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Gestapo is a portmanteau contraction of the name of the official secret police force of Nazi Germany, Geheime Staatspolizei, (German for "secret state police"). During the reign of Nazi Germany, the Gestapo was the central intelligence agency of Germany, under the overall administration of the SS. It was administrated by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt and was considered a dual organization of the Sicherheitsdienst and also a suboffice of the Sicherheitspolizei.
The Gestapo was established on April 26, 1933 in Prussia. With members recruited from professional police departments, its role as a political police force was quickly established by Hermann Göring after Adolf Hitler gained power in March 1933. Rudolf Diels was the first head of the organization, initially called "Department 1A of the Prussian State Police".
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 on Germany.
The law had been changed in such a way that the Gestapo's actions were not subject to judicial review. The Nazi jurist, Dr. Werner Best , stated, "As long as the [Gestapo]... carries out the will of the leadership, it is acting legally." The Gestapo was specifically exempted from being responsible to administrative courts, where citizens normally could sue the state to conform to laws.
The power of the Gestapo most open to misuse was Schutzhaft, or "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, the document declaring that the person desired to be imprisoned. Normally this signature was forced by beatings and torture.
Increasing power under the SS
Laws passed in 1936 effectively gave the Gestapo carte blanche to operate without judicial oversight. A further law passed in the same year declared the Gestapo to be responsible for the set up and administration of concentration camps. Also in 1936, Reinhard Heydrich became head of the Gestapo and Heinrich Müller chief of operations. Adolf Eichmann was Müller's direct subordinate and head of department IV, section B4, which dealt with Jews.
During World War II, the Gestapo was expanded to around 45,000 members. It helped control conquered areas of Europe and identify Jews, Socialists, homosexuals and others for forced deportation and extermination, now called the Holocaust.
Keeping Hitler in power
By February and March 1942, student protests were calling for an end to the Nazi regime. Despite the significant popular support for the removal of Hitler, would-be revolutionaries were stalled into inaction by the well-placed 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 hand, because of the Allied demand of unconditional surrender, and therefore no opportunity for a compromise peace, there seemed to be no other alternative but to continue the military struggle.
Opposition from within Germany
Despite fear of the Gestapo, some German people did speak out and show signs of protest during the summer of 1943. Despite 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 with all available means.
The fall of 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 assasination attempts were made on Hitler, most notably Operation Valkyrie.
Several of Hitler's top generals, including Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg attempted a coup d'etat on July 20 1944. Stauffenberg brough a bomb-laden suitcase into Hitler's office. The bomb went off and several were killed or wounded but Hitler was protected by a big oak desk. 7,000 people were arrested, 5,000 killed in connection with the coup.
During June, July, and August, Himmler's forces 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 officers lured to a meeting to discuss peace terms. That prompted 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 Russians would believe they were attempting to make deals behind their backs.
Between 14 November, 1945 and 1 October, 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 head of state or holders of high government office 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 leadership corps , the Reich Cabinet , the German General Staff and High Command , the SA (Sturmabteilung), the SS (Schutzstaffel-including the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD), and the Gestapo (Secret Police), had an aggregate membership exceeding two million and it was estimated that approximately half of them 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.
After the Nuremberg Trials, the Gestapo no longer existed as a political entity. However, it is still remembered today.
Although it has historical meaning, today it is sometimes considered vulgar and offensive, especially for the ones belonging to the numbers of those who were traumatized, tortured, or otherwise hurt by the Gestapo. 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.
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 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 RSHA, a main office of the SS. Within the RSHA, the Gestapo was known as "Amt IV". The internal organization of the group was as follows:
Referat N: Central Intelligence Office
The Central Command Office of the Gestapo, formed in 1941. Prior to 1939, the Gestapo command was under the authority of the office of the Sicherheitspolizei und SD, to which answered the Commanding General of the Gestapo. Between 1939 and 1941, the Gestapo was run directly through the overall command of the Reichsicherheitshauptamt (RSHA).
