Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.
On the 11th of October 1936, the Reichsführer SS and Chief of German Police Heinrich Himmler sat at the head table in a Munich conference room filled with legal experts. A photographer waited at the edge of the packed meeting to immortalize his address to a gathering of notables at the Academy of German Law. Tables, polished to a mirror sheen, snaked along the walls of the narrow chamber with seating crowded around both sides to accommodate the assembly. Schnapps glasses and a large ink blotter had been laid out in anticipation of the signatures to come.1
Himmler had been invited as the newly appointed head of the recently nationalized police services. His keynote address was to mark the inauguration of a new working group for police reform headed by his Leader of Administration and Law for the Secret State Police (Gestapo) Dr. Werner Best, who, after straightening his papers, eyed the group with hands neatly folded on his lap. Himmler’s deputy Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of Security Police and SS Security Service seated at his right hand, rested an elbow on the back of his chair as he impassively scanned the audience. Wilhelm Stuckart, coauthor of the infamous Nuremberg laws and department leader for constitutional matters at the Reich Ministry of the Interior, looked on with interest from his corner of the head table. Hans Frank, head of the institute and minister without portfolio, had just extended his welcome. Himmler stood, surveyed the crowded room, and began to speak.2The Reichsführer SS felt he could finally take a position since “gathering all police under a single hand.” He reminded his audience that “when we National Socialists came to power in 1933” the police had been “a blindly obedient instrument of power.” The strictures of liberalism left it “a helpless institution, bound hand and foot … while the criminals got away scot-free.” Himmler remarked that National Socialists had set to work
“not without justice … but outside the law.” The new Chief of German Police had since reformed the system based on new principles:
In fulfilling my duties for the Führer and the people, I followed my conscience and common sense. During the months and years in which the life and death of the German people hung in the balance it was inconsequential if other people yammered about “violations of the law.”
As he explained, “they called it lawless because it did not correspond to their concept of law. In truth, our work laid the foundation of a new code of law.”3
The speech revealed the course that Himmler would set as Chief of German Police. A revised code of law never appeared. None was needed. The Gestapo had already laid the cornerstones for its own police justice (Polizeijustiz) independent of normal justice (Justiz) through the courts.4 New jurisprudence had already changed the objective of policing from protecting individual rights to upholding collective well-being. New laws had already redefined the parameters of citizenship and criminalized criticism. New directives had already delegated the Gestapo extrajudicial powers to detain and even torture suspects in the name of prevention. In the words of the secret police’s legal expert Dr. Werner Best, political policing already ensured “the principle of political totality in National Socialism that expresses the ideological principle of the organic and indivisible union of the people [which] tolerates no political will in its realm that does not integrate the collective will.”5 “Consequently,” as Heydrich put it, “we National Socialists only recognize enemies of the people (Volksfeinde).”6
Himmler, supported by Hitler and armed with a newly unified national political police, signaled that he intended to take greater control over enforcement with this unwritten code of police justice. The new Chief of German Police welcomed ideas for greater “cooperation” with the judiciary and suggestions that police should independently resolve “an abundance of crimes of everyday life it is not worth carrying through the whole cumbersome apparatus of the so-called proper criminal trial.”7 The system of selective enforcement that these men created to warn supporters and punish subversives would ultimately set down boundaries defining the relationship between state and society in Nazi Germany.
Four years after Himmler’s fateful speech, Anton brooded through the night in a foul mood over the state of the world. As the details reconstructed in his case file noted, at fifty-one years of age, he was no longer a young man. Decades ago, the down-on-his luck salesman had witnessed the carnage of the Great War shamble through the rear area military hospital where he had worked as a clerk. The renewed bloodshed in France distressed him greatly. His thoughts dwelled upon the government’s warmongering as the train bearing him to Vienna wended its way through the Bohemian foothills and onward into the Alps. Bored, robbed of distraction by the journey, he pulled a small notebook from his belongings and began to scribble. “An animalistic roar on the radio, the triumph of bestiality, that is the fate of the world today.”8
Anton’s mood did not improve as he walked the streets of Vienna during his business trip. It had been less than a week since the British had beat a pell mell retreat from the continent at Dunkirk. Italy had entered the war while he was still underway. Everywhere he turned, there seemed to be people celebrating as German tanks closed on Paris. As a devout Catholic from Austria who had made a home of the Rhineland, the jubilation stung his pacifist sensibilities. Out came the notebook. The conscription of younger men was “the lot and behaviour of the defeated” despite his acerbic observation that the regime wanted people to believe that “everything is 150%!” A few days later, dismay bursting into the margins between his meeting notes, he bemoaned that “as I went to the office, small children in their Sunday best sang bloodthirsty songs in the street.”9
Perhaps Anton was rushed for time as he crossed the checkered tiling of the Heiligenstadt train station later that week. His case file recorded that he had slipped into a phone booth amid the hustle and bustle to place a call. Pulling out the notebook, he scrawled a reminder to himself and set it down absentmindedly. After finishing his business, preoccupied for whatever reason, he left without retrieving it. A record of his innermost misgivings about Nazism now lay open to the world in a public place where it might be found by anyone.10
A soldier placed a call in the same phone booth a short time later. Seeing the notebook, he picked it up. It clearly belonged to a businessman, filled as it was with production orders mixed with diary entries. One can only imagine the soldier’s reaction as he paged through the recent entries. Selfish complaints about the price of food while good men were dying at the front? Bloodthirsty songs!? The triumph of bestiality!?! This from a businessman who travelled widely and might spread his poisonous opinions in influential circles. Someone clearly needed to look into the matter.11
The notebook was passed up the ranks in the offices of defence district XVII until it landed on the desk of military intelligence. From there, the investigation was handed over to the Vienna Gestapo. As the case involved a citizen of the Reich, a “racial comrade,” who had expressed subversive opinions in such a way that “the offender expected or must have expected that the statement would find its way to the public,” it fell under the Law against Malicious Gossip policed by the Gestapo.12 Depending on what the case officer uncovered about the author, comments such as these could qualify for a lengthy penitentiary sentence, maybe even execution, as Defeatism per the Wartime Special Penal Code or Conspiracy to Commit High Treason.13
