Geheime Staatspolizei (State Secret Police), abbreviated Gestapo (German: was the official secret police in Nazi Germany and in German occupied Europe.
The force was created by Hermann Göring in 1933, combining the various Prussian security police agencies into one organization. On April 20, 1934, supervision of the Gestapo passed to the head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), Heinrich Himmler, who was also appointed German Police Chief by Adolf Hitler in 1936. Instead of being exclusively a Prussian state agency, the Gestapo became national as a sub-office of the Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police). From September 27, 1939, it was administered by the Reich Central Security Office (RSHA). It became known as the Amt (Security Service). During World War II, the Gestapo played a key role in the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
After Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Hermann Göring, future commander of the Luftwaffe and the second man in the Nazi Party was appointed Minister of the Interior of Prussia. This gave Göring command of Nazi Germany”s largest police force. Soon after, Göring separated the political and intelligence sectors of the police and filled the positions with Nazis. On April 26, 1933, Göring merged the two units as Geheime Staatspolizei, which was shortened by a postal clerk to a postage stamp and became known as “Gestapo.” He originally wanted to call it the Secret Police Office (Geheimes Polizeiamt), but the German initials, “GPA,” were too similar to those of the Soviet State Political Directorate (Gosudarstvennoye Politicheskoye Upravlenie, or GPU).
The first commander of the Gestapo was Rudolf Diels, a protégé of Göring. Diels was appointed head of Abteilung Ia (Department 1a) of the Prussian Secret Police. Diels was best known as the chief interrogator of Marinus van der Lubbe after the Reichstag fire. In late 1933, the Reich Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick, wanted to integrate all the police forces of the German states under his control. Göring outflanked him by removing the Prussian political and intelligence departments from the state interior ministry. Göring took over the Gestapo in 1934 and urged Hitler to extend the agency”s authority throughout Germany. This represented a radical departure from the German tradition, which held that law enforcement was (primarily) a Land (state) and local matter. In this, he came into conflict with Schutzstaffel (SS) chief Heinrich Himmler, who was police chief of the second most powerful German state, Bavaria. Frick did not have the political power to take on Göring alone, so he allied himself with Himmler. With Frick”s support, Himmler (pushed by his right-hand man, Reinhard Heydrich) took over the political police from state after state. Soon, only Prussia was left.
Concerned that Diels was not ruthless enough to effectively neutralize the power of the Sturmabteilung (SA), Göring turned control of the Gestapo over to Himmler on April 20, 1934. Also on that date, Hitler appointed Himmler chief of all German police outside Prussia. Heydrich, appointed head of the Gestapo by Himmler on April 22, 1934, also continued as head of the SS Security Service (SD). Himmler and Heydrich immediately began installing their own personnel in selected positions, several of whom were directly from the Bavarian Political Police, such as Heinrich Müller, Franz Josef Huber, and Josef Albert Meisinger. Many of the Gestapo officials in the newly created offices were young and highly educated in a wide variety of academic fields and, moreover, represented a new generation of National Socialist adherents who were hardworking, efficient, and prepared to sustain the Nazi state through the persecution of their political opponents.
By the spring of 1934, Himmler”s SS controlled the SD and the Gestapo, but for him there was still a problem, since technically the SS (and the Gestapo by proxy) was subordinate to the SA, which was under Ernst Röhm. Himmler wanted to free himself completely from Röhm, whom he saw as an obstacle. Röhm”s position was threatening, as over 4.5 million men fell under his command as the militia and veterans” organizations were absorbed into the SA, a fact that fueled Röhm”s aspirations; his dream of merging the SA and the Reichswehr was undermining Hitler”s relations with the leadership of the German armed forces. Several Nazi leaders, including Göring, Joseph Goebbels, Rudolf Hess, and Himmler, began a combined campaign to convince Hitler to act against Röhm. Both the SD and the Gestapo disseminated information about an impending SA coup. Once persuaded, Hitler acted by putting Himmler”s SS into action, which then murdered over 100 of Hitler”s identified antagonists. The Gestapo provided the information surrounding the SA and ultimately allowed Himmler and Heydrich to emancipate themselves entirely from the organization. For the Gestapo, the next two years after the Night of the Long Knives, a term describing the coup against Röhm and the SA, were characterized by “behind-the-scenes political disputes over policing.”
