[ISSN 1974-028X]








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N. 41 - Maggio 2011 (LXXII)

A self-policing society?
The Gestapo and the role of denunciations in the Third Reich

by Marco Siddi


According to numerous eyewitness accounts and to the work of many scholars, the Nazi secret police (Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo) efficiently controlled German society in the Third Reich. However, more recent studies have suggested that the local offices of the Gestapo were severely understaffed and did not have the human resources to keep the whole society under surveillance.


Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Gerhard Paul have argued that the popular image of the Gestapo as an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent police force is a myth created by Nazi propaganda and perpetuated by numerous post-war scholars, which also served as a post-war alibi for millions of Germans who had not opposed the regime.


The skeptics of Gestapo’s omnipotence argue that its successful control of German society and the lack of active mass opposition against the regime can be explained by the consensus achieved by the Nazi state among the masses and the cooperation of large sections of the population with the secret police.


Such cooperation manifested itself primarily in the form of voluntary denunciations against alleged enemies of the Volksgemeinschaft (the ‘national community’, in Nazi terminology).


The emphasis placed by Robert Gellately, Mallmann and Paul on the importance of voluntary denunciations in the Third Reich suggests that Nazi Germany was a ‘self-policing’ society, namely a society where the smooth functioning of the police was guaranteed by its close collaboration with the civilian population, in particular thanks to the latter’s willingness to gather information for police activities.


However, this analysis overestimates the importance of denunciations in initiating Gestapo activities. It oversimplifies the complex scenario of policing in the Third Reich and the role played in it by the civilian population.


For this reason, a further investigation of the relationship between denunciations made by ordinary Germans and police activities in the Third Reich is required.


The Gestapo received numerous denunciations from ordinary Germans. Before assessing the role of these denunciations in initiating Gestapo activities, it is essential to analyze the social background of the denouncers and determine whom they denounced and why.


Denunciations were made by members of all social classes. However, the largest number of them was made by lower-middle class or middle class Germans.


The statistical evidence collected by Eric Johnson concerning the Gestapo offices in Cologne and Krefeld reveals that denouncers were usually middle-aged males. Mallmann and Paul have argued that denouncers were often broken figures who had lost faith in the possibility of opposing the regime and had put themselves at the Gestapo’s disposa.


They usually denounced acquaintances, neighbours, co-workers and Jews. The denunciations were motivated almost always by selfish and petty reasons, such as hatred, lust of revenge, personal profit and receiving the sympathy of the authorities.


As Johnson has claimed, the nature of the denunciations implies that they could be useful to the secret police only for trivial cases concerning ordinary Germans. The Gestapo could not rely on denunciations for the cases which constituted its major concern, namely the networks of Communist, Socialist and clerical resistance.


The evidence collected by Johnson shows that the Gestapo operations against Communists, Socialists, religious sects and the clergy were initiated primarily by its own surveillance network and by confessions during interrogations, not by denunciations of ordinary Germans.


Mallmann and Paul agree with Johnson in this respect, but they also argue that the number of paid informers employed in the surveillance of political opposition was very limited and, consequently, the Gestapo never uncovered large networks of political opposition. However, this argument leaves an essential question unanswered: why was the regime never seriously challenged by the underground political opposition, if the Gestapo did not manage to uncover it either through denunciations or through the activity of paid informers?


There are two possible answers to this question. Firstly, the assertion that the Gestapo was inefficient and lacked sufficient and reliable sources of information can be questioned.


Mallmann and Paul themselves have argued that the Gestapo obtained valuable intelligence also from administration offices and all other state institutions, as well as through cooperation with the criminal police (Kripo), the regional and the local police.


Secondly, even if we accept the argument according to which the Gestapo was inefficient and relied on insufficient intelligence, we have to take into account the perception of its power by contemporary Germans and the deterrent effect it had on opponents of the regime.


Therefore, the lack of serious internal threats to the regime can be explained by the fact that contemporary dissenters were largely convinced of the omnipotence of the secret police, as is witnessed by the reports of German Social Democrats living in the Third Reich.


Their conviction was partly due to Nazi propaganda, which praised the efficiency of the Gestapo in the mass media, but also to the sheer observation that most Germans did not oppose the regime and to the fear that many of them were always ready to cooperate with the Gestapo by making denunciations. In this sense, the fear of denunciations was an important deterrent also against political opposition, even if in reality their role in this respect was minimal.