A report marked secret arrived at the Düsseldorf Gestapo Regional Headquarters a few weeks later. Standing orders for the station meant that whoever was working that day in Department I – Administration found themselves sorting through piles of incoming post destined for Department II – Internal Political Policing. The usual blend of mail from cranks, busybodies, concerned citizens, and other officials no doubt awaited their attention. Much of the usual correspondence concerned fanciful accusations from anonymous denouncers. Everything would be reviewed, but the signed letter from a Labour Front shop steward about an old Communist in his factory making a mockery of the Führer by denigrating the “German greeting” of Heil Hitler would receive further attention.14 The administration officer reached for a pair of rubber stamps on his desk. He inked them in blue and thumped down the notice of receipt followed by the date before putting the report in the pile for the leader of desk II A – Communism and Marxism. The sorting continued. An outspoken old man spreading criticism of the government from a controversial sermon landed on the stack for II B – Religions, Emigrants, Freemasons, Jewry, and Pacifism.15 A sheaf of witness statements from a rural mayor asking for direction on how to proceed against a workplace argument about the war that had turned political went into a growing heap set aside for II C – Opposition.16
The work continued as correspondence that desk leaders selected for further attention was sent back up to administration for entry into the central records. The administration officer used a different stamp, a small square, with fields for the accession numbers of individual cases. Looking down the list of entries, he filled out a new line and crowded II C 3011/40 into the space provided by the stamp. The war was making 1940 a busy year for the opposition desk. Over 3,000 entries and it was still only July.17
The mound of incoming correspondence shrank. Reports from state prosecutors about the disposition of cases in process.18 Evaluations from district leaders of the Party commenting on the “political reliability” of different persons of interest.19 A suspect’s reply to a summons asking that the scheduled date for an interrogation be moved back due to a pressing engagement.20 All destined to be sorted, stamped, and filed away in brown cardstock folders bearing the corresponding name in the registry. The collection was growing. Before the war was over, intimate details about the lives of more than 72,000 people would be meticulously organized into dossiers marked “files of the secret state police.”
The report about Anton emerged from the pile. Vienna Gestapo, Classified Item 11151, Counter-Intelligence, Soviet Desk, Secret. This required immediate attention. The duty officer pulled out a special diary to record receipt of secret documents and made an entry before the message was taken, as the alphabet soup of abbreviations commanded, “to the hand of the Senior Government Councillor Dr. Haselbacher or his deputy.” The enclosed report opened by drawing attention to the “exceptionally hostile criticism of the enthusiasm of the masses” and examples of “deep-rooted complainerdom” as cause for concern. Vienna had been busy. They had successfully identified Anton as the probable owner. Their enquiries, most likely at firms discerned from information in the notebook, had even managed to narrow down his profession. Anton “could be someone occupied with the manufacture of truck replacement parts or technical replacement parts in the manufacture industry.” He had supposedly lived for a month with his mother in Vienna earlier that year. Anton was meanwhile described as holding a “completely contradictory attitude toward the National Socialist state.” Vienna even had his personal details and a local address for Düsseldorf to follow up. But they had misspelled his last name.21
The break in the case came in mid-November when it appears someone in the Gestapo’s regional archive noticed Vienna’s error. By substituting one letter for another, desk II F – Central Card Index and Personal Files dug up an old entry from 1934. Anton had sent a letter to Austria critical of Nazism that had been seized in a random mail search. As he was a travelling businessman who might use that influence to sway the opinions of others against the state, the Gestapo had placed him under lengthy surveillance at the time. It was the same reason so much time and effort had just been expended to track him down again. But the old investigation had proved fruitless. Anton kept his thoughts to himself and never mentioned his opinions about the government or its policies in public. A search of his apartment had failed to turn up evidence of “subversive activity” and so the old case had been dropped.22 The notebook, however, was a different matter and the laws had since changed.
Armed with Anton’s last name, someone in the administration department pulled out a sheet of postcards for official use and tore one off along its perforated edge. Taking pen in hand, he neatly crossed out the words “as a witness” and began filling out the fields below. Date. Time. Room number. Floor. Case reference number. The form already politely asked Anton to bring identification on the date in question and inform the Gestapo of any change in address. Folding it in half, stamping it with the station’s official seal, the administration officer filed it with the outgoing post. When opened, the contents read “Summons: To your interrogation – as witness – for explanation.”23
On the 22nd of November 1940, nearly five months to the day since his train ride to Vienna, Anton walked though one of the roughly hewn stone arches of the Düsseldorf Gestapo Regional Headquarters on Prince Georg Street. Senior Criminal Secretary Johann Krülls awaited him in the interrogation room. Krülls was an old hand with twenty-one years of policing experience. As with so many of the desk leaders and senior case officers of the Gestapo, he had served in the First World War and joined the uniformed police during the turmoil of the immediate post-war era.24 Many of his colleagues from the front generation born before the turn of the century had formed Freikorps militias when they returned from the war and coordinated with state authorities to crush revolutionary communist republics that had sprung up across Germany. When those same militias then tried to depose the democratic government, tens of thousands of workers had answered the call for a general strike and a “Red Army of the Ruhr” took up arms in the Rhineland.25 The government had forced the right-wing militias to disband after the uprising was quashed, but the networks that had been forged putting down the insurrection allowed many former freebooters to find a new career with the police.26 It was during those years, as one of Krülls’ colleagues in the archival section put it, that Gestapo officers of the front generation came to their views about communism and “the sub-humanity of the Spartacist hordes.”27
Krülls had eventually found his way into the criminal police, the detective service in Germany, and became a Gestapo officer when the National Socialists broke off the department responsible for politically motivated crimes and renamed it the Secret State Police. His involvement in the crackdown on communists in Krefeld during the first years of the regime must have caught someone’s eye at the regional headquarters where he was transferred to be a case officer on the opposition desk. Today, likely due to his years of experience and Anton’s relative importance, he would be handling the interrogation.
