views updated May 08 2018


GESTAPO (abb. Geheime Staats Polizei ; "Secret State Police"), the secret police of Nazi Germany, their main tool of oppression and destruction, which persecuted Germans, opponents of the regime, as well as Jews at the outset of the Nazi regime and later played a central role in carrying out the "*Final Solution"; originally the Prussian domestic intelligence, which became a quasi-Federal Bureau of Investigation, though initially with much less power. The right-wing revolution in Prussia in late 1932 brought about a sweeping purge of "left-wing and Jewish elements" in its political police and paved the way for the changes of the Nazi era. After Hitler's ascent to power, he appointed Hermann Goering as the new Prussian minister of the interior and Goering completed the purge and gave the secret police executive powers, transforming it from a shadowing and information agency into a wide executive arm to persecute enemies of the Nazi regime. The head office of the secret state police – the Geheimes Staatspolizeiamt, or Gestapa – was given powers to shadow, arrest, interrogate, and intern; however, it had to struggle against the Nazi Party organizations, the sa (Storm Troops) and *ss, which also "fought" the regime's opponents, but without the supervision of traditional state bodies.

Simultaneously, with relatively few changes in the Prussian political police, the Reichsfuehrer of the ss, Heinrich *Himmler, achieved control over the Bavarian political police and established direct ties between the ss, the political police, and concentration camps. Thus Himmler snatched the secret police administration out of the hands of the state conservatives and in collaboration with the Bavarian minister of justice, Hans *Frank, and with Hitler's direct support, created an independent organization for shadowing, interrogation, arrest, imprisonment, and execution along the lines of the Nazi ideology (see ss and *sd, and *Hitler). The Bavarian political police under Reinhard *Heydrich's direction was able to evade the laws that still applied in Germany in order to influence individuals, disband political parties, and liquidate trade unions. It led campaigns through the newspapers and radio against political opponents, interrogated individual "enemies," and sent them to the central concentration camp *Dachau. The officials of the political police all remained civil servants but were simultaneously drafted into the ss and subordinated to Himmler, both through the civil service and Nazi Party. Many of the officials had never been members of the Nazi Party, as was the case of Heinrich *Mueller, an old Weimar secret police man who became Heydrich's assistant and eventually headed the Gestapo.

From the outset Heydrich's prisoners included many Jews, most of whom were intellectuals or active in left-wing parties. During 1933 the political police began shadowing and investigating Jewish organizations and Jewish community life and thus set up its own network for imprisonment and uniform repression of all the Jews of Bavaria, in the wake of the policy of isolating Jews that was part of the first stage and was followed by exerting pressure, openly and insidiously, on the Jews to emigrate.

Unification of the Political Police

From August 1933, Himmler managed to rise from his starting point in Bavaria to take over the political police of the various Laender, including Prussia. From the head office of the Prussian Gestapo in Berlin, which also became the headquarters of the ss, Himmler and Heydrich directed all the political police services in Germany. The Gestapo then became the authority that investigated, along with the sd, every aspect of life in Germany, and especially watched over the regime's "enemies of alien race." The Jews headed the list. Until the end of 1939, the Gestapo's Jewish Department was directed by Karl Haselbacher, a lawyer who was among those who drafted the first anti-Jewish laws. Until the outbreak of World War ii, most of the murders in the camps were carried out on Gestapo orders under various cover-ups, such as "killed while attempting escape," but eventually these pretenses were dispensed with, especially where Jews were concerned.

From 1938

As an institution in charge of shadowing, interrogating, arresting, and imprisoning "enemies of the Reich," the Gestapo became a massive authority employing thousands of government officials and ss men who together persecuted the regime's "enemies" or other opponents. Various groups in the population were turned over and left to the Gestapo's sole discretion; they were subjected to "neutralization" in camps without prior trial or forced to emigrate or face physical liquidation. From 1938 onward, the Gestapo began increasingly to deal with Jews who had previously been subject to other Nazi authorities. It had a hand in the *Kristallnacht and enforced Jewish emigration. In competitive cooperation with the SD, the Gestapo set up the Zentralstelle fuer juedische Auswanderung in annexed Austria, directed by Adolf *Eichmann and headed by Mueller. Other centers for forced emigration were set up in 1939 in the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia and in Germany proper to accelerate the emigration of Jews by eviction and persecution, impoverishment, and degradation. When the Gestapo and part of the sd were joined under the *rsha of the ss in November 1939, Office iv (Gestapo) of the new main office acquired sole authority over all Jews who were not yet imprisoned in camps.

