The Gestapo: Definition and History of the Nazi Secret Police

Surveillance, Intimidation, and Torture Enforced Nazi Rule

photo of Gestapo arrests in Czechoslovakia
Gestapo arrests on a street in Czechoslovakia.

FPG / Getty Images

The Gestapo was the secret police of Nazi Germany, a notorious organization tasked with destroying political opponents of the Nazi movement, suppressing any opposition to Nazi policies, and persecuting Jews. From its origins as a Prussian intelligence organization, it grew into a sprawling and greatly feared apparatus of oppression.

The Gestapo investigated any person or organization suspected of opposing the Nazi movement. Its presence became pervasive in Germany and later in the countries the German military occupied.

Key Takeaways: The Gestapo

  • The greatly feared Nazi secret police had its origins as a Prussian police force.
  • The Gestapo operated by intimidation. Using surveillance and interrogation under torture, the Gestapo terrorized entire populations.
  • The Gestapo collected information on anyone suspected of opposing Nazi rule, and specialized in hunting down those targeted for death.
  • As a secret police force, the Gestapo did not operate death camps, but it was generally instrumental in identifying and apprehending those who would be sent to the camps.

Origins of the Gestapo

The name Gestapo was a shortened form of the words Geheime Staatspolizei, meaning "Secret State Police." The organization's roots can be traced to the civilian police force in Prussia, which was transformed following a right-wing revolution in late 1932. The Prussian police was purged of anyone suspected of sympathy to left-wing politics and Jews.

When Hitler took power in Germany, he appointed one of this closest aides, Hermann Goering, as the minister of the interior in Prussia. Goering intensified the purge of the Prussian police agency, giving the organization powers to investigate and persecute enemies of the Nazi Party.

In the early 1930s, as various Nazi factions maneuvered for power, the Gestapo had to compete with the SA, the Storm Troops, and the SS, the elite guard of the Nazis. After complicated power struggles among Nazi factions, the Gestapo was made part of the security police under Reinhard Heydrich, a fanatical Nazi originally hired by SS chief Heinrich Himmler to create an intelligence operation.

Heinrich Himmler Reviewing Troops
Germany: Heinrich Himmler reviews German Gestapo Troopers. Bettmann / Getty Images

Gestapo vs. the SS

The Gestapo and the SS were separate organizations, yet shared the common mission of destroying any opposition to Nazi power. As both organizations were eventually headed by Himmler, the lines between them can appear blurred. In general, the SS operated as a uniformed military force, the elite shock troops enforcing Nazi doctrine as well as engaging in military operations. The Gestapo operated as a secret police organization, utilizing surveillance, coercive interrogation to the point of torture, and murder.

Overlap between SS and Gestapo officers would occur. For instance, Klaus Barbie, the notorious head of the Gestapo in occupied Lyons, France, had been an SS officer. And information obtained by the Gestapo was routinely used by the SS in operations aimed at partisans, resistance fighters, and perceived enemies of the Nazis. In many operations, particularly in the persecution of Jews and the mass murder of "The Final Solution," the Gestapo and the SS effectively operated in tandem. The Gestapo did not operate the death camps, but the Gestapo was generally instrumental in identifying and apprehending those who would be sent to the camps.

Gestapo Tactics

The Gestapo became obsessed with accumulating information. When the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, an intelligence operation aimed at any potential enemies became a vital part of the party apparatus. When Reinhard Heydrich began his work for the Nazis in the early 1930s, he started keeping files on those he suspected of opposition to Nazi doctrine. His files grew from a simple operation in one office to an extensive network of files comprising information gathered from informers, wiretaps, intercepted mail, and confessions extracted from those taken into custody.

As all German police forces were eventually brought under the auspices of the Gestapo, the prying eyes of the Gestapo seemed to be everywhere. All levels of German society were essentially under permanent investigation. When World War II began and German troops invaded and occupied other countries, those captive populations were also investigated by the Gestapo.

The fanatical accumulation of information became the Gestapo's greatest weapon. Any deviation from Nazi policy was quickly ferreted out and suppressed, usually with brutal methods. The Gestapo operated by intimidation. Fear of being taken in for questioning was often enough to stifle any dissent.

Gestapo Arrest
The Gestapo arrest a group of Jewish men hiding in a cellar in Poland, circa 1939. Possibly a staged German propaganda photo. Keystone / Getty Images

In 1939, the role of the Gestapo changed somewhat when it was effectively merged with the SD, the Nazi security service. By the early years of World War II, the Gestapo was operating essentially without any meaningful restraint. Gestapo officers could arrest anyone they suspected, question them, torture them, and send them off to imprisonment or concentration camps.

In the occupied nations, the Gestapo waged war against resistance groups, investigating anyone suspected of resisting Nazi rule. The Gestapo was instrumental in perpetrating war crimes such as the taking of hostages to be executed in retaliation for resistance operations aimed at German troops.

Aftermath

The fearsome reign of the Gestapo ended, of course, with the collapse of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. Many Gestapo officers were hunted down by the Allied powers and faced trials as war criminals.

Yet many veterans of the Gestapo escaped punishment by blending in with the civilian population and eventually establishing themselves with new lives. Shockingly, in many cases Gestapo officers escaped any accountability for their war crimes because officials of the Allied powers found them useful.

When the Cold War began, the Western powers were very interested in any information about European communists. The Gestapo had kept extensive files on communist movements and individual members of communist parties, and that material was considered valuable. In return for providing information to American intelligence agencies, some Gestapo officers were assisted in traveling to South America and beginning life with new identities.

American intelligence officers operated what were known as "ratlines," a system of moving former Nazis to South America. A famous example of a Nazi who escaped with American help was Klaus Barbie, who had been the Gestapo chief in Lyons, France.

Barbie was eventually discovered living in Bolivia, and France sought to extradite him. After years of legal wrangling, Barbie was brought back to France in 1983 and put on trial. He was convicted of war crimes after a well-publicized trial in 1987. He died in prison in France in 1991.

Sources:

  • Aronson, Shlomo. "Gestapo." Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 7, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 564-565.
  • Browder, George C. "Gestapo." Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, edited by Dinah L. Shelton, vol. 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 405-408. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Gestapo." Learning About the Holocaust: A Student's Guide, edited by Ronald M. Smelser, vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2001, pp. 59-62. Gale Virtual Reference Library.