The notebook awaited as Anton entered the room. Krülls had decided to put the pressure on immediately rather than follow the usual course of getting to know the suspect by addressing the formalities of paperwork before broaching the subject of allegations. He had the notebook. He had the previous letter. He had a window into the innermost thoughts of the suspect. There was no need to carefully sound out Anton and observe his character. The question was what had motivated him. Indeed, it was not unusual for old communists to take up jobs as travelling salesmen and agitate against the regime under the cover of their work.28
Krülls showed Anton the notebook. The questioning began by establishing some basic facts. Was the notebook his? Did he write everything inside? How did he lose it? Where did he lose it? Did he try to recover it? What kinds of things did he write in the notebook? Krülls circled back to ensure that he had understood Anton correctly. Where did he lose it? What was he doing when he had lost it? What kinds of things did he write in the notebook? Now, Krülls pressed Anton on inconsistencies with a barrage of questions. If he only kept business notes, what prompted him to write the entries on pages thirty-seven to forty? What was he thinking when he wrote these entries? Why did he write down such derogatory and hateful statements? Was he rehearsing arguments for spreading subversive opinions? Krülls hammered the point. Why did he write down such derogatory and hateful statements? Anton began to speak about his motivations. Satisfied, Krülls listened apart from a few points of clarification and turned the conversation to the usual questions about Anton’s personal and political background.
Afterward, either Krülls or a typist taking his dictation cranked a sheet of paper into a typewriter and recorded the interrogation as an official statement. The machine chattered away, transforming the exchange that had just occurred into the Gestapo’s distinctive “bureaucratic language of prosecution.”29 The exact questions and answers were blended into a summary that at times reflected Anton’s words and at other points substituted them for a familiar array of stock phrases that emphasized what Krülls considered the salient point.
The resulting statement recorded that “the notebook shown to me is my property and the notes made therein were all made by me.” Anton could not recall how he had lost the notebook, but he “was already of the opinion that I left it in a public phonebooth.” He had not concerned himself with its recovery. Krülls’ voice intruded on the narrative to note that “it could be taken from this, that I no longer knew what was written in the book and that I could have written something in the book that could cause me trouble in the first place.” Anton used his notebooks “exclusively for business notes” and had started another immediately. He was astounded it had been recovered. Anton could, as the interrogation circled back, “be clear that it is possible the book went missing in the city train station.” He had written down something during a phone conversation and forgotten the notebook when he was done.Krülls had sprung his trap on Anton at this point. The statement recorded that “the book, as I said before, only holds business notes. I do not know how I came to make the highlighted entries on pages 37 to 40.” He had made the notes while travelling to Vienna. Krülls’ voice controlled the statement as he hammered Anton about his motivations:
I can offer no other explanation today, other than that I made these entries out of boredom. I can also offer no other explanation for the notes about political events. I can give no reason for why I wrote about these events in a derogatory and hateful manner of speech. I made these entries unconsciously, but not to thereby make some kind of oppositional propaganda against National Socialism and the Third Reich. I also did not want to thereby make points of reference for propaganda of the word among my next of kin or acquaintances in Austria.
At this point, Anton must have realized he would have to explain his motivations to avoid being painted as a subversive. He suggested that his view of events was an “expression of my early pacifist upbringing.” A “strict religious” background from youth had imparted the idea “that war was to be uncompromisingly rejected and we were consequently opponents of all warlike behaviour.” Krülls’ prompting intruded once more to note that this opposition to war was categorical “even if it was absolutely necessary in the interest of defending the country and people.”30
Anton insisted that he posed no threat to the National Socialist state. His convictions coexisted with a willingness to perform his duties as a citizen. Admittedly, he was ambivalent about the new war. He had become a soldier during the First World War “with no desire or love.” Anton told Krülls “I fulfilled my military duties, but due to my attitude, I had to reject war service.” Instead, he had worked in a hospital. Krülls recorded that Anton “would like to note once more that my notes pursued no subversive purpose.” As a result of his upbringing it was difficult to “orient myself with the situation in the Reich.” Nevertheless, “I am in no way active against the state and the Party and ask that the accusations of this hearing not be seen shortsightedly as they appear.” The notes were merely “a pastime during a long train ride.”31
Krülls spent the remainder of the interrogation on the details of Anton’s personal and political background. The statement structured the information as an autobiographical vita about employment history, income, religious affiliation, familial status, military service, and decorations. However, the most important perennial questions probed membership in political parties and associations as well as newspaper subscriptions and voting habits. Anton told Krülls that he had apprenticed as a salesman with a granite works in Vienna after finishing school. The First World War had interrupted and the firm folded. From there, he had joined a printing house where he rose to the position of director. The hyper-inflation had then struck and he once again lost his job. Anton had then come to Germany where he had run a firm under his own name and worked as director for a second company that produced fire extinguishers. He had been a member of the Austrian Peace Society for a year, but had never belonged to a political party and did not vote. With the interrogation concluded, Anton signed the statement with a steady hand that evinced no sign of physical abuse.
The protocoled statement went to Senior Criminal Secretary Erwin Fischer. As another old hand from the war generation, his distinctive initial “F” with a swooping top arm curling back upon itself was a common sight in the files. Fischer’s integral role at the regional headquarters, in what he coyly described after the war as “office work,” saw him rise to become the deputy leader of the desks responsible for all technical surveillance, station records, arrest records, detention records, concentration camp records, prisoner transport, and “politically colourless” opposition by unaffiliated suspects.32 His ubiquitous initial on the recommendations and requests of subordinate case officers on the opposition desk and colleagues from the communist desk sealed the fate of thousands.
But how to handle Anton?
The Gestapo could hold him in a prison under “provisional arrest” for up to twenty-one days. They could file a request for “protective custody” with the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin and detain him indefinitely in a concentration camp. They could even file a separate request for “special treatment,” an extrajudicial execution, and have him killed after the transfer. Fischer reviewed the interrogation, looked over evidence from the earlier investigation, considered his options, and drafted a secret report about how the case would be resolved.