During World War ii the Gestapo, along with the sd and Security Police, constituted part of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) in Poland and other occupied countries. These units dealt with the murder and internment of numerous Jews and especially with the expulsion of the inhabitants of the small towns in Poland to mass concentration centers. Afterward Gestapo officials were appointed supervisors over the mass concentration of Jews. In Berlin headquarters the Gestapo in the first year of the war laid plans for various temporary "solutions for the Jewish problem," such as the establishment of a "reservation" in Poland or the mass transfer of Jews to Madagascar. At the end of 1940, when the Jews in Eastern Europe were interned in ghettos, the Gestapo, along with the German occupational civil administration, was charged with guarding and supervising the ghettos, imposing forced labor, and causing starvation and disease in an effort to decimate the ghetto inhabitants. In the Western occupied countries the Gestapo saw to registering the Jews and isolating them from the rest of the population for purposes of their eventual removal from economic life and confiscation of property. Under Eichmann, Section ivb4 of the Gestapo was "federfuehrend" (leading) in the "Final Solution."

The Einsatzgruppen

After the invasion of Russia in 1941, the Einsatzgruppen, headed by Gestapo men and directly responsible to Heydrich and Mueller, renewed the massacres on an enormous scale. The Einsatzgruppen carried out executions of Jews in the Baltic states and in Belorussia and wiped out part of the Ukrainian Jews. Later in 1941, the decision was made to kill all the Jews of Europe in gas chambers and the Gestapo was to supervise the dispatch of the Jews to the camps specially adapted or constructed for the program of mass murder (see *Holocaust, General Survey). The Gestapo section headed by Eichmann was in charge of the dispatch of Jews to the camps, and it also directly supervised at least one camp, *Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia. The section also supplied some of the gas used in the chambers, negotiated with countries under German domination to accelerate the murder, and dealt with Jewish leaders, especially in Hungary (see *Kasztner) in an effort to smooth the process of the impending destruction of various Jewish communities (see *Judenrat). The local Gestapo offices in Germany supervised the dispatch of Jews to death trains and the confiscation of their property. The Gestapo was largely responsible for the actual implementation of the dispatch orders and could choose its victims. It especially held the fate of people of mixed parentage (Mischlinge) in its hands. It excelled in its unabated and premeditated cruelty, in its ability to delude its intended victims as to the fate that awaited them, and in the use of barbaric threats and torture to lead the victims to their death, all as part of the "Final Solution."

At the same time the Gestapo acted as the principal executive arm of the Nazi regime in all the campaigns of terror, liquidation, looting, starvation, confiscation of property, and theft of cultural treasures (see Desecration and Destruction of *Synagogues; *Poland) throughout Europe. The Gestapo also repressed the anti-Nazi partisan movement and stamped out resistance in the Western European countries. Thus the term Gestapo became an accepted synonym for horror. After the war, very few of the important members of the Gestapo were caught and brought to trial. The courts in the Federal German Republic from 1969 discussed the question of several principal contingents of the Gestapo.


G. Reitlinger, ss, Alibi of a Nation (1956); H. Hoehne, The Order of the Death's Head: The Story of Hitler's ss (1969); K.D. Bracher, W. Saver, and W. Schulz, Die Nationalsozialistische Machtergreifung (1968); S. Aronson, Reinhard Heydrich und die Fruehgeschichte von Gestapo und SD (1970); H. Krausnick et al., Anatomy of the ss State (1968); F. Zipfel, Gestapo und sd in Berlin (1961); R. Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews (1961, 19852, 20033). add. bibliography: R. Gellately, Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy (1991); E. Johnson, Nazis Terror: The Gestapo and Ordinary Germans (1999); G. Broder, Hitler's Enforcers: The Gestapo and ss Security Service in the Nazi Revolution (1996); S. Aronson, The Beginnings of the Gestapo System: The Bavarian Model (1970).

