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France, the Nazis, and Gun Control

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In 1935, French prime minister Pierre Laval, who later served in the Vichy government during the Nazis’ four-year occupation of France, commanded French citizens to surrender their firearms.  Laval and France’s ruling parties feared social revolution and banned “war” weapons, instituting strict gun registration policies.  They believed that repressive limits on civilian gun ownership were necessary at a time of Depression-sparked unrest and ongoing conflicts among various political factions.  Strict time limits for firearms registration and harsh penalties for noncompliance, including forfeiture, fines, and imprisonment, were put in place.  Laval’s government did not foresee the impact these restrictive measures would have on a Nazi-conquered France just five years later, when firearms surrender would be required under threat of death.

In Gun Control in Nazi-Occupied France: Tyranny and Resistance, attorney Stephen P. Halbrook explores the impact and efficacy of gun control measures on Wehrmacht-controlled France and how these measures hindered the French Resistance’s fight against Nazi tyranny.  The author asserts that Laval’s 1935 gun control efforts left the French people vulnerable to the Nazi invaders and ill-equipped to deal with the Nazi invasion of 1940, plus simplified the Nazi efforts to confiscate firearms and impede a French resistance.

In 1940, when the Vichy government negotiated an armistice with Germany after the successful German blitzkrieg, Laval’s pre-war firearms registration proved to be a boon to Nazi disarmament efforts.  Halbrook explains that Hitler based his occupation model on the historic premise that conquerors who allowed subjugated populations to possess arms were ultimately defeated.  So, when he rose to power in 1933 Germany, Hitler disarmed all “enemies of the state,” including all Jews. 

The French occupation was unique, with a German-occupied zone and the unoccupied Vichy regime, administered by Marshall Philipe Pétain.  Hitler’s forces depended on armed French police to control French citizens and, over time, confiscate their weapons.  In other occupied territories where the Wehrmacht retained sole responsibility for maintaining law and order, gun ownership was banned outright, except for Germans.  Vichy France pursued a progression of increasingly severe gun confiscation edicts with multiple periods of amnesty and ever-expanding lists of illegal weapons, Halbrook says. 

Initially, all firearms, ammunition, hand grenades, and other weaponry were required to be surrendered with 24 hours under threat of death, forced labor, or prison.  Even hunting guns were prohibited and handed over to the French police for safekeeping.  In addition, the gendarmes themselves were limited to a rubber truncheon and a pistol with nine rounds.  Eventually, bayonets and swords were also banned.  The bans expanded to anti-German flyers, radio transmitters, and public assemblies, followed by measures against Jews, restrictions on hunting, and other repressive constraints. 

From 1940 to 1941, when the French police were responsible for collecting guns, executions were rare, Halbrook reports.  In 1942, when armed resistance accelerated and the Nazi SS assumed police duties, executions for firearms possession increased markedly.  To deter gun-hoarding, the Nazis publicized executions in newspapers and plastered brightly colored posters with ominous warnings on city walls.  French and German police conducted frequent house-to-house searches and solicited tips from informers.  Nonetheless, the Germans found collecting firearms a daunting, near impossible task.  Despite the death penalty, many civilians risked keeping their guns.

From his research and survivors’ responses to questionnaires about German arms collections, Halbrook learned that although hundreds of thousands of guns were surrendered, many French citizens hid weapons, often burying them in their yards or in underground caches.  Although the author found no reliable data on the total number of firearms in France before the Nazi invasion, he discovered that out of 3 million hunting guns, only 835,000 were turned in to the Nazis.

As the Resistance expanded and accelerated in 1942, its need for firearms grew.  Défense de la France, an underground newspaper, captured the mood of the partisans: “[o]btain firearms; a rifle, a submachine gun, a light machine gun, a machine gun[.] … The day will come.”

