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Gestapo was the name for the Nazi secret police.

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The Gestapo were under the overall administration of the Schutzstaffel (SS). The Gestapo was administered by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) ("head office of the reich security service"). The Gestapo was considered a dual organization of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) ("security service"). The Gestapo was also a suboffice of the Sicherheitspolizei (SIPO) ("security police").

History of the Gestapo. Founding and early development of the Gestapo.

Gestapo headquaters Berlin.
Gestapo headquarters in Prinz-Albrecht-Street in Berlin (1933).

The Gestapo was established on April 26, 1933, in Prussia, from the existing organization of the Prussian Secret Police. The Gestapo was first simply a branch of the Prussian Police known as "Department 1A of the Prussian State Police".

The Gestapo's first commander was Rudolf Diels, who recruited members from professional police departments and ran the Gestapo as a federal police agency, comparable to several modern examples such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States. The Gestapo’s role as a political police force was only established after Hermann Göring was appointed to succeed Diels as Gestapo commander in 1934. Göring coined the term Gestapo (it was originally called Gestapa), which came from the suggestion of an obscure postal employee who suggested it be called the Geheime Staatspolizei ("secret state police"); this was shortened to Gestapo. Göring urged the Nazi government to extend Gestapo power beyond Prussia to encompass all of Germany. In this Göring was mostly successful except in Bavaria, where Heinrich Himmler (head of the SS) served as the Bavarian police president and used local SS units as a political police force.

In April 1934, Göring and Himmler agreed to put aside their differences (due in large part to a combined hatred of the Sturmabteilung (SA)) and Göring transferred full authority over the Gestapo to the SS. At that point, the Gestapo was incorporated into the Sicherheitspolizei and considered a sister organization of the Sicherheitsdienst.

Gestapo increased power under the SS.

Gestapo commander Rudolf Diels.
Rudolf Diels first Commander of the Gestapo 1933-1934.

The role of the Gestapo was to investigate and combat "all tendencies dangerous to the state." It had the authority to investigate treason, espionage and sabotage cases, and cases of criminal attacks on the Nazi Party and Germany.

Laws passed in 1936 effectively gave the Gestapo carte blanche to operate without judicial oversight. Nazi jurist Dr. Werner Best stated that "[a]s long as the Gestapo ... carries out the will of the leadership, it is acting legally." The Gestapo was specifically exempted from responsibility to administrative courts, where citizens normally could sue the state to conform to laws.

A further law passed later in the year gave the Gestapo responsibility for setting up and administering concentration camps. Also in 1936, Reinhard Heydrich became head of the Gestapo and Heinrich Müller, chief of operations; Müller would later assume overall command after Heydrich's assassination in 1942. Adolf Eichmann was Müller's direct subordinate and head of department IV, section B4, which dealt with Jews.

The power of the Gestapo most open to misuse was called Schutzhaft-"protective custody," a euphemism for the power to imprison people without judicial proceedings, typically in concentration camps. The person imprisoned even had to sign his or her own Schutzhaftbefehl, an order declaring that the person had requested imprisonment (ostensibly out of fear of personal harm). Normally this signature was forced by beatings and torture.

During World War II, the Gestapo was expanded to around 45,000 members.

Keeping Hitler in power: smashing burgeoning internal opposition.

Gestapo power.
Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring at the meeting to formally hand over control of the Gestapo. (Berlin, 1934).

By February and March 1942, student protests were calling for an end to the Nazi regime. These included the non-violent resistance of Hans and Sophie Scholl, two leaders of the White Rose student group. Despite the significant popular support for the removal of Hitler, resistance groups and those who were in moral or political opposition to the Nazis were stalled into inaction by the fear of reprisals from the Gestapo. In fact, reprisals did come in response to the protests. Fearful of an internal overthrow, the forces of Himmler and the Gestapo were unleashed on the opposition. The first five months of 1943 witnessed thousands of arrests and executions as the Gestapo exercised a severity hitherto unseen by the German public. Student leaders were executed in late February, and a major opposition organization, the Oster Circle, was destroyed in April 1943.