[Shlomo Aronson]


views updated May 21 2018


Although the Gestapo certainly played a central role in Nazi genocide, its name is often misapplied to other SS and police organizations involved. To understand its actual role, one must understand its place in that larger complex, but especially the branch to which it belonged, the Security Police and SS Security Service (Sipo and SD).

As the Nazis took over Germany in 1933, they created separate security agencies of police detectives to fight political crime, that is, to prosecute their enemies. To build agencies that could infringe on civil liberties, they took advantage of fears about threats to national security, especially after the hysteria unleashed by the Reichstag fire, allegedly set by a communist terrorist.

Geheime Staatspolizei (Privy [Secret] State Police) was a traditional title for political police. The abbreviation GeStapo emerged innocently enough, only to become a symbol of police terror and genocide.

By 1936 Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, had consolidated all such police into a unified national Gestapo. They had become veritably independent of all judicial and most normal governmental mechanisms of control. At the same time, he acquired command of all German state police to become Reichsführer SS and Chief of German Police. Himmler hoped to revolutionize them by fusion with his SS.

As part of this process, under Reinhard Heydrich he united three complementary agencies. While maintaining their separateness, they teamed the regular detectives, the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo), with the Gestapo, collectively called the Security Police (Sipo). To provide union with the SS, they added the SS Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, SD) that had been created by Heydrich. Sipo and SD were to be the nerve center for identifying and eliminating any so-called threats to the national community.

The SD was an amorphous combination of academics, professionals, and young Nazis who wanted to shape future society, to provide ideological guidance for police work against alleged enemies of the people, to monitor and shape the public mood and advise the national leadership, and to monopolize domestic and foreign intelligence and counterespionage operations. Himmler and Heydrich planned to infuse Sipo with leaders and members of the SD; they also began to successfully recruit qualified detectives as SS/SD members. Although this two-way process never involved a majority of the detectives, it contributed significantly to mobilizing all involved for their future roles in genocide.

To enhance control, in 1939 Himmler and Heydrich created a special headquarters for Sipo and the SD—the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA). Not only did RSHA become the command center for national security, it also extended its tentacles into all occupied territories where enemies and other peoples deemed unsuitable might undermine development of the "Thousand Year Reich." RSHA acquired authority for coordinating security efforts behind the lines.

Thus, although the Gestapo played a key role in Nazi genocide, it worked inseparably from its teammates in Sipo and SD. The RSHA coordinated with the Wehrmacht the operations of the Einsatzgruppen of Sipo and SD. Once areas were secured, RSHA morphed these forces into regional headquarters for its operations and the ongoing programs of "population management." Sipo and SD were the executive agencies for identification and extermination, organization of shooting teams, ghettoization, and assignment to labor and death camps. This involved them in the coordination of the uniformed German police and locally recruited police auxiliaries, both of whom played major roles in mass extermination. In the occupied west the Gestapo's Jewish experts worked under Sipo and SD commanders to locate, round up, and transport Jews and other victims to ghettos or concentration camps. In Allied countries they encouraged maximum collaboration.

Their Kripo colleagues had responsibility for rounding up and committing to the camps homosexuals, three-time criminal offenders, Romani, and anyone else who fell under the ever-broadening category of asocials. This authority resulted from the Nazi program of proactive crime prevention as opposed to reactive enforcement. Such logic involved them in the euthanasia program for exterminating the genetically unfit. Thus, Kripo acquired expertise in operating gas chambers. That, in turn, led to their involvement in developing some of the first death camps in Poland.

Neither branch of Sipo commanded either the early concentration camps or the slave labor and extermination camps that emerged with the Holocaust. They did, however, share primary responsibility for rounding up and determining the commitment and release of inmates. The much larger uniformed police force under Himmler, but outside Sipo and SD, supported them in all these operations, while another branch of the SS ran the camps.

