Although the Gestapo is generally associated with
SS Leader Heinrich Himmler, it was actually founded by Hermann Göring
in April 1933.
Upon becoming Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler
had appointed Göring as Minister of the
Interior for the State of Prussia, Germany's biggest and most important
state, which controlled two thirds of the country, including the capital,
Berlin, and the big industrial centers. As Minister of the Interior,
Göring thereby had control of the police.
The first thing he did was to prohibit regular
uniformed police from interfering with Nazi Brownshirts out in the streets.
This meant that innocent German citizens had no one to turn to as they
were being beaten up by rowdy young storm troopers drunk with their newfound
power and quite often drunk on beer. These young Nazi toughs took full
advantage of police leniency to loot shops at will and terrorize Jews or
anyone else unfortunate enough to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong
purged the Berlin police department of politically unreliable cops and
had 50,000 storm troopers sworn in as special police auxiliaries (Hilfspolizei).
Now the storm troopers had actual power of arrest and they relished its
use. Jails were soon overflowing with people taken into "protective
custody" resulting in the need for large outside prison camps, the
birth of the concentration camp system.
Having compromised the uniformed divisions, Göring
next turned his attention to the plain-clothes police. On April 26, 1933,
a decree was issued creating the Secret Police Office (Geheime Polizei
Amt) which quickly became known as the GPA. But this abbreviation was far
too similar to the GPU abbreviation used by the Soviet Political Police in Russia.
Thus, the name was changed to Secret State Police (Geheime Staats Polizei).
The actual term 'Gestapo' was supposedly created by a Berlin postal official
who wanted a name that would fit on a regulation-sized postal rubber stamp.
Gestapo was derived from seven letters within the full name Geheime
Staats Polizei. Unknowingly, the postal official
had invented one of the most notorious names in history.
began using the Gestapo to silence Hitler's political opponents in Berlin
and surrounding areas and also to enhance his own personal power. Much
to his delight, Göring discovered that
the old Prussian state police had kept many secret files on the private
lives of top Nazis, which he studied with delight.
Rudolf Diels as the first Gestapo chief. Although Diels was not a Party
member, he had been a member of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior since
1930 and had served as a senior adviser in the police. Göring
took full advantage of Diels' knowledge on how to operate a political police
force. He also encouraged Diels to maintain and expand the secret files
on Nazi leaders. The cunning and ambitious Göring
would use that information to help solidify his own position within the
ambitious Nazi, SS-Reichsführer Heinrich
Himmler, soon set his sights on the Gestapo. A fierce rivalry then developed
between Himmler and Göring, with both
men working against each other to curry favor with Hitler as to who would
actually run the Gestapo. On April 20, 1934, after much infighting, Göring
decided to cede the Gestapo to Himmler and his associate, Reinhard Heydrich,
who took over as Gestapo chief two days later.
The ever-ambitious Göring
had set his sights on something much bigger than being a policeman. The
former World War I flying ace and recipient of the prestigious Pour
le Mérite medal fancied himself as a military leader. He wanted
to take charge of a rejuvenated German Air Force. His interest in police
matters and the Gestapo had diminished as Hitler's plans for a huge military
buildup became apparent.
Within a few years, Himmler became Chief of the
German Police in addition to his duties as SS leader. Heydrich, his number
two man, proved to be something of a genius in creating a hugely efficient
national intelligence system that kept tabs on everyone. No one was exempt
from Gestapo snooping, no matter how high up in the Nazi hierarchy.
On February 10, 1936, the Nazi Reichstag passed
the 'Gestapo Law' which included the following paragraph: "Neither
the instructions nor the affairs of the Gestapo will be open to review
by the administrative courts." This meant the Gestapo was now above
the law and there could be no legal appeal regarding anything it did.
Indeed, the Gestapo became a law unto itself.
It was entirely possible for someone to be arrested, interrogated and sent
to a concentration camp for incarceration or summary execution, without
any outside legal procedure.
Justice in Hitler's Germany was completely arbitrary,
depending on the whim of the man in power, the man who had you in his grip.
The legal policy as proclaimed by Hitler in 1938 was: "All means,
even if they are not in conformity with existing laws and precedents, are
legal if they subserve the will of the Führer."
Surprisingly, the Gestapo was never actually a
very big organization. At its peak it employed only about 40,000 individuals,
including office personnel and the plain-clothes agents. But each Gestapo
agent operated at the center of a large web of spies and informants. The
problem for the average citizen was that no one ever knew for sure just
who those informants were. It could be anyone, your milkman, the old lady
across the street, a quiet co-worker, even a schoolboy. As a result, fear
ruled the day. Most people realized the necessity of self-censorship and
generally kept their mouths shut politically, unless they had something
positive to say.
foolish enough to say something risky or tell an anti-Nazi joke in mixed
company might get a knock on the door in the middle of the night or a tap
on the shoulder while walking along the street. Letters were also sent
out demanding an appearance at No. 8 Prinz Albrecht Strasse, the Gestapo
headquarters in Berlin, to answer a few questions. The Gestapo prison center
in Berlin (the Columbia-Haus) became notorious as a place where pedestrians
strolling outside the building could hear screaming coming from inside.
Gestapo interrogation methods included: repeated
near drownings of a prisoner in a bathtub filled with ice-cold water; electric
shocks by attaching wires to hands, feet, ears and genitalia; crushing
a man's testicles in a special vice; securing a prisoner's wrists behind
his back then hanging him by the arms causing shoulder dislocation; beatings
with rubber nightsticks and cow-hide whips; and burning flesh with matches
or a soldering iron.
As the SS organization rapidly
expanded in the late 1930s, the super-ambitious Heydrich acquired immense
powers and responsibilities. One of his main accomplishments was the reorganization
and bureaucratic streamlining of the entire Nazi police state. In September
1939, just after the outbreak of war, he created the Reich Main Security
Office (RSHA). This new organization had seven
main branches. The Gestapo was designated as the fourth branch and
was now headed by Heinrich Müller (nicknamed
as Gestapo Müller). Back in 1931, as
a member of the Munich police, Müller
had successfully hushed-up the scandal surrounding the suicide of Hitler's
niece Geli Raubal. Thus he had proven himself to be a very dependable man.
Section B4 of the Gestapo dealt exclusively with
the "Jewish question" and came under the permanent control of
Adolf Eichmann. This energetic and efficient organizer would keep the trains
running on time from all over Europe to Nazi death camps located in occupied
Poland during the Final Solution of the Jewish question.
The Gestapo followed Hitler's armies into every
country during the conquest of Europe. By pitting neighbor against neighbor,
Gestapo agents established the same kind of terror mechanism in each occupied
country that had worked so well back in Germany.
In 1942, the Gestapo took things a step further
via Hitler's Night and Fog Decree. Suspected anti-Nazis would now vanish
without a trace into the misty night never to be seen again. The desired
effect as stated by Himmler was to "leave the family and the population
uncertain as to the fate of the offender." The victims were mostly
from France, Belgium and Holland. They were usually arrested in the middle
of the night and whisked off to far away prisons for torture-interrogation,
eventually arriving at a concentration camp in Germany if they survived.
From the very beginning of Hitler's regime, the
ever-present threat of arrest and indefinite confinement in a concentration
camp robbed the German people of their personal freedom and left them as
inhibited, dutifully obedient subjects.
But even this was not enough. The Nazis wanted
to change people's thinking. And so, just as they had purged their hated
political enemies, they began a campaign to purge hated "unGerman"
ideas. That effort started in May 1933 with the worst of all crimes against
human thought and culture – the burning of books.