The Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei) was Nazi Germany’s feared secret police force. During World War Two the Gestapo was under the direct control of Heinrich Himmler who controlled all the police units within Nazi Germany. The first head of the Gestapo was Rudolf Diels but for most of its existence, the Gestapo was led by Heinrich Müller. The Gestapo acted outside of the normal judicial process and it had its own courts and effectively acted as judge, jury and frequently executioner.
The Gestapo’s main purpose was to hunt out those considered a threat to Nazi Germany. By the time World War Two started these included Jews, Communists, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals – basically anyone who was thought to challenge the hegemony of the Nazi Party within Germany. After the outbreak of World War Two, the work of the Gestapo covered Occupied Europe where it had two main tasks. The first was to hunt out Jews and other ‘Untermenschen’ while the second was to tackle the threat of resistance movements.
The Gestapo’s greatest weapon was the fear that it created. Logic said that the Gestapo simply could not be everywhere and it is now accepted that in some places within Germany it was thinly spread at best. However, the perception of the German population was that it was everywhere and that you could trust no-one. There was an acceptance that if you crossed the state, the Gestapo would get you. Their methods of dealing with anyone in ‘protective custody’ were well publicised – deliberately so, as this further enforced the message that an individual should be totally loyal to the state. If the Gestapo felt the need to give someone it had arrested some semblance of going through the legal process, it used the feared People’s Court (the Volksgericht). Here a death sentence was almost guaranteed especially if Roland Freisler was the presiding judge.
As with so much that occurred within the hierarchy of Nazi Germany, the Gestapo had a history of power struggles by those who wanted to control it and the power it had. In his first cabinet, Hitler had given Hermann Goering control of Prussia. In this capacity Goering took control of the police in Prussia and incorporated into it the small and recently formed Gestapo that up to this point had been part of the SS led by Himmler. Goering wanted to have control over a unified police force of Germany. Himmler had an identical aspiration. Goering set up the Central Security Office of the Third Reich in buildings on Prinz Albrechtstrasse in Berlin. He made one of his protégés, Rudolf Diels, head of the secret police. By doing this Goering hoped to have his ‘own man’ in a very important and potentially very powerful position. At this time Diels had the official position of Chief of Department 1A in the Prussian Secret Police attached to the Ministry of the Interior. It was this department that grew into the Gestapo.
In April 1934, Hitler put Himmler in control of a unified police force. As Diels was one of Goering’s ‘men’, Himmler dismissed him after accusing him of being too soft to do the job. Himmler replaced Diels with Heinrich Müller who had been one of Himmler’s assistants in Munich and was utterly loyal to him. Under Müller, the Gestapo gained its reputation for efficiency and brutality. Its brief was simple: to hunt down anyone who was suspected of treachery to Hitler. This included anyone who told jokes about Hitler or even celebrated the birthday of Wilhelm II as this was seen as evidence of someone sympathetic to monarchism and not National Socialism.
The Gestapo had the power of arrest, interrogation and incarceration. Stories were allowed to circulate as to what happened in the cellars at Prinz Albrechtstrasse. There was a great deal of truth in these stories and they served to keep the public under the thumb of the authorities such was the fear these rumours engendered.
In parts of Occupied Europe, they used nationals sympathetic to Hitler and the Nazi Party to do their job. This was especially so in occupied Norway and France. In France the Milice worked with the Gestapo to hunt out resistance groups. In Eastern Europe, the Gestapo played its part in the Holocaust. Gestapo agents hunted for Jews who may have escaped a general round up. In Western Europe, members of the Gestapo murdered POW’s who were protected under the Geneva Convention.
At the Nuremberg Trials, the Gestapo was declared a criminal organisation. The International Tribunal listed the atrocities the Gestapo was linked to. Heinrich Müller was never brought to justice. What happened to him is not known for sure. Some say he was killed in the final days of the Battle for Berlin while others believed that he was spirited away to South America once the war had ended where he lived undetected.