The Gestapo was tasked with investigating cases of treason, espionage, sabotage and criminal attacks on the Nazi Party and Germany (i.e. the Nazi state). Which made it functionally equivalent to just about any other political police.
What made it unique (even compared to infamous Soviet GPU/NKVD/MGB/KGB) was its right to operate outside the German law. The basic Gestapo law passed by the government in 1936 gave the Gestapo carte blanche to operate without judicial oversight – in effect, putting it above the law.
The Gestapo was specifically exempted from responsibility to administrative courts, where citizens normally could sue the state to conform to laws. In fact, it was the Prussian administrative court that ruled in 1935 (i.e. even before the basic Gestapo law was passed) that the Gestapo’s actions were not subject to judicial review.
SS-Obergruppenführer Dr. Werner Best, one-time head of legal affairs in the Gestapo, summed up this policy by saying,
“As long as the Gestapo carries out the will of the [Nazi] leadership, it is acting legally”
The power that made Gestapo so feared by the opponents of the Nazi regime (Nazi supporters and those who were politically neutral had nothing to fear from the political police), was its right for Schutzhaft—”protective custody“.
In practice, it meant that the Gestapo was given the power to imprison any individual considered a threat to the Nazi regime without judicial proceedings (i.e. without a court order). Imprison in a concentration camp (both the camps and the Gestapo were parts of the same fearsome system – the SS).
An oddity of the Schutzhaft system was that the prisoner had to sign his own Schutzhaftbefehl – an affidavit declaring that the person had… requested imprisonment (presumably out of fear of personal harm from enraged “ordinary Germans”).
Thus, thousands of political opponents of the Nazis in Germany – and from 1941, throughout the occupied territories (under the infamous Night and Fog decree) simply disappeared while in Gestapo custody.
Contrary to a popular misconception, Schutzhaft was not a widespread practice. By the end of 1936, four years after the Nazis had become Germany’s largest political party and once their initial period of terror and violence against opponents was over, only 4,761 inmates – some of whom were chronic alcoholics and career criminals – were incarcerated in the country’s concentration camps.
The number of inmates in GULAG (most of which) were political prisoners was 250 times (!) higher. Which pretty much answers the question of which totalitarian regime was more population-friendly.
Another difference that set Gestapo apart from similar organizations in other nations was its chief purpose stated by its founder – Hermann Göring. A year after Gestapo was established, he wrote in a British publication that this organization was “chiefly responsible” for the elimination of the Marxist and Communist threat to Germany and Prussia. A very real and very much existential threat.
After the political opposition to Nazis was essentially annihilated in 1933-34, the primary objective of Gestapo was prevention, not investigation, of political crimes. Which required a powerful deterrent; something that would deter even the ideological opponents of the Nazi regime from even thinking about committing a political crime – let alone actually doing it.
This “something” was (predictably) an image of the Gestapo carefully crafted, planted (in German minds, hearts and souls) by genuinely omnipresent Nazi propaganda. The image of omnipresent, omnipotent, ruthless and thus fearsome force with its spies everywhere closely watching everyone in German society.
In reality, Gestapo was “none of the above”, but the propaganda campaign was so successful that it, indeed, led to an overestimation of their reach and strength by the opponents of the regime.
And this grossly incorrect assessment did hamper the operational effectiveness of underground Resistance organizations. It was hampered so successfully that Efforts to resist the Nazi regime achieved no tangible results whatsoever – not only due to highly efficient propaganda campaign and Gestapo investigations, but because the overwhelming majority of Germans supported the Nazis, not the opposition.
Thus just about all resistance activities in Germany were a total waste of time and effort. And of lives as well as hundreds of political opponents of the Nazi regime were ruthlessly executed.
Contrary to a common misconception (created by the movies and historical fiction novels), most Gestapo officers were not SS members (and not even the Nazi party members). The latter occupied leadership and top management positions while the actual job was done almost exclusively by career policemen.
Thus, all Gestapo officers maintained police detective ranks (Kriminalassistent, Kriminalsekretär, Kriminalinspektor) which were used for all officers, both those who were and who were not concurrently SS members.
Contrary to another common misconception, Gestapo officers (with the exception of some its leaders and high-profile managers) wore civilian clothes – after all, it was a secret police.
Even the lowest-ranking Gestapo officers were paid much better than a typical industrial worker (2,160 Reichsmarks versus about 1,500 per annum). Experienced officers made more than a typical privately employed white-collar worker (3,000 RM for Kriminaloberassistent versus 2,772 RM).
Unlike Bolsheviks in 1917, Nazis did not purge German police forces after they came to power in 1933. The Nazis valued police competence more than politics (as long as the individual in question did not actively or passively resist them), so in general in 1933, almost all of the men who served in the various state police forces under the Weimar Republic stayed on in their jobs.
Consequently, the vast majority of Gestapo officers came from the police forces of the Weimar Republic; members of the SS, the SA, and the NSDAP (usually members of a German middle class with advanced degrees from prestigious German universities) also joined the Gestapo but were far less numerous.
In Würzburg, which is one of the few places in Germany where most of the Gestapo records survived, every member of the Gestapo was a career policeman or had a police background.
In 1939, only 3,000 out of the total of 20,000 Gestapo men (15%) held SS ranks, and in most cases, these were honorary. An overwhelming majority of Gestapo men were not Nazis, but at the same time were not opposed to the Nazi regime, which they were willing to serve, in whatever task they were called upon to perform.
In other words, they were politically neutral which explains the fact that after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic thousands of ex-Gestapo officers went to work for the Communist political police. And apparently were quite comfortable in that environment.
In some important ways Gestapo was, indeed, a very much secret police. When asked for identification, an operative was required only 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 government official, were not required to show picture identification.
Gestapo was for the most part made up of bureaucrats and clerical workers who depended upon denunciations by citizens for their information. The downside of this over-reliance on denunciations was that the latter inevitably got commonly used for personal vendettas.
As the result, Gestapo offices were permanently overwhelmed with denunciations and most of the time of Gestapo men was spent identifying the credible ones in the torrent of less credible (to put it mildly) denunciations.
An examination of 213 denunciations in Düsseldorf showed that 37% were motivated by personal conflicts, no motive could be established in 39% (which pretty much made them identical to the latter), and 24% were motivated by support for the Nazi regime (which not necessarily made them credible).
Thus the Gestapo’s was almost totally dependent on denunciations from ordinary Germans – which very much discredited the “Big Brother” picture with the Gestapo having its eyes and ears everywhere. Picture skillfully painted and propagated by clever, creative and omnipresent Nazi propaganda.
Contrary to this picture, he average Volksgenosse (Nazi term for the “member of the German people”) was typically not under observation. In reality, the Nazi terror was selective terror focused upon political opponents, ideological dissenters (including Christian clergy and religious organizations), career criminals, the Sinti and Roma population, handicapped persons, homosexuals and above all, upon the Jews.
Violence and intimidation rarely touched the lives of most ordinary Germans. Denunciation was the exception, not the rule, as far as the behavior of the vast majority of Germans was concerned.
It must also be noted that very real and quite high effectiveness, while aided by denunciations and the watchful eye of ordinary Germans, was more the result of the co-ordination and co-operation amid the various police organs within Germany, the assistance of the SS, and the support provided by the various Nazi Party organizations; all of them together forming a comprehensive and well-structured network for suppressing the opposition to the Nazis and preventing resistance activities.