Department A (Enemies)
- Communists (A1)
- Countersabotage (A2)
- Reactionaries and Liberals (A3)
- Assassinations (A4)
Department B (Sects and Churches)
- Catholics (B1)
- Protestants (B2)
- Freemasons (B3)
- Jews (B4)
Department C (Administration and Party Affairs)
The central administrative office of the Gestapo, responsible for card files of all personnel.
Department D (Occupied Territories)
- Opponents of the Regime (D1)
- Churches and Sects (D2)
- Records and Party Matters (D3)
- Western Territories (D4)
- Counter-espionage (D5)
- Alients (D6)
Department E (Counter-Intelligence)
- In the Reich (E1)
- Policy Formation (E2)
- In the West (E3)
- In Scandinavia (E4)
- In the East (E5)
- In the South (E6)
Department F (Frontier and Border Police)
The border guards of Germany answered directly to the Gestapo as an effort to keep close track of immigration and emigration to and from the Reich. After the start of the Second World War, the office of the Border Police lost most of its authority to the German military who patrolled the borders of Germany, and the occupied territories as part of counter efforts to an Allied invasion.
The local offices of the Gestapo were known as Gestapostellen and Gestapoleitstellen. These offices answered to a local commander known as the Inspektor des Sicherheitspolizei und SD who, in turn, was under the dual command of Referat N of the Gestapo and also local SS and Police Leaders. 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.
The Gestapo also maintained offices at all 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.
The Polish government in exile in London during World War II received sensitive military information about Nazi Germany from agents and informants throughout Europe. 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.
Gestapo officials later discovered some of what the Polish underground had leaked to London, and they appraised Polish intelligence as a very serious threat to German security, seeking to root out Polish agents and informants.
After Germany conquered Poland in the fall of 1939, Gestapo officials believed that they had neutralized Polish intelligence activities. In 1942, however, they uncovered 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 Order Police (Ordnungspolizei) battalions sent to conquered areas of the Soviet Union in October 1941. In addition, another seventeen such battalions were stationed in Poland, according to Polish information.
Historians have established that such police battalions participated in the first phase of the Holocaust, shooting Jews in large numbers and burying them in mass graves.
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 Mueller, head of the Gestapo, concerned about the leakage of information to the allied forces, set up a special unit called Sonderkommando Jerzy , designed to root out the Polish intelligence network in western and southwestern Europe.
Agents and officers of the Gestapo
- Klaus Barbie
- Rudolf Diels
- Adolf Eichmann
- Gerhard Flesch
- Hans Bernd Gisevius
- Herbert Kappler
- Heinrich Himmler
- Henry Oliver Rinnan
- Walter Schellenberg
- Karl Eberhard Schongarth
- Franz Stangl (Austrian Gestapo)
- Max Wielen
- Hermann Göring
People executed by the Gestapo
- Marc Bloch, French historian
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian
- Wilhelm Canaris, Head of the Abwehr
- Constant Chevillon, Occultist
- Charles Delestraint, French Resistance member
- Stanislaw Saks, Polish mathematician
- Juliusz Schauder, Polish mathematician
- Barthel Schink, Member of the Edelweiss Pirates
- Ernst Thälmann, German communist leader
Other meanings of the word
Sometimes the word Gestapo is used colloquially for other organizations which are felt to be disciplinarian: see Nazi/3rd Reich terms in popular culture.
- German Resistance Against Hitler: The Search for Allies Abroad, 1938-1945, Klemens Von Klemperer, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0198205511
- Histoire de la Gestapo, Jacques Delarue, Paris, 1962
- An Illustrated History of the Gestapo, Rupert Butler, Motorbooks, 1993, ISBN 0879388013
Suspected hoax works about the Gestapo include:
- Gestapo Chief: The 1948 Interrogation of Heinrich Müller - Gregory Douglas. San Jose, CA 1995
- Gestapo entry at the Simon Wiesenthal Center site
- Holocaust Survivors Encyclopedia
- History of Espionage entry
- U.S. Archives document on the IMT
- U.S. Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group
- U.S. Archives profile of CIA spy Fritz Kolbe
- Gestapo entry at the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) Berlin
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