A professor of history and Holocaust studies debunked Ben Carson's suggestion that fewer people would have been killed in the Holocaust had there been greater access to guns in an op-ed for The New York Times, explaining that such assertions “are difficult to fathom” for anyone “who studies Nazi Germany and the Holocaust for a living.”
Ben Carson has come under fire after an October 8 interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer where he claimed that the number of people killed in the Holocaust “would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed.” Carson's comments were immediately called out as “historically inaccurate” by the Anti-Defamation League, but Fox News figures continuously stood by the controversial comments, which parroted an old right-wing media talking point.
In an October 14 op-ed for The New York Times, Alan Steinweis, a Holocaust studies and history professor at the University of Vermont, wrote that Carson's comments are “strangely ahistorical, a classic instance of injecting an issue that is important in our place and time into a historical situation where it was not seen as important.” Steinweiss went on to assert that contrary to the talking points popularized by conservative media and echoed by Carson, he “can think of no serious work of scholarship on the Nazi dictatorship or on the causes of the Holocaust in which Nazi gun control measures feature as a significant factor” and that such assertions “trivialize” the experience of Jews in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s:
To anyone who studies Nazi Germany and the Holocaust for a living, as I do, Ben Carson's statements about gun control are difficult to fathom. “I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” the Republican presidential candidate said in a recent interview.
Mr. Carson's argument, which he made in his new book “A More Perfect Union” and was asked to defend last week, is strangely ahistorical, a classic instance of injecting an issue that is important in our place and time into a historical situation where it was not seen as important. I can think of no serious work of scholarship on the Nazi dictatorship or on the causes of the Holocaust in which Nazi gun control measures feature as a significant factor. Neither does gun control figure in the collective historical memory of any group that was targeted by the Nazi regime, be they Jews, Gypsies, the disabled, gay people or Poles. It is simply a nonissue.
Mr. Carson's remarks not only trivialize the predicament in which Jews found themselves in Germany and elsewhere in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. They also trivialize the serious, prolonged and admirable efforts undertaken by many Germans to work through the causes of their country's catastrophic mistakes of that period.
The origins of the Nazi dictatorship are to be found in the authoritarian legacy of the German Empire, the inability to cope with the defeat in World War I and the failure to achieve political compromise during the Weimar Republic. When it comes to explaining the Holocaust, Germans inquire about the place of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in their society and about the psychological and cultural factors that led ordinary citizens to participate in, or to accept, horrific atrocities. They understand their own history well enough to avoid being distracted by demagogy about gun control.
If the United States is going to arrive at a workable compromise solution to its gun problem, it will not be accomplished through the use of historical analogies that are false, silly and insulting. Similarly, coming to terms with a civilizational breach of the magnitude of the Holocaust requires a serious encounter with history, rather than political sloganeering that exploits history as a prop for mobilizing one's base.