Fischer opened by informing Vienna of their spelling error and noting that Anton employed nobody at his firm. The earlier letter containing “derogatory statements about National Socialism” had prompted lengthy surveillance. But neither observation nor a search of Anton’s apartment had uncovered evidence of “subversive activity.” No indications that he “spoke publicly in a spiteful or agitational way about National Socialism, about leading men of the state and the movement, or about the measures and institutions of the state and the movement.” A court punishment had not ensued. Fischer noted that Anton “is an avowed pacifist and cannot make peace with the situation in the Third Reich. He also makes no secret of this mindset.” The lack of evidence meant that “the initiation of criminal proceedings promises no expectation of success.” The only alternatives were Gestapo measures. But Fischer was not yet convinced that Anton was lost to the people’s community. He noted that “the accused poses no serious danger to the public due to his age and extremely limited scope of business.” Fischer had therefore “abstained from intervening with state police measures for the time being.” Instead, “I have seriously warned [Anton] for the last time and threatened him with sharper Gestapo measures in case of recurrence.”33
Understanding Selective Enforcement
How did Anton escape with only a warning? When framing the effects of political policing on lives and societies touched by dictatorship, it is natural that we piece together the puzzle beginning with its most extreme edges. A rich literature traces how police justice shaped the atrocities visited upon occupied peoples and approximately 8.4 per cent of Germans whom the Gestapo targeted with political terror.34 No doubt the example of what happened to targeted political groups and social outsiders had a chilling effect on the rest of society. The intensive work of recent decades has also provided valuable insight into Gestapo practices. We now know that persecution targeted Marxists and Jews above all others with relatively limited pursuit of critics from the social majority. However, much less is known about investigation and enforcement decisions concerning these average Germans who fit into the Nazi vision of an ethno-racial “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft). Why did some politically colourless Germans who avoided Party affiliations face sentencing while others received clemency?
The speech Himmler delivered from the head table at the Academy of German Law, flanked by the heads of his security services, presaged a system of selective enforcement. What did the Gestapo make of his agreement that officers should resolve “crimes of everyday life” in one of his first appearances as Chief of German Police? What of his vision for them as justices of the peace (Friedensrichter) who could “judge without written law as an honourable man of the world according to justice and common sense?”35 How did these aims shape political policing? How did the Gestapo determine whom to punish and whom to warn? How did its practices change when dealing with different groups? What were the respective roles of the Gestapo, the Party, and the courts? How did these working relationships and police practices change over time? Indeed, how did the Gestapo enforce laws governing critical opinion?
The answers to these questions reveal the contours of the relationship between state and society in Nazi Germany. They show that the Gestapo used completely different methods based on the alleged offence and, above all else, the socio-political background of a suspect. They expose who belonged in the National Socialist vision of the community of the people, who was perceived as a threat, and the changing criteria for membership. They speak to much larger questions about the “extent a dictatorship such as the Nazi regime had to rely on terror and coercion, and to what extent it could build upon a willingness for voluntary ‘participation’ by the ‘many.’”36 By so doing, these answers guide the way to a different set of explanations for Hitler’s power. Ones that emphasize popular support for the dictator’s vision of community and see highly targeted political terror against minorities feared by the social majority as winning the Führer acclaim. Enemies of the People portrays a place where “propaganda did everything possible to promote this selective perception” while meeting “the material expectations as well as the social and cultural expectations of life” to secure “mass consent and loyalty.”37 Some historians maintain that “the threat of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration in increasingly brutal and violent conditions loomed over everyone in the Third Reich.”38 A closer examination of Gestapo practices suggests otherwise. Selective enforcement intentionally loosened authorities’ grip enough that average German such as Anton were permitted to slip through their grasp as they reached deeper into the private sphere in pursuit of organized resistance and targeted minorities. This is an understanding of Nazi Germany in which the Gestapo gently silenced dissenting voices with warnings, a velvet glove over the mailed fist choking life from any true opposition, while neatly avoiding the backlash that harsher enforcement would have provoked.
The image of the Gestapo that has dominated popular memory since 1945 – networks of spies, the dreaded knock at the door, suspects vanishing into the night, torture, indefinite detention in a concentration camp, starvation, and eventual execution – reflects the experiences of targeted minorities. Understandably so. The first historians of Hitler’s political police lived through the worst the system had to offer. As prominent Marxist or Jewish intellectuals and politicians, some escaped and followed the appalling mistreatment of their colleagues in Germany from exile. Others remained and experienced the nightmarish abuses first hand. Together, they painted the image of an all-powerful secret police with eyes and ears on every street corner coloured by their personal experiences with surveillance and the concentration camp system.39 Nationalist Germans wrote of an “internal occupation” born of modern social tensions and the decline of humanism.40 The resulting consensus viewed the Third Reich as a police state where the Gestapo had forced Nazi ideology on the public through terror. The terror thesis merged with political scientist Hannah Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism that argued that the entire system rested on a coercive top-down power relationship.41 Historians of organizational structure and institutional culture further entrenched the idea of pervasive arbitrary terror exercised through the Gestapo with expert testimony about the industrialized murder of Europe’s Jews during the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials.42 The public meanwhile embraced this narrative in light of the Cold War as a comfortable explanation that excused acquiescence to Hitler and eased West German reintegration into the community of nations aligned against communism.
Influential popular histories echoed the findings of the Nuremberg trials where the American Judge Advocate General described Germany under the Gestapo as “one big concentration camp.”43 The prosecution at Nuremberg, in building the case to charge leading Nazis under new laws governing crimes against humanity, necessarily focused on egregious examples of “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population.”44 The resulting litany of horrors provided ample material for authors to shock and outrage audiences.45 Prurient subgenres of pulp fiction and the visual arts reproduced the more salacious details as eroticized portrayals of Nazi domination.46 In the straight-laced culture of the post-war era, deviance sold books by titillating voyeuristic urges that both flattered the moral superiority of the audience and highlighted the depravity of a few Nazi perpetrators who terrorized Germans into mute obedience.