On June 17, 1936, Hitler decreed the unification of all police forces in Germany and appointed Himmler as Chief of the German Police. This action effectively merged the police into the SS and removed it from Frick”s control. Himmler was nominally subordinate to Frick as police chief, but as Reichsführer-SS, he answered only to Hitler. This move also gave Himmler operational control over Germany”s entire detective force. The Gestapo became a national state agency. Himmler also gained authority over all of Germany”s uniformed police agencies, which were amalgamated into the new Ordnungspolizei (Order Police), which became a national agency under SS General Kurt Daluege. Soon after, Himmler created the Kriminalpolizei (Security Police) under Heydrich. Heinrich Müller was at the time the Gestapo”s chief of operations. He answered to Heydrich; Heydrich answered only to Himmler and Himmler answered only to Hitler.
The Gestapo had the authority to investigate cases of treason, espionage, sabotage, and criminal attacks on the Nazi Party and in Germany. The basic Gestapo law passed by the government in 1936 gave the Gestapo carte blanche to operate without judicial review, in effect placing it above the law. The Gestapo was specifically exempted from liability before administrative courts, where citizens could normally sue the state to conform to the laws. As early as 1935, a Prussian administrative court ruled that the Gestapo”s actions were not subject to judicial review. SS officer Werner Best, former head of legal affairs for the Gestapo, summed up this policy by saying, “As long as the police complied with the will of the leadership, they will be acting legally.”
On September 27, 1939, Germany”s security and police agencies, with the exception of the Order Police, were consolidated into the Reich Central Security Office (RSHA), headed by Heydrich. The Gestapo became Amt IV (Department IV) of the RSHA and Müller became the head of the Gestapo, with Heydrich as his immediate superior. After Heydrich”s assassination in 1942, Himmler assumed leadership of the RSHA until January 1943, when Ernst Kaltenbrunner was appointed chief. Müller remained the head of the Gestapo. His direct subordinate, Adolf Eichmann, headed the Gestapo”s Office of Resettlement and then its Office of Jewish Affairs (Referat IV B4 or Sub-Department IV, Section B4). During the Holocaust, Eichmann and his agency coordinated the mass deportation of European Jews to Nazi extermination camps.
The Gestapo”s power included the use of what was called Schutzhaft, “protective custody,” a euphemism for the power to arrest people without judicial proceedings. An oddity of the system was that the prisoner had to sign his own Schutzhaftbefehl, an order stating that the person had requested arrest, presumably out of fear of personal harm. In addition, thousands of political prisoners throughout Germany, and from 1941 onwards in all occupied territories under the Night and Fog Decree, simply disappeared while in Gestapo custody.
The Polish government in exile in London during World War II received classified military information about Nazi Germany from agents and informants throughout Europe. After Germany conquered Poland in the fall of 1939, Gestapo officers believed they had neutralized Polish intelligence activities. However, certain Polish information about the movement of German police and Schutzstaffel (SS) units eastward during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the fall of 1941 was similar to British intelligence information obtained secretly by intercepting and decoding German police and SS messages sent by radio telegraphy.
In 1942, the Gestapo discovered a cache of Polish intelligence documents in Prague and were surprised to find that Polish agents and informants were gathering detailed military information and smuggling it to London via Budapest and Istanbul. The Poles identified and tracked German military trains to the Eastern Front and identified four Order Police battalions sent to occupied areas of the Soviet Union in October 1941 and engaged in war crimes and mass murder.
The Polish agents also collected detailed information about the morale of German soldiers on the Eastern Front. After discovering a sample of the information the Poles reported, Gestapo officers concluded that Polish intelligence activity posed a very serious danger to Germany. Also on June 6, 1944, Heinrich Müller worried about information leaking to the Allies and created a special unit called Sonderkommando Jerzy, with the goal of eradicating the Polish intelligence network in western and southwestern Europe.
