The (contraction of geheime Staatspolizei: "Secret State Police") was the official secret police of Nazi Germany. Under the overall administration of the Schutzstaffel (SS), it was administered by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) ("head office of the Reich's security service") and was considered a dual organization of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) ("security service") and also a suboffice of the Sicherheitspolizei (SIPO) ("security police").
As part of the deal in which Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Hermann Göring was named as Interior Minister of Prussia. This gave him command of the largest police force in Germany. Soon afterward, Göring detached the political and intelligence departments from the police and filled their ranks with Nazis. On April 26, 1933; Göring merged the two units as the Gestapo. He originally wanted to name it the Secret Police Office (Geheimes Polizeiamt), but discovered the German initials "GPA" would be too similar to the Soviet GPU.
Its first commander was Rudolf Diels, a protégé of Hermann Göring (the commander of the Luftwaffe and an influential Nazi Party official). Diels was best known as the primary interrogator of Marinus van der Lubbe after the Reichstag fire. Göring himself took over the Gestapo in 1934 and urged Hitler to extend the agency's authority throughout Germany. This represented a radical departure from German tradition, which held that law enforcement was (mostly) a Land (state) and local matter. In this, he ran into conflict with Heinrich Himmler, who was police president of the second most powerful German state, Bavaria.
In April 1934, Göring and Himmler agreed to put aside their differences (largely because of mutual hatred of the Sturmabteilung) and Göring transferred full authority over the Gestapo to Himmler, who was also named chief of all German police forces outside Prussia. In 1936, most German police forces were united under Himmler's command. At that point, the Gestapo was incorporated into the Sicherheitspolizei and considered a sister organisation of the Sicherheitsdienst.
The Gestapo had the authority to investigate treason, espionage and sabotage cases, and cases of criminal attacks on the Nazi Party and Germany. A law passed by the government in 1936 gave the Gestapo carte blanche to operate without judicial oversight. The Gestapo was specifically exempted from responsibility to administrative courts, where citizens normally could sue the state to conform to laws. As early as 1935, however, a Prussian administrative court had ruled that the Gestapo's actions were not subject to judicial review.
A further law passed later in the year gave the Gestapo responsibility for setting up and administering concentration camps. Also in 1936, Reinhard Heydrich became head of the Gestapo and Heinrich Müller, chief of operations; Müller would later assume overall command of the Gestapo after Heydrich's assassination in 1942 and Ernst Kaltenbrunner would take over as overall head of the RSHA and SD. Adolf Eichmann was Müller's direct subordinate and head of department IV, section B4, which dealt with Jews.
The power of the Gestapo most open to misuse was called Schutzhaft - "protective custody", a euphemism for the power to imprison people without judicial proceedings. The person imprisoned even had to sign his or her own Schutzhaftbefehl, an order declaring that the person had requested imprisonment (presumably out of fear of personal harm). In addition, thousands of political prisoners throughout Germany – and from 1941, throughout the occupied territories under the Night and Fog Decree – simply disappeared under Gestapo custody.
During World War II, the Gestapo was expanded to around 46,000 members.
The German opposition was in an unenviable position by the late spring and early summer of 1943. On one hand, it was next to impossible for them to overthrow Hitler and the party; on the other, the Allied demand for an unconditional surrender meant no opportunity for a compromise peace, which left the people no option (in their eyes) other than continuing the military struggle.
Nevertheless, some Germans did speak out and show signs of protest during the summer of 1943. Despite fear of the Gestapo after the mass arrests and executions of the spring, the opposition still plotted and planned. Some Germans were convinced that it was their duty to apply all possible expedients to end the war as quickly as possible; that is, to further the German defeat by all available means. The Gestapo cracked down ruthlessly on the dissidents in Germany, just as they did everywhere else.
The fall of Benito Mussolini gave the opposition plotters more hope to be able to achieve similar results in Germany and seemed to provide a propitious moment to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. Several Hitler assassination plots were planned, albeit mostly in abstract terms. The only serious attempt was carried out under the codename Operation Valkyrie, in which several officers attempted to assassinate Hitler in a coup d'état. On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg brought a bomb-laden suitcase into a briefing room where Hitler was holding a meeting. The bomb went off and several were killed. Hitler, along with several others, was wounded, but his life was saved when the suitcase was moved away by an unwitting meeting presenter. Hitler was shielded from the blast by the conference table, leaving him with minor injuries. Subsequently about 5,000 people were arrested and approximately 200, including von Stauffenberg, were executed in connection with the attempt, some on the very same day.
During June, July and August, the Gestapo continued to move swiftly against the opposition, rendering any organised opposition impossible. Arrests and executions were common. Terror against the people had become a way of life. A second major reason was that the opposition's peace feelers to the Western Allies did not meet with success.
This was part because of the aftermath of the Venlo incident of 1939, when Gestapo agents posing as anti-Nazis in the Netherlands kidnapped two British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officers lured to a meeting to discuss peace terms. That prompted Winston Churchill to ban any further contact with the German opposition. In addition, the British and Americans did not want to deal with anti-Nazis because they were fearful that the Soviet Union would believe they were attempting to make deals behind the Soviets' back.