Specifically in the evolution and execution of the Shoah, the Gestapo and SD played symbiotic roles from the beginning. Ostensibly, as police executive for domestic security, the Gestapo targeted legally defined enemies of the state. Of course, it also monitored and harassed all suspected enemies, and shut down their organizations. Its first targets were communists and socialists, but quickly liberal, conservative, and rival right-wing radical groups became suspect. Then any remaining non-Nazi professional or labor organizations came under scrutiny and attack. Among the vanguard of suspected enemies were Christian leaders whose sense of morality led them to publicly criticize the regime's programs. Catholic priests and organizations especially drew fire, but Jehovah's Witnesses were the first sect targeted for immediate elimination.

Freemasons and Jews had always ranked high on the Nazi lists of enemies. The Gestapo could break up lodges and Jewish organizations, but individuals had to be charged with specific crimes. Thus, the Gestapo originally devoted relatively limited energy to Jews. But the Nuremberg Laws of 1936, combined with an expanding body of legislation curbing Jewish economic and occupational activities, defined many otherwise normal human activities as crimes when performed by Jews. Thereafter, the police generated "statistical evidence of criminality" that allegedly proved the Jewish threat to public security. Policemen felt increasing pressure to prosecute/persecute this outgroup, whose very existence was perceived as a threat to law and order. Still, law enforcement could usually act only when a Jew broke the law.

By 1936 two other developments led the SD to acquire a growing interest in the "solution" of the "Jewish problem." Among its leading, highly educated officers, some with an ideological fixation on "scientific racism" had risen to prominence, and for them Jews ranked preeminently as the problem in achieving racial purity. Meanwhile, rivalry among Nazis made it clear to Himmler, Heydrich, and SD leaders that acquiring responsibility for solving the Jewish problem would win favor with Hitler. Consequently, the SD created a cadre of "experts on Jewry" who would apply so-called scientific methods of research to understand and solve the problem rationally. They claimed the right to a monopoly over such problem solving because of their superiority over conventional anti-Semites who in their counterproductive excesses were misguided by "mere superstition."

As a result, Heydrich created in 1937 a division of labor between the Gestapo and SD. The Gestapo prosecuted Jewish criminality, while the SD researched and monitored the problem, ensuring that its detectives had proper ideological-scientific insight. This lasted until the pogrom of Kristallnacht in November 1938. After the annexation of Austria in March 1938 greatly expanded the numbers of Jews in the Reich, Hitler's Jewish expert, Adolf Eichmann, developed a highly efficient office in Vienna to speed up the process of emigration, while thoroughly fleecing the victims. SD recommendations for also expelling Jews with Polish citizenship inadvertently precipitated the November pogrom, because it was the assassination of a German official by the son of such expelled immigrants that provided the pretext for the pogrom. The actions of radicals wreaked extensive economic damage with embarrassing international consequences. In response, to defuse radical dissatisfaction with the slowness of emigration and to solve the "Jewish problem." Heydrich was allowed to establish offices based on Eichmann's model throughout the entire Reich.

As the agency with police power, the Gestapo was better suited for such a responsibility, so Eichmann and his SD Jewish experts were transferred to the Gestapo. The SD retained only the mission of studying the Jewish problem. In this think-tank capacity, however, they sought to guide Nazi leadership and all police increasingly caught up in the evolution of the Final Solution. To maintain their position, they had to offer ever more radical and thorough solutions. Meanwhile, the joint involvement of Sipo and SD officers and personnel in the Einsatzgruppen, first in Poland and then on the Eastern Front, produced increasingly murderous responses. At every level, from Hitler down to the shooting teams, Sipo and SD helped initiate and further the decision to exterminate all Jews and eventually all other persons deemed unsuitable in the European population.