The German opposition was in an unenviable position by the late spring and early summer of 1943. On one hand, it was next to impossible for them to overthrow Hitler and the party; on the other, the Allied demand for an unconditional surrender meant no opportunity for a compromise peace, which left the people no option (in their eyes) other than continuing the military struggle.

Nevertheless, some Germans did speak out and show signs of protest during the summer of 1943. Despite fear of the Gestapo after the mass arrests and executions of the spring, the opposition still plotted and planned. Some Germans were convinced that it was their duty to apply all possible expedients to end the war as quickly as possible; that is, to further the German defeat by all available means. The Gestapo cracked down ruthlessly on the dissidents in Germany, just as they did everywhere else.

The fall of Benito Mussolini gave the opposition plotters more hope to be able to achieve similar results in Germany and seemed to provide a propitious moment to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. Several Hitler assassination plots were planned, albeit mostly in abstract terms. The only serious attempt was carried out under the codename Operation Valkyrie, in which several officers attempted to assassinate Hitler in a coup d'état. On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg brought a bomb-laden suitcase into a briefing room where Hitler was holding a meeting. The bomb went off and several were killed. Hitler, along with several others, was wounded, but his life was saved when the suitcase was unwittingly moved away by a meeting presenter. Hitler was shielded from the blast by the conference table, leaving him with minor injuries. Subsequently about 5,000 people were arrested and approximately 200, including von Stauffenberg, were executed in connection with the attempt, some on the very same day.

During June, July, and August, the Gestapo continued to move swiftly against the opposition, rendering any organized opposition impossible. Arrests and executions were common. Terror against the people had become a way of life. A second major reason was that the opposition's peace feelers to the Western Allies did not meet with success.

This was in part due to the aftermath of the Venlo incident of 1939, when Gestapo agents posing as anti-Nazis in the Netherlands kidnapped two British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officers lured to a meeting to discuss peace terms. That prompted Winston Churchill to ban any further contact with the German opposition. In addition, the British and Americans did not want to deal with anti-Nazis because they were fearful that the Soviet Union would believe they were attempting to make deals behind the Soviets’ back.

Gestapo and the Nuremberg Trials.

Gestapo concentration camps.
Gestapo was also present in concentration camps as here in Lager Nordhausen, a subcamp of the Mittelbau-Dora KZ complex.

Between November 14, 1945, and October 3, 1946, the allies also established an International Military Tribunal (IMT) to try 24 major Nazi war criminals and six groups. They were to be tried for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Leaders, organizers, instigators, and accomplices participating in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to commit the crimes so specified were declared responsible for all acts performed by any persons in execution of such plan. The official positions of defendants as heads of state or holders of high government offices were not to free them from responsibility or mitigate their punishment; nor was the fact that a defendant acted pursuant to an order of a superior to excuse him from responsibility, although it might be considered by the IMT in mitigation of punishment.

At the trial of any individual member of any group or organization, the IMT was authorized to declare (in connection with any act of which the individual was convicted) that the group or organization to which he belonged was a criminal organization. And where a group or organization was so declared criminal, the competent national authority of any signatory was given the right to bring individuals to trial for membership in that organization, in which trial the criminal nature of the group or organization was to be taken as proved.

These groups-the Nazi party and government leadership, the German General Staff and High Command (OKW), the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Schutzstaffel (SS) (including the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), and the Gestapo-had an aggregate membership exceeding 2 million, and it was estimated that approximately half these people would be made liable for trial if the groups were convicted.

The trials began in November 1945, and on October 1, 1946, the IMT rendered its judgment on 21 top officials of the Third Reich. The IMT sentenced most of the accused to death or to extensive prison terms and acquitted three. The IMT also convicted three of the groups: the Nazi leadership corps, the SS (including the SD), and the Gestapo. Gestapo members Hermann Göring and Arthur Seyss-Inquart were individually convicted by the IMT.

