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How did the Gestapo enforce laws governing criticism? Recent historiography highlights denunciation driven policing as well as the overrepresentation of Communists and Jews in cases taken to trial. A system of selective enforcement is well-established fact, but the dynamics remain unclear. Enemies of the People randomly samples two categories of “criminal opinion” to capture the changing decision-making processes behind routine investigation, interrogation, and enforcement practices. Five arguments take shape. First, a conscious policy of selective enforcement based on political reliability as defined by standing within the Nazi people’s community. Second, the system punished subversive motive rather than actions. Third, political police viewed targeted minorities as subversives, privileged minorities as supporters, and carefully investigated “politically colourless” Germans. Fourth, from 1935 to 1944, the Gestapo behaved as an ordinary detective service when investigating individual Germans. Fifth, selective enforcement involved state prosecutors and the Party through five configurations. The violence of revolution and collapse were bookends on a decade of much cooler suppression.
Selective enforcement and people’s community continued to order offenders and punishments until the bloody end. Widespread defiance during the invasion of Allied forces shook radicals. Himmler had to intervene when security services defied the HSSPF over unsanctioned orders to execute Aryans. Mass arrests and forced evacuations sufficed instead. Mass releases followed as counterattacks relieved pressure. The security services decentralized authority to avoid the same problem during the new year. A regional triumvirate maintained legitimate oversight with joint orders of execution. Punishable offences became death sentences and imprisonment served as a warning. Most Germans were released, and most foreigners were murdered. An epilogue traces how the Gestapo Leader Gerhard Dahmen presented selective enforcement as resistance from within the system during denazification. The main conclusions link this to how a predictable criteria of political reliability grounded in people’s community allowed targeted persecution to be presented as a public good. A mutually reinforcing dynamic of popular support and terror targeting socio-political outsiders legitimized dictatorship.
After Stalingrad, the Gestapo only dealt with critics the Party identified as threats. Case load dropped 76 per cent while charges under capital offences rose to a rate of one-in-three. Yet selective enforcement continued. Each institution took on different roles. The Gestapo relied on political officials to warn loyal offenders and identify subversives. The Party singled out repeat offenders when education failed, and case officers rubber-stamped their preliminary investigations. The judiciary could then punish anything that filtered up with lengthy deterrent sentences. New roles shaped new standards and practices. The damning classification of “doubtful attitudes” blurred lines between defeatism and subversion. Distinctions between actions and motive disappeared for repeat offenders. Investigation practices also sharpened as focus narrowed to targeted minorities and opinionmakers. Surveillance and torture were used in any case with the slightest hint of organized resistance. Sentencing practices followed in step. Leftist slogans were once again treason, and Marxists who encouraged surrender risked execution. The dangers multiplied for a select few deemed opponents by the Party.
This chapter provides an overview of the Gestapo and political policing in Government District Düsseldorf. The origins of ministerial independence are traced through laws, precedents, and power struggles that recast political police as a “special authority” removed from administrative oversight. The origins of preventative police justice outline how Himmler carved out a new mandate of prevention without encroaching on punishment through the courts under the cover of policy and law regulating arbitrary “protective custody” in concentration camps. An overview of politico-economic geography then underlines the importance attributed to suppressing dissent in this strategically vital district with historically low support for Nazism. Generational biography of regional personnel further details how this conditioned a shared institutional culture defined by the defeat of 1918 and communist uprisings in the Rhineland. Finally, tectonic shifts in case load identify inflection points in 1935 as the Gestapo pursued organized resistance into society at large, and in 1943 when case load plummeted as attention shifted to suppressing a slave revolt.
The image of Gestapo officers relying on threats and violence is a myth. Informants were for investigating opinionmakers and torture was for networks of organized resistance. Routine procedure was different with lone critics. The Gestapo knew that denouncers could abuse the system. The return to formal prosecution also demanded proof of both an offence and subversive motive. An “impeccable conviction” required corroborating witnesses to establish subversive attitudes and either confirm a single public offence or a broader pattern. As a result, the Gestapo used conversational techniques to gauge the reliability of witnesses and suspects as officers gathered information from their social circle. Behaviour during questioning, discrepancies, connections between witnesses, and personal quarrels were all evaluated. Political background, severity of the statement, and publicness of an offence dictated how widely the net was cast. However, laying out evidence and offering clemency ultimately secured far more confessions than violence. The result was a two-track system of routine police work according to the demands of formal justice subject to cancellation under specific criteria.
The policing of opinion transitioned from camps to courts during the first years of the Third Reich. The criminalization of criticism traced to the Reichstag Fire. Emergency decrees permitted arbitrary detention for suppressing a communist uprising and criminalized “disinformation.” Loose regulation quickly expanded enforcement from Marxist organizations and publicly supporting revolution to include private expressions of dissent by “chronic complainers and grumblers.” Mounting skepticism about this protracted state of emergency led to accusations of lawlessness from Hitler’s conservative partners by 1934. Policymakers responded by reining in protective custody and rewriting treason statutes to prosecute communist sedition through the courts. The disinformation decree was also rewritten to cover criticizing the regime. Stricter regulation brought the focus back to organized communist resistance, but the rewritten laws left the door open to policing private opinion in society at large. By 1935, the policing of criticism had settled into routine practices and formal processes under a newly expanded Law against Malicious Gossip governing the private conversations of Germans.