The most important question is not by whom and how all this was done, but the motivations of the perpetrators. Below the level of some ideologically motivated leaders and aside from a minority of rabid anti-Semites, the majority of the hundreds of thousands of perpetrators were "ordinary men" in most senses of that phrase. This applied to the professional police detectives in Kripo and the Gestapo. The availability and mobilization of such people for genocidal behavior remain key issues for research and debate.

SEE ALSO Barbie, Klaus; Germany; Göring, Hermann; Himmler, Heinrich; Holocaust


Browder, George C. (1990). Foundations of the Nazi Police State: The Formation of Sipo and SD. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press.

Browder, George C. (1996). Hitler's Enforcers: The Gestapo and the SS Security Service in the Nazi Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gellately, Robert (1990). The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 1933–1945. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.

Johnson, Eric A. (1999). Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans. New York: Basic Books.

Lozowick, Yaakov (2002). Hitler's Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil. London: Continuum.

Paul, Gerhard, and Klaus-Michael Mallmann, eds. (1995). Die Gestapo: Mythos und Realitaet. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Paul, Gerhard, and Klaus-Michael Mallmann, eds. (2000). Die Gestapo im Zweiten Weltkrieg: "Heimatfront" und besetztes Europa. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Ruerop, Reinhard, ed. (1989). Topography of Terror: Gestapo, SS and Reichssicherheitshauptamt on the Prinz-Albrecht-Terrain. A Documentation. Berlin: Verlag Willmuth Arenhoevel.

George C. Browder


views updated May 23 2018



The Gestapo (abbreviation for Geheime Staatspolizei; secret state police) was the political police force of the Third Reich and the major organ of persecution and mass murder under National Socialism.


The Gestapo was formed out of the political department of the Berlin police in April 1933 by the new Prussian prime minister, Hermann Goering. The personnel came from the Prussian criminal police, which during the Weimar Republic had also investigated political crimes, predominantly of communist origin. It took some time before the Gestapo became the unified political police of the German Reich. Already by 1933 a predecessor to the Gestapo, the Geheimes Staatspolizeiamt (Gestapa), had been established in Berlin, as had the Bavarian political police in Munich. All other German Laender formed similar Gestapo institutions by 1934. That year the SS (Schutzstaffel) leader, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SS intelligence (Sicherheitsdienst) took over the police in Prussia, and in 1936 a unified SS and police system was installed. Hence, not only were the command of SS and police fully merged, but most Gestapo members were also incorporated into the SS.

The next year the Gestapo together with the criminal police formed the security police (Sicherheitspolizei). This buildup of new institutions culminated some weeks after the beginning of World War II with the creation of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Imperial Security Main Office; RSHA), the central persecution apparatus, which united the Gestapo, criminal police, and the security service of the SS (SD). The Gestapo now constituted Amt IV (Branch IV) of the RSHA. With the German territorial expansions from 1938 on, Gestapo members were integrated in the so-called Einsatzgruppen, which followed the German army. Gestapo offices were set up in all annexed territories as in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. In all other occupied territories it became part of the regional security police and SD structures, thus copying the RSHA on a small scale.

The Gestapo was headed from 1936 until the end of the war by Heinrich Müller, a functionary from the political police in Bavaria who never became a political-ideological planner but fully organized persecutions and mass murders all over occupied Europe. Until the mid-1930s the majority of the personnel consisted of career policemen, most of whom had worked there since the 1920s. From 1936 on, as the apparatus heavily expanded, it took over new personnel especially from the regular Schutzpolizei. Nevertheless, the Gestapo (including border police) never numbered more than thirty-two thousand functionaries, among them women, for the whole of Europe under Nazi rule. It took some time before most of the Gestapo men joined the SS, where they were assigned ranks equal to their position in the criminal police. The SD, which in its beginnings had served as an internal intelligence for the Nazi Party, more and more developed into a parallel structure to the Gestapo, thus laying the ideological grounds for the persecution of all alleged enemies. Especially from 1937 on, this ideological merging of both institutions was visible. They gradually developed schemes not only for persecuting political enemies and Jews but also for "purifying the German social body." But the Gestapo still exclusively consisted of state officials and had executive power. This changed during the war. SD-functionaries such as Adolf Eichmann were integrated into the Gestapo structures. In the occupied territories, the SD took over more and more executive power, especially on a local level.