Three groups were acquitted of collective war crimes charges, but this did not relieve individual members of those groups from conviction and punishment under the denazification program. Members of the three convicted groups were subject to apprehension and trial as war criminals by the national, military, and occupation courts of the four allied powers. And, even though individual members of the convicted groups might be acquitted of war crimes, they still remained subject to trial under the denazification program.

Gestapo Today. After the Nuremberg Trials, the Gestapo ceased to exist.

In 1997, Cologne, Germany transformed the former regional Gestapo headquarters in that city, the EL-DE Haus, into a museum to document the organization's past actions.

Mention of the word Gestapo, even when using the word as a reference to any sort of unrestricted police, is widely considered to be improper or insulting. In various countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the term is used to denote in a derogatory manner all police forces, but particularly the communist-era riot police, such as ZOMO.

Organization of the Gestapo.

Gestapo meeting.
Heinrich Müller is at the extreme right in this 1939 photograph, apparently taken for propaganda purposes. Shown from left to right are a minor SS functionary (Huber), Arthur Nebe, and then three of the people most responsible for the Holocaust: Heinrich Himmler, Reinhardt Heydrich and Müller himself. According to the apparent 1939 archival caption, these men are planning the investigation of the bomb assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler on 8 November 1939 in Munich.

When the Gestapo was founded, the organization was already a well-established bureaucratic mechanism, having been created out of the already existing Prussian Secret Police. In 1934, the Gestapo was transferred from the Prussian Interior Ministry to the authority of the Schutzstaffel (SS), and for the next five years the Gestapo underwent a massive expansion.

In 1939, the entire Gestapo was placed under the authority of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), the main office of the SS. Within the RSHA, the Gestapo was known as Amt IV ("office IV"). The internal organization of the group is outlined below.

Referat N: Central Intelligence Office

The Central Command Office of the Gestapo, formed in 1941. Before 1939, the Gestapo command was under the authority of the office of the Sicherheitspolizei und Sicherheitsdienst (SD), to which the commanding general of the Gestapo answered. Between 1939 and 1941, the Gestapo was run directly through the overall command of the RSHA.

Gestapo: Department A (Enemies).

  • Communists (A1).
  • Countersabotage (A2).
  • Reactionaries and Liberals (A3).
  • Assassinations (A4).

Gestapo: Department B (Sects and Churches).

  • Catholics (B1).
  • Protestants (B2).
  • Freemasons (B3).
  • Jews (B4).

Gestapo: Department C (Administration and Party Affairs).

The central administrative office of the Gestapo, responsible for card files of all personnel.

Gestapo: Department D (Occupied Territories).

  • Opponents of the Regime (D1).
  • Churches and Sects (D2).
  • Records and Party Matters (D3).
  • Western Territories (D4).
  • Counter-espionage (D5).

Gestapo: Department E (Counterintelligence).

  • In the Reich (E1).
  • Policy Formation (E2).
  • In the West (E3).
  • In Scandinavia (E4).
  • In the East (E5).
  • In the South (E6).

Local Offices of the Gestapo.

The local offices of the Gestapo were known as Staatspolizeistellen and Staatspolizeileitstellen. These offices answered to a local commander known as the Inspekteur der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD ("inspector of the security police and security services") who, in turn, was under the dual command of Referat N of the Gestapo and also His local SS and Police Leader. The classic image of the Gestapo officer, dressed in trench coat and hat, can be attributed to Gestapo personnel assigned to local offices in German cities and larger towns. This image seems to have been popularized by the assassination of the former Chancellor General Kurt von Schleicher in 1934. General von Schleicher and his wife were gunned down in their Berlin home by three men dressed in black trench coats and wearing black fedoras. The killers of General von Schleicher were widely believed to have been Gestapo men. At a press conference held later the same day, Hermann Göring was asked by foreign correspondents to respond to a hot rumour that General von Schleicher had been murdered in his home. Göring stated that the Gestapo had attempted to arrest Schleicher, but that he had been "shot while attempting to resist arrest".

Auxiliary Duties of the Gestapo.

