Modern history



The systematization of the Nazi mechanism of repression and control under the aegis of Heinrich Himmler’s SS had a marked effect on the concentration camps.149 At least seventy camps had been hastily erected in the course of the seizure of power in the early months of 1933, alongside an unknown but probably even larger number of torture cellars and small prisons in the stormtroopers’ various branch headquarters. Around 45,000 prisoners were held in them at this time, beaten, tortured and ritually humiliated by their guards. Several hundred died as a result of their maltreatment. The vast majority were Communists, Social Democrats and trade unionists. However, most of these early concentration camps and unofficial torture centres were closed down in the second half of 1933 and the first two or three months of 1934. One of the most notorious, the illegal concentration camp set up in the Vulkan shipyard in Stettin, was closed in February 1934 on the orders of the State Prosecutor. A number of the SA and SS officers who had taken the lead in the torture of prisoners there were put on trial and given lengthy sentences. Well before this time, however, a series of official and unofficial amnesties had led to the release of large numbers of chastened and browbeaten inmates. A third of the camp population was released on 31 July 1933 alone. By May 1934 there were only a quarter as many prisoners as there had been a year before, and the regime was beginning to regularize and systematize the conditions of internment of those who remained. 150

Some time before, in June 1933, the Bavarian State Prosecutor had charged camp commandant Wäckerle of Dachau, together with the camp physician and the camp administrator, with being accessories to the murder of prisoners.151 Himmler, who had taken a hand in drawing up the camp regulations enforced, though not very consistently, by Wäckerle, was obliged on 26 June 1933 to sack him and appoint a new commandant. This was Theodor Eicke, an ex-policeman with a distinctly chequered past. Born in 1892, Eicke had been an army paymaster and security guard who had risen through the ranks of the SS to become a battalion leader, in command of over 1,000 men, by the end of 1931. The following year, however, he had been forced to flee to Italy after being convicted of preparing bomb outrages. After running a refugee camp on behalf of the Fascist government, Eicke had returned to Germany in February 1933 to take part in the Nazi seizure of power. But he soon quarelled violently with Josef Bürckel, the Regional Leader of the Palatinate, who committed him to a mental hospital; the alarmed Himmler had him psychiatrically examined and found sane.152 One of his subordinates in Dachau, Rudolf Höss, described him as ‘an inflexible Nazi of the old type’ who regarded the mainly Communist prisoners in the early concentration camps as ‘sworn enemies of the state, who were to be treated with great severity and destroyed if they showed resistance’.153

In June 1933 Himmler remembered that Eicke had organized a camp in Italy with some success, and appointed him to run Dachau. The new commandant reported later that he had found corruption amongst the guards, poor equipment and low morale in the camp administration. There were ‘no cartridges or rifles, let alone machine guns. Of the entire staff only three men could handle a machine gun. My men were billeted in draughty factories. Everywhere there was poverty and misery’ - everywhere, that is, among the guards; he did not mention any possible poverty and misery among the prisoners. Eicke sacked half the complement of 120 staff and appointed replacements. He issued a comprehensive set of regulations in October 1933, which, unlike the previous ones, also laid down a code of conduct for the guards. These imposed the appearance of order and uniformity where previously there had been arbitrary brutality and violence. They were draconian in the extreme. Prisoners who discussed politics with the aim of ‘incitement’, or spread ‘atrocity propaganda’, were to be hanged; sabotage, assaulting a guard, or any kind of mutiny or insubordination was punishable by the firing squad. Lesser infringements met with a variety of lesser punishments. These included solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water for a period of time varying with the offence; corporal punishment (twenty-five strokes of the cane); punishment drill; tying to a post or a tree for a period of hours; hard labour; or the withholding of mail. Additional punishment of this kind also carried with it a prolongation of the inmate’s sentence.154

Eicke’s system was intended to rule out personal and individual punishments and to protect officers and guards from prosecution by the local law officers by setting up a bureaucratic apparatus to provide written justification for the punishments inflicted. Formal regulation could thus claim to have replaced arbitrary violence. Beatings for example were to be carried out by several SS men, in front of the prisoners, and all punishments had to be recorded in writing. Strict rules were laid down governing the behaviour of the SS guards. They had to conduct themselves in a military fashion. They were not to engage in private conversations with the prisoners. They had to observe minutely detailed procedures for conducting the daily roll-call of the inmates, the supervision of prisoners in the camp workshop, the issuing of commands, and the implementation of punishments. Prisoners were issued with regular uniforms and prescribed exact duties in keeping their living quarters tidy. Arrangements were made for basic sanitary and medical provisions, notably absent in some of the camps in the early months of 1933. Work details outside the camp, consisting mainly of hard, unremitting physical labour, were also introduced. Eicke established a systematic and hierarchical division of labour among the staff, and issued guards with special insignia to be worn on their collars: the death’s head, after which the concentration camp division of the SS, given a separate identity after the end of 1934, was soon to be known. This symbolized Eicke’s doctrine of extreme severity towards the prisoners. As Rudolf Höss later recalled:

It was Eicke’s intention that his SS-men, by means of continuous instruction and suitable orders concerning the dangerous criminality of the inmates, should be made basically ill-disposed towards the prisoners. They were to ‘treat them rough’, and to root out once and for all any sympathy they might feel for them. By such means, he succeeded in engendering in simple-natured men a hatred and antipathy for the prisoners which an outsider will find hard to imagine.155

Höss himself, after signing up with the SS in September 1933, had been asked by Himmler, whom he knew from their contact through the ‘blood-and-soil’ Artamen League, to join the ‘Death’s Head Formation’ of SS concentration camp guards at Dachau. Here his habitual discipline and industriousness won him rapid promotion. He received his officer’s commission in 1936 and was put in charge of the stores and of prisoners’ property.