The main task of the Gestapo consisted in "combatting enemies" (Feindbekämpfung), first inside the Reich, then all over occupied Europe. Thus the Gestapo was internally structured according to "enemy categories"; especially important were the offices concerned with communism, Jews, and eastern Europeans. But there were also departments dealing with the churches and other religious institutions, Freemasons, right-wing opposition like monarchists, and so on. The persecution of Gypsies and homosexuals fell under the responsibility of the criminal police.


The Gestapo work at first glance resembled regular police work—investigating, keeping card indexes, and making arrests. But the Gestapo did not react to criminal activity; rather, it targeted "enemy groups" as a whole. Because of the lack of personnel, the Gestapo depended on informers, both official (V-Leute) and unofficial. In the Reich it profited heavily from individual denunciations, to a lesser extent in the occupied areas. Most important was information provided by low-level Nazi Party functionaries and by other police and SS branches. From 1933 on, the most important instrument of Gestapo executive work was the Schutzhaftbefehl (protective custody order), which was the pseudolegal basis for all preventive arrests. The arrested were imprisoned either in jails or in the new concentration camps. Their basic rights had been lifted in February 1933. The state prosecutors, which traditionally controlled the police, were excluded from this procedure in 1934.

The Gestapo had at its disposal its own investigative prisons, where it interrogated and tortured prisoners—many were beaten to death. Inside each concentration camp the regional Gestapo had its own branch, the political department. Since 1939, Heydrich formally introduced the killing of Gestapo prisoners in concentration camps, officially called Sonderbehandlung (special treatment). With the beginning of the war, the Gestapo became involved in the forced population transfers, first in Poland, then in Yugoslavia. The same procedures applied to the deportation and killing of the Jews. During the war against the Soviet Union, the Gestapo constituted the central part of the Einsatzgruppen, which killed around six hundred thousand persons, most of them Jews. The stationary offices in the Soviet Union continued these crimes, such as the murder of selected groups of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) in Poland and in the Reich. In all areas except the General Government in Poland, the deportation of the Jews to the killing sites was organized by the Gestapo Department IV B4 under Eichmann and put into action by the local Gestapo (inside the Reich) or security police (outside the Reich) structures. By 1943 the main focus of Gestapo work turned to a violent fight against the resistance in occupied Europe and the surveillance of foreign forced workers inside the Reich. A new camp system, the Arbeitserziehungslager (work education camps) was installed under Gestapo control, where criminalized foreign workers were imprisoned.

In sum, the Gestapo was responsible for millions of murders. It was declared a criminal organization by the International Military Tribunal in 1946. Its members were interned under allied occupation, and comparatively many were tried and sentenced after the war. Nevertheless, during the 1950s a part of the personnel was able to return to the (West) German police apparatus.

See alsoConcentration Camps; Eichmann, Adolf; Heydrich, Reinhard; Holocaust; Resistance; SS (Schutzstaffel).


Browder, George C. Hitler's Enforcers: The Gestapo and the SS Security Service in the Nazi Revolution. New York, 1996.

Gellately, Robert. The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 1933–1945. Oxford, U.K., 1990.

Lozowick, Yaacov. Hitler's Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil. London, 2002.

Paul, Gerhard, and Klaus-Michael Mallmann, eds. Die Gestapo: Mythos und Realität. Darmstadt, Germany, 1995.

——. Die Gestapo im Zweiten Weltkrieg: "Heimatfront" und besetztes Europa. Darmstadt, Germany, 2000.

Dieter Pohl


views updated May 23 2018



The Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo, a German secret police force, was created in 1933 after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The Gestapo was created to help solidify Nazi control by identifying and arresting anti-Nazi agents in Germany. The agency was restructured several times during its twelve year history and was instrumental in perpetrating the Nazi deportation and destruction of European Jews during the Holocaust.