The Gestapo also maintained offices at all Nazi concentration camps, held an office on the staff of the SS and Police Leaders, and supplied personnel on an as-needed basis to such formations as the Einsatzgruppen. Such personnel, assigned to these auxiliary duties, were typically removed from the Gestapo chain of command and fell under the authority of other branches of the SS.

Uniforms for the Gestapo.

Gestapo Insignia pins.
Insignia pins of the Gestapo worn on SS commissioned and non-commissioned officers’ hats: the SS version of the national eagle and the Totenkopf.
Gestapo warrent disc.
A warrant disc identified an operative as Gestapo without revealing personal identity.

The black SS Uniform was abolished in 1939. After the Gestapo came under the authority of the Waffen-SS, all SD and Gestapo branches were issued field-gray uniforms. The wartime gray uniform was worn in office and while on service duties and in occupied countries (because agents in civilian clothes had been shot by members of the Wehrmacht thinking that they were partisans). When Gestapo agents were in service outside their offices they wore civilian clothes. Thus with the exception of very high-ranking members of the Gestapo-people like Heinrich Müller-Gestapo people generally wore civilian clothing in keeping with the secret, plain-clothes nature of their work. There were in fact very strict protocols protecting the identity of Gestapo field personnel. In most cases, when asked for identification, an operative was only required to present his warrant disc. This identified the operative as Gestapo without revealing personal identity, and agents, except when ordered to do so by an authorized official, were not required to show picture identification, something all non-Gestapo people were expected to do.

The Daily Operations of the Gestapo.

Contrary to popular belief, the Gestapo was not an omnipotent agency that had its agents in every nook and cranny of German society. So-called "V-men" as undercover Gestapo agents were known only to be used to infiltrate Social Democratic and Communist opposition groups, but these cases were the exception, not the rule.

As the analysis of the Gestapostellen done by the historian Robert Gellately has established, for the most part the Gestapo was made up of bureaucrats and clerical workers who depended upon denunciations by ordinary Germans for their information. Indeed, the Gestapo was overwhelmed with denunciations and spent most of its time sorting out the credible denunciations from less credible ones. Far from being an all-powerful agency that knew everything about what was happening in German society, the local Gestapostellen were under-staffed, over-worked offices that struggled with the paper-load caused by so many denunciations. The ratio of Gestapo officers to the general public was extremely lop-sided; for example, in Lower Franconia, which had about one million people in the 1930s, there was only one Gestapo office for the entire region, which had 28 people attached to it, of whom half were clerical workers.

Furthermore, for information about what was happening in German society, the Gestapostellen were most part dependent upon these denunciations. Thus, it was ordinary Germans by their willingness to denounce one another who supplied the Gestapo with the information that determined who the Gestapo arrested. The popular picture of the Gestapo with its spies everywhere terrorizing German society has been firmly rejected by most historians.

Gestapo Counterintelligence.

The Polish government in exile in London during World War II received sensitive military information about Nazi Germany from agents and informants throughout Europe. After Germany conquered Poland in the fall of 1939, Gestapo officials believed that they had neutralized Polish intelligence activities.

Cooperation between the NKVD and the Gestapo.

In March 1940 representatives of the Soviet secret police (NKVD) and Gestapo met for one week in Zakopane, for the coordination of the pacification of resistance in Poland. The Soviet Union delivered hundreds of German and Austrian communists to Gestapo, as unwanted foreigners, together with relevant documents. However an advanced Polish intelligence network developed throughout Europe to provide information to the Allies.

Some of the Polish information about the movement of German police and SS units to the East during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the fall of 1941 was similar to information British intelligence secretly got through 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 see that Polish agents and informants had been gathering detailed military information and smuggling it out to London, via Budapest and Istanbul. The Poles identified had tracked German military trains to the Eastern front and identified four Ordnungspolizei ("order police") battalions sent to conquered areas of the Soviet Union in October 1941 and engaged in war crimes and mass murder.