A new generation of social historians turned this accepted wisdom about the Third Reich upside down. Rather than a police state threatening Germans into submission, the new understanding recast the Gestapo as cooperating with a “self-policing society” that upheld “consensus dictatorship” through denunciation.47 The Bavaria Project set the change in motion by shifting focus to the history of dissent and everyday life in Nazi Germany.48 Examining society at the regional and local level revealed that Hitler’s charismatic authority had cultivated support among average Germans.49 A similar approach to the policing of dissent and resistance brought these threads together with groundbreaking discoveries from Gestapo case files.50 The Gestapo and German Society empirically established that political police enforced racial policy reactively through voluntary denunciations from the public and turned the idea of top-down terror on its head. The idea was not without its critics.51 However, despite a spirited defence, the new orthodoxy of a self-policing society displaced the idea of an all-encompassing police state and unleashed a flurry of new research. The conversation expanded from the extent of denunciation versus surveillance to include regional peculiarities, the career paths of personnel, institutional cooperation, institutional culture, enforcement priorities, and enforcement practices.52 The ensuing deluge of scholarship on the Gestapo built upon the concept of a self-policing consensus dictatorship as historians re-examined enforcement practices through regional studies.
A better understanding of Gestapo practices took shape over the next decades. Historians quickly established that the terror defining collective memories of Nazism had a burning focus. In fact, authorities had selectively enforced laws governing information and opinion. Nazi Terror established that Communists and Jews were statistically overrepresented to the near exclusion of other social groups in cases taken to trial.53 Official policy stipulated warnings for “momentary weakness.”54 Indeed, average Germans enjoyed a “scope of discretion” for nonconformity with punishment generally restricted to groups viewed as a threat by the rest of society.55 Case officers investigating these critics described offenders to the state prosecutor completely differently depending on their political background.56 Proactive policing remained narrowly focused on conspiratorial organizations and targeted minorities.57 Detecting offences by average Germans depended on voluntary denunciations and the far-reaching Party apparatus by comparison.58 Even after decades of exposure to narratives emphasizing terror, three-quarters of Germans who lived through the National Socialist era reported no fear of arrest.59 The terror was seen by many, but felt by very few. This “strategy of selective sanctions” encouraged social acceptance of state norms without provoking resentment.60
The English-speaking public remained largely ignorant of these developments as popular portrayals of the Gestapo recycled the same old tropes of sadistic torturers and cynical careerists lacking a moral code. The most recent serious documentary to include these discoveries, The Nazis: A Warning from History, examined the people’s community and self-policing in ways that highlighted popular support for the regime. However, it was a lone voice against a chorus from the entertainment industry grounded in outdated notions. Decades of popular portrayals had reinforced a defanged vision of Nazism as the isolated consequence of all-encompassing Gestapo terror that could be explained away by the insanity and amorality of a few. On television, a visit from the Gestapo Major Wolfgang Hochstetter in CBS’ widely syndicated comedy Hogan’s Heroes carried the looming threat of execution for the slightest infraction. Even Hochstetter feared death should his superiors catch wind of any incompetence. Herr Flick of the Gestapo remained an unhinged transvestite perpetually on the edge of a shrill volcanic outburst in the BBC’s long-running comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo that chronicled the misadventures of a pub owner turned reluctant member of the French resistance. In the NBC drama Hitler’s SS, the university student Helmut Hoffmann was lured by the promise of naked power when Heydrich recruited him for his “intelligence not [his] belief.” On the big screen, Raiders of the Lost Ark styled the Gestapo Major Arnold Ernst Toht as a cackling madman gleefully resorting to gratuitous violence at any sign of defiance. The antagonist of Inglorious Basterds Hans Landa was played as a coolly calculating realist without ideological commitments.61 Time and again, directors reproduced simplistic portrayals of incomprehensible monsters at worst and morality tales about the perils of callous self-interest at best.
In Germany, where revelations about the Nazi past informed public political debate in ways that could not be escaped so easily, popular portrayals of the Gestapo have sidestepped the issue of support by focusing on resistance. Generation War sharply divided opinion. The miniseries presented unvarnished depictions of protagonists willingly perpetrating crimes against humanity and denouncing acquaintances as essentially apolitical actions by people caught up in events beyond their control.62 Thirteen Minutes, the biopic of Hitler’s would-be assassin Georg Elser, paid significant attention to the promises of material benefit, modernization, and solidarity in unifying support behind the Nazi vision of the people’s community. However, the vignettes exploring life in Nazi Germany flowed from Elser’s torturous questioning at Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, which displayed the vicious techniques of “enhanced interrogation” in forensic detail, and concluded with his eventual execution in Dachau. The most recent portrayal of the White Rose resistance group in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days came closest to portraying a routine Gestapo investigation. The interrogator Robert Mohr isolated the suspects and confronted Sophie’s deceptions with evidence, along with the occasional shouted accusation, rather than violence to extract a confession. Indeed, the film even referenced his desire to ideologically rehabilitate Sophie and reintegrate her into the people’s community. However, as in life, Sophie’s principled refusal to recant her views ended with conviction and execution. The German language portrayals therefore tended to be more complicated without ever grasping the nettle when it comes to the relationship between the Gestapo and the social majority. A nuanced explanation for acquiescence to the Nazi vision of community unfolded under the shadow cast by torture, the concentration camps, and looming threat of execution. The focus on a handful of extraordinary men and women who stood in opposition retread comfortingly tragic narratives that elide the thorny issue of who might reasonably expect to face, or see themselves as vulnerable to, such persecution.
The dynamics of selective enforcement remain cloaked in these unresolved questions. How did the content of criticism shape enforcement? Threats of violence and calls for regime change were understood as fundamentally different from expressions of frustration. Criticism of Nazism or politicians as the embodiment of the ideology was different again from complaints about a specific incident or policy. What about the context? The circumstances of an incident as well as the relationship between witnesses and suspects mattered. Criticism arising from a drunken argument that escalated or a personal dispute that turned political was not to be handled the same way as an explicitly political discussion. How often did the suspect criticize the regime? A single incident might be a “moment of weakness” while a pattern of behaviour suggested insidious motive. Where did the incident occur? An unguarded comment in private was quite different from speaking out in public spaces such as a bar or the workplace. Content, context, frequency, and location all influenced why someone like Anton received a warning while others faced severe consequences.
