The Gestapo: The Myth and Reality of Hitler's Secret Police by Frank McDonough, book review

A myth-busting study exposes how ordinary Germans ran rings round the secret police
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The Independent Culture

Germans in the Nazi era were keen on abbreviating the names of police departments to the word "po". The crime police became the Kripo, the security police the Sipo and so on. Far more infamous than those two was the Geheime Staatspolizei, the secret police, or Gestapo. Long after memories of the Kripo and Sipo faded, the Gestapo lives on in our collective imagination as the acme of Nazi terror. Sleepless, omnipresent, possessed of great intelligence – albeit twisted to a malign purpose – the Gestapo was the stuff of nightmares.

Or was it? Frank McDonough's myth-busting biography of Hitler's secret police in no way underplays the Gestapo's leading role – among several other agencies – in the Holocaust. What it does is question how scary the Gestapo was to the ordinary German who was not a Jew, Gypsy or a homosexual. Something of an afterthought when it was set up in 1933, the Gestapo never numbered more than 16,000 officers, not nearly enough to patrol tens of millions of people. Cologne, with a population of 750,000, had 69 Gestapo officers, less than one per 10,000 inhabitants. In most small towns the Gestapo was not present at all. Such a small force, the author notes, had to be reactive rather than proactive, relying chiefly on a steady flow of denunciations from the public.

These were not slow in coming but what is surprising is how cautious the Gestapo officers often were in responding to them. They were especially wary of late-night calls from women claiming to have just discovered that their husbands hated Hitler. "Gestapo officers did not regard working-class wives as reliable witnesses," he writes. And, at a time when many Germans lived in boarding houses, they were also cautious about snitchers on fellow tenants, suspecting that many of these newly discovered subversives were victims of obscure feuds.


Still more surprising is how gingerly the Gestapo dealt with undoubted malcontents. McDonough notes the case of Heinrich Veet, a factory worker who answered a call to give the Hitler salute with: "Don't give me that shit!" The Gestapo put Veet in jail but soon let him out after his brother hired a lawyer, who made no attempt to prove that Veet was a Nazi, merely noting that as a known admirer of the former Kaiser he could hardly be considered subversive.

Another remarkable point that McDonough makes is that judges often threw out cases brought by the Gestapo. Many were old-fashioned conservatives, he explains, trained under the Prussian monarchy, with a prickly sense of their own independence.

McDonough does not suggest the Gestapo were deliberately humane, only that they were few in number, were selective, and operated on the premise that your average heterosexual Aryan was either basically loyal – or, if not, posed no serious threat to the regime.

None of the above applied to Jews, gays, or Communist activists, of course – or to Jehovah's Witnesses. Quite why the Nazis had it in for this tiny sect is a mystery, but they did.

McDonough is careful to point out that his story is necessarily incomplete because most of the Gestapo's records disappeared when their HQ in Berlin was blown to smithereens in 1945. What he produces, however, offers real insight into the methods, motives and backgrounds of the men who tried – not that successfully it seems – to police the thoughts of the inhabitants of the Third Reich.