This Week in History: The creation of the Gestapo

On April 26, 1934, one of the most feared, brutal, atrocious state security services ever known to mankind was officially established in Germany.

April 29, 2011 12:37
4 minute read.
Scars of Aushwitz.

Aushwitz 521. (photo credit: Frank D. Smith)


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First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

In his oft-quoted statement describing apathy toward the arrests of "others" in Nazi Germany, German Pastor Martin Niemöller actually wrote of the supra-judicial Gestapo roundups that targeted political dissidents, Jews and general "undesirables."  Niemöller too was arrested by the Nazi secret police in 1937 and sent to the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps for speaking out against Hitler’s Nazism; he was one of the few who survived. Millions of others rounded up by the Gestapo and shipped off to Nazi death camps were not so lucky.

On April 26, 1934, one of the most feared, brutal and atrocious state security services ever known to mankind was officially established in Germany. From its earliest days, the Gestapo, eagerly tasked with suppressing and eliminating all dissent against Nazi power and ideology, was a feared institution that put a stranglehold on the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of Germans and Europeans that fell under Nazi control. Several years after its inception, the Gestapo also played one of the most central roles players in the most notorious act of genocide in history – the Holocaust.

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Soon after Adolph Hitler’s rise to power, the face of Nazism recognized the need to consolidate political control - which meant eliminating all dissent. With much of the opposition going underground, however, an intelligence mechanism was needed to track and root them out. The product of a consolidation and reorganization of German police intelligence and political divisions, the Gestapo initially operated mainly against communists, religious clerics and any political opposition, including student groups. The first concentration camp, Dachau, was built by the Gestapo to hold, torture and murder the dissenters it rounded up.

From its early days when of eliminating political opposition to its infamously efficient genocidal program, the Gestapo drew its power from the fact that it was not accountable to anybody but itself. Only two months prior to its establishment, the clauses of the Weimar Republic’s constitution that guaranteed civil liberties and due process had been suspended. The Gestapo was allowed to act with complete freedom of action and impunity. Completely outside of administrative checks and balances, Nazi jurist Dr. Werner Best, wrote of its authority, "As long as the [Gestapo] carries out the will of the leadership, it is acting legally." The prospect of holding such great power attracted various Nazi officials to seek control over the Gestapo. From its inception, a number of commanders sought its reins, sometimes seizing control through accusations of planned coups.

With its leadership (at that point, Heinrich Himmler) gaining more and more power under Hitler’s fascist regime, the Gestapo quickly grew from a regional force to one that would eventually be responsible for most of the European continent. When Hitler began invading Germany’s neighbors, the Gestapo’s unrestricted jurisdiction was applied in all of the German-occupied territories. It would be instrumental in rounding up the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other “undesirables” as part of the genocide that became the Holocaust.

As the Nazi program to murder Jews progressed, the Gestapo was given full responsibility for the “extermination of undesirables.” Expanding on the model of Dachau, where mostly political dissenters were brought at first, the Gestapo and its B4 division (known as its “Jewish Affairs” division) imagined and realized the network of horrifying concentration camps that would eventually kill six million Jews and millions of other “undesirables.”

One of the most famous targets of the Gestapo roundups was Anne Frank. Tipped off through a highly developed network of informants, the Gestapo successfully searched for and located nearly all of Dutch Jewry, some of whom who had gone into hiding like Frank and her family.

The Gestapo was one of the most integral institutions of the Nazi regime, which enabled it to carry out unprecedented genocide. Gestapo officers intimidated and elicited, coerced and forced information from citizens in its mission to locate Europe’s Jewish population. In coordination with the SS, it facilitated their deportation and eventual mass murder in Nazi concentration camps. Although long relegated to the annals of history, the Gestapo remains very much alive in the story of the genocide and terror carried out by the Nazis.

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