|I am looking at a "Think Progress" article titled "New Hampshire Lawmaker: ‘Firearms And Ammo’ May Be Necessary, Just Like In The ‘Revolutionary War’", illustrated by a photo of a (probably unrelated) gun rights demonstration.|
One sign held by a demonstrator reads "Dictators Prefer Unarmed Citizens". Another says "History shows Tyrannical Governments First Disarm their Citizens".
Sounds logical, doesn't it.
But I have read hundreds of histories, from U.S. history concentrated on the early 19th century, so I may have read only a couple dozen books on 20th century U.S.A., to the Founding Fathers and the English history traditions that nourished their thinking, to American collisions with various bad actors, to the origins and shaping of the Nazi and Soviet regimes and some on China and other assorted tyrannies. And I think "Dictators Prefer Unarmed Citizens" is just plain wrong.
It is true that a tyrannical government once very firmly in power will disarm its citizens. But anyone, such as Hitler, contemplating a totalitarian government would, if they understand their "best interests" prefer a society violently at odds with itself, with private armies or militias calling for conflicting goals, and even a threat of assassination of the emerging leadership. If there is anything left of rule of law or democracy, they need some justification for big tyrannical moves, or those who want democracy, civility, and rule of law, will quickly see the danger and unite against the emerging tyranny.
Nazi Germany should be a textbook case, if there were any textbooks based on what I think I've learned. The First World War ended with the German leadership virtually evaporating. A new government came into being so the peace could be negotiated (and they -- the emerging democratic government) could be blamed for the ravages of reparations on the German people). The army simply broke up, and soldiers walked home with their weapons. In the succeeding years, there were many private armies or paramilitary organizations called Freikorps (German for "Free Corps") which battled each other and from time to time attempted coups, or putsches against the government. Germany continued to have such independent bodies trained for and practicing organized violence right up to 1933-4 when Hitler was "sort of" elected, and consolidated his power. He consolidated his power not so much with any state apparatus, but with own private army, or SA, which grew 3 million men vs the "real" German army, which was limited by the peace treaty to 100,000 soldiers. The SA (Sturmabteilung, or Brownshirts) were an undisciplined loose body of men with various interpretations of where the Nazi party was headed, and could very well have broken off to challenge Hitler or pressure him to adopt policies he didn't want. What Hitler wanted, once the SA had helped hound the large socialist and communist forces out of existence, was the institutional structure of the German army, with its brilliant traditions, despite its shortage of common soldiers.
What happened to the Freikorps, these self-proclaimed forces for freedom? They devoured each other until only the SA was left. The SA, 3 million strong and well armed might have thought they now were collectively, the power in Germany. But Hitler had prepared a new smaller and more disciplined body, the SS, partly for the purpose of disempowering his old private army. As the Wikipedia article says "SS members generally came from the middle class, while the SA had its base among the unemployed and working class. Politically speaking, the SA were more radical than the SS, with its leaders arguing the Nazi revolution had not ended when Hitler achieved power, but rather needed to implement socialism in Germany (see Strasserism). Furthermore, the defiant and rebellious culture encouraged before the seizure of power had to give way to a community organization approach such as canvassing and fundraising, which was resented by the SA as Kleinarbeit, "little work," which had normally been performed by women before the seizure of power."
What Hitler did, within barely a year of assuming a shaky and very limited head of state position was decapitate the SA in the course of one night. The state and the SS, small as they were, had the discipline and means to make a lightning fast surprise attack. They simply rounded up all the top SA leadership and killed them in the Night of the Long Knives. The SA did not immediately go away after that. It is not wise to simply send pink slips to a millions strong organization trained to fight (as the U.S. did with the rank-and-file of Saddam's army in Iraq). One should give them work to do, so they were employed in such tasks as randomly terrorizing broad groups of enemies.
Paradoxically, it was over four more years before really broad coordinated and undeniably state-directed action against the Jews took place, inaugurated by Kristallnacht November 9-10 1938.
The world hardly blinked when Hitler's overt enemies, the Communists and Socialists were rounded up after the Reichstag Fire of 27 February 1933. Most of the world's governments viewed such people with alarm and suspicion. Nor June 30 - July 2, 1934, when the leadership of a 3 million strong gang of thugs was massacred. It may have been confusing to many, but after the top leadership was killed, the SA had no friends in Germany or elsewhere capable of decisive action to correct this extrajudicial act.
For over four more years, the Jews were subjected to random violence, systematic elimination of civil rights, and once life was unbearable, encouragement to leave the country if they forfeited all their possessions. But to treat as a class this group distinguished only by race, systematically and violently rounding them up into the "concentration camps" was a step that Hitler was reluctant to take until after Germany's first major successful military steps: the absorption of Austria (or Anschluss) and the occupation, after the famous Munich Agreement, of enough of enough of Czechoslovakia
to render the rest indefensible -- i.e. until the West proved itself unwilling to act against acts that directly threatened the stability of Europe.
What conclusion would I draw from this? For one thing, it is far easier for a nation - even a weak one which the world views with a jaundiced eye - to move against a "well armed (private) militia" if it appears to pose a real threat then to put in practice real totalitarianism. And yes, if they do manage to implement a totalitarian police state, they will probably then take away your guns. But in this world (as opposed to that of 1776, when we overthrew a government 3,000 miles away that had to send troops via wooden sailing ships to quell a rebellion in a territory already twice as large as the mother country) -- in this world, widespread gun ownership, and the attempt to organize "minuteman" like organizations could only make it easier, but first generating a widespread rule of violence that nobody would want, to implement a true police state.
The U.S. is a democracy, but if we start to believe power comes from the barrel of a gun rather than organization, rational debate (of which we have far too little), and the ballot box, we would be more apt to throw away what we have than to save it.
Today we have many examples today of "weak authoritarian" governments that are awash in arms such as many parts of Africa, central Asia, the Near East, and Latin America. What does "weak authoritarian" mean? A brilliant overview of the paths taken by all the most significant nations to democracy, tyrrany, or chaos titled Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson demonstrates, with strong fact-based arguments that the "weak authoritarian" condition, illustrated by the parts of the world just mentioned, is the worst sort of regime to live under, with the worst prospects of getting to rule of law, real human rights, and democracy. "Weak authoritarianism" means when the central government acts, it can only act violently. It is too weak to do anything in an orderly way. And its weakness is largely due to a parasitic oligarchy or a rule of scattered warlords rivalling the central government.