A perfect example of a typical Gestapo officer was its last chief Heinrich Müller whom Nazi lawyer and former police chief, SS-Obergruppenführer Werner Best called one of the “finest examples” of the Gestapo officers.
A decorated Great War veteran (at the age of eighteen he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd class, Bavarian Military Merit Cross 2nd Class with Swords for outstanding bravery as the artillery spotting pilot – an almost suicide occupation at that time), during the years of the Weimar Republic Müller was head of the Munich Political Police Department.
On March 9th, 1933, during the Nazi putsch that deposed the Bavarian government of Minister-President Heinrich Held, he advocated to his superiors using force against the Nazis (who at that time already got substantial power in Germany after Hindenburg signed the Reichstag fire decree). Müller was openly critical of Adolf Hitler calling the latter “an immigrant unemployed house painter” and “an Austrian draft-dodger”.
Nazis in general (and Heydrich in particular) valued professionalism and loyalty to the government (whatever one it might be) much higher than political views and ideological preferences (and even the admiration of their Führer). Consequently, he immediately got a job in a recently established Gestapo.
Historian Richard J. Evans wrote about Müller:
“A true workaholic who never took a vacation, Müller was determined to serve the German state, irrespective of what political form it took, and believed that it was everyone’s duty, including his own, to obey its dictates without question. He served the Nazi regime out of professional ambition, not out of a belief in National Socialism”
On January 4th, 1937, an evaluation by the Nazi Party’s Deputy Gauleiter of Munich-Upper Bavaria delivered a devastating political evaluation of Müller. It stated:
“Police Chief Inspector Heinrich Müller is not a Party member. He has also never actively worked within the Party or in one of its ancillary organizations… He fought against left-wing movement very hard, sometimes in fact ignoring legal provisions and regulations … But it is equally clear that Müller would have acted against the Right [i.e. the Nazis] in exactly the same way…”
This assessment did not deter Heydrich (at that time chief of the Gestapo) from moving Müller up its management ladder. Functionaries like Müller were the sort of men Heydrich preferred since they were inherently committed to their “area of responsibility” and correspondingly justified any steps they deemed necessary against perceived enemies of the Nazi State.
British author and translator Edward Crankshaw described Müller as ”
“the arch-type non-political functionary who was obsessed with personal power and dedicated to the service of authority, the State”
Himmler biographer Peter Padfield wrote:
“Müller was an archetypal middle rank official: non-political, non-ideological, his only fanaticism lay in an inner drive to perfection in his profession and in his duty to the state – which in his mind were one … He was an able organizer, utterly ruthless, a man who lived for his work.”
Such was Müller dedication to his job that Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss claimed that one could reach Müller “any time of the day or night, even Sundays and public holidays.”
Müller joined the SS in 1934 (interestingly enough, without joining NSDAP – an almost impossible feat in Nazi Germany). In 1936, Heydrich made Müller was the operations chief (essentially the second-in-command) of the Gestapo.
In September 1939, when the Gestapo and other police organizations were consolidated into the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), Gestapo became RSHA Department IV. Heydrich was promoted to the chief of the whole RSHA and Müller became Director of the Gestapo. At that level in Nazi hierarchy he could no longer afford not to be the member of NSDAP so he very reluctantly joined the Nazi Party.
According to one legend when Berlin Gauleiter Josef Goebbels asked Müller during the obligatory membership interview if he, indeed, would prosecute the Nazis if the new government tells him to do so, he answered “Yes, of course”.
“At least you gave an honest answer” – said Goebbels. And approved Müller’s NSDAP membership application. Given the evaluation of Müller by the Bavarian NSDAP officials, this legend might very well be true.
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.
Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei – Secret State Police) was created on April 26th, 1933 by then Interior Minister of Prussia (and thus head of Prussian Police) Hermann Göring.
Göring’s goal (that he successfully pitched to Hitler) was to create a national force that would (a) identify and eliminate all political opposition; (b) prevent all acts of resistance to Nazi rule; (c) perform efficient counterintelligence functions making spying by foreign powers all but impossible; and (of course) persecute the Jews. After all, Nazis sincerely (and erroneously) believed that they were fighting the “existential racial war” with the “Jewish race” (that existed only in their unhealthy imagination).
However, there was a very serious problem with this idea (natural for the Nazis) as in Germany law enforcement traditionally was mostly a Land (state) and local matter.
This tradition was so well-entrenched that it took Hitler (despite having dictatorial powers in Germany) more than three years to achieve the abovementioned objective. Only on June 17th, 1936, Hitler decreed the unification of all police forces in Germany and named Himmler as Chief of German (national) Police.