A former inmate of a state prison himself, Höss later wrote that most concentration camp inmates found the uncertainty of the duration of their sentence the hardest psychological burden to bear. While an offender sentenced to a term in prison knew when he was going to get out, release for the concentration camp inmate was determined by the whim of a quarterly review board, and could be delayed by the malice of any of the SS guards. In the world of the camps created by Eicke, the rules gave untrammelled power to the guards. The detailed and elaborate rules gave the guards multifarious possibilities of inflicting serious violence on inmates for real or alleged infringements at every level. The rules were designed not least to provide legally defensible excuses for the terror they vented upon the inmates. Höss himself protested that he could not bear to watch the brutal punishments, the beatings and the whippings, inflicted on the inmates. He wrote disparagingly of the ‘malicious, evil-minded, basically bad, brutal, inferior, common creatures’ amongst the guards, who compensated for their sense of inferiority by venting their anger on the prisoners. The atmosphere of hatred was total. Here, Höss, like many other SS guards, believed, were two hostile worlds fighting it out, Communists and Social Democrats on the one side, the SS on the other. Eicke’s rules made it certain the latter would win.156 Not surprisingly, Eicke’s reorganization of Dachau won the approval of Himmler, who appointed him inspector of the concentration camps throughout the Reich on 4 July 1934. On 11 July, Eicke was given the top rank of SS Group Leader alongside Heydrich, the head of the Security Service.157 Eicke’s systematization of the concentration camp regime became the basis for all camps right across Germany. In view of the continued interventions of State Prosecutors in cases of murder committed by camp guards, Eicke confidentially ordered that the rules invoking capital punishment for serious infringements of discipline were not to be applied; they were to remain principally as a means of ‘intimidation’ for the prisoners. The number of arbitrary killings began to decline sharply, though the main reason for this was the continued fall in the overall number of inmates. After some 24 deaths in Dachau in 1933, the number fell to 14 in 1934 (not counting those shot as part of the Röhm purge), 13 in 1935 and 10 in 1936.158

Just as Himmler was taking over and centralizing police forces across Germany, so too he took the concentration camps into the control of the SS in 1934 and 1935, aided by the growth in the power and influence of the SS after the Röhm purge. By this time there were only 3,000 inmates left, a sign that the dictatorship had established itself on a more or less stable basis. Along with the process of systematization went a parallel process of centralization. Oranienburg and Fuhlsbüttel camps were wound up in 1935, Esterwegen in 1936, and Sachsenburg in 1937. By August 1937 there were only four concentration camps in Germany: Dachau, Sachsenhausen (where Höss was transferred the following year), Buchenwald and Lichtenburg, the last-named a camp for women. This reflected to a degree the regime’s growing sense of security and its successful crushing of left-wing opposition. Social Democrats and Communists thought to have learned their lesson were released in the course of 1933-6. Those kept in custody were either too prominent to be released, like the former Communist leader Ernst Thälmann, or were regarded as a hard core who would continue resisting the Third Reich if released. The relatively small numbers were also an indication that the regime had succeeded in bending the state judicial and penal systems to its will, so that the official state prisons, after the closing of the small camps and torture centres set up by the SA in 1933, now played the major role in the incarceration of the real and supposed political enemies of the Third Reich. In the summer of 1937, for instance, the overall number of political prisoners in the camps paled into insignificance in comparison with the 14,000 officially designated political offenders who were held in state prisons. After the initial period of violence and repression in 1933, it was the state rather than the SA and SS that played the major part in dealing with those who offended against the Third Reich’s political norms.159 Here too there was a decline in number as political offenders were released into the community. The effective smashing of the Communist resistance in the mid-1930s was reflected in a decline of high treason convictions from 5,255 in 1937 to 1,126 in 1939, and a corresponding fall in the number of state prison inmates classified as political offenders from 23,000 in June 1935 to 11,265 in December 1938.160 But this was still more than the concentration camps held, and the police, the courts and the prison system continued to play a more important role in political repression under the Third Reich than the SS and the concentration camps did, at least until the outbreak of war.

