Gestapo

The Gestapo, the official secret police force of the Nazi state, was one of the most feared groups in modern history. Established by Hermann Göring in 1933, the Gestapo was tasked with oppressing all political and racial enemies of the Nazi party. Using intimidation, coercion, and torture, the Gestapo sought to eliminate anyone perceived as an enemy of the state.

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Table of contents

    Gestapo History

    Before examining the activities of the Gestapo, we must understand the Gestapo's history and origins.

    Gestapo Meaning

    The term Gestapo comes from the German 'Geheime Staatspolizei', which translates as 'Secret State Police'.

    The Political Police in Weimar Germany

    Before the establishment of the Third Reich in 1933, Germany was governed as the Weimar Republic. As such, the power of police forces in the country was limited. The police were concerned with containing violence rather than following a political agenda.

    The Weimar Republic was a democracy, guaranteeing its people equality, rights, and freedoms. This meant that a secret police had no place in the current system of governance.

    Hitler comes to power

    When Hitler came to power in 1933, he planned to establish a dictatorship and eliminate his political opposition. Hitler required a political police force to do his bidding to accomplish this.

    Political Police

    Also known as the Secret Police, the Political Police are state security forces tasked with oppressing enemies of the state and forwarding the government's political agenda.

    Unfortunately for Hitler, establishing a political police force loyal to him was not straightforward:

    • When Hitler came to power, the police in Germany were regionalised, with individual forces controlled by different local governments. These police forces answered to their local government representatives as opposed to Hitler.
    • When Hitler became Chancellor on 30 January 1933, the constitution of the Weimar Republic was still operational, and its constitution limited the scope of political police forces.

    Initially, the Weimar constitution and decentralisation of the police forces prevented Hitler from utilising the police to carry out his political aims. Everything changed, however, in February 1933.

    The Reichstag Fire Decree

    On 27 February 1933, there was a devastating arson attack on the Reichstag – the German parliamentary building; Hitler blamed the attack on the communists.

    Gestapo Reichstag Fire StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Reichstag Fire

    The day after the attack, Hitler persuaded President Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree. This legislation nullified the Weimar constitution, removed the freedoms of Germans, and gave Hitler absolute power.

    The Reichstag Fire Decree was particularly significant in Hitler's quest to establish a political police force. The legislation transformed the power of the political police in Nazi Germany; police could now monitor phone calls, raid houses, and arrest perceived opponents without specific charges. Hitler could now create his secret political police force, but establishing the Gestapo would take several years.

    Head of Gestapo

    In 1933, Hitler named Hermann Göring Minister of the Interior of Prussia. As Minister of the Interior, Göring combined the police forces of Prussia into one political police force – the Gestapo. Göring's police force was separate from the regular Prussian police, focusing on politics and espionage under his personal command.

    As Göring was reorganising the Prussian police, SS head Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich did the same with the police force in Bavaria. In April 1934, after a brief power struggle with Göring, control of the Gestapo was given to Himmler.

    Himmler's powers were further strengthened in 1936:

    • On 17 June 1936, Himmler was given control of all German police forces.
    • In the summer of 1936, the Gestapo merged with the German criminal police department (Kripo). This new organisation was known as the Security Police (SiPo) and was run by Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's deputy.

    The Methods of the Gestapo

    The Gestapo used several methods to find and arrest political opponents:

    Torture: When conducting interrogations, the Gestapo used intimidation, coercion, and torture. The Gestapo utilised countless methods of psychological and physical torture.

    Surveillance: The Gestapo would read letters, monitor phone conservations, and even search people's homes.

    Denunciations: The Gestapo would often receive tip-offs, or denunciations, from citizens about certain members of the public.

    These denunciations were typically motivated by personal gain.

    The Gestapo and Antisemitism

    On 15 September 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws were brought into effect. The laws stripped German Jews of their rights and freedoms, diminishing them to 'subjects' of the Nazi state. The Nuremberg Race Laws also prohibited Jews from having sexual relations with anyone of German descent.

    Over the following years, antisemitism grew exponentially in Germany, with racial persecution proving a fundamental tenet within the Nazi regime:

    • On 5 October, German Jews were forced to surrender their old passports.
    • On 12 November 1938, all Jewish-owned companies were liquidated.
    • On 15 November 1938, Jewish children were banned from attending schools in Germany.
    • On 21 December 1938, Jews were banned from midwifery.
    • On 21 February 1939, Jews were forced to turn over their valuables to the state.

    The Gestapo was integral in upholding such antisemitic laws. Specialist divisions – known as Judenreferate (Jewish Departments) – were established to enact such persecutory measures.

    Throughout this period, the Nazi State followed a policy of forced Jewish emigration. The Gestapo coordinated and organised the emigration process.

    Gestapo Jewish Emigration StudySmarterFig. 2 - Jews deported from Germany

    Facts about the Gestapo

    Let's look at some facts about the Gestapo during the Second World War.

    • The Gestapo increased to approximately 45,000 members throughout the Second World War, employing some 150,000 informants.
    • When invading a country, the Gestapo would accompany the Wehrmacht (German Land Army) into the territory. After taking control, the Wehrmacht would round up all those perceived as threats to the Nazi regime.

    Playing a significant role in the Nazi war effort throughout the Second World War, the Gestapo:

    • Arranged the mass deportation of European Jews to concentration camps, ghettos, and death camps.
    • Punished German citizens who were seen as against the Nazi regime.
    • Assisted the Einsatzgruppen - Nazi death squads tasked with eradicating Jews during the Final Solution.
    • Suppressed resistance groups in Nazi territories.

    SS vs Gestapo

    The SS and the Gestapo were both tasked with eliminating enemies of the Nazi regime. While their overall goals were similar, they were completely separate organisations. The SS was a military squadron that partook in military functions and implemented Nazi ideology. The Gestapo, on the other hand, was a plain-clothed secret political police force that utilised intimidation, coercion, and torture.

    The "SS" translates as "Schutzstaffel" meaning "Protection Squads". The SS was used to coordinate and action Hitler's mass-extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust.

    Gestapo SS StudySmarterFig. 3 - SS Flag

    The End of the Gestapo

    The Gestapo ended on 7 May 1945, when Germany surrendered during the Second World War. While many Gestapo officials were tried as war criminals, many fled and managed to escape punishment.

    Gestapo Gestapo arrested in Berlin StudySmarterFig. 4 - Arrested Gestapo agents in Belgium

    Gestapo – Key takeaways

    • The Gestapo was the secret political police force of Nazi Germany.
    • Established in 1933, the Gestapo utilised intimidation, coercion, and torture to carry out their work.
    • The purpose of the Gestapo was to track down and arrest anyone perceived as an enemy of the Reich.
    • During the Second World War, the Gestapo arrested enemies of the Reich in Germany and German-occupied territories.
    • The Gestapo ended on 7 May 1945, when Germany surrendered during the Second World War.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Gestapo

    What is the Gestapo?

    The Gestapo was the official secret police force of the Nazi state. 

    Who was in charge of the Gestapo?

    Heinrich Himmler took control of Hermann Göring's Gestapo in April 1934.

    What did the Gestapo do?

    The Gestapo was tasked with oppressing all political and racial enemies of the Nazi party. 

    What is the difference between SS and Gestapo?

    The SS was a military squadron that partook in military functions as well as implementing Nazi ideology. The Gestapo, on the other hand, were a plain-clothed secret political police force that utilised intimidation, coercion, and torture.

    What tortures did the Gestapo use?

    When conducting interrogations, the Gestapo used intimidation, coercion, and torture. The Gestapo utilised countless methods of psychological and physical torture. 

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