Hitler named Herman Göring the director of the Gestapo soon after its founding. Göring encouraged his officers to root out and arrest leftist sympathizers, especially communists, whom he considered a threat to the Nazi government. He also oversaw the Gestapo's enforcement of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler, head of Hilter's special forces unit, the Schutzstaffel (SS), was given command of the Gestapo and the Kriminalpolizei, or Kripo.

In 1939, in the months prior to the beginning of the second world war, Hitler reorganized the German armies. The Gestapo was integrated, with the rest of the Nazi police and intelligence organizations, into the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RHSA) under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich. Though officially part of the Reich Security Central Office, the organization remained popularly known as the Gestapo.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, there were approximately 40,000 Gestapo agents in Germany. As the war progressed and the Nazis gained territory throughout Europe, the Gestapo swelled to employ over 150,000 informants, agents, and accessory personnel. Gestapo agents were charged with rooting out foreign agents and resistance fighters, but they also expanded their role as an internal police force. Gestapo agents and informants concentrated on finding suspected political dissidents of the Third Reich. Spying on citizens became pervasive, and the Gestapo encouraged people to turn in "suspect persons" to local authorities. While victims of the Gestapo were subject to both civil and criminal prosecution, the secret police themselves operated above the law. On February 10, 1936, the Nazi government officially decreed that the organization was not subject to judicial review. There were no legal restraints on detention of suspects, evidence collection, or police violence. This lack of legal restraint, paired with the Gestapo's tendency to attract and employ Nazi extremists and former criminals

in its ranks, permitted the brutality for which the force became infamous.

The Gestapo also aided intelligence work during the war, but the department was secondary to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), or Security Service. The department employed counter-intelligence agents, ciphers, and oversaw a vast network of informants in Allied countries. In the occupied territories, the Gestapo infiltrated partisan resistance groups. The organization also aided the massive Nazi propaganda campaign both before and during the war.

Intelligence, security, and police forces often over-lapped in jurisdiction during the Nazi regime. Several departments performed the same functions, and were often in conflict with each other. The Abwehr, the intelligence service under the direction of spymaster Wilhelm Canaris, negotiated an agreement with the SD about their respective roles. Despite the agreement, both organizations maintained their own network of spies and informants, and did not often coordinate their international operations. In 1943, Canaris and several other key members of the Abwehr joined the Resistance movement against the Nazi government. Canaris used the Abwehr intelligence network to leak secrets and troop positions to the Allies. The Gestapo investigated Canaris and the Abwehr, and in 1944, after a failed attempt to assassinate Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, liquidated the Abwehr intelligence service. Canaris and his followers were executed. The discovery of the July Plot to assassinate Hitler, and Canaris' spy ring was a key counter-intelligence victory for the Gestapo, SD, and RHSA.

The Gestapo, as well as its parent organization, the SS, aided the Einsatsgruppen, or mobile killing units, responsible for the massacre of nearly one million Jews during the Holocaust. Gestapo and SS members also tracked down refugees in hiding and policed ghettos and concentration camps. After the war at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, the Gestapo was named as one of the chief institutional perpetrators of the Holocaust.

The Gestapo was dissolved with the fall of the Third Reich in 1945.



Browder, George C. Hitler's Enforcers: The Gestapo and SS Security Service in the Nazi Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Gellately, Robert. The Gestapo and German Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.


French Underground during World War II, Communication and Codes
Germany, Intelligence and Security
World War II


views updated May 14 2018


It was not long after the Anschluss of March 13, 1938, that the Nazis began to take an interest in the Jew Sigmund Freud. The number of "visits" to the Berggasse residence increased in frequency and were often accompanied by demands for money. One Tuesday evening, on March 22, Anna Freud was held "bei Gestapo" for questioning, which sealed her father's decision to leave Austria.