Early in the regime”s existence, harsh measures were applied to political opponents and those who resisted Nazi doctrine (e.g., Communists), a role that the Sturmabteilung (SA) played until the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and Gestapo undermined their influence and took control of security in the Reich. Because the Gestapo seemed omniscient and omnipotent, the atmosphere of fear they created led to an overestimation of their reach and strength; a flawed assessment that undermined the operational effectiveness of the underground resistance organizations.
Many parts of Nazi Germany (a change observed by the Gestapo in conservative towns like Wurtzburg, where people agreed with the regime through accommodation, collaboration, or simple obedience. The increase in religious objections to Nazi policies led the Gestapo to carefully monitor religious organizations. For the most part, church members did not offer political resistance, but simply wanted to ensure that organizational doctrine remained intact.
However, the Nazi regime sought to suppress any source of ideology other than its own and began to gag or crush the churches in the so-called Kirchenkampf. When church leaders (clergy) expressed their fears about the euthanasia program and Nazi racial policies, Adolf Hitler implied that he considered them “traitors to the people” and even called them “the destroyers of Germany.” The Nazis” extreme anti-Semitism and neo-pagan heresies led some Christians to openly resist, and Pope Pius XI published the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge denouncing Nazism and warning Catholics against joining or supporting the Nazi Party. Some pastors, such as the Protestant clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer, paid for their opposition with their lives.
In an effort to contain the strength and influence of the spiritual resistance, Nazi records reveal that Gestapo Referat B1 monitored the activities of the bishops very closely, instructing that agents be set up in every diocese, that the bishops” reports to the Vatican be obtained, and that the bishops” areas of activity must be uncovered. The rectors were to be considered the “eyes and ears of the bishops” and a “vast network” established to monitor the activities of ordinary clergy: “The importance of this enemy is such that the inspectors of the security police and security services will make this group of people and the matters discussed by them a special concern.”
In Dachau: The Official History 1933-1945, Paul Berben wrote that the clergy were closely watched and often denounced, arrested, and sent to Nazi concentration camps: “One priest was arrested in Dachau for claiming that there were good people in England; another suffered the same fate for warning a girl who wanted to marry a man from the Schutzstaffel (yet another because he ran a business for a deceased Communist. Others were arrested simply because they were “suspected of activities hostile to the state” or because there was reason to “suppose that their business might harm society.” More than 2,700 Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox clerics were arrested at Dachau alone. After Reinhard Heydrich (who was staunchly anti-Catholic and anti-Christian) was murdered in Prague, his successor, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, relaxed some of the policies and then dissolved the IVB (religious opponents) Department of the Gestapo.
Between June 1942 and March 1943, student protests called for an end to the Nazi regime. This included the nonviolent resistance of Hans Scholl and Sophie Scholl, two leaders of the White Rose student group. However, resistance groups and those in moral or political opposition to the Nazis were paralyzed by fear of Gestapo reprisals. Fearing an internal overthrow, Gestapo forces were launched against the opposition. Groups such as the White Rose and others, such as the Edelweiss Pirates and the Swingjugend, were placed under strict Gestapo observation. Some participants were sent to concentration camps. Leading members of the most famous of these groups, the White Rose, were arrested by the police and handed over to the Gestapo. For several leaders, their punishment was death. During the first five months of 1943, the Gestapo arrested thousands of suspected resistance activities and carried out numerous executions. Student opposition leaders were executed in late February, and a major opposition organization, the Oster Circle, was destroyed in April 1943. Efforts to resist the Nazi regime were very small and had little chance of success, especially since a large percentage of the German people did not support such actions.
General opposition and military conspiracy
Between 1934 and 1938, opposition to the Nazi regime and its cronies began to emerge. Among the first to speak out were religious dissidents, but following in their wake were educators, aristocratic businessmen, office workers, teachers, and others from almost every social class. Most people quickly learned that open opposition was dangerous, since informants and Gestapo agents were undercover. However, a significant number of them were still working against the National Socialist government.
