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Ben Carson's Holocaust theory prompts outcry from Jewish groups

Jewish groups and Holocaust scholars are denouncing Ben Carson’s claims that Nazi gun control laws contributed to the Holocaust.

Jewish groups and Holocaust scholars say Ben Carson’s claims that Nazi gun control laws contributed to the Holocaust are offensive and inaccurate, but Carson is not backing down.

Speaking to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Friday, Carson asserted that “not only the Jews, but the entire populace” in Germany could have prevented or lessened the extermination of the Jews if Adolf Hitler hadn’t blocked their access to guns.

“There are many countries where that has occurred where they disarm the populace before they impose their tyrannical rule,” Carson said. 

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At a luncheon with the National Press Club later that day, Carson blamed the ongoing story on “the left wing press again trying to stir up a controversy,” before elaborating on his theory that gun control contributed to the Holocaust.

“In the mid-to-late ‘30s they started a program of disarming the people and by the mid-‘40s, look at what happened,” Carson said, saying the history showed the importance of America’s constitutional right to bear arms.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which was founded to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, derided Carson’s theory – which he first raised in his new book “A Perfect Union” -- as “historically inaccurate.”

“[T]he small number of personal firearms available to Germany’s Jews in 1938 could in no way have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state,” ADL president Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. 

Carson shot back on ABC’s "Good Morning America" calling the ADL’s statement “total foolishness.”

But the ADL wasn't the only major organization to weigh in: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also took issue with Carson’s decision to inject his claims into America’s gun debate. 

“Nazism represented a singular evil that resulted in the murder of six million Jews and the persecution and deaths of millions of others for racial and political reasons,” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said in a statement on Friday. “Comparing contemporary situations to Nazism is not only offensive to its victims, but it is also inaccurate and misrepresents both Holocaust history and the present. The Holocaust should be remembered, studied, and understood so that we can learn its lessons; it should not be exploited for opportunistic purposes.”

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Carson’s ideas about Nazi gun control laws have been a popular meme in right-wing chain e-mails and pro-gun circles for years, usually citing a 1938 law restricting Jewish firearm ownership. By that point, however, Hitler was well entrenched in power and enjoyed popular German support. This raises one of several glaring questions about Carson's theory: Who exactly was going to mount this sweeping anti-Nazi insurgency?

Jews were 0.75% of the German population when Hitler became chancellor in 1933 (about the same share as Buddhists are in America today) and more than half fled the country before the war began in 1939. Any armed resistance in the run-up the war was met with overwhelming force and exploited by the regime to institute further persecution. Hitler’s propagandists justified Kristallnacht, the deadly anti-Jewish riots encouraged by the Nazis, as a response to the assassination of a German diplomat by a Jewish gunman.

“Basically if you are part of a minority that is being excluded and you do use a gun, this will be presented as an example of your people’s general criminality,” Yale professor Timothy Snyder, who has meticulously chronicled Hitler’s wartime atrocities, said in an e-mail. “The thing to be stopped is the exclusion.”

If Carson’s claim is that enough ordinary Germans would have joined Jews in armed uprising to stop Hitler’s march to war and genocide if they only had the guns, then he’s buying into a dangerous myth that Hitler lacked public support and only maintained power by violently imposing his will on a citizenry that yearned to overthrow him.

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This was not the case – Hitler’s widespread popularity among Germans after crushing initial resistance and the German public’s complicity in the Holocaust are among the most chilling aspects of World War II, one that historians have spent decades trying to unravel. 

Even putting aside the idea Germans could have somehow thwarted Hitler’s agenda if they were armed, the vast majority of Jews lost to the Nazi’s genocidal regime were not killed in Germany at all, but in Eastern Europe, where Hitler’s prewar gun laws were irrelevant. More than two-thirds of Jews killed in the Holocaust were citizens of Poland (where an estimated 3 million were murdered) or the Soviet Union (1.1 million).

“97% of the victims of the Holocaust were Jews beyond Germany,” Snyder said.

The notion that small arms resistance might have deterred Hitler from carrying out his genocidal agenda is also blatantly at odds with his decision to invade Europe knowing he would face millions of trained soldiers equipped with machine guns, planes, tanks, and artillery.

As the ADL noted in its statement, there were heroic examples of armed Jewish partisans during the war, but they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the invading Nazi forces. Ultimately, it was the Soviet Red Army that delivered the fatal blow to Hitler’s forces in the East at the cost of millions of lives.

“When they had weapons, Jews could symbolically resist, as they did in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and elsewhere, but they could not stop the Nazi genocide machine,” Greenblatt said. “In short, gun control did not cause the Holocaust; Nazism and anti-Semitism did.”