When Ben Carson recently invoked the Holocaust and Nazisim to advance a political point about gun control, many were rightfully outraged. In short, his comments and subsequent doubling-down were ahistorical and offensive. But while Carson’s cheap rhetoric landed egregiously far from the mark of veracity, a closer analysis of the general target of his historical inquiry may help us to elucidate the truly immanent threat to peace today in the United States: militarization.
In Carson’s mistaken reading of history, “through a combination of removing guns and disseminating deceitful propaganda, the Nazis were able to carry out their evil intentions with relatively little resistance.” If this were the case, the NRA may well have a case for spending millions annually to defend gun rights and gun manufacturers. Indeed, the phenomenon of 20th century fascism demands reckoning to avoid repetition of its terrors.
However, as many have pointed out, by the time Hitler passed a relatively lax form of gun control in 1938, the window of opportunity for effective resistance to the Nazi regime had already passed. Furthermore, the ’38 gun control act actually expanded exemptions to permit requirements, extended the validity of permits, lowered the minimum age to bear arms, and deregulated the purchase of shotguns, rifles, and ammunition. It’s true that Jews were banned from owning weapons of any kind, but as 1 percent of the population, it’s difficult to imagine German Jewry being capable of effective armed resistance to the regime, especially given the broad militarization of German society at large.
The myth that gun control sealed the fate of the Jews has been pushed by the NRA since the 1960s, and serves to justify their relentless advancement of gun manufacturers’ interests even in the face of unprecedented mass shootings. A more careful reading of historical fact leads to radically different conclusions, with greater relevance for our contemporary political position. Only by looking further back, to the early days of the Weimar Republic, we can find actually applicable parallels for today.
In 1919, as in 2015, the issue was not gun control, but militarization. As the brand new German republic was born from the ashes of World War I, many felt hope for an emancipatory future. The center-left Social Democrats quickly established a moderate reformist government, in an attempt to maintain peace between capitalists and an increasingly militant working class. Inspired by the Russian Revolution (yet uncorrupted by Stalinism at this point), German communists and socialists formed workers’ councils on the ground to win control of their livelihoods. This brief but intense mobilization would come to be known as the Spartacist Uprising, named after the leader of a slave rebellion in the Roman Republic.
The more moderate Social Democrats, from whom the communists had split after their decision to endorse the German war effort, opted for order over equality, and in doing so sought a Faustian pact with the Right that would prove tragic. Reactionary paramilitaries known as the Freikorps, composed largely of former soldiers, were armed by the state and put under the command of social-democratic Defense Minister Gustav Noske. In the decisive moment, Noske and President Ebert unleashed the Freikorps, the specially-armed defenders of the conservative order. The communists were slaughtered, and the traditional social relations were reasserted through violence.
Among those killed was Rosa Luxemburg, a revolutionary and theoretician of Polish-Jewish birth. The newborn Communist Party of Germany, of which she was a founder, suffered a major blow in her murder. Indeed, the liquidation of the left by the moderate, ‘progressive’ government, set the precedent for the violent establishment of fascism later on. Numerous leaders of the Freikorps would go on to join and militarize the Nazi Party. (The Great Depression, likely the clearest historical example of capitalism’s absurd self-destructive tendencies, also demands credit for fueling extremist hatred and the political gains of the Nazis after 1929.) The seeds of fascism, later retrenched electorally, can be found in these early years. As historian Isaac Deutscher put it, “in [Luxemburg’s] assassination Hohenzollern Germany celebrated its last triumph and Nazi Germany — its first.”
While post-war Germany and the contemporary United States are far from mirror images, some parallels are too painful and ominous to ignore. Much like then, we have seen rampant domestic militarization of the police under the administration of a moderate progressive president. Much like then, the liberal establishment falls back upon their ultimate arbiter — overwhelming state violence — in the face of resistance to social injustice, be it in the suppression of Occupy Wall Street or mobilizations for racial justice in Ferguson and beyond. And where the German Right was hardened fighting the World War, American society has become materially and emotionally militarized throughout the longest war in our history.
This is, of course, not to say the United States is descending into fascism. Rather, this is a plea to look back to history in a way which recognizes its continuities, and the patterns of oppression which riddle its pages. While the American radical Right (including white nationalists and neo-Nazis) enjoys a chilling popularization and normalization unheard of in recent decades, the times demand a rigorous analysis of the various threats posed to democracy and the strivings for social equity. This is also to note that it is not simply a partisan matter of keeping Republicans out of executive office; so-called progressives are equally capable of employing tools of coercion. The excesses of state violence we have seen employed under the Obama Administration are by no means accidental; as Gustav Noske knew, when the downtrodden inevitably rise up, only by unleashing the spectacular violence of the state and the paramilitary Right can justice be suspended.
Carson is right to point to the possibility of an oppressive state, although many of us understand it to be far from mere possibility. Ultimately, the question is of our relation to state power, our support of liberal militarists, and our willingness to accept the sweeping militarization of our society. The continued pertinence of these questions is the only guarantee. And while the relationship between an armed citizenry and a state body is complex in any instance, a relentless and uncompromising defence of the former at any cost draws attention away from a more methodically violent state system. Instead of correctly diagnosing the perils of a society awash in military-grade material and militaristic sentiments, Carson’s lack of historical insight leads one to disastrously suggest the symptom, deepening militarization, to be its own cure.
Rosa Luxemburg’s last words before her murder point to the unending resurgence of social conflict. Speaking in the name of popular revolt, she declared, “Ich war, ich bin, ich werde sein.” I was, I am, I shall be again. And what is true of the revolt is equally true of the reaction; the militarized Right and state have marred this country’s history, they violently defame it today, and they will not fade away easily.
Malachi Dray, a sophomore studying history, is the international editor of Stanford Political Journal.