Leaders, organisers, instigators and accomplices participating in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to commit the crimes specified were declared responsible for all acts performed by any persons in execution of such plan. The official positions of defendants as heads of state or holders of high government offices were not to free them from responsibility or mitigate their punishment; nor was the fact that a defendant acted pursuant to an order of a superior to excuse him from responsibility, although it might be considered by the IMT in mitigation of punishment.
At the trial of any individual member of any group or organisation, the IMT was authorised to declare (in connection with any act of which the individual was convicted) that the group or organisation to which he belonged was a criminal organization. When a group or organization was thus declared criminal, the competent national authority of any signatory had the right to bring individuals to trial for membership in that organisation, with the criminal nature of the group or organisation assumed proved.
These groups – the Nazi party and government leadership, the German General Staff and High Command (OKW); the Sturmabteilung (SA); the Schutzstaffel (SS), including the Sicherheitsdienst (SD); and the Gestapo – had an aggregate membership exceeding 2 million, making a large number of their members liable to trial if the organisations were convicted.
The trials began in November, 1945, and on October 1, 1946 the IMT rendered its judgment on 21 top officials of the Third Reich: 18 were sentenced to death or to extensive prison terms, and 3 acquitted. The IMT also convicted three of the groups: the Nazi leadership corps, the SS (including the SD) and the Gestapo. Gestapo members Hermann Göring and Arthur Seyss-Inquart were individually convicted.
Three groups were acquitted of collective war crimes charges, but this did not relieve individual members of those groups from conviction and punishment under the denazification programme. Members of the three convicted groups were subject to apprehension and trial as war criminals by the national, military, and occupation courts of the four Allied powers (Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union and France). Moreover, even though individual members of the convicted groups might be acquitted of war crimes, they still remained subject to trial under the denazification programme.
In various countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Gestapo is used as a derogatory name for all police forces, but particularly the communist-era riot police, such as ZOMO. Elsewhere, the term is commonly used to describe any group involved in overzealous enforcement of specific tastes or views (e.g. "the style Gestapo", "the political-correctness Gestapo").
In 1939 the entire Gestapo was placed under the authority of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), the main office of the SS. Within the RSHA the Gestapo was known as Amt IV ("office IV"). The internal organization of the group is outlined below.
As historian Robert Gellately's analysis of the local offices established, the Gestapo was for the most part made up of bureaucrats and clerical workers who depended upon denunciations by ordinary Germans for their information. Indeed, the Gestapo was overwhelmed with denunciations and spent most of its time sorting out the credible from the less credible denunciations. Far from being an all-powerful agency that knew everything about what was happening in German society, the local offices were under-staffed, over-worked offices who struggled with the paper load caused by so many denunciations. The ratio of Gestapo officers to the population of the areas they were responsible for was extremely low; for example, for Lower Franconia, with a population of about one million in the 1930s, there was only one Gestapo office with 28 staff, half of whom were clerical workers. Before the World War II, in the cities of Stettin and Frankfurt am Main, total Gestapo personnel were 41 for both cities. The city of Hanover had only 42 Gestapo personnel, Bielefeld 18, Braunschweig 26, Bremen 44, and Dortmund 76. In Düsseldorf, the local Gestapo office, which had the responsibility for the entire Lower Rhine region, which comprised 4 million people had 281 employees. After 1939, when many Gestapo personnel were called up for war-related work, the level of overwork and understaffing at the local offices was much increased. Furthermore, for information about what was happening in German society, the Gestapo were most part dependent upon these denunciations. 80% of all Gestapo investigations were started in response to information provided by denunciations by "ordinary" Germans; while 10% were started in response in to information provided by other branches of the German government and another 10% started in response to information that the Gestapo itself unearthed.
Thus, it was ordinary Germans by their willingness to denounce one another who supplied the Gestapo with the information that determined who the Gestapo arrested. The popular picture of the Gestapo with its spies everywhere terrorizing German society has been firmly rejected by most historians as a myth invented after the war as a cover for German society's widespread complicity in allowing the Gestapo to work . Work done by social historians such as Detlev Peukert, Robert Gellately, Reinhard Mann, Inge Marssolek, René Otto, Klaus-Michael Mallamann and Paul Gerhard, which by focusing on the local offices were doing have shown the Gestapo's almost total dependence for denunciations from ordinary Germans, and very much discredited the older "Big Brother" picture with the Gestapo having its eyes and ears everywhere.
In 1942, the Gestapo discovered a cache of Polish intelligence documents in Prague and were surprised to see that Polish agents and informants had been gathering detailed military information and smuggling it out to London, via Budapest and Istanbul. The Poles identified and tracked German military trains to the Eastern front and identified four Ordnungspolizei ("order police") battalions sent to conquered areas of the Soviet Union in October 1941 and engaged in war crimes and mass murder.
Polish agents also gathered detailed information about the morale of German soldiers in the East. After uncovering a sample of the information the Poles had reported, Gestapo officials concluded that Polish intelligence activity represented a very serious danger to Germany. As late as June 6, 1944, Heinrich Müller, concerned about the leakage of information to the Allies, set up a special unit called Sonderkommando Jerzy that was meant to root out the Polish intelligence network in western and southwestern Europe.