The Gestapo’s changing routine practices and working relationship with other institutions in the case files also suggest a different way to tell the story of political policing. Enforcement practices evolved in distinct phases linked to the changing roles of the Gestapo, the Party, and state prosecutors. Most importantly, the decision-making process behind selective enforcement reveals how the Gestapo differentiated “supporters” (staatsbejahend) who received warnings, from “subversives” (staatsfeindlich) who merited punishment for practically identical offences. The same dynamics determined the extent of torture and criteria for surveillance. These unwritten rules governing how policy was to be applied in everyday practice remain statistical monoliths on the historiographic horizon; impossible to miss, recognized by all, but in need of further excavation before we can fully appreciate their construction and function within the broader complex of Nazi institutions.63 The best that can be said at present is that “for most Germans, National Socialist terror did not pose a real threat for a long time … the majority remained largely untouched and had a wholly different experience from those few declared enemies of the regime.”64 What was that experience and how did it change over time?
The case files tell us that the Gestapo selectively enforced laws based on perception of subversive intent extrapolated from an evaluation of political reliability grounded in the ideology of people’s community. The legal philosophy of the Third Reich substituted the liberal dictum of “no crime without a law” for “no offence without a punishment.”65 The open-ended definition of what constituted “criminal opinion” soon proved to be too broad as the Gestapo turned from policing communism specifically to criticism generally. A system of selective enforcement compensated by targeting critics who questioned the legitimacy of the dictatorship and warning offenders who fundamentally conformed to the National Socialist world view. The Gestapo punished those subversives who called for change and forgave the “momentary weakness” of those who contributed to people’s community through the Party.
New routine practices developed in tandem. The Gestapo resolved the overwhelming majority of cases with enquiries among acquaintances and offers of clemency rather than informants and coercion. Police reserved clandestine surveillance for indications of organized resistance or suspects with access to a broad audience. Instead of relying on informants, the Gestapo received most of their information from denunciations. Intermediaries such as the Party acted as a conduit filtering out frivolous accusations. Nevertheless, a reliance on denunciation to detect offences resulted in a demand for “impeccable conviction” (einwandfreien Überführung) that required corroborating evidence and disregarded statements from compromised witnesses. The Gestapo therefore preferred to dismiss inconclusive investigations rather than risk punishing an innocent. Political police allocated resources based on the political background of the suspect, the publicness of a statement, or advocacy of violence. But case officers preferred to secure confessions with offers of clemency and strictly limited coercive “enhanced interrogation” (verschärfte Vernehmung) to investigating organized resistance.
The decision-making processes behind selective enforcement, which determined how to investigate and who to punish, evolved through five distinct phases from 1933 to 1945. The Gestapo cooperated with the Party and the state prosecutor throughout although their respective roles changed over time.
From 1933 to 1934, political police initially relied on arbitrary detention to silence all critics. Word of atrocities in the “wild” concentration camps set up by Party activists operating as police auxiliaries soon culminated in a backlash to the protracted state of emergency. In response to widespread complaints of lawlessness, authorities developed new laws with open-ended definitions of criminal opinion that reigned in arbitrary Gestapo “protective custody” (Schutzhaft) and regulated punishments through formal legal process.
From 1935 to September 1939, selective enforcement functioned through the state prosecutors. The Gestapo initially respected court authority, investigated critics within the bounds of existing legislation, and left enforcement decisions to the justice system. This balance of power only shifted to favour the Gestapo after Himmler became Chief of German Police in June 1936. Officers held back cases with insufficient evidence for prosecution, increasingly prescribed a course of action couched as “recommendations,” and began to independently resolve a handful of exceptional cases.
From September 1939–1943, selective enforcement functioned through the Gestapo. Political police were responsible for upholding morale under new Principles of Internal State Security during the War. Rather than acknowledge military defeat, Nazi leadership blamed the outcome of the First World War on a collapse of civilian morale exacerbated by foreign propaganda. Political police were therefore tasked with immediately silencing defeatists, to prevent a second “stab-in-the-back” (Dolchstoß), without necessarily punishing offenders. The Gestapo instead enforced laws based on perceptions of the suspect’s political reliability extrapolated from their cooperation with investigators, prior record, political background, personal reputation, and the public impact of any confirmed offence.
From 1943 to September 1944, selective enforcement underwent another major change as the Party took the lead. A string of defeats beginning with the Battle of Stalingrad raised fears that civilian morale would collapse and millions of slave labourers would rebel. The Gestapo focused on preventing uprisings among foreign workers and delegated responsibility for policing morale to the Party. Political officials from the district to block level served as auxiliaries conducting effectively independent investigations while the Gestapo merely prepared their findings for the courts.
The End Phase of the Third Reich beginning in fall 1944 rearranged the system once more as political police decentralized. The Gestapo managed to maintain order through mass arrests during the fall crisis, but mass releases followed as the front line stabilized in late November and the situation returned to a semblance of normality. The ultimate collapse beginning in January 1945 occasioned a newly decentralized regional command structure. A triumvirate legitimized mass executions of political opponents through agreement between the Higher SS Police Leader, the Inspector of Security Police, and the Gestapo station leaders in a final flurry of violence.
The system that emerged by 1935 and persisted until August 1944 punished subversive motive and warned lapses due to “momentary weakness.” Case officers extrapolated motive from perceptions of political reliability. The Gestapo determined political reliability based on five factors with full cooperation a prerequisite for any consideration of mitigating circumstance. The suspect’s political background, their personal reputation, and prior record as well as the content and public impact of the statement in question all influenced the course of an investigation. Political police obtained such information from acquaintances, coworkers, and local Party officials. The National Socialist concept of people’s community shaped institutional prejudices and set parameters on respectable citizenship. Political police filed charges against confirmed offenders deemed to be politically unreliable and suspects with a pattern of criticism. The Gestapo meanwhile pardoned private statements unless the offender came from a targeted minority. The regime could thereby quietly suppress dissent without risking scandal and backlash from heavy-handed blanket enforcement.