During May 1935, the Gestapo broke up and arrested members of the “Markwitz Circle,” a group of ex-socialists in contact with Otto Strasser, who sought the downfall of Adolf Hitler. From the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, various groups consisting of communists, idealists, working-class people, and extreme right-wing conservative opposition organizations secretly fought Hitler”s government, and several of them fomented conspiracies that included the assassination of Hitler. Almost all of them, including: the Römer Group, Robby Group, Solf Circle, Schwarze Reichswehr, the Radical Middle Class Party, Jungdeutscher Orden, Schwarze Front, and Stahlhelm were discovered or infiltrated by the Gestapo. This resulted in corresponding arrests, shipment to concentration camps, and execution. One of the methods employed by the Gestapo to confront these resistance factions was “protective detention,” which facilitated the process of sending dissidents to concentration camps and against whom there was no legal defense.
In Austria, there were still groups loyal to the Habsburgs who, unlike the majority in the greater German Reich, remained determined to resist the Nazis. These groups became a special focus of the Gestapo because of their insurrectionist goals, the overthrow of the Nazi regime, the reestablishment of an independent Austria under Habsburg leadership, and Hitler”s hatred of the Habsburg family. Hitler vehemently rejected the Habsburgs” secular pluralistic principles of “live and let live” with regard to ethnic groups, peoples, minorities, religions, cultures, and languages. The plan of Habsburg resistance Karl Burian (who was later executed) to blow up the Gestapo headquarters in Vienna represented a unique attempt to act aggressively against the Gestapo. Individuals in Austrian resistance groups led by Heinrich Maier also managed to relay the plans and location of V-2 rocket, Tiger tank, and aircraft production facilities to the Allies.
Some Germans were convinced that it was their duty to apply all possible expedients to end the war as quickly as possible. Sabotage efforts were undertaken by members of the Abwehr (military intelligence) leadership, while recruiting people known to oppose the Nazi regime. The Gestapo ruthlessly suppressed dissenters in Nazi Germany, as well as everywhere else. Opposition became more difficult. Arrests, torture, and executions were commonplace. Terror against “enemies of the state” became a way of life to such an extent that the Gestapo”s presence and methods were finally normalized in the minds of people living in Germany.
In January 1933, Hermann Göring, Adolf Hitler”s minister without portfolio, was appointed chief of the Prussian Police and began to fill the political and intelligence units of the Prussian Secret Police with Nazi Party members. A year after the organization began, Göring wrote in a British publication about having created the organization on his own initiative and how he was “primarily responsible” for eliminating the Marxist and Communist threat in Nazi Germany and Prussia. Describing the activities of the organization, Göring boasted of the utter cruelty required for the recovery of Germany, the establishment of concentration camps for this purpose, and further stated that excesses were committed in the beginning, telling how beatings occurred here and there. On April 26, 1933, he reorganized the Amt III of the force as the Gestapa (better known by the “nickname” Gestapo), a secret state police designed to serve the Nazi cause. Less than two weeks later, in early May 1933, the Gestapo moved to its Berlin headquarters at Prinz-Albrecht-Straße 8.
As a result of its merger in 1936 with the Kripo (Security Police), the Gestapo was officially classified as a government agency. Heinrich Himmler”s subsequent appointment as Chef der Deutschen Polizei (Chief of the German Police) and status as Reichsführer-SS made him independent of the nominal control of Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick.
In September 1939, the SiPo and SD were merged into the newly created Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Central Security Office). Both the Gestapo and the Kripo became separate departments within the RSHA. Although the Sicherheitspolizei was officially dissolved, the term SiPo was used figuratively to describe any RSHA personnel for the remainder of the war. Rather than changes in naming conventions, the original construct of SiPo, Gestapo, and Kripo cannot be fully understood as “discrete entities,” since they ultimately formed “a conglomerate in which each was connected to each other and to the SS through its Security Service, the SD.”