The Battle of Stalingrad had far-reaching effects on political policing. A string of military disasters over 1943 raised the spectre of the stab-in-the-back. The Gestapo also feared that news of German defeats would embolden a slave revolt. The economy relied on forced labour by 1943 and disruptions could seriously threaten the war effort. Faced with criticism and revolt, the Gestapo focused on the greater of two evils. But the lessons of history dictated that morale could not be ignored. The Party stepped into the breach. Local political officials gained authority to investigate criticism and warn minor offenders. The Reich Security Main Office acknowledged this new division of labour by early 1944. Barriers between Marxists and organized opposition blurred under these conditions. Torture and surveillance were cleared against any organized group. Selective enforcement continued nonetheless. The Party singled out subversive Germans with “doubtful attitudes” and warned “grumblers.” The Gestapo were free to handle offences that filtered up with greater severity and focus on keeping foreign workers under control. Selective enforcement moved deeper into German society.
The Gestapo gradually wrested enforcement authority from the courts between 1935 and 1939. A conflict over jurisdiction played out in national journals as the political police asserted a mandate of prevention. At first, case officers reported findings to prosecutors without commentary. After Himmler became Chief of German Police in June 1936, the Gestapo routinely withheld cases with insufficient evidence to convict and even dropped charges against a few remarkably loyal offenders in extraordinary circumstances. Enforcement authority remained with prosecutors in most cases. The Party and the Ministry of Justice exercised joint discretion built into the law to target highly public offences, recidivists, and political opponents presumed to be subversives. But the Gestapo increasingly encroached by prescribing a desired outcome in the case summary. Political police used these “recommendations,” backed by the power of protective custody, to gradually assert control over enforcement decisions by the judiciary. By 1939, the Gestapo determined who deserved to be punished based on their character, while the courts determined who could be punished based on available evidence.
A policy of selective enforcement to realign social norms with the Nazi vision of people’s community took form in 1935. As the Gestapo dismantled the underground communist party, pursuing the remnants into society at large demanded a different approach. Nazism asserted the right to control conversation under new legal theories that treated the private as political. But blanket enforcement risked undermining popular support. To compensate, offences became forgivable momentary weakness or punishable subversion depending on motive. The Gestapo developed profiles of ideological enemies and criterion identifying upstanding “racial comrades” in response. The keystone was “political reliability” extrapolated from the suspect’s partisan associations and personal reputation. The ideals of people’s community set the parameters of respectable citizenship. Certain behaviours and associations were evidence of political reliability or inherently subversive attitudes threatening this community. Selective enforcement educated or punished based on the effect of an action upon, the standing of socio-political identities within, and the contributions of an offender toward the people’s community.
The war restructured the justice system. Hitler, haunted by the “stab-in-the-back” of 1918, assigned the courts and the Gestapo new roles to safeguard morale. The courts would issue severe sentences to deter dissent, while the political police would ensure that only true opponents faced prosecution. Draconian punishments checked defeatism, while descriptions of the convict preserved support by communicating who was targeted and why. The Gestapo enabled these sentences by resolving lesser offences. Heydrich issued new Principles of Internal State Security during the War authorizing warnings to “correct the mindset and strengthen the will” of supporters who strayed in “momentary weakness.” The new policy also permitted extrajudicial executions to “brutally liquidate” any serious threat to morale. Practically, very little changed about who and what kinds of behavior were a threat. The new policy continued targeting political opponents, criminals, and public offences. Previously, officers had intervened on a case by case basis. Now, station leaders bore personal responsibility for deciding whether to press charges. Selective enforcement passed from the state prosecutor to the Gestapo.
The means of detection determined investigation and interrogation practices. Conspiratorial networks and targeted minorities were vulnerable to surveillance and infiltration in ways that society was not. Distinct groups with organized structures could be mapped to uncover organized resistance. Policing criticism was sisyphean by comparison. Blanket surveillance was neither realistic nor desirable. Practically, general suspicion threatened popular support. Ideologically, the police were to cooperate with racial comrades. Faced with limited resources and an impossible task, the Gestapo relied on Germans to denounce opponents in their midst. The Party played an integral role to this end. On the one hand, it screened accusations and channeled reports to the Gestapo. On the other, its officials reported a fifth of critics and encouraged others to do the same. These intermediaries dismissed minor offences, yet the Gestapo ultimately relied on denouncers with mixed motives. Highly questionable evidence documented potentially serious incidents. The Gestapo investigated critics thoroughly and cautiously as a result.
The Gestapo balanced the scales of justice with the weights of people’s community from 1939 to 1942. Political police resolved twice as many cases while state prosecutors’ workload, but not conviction rates, dropped by a third. The Gestapo evaluated “political reliability” based on a range of socio-political behaviours distinguishing upstanding “racial comrades,” who embodied the values of people’s community, from subversive opponents who either rejected Nazism or embraced alien ideologies. Supporters might complain, but they sincerely apologized, cooperated, and usually conformed. Subversives advocated alternatives. At best, repeat offenders were simply chronic complainers. Private exchanges might be overlooked, but repeated public criticism was intolerable. Hinting toward a change of government was utterly unforgivable. Supporters who acted in “momentary weakness” received “psychological understanding” and educational warnings. Subversives who called for regime change, swayed other against Nazism, or were connected to targeted minorities faced the courts. Himmler’s mandate “to create and uphold the desired order” of a people’s community was finally being realized.