Enemies of the People explores this system by weaving the development of policy, routine practices, and resulting enforcement into thematic chapters organized in broadly chronological progression. The introduction concludes with an overview of the files as sources and examines the significance of criticism in overall caseload. To provide a general overview, chapter one goes on to examine the national and regional foundations of the Gestapo covering key developments in its mandate, the unique challenges posed by government district Düsseldorf, the typical career paths of personnel, and the distribution of caseload over time. chapter two then follows the creation of new laws alongside the transition from policing through camps to courts. The behaviours, affiliations, tools, and ideological framework used to profile suspects comes into focus through the development of selective enforcement policy in chapter three. The next two chapters examine routine practices for detecting, reporting, investigating, and interrogating critics. Statistics contextualize the policing of criticism alongside other offences and regions. A clear picture emerges of different approaches to different groups and behaviours with particular attention to the targets and frequency of surveillance and torture. From there, we turn to the resolution of cases prior to the declaration of war while tracing the Gestapo’s ever-increasing informal control over enforcement decisions.
Chapter seven returns to enforcement theory, examining how new Principles of Internal State Security during the war enshrined Gestapo superiority over the courts in order to secure civilian morale. The practical effects of Gestapo control over enforcement are the subject of chapter eight. The next two chapters follow the development of theory and practice as the war turned against Germany after the Battle of Stalingrad. We see the delegation of responsibility for policing critics to the Party, the collapse of barriers distinguishing Marxists from defeatists, and the resulting increase of brutality against any indication of organized resistance in the dwindling number of cases that filtered up to police. Chapter eleven traces the emergence of a decentralized command structure to legitimize the killing of Germans with formal, albeit truncated, process during the final months of the Third Reich before an epilogue draws together the main threads of the study.
Five overarching arguments take shape throughout. First, the existence of a policy of selective enforcement based on political reliability as defined by inclusion or exclusion from the National Socialist concept of people’s community. The experience of self-declared political opponents and Jews were the exception rather than the rule when it came to everyday life. Second, from 1935 to 1942, the Gestapo operated within the bounds of contemporary law and behaved as an ordinary detective service enforcing extraordinary laws when investigating most individual critics. Third, political police viewed targeted minorities as subversives, privileged minorities as loyal, and carefully investigated politically colourless average Germans. Fourth, the system punished perceived subversive intent rather than actions. Fifth, selective enforcement functioned in concert with state prosecutors and the Party through three distinct configurations. The periods of extreme violence that tend to be remembered were only bookends on a decade of much cooler suppression. The dual state’s system of selective enforcement grounded in political reliability discriminated between who was to be ruthlessly suppressed or reintegrated. It was thanks to this that terror and popular support could coexist. Indeed, the Gestapo’s perceptions of who belonged in the Nazi vision of community and what contributed to its realization weighed heavily upon the scales of justice during the Third Reich. The lives of average Germans hung in the balance.
The self-reinforcing divide this fostered is integral to the baffling resilience of popular dictatorships. A two-track system of generosity and violence, measured and distributed in relation to political reliability, underpinned National Socialism. Reshaping cultural norms depended upon suppressing alternatives while convincing Germans that Nazism offered material benefit, social progress, and protection from dangerous outsiders. To these ends, their ideological project promised to create a people’s community. “Racial comrades” who embodied the norms and behaviours of this ideal could lay claim to status and support.66 The “enemies of the people” had to be repressed lest they threaten the fragile order that had been won back from the great dislocations of the age. This ideological interplay of state, society, and belonging narrowed politics to a friend–enemy divide.
A carefully cultivated remove between supporters and subversives ensured that they lived in worlds apart. Benefits depended upon conformity, while deterrent punishments publicized the consequences of delinquency. Propaganda sought to communicate these limits in ways that were seen to be justified. Only those who recognized themselves among the named and shamed needed to fear repercussions. Selective enforcement operated in concert behind the curtain to reinforce conviction among doubters with quiet displays of mercy. The Gestapo were ideological soldiers patrolling the boundaries of belonging, guiding back those who strayed, and sallying forth to secure the Reich against the Opponent. By linking this persecution to the realization of political promises, injustice could be presented as necessary to protecting and improving the lot of average Germans.
The people’s community set down dividing lines distinct to National Socialism. Enemies of the People remains narrowly focused on a specific time and place in this sense. But “never again” has always been the rallying cry driving the exploration of why Germans supported Hitler. Now, if ever, we must understand how dictatorships secure the power and legitimacy necessary to reshape cultural norms. The dynamics of selective enforcement are once again on the march in the world today.
The Scope of Policing
The key arguments of this book all come from qualitative and quantitative analysis of two random samples of Gestapo case files from the Düsseldorf collection held in the North Rhine-Westphalian State Archive in Duisburg.67 Collection RW 58 contains case files from all former Gestapo stations across government district Düsseldorf and remains largely intact at an estimated 70 per cent complete with roughly 72,000 dossiers.68 The files are one of only three such collections to have survived the war and the only one from a regional headquarters.
How representative of the entire system is a regional study? The broader context of enforcement emerges from a paper trail that winds through the criminal code, laws, decrees (Verordnungen), directives (Erlaße), inter-ministerial correspondence, national speeches, post-war trials, and publications authored by significant figures in the justice system. These are not merely directives from Berlin, but the reflections of enforcement authorities across Germany who were positioned to observe changes in the broader system. Each of the turning points identified in the regional sample registered at a national level. As selective enforcement first emerged under the auspices of state prosecutors in 1935, the Ministerial Director of Criminal Justice (Strafabteilung) Wilhelm Crohne published remarks on statistics from his department.69 As the Gestapo seized enforcement authority from the courts in 1939, the attorney generals of Bamberg and Cologne both reported the same statistical anomalies.70 Enforcement practices remained relatively consistent within this framework. Comparing the detection of criticism in the Rhenish Palatinate and northern Bavaria shows just 11 per cent variation.71 Enforcement priorities were far more likely to vary geographically. As fears of a slave revolt mounted after the Battle of Stalingrad, the proportion of caseload involving foreign workers differed up to 20 per cent between regions.72 But with fully 63 per cent of cases against critics dismissed during the height of selective enforcement in the Rhineland, a hotbed of political radicalism filled with strategic industries, one can safely conclude that selective enforcement was part of a much broader trend.73 Enemies of the People is a regional study of a national phenomenon.