Göring created the Gestapo by detaching the political and (domestic) intelligence sections from the Prussian police and merging it into a single organization which he called Geheime Staatspolizei. Which was abbreviated by an unknown post office clerk for a franking stamp as the “Gestapo”.
The first director of the Gestapo was one Rudolf Diels – a very interesting character (like probably most of the Nazi officials). A young (in 1933 he was just 33) Great War veteran, a lawyer and an avid fencer (like Himmler and Heydrich), he joined the Prussian police in 1930 and was immediately tasked with combatting political radicals – Communists… and the Nazis.
He did his job so well that by the time Hitler came to power (i.e. in just three years) he was already a director of the whole Prussian political police. Impressed by his professionalism and efficiency, Göring not only kept him in this position when he became Interior Minister of Prussia (and thus Diels’ boss) in February of 1933, but made him his protégé of sorts.
The Reichstag Fire that occurred on February 27th, was a crime of such magnitude that only the head of the Prussian political police could be its Chief Investigative Officer.
A highly skilled investigator and interrogator, Diels quickly concluded that Marinus van der Lubbe acted alone – and told Hitler and Göring exactly that. And when the latter ordered 4,000 Communists detained under the Reichstag Fire Decree to be shot without trial, Diels… ignored the order.
In Stalin’ Soviet Union such honesty and insubordination would have gotten Diels fired on the spot, arrested, tried and executed with days (if not hours). However, Adolf Hitler (and Hermann Göring) had a very different personnel management policy.
So in April of 1933 (soon after he became the Minister-President of Prussia) Göring made Diels chief of the new Prussian state police Department 1A (investigation of political crimes). Department 1A was soon renamed Geheime Staatspolizei – Gestapo making Rudolf Diels the first director of the latter.
Unfortunately for Diels, Göring had a powerful competitor in his struggle for becoming the head of the national German political police. Heinrich Himmler – then police chief of the second most powerful German state, Bavaria. And the head of the SS which at that time were very much on the roll.
Apparently, Hitler was far more impressed with Himmler’s idea of a State Protection Corps that would include Waffen-SS, all police forces (order police, criminal police, political police, domestic and foreign intelligence and ultimately even the Wehrmacht) than with Göring’s vision of the national police force.
In addition, Himmler secured the support of the Reich Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick and had at his disposal a comprehensive database of political opponents carefully collected and structured by another brilliant professional – head of the SD (Nazi Party security service) Reinhard Heydrich.
Hence, it is no surprise at all that on April 20th, 1934 (just a year after Gestapo was formed), Göring was forced to surrender control over Gestapo to SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. Who promptly (and predictably) fired Diels and replaced him with Reinhard Heydrich on April 22nd.
Diels possessed a unique double ability to get himself into a trouble and getting out of it essentially unscathed. As head of the department that was tasked with combatting Nazis during the last years of Weimar Republic, he learned enough to earn a place on the hit list for the Night of the Long Knives. However, he survived, although he had to spend five weeks in hiding.
After a short stint as Deputy Police President of Berlin, appointed Regierungspräsident (administrative president) of the local government of Cologne (i.e. the Nazi mayor of the latter).
In that position, he ignored the order to arrest the Jews in 1940, which would have definitely landed him in jail (or even worse)… had his protector Göring not intervened to save his protégé’s skin. But he did – and Diels again suffered no consequences for his insubordination.
After the July 20th, 1944 plot failed miserably, Diels was arrested by once his Gestapo and imprisoned but somehow survived again. Diels presented an affidavit for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials but was also (predictably) summoned to testify by Göring’s defense lawyer.
After 1950 he served in the post-war government of Lower Saxony and then (predictably) in the Federal Ministry of the Interior, until his retirement in 1953. He died on November 18th, 1957 when his rifle (according to police report) accidentally discharged while he was hunting.
Was it an accident, a suicide or a murder, we will never know. In any case, it appears that Rudolf Diels finally ran out of luck. The last trouble that he got himself into (whatever it was) finally got him.
The only realistic depiction of who Gestapo detectives (yes, they were mostly detectives as Gestapo was a police force) really were and how they really worked could be found in (surprise, surprise) German movie “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days” (Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage) released in 2005.
Everything else (fiction and even non-fiction books, feature and documentary movies) are pretty much fairy tales of dark horror variety. The reality was that The Third Reich was by no means a dictatorship maintained by force or terror or coercion or intimidation or propaganda or even “all of the above”.