Map 2.Concentration Camps in August 1939

By February 1936, Hitler had approved a reorientation of the whole system, in which Himmler’s SS and Gestapo were charged not only with preventing any resurgence of resistance from former Communists and Social Democrats, but also - now that the workers’ resistance had been effectively crushed - with purging the German race of undesirable elements. These consisted above all of habitual criminals, asocials and more generally deviants from the idea and practice of the normal healthy member of the German racial community. Jews, so far, did not form a separate category: the aim was to purge the German race, as Hitler and Himmler understood it, of undesirable and degenerate elements. Thus the composition of the camp population now began to change, and the numbers of inmates began to increase again. By July 1937, for instance, 330 of Dachau’s 1,146 inmates were professional criminals, 230 had been sentenced, under welfare regulations, to labour service, and 93 had been arrested as part of a Bavarian police action against vagrants and beggars. Fifty-seven per cent of the prisoners by this time were thus not classified as political at all, in sharp contrast to the situation in 1933-4.161 A dramatic change in the nature and function of the camps was in progress. From being part of a concerted effort, involving also the People’s Court and the Special Courts, to clamp down on political opposition and, above all, resistance from members of the Communist Party, the concentration camps had become instead an instrument of racial and social engineering. The concentration camps were now dumping-grounds for the racially degenerate.162 And the change of function, coupled with Himmler’s success in securing immunity from prosecution for the camp guards and officials for anything they did behind the perimeter fence, soon led to a sharp increase in inmate deaths once more after the relative hiatus of the mid-1930s.163 In 1937, there were 69 deaths in Dachau, seven times more than in the previous year, out of a camp population that had remained more or less unchanged at around 2,200. In 1938 the number of deaths in the camp jumped again, to 370, out of a greatly increased camp population of just over 8,000. In Buchenwald, where conditions were a good deal worse, there were 48 deaths among the 2,200 inmates in 1937, 771 amongst 7,420 inmates in 1938, and no fewer than 1,235 deaths amongst the 8,390 inmates in 1939, these last two figures reflecting not least the effects of a raging typhus epidemic in the camp in the winter of 1938-9.164

The crackdown on ‘community aliens’ in fact had begun immediately in 1933, when several hundred ‘professional criminals’ had been arrested by the police in the first of a number of concerted actions, concentrating among others on organized criminal gangs in Berlin.165 In September 1933, as many as 100,000 vagrants and mendicants were arrested in a ‘Reich beggars’ week’ staged to coincide with the launch of the first Winter Aid programme, in which voluntary contributions were collected for the destitute and the unemployed - a neat illustration of the interdependence of welfare and coercion in the new Reich.166 Offenders such as these did not on the whole end up in the camps, but on 13 November 1933, criminals, along with sex offenders, had been made subject in Prussia to preventive police custody in concentration camps, and there were nearly 500 of them incarcerated there by 1935. After the centralization of the police and its takeover by the SS, this policy became far more widespread and systematic. In March 1937, Himmler ordered the arrest of 2,000 so-called professional or habitual criminals, that is, offenders with several convictions to their name, however petty the offences might be; unlike the ‘security confined’, whose fate had to be determined by the courts, these were put straight into concentration camps without any legal process at all. A decree issued on 14 December 1937 allowed for the arrest and confinement in concentration camps of everyone whom the regime and its various agencies, now working in closer co-operation with the police than before, defined as asocial. Shortly afterwards, the Reich and Prussian Ministries of the Interior extended the definition of asocial to include anyone whose attitude did not fit in with that of the racial community, including gypsies, prostitutes, pimps, tramps, vagrants, beggars and hooligans. Even traffic offenders could be included under some circumstances, as were the long-term unemployed, whose names were obtained by the police from labour exchanges. By this time, the reasoning went, there was no need to be unemployed, so they must be congenitally work-shy and therefore in need of correction. 167

In April 1938 the Gestapo launched a nationwide series of raids. The raids also covered doss-houses of the sort where Hitler had once found shelter in his days of poverty and unemployment in Vienna before the First World War. By June 1938 there were some 2,000 such people in Buchenwald concentration camp alone. At this point, on 13 June, the Criminal Police, acting under orders from Heydrich, launched another series of raids, targeting beggars, tramps and itinerants. The police also arrested unemployed men with permanent places of residence. In many areas they went well beyond Heydrich’s instructions and took all the unemployed into custody. Heydrich had ordered 200 arrests in every police district, but the Frankfurt police arrested 400 and their Hamburg colleagues 700. The total number of arrests across the country was well in excess of 10,000.168 The economic considerations that played such an important role in these actions could be read in the documents justifying preventive detention for these men. The papers on one 54-year-old man arrested in Duisburg in June 1938 as part of this wider action against people classified as asocials noted for example:

According to information from the welfare office here, C. is to be classified as a work-shy person. He does not care for his wife and his 2 children, so that these have to be supported from the public purse. He has never taken up the work duty assigned to him. He has given himself over to drink. He has used up all his benefit payments. He has received several warnings from the welfare office and is described as a classic example of an asocial, irresponsible and work-shy person.169

Taken to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, the man lasted little more than eighteen months before dying, so the camp records claimed, from general physical weakness.170

