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Gestapo is a portmanteau contraction of the name of the official secret police force of Nazi Germany, Geheime Staatspolizei, (German for "secret state police").


The Gestapo was established on April 26, 1933 in Prussia. With members recruited from professional police departments, its role as a political police force was quickly established by Hermann Göring after Adolf Hitler gained power in March 1933. Rudolf Diels was the first head of the organization, initially called "Department 1A of the Prussian State Police".

The role of the Gestapo was to investigate and combat "all tendencies dangerous to the State." It had the authority to investigate treason, espionage and sabotage cases, and cases of criminal attacks on the Nazi Party and on Germany.

The law had been changed in such a way that the Gestapo's actions were not subject to judicial review. The Nazi jurist, Dr. Werner Best, stated, "As long as the [Gestapo]... carries out the will of the leadership, it is acting legally." The Gestapo was specifically exempted from being responsible to administrative courts, where citizens normally could sue the state to conform to laws.

The power of the Gestapo most open to misuse was Schutzhaft, or "protective custody" — a euphemism for the power to imprison people without judicial proceedings, typically in concentration camps. The person imprisoned even had to sign his or her own Schutzhaftbefehl, the document declaring that the person desired to be imprisoned. Normally this signature was forced by beatings and torture.
Heinrich Himmler (left) chief of the SS (responsible for rounding up Jews), with Adolf Hitler (right), during the Holocaust

Increasing power under the SS

In 1934, Göring, under pressure from Heinrich Himmler, agreed to grant control of the Gestapo to the SS.

Laws passed in 1936 effectively gave the Gestapo carte blanche to operate without judicial oversight. A further law passed in the same year declared the Gestapo to be responsible for the set up and administration of concentration camps. Also in 1936, Reinhard Heydrich became head of the Gestapo and Heinrich Müller chief of operations. Adolf Eichmann was Müller's direct subordinate and head of department IV, section B4, which dealt with Jews.

During World War II, the Gestapo was expanded to around 45,000 members. It helped control conquered areas of Europe and identify Jews, Socialists, homosexuals and others for forced deportation and extermination, now called the Holocaust.

At the Nuremberg Trials, the entire organization was indicted and convicted of crimes against humanity.

Keeping Hitler in power

By February and March 1942, student protests were calling for an end to the Nazi regime. Despite the significant popular support for the removal of Hitler, would-be revolutionaries were stalled into inaction by the well-placed fear of reprisals from the Gestapo. In fact, reprisals did come in response to the protests. Fearful of an internal overthrow, the forces of Himmler and the Gestapo were unleashed on the opposition. The first five months of 1943 witnessed thousands of arrests and executions as the Gestapo exercised a severity hitherto unseen by the German public. Student leaders were executed in late February, and a major opposition organization, the Oster Circle, was destroyed in April 1943.

The German people were in an unenviable position by the late spring and early summer of 1943. On one hand, it was next to impossible for them to overthrow Hitler and the party. On the other hand, because of the Allied demand of unconditional surrender, and therefore no opportunity for a compromise peace, there seemed to be no other alternative but to continue the military struggle.

Opposition from within Germany

Despite fear of the Gestapo, some German people did speak out and show signs of protest during the summer of 1943. Despite the mass arrests and executions of the spring, the opposition still plotted and planned. Some Germans were convinced that it was their duty to apply all possible expedients to end the war as quickly as possible, that is, to further the German defeat with all available means.

The fall of Mussolini gave the opposition plotters more hope to be able to achieve similar results in Germany and seemed to provide a propitious moment to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. But this did not happen for a variety of reasons. First and foremost was the fear of Himmler and the Gestapo. During June, July, and August, Himmler's forces continued to move swiftly against the opposition, rendering any organized opposition impossible. Arrests and executions were common. Terror against the people had become a way of life. A second major reason was that the opposition's peace feelers to the western Allies did not meet with success.

This was in part due to the aftermath of the Venlo incident of 1939, when Gestapo agents posing as anti-Nazis in the Netherlands kidnapped two British Secret Intelligence Service officers lured to a meeting to discuss peace terms. That prompted Churchill to ban any further contact with the German opposition. In addition, the British and Americans did not want to deal with anti-Nazis because they were fearful that the Russians would believe they were attempting to make deals behind their backs.

Nuremberg Trials

Between 14 November, 1945 and 1 October, 1946, the allies also established an International Military Tribunal (IMT) to try 24 major Nazi war criminals and six groups. They were to be tried for crimes against peace; war crimes; and crimes against humanity.