Instead, he Nazi leadership developed an almost fearful preoccupation with the mood of the population, which they monitored carefully (mostly via the efforts of SD-Inland – the domestic intelligence service), devoting considerable energy and resources toward satisfying the needs of Germans, often to the detriment of the country’s rearmament program.
And even the war effort – it is the undisputable fact that Germany was the last major belligerent nation that switched its economy into a “total war” mode (a colossal blunder which contributed significantly to the defeat in World War II and the demise of the Third Reich).
With the level of support for the Nazi government and personally Adolf Hitler exceeding 90% there was simply no need to subject the overwhelming majority of Germans to surveillance or intimidation (let alone preventive detention).
Consequently, it is no surprise that while Communist East Germany would later employ 190,000 (!) official surveillance experts and an equal number of “unofficial collaborators” to watch over a populace of 17 million (just over 11 official and 11 unofficial employees per 1,000 individuals), the whole Nazi Gestapo in 1937 had just over 7,000 employees (including clerical workers and secretarial staff) to keep tabs on more than 60 million people (0.12 per 1,000 or 100 times less).
Gestapo informers were also not nearly as numerous as is commonly believed. For example, Gestapo office in Saarbrücken had only fifty full-term informers in 1939. Its District Office in Nuremberg, which had the responsibility for all of northern Bavaria, employed less than a hundred regular informers between 1943 and 1945 (i.e. even during the war when opposition to the regime was far more dangerous than in peacetime).
Hence, Gestapo was actually a very small agency compared to Stasi, NKVD/MGB/KGB or similar organizations in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam or other Communist countries.
And its activities rarely touched the lives of most ordinary Germans (who honestly and wholeheartedly supported their Führer and his regime). Thus the latter had no reason at all to fear that organization. And they actually didn’t, viewing Gestapo as their friend and protector from their enemies – not a foe.
Contrary to very popular misconception, propagated by fiction books and novels and propaganda non-fiction, it did not. In its basic objectives and functions, Gestapo (not-so-Secret State Police) was a typical political police force. Its primary objective (raison d’être) was to investigate political crimes (crimes against the Nazi state), identify the perpetrators of these crimes and hand them to the prosecutors to be prosecuted and subsequently tried in Nazi courts (e.g. the infamous “People’s Court”).
Contrary to the popular misconception, Nazi legal system did follow rules and procedures required by the “due process”. Consequently, the fundamental objective of any Gestapo investigation was to collect enough evidence (e.g. information) that the individual in question did, indeed, commit the political crime in question.
Sufficient for the prosecution to bring this individual to a Nazi court and for the court to convict him (or her). Unlike the Soviet GPU/NKVD/MGB (which, though also being a political police, had a fundamentally different objective), Gestapo did not consider confession a sufficient reason to convict the individual in question.
Neither did the Nazi prosecution (or the courts for that matter). They needed hard evidence. Which is simply impossible to obtain by torturing the suspect, because the latter will say literally anything to stop the pain. In other words, provide investigators with totally irrelevant, misleading or simply false information which will take lots of man-hours to investigate and confirm.
Consequently, in reality Gestapo relied mostly on good old police investigation and interrogation techniques (it was first and foremost the police). Which is not surprising because initially (i.e. before the war) it was staffed with career policemen known not for their Nazi credentials (in most cases they were not even members of Nazi party), but for their professional competence.
Gestapo was also not nearly as powerful as is commonly believed – by law it was prohibited from spying on Wehrmacht personnel. Consequently, while it was relatively successful in dealing with small civilian resistance groups (i.e. The White Rose) and even spy rings such as “Rote Kapelle” (“The Red Orchestra” – the anti-Nazi group run by the Soviet GRU foreign intelligence service), it was powerless to even uncover (let alone prevent) military coup attempts in 1938 and 1944 and assassination attempts on Hitler in 1943.
The Soviet Bolshevist regime used intimidation and terror strategy as well. However, there was a very important difference. While the Nazi system made it loud and clear that only active opponents of the regime will be prosecuted and law-abiding citizens had nothing to fear, the Soviet system sent a message that anyone – even the diehard Bolsheviks – could be arrested, tortured and sent to the GULAG (or even shot) at any time.
This difference predictably and inevitably led to a very important difference on the battlefield in summer and fall of 1941. Where the Germans achieved the most spectacular victory and the Soviets (despite their enormous superiority in personnel and military hardware) suffered the most catastrophic defeat in the history of warfare.
And only colossal blunders by its commander-in-chief prevented the German Wehrmacht from winning the war on the Eastern front.