The majority of cases under analysis constitute an exhaustive record of everything collected for official consideration. Statements and character references from witnesses, neighbours, coworkers, Party officials, and the suspect were typed, signed, and filed in chronological order. The record of written correspondence is similarly exhaustive including follow-up requests for information about the outcomes of trials and the opinions of local Party officials about the political reliability of a suspect. Finally, a closing summary written by the case officer for his superiors outlines impressions of the suspect, accuser, and witnesses as well as salient points of the case and, after 1936, final recommendations on how best to proceed.
The case files are a selective record of events despite the Gestapo’s meticulous attention to detail. The files from 1933 often contain nothing more than an arrest report. The Gestapo only started to compile records of all political offences known to authorities in July 1934, did not require rural police authorities to provide notification of an offence until February 1935, and lacked control over the flow of accusations to the courts up to December 1936.74
Most importantly, the Gestapo recorded the interrogation of suspects and witnesses as signed statements. Overt references to coercive techniques known as “enhanced interrogations” were strictly forbidden. The questions, points of interest to the officer, fidelity to actual responses, and atmosphere in the room must be extrapolated from the structure of the statement, tone of the language, interruptions, coded phrases, allusions to violence, and the case summary. The evidence of coercion is unmistakable nonetheless and a conversational or confrontational atmosphere easier to discern than one might expect.75 The files provide unique insight into officer mentalities as well as investigation and interrogation practices despite, and often times because of, these idiosyncrasies.
The Gestapo considered suppressing criticism a vital task that deserved the same level of attention as policing communist opposition or enforcing racial policy. Figure 3 consolidates total caseload by category of offence according to the thematic card index compiled by archivists after 1945. Critical opinion statements filed under malicious gossip and opposition constitute a fifth of the overall collection. Cases under Jewish policy and closely related emigration files, which frequently involved Jews, also constitute a fifth of cases and reflect the disproportional focus on minorities that far outweighed their number relative to the overall population. The same holds true for the Communist Party of Germany and Marxism categories that also constitute a fifth of case files. A category concerning foreign workers is conspicuously absent considering that the discipline of delinquent slave labour constituted 85.9 per cent of arrests in the neighbouring Saar and Palatinate by 1943.76 These cases likely number among the roughly 22,000 additional entries that can be found in separate card indexes organized by name or place. With this bigger picture in mind, why sample malicious gossip and opposition?
The files in these two categories capture the broad spectrum of official responses to critical opinion statements and non-conformist behaviours. A side-by-side comparison of subcategories found under malicious gossip and opposition in Figures 4 and 5 highlights the nearly identical nature of offences under investigation. Malicious gossip contains cases explicitly reported or charged under the 20 December 1934 Law against Malicious Gossip on Party and State and for the Protection of Party Uniforms (Heimtückegesetz, Law against Malicious Gossip, malicious gossip), which criminalized criticism of the regime. Opposition contains the same range of subversive opinion statements and non-conformist behaviours reported, charged, or resolved with different laws or extrajudicial Gestapo measures (staatspolizeiliche Maßnahmen). A few opposition cases concern suspects that the Gestapo institutionalized or released on a suspended sentence as mentally unfit to stand trial (3), charged with disturbing the peace (groben Unfugs, 2), and investigated or charged under Conspiracy to Commit High Treason (Vorbereitung zum Hochverrat, conspiracy) for advocating or indirectly supporting communist revolution through Marxist opinion statements under the 24 April 1934 Law for the Alteration of the Provisions of Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure (7).77 Political police resolved the remainder with a range of Gestapo measures from warnings to arbitrary detention in a concentration camp. Both malicious gossip and opposition contain a subcategory of defeatist statements investigated or charged under the Wartime Special Penal Code (Kriegssonderstrafrechtsverordnung, KSSVO) as undermining the will to resist (Wehrkraftzersetzung, Defeatism per the KSSVO, defeatism). In short, these categories contain the same types of statements and behaviours resolved in very different ways.
A few blindspots remain all the same. The Gestapo pursued critics of Jewish policy with the same fervor as Marxists calling for violent revolution, but it is difficult to characterize specific enforcement practices toward Germans defined as Jews by the Nuremberg Laws.78 With only two examples in the sample, already grossly disproportionate overrepresentation, most appeared to have avoided tempting fate through overt criticism and instead ran afoul of authorities for violating the host of regulations that gradually excluded them from society.
Several categories beyond malicious gossip and opposition also contain critical opinion statements from specific socio-political groups. The dynamics of policing the pulpit remain obscured as does the porous border between treasonous “propaganda of the word” (Mundpropaganda) and more mundane criticism. The single largest subcategory of files in KPD, roughly as large as either malicious gossip or opposition on their own, is Conspiracy to Commit High Treason. Paging through thousands of case descriptions to collect dates for statistics revealed that the Gestapo charged effectively identical statements from communists with conspiracy in 1935 and malicious gossip by 1937. A full understanding of where the demarcation between conspiracy and malicious gossip lay in the eyes of the Gestapo remains unclear. Nevertheless, statistics gathered on the changing classification and distribution of Marxist flavoured criticism offer some important insights.
Why study the Gestapo’s policing of criticism? After all, evidence of clemency, restraint during investigation, and a burden of proof erring on the side of caution run counter to the grave experiences of persecuted minorities.
This is exactly the point.
National Socialists sneered at the idea of equality before the law as a naive trick of liberalism to subvert the natural order. The malicious gossip and opposition case files afford a rare opportunity to explore how their ideology shaped the spectrum of responses to an equally diverse array of critics. They reveal the well-trodden paths an investigation followed as case officers learned more about the background of the suspect and circumstances surrounding an alleged offence. A host of different dynamics emerge in procedure and outcomes that hinged upon standing within, embodiment of, and contributions to the ideals of people’s community. The dynamics of selective enforcement emerged from this ideology.
Anton shows how tens of millions of Germans who belonged in the National Socialist vision of community could expect to be treated. Understanding the paradox that this ideal demanded the exclusion and eventual extermination of some alongside equally sincere efforts to rehabilitate and convince others is to come to grips with the roots of genocide. Our commitment to the equality of human life obscures everyday life under Hitler. The inequality between subversive outsiders and supportive members lay at the heart of political policing in Nazi Germany. It was an inequality that spared many. The same inequality that defined the lives, and deaths, of the few.