Before the Nazis came to power, Germany was a federal country, and each individual state had its own state police force (STAPO). These would each include a “Political Department”, whose main function was keeping tabs on Communists; manned by policemen of right-wing views, often poorly educated. The police were forbidden to join the Nazi party, but were often sympathetic.
Prussia was very much the biggest of the German states, and included the capital, Berlin. For many years it had been run by the Socialist Party, but in 1932 was taken under the direct control of the central government. When Hitler formed his coalition government in January 1933, there were only three Nazis in the Cabinet, but one of these was Hermann Goering, who was put in charge of Prussia.
When Goering took control of the Prussian police, he purged any anti-Nazi officers and built up the Political Department under his relative Rudolf Diels. He recruited SA and SS men as special auxiliary police, and encouraged them to shoot any opponents. The Emergency Decrees enacted in March 1933, immediately after the Reichstag Fire, gave the police extensive powers of arrest and internment, of which Goering took full advantage.In June 1933 Diels's force was named the "Secret State Police": Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo for short.
In March 1933 Himmler was placed in charge of the Bavarian police, with Heydrich as his assistant. One of his officials was Heinrich Muller, chief of the Political Department, who was not a party member. Himmler and his subordinates then accumulated power very rapidly. He took over the police forces of all the different states one by one, and in 1934 took control of the Gestapo from Goring and Diels. A special law of Feb 1936 freed the Gestapo from any interference from the Ministry of the Interior.
In June 1936 Himmler was made Minister of Police for the whole of Germany (and later, Minister of the Interior). The following structure was set up:-
Police functions were divided between the "Order Police" (Orpo): a rather low-grade paramilitary force, headed by Kurt Daluege, and the "Security Police" (Sipo), headed by Heydrich. Sipo was further divided into the "Criminal Police" (Kripo), a detective force, headed by Arthur Nebe, and the "Political Police" (Gestapo), headed by Heinrich Muller.
Himmler filled the police leadership with his own SS men. He ordered that in each district the chiefs of Orpo and Sipo should be the senior SS officers. The Gestapo rank and file were mostly recruited from the pre-Nazi police, but their new commanders were bright young Nazi graduates. He saw the role of the Gestapo as combating the “natural enemies” of Nazi Germany: Communists, Jews etc. To fight them, the Gestapo had wide powers of arrest and interrogation (often using torture) and were backed up by “Special Courts” set up in 1934 to deal with political cases. Within the SS, Heydrich maintained his own intelligence-gathering force, the SD, whose functions often overlapped or clashed with those of the Gestapo (see the previous entry)
There were never very many Gestapo. Cologne, a city of ¾ million, never had more than 99 Gestapo officers. In the war, there were about 50,000 Gestapo for the whole of Europe. But they maintained a large network of spies, informers and part-time agents. Everywhere, people were encouraged to report any suspicious behaviour or anti-government remarks by neighbours or workmates. Heydrich was of course well aware that the vast majority of information coming back from such sources was mere malicious gossip, and quite worthless from a police point of view; but the great thing was, nobody could trust anyone else. In every street, apartment-block, business and classroom there would probably be a Gestapo informant, and no-one would dare say or do anything against the Nazi regime.
Modern research suggests that ordinary Germans had little to fear from the Gestapo. Their efforts were targeted on certain key groups: at first, Communists and Socialists, then homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, troublemaking priests, and, increasingly, Jews. Germans outside these groups who were informed on for behaviour such as making anti-Nazi remarks, were usually treated very leniently for a first offence (probably let off with a warning). Until the war, only 644 people were sentenced to death in the whole of Germany! On the other hand, people in the targeted groups could be tortured, sent to concentration camps, and killed by brutal treatment there. This calls into question how far pre-war Nazi Germany can really be called a “totalitarian police state”.
Mass executions only began with the war: especially from 1942.
The People’s Courts
“Special Courts” were established in Germany in 1934 to deal with political enemies of the Nazi government, especially Communists and Socialists. The highest one of these was the People’s Court in Berlin. Before the war this court had only imposed 108 death sentences. The courts were generally lenient towards offenders from non-targeted groups, only imposing short prison sentences (2 years or less). Mass executions only began when Roland Freiser was put in charge of the People’s Court in 1942, imposing almost 1,200 death sentences in his first year. About 11,000 death sentences altogether were imposed in Germany during the war, with twice as many sentenced by military courts-martial: but a large number of the victims would not be Germans but foreign slave-workers. The real terror came after the bomb plot against Hitler in June 1944: at least 300 people were hanged in the main prison in Cologne in the last 4 months before the city fell to the Allies.
(The next entry will outline how things changed during the War)