People classified as asocial now swelled the depleted concentration camp population across Germany, causing massive overcrowding. More than 6,000 were admitted to Sachsenhausen in the summer of 1938, for example; the effects of this on a camp where the total number of inmates had not been more than 2,500 at the beginning of the year were startling. In Buchenwald, 4,600 out of the 8,000 inmates in August 1938 were classified as work-shy. The influx of new prisoners prompted the opening of two new camps, at Flossenburg and Mauthausen, for criminals and ‘asocials’, run by the SS but linked to a subsidiary organization founded on 29 April 1938, the German Earth- and Stoneworks Company. Under the aegis of this new enterprise, the prisoners were forced to work in quarries blasting and digging out granite for the grandiose building schemes of Hitler and his architect Albert Speer.171 The asocials were the underclass of camp life, just as they had been the underclass of society outside. They were treated badly by the guards, and almost by definition they were unable to organize self-help measures of the sort that kept the political prisoners going. The other prisoners looked down on them, and they played little part in camp life. Death and sickness rates among them were particularly high. An amnesty on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday on 20 April 1939 led only a few of them to be released. The rest were there indefinitely. Although their numbers declined, they still formed a major part of the camp population on the eve of the war. In Buchenwald, for instance, 8,892 of the 12,921 preventive detainees counted on 31 December 1938 were classified as asocial; a year later the comparable figure was 8,212 out of 12,221. The raids had fundamentally changed the nature of the camp population.172


By the eve of the war numbers in the concentration camps had grown again, from 7,500 to 21,000, and they now had a much more varied population than in the early years of the regime, when the inmates had overwhelmingly been sent there for political offences.173The camp population was concentrated in a small number of relatively large camps - Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Ravensbrück (the women’s camp, which had replaced Lichtenburg in May 1939), Mauthausen and Sachsenhausen. Already, the search by the SS for building materials had led to the opening of a sub-camp (Aussenlager) of Sachsenhausen, in the Hamburg suburb of Neuengamme, where bricks for Hitler’s planned transformation of the Elbe port were to be manufactured. More were to follow in due course. Labour was becoming an increasingly important function of the camps.174 Yet labour was expendable, and conditions in the new camps were harsher even than they had been in their predecessors in the mid-1930s. From the winter of 1935-6 some camp authorities began to require the different categories of inmates to carry appropriate designations on their uniforms, and in the winter of 1937-8 this was standardized across the system. From now on, every prisoner had to wear an inverted triangle on the left breast of his or her striped camp uniform: black for an asocial, green for a professional criminal, blue for a returning Jewish emigrant (a rather small category), red for political, violet for a Jehovah’s Witness, pink for a homosexual. Jewish prisoners were assigned to one or other of these categories (usually, they were classed as political) but had to wear a yellow triangle underneath their category badge, sewn in the right way up so that the corners were showing, making the whole ensemble into a star of David. These categories were of course often very rough, inaccurately applied or even quite arbitrary, but this did not matter to the camp authorities. By granting limited privileges to political prisoners, they were able to arouse the resentment of the others; by putting criminals in charge of other prisoners, they could stir up divisions between the different types of inmate even further.175

The brutality of camp life in the later 1930s is well conveyed in the memoirs of some of those who managed to survive the experience. One such was Walter Poller, born in 1900, a Social Democratic newspaper editor under the Weimar Republic. Poller became active in the Social Democratic resistance after his dismissal in 1933. He was arrested at the beginning of November 1934 for high treason after the Gestapo had identified him as the author of oppositional leaflets, the third time he had been arrested since early 1933. At the end of his four years in prison he was immediately rearrested and taken to Buchenwald. His experience there testified to the extreme brutality that had now become the norm in the camps. As soon as they arrived, Poller and his fellow prisoners were subjected to a violent and completely unprovoked beating by the SS guards, who drove them into the camp, hitting them with rifle butts and rubber truncheons as they ran. Arriving, dirty, bruised and bloody, in the main barracks for political prisoners, they were read a version of the camp rules by an SS officer, who told them:

Here you are, and you’re not in a sanatorium! You’ll have got that already. Anyone who hasn’t grasped that will soon be made to. You can rely on that . . . You’re not prison inmates here, serving a sentence imposed by the courts, you’re just ‘prisoners’ pure and simple, and if you don’t know what that means, you’ll soon find out. You’re dishonourable and defenceless! You’re without rights! Your fate is a slave’s fate! Amen.176

Poller soon found that although the political prisoners received superior quality camp uniforms and were housed separately from the others, the heavy work to which he was assigned on daily marches outside the camp was too much for him. The Social Democratic and Communist camp inmates, who were well organized and had an elaborate system of informal mutual aid, managed to get him assigned to a job as clerk to the camp doctor. In this position, Poller was able not only to survive until his eventual release in May 1940, but also to observe the daily routine of camp life. It involved a necessary degree of self-government by the prisoners, with senior inmates made responsible for each barracks and Kapos in charge of mustering and presenting the inmates at roll-call and on other occasions - a task which many of them carried out with a brutality that rivalled that of the guards. But all the prisoners, whatever their position, were completely at the mercy of the SS, who did not hesitate to exploit their position of absolute power over life and death whenever they pleased.177

