With movies made about the Second World War as popular as ever, the name ‘Gestapo’ is familiar to almost everyone. Exactly what it was and its functions are not necessarily made clear in every movie however.
The official name of the Nazis’ secret police was the Geheime Staatspolizei. Its origin was the Prussian plain-clothed political police, much feared in Prussia, but not as feared as it became when re-organised by, of all people, the pompous, loud-mouthed Hermann Goering. Cinema- goers have become too accustomed to associating evil, mean-looking personalities like Himmler with the foundation of the Gestapo, but in reality it was started as a purely Prussian arm of the secret service, probably by Bismarck.
Control of the Gestapo indeed passed in 1934, one year after the German people elected Adolf Hitler as their Chancellor – to Heinrich Himmler, who quickly formed an unwieldy fairly amateur bunch into a ruthless organisation that was most popular with Hitler; it was passionately loathed by most of the senior officer class of the 30s. Himmler re-structured it into all German states, using his considerable powers as head of another fear-inducing group called the Schutstaffel, also known as the SS.*
Quite quickly the Gestapo became an integral part of the SS, and was merged with the Sicherheitsdienst (the SD or Security Service), an intelligence gathering branch of the SS. All of these merged groups were placed under the command of a most sinister man called Reinhard Heydrich and his Reich Security Central Office.
The powers of the Gestapo and its associated branches were limitless. A simple lieutenant could arrest a general if the latter was suspected of treason. Any person suspected by the Gestapo could be and was summarily executed, within Germany or any of the countries that after 1940 were occupied by the Nazis.
The infamous concentration camps set up across Nazi-controlled Europe were ‘managed’, if that is the word, by the lethal combination of the SS and the Gestapo.
Heinrich Himmler (1900-45) came from Munich (München). He was Deputy Leader of the SS in 1927 and Leader in 1929. He was appointed commander of the unified police forces in 1936, Head of the Reich Administration in 1939, and Minister of the Interior in 1943. It was as head of the Gestapo that he became even more feared than Hitler himself. He was directly responsible for numberless atrocities. Hitler trusted him until the Bomb Plot Conspiracy of 1944 (q.v.), when the Fuehrer wrongly suspected Himmler of being the brains behind the attempted assassination. He was found hiding in a dump by British soldiers in May, 1945, but killed himself before the Nuremburg Trials began. Goering also committed suicide, but during the Trials.
Reinhard Heydrich (1904 – 42) joined the SS in 1941 when he was twenty-seven. He was a maverick member of a fairly distinguished family. His sister, for example, was a biologist and scientist of some celebrity. Reydrich was to play a heavy part in several of the blackest episodes of Nazi history. His last career move took him to Czechoslovakia (Bohemia-Moravia) where he rapidly acquired the nicknames ‘Hangman of Europe’ and ‘the Beast’.
When he was assassinated in by Czechoslovak patriots in 1942, the Germans retaliated with one of the worst reigns of terror even they could have fomented. The aim was to paralyse once and for all any Czech resistance in Prague and the countryside. Whole villages were burned and the villagers murdered and buried in mass graves. Worst examples of this wholesale slaughter were the small towns of Lidice and Lezáky. Heydrich was thirty-eight at the time of his assassination.
* In films dubbed into Spanish, you will hear the initials ‘SS’ erroneously pronounced ‘Say Ese Ese’ – I do not know why. Correctly pronounced in Spanish, you should hear ‘Ese Ese’. Next time you watch a film about World War II, Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie for instance, listen for this crazed version of the dreaded initials!