It would be a good idea for Ben Carson to spend some time in this city.
Some recommendations for the Carson tour:
● The 1936 Olympic Stadium, where Adolf Hitler presided over games in which the Aryanized German team won 33 gold medals, as exuberant German crowds thrust arms upward in the Nazi salute.
● Track 17, where, starting on Oct. 18, 1941, thousands of Jews were deported from the Grunewald train station to ghettos and concentration camps, and 186 steel plaques line the platform edge, documenting the Nazis’ relentless efficiency: “6.7.1942/100 Juden/Berlin-Theresienstadt.” “12.10.1944/31 Juden/Berlin-Auschwitz.”
● Wannsee House, the lakeside villa where, on Jan. 20, 1942, Hitler’s lieutenants diligently planned the implementation of the Final Solution, poring over Adolf Eichmann’s meticulous typewritten list of Jews to be exterminated — 160,800 from the Netherlands, 742,800 from Hungary, and so on.
I came to Berlin for pleasure, expecting to escape the U.S. presidential campaign. But that turned out to be impossible with the news about Carson’s rise to the top of the Republican heap in Iowa and perhaps even nationally. Touring this city’s sobering sites as Carson once again defended his use of Nazi analogies underscored his offensive blend of tone-deafness and historical ignorance.
No mainstream German politician would employ such rhetoric. The wounds are too fresh, the acts too appalling, to unleash that jarring comparison. Germans recoiled during the Greek debt crisis, when a newspaper aligned with the Greek ruling party Syriza ran a cartoon showing German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble in a Nazi uniform, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras referred pointedly to austerity policies as a “social holocaust.”
Imagine how they would respond to Carson.
“We live in a Gestapo age, people don’t realize it,” Carson said last year, complaining that he had been targeted for audits by the Internal Revenue Service after criticizing President Obama.
The United States, he said shortly afterward, has become “very much like Nazi Germany . . . the government using its tools to intimidate the population. We now live in a society where people are afraid to say what they actually believe.”
And, most recently, Carson on guns: “The likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed.”
Challenged on his tendency toward Nazi metaphors, Carson’s instinct is to double down. “Interestingly enough, in the last several weeks I’ve heard from many people in the Jewish community, including rabbis, who said, ‘You’re spot on,’ ” Carson told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Sunday. “It is generally agreed that it is much more difficult to dominate people who are armed than people who are not armed. Some people will try to take that and make it into an anti-Jewish thing, which is foolishness.”
The foolishness is entirely on Carson’s part, and, unfortunately, on the part of Republican voters who seem inexplicably mesmerized by his soft-spoken outrageousness. In a recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll, 77 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers said they found Carson’s statements about Hitler and guns attractive.
You don’t have to be German, or a student of German history, to grasp the repugnance of Nazi analogies, but being at the scene of Hitler’s crimes helps reinforce the caution against comparing the Holocaust to anything except another genocide. Nothing about which Carson complains — alleged but unproven IRS targeting of Obama administration critics, what he sees as the chilling effect of political correctness — comes close to the brutality of Hitler’s Germany.
On guns, Carson’s ahistorical notion that an armed populace, or armed Jews, could have stopped Hitler is nonsensical. As University of Chicago professor Bernard Harcourt, now at Columbia Law School, demonstrated in a 2004 Fordham Law Review article, gun laws in Germany between the two world wars reflect decreasing, not increasing, gun control.
“With regard to possession and carrying of firearms, the Nazi regime relaxed the gun laws that were in place in Germany at the time the Nazis seized power,” Harcourt wrote. A populace that wanted to take up arms against Hitler would have had more opportunity to do so, not less. This one didn’t.
Even as the Nazis relaxed gun ownership rules for others, Hitler in 1938 barred Jews from having guns and other weapons. But Jews accounted for less than 1 percent of the German population. Jews with guns were not going to overpower the SS men herding them onto the cars at Track 17.
This is a country that has accepted the unwelcome lessons of history. The same cannot be said for this man who would lead ours.