It has been suggested that "humor is a polite way of expressing despair" and it is not surprising that a number of jokes circulated in Austria at the time. One of them, attributed to Freud himself, has been frequently repeated ever since Ernest Jones reported it: "One of the conditions for being granted an exit visa was that he sign a document that ran as follows, 'I Prof. Freud, hereby confirm that after the Anschluss of Austria to the German Reich I have been treated by the German authorities and particularly the Gestapo with all the respect and consideration due to my scientific reputation, that I could live and work in full freedom, that I could continue to pursue my activities in every way I desired, that I found full support from all concerned in this respect, and that I have not the slightest reason for any complaint.' When the Nazi officer brought it along Freud had of course no compunction in signing it, but he asked if he might be allowed to add a sentence, which was: 'I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone'" (Jones, 1957, p. 226).

This "story" has been repeated many times and commented on by those who treated it as genuine. Some commentators have reproached Freud for a "recommendation" they felt to be ambiguous; others admired his audacity. Eventually, some people ended up believing that Freud had actually added this sentence to the Nazi document.

It is hard to imagine that Freud, who was aware of the difficult and costly negotiations by the U. S. ambassador to France (William C. Bullitt), Marie Bonaparte, and Ernest Jones to obtain his visa, and who was responsible for the fate of his daughter and wife within the climate of the anti-Semitic hatred that had taken hold in Vienna, would have taken the risk of making a joke that in a matter of seconds might undo all their efforts. Moreover, he was depressed by the powerlessness resulting from his age and poor health, as he wrote in a letter to his son Ernst on May 12, 1938, "I am writing to you for no particular reason because here I am sitting inactive and helpless while Anna runs here and there coping with all the authorities, attending to all the business details" (letter number 297, p. 442). But his "official" biography maintained this fiction, and none of those close to Freud denied it, especially Anna Freud.

The original text of the statement was found during a 1989 public auction of documents concerning the emigration of Freud's family. It is a more sober statement, closer to the horrible truth of those years, than the theatrical version given by Jones, and more consistent with the customary bureaucratic indifference of the Nazi machine. It was written by Alfred Indra and signed by Freud, without any additions by him. It reads: "Erklarung. Ich bestätige gerne, dass bis heute den 4. Juni 1938, keinerlie Behelligung meiner Person oder meiner Hausgenossen vorgekommen ist. Behörden und Funtionäre der Partei sind mir und meinem Hausgenossen ständig korrekt und rücksickstvoll entgegentretten. Wien, den 4. Juni 1938. Prof. Dr. Sigm. Freud." (Declaration. I hereby confirm of my own free will that as of today, June 4, 1938, neither I nor those around me have been harassed. The authorities and representatives of the Party have always conducted themselves correctly and with restraint with me and with those around me. Vienna, June 4, 1938. Prof. Dr. Sigm. Freud.)

Freud's comment was most likely introduced to mask the anguish of his departurea form of black humor, which had close links, throughout Freud's life, with the tradition of Yiddish Witze, which were often also tinged with despair.

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Bettelheim, Bruno; Freud, (Jean Martin); Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag; Mitscherlich, Alexander.


Jones, Ernest. (1957). Sigmund Freud. Life and work. London: Hogarth.

Mijolla, Alain de. (1989). A sale in Vienna. Journal de l 'association internationale d 'histoire de la psychanalyse, 8.


views updated May 29 2018

Ge·sta·po / gəˈstäpō/ the German secret police under Nazi rule. It ruthlessly suppressed opposition to the Nazis in Germany and occupied Europe and sent Jews and others to concentration camps. From 1936 it was headed by Heinrich Himmler.


views updated May 29 2018

Gestapo the German secret police under Nazi rule. It ruthlessly suppressed opposition to the Nazis in Germany and occupied Europe and sent Jews and others to concentration camps. From 1936 it was headed by Heinrich Himmler. The name is German, from Geheime Staatspolizei ‘secret state police’.


views updated May 29 2018

Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei) State secret-police of Nazi Germany. Founded in 1933 by Goering, it became a powerful, national organization under Himmler from 1934, as an arm of the SS. With up to 50,000 members by 1945, the Gestapo and SS ran the concentration camps.


views updated May 18 2018

Gestapo (gɛˈstɑːpəʊ) Geheime Staatspolizei (German: secret state police; in Nazi Germany)