Wolf Blitzer, the improbably named CNN personality, is no one’s idea of an adroit interviewer. His questions have a certain Dada quality, strings of declarative fragments that seem to have been cut and pasted at random. Ben Carson, the suddenly notable presidential candidate, is a slightly better interviewee, if only because, if you can get past his sleepily anodyne delivery, he is almost guaranteed to say something oblivious, terrifying, or both. Carson’s campaign is Your Older Relative’s Facebook timeline, a series of utterly fantastic claims and propositions presented as the commonest sense. It seemed unlikely that Blitzer, in a Thursday interview, would shake anything loose that wasn’t already rattling around under the hood of the Carson express.
So it came as a surprise when the Internet lit up with word that Blitzer had nabbed Carson’s most improbable claim yet, that “the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed.” But Thursday was not the first time Carson has made this claim.
One of the weirder rituals of the American presidential campaign is the production of the campaign book. These tend to be widely purchased but little read. Their titles echo lyrics of patriotic songs or pull-quotes from historic American oratory. They’re little more than invitations to cable news bookers who would’ve booked the candidates for interviews anyway. Well, Wolf’s producers actually combed through A More Perfect Union, Carson’s latest epistle to the American people, and they discovered the claim that one of the foundations of the Holocaust was civil disarmament.
Whatever else he may be, Ben Carson is not a rigorous thinker, and it’s unlikely he paused to clarify in his own mind whether it was all Germans who would’ve martialed a civic militia to sweep Hitler from power or just Germany’s Jews who would’ve shot their way to freedom like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The notion that private gun ownership prevents tyranny is more an article of faith than a thesis statement. It is worth noting that Hitler’s actual attempt at an armed putsch failed, and the Nazis only later came to power through democratic, parliamentary means. If it’s no longer in vogue to say that all Germans were “Hitler’s willing executioners,” then it’s still fair to note that the Nazis swiftly and effectively consolidated their power and achieved broad support in their country.
But Carson’s comments, thoughtless or no, touch on a troubling undercurrent in the popular Western mythology of the Holocaust: the notion of the Jews as universally passive victims who did not resist their own destruction. This image is amplified in the sentimental portrayals of the Holocaust in so much of our film and media, in which the Jewish victims of the Nazi killing machine are urban, intellectual, and assimilated: city people who would never own a gun or fight back. The shopkeepers and intellectuals and small industrialists are rounded up and packed off to their doom. At best, they hide, or some Schindler saves them.
Eastern Europe, in this narrative, remains vast and undifferentiated. That Jews, cosmopolitan and rural alike, did resist remains unremarked. This serves the American self-image as the singular vanquisher of Hitler’s regime, which was unstoppable and inexorable until our boys made the beachhead at Omaha. But, though it failed and was overwhelmed, there was active resistance in Nazi-conquered Europe throughout the war, and Jews were among the resisters. We do remember the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but we forget that there was armed resistance throughout the ghettos of Poland and the occupied Soviet Union, more than one hundred instances in all. There were uprisings in the camps, in Treblinka and Sobibor and eventually in Auschwitz. Jews fought among partisan resisters in almost every country in occupied Europe. They formed their own partisan resistance groups, like the Bielski partisans in occupied Poland (now Belarus), often facing both German and Soviet forces.
This resistance was not successful. It reveals the lie in Carson’s real central claim. Armed citizens could not prevail against the might of the Wehrmacht. It required the combined power of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler, and even then at the cost of tens of millions of lives. But it also reveals the hateful and frankly anti-Semitic assumption that the Jews of Europe stumbled meekly to their own slaughter.
A grim irony is that the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom was blamed on a Jew with a gun. Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish-German Jew living in Paris, upon learning of the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany, bought a gun and bullets (quite legally), went to the German embassy, and assassinated the diplomat Ernst vom Rath. (An additional irony: Rath, though an anti-Semite himself, had expressed regret at the treatment and suffering of Jews.) A citizen with a gun became one of the gross pretexts on which the Nazis began their Final Solution.
As a Jew, I find it uncommonly disturbing to be treated as a delicate historical artifact that must be preserved under armed guard at all times. There are many Jews, and many kinds of Jews. To reduce us to no more than the point of our almost-destruction and then display us forever as a cautionary tale is worse even than hatred—it’s contempt. And using the Holocaust as a debating point in America’s endless Second Amendment tussle is bad enough without the additional implication that mass extermination is just the sort of thing that happens to people who don’t ammo-up and fight back. Ben Carson likely won’t become president, and we will all feel better about laughing on Twitter at his inanity. But there is a very real problem with amnesia peddled as blithe counter-history. It isn’t disarmament, after all, that makes history repeat, but forgetfulness.