Every day, Poller reported, the inmates were roused at four or five in the morning, according to the season, and had to wash, get dressed and make their beds, military-style, eat and get out onto the parade-ground for roll-call in double-quick time. Any infringement, such as a poorly made-up bed or a late arrival for roll-call, would call forth a rain of curses and blows from the Kapos or the guards, or placement on a punishment detail, where conditions of work were especially harsh. Roll-call provided another opportunity for beatings and assaults. On one occasion in 1937, Poller saw how two political prisoners were roughly hauled out of the ranks, taken out through the camp gates and shot, for reasons that nobody ever discovered. SS men had no problem in using the painstakingly detailed regulations to convict prisoners they did not like of infringements - including such vague offences as laziness at work - and ordering them to be whipped, a procedure that had to be officially recorded on a two-page yellow form. Prisoners were frequently forced to watch as the offender was tied hand and foot to a bench, face down, and beaten by an SS guard with a cane. Not one beating, Poller reported, ever followed the rules laid down on the form. Prisoners sentenced according to regulations to five, ten or twenty-five strokes were required to count them out aloud, and if they forgot, the beating would start all over again. The prescribed cane was frequently replaced by a dog-whip, a leather strap or even a steel rod. Often the beatings continued until the offender lost consciousness. Frequently the camp authorities tried to drown out the screams of the prisoners undergoing a beating by ordering the camp band, consisting of prisoners with proven musical abilities, to play a march or a song while it lasted.178

For more serious infringements of the rules, prisoners could be put into ‘arrest’, kept in a tiny, darkened, unheated cell for days or weeks on end, living only on bread and water. In winter, this could often be as good as a death sentence. More common was the punishment of being suspended from a pole for hours on end by the wrists, causing long-lasting muscular pain and damage, and sometimes, if it went on for long enough, loss of consciousness and death. Escape attempts aroused the particular rage of the SS guards, who realized that in view of their small numbers in comparison to those of the inmates, a determined mass escape attempt was more than likely to succeed. Those caught were savagely beaten, sometimes to death, in front of the others, or publicly hanged on the camp square as the commandant issued a warning to the whole camp that this was the fate of all who tried to get away. On one occasion at Sachsenhausen, a prisoner found trying to escape was dragged onto the camp parade-ground, severely beaten, nailed into a small wooden box and left there for a week in full view of all the inmates until he was dead.179 Faced with such threats, the vast majority of camp inmates concentrated on simply staying alive. During the day, they worked in the camp in small workshops if they had some particular handicraft skill; most of them, however, were marched out of the camp on work-details to carry out labour-intensive tasks such as digging up stones for the camp roads, quarrying chalk or gravel, or clearing away rubble. Here too, guards beat those they thought were not working hard, or quickly, enough and shot without warning anyone who strayed too far from the main group. In the late afternoon the prisoners were marched back into the camp for yet another lengthy roll-call, standing to attention sometimes for hours on end, wet, dirty and exhausted. Sometimes in winter men would collapse in the cold, dead from hypothermia. As the lights were turned out in the barracks, the camp guards warned that anyone seen walking around outside would be shot.180

The arbitrary and sometimes sadistic brutality of the guards reflected not least the brutality and sadism of their own training as SS men. By the late 1930s about 6,000 SS men were stationed in Dachau, and 3,000 in Buchenwald. The (much smaller) daily details of camp guards were drawn from these units, which consisted mostly of young men from the lower classes - farmers’ sons in Dachau, for example, with some young men from the lower middle and working classes in addition at Buchenwald. Mostly poorly educated and already used to physical hardships, they were schooled to be tough, showered with bellowed curses and verbal abuse by their officers during training, and given humiliating punishments if they failed to make the grade. One SS recruit later recalled that anyone who dropped a cartridge during weapons training was required to pick it up off the ground with his teeth. Such ideological indoctrination as they received mostly emphasized the need for hardness in the face of the enemies of the German race such as they were to encounter in the camps. On arrival at the camp, they lived in their barracks largely cut off from the outside world, with few amusements, few opportunities to meet girls or take part in local everyday life, condemned to the daily tedium of surveillance. Under such circumstances it was not surprising that they were rough towards the prisoners, showered them with obscene abuse, strengthened their own feelings of importance by condemning them to harsh punishments on the slightest pretext, relieved their boredom by subjecting them to every kind of brutal trick or avenged the physical humiliation and hardship of their own training by visiting the same upon them; it was, after all, the only kind of drill and discipline they knew themselves. Those who joined the SS after 1934 at the latest generally knew, of course, what they were letting themselves in for, so they already came with a high degree of ideological commitment; still, anyone who did not want to take part in the daily infliction of pain and terror in the camps had every opportunity to resign, and many in fact did so, especially in 1937 and 1938, as the camp regime became notably harsher. In 1937, for instance, nearly 8,000 men were released from the SS, including 146 from the Death’s Head Squads, 81 of these at their own request. Eicke ordered on 1 April 1937 that any member of these squads ‘who is incapable of obedience and looks for compromise must go’. One guard who took up his duties around Easter 1937 asked his commandant for release from the service after seeing prisoners being beaten and hearing screams coming from the cells. He wanted to be a soldier, he said, not a prison warder. He was forced to do punishment drill and even interviewed by Eicke himself to try and make him change his mind, but he stood firm, and was granted his request on 30 July 1937. Those who remained were therefore, it can safely be assumed, committed to their job and without scruples or qualms about the sufferings to which the prisoners were subjected.181

