiring surrender of firearms, and ignorance of the law was no excuse.
Meanwhile, pressure to disarm came from the victorious Allies. The Versailles Treaty strictly limited the quantities of arms that the German army, the Reichswehr, could possess. For instance, a maximum of 102,000 rifles and carbines was authorized. Provisions of the treaty appear to apply to the entire population, not just to the armed forces, a result perhaps not unintended. It provided that all arms must be surrendered to the victors to be destroyed.
The manufacture of arms was severely limited, and the importation of arms prohibited. Universities, "shooting or touring clubs," and any other associations "will be forbidden to instruct or exercise their members, or to allow them to be instructed or exercised, in the profession or use of arms." Although these measures had the ostensible purpose of suppressing German militarism, they promoted the monopoly of power in the government and discouraged citizens' keeping of arms and knowledge of their use.
In early 1920, the Communists called a general strike in the Ruhr and attacked the Freikorps, which counterattacked and smashed the Communists. A young Freikorps member wrote: "Our battalion has had two deaths; the Reds 200–300. Anyone who falls into our hands first gets the rifle butt and then is finished off with a bullet. ... We even shot 10 Red Cross nurses (Rotkreuzschwestern) on sight because they were carrying pistols. We shot those little ladies with pleasure — how they cried and pleaded with us to save their lives. Nothing doing! Anybody with a gun is our enemy."
Versailles restrictions on the size of the Reichswehr encouraged the development of unofficial paramilitary forces that increasingly operated underground, hand in glove with the military. Although the Weimar Republic proclaimed that it would no longer rely on the Freikorps, the latter continued obtaining financial support and arms from the government, often by theft or fraud. Freikorps members would go on to become part of the backbone of Nazism.
The Law on the Disarmament of the People, passed on August 7, 1920, provided for a Reichskommissar, who defined which weapons were "military weapons" and thus subject to seizure. Ordinary Mauser bolt-action rifles with five-shot magazines were put in the same class as hand grenades.
Massive police raids and house-to-house searches followed, confiscating enormous quantities of "military" weapons from civilians. In Berlin, police established weapon-surrender posts, paying 100 marks for a rifle or carbine. The police hid and kept many weapons for their own use. Berlin's secret police routinely searched for arms, violated privacy rights, and infiltrated organizations.
German citizens had no legal right to bear arms. A Prussian high court opined that such freedom was at the sole discretion of the police without judicial review. Nor was any right to keep arms in the home recognized. The Kassel regional court upheld a conviction for possession of hunting rifles and military firearms found in a search of the defendant's apartment.
Meanwhile, the Communists, manipulated by Stalin's Comintern, continued to pursue violent tactics. Such adventurism encouraged the growth of the emerging Nazi Party — the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP) — under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Its paramilitary wing was the Storm Troopers (Sturmabteilung, or SA).
SA leader Kurt Ludecke, who would be purged in Hitler's Night of the Long Knives in 1934, described the situation:
As the bearing arms, or even the possession and concealment of them, was severely punished, usually with several years' imprisonment, it was naturally no easy task to obtain them and keep them in secret. Arms were being bootlegged, and it was an exciting business. One had to risk danger a hundred times to find a single weapon that was intact, rustless, and uniform with the rest.
By the end of December 1922, ... I had managed to secure and hide outside Munich, fifteen heavy Maxim guns, more than two hundred hand grenades, one hundred and seventy-five perfect rifles, and thousands of rounds of ammunition — a real arsenal.
As this description illustrates, members of extremist parties took risks to arm themselves. Law-abiding citizens did not.
Germany was a decade away from the Nazis' taking power, but fascism had just taken hold in Italy. Prime Minister Benito Mussolini told the Italian Senate in 1923 that he had restored order by eliminating subversives, noting: "On the morrow of each conflict I gave the categorical order to confiscate the largest possible number of weapons of every sort and kind. This confiscation, which continues with the utmost energy, has given satisfactory results."
The German Communists pointed to Mussolini's new dictatorship and to the "German fascists" as reasons to organize and arm the "Proletarian Hundreds." On October 24–25, 1923, with prodding from Stalin's Comintern, the Reds launched the Hamburg Uprising, attacking police stations and seizing arms. As revealed in an account by its leader, twenty-five-year-old student Hans Kippenberger, some 1,300 insurgents with only eighty poorly maintained firearms, mostly revolvers, faced some 5,000 policemen armed with rifles, pistols, and machine guns.
The Communists seized some police stations and obtained more arms. Some insurgents lacked minimal firearm training — they captured three submachine-guns but had to obtain instruction from the police prisoners on how to use them! Barricades were erected, and street fighting ensued, but government forces predictably smashed the insurgency.