The creation of the RSHA represented the formalization, at a higher level, of the relationship under which the SD acted as the intelligence agency of the security police. Similar coordination existed in the local offices. In Germany and the areas that were incorporated into the Reich for the purposes of civil administration, the local Gestapo, criminal police, and SD offices were formally separate. They were subject to the coordination of security police and SD inspectors in the local SS teams and police leaders, however, and one of the main functions of the local SD units was to serve as an intelligence agency for the Gestapo Units. In the occupied territories, the formal relationship between local Gestapo units, criminal police, and SD was somewhat closer.
The Gestapo became known as RSHA Amt IV (“Department or Bureau IV”) with Heinrich Müller as its head. In January 1943, Himmler appointed Ernst Kaltenbrunner head of the RSHA; almost seven months after Heydrich was assassinated. The specific internal departments of Amt IV were as follows:
In 1941, Referat N, the Gestapo”s central command office was formed. However, these internal departments remained and the Gestapo remained a department under the RSHA. The local Gestapo offices, known as Gestapo Leitstellen and Stellen, answered to a local commander known as Inspekteur der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD (“Inspector of the Security Police and Security Service”) who, in turn, was under the dual command of Gestapo Referat N and also its local SS Police leader.
The Gestapo also maintained offices in all Nazi concentration camps, held office in SS staff and police leaders, and provided personnel as needed to formations such as the Einsatzgruppen. Personnel assigned to these auxiliary functions were often removed from the Gestapo chain of command and came under the authority of branches of the SS.
In 1933, there was no purge of the German police forces. The vast majority of Gestapo officers came from the Weimar Republic police forces; members of the Schutzstaffel (SS), Sturmabteilung (SA), and the Nazi Party also joined the Gestapo, but were less numerous. By March 1937, the Gestapo employed about 6,500 people in 54 regional offices throughout the Reich. Additional personnel were added in March 1938 as a result of the annexation of Austria and again in October 1938 with the takeover of the Sudetenland Region. By 1939, only 3,000 out of a total of 20,000 Gestapo men held SS positions, and in most cases they were honorary. One man who served in the Prussian Gestapo in 1933 recalled that most of his co-workers “were not Nazis at all. For the most part, they were young professional civil servants…” The Nazis valued police competence more than politics, so by and large, in 1933, almost all the men who served in the various state police forces during the Weimar Republic remained in their jobs. In Wurtzburg, which is one of the few places in Nazi Germany where most Gestapo records have survived, all Gestapo members were either career police officers or had police experience.
Whether they were originally trained as police officers or not, the Gestapo agents themselves were shaped by their socio-political environment. Historian George C. Browder states that there was a four-part process (authorization, reinforcement, routineization, and dehumanization) in place that legitimized the psychosocial atmosphere that conditioned Gestapo members to radicalized violence. Browder also describes a sandwich effect, where from above; Gestapo officers were subjected to ideologically driven racism and criminal biological theories; and from below, the Gestapo was transformed by SS personnel who lacked proper police training, which showed in their propensity for unbridled violence. This mix certainly shaped the public image of the Gestapo, which they sought to maintain despite their growing workload; an image that helped them identify and eliminate the enemies of the Nazi state.
According to Canadian historian Robert Gellately”s analysis of the established local offices, the Gestapo was mostly composed of bureaucrats and clerical officials who relied on citizen complaints for information. Gellately argued that it was because of the widespread willingness of Germans to report each other to the Gestapo that Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945 was an excellent example of panopticism. The Gestapo was sometimes inundated with reports, and most of the time was spent separating the credible reports from the less credible ones. Many of the local offices were understaffed and overworked, struggling with the paper load caused by so many denunciations. Gellately also suggested that the Gestapo was “a reactive organization” “…that was built within German society and whose functioning was structurally dependent on the continued cooperation of German citizens.”