Polish agents also gathered detailed information about the morale of German soldiers in the East. After uncovering a sample of the information the Poles had reported, Gestapo officials concluded that Polish intelligence activity represented a very serious danger to Germany. As late as June 6, 1944, Heinrich Müller, concerned about the leakage of information to the Allies, set up a special unit called Sonderkommando Jerzy that was meant to root out the Polish intelligence network in western and southwestern Europe.

Gestapo agents and officers.

  • Karl Silberbauer, who arrested Anne Frank.
  • Klaus Barbie.
  • Franz Bürkl?.
  • Rudolf Diels.
  • Adolf Eichmann.
  • Gerhard Flesch.
  • Hans Bernd Gisevius.
  • Herbert Kappler.
  • Heinrich Himmler.
  • Reinhard Heydrich.
  • Heinrich Müller.
  • Henry Oliver Rinnan.
  • Walter Schellenberg.
  • Karl Eberhard Schöngarth.
  • Franz Stangl (Austrian Gestapo).
  • Max Wielen.
  • Hermann Göring.
  • Siegfried Wolfgang Fehmer.

People executed by the Gestapo.

  • Marc Bloch, French historian.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian.
  • Roger Bushell, leader of The Great Escape.
  • Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr.
  • Constant Chevillon, occultist.
  • Charles Delestraint, French Resistance member.
  • Jean Moulin French Resistance leader.
  • Stanislaw Saks, Polish mathematician.
  • Juliusz Schauder, Polish mathematician.
  • Barthel Schink, member of the Edelweiss Pirates.
  • Ernst Thälmann, German Communist leader.
  • Gyula Alpári, Hungarian Communist leader.

Gestapo in Popular Culture.

Sometimes the word Gestapo is used colloquially for other organizations which are felt to be tyrannical: see Nazi/3rd Reich terms in popular culture. An example is in the book version of the Tron movie, where a character says "This kind of romp is going to annoy the local Gestapo."

The 1946 Czechoslavkian animated cartoon Pérák a SS (The Spring-Man and the SS), featured the character Pérák, the Spring Man of Prague, a quasi-superhero based on a popular figure of Czech urban legend, taunting and evading members of the Gestapo during a surrealistic, slapstick chase over the rooftops of Prague.

The Gestapo was parodied in the hit BBC sitcom 'Allo 'Allo!, as stiff-as-board limping characters obsessed with protecting Adolf Hitler from assassination by the German military or resistance. Usually wearing black leather coats and hats, they were often seen cross-dressing. Herr Flick and Herr von Smallhausen were the local agents in the village of Nouvion, obsessed entirely with the German war effort. They were constantly under siege by the French Resistance.

In The Matrix, when Agent Smith interrogates Neo, Neo says "You can’t scare me with this Gestapo crap! I know my rights! I want my phone call."

In Medal of Honor: Frontline, an informant appearing in "The Golden Lion" mission has a truck that takes the player for a ride. The game requires the player to get out of the truck at certain checkpoints, where he says, "Don't let the Germans see my truck! You know how the Gestapo can be."

In The Chaser's War on Everything, a skit featured phone bill collectors (a hot topic in Australia at the time). One segment featured a Gestapo officer calling a man and demanding that all phone bills be paid; if these demands were not met, he "would not call back tomorrow, but the day after."

References to the Gestapo and books about the Gestapo.

  • The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing racial policy 1935-1945, Robert Gellately, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, ISBN 0-19-822869-4.
  • German Resistance Against Hitler: The search for allies abroad, 1938-1945, Klemens Von Klemperer, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-820551-1.
  • Histoire de la Gestapo, Jacques Delarue, Paris, 1962.
  • An Illustrated History of the Gestapo, Rupert Butler, Motorbooks, 1993, ISBN 0-87938-801-3.
  • Untouchable: Who Protected Bormann and Gestapo Müller After 1945..., Pierre de Villemarest, Aquilion, 2005, ISBN 1-904997-02-3.

Suspected hoax works about the Gestapo include:

  • Gestapo Chief: The 1948 interrogation of Heinrich Müller, Gregory Douglas. San Jose, CA 1995.

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