Without regard to whether the Communists really represented the working class and would have established a tyranny had they seized power, as they did in Russia, this episode provides insight into why the proletariat did not resist Hitler a decade later. The working class had few firearms and no tradition of keeping and using them. If it is accurate that "the Proletarian Hundreds contained 250,000 workers in 1923, but there were only arms for a few thousand of these," proletarians with no political incentive to obtain arms — those who were just working and trying to survive — may have had a far lower rate of firearm ownership.
The Hamburg Uprising and other insurrections demonstrated, according to the Communist account, that "[a]s a result of ruling-class terror, and its own lack of financial resources — the military organization of the proletariat is often unable to procure enough arms and ammunition before the insurrection even to arm itself, let alone the broad proletarian masses. ... Another weakness of the proletariat is the fact that most of the insurgents ... do not have any adequate knowledge of how to handle weapons." To the extent that workers in general lacked arms, they had little means to resist the tyranny that Nazism would later impose.
Just two weeks after the failed Hamburg Uprising, Hitler staged his own failed putsch in Munich. As elsewhere, in Bavaria the government and Reichswehr had large quantities of arms left over from World War I. In the face of the Versailles Treaty, the government had secreted some, allowed paramilitary groups known as the Verbände (Units) to have some, and surrendered others to the Allies for destruction. After the collapse of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919, authorities "painstakingly disarmed the city workers, and kept them pretty well disarmed by a continuous campaign of searches." At the same time, it armed the Verbände.
This was the context of Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch in Munich on November 8–9, 1923. In addition to government-issued arms already possessed by the Nazis, SA leader Ernst Röhm acquired arms from the Reichswehr under the pretense that his group was conducting night exercises. In the putsch, Hitler took officials hostage at gunpoint at the Bürgerbräukeller, a large beer hall in Munich; a failed attempt was made to seize the main police station; and the Nazis tried to advance but were stopped by the police. The police fired and killed fourteen Nazi "martyrs" as Hitler ran away.
A week later the Bavarian government decreed that Nazis would be denied the privilege of possessing state-owned arms that had been accorded to patriotic Verbände loyal to the state. Loyal groups could keep the arms if they reported to the Reichswehr within ten months. The decree did not affect possession of firearms in the homes of private individuals.
Hitler wrote Mein Kampf during his nine-month prison sentence for treason. Although largely raving about liberals, Jews, and Bolsheviks, he opined on how German youth should be training: "To me boxing and jiujitsu have always appeared more important than some inferior, because half-hearted, training in shooting." Ideology, not arms, would protect the "folkish State" from its enemies: "Then the best protection will not be represented in its arms, but in its citizens; not fortress walls will protect it, but the living wall of men and women, filled with highest love for the country and with fanatical national enthusiasm."
The aftermath of all these disturbances saw the creation in 1924 of the largest paramilitary group, the republican Reichsbanner. Although overwhelmingly SPD, it included German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei) and Center Party (Deutsche Zentrumspartei) members. Not to be outdone, the Communists formed the Red Front Combat League (Roter Frontkämpferbund, or RFB). Already in existence was the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmets), which required members to have served six months at the front in the Great War and which was open to Social Democrats, Jews, and conservatives alike.
Fueled by unemployment and extremism, violence flared in 1925–26 between the KPD, the NSDAP, the Stahlhelm, and the Reichsbanner. They fought with flagpoles, bicycle chains, brass knuckles, and knives. Berlin authorities banned the carrying of walking sticks and prohibited sticks and other weapons at political rallies — all to no effect.
Licenses to carry weapons for self-defense were theoretically available, but denial of a license by the police was not subject to judicial review. Neglect to renew a license was grounds for a conviction for unlawful possession of a weapon.
Whether the 1919 Weapons Possession Decree was intended to confiscate all firearms or only military firearms remained unsettled. Noting recent cases of confiscations of and prosecutions concerning private firearms, legal scholar Hugo Preuss argued that even though the law referred to "all firearms," it distinguished rifles and carbines, military designations for the infantry rifle and the shorter carbine. If literally all firearms were included, the law would have similarly distinguished shotguns, target rifles, hunting rifles, and even air guns, he claimed.
Fritz Kunze, an official with the Reich Commissioner for the Protection of Public Order (Reichskommissar für die Ueberwachung der öffentlichen Ordnung), responded that the 1919 decree was intended to confiscate military firearms as well as all other rifles and handguns, but not .22-caliber rifles and teschings, small-caliber salon or parlor rifles. But in a 1926 decision the Reich Court (Reichsgericht) held that the duty to surrender "all firearms" under the 1919 law included all firearms without any exceptions, including parlor rifles.
Many hunters and sport shooters owned small-caliber firearms without permits and thus were not in compliance with the law as interpreted by the court's decision, noted a retired judge from Leipzig. Pointing out that the case involved a Baden farmer who had possessed an unlicensed parlor rifle for years, he admonished the need for publicity of this ruling given the large number of small-caliber sports clubs.
Excerpted from Gun Control in the Third Reich by Stephen P. Halbrook. Copyright © 2013 Stephen P. Halbrook. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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