Many thousands of inmates were released from the camps, especially in 1933-4. ‘I know’, a senior camp official told Walter Poller as he was given his release papers, ‘that you’ve seen things here that the public perhaps doesn’t wholly understand yet. You must keep absolute silence about them. You know that, don’t you? And if you don’t do that, then you’ll soon be back here, and you know what’ll happen to you then.’182 Communication between inmates and their relatives or friends was restricted, officers and guards were banned from talking about their work to outsiders. What happened in the camps was meant to be shrouded in mystery. Attempts by the regular police and prosecution authorities to investigate murders that took place there in the early years were generally rebuffed.183 By 1936 the concentration camps had become institutions beyond the law. On the other hand, however, the regime made no secret at all of the basic fact of their existence. The opening of Dachau in 1933 was widely reported in the press, and further stories told how Communist, Reichsbanner and ‘Marxist’ functionaries who endangered state security were being sent there; how the numbers of inmates grew rapidly into the hundreds; how they were being set to work; and how lurid atrocity stories of what went on inside were incorrect. The fact that people were publicly warned in the press not to try and peer into the camp, and would be shot if they tried to climb the walls, only served to increase the general fear and apprehension that these stories must have spread.184 What happened in the camps was a nameless horror that was all the more potent because its reality could only be guessed at from the broken bodies and spirits of inmates when they were released. There could be few more frightening indications of what would happen to people who engaged in political opposition or expressed political dissent, or, by 1938-9, deviated from the norms of behaviour to which the citizen of the Third Reich was supposed to adhere.185


Nazi terror was nowhere more apparent than in the emerging power and fearsome reputation of the Gestapo. The role of the police in hunting down and apprehending political and other types of offenders had become more central to the repressive apparatus of the regime once the first wave of mass violence by the brownshirts had ebbed away. The Gestapo in particular quickly attained an almost mythical status as an all-seeing, all-knowing arm of state security and law enforcement. People soon began to suspect that it had agents in every pub and club, spies in every workplace or factory, informers lurking in every bus and tram and standing on every street corner.186 The reality was very different. The Gestapo was a very small organization with a tiny number of paid agents and informers. In the shipbuilding city of Stettin, there were only 41 Gestapo officers in 1934, the same number as in Frankfurt am Main; in 1935 there were only 44 Gestapo officers in Bremen, and 42 in Hanover. The district office for the Lower Rhine, covering a population of 4 million people, had only 281 agents in its headquarters in Düsseldorf and its various sub-branches in the region, in March 1937. Far from being the fanatical Nazis of legend, these men were generally career policemen who had joined the force under the Weimar Republic or in some cases even earlier. Many of them thought of themselves in the first place as trained professionals. In Würzburg, for example, only the head of the Gestapo office and his successor had joined the Nazi Party before the end of January 1933; the others had kept their distance from political involvement. All told, of the 20,000 or so men who were serving Gestapo officers across the whole of Germany in 1939, only 3,000 were also members of the SS, despite the fact that their organization had been run by the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, from early on in the Third Reich.187

The professional policemen who staffed the Gestapo included its head, Heinrich Müller, of whom a local Nazi Party official wrote in 1937 that ‘we can hardly imagine him as a member of the Party’. An internal Party memorandum from the same year, indeed, could not understand how ‘so odious an opponent of the movement’ could become head of the Gestapo, especially since he had once referred to Hitler as ‘an immigrant unemployed house-painter’ and ‘an Austrian draft-dodger’. Other Nazi Party officials noted, however, that Muller was ‘incredibly ambitious’ and would be ‘bent on recognition from his superiors under any system’. The key to his durability under the Nazi regime was his fanatical anti-Communism, imbibed when he had been assigned his first case as a policeman at the age of nineteen - the murder of the hostages by the ‘Red Army’ in revolutionary Munich after the end of the First World War. He had run the anti-Communist department of the Munich political police during the Weimar Republic and put the crushing of Communism above everything else, including what the Nazi regime liked to refer to as ‘legal niceties’. Moreover, Muller, who had volunteered for war service at the age of seventeen and subsequently been decorated several times for bravery, was a stickler for duty and discipline, and approached the tasks he was set as if they were military commands. A true workaholic who never took a holiday and was hardly ever ill, Muller was determined to serve the German state, irrespective of what political form it took, and believed that it was everyone’s duty, not least his own, to obey its dictates without question. Impressed with his exemplary efficiency and dedication, Heydrich kept him on and indeed enrolled him in the Security Service with his entire team.188

Most of the leading Gestapo officials were office workers rather than field operatives. They spent much of their time in compiling and updating elaborate card indices, processing floods of incoming instructions and regulations, filing masses of papers and documents and disputing competence with other agencies and institutions. Building on the already very detailed indices of Communists and their sympathizers drawn up by the political police under the Weimar Republic, the Gestapo aimed to keep a comprehensive register of ‘enemies of the state’, broken down into a host of different categories who were to be subject to different kinds of treatment. Tabs on the index cards showed the category to which each individual belonged - dark red for a Communist, light red for a Social Democrat, violet for a ‘grumbler’ and so on. Bureaucratized policing had a long tradition in Germany. It was largely information-gathering and processing systems such as these, and the clerks needed to maintain them, that accounted for the increase in the Berlin Gestapo headquarters budget from one million Reichsmarks in 1933 to no less than forty million in 1937.189