The fear of denunciations was therefore an important stabilizing factor for the regime. It was part of the coercive system which, in conjunction with the widespread consensus achieved among the masses in the 1930s, guaranteed a large basis of support for the Nazi state.


The widespread support for the regime and the lack of active opposition contribute to explain why the Gestapo was so successful in controlling German society until 1945, despite its structural weakness and the shortage of personnel in its regional and local offices.


According to Eric Johnson, the Gestapo “could afford to be lenient and less than vigilant with most ordinary Germans, for they did not need to be watched”. Robert Gellately claims that “terror was not necessary to end all non-Nazi organizational life in the country, nor was it used to force the majority or even significant minorities into line”.


As Gellately argues, Gestapo terror was selective and affected primarily social figures which most contemporary Germans loathed, such as Communists, Socialists, criminals and asocials. In fact, many Germans favoured the Nazi crackdown on these social elements and their imprisonment in concentration camps; they believed that the Gestapo would not harass good ‘national comrades’ (Volksgenossen).


However, the arguments illustrated so far must not lead to the conclusion that the Gestapo was a passive institution that relied on the consensus created by the regime and merely reacted to the denunciations of the civilian population.


The Gestapo was a reactive organ only in cases of minor importance. It relied mainly on denunciations only for its operations against Germans who had committed isolated crimes. In cases of major importance, such as those involving Communist, Socialist and clerical resistance, the Gestapo was proactive and relied almost exclusively on its own agents and initiative.


Johnson’s study of Gestapo archives in Cologne and Krefeld has showed that only a tiny fraction of cases involving Communists, Socialists and religious sects were set off by denunciations. The large majority of these cases was initiated by the Gestapo’s surveillance network and by confessions extracted during interrogations.


Even the majority of cases involving Jews, who were the social group most affected by voluntary denunciations, did not come to the Gestapo through denunciations. In Krefeld, for instance, only 24 % of cases against Jews began with denunciations made by civilians.


Finally, during the war years the Gestapo intensified its activities and the role played by denunciations became more and more limited.


The activities of the police to eliminate real and potential opponents took precedence over court sentences and citizens’ rights. People who had been acquitted before a court were arrested and deported to concentration camps only for being suspects and often with no reason at all.


The Gestapo made large use of ‘protective’ and ‘pre-emptive’ detention. When the home front also became the battlefront (from the fall of 1944 until May 1945), any sign of dissent and unwillingness to continue to fight was met with brutal repression.


Therefore, describing Nazi Germany as a ‘self-policing society’ would be an oversimplification. Undeniably, denunciations were numerous, provided useful information to the Gestapo and “helped it to keep ordinary Germans in line”. However, the security police relied on denunciations only for trivial cases.


For the cases that constituted the most serious threats to the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft the Gestapo had to rely on its own network of surveillance, on paid agents and on the confessions extracted, often under torture, from prisoners and suspects.



Riferimenti bibliografici:


Bessel, Richard (ed), Life in the Third Reich, Oxford, 1987

Gellately, Robert, The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 1933-1945, Oxford, 1990

Gellately, Robert, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, Oxford, 2001.

Grau, Günther, ‘Persecution, “Re-education” or “Eradication” of male homosexuals between 1933 and 1945’, in G. Grau (ed), Hidden Holocaust? Gay and Lesbian Persecution in Germany, 1933-1945, Cassell, 1995

Johnson, Eric, The Nazi Terror: Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans, London, 2000

Kershaw, Ian, The `Hitler Myth’, Oxford, 1987

Kershaw, Ian Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria, 1933-1945, Oxford, 1983

Mallmann, Klaus-Michael and Paul, Gerhard, ‘Omiscient, omnipotent, omnipresent? Gestapo, society and resistance’, in David Crew (ed.), Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945, Routledge, London, 1994

Kogon, Eugen, The theory and practice of hell, The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them, 1950

Noakes, Jerely and Pridham, Geoffrey, Nazism 1919-1945, University of Exeter Press, 2000

Schoenbaum, David, Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany, 1933-1939, London, 1966

Zipfel, Friedrich, `Gestapo and SD: A sociographic profile of the organisers of the terror’, in S. Larsen (ed), Who were the Fascists: Social Roots of European Fascism, Bergen, 1980. 




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