When the U.S. entered the war, the morale of the occupying Germans plummeted, spurring Resistance activities.  Arms concealment became more efficient and organized, despite continuing cooperation between the German military police and French gendarmes.  The Nazis tightened gun restrictions, issuing a new order to execute anyone who knew a fellow citizen with a gun and failed to inform authorities.  No further amnesties were issued, and those possessing arms were summarily shot.

By 1942, Hitler viewed the Vichy government as uncooperative, Halbrook writes, although the French people perceived the government as enemy accomplices.  By spring of that year, General Charles de Gaulle, in exile in England, broadcast a call from the BBC to rise against the Nazis.  On May Day 1942, as many as 100,000 demonstrators in Lyon screamed, “Death to Laval” and sang the French national anthem, famous for its call to arms, “Aux armes, citoyens.

Shortly thereafter, Hitler brought in the SS to assume command over the French and German police.  Press censorship and anti-Jewish policies began.  Jews were ordered to wear the yellow Star of David, and the French police under SS direction began gathering Jews to deport them to death camps.  Resistance family members were dealt with harshly; male relatives were shot and women sent to hard labor.

Two watershed events helped mobilize and unify the Resistance during this dark time: in 1942, 12,000 Jews were herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver for deportation to death camps, and in 1943, the Laval-enabled Obligatory Labor Conscription (STO) required all 18- to 20-year-old males to become forced laborers in Germany.  Resistance groups began urging Jews to arm themselves, hide their children with others, and join the partisans.  The STO brought a steady stream of recruits as young men fled conscription.  They retreated into the mountains, acquired firearms, and engaged in sabotage, ambushing supply convoys, derailing trains, and attacking patrols.  Still, Halbrook recounts that Laval continued to collaborate with the Nazis, delaying their defeat.  Under Laval’s leadership, the Milice, a political paramilitary organization, was formed in 1943 to repress anti-Nazi forces and hunt down Resistance members.

Resistance groups began to seize arms from unguarded collection depots, hidden French military stores, and local German forces.  Most of their weapons came from British and American airdrops, often in exchange for intelligence.  Allied supplies were limited by weapons scarcity, logistical problems, and political considerations, as some Resistance groups were part of the French Communist Party who sought a communist takeover of France following liberation.

By the end of 1943, news of an Allied invasion circulated, and Resistance groups urged all citizens to gather arms and prepare each house as a fort to await the German departure.  On June 5, 1944, the day before the D-Day invasion, the BBC sent coded messages to the Resistance.  They were to perform sabotage operations and diversionary attacks before and during the next day’s landings at Normandy.  Although suffering many casualties, Resistance groups instigated street fights, including sniper shots at Germans.  They blocked some German lines of retreat and provided valuable intelligence to the Allied troops.  The Germans fought back viciously and, in at least one case, razed the entire village of Oradour-sur-Glane and killed almost all its inhabitants.  Fighting erupted in Paris as an estimated 25,000 partisans faced a remaining German force of 20,000.  Hitler insisted that Paris was not to be surrendered.  As the situation deteriorated, he ordered the City of Lights torched.  The commander of Paris refused.

By August 1944, de Gaulle resumed control of France and ordered dissolution of the Resistance militias.  His order resulted in deep resistance and resentment, Halbrook recounts. The partisans had fought and died for France, while he had remained safely ensconced in England.

Despite the many gun control and confiscatory measures, first under Laval, who was later executed for treason, and then the Nazis, many French did not comply.  The value of an armed citizenry to resist tyranny was demonstrated.  The author notes little that correlation existed between severe punishments, including the threat of death, and arms possession or reduction of attacks on German occupiers.

Gun Control in Nazi-Occupied France raises interesting questions about the enforceability of firearms registration, confiscation, and prohibition.  In the end, an armed French citizenry proved to be an asset for the fight against an occupying enemy and ably assisted the regular armies.  Halbrook illuminates the role armed civilians played, conducting the only armed resistance in France until D-Day and paving the way for the Allied invasion and ultimate victory.

Article by Janet Levy

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