Fewer than 10 per cent of the cases with which the Gestapo dealt came from investigations it had begun itself. Some derived from paid informers and spies, most of them casually employed amateurs. Other agencies in which people’s identity could be checked, such as population registration offices and the local criminal police, the railways and the Post Office, contributed their part as well. Sometimes, the Gestapo asked known Nazi Party activists to help them track down oppositional elements. No particular disadvantage seems to have resulted to most of these people if they refused. The League of German Girls activist Melita Maschmann was contacted by the Gestapo and asked to spy on the family of a former friend whose brothers were active in a Communist youth resistance group. When she refused, she wrote later, ‘I was harassed daily and finally my National Socialist convictions were called into question.’ Beyond this, however, nothing happened to her. In any case, she eventually came round. A senior member of the League of German Girls convinced her that the resistance group was ‘endangering the future of Germany’. So she complied, only to find that she was unable to convince her friend’s family of her bona fides, so the house was empty when she arrived there on the day on which the resistance group was scheduled to meet. ‘The Gestapo official’, she remembered, ‘was waiting for me outside the house and dismissed me with a curse.’ It was only because she was valued as a propagandist, she thought, that she was kept on in the League of German Girls after this.190

Most frequently, information on labour movement resistance activities came from Communists or Social Democrats whose will had been broken by torture and who had agreed in consequence to inform on their former comrades. Gestapo agents may have spent most of their time in the office, but their duties there included brutal interrogations, with the dirty work being done by SS thugs employed for the purpose. A graphic portrayal of Gestapo questioning was provided by the Communist sailor Richard Krebs, who remained in Germany after the Reichstag fire as a secret courier for the Comintern. Krebs was arrested in Hamburg in 1933 and subjected to weeks of merciless beatings and whippings, completely cut off from the outside world, allowed neither a lawyer nor any kind of communication with his family or his friends. In between interrogations, he was kept chained to a cot in a tiny cell, not allowed to wash, his thumb, broken in one of the sessions with the Gestapo, untreated save for having a bandage wrapped around it. A Gestapo officer fired detailed questions at him, clearly based on information received, and on a bulky police file on him that had been compiled from the early 1920s onwards. Kept in the local prison at Fühlsbüttel for most of the time, Krebs continued to be driven at intervals to Hamburg’s Gestapo headquarters to be questioned by police officers who looked on while SS men beat him up. After several weeks of this, Krebs’s back was a bloody mess, his kidneys were seriously damaged through carefully targeted beating, and he had lost the hearing in one ear. Despite such treatment, he refused to reveal any details of the organization for which he worked.191

Transported to the central office of the Gestapo in Berlin, Krebs was impressed by the more refined and less brutal methods employed there. These depended more on tiring prisoners out by prolonged standing or kneeling in awkward positions than on direct brutality and physical abuse. But the atmosphere was the same as in Hamburg:

Grimy corridors, offices furnished with Spartan simplicity, threats, kicks, troopers chasing chained men up and down the reaches of the building, shouting, rows of girls and women standing with their noses and toes against the walls, overflowing ash-trays, portraits of Hitler and his aides, the smell of coffee, smartly dressed girls working at high speed behind typewriters - girls seemingly indifferent to all the squalor and agony about them, stacks of confiscated publications, printing machines, books, and pictures, and Gestapo agents asleep on tables.192

Before long, the Gestapo’s tactics with the recalcitrant Communist sailor reverted to their old brutality again. Krebs later claimed that he was again subjected to hours of continuous beating with rubber truncheons, and confronted by a series of former comrades whose will had been broken by the same means. A more serious impact was made on his morale, however, when the Gestapo revealed to him that they had arrested his wife when she returned to Germany from exile to look for their son, who had been taken from them and had disappeared into the welfare network. Desperate to stop the Gestapo from doing anything worse to his wife, he approached his fellow Communists in the prison and suggested he offer to work for the Gestapo, while in fact functioning for the Communist Party as a double-agent. Successfully concealing from them the fact that his wife had left the party shortly after his own arrest, he presented his stratagem as a means of rescuing a dedicated comrade from the clutches of the regime. They agreed, and the ruse worked. In March 1934 he gave in to the Gestapo, who, initially at least, accepted his feigned conversion as genuine.193 Now the tables were turned. Krebs was quickly released under an amnesty and resumed contact with the Comintern. Much of the information he gave the Gestapo seems to have been either false, or - as far as he was aware - already known to them from other sources. Their suspicions aroused, the Gestapo refused to allow his wife’s release, and she died in custody in November 1938. Convincing the Gestapo that he would be more use in the international arena, Krebs obtained permission to leave for the USA. He did not return.194 His history illustrated the close co-operation that quickly grew up between the Gestapo, the SS, the courts and the camps. It also showed the unremitting zeal with which the Nazi regime pumped Communist agents for information about the resistance, and the ruthlessness with which they pursued the goal of turning them to work for the Third Reich instead of the Communist International.195