Leaders, organizers, instigators, and accomplices participating in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to commit the crimes so specified were declared responsible for all acts performed by any persons in execution of such plan. The official positions of defendants as head of state or holders of high government office were not to free them from responsibility or mitigate their punishment; nor was the fact that a defendant acted pursuant to an order of a superior to excuse him from responsibility, although it might be considered by the IMT in mitigation of punishment.

As the trial of any individual member of any group or organization the IMT was authorized to declare (in connection with any act of which the individual was convicted) that the group or organization to which he belonged was a criminal organization. And where a group or organization was so declared criminal the competent national authority of any signatory was given the right to bring individuals to trial for membership in that organization, in which trial the criminal nature of the group or organization was to be taken as proved.
Nuremberg trials

These groups, the Nazi leadership corps, the Reich Cabinet, the German General Staff and High Command, the SA (Sturmabteilung), the SS (Schutzstaffel-including the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD), and the Gestapo (Secret Police), had an aggregate membership exceeding two million and it was estimated that approximately half of them would be made liable for trial if the groups were convicted.

The trials began in November, 1945 and on October 1, 1946, the IMT rendered its judgment on 21 top officials of the Third Reich. The IMT sentenced most of the accused to death or to extensive prison terms and acquitted three. The IMT also convicted three of the groups, the Nazi leadership corps, the SS (including the SD), and the Gestapo. Gestapo members Hermann Göring and Arthur Seyss-Inquart were individually convicted by the IMT.

Three groups were acquitted of collective war crimes charges, but this did not relieve individual members of those groups from conviction and punishment under the Denazification program. Members of the three convicted groups were subject to apprehension and trial as war criminals by the national, military, and occupation courts of the four allied powers. And, even though individual members of the convicted groups might be acquitted of war crimes, they still remained subject to trial under the Denazification program.


After the Nuremberg Trials, the Gestapo no longer existed as a political entity. However, it is still remembered today.

In 1997, Cologne, Germany transformed the former regional Gestapo headquarters in that city, the EL-DE Haus, into a museum to document the organization's past actions.

Although it has historical meaning, today it is sometimes considered vulgar and offensive, especially for the ones belonging to the numbers of those who were traumatized, tortured, or otherwise hurt by the Gestapo. Mention of the word Gestapo, even when using the word as a reference to any sort of unrestricted police, is widely considered to be improper.

In various countries of Central and Eastern Europe the term is used offensively to denote all police forces, and especially the communist-era riot police like ZOMO.

Gestapo counterintelligence
Insignia pins such as these were issued to Gestapo officers.

The Polish government in exile in London during World War II received sensitive military information about Nazi Germany from agents and informants throughout Europe. Some of the Polish information about the movement of German police and SS units to the East during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the fall of 1941 was similar to information British intelligence secretly got through intercepting and decoding German police and SS messages sent by radio telegraphy.

Gestapo officials later discovered some of what the Polish underground had leaked to London, and they appraised Polish intelligence as a very serious threat to German security, seeking to root out Polish agents and informants.

After Germany conquered Poland in the fall of 1939, Gestapo officials believed that they had neutralized Polish intelligence activities. In 1942, however, they uncovered a cache of Polish intelligence documents in Prague and were surprised to see that Polish agents and informants had been gathering detailed military information and smuggling it out to London, via Budapest and Istanbul. The Poles identified had tracked German military trains to the Eastern front and identified four Order Police (Ordnungspolizei) battalions sent to conquered areas of the Soviet Union in October 1941. In addition, another seventeen such battalions were stationed in Poland, according to Polish information.

Historians have established that such police battalions participated in the first phase of the Holocaust, shooting Jews in large numbers into mass graves.

Polish agents also gathered detailed information about the morale of German soldiers in the East. After uncovering a sample of the information the Poles had reported, Gestapo officials concluded that Polish intelligence activity represented a very serious danger to Germany. As late as June 6, 1944 Heinrich Mueller, head of the Gestapo, concerned about the leakage of information to the allied forces, set up a special unit called Sonderkommando Jerzy, designed to root out the Polish intelligence network in western and southwestern Europe.

Notable individuals

Agents and officers of the Gestapo

People executed by the Gestapo

Other meanings of the word

Sometimes the word Gestapo is used colloquially for other organizations which are felt to be disciplinarian: see Nazi/3rd Reich terms in popular culture.



  • German Resistance Against Hitler: The Search for Allies Abroad, 1938-1945, Klemens Von Klemperer, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0198205511
  • Histoire de la Gestapo, Jacques Delarue, Paris, 1962
  • An Illustrated History of the Gestapo, Rupert Butler, Motorbooks, 1993, ISBN 0879388013

Suspected hoax works about the Gestapo include:

  • Gestapo Chief: The 1948 Interrogation of Heinrich Müller - Gregory Douglas. San Jose, CA 1995

External links


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