Of the political cases, 61 people were investigated for suspected membership in the Communist Party of Germany, 44 in the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and 69 in other political parties. Most political investigations occurred between 1933 and 1935, with an all-time high of 57 cases in 1935. After that year, political investigations declined with only 18 investigations in 1938, 13 in 1939, 2 in 1941, 7 in 1942, 4 in 1943, and 1 in 1944. The “other” category associated with non-compliance included everything from a man who drew a caricature of Adolf Hitler to a Catholic teacher suspected of being indifferent to teaching National Socialism in his classroom. The “administrative control” category concerned anyone who broke the city residency law. The category of “conventional crime” concerned economic crimes such as money laundering, smuggling, and homosexuality.
Although the total number of Gestapo officers was limited when compared to the populations represented, the average Volksgenosse (Nazi term for the “member of the German people”) was usually not under observation, so the statistical ratio of Gestapo officers to inhabitants is “largely worthless and of little significance,” according to some recent scholars. As historian Eric Johnson noted, “Nazi terror was selective terror,” with its focus on political opponents, ideological dissidents (clergy and religious organizations), career criminals, the Sinti and Roma population, disabled people, homosexuals, and, above all, on Jews. The “selective terror” of the Gestapo, as mentioned by Johnson, is also supported by historian Richard Evans, who states that “violence and intimidation rarely affected the lives of most ordinary Germans. Whistleblowing was the exception, not the rule, when it came to the behavior of the vast majority of Germans.” The involvement of ordinary Germans in whistleblowing also needs to be put into perspective in order not to exonerate the Gestapo. As Evans makes clear, “… it was not the ordinary German people who engaged in surveillance, it was the Gestapo; nothing happened until the Gestapo received a whistleblower, and it was the Gestapo”s active search for deviance and dissent that gave the whistleblowers meaning.” The Gestapo”s effectiveness remained in their ability to “project” omnipotence … they co-opted the aid of the German population by using denunciations to their advantage; proving in the end a powerful, ruthless, and effective terror organ under the Nazi regime that seemed to be everywhere. Ultimately, the effectiveness of the Gestapo, although aided by denunciations and the watchful eyes of ordinary Germans, was more the result of coordination and cooperation between the various police agencies within Germany, the assistance of the Schutzstaffel (all together forming an organized network of persecution.
Leaders, organizers, investigators, and accomplices participating in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to commit the specified crimes were held responsible for all acts done by any person in the execution of such plan. The defendants” official positions as heads of state or holders of high government positions were not to relieve them of responsibility or mitigate their punishment; nor was the fact that the defendant acted on the orders of a superior to relieve him of responsibility, although it could be considered by the International Military Tribunal for mitigation of punishment.
In the trial of any individual member of any group or organization, the International Military Tribunal was authorized to declare (in relation to any act for which the individual was convicted) that the group or organization to which he belonged was a criminal organization. When a group or organization was thus declared criminal, the competent national authority of any signatory had the right to bring individuals to trial for membership in that organization, if proven the criminal nature of the group or organization.
The trials began in November 1945. On October 1, 1946, the IMT handed down its judgment on the 21 leading Nazi figures: 18 were sentenced to death or long prison terms and three were acquitted. The IMT also convicted three of the groups: the Nazi leadership, the SS (including the SD), and the Gestapo. Gestapo members Hermann Göring, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and Arthur Seyss-Inquart were convicted individually. Three groups were acquitted of the collective war crimes charges, but this did not exempt individual members of these groups from conviction and punishment for the denazification program. Members of the three convicted groups were imprisoned by the United Kingdom, the United States, the Soviet Union, and France.
In the Leitstellung (district office) the staff wore the service gray uniform of the Schutzstaffel (SS), but with standard police shoulder pads, and SS insignia over the left collar. The right collar was black without the sig runes. The sleeve diamond insignia with Sicherheitsdienst (SD) (SD Raute) was worn on the lower left sleeve, even by SiPo men who were not in the SD. Uniforms were also worn by Gestapo men assigned to Einsatzgruppen in occupied territories, at first they were indistinguishable from the Waffen-SS field uniform. Complaints from the Waffen-SS led to the shoulder plates of the Waffen-SS rank insignia being changed to those of the Ordnungspolizei.
The Gestapo maintained police detectives that were used for all officers, both those who were and those who were not simultaneously members of the SS.