“Nazism, Firearm Registration, and the Night of the Broken Glass”

Reichskristallnacht was 72 years ago. Stephen Halbrook’s 2009 article in the St. Thomas Law Review details the close connection between the disarmament of the German Jews and what came next. From the conclusion:

Over a period of several weeks in October and November 1938, the Nazi government disarmed the German Jewish population. The process was carried out both by following a combination of legal forms enacted by the Weimar Republic and by sheer lawless violence. The Nazi hierarchy could now more comfortably deal with the Jewish question without fear of armed resistance by the victims.

It may be tempting to argue that the possession of firearms by the German Jews would have made no difference, either in the 1938 pogrom or later in the Holocaust, when the majority were deported and then eradicated in death camps. Yet this fatalistic view ignores that the Nazis themselves viewed armed Jews as sufficiently dangerous to their policies to place great emphasis on the need to disarm all Jews. In 1938, it was by no means certain that Jewish armed resistance movements could not develop, and even less certain that individual Jews would not use arms to resist arrest, deportation, or attacks by the Nazis.

Consistent adherents of a “Never Again!” policy – which assumes that what has happened in history, could again happen – would seek policies to help ensure that it does not indeed occur again.

That brings us back to Alfred Flatow. [The article provides a case study of Flatow, a Jewish veteran of the German army, who competed for Germany in the 1896 Olympics.] What if he – and an unknown number of other Germans, Jews and non-Jews alike – had not registered his firearms in 1932? Or if the Weimar Republic had not decreed firearm registration at all? What if the Nazis, when they took power in 1933 and disarmed social democrats and other political enemies, or when they decided to repress the entire Jewish population in 1938, did not have police records of registered firearm owners? Can it be said with certainty that no one, either individually or in groups small or large, would have resisted Nazi depredations?

One wonders what thoughts may have occurred to Alfred Flatow in 1942 when he was dying of starvation at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Perhaps memories of the 1896 Olympics and of a better Germany flashed before his eyes. Did he have second thoughts, maybe repeated many times before, on whether he should have registered his revolver and two pocket pistols in 1932 as decreed by the Weimar Republic? Or whether he should have obediently surrendered them at a Berlin police station in 1938 as ordered by Nazi decree, only to be taken into Gestapo custody? We will never know, but it is difficult to imagine that he had no regrets.