From Guns to Migrants: Not Everything Is Like the Holocaust

Ben Carson is wrong to say armed Jews could have stopped Hitler. But so are those who compare Europe’s refugee crisis to the same period.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem (Dan Balilty / Reuters)

How about a pact: If the political right in the United States ceases invoking the Holocaust to justify gun laws that enable the killing of innocents, as Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson did on Thursday, the left quits invoking the Holocaust as justification for migration policies that could make the Europe of the future even less hospitable to its remaining Jews than the Europe of today.

The claim that the Jews of Europe could have stopped the Nazi Holocaust if only they’d possessed more rifles and pistols is a claim based on almost perfect ignorance of the events of 1933 to 1945. The mass murder of European Jews could proceed only after the Nazis had defeated or seized territory from three of the mightiest aggregations of armed force on earth: the armies of France, Poland, and the Soviet Union. The opponents of the Nazis not only possessed rifles and pistols, but also tanks, aircraft, artillery, modern fortifications, and massed infantry. And yes, Jews bore those weapons too: nearly 200,000 in the Polish armed forces, for example.

From 1941 until the end of the war, armed bands of Jewish partisans roamed through Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, just as they roam through the imaginations of American gun enthusiasts. That didn’t stop the Holocaust either.

Even before the war started, in the 1930s, Jews sometimes attempted armed resistance to the Nazis. It was the assassination of a German diplomat by a Jewish refugee that provided Adolf Hitler with the pretext for the Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews in 1938.

There’s really only one way in which gun control is at all relevant to the history of the Holocaust. As the late historian Henry Turner forcefully argued in Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power, the last clear chance to prevent the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 would have been a military coup at the end of 1932, followed by mass arrests of members of Nazi and communist militias, and the confiscation of their weapons. You might even say that stricter control of guns and gun-carrying political groups could have prevented the Holocaust.

It’s no less an abuse of history, however, to invoke the Jewish experience to justify the mass influx of Middle Eastern and African migrants and refugees into Europe. Here, for instance, is Roger Cohen in Friday’s New York Times:

“Indifference” is the word engraved on the stark wall at the entrance to Milan’s Holocaust memorial, housed beneath the central railway station from which Jews were deported to Auschwitz and other Nazi camps. …

There is no direct analogy between the situation of millions of refugees today and the Jews who were deported from Milan’s Platform 21 (as the memorial is also known). The refugees are fleeing war—not, in general, targeted annihilation. They are victims of weak states, not an all-powerful one. Their plight often reflects the crisis of a religion, Islam—its uneasy adaptation to modernity—not the depredations of a single murderous ideology.

Still …

Still? STILL? When you have to pile the caveats this high, maybe you should reconsider the original point.

Yet the equation between Syrian refugees and Jews fleeing the Holocaust has become as familiar in pro-asylum arguments as Carson’s fake history has become among gun-control opponents. “Treatment of Migrants Evokes Memories of Europe’s Darkest Hour,” declared a headline in The New York Times in early September. Later that month, two House Democrats, one the ranking member on the immigration subcommittee, issued the following statement on the Syrian refugee crisis:

Just over 75 years ago, a ship called the St. Louis, carrying nearly a thousand Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, sailed so close to the United States that passengers could see the city lights of Miami. But rather than welcome these refugees, the United States turned them away. Many later died in concentration camps. We should not repeat the mistake of rejecting those fleeing for their lives.

One of the benefits of studying history is the discovery that not everything has to be compared to the Nazi Holocaust. History is full of events!

The differences between Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and Syrian refugees from that country’s civil war are numerous, but just to cite a few: In the case of those Jews who fled persecution, there were fewer concerns, if any, about whether the asylum-seekers had joined a terrorist organization, or shared the liberal, democratic values of the West, or could contribute productively to the economy, or were bringing children who might grow up to be alienated from society and susceptible to radicalization.

Instead of borrowing the moral power of the Holocaust to advance a completely unrelated cause, those who want Europe to take in many more migrants from the Middle East should answer a more immediate and practical question: Why do they expect this latest European effort to integrate migrants from comparably poor and underdeveloped countries to work any better than such efforts have in the past? As I noted in this magazine this summer:

Immigrants from non-EU countries are twice as likely as natives to drop out of secondary school. Those of working age are twice as likely to be unemployed. [Non-EU] immigrants are also hugely overrepresented in the prisons of France, Britain, Belgium, and other European countries.

Or consider what my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg reported in April on the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe:

[W]hat makes this new era of anti-Semitic violence in Europe different from previous ones is that traditional Western patterns of anti-Semitic thought have now merged with a potent strain of Muslim Judeophobia. Violence against Jews in Western Europe today, according to those who track it, appears to come mainly from Muslims, who in France, the epicenter of Europe’s Jewish crisis, outnumber Jews 10 to 1.

That the chief propagators of contemporary European anti-Semitism may be found in the Continent’s large and disenfranchised Muslim immigrant communities—communities that are themselves harassed and assaulted by hooligans associated with Europe’s surging right—is flummoxing to, among others, Europe’s elites. Muslims in Europe are in many ways a powerless minority. The failure of Europe to integrate Muslim immigrants has contributed to their exploitation by anti-Semitic propagandists and by recruiters for such radical projects as the Islamic State, or ISIS.

The arguments by Holocaust analogy for more migration to Europe ignore an ironic truth: Past waves of migration have put Europe’s Jewish populations at greater risk than at any time since 1945. The present migration will only intensify the risk.