Information supplied by Communists and Social Democrats under torture in the prison cells of the Gestapo was mainly important in tracking down organized political opposition. Where casual remarks, political jokes and individual offences against various Nazi laws were concerned, denunciations sent in by Nazi Party agents of one kind and another, and also by members of the general public, were more important. In Saarbrücken, for instance, no fewer than 87.5 per cent of cases of ‘malicious slander against the regime’ handled by the district Gestapo office originated in reports sent in by innkeepers or people sitting in their bars, by work colleagues of the accused, by people who had overheard suspicious remarks in the street, or by members of the accused person’s family.196 So many denunciations were sent in to the Gestapo that even fanatical leading Nazis such as Reinhard Heydrich complained about them and the district Gestapo office in Saarbrücken itself registered its alarm at the ‘constant expansion of an appalling system of denunciation’. What dismayed them was in particular the fact that many denunciations appeared to be made from personal rather than ideological motives. Leading figures in the Party might have encouraged people to expose disloyalty, grumbling and dissent, but they wanted this practice to be a sign of loyalty to the regime, not a means of offloading personal resentments and gratifying personal desires. Thirty-seven per cent of 213 cases subsequently studied by one historian arose out of private conflicts, while another 39 per cent had no discernible motive at all; only 24 per cent were clearly made by people acting primarily out of political loyalty to the regime. Neighbours denounced noisy or unruly people living in the same building, office workers denounced people who were blocking their promotion, small businessmen denounced inconvenient competitors, friends or colleagues who quarrelled sometimes took the final step of sending in a denunciation to the Gestapo. School or university students even on occasion denounced their teachers. Whatever the motive, the Gestapo investigated them all. If the denunciation was without foundation, they usually simply relegated it to the files and took no further action. But in many cases, denunciation could lead to the arrest of the person denounced, torture, imprisonment and even death.197

In prosecuting ‘malicious gossip’, the police, the Gestapo and the courts tended to be fairly lenient where middle-class offenders were concerned, and much tougher if the offender was a worker, though the largest group of offenders came from the lower middle class, reflecting not least the fact that denunciation seems to have been most common in this social group. Basing themselves on this law, the Special Courts cracked down hard on the kind of casual dissent that would go unremarked in a normal democratic political system, sentencing over 3,700 people in 1933, and sending the majority of them to prison for an average of six months each. Two-thirds of the defendants tried under this law in the Frankfurt Special Court had been denounced in pubs and bars by fellow drinkers for their remarks. Most offenders were working-class men, who, probably because the courts suspected them of being closet Communists or Social Democrats, received much harsher treatments than Nazi Party members or members of the middle and upper classes.198 A study of several thousand malicious gossip cases brought before the Munich Special Court has shown, however, that the proportion of cases where the accused acted from party-political motives fell from 50 per cent in 1933 to an average of only 12 per cent in 1936-9. From breaking the will of Communists and Social Democrats to resist in 1933-4, the Court had moved to the new function of preventing any kind of open criticism of the regime, and indeed there was a mild increase in the proportion of ex-Nazis and conservatives and a substantial increase in the proportion of Catholics amongst the accused in the late 1930s.199

Among the statements that landed offenders in gaol under the Malicious Gossip Law were allegations that the Nazis were suppressing the people’s freedom, that civil servants were overpaid, that Julius Streicher’s sensationalistic antisemitic paper The Stormerbrought shame on culture, that prisoners were being beaten up in Dachau, that Hitler was an Austrian deserter, that the brownshirts were all ex-Communists (this was a favourite accusation of conservative Catholics), and that Hermann Göring and other leading figures in the Third Reich were corrupt. The offenders were hardly radical, principled or sophisticated critics of the regime, then, and their offending statements were often little more than inarticulate and uninformed expressions of discontent, put into a personal form.200 Some officials felt uneasy at the fact that, as a regional administrator put it in 1937, ‘the sentencing of chatterboxes makes up a very large proportion of the activities of the Special Courts’. Most of those arrested and tried under the Malicious Gossip Law, he thought, were just grumblers who did not oppose the regime in any serious way at all. ‘Necessary though it is to crack down hard on treasonable verbal propaganda,’ he went on, ‘there is also a considerable danger that the excessively harsh punishment of basically harmless chatter will lead to bitterness and incomprehension among the friends and relatives of those who are condemned for it by the courts.’ But this was to miss the point. Jokes and rude remarks about the Nazi leaders never amounted to opposition or resistance on principle; it was in most cases little more than blowing off steam. But the regime was not just concerned to suppress active opposition; it sought to eliminate even the tiniest signs of discontent, and to suppress anything that might suggest that the population was not massively and wholeheartedly behind everything it did. From this point of view, malicious gossip and political jokes could be just as objectionable as outright criticism and resistance.201

Offenders often landed before the courts as the result of mere chance. An actor, for example, sat down at a table in a restaurant near the railway station in Munich one spring day in 1938; the table was already occupied by a married couple, whom he had not met before, and they fell into conversation. As he began to criticize the regime’s foreign policy, he noticed from their reaction that he had gone too far; he hurriedly rose from the table to catch his train, or so he claimed. The couple followed him, but could not find him, so they gave his description to the police, who tracked him down and arrested him two days later. Others landed before the court as a result of personal quarrels that got out of hand, as when a drunken postal worker began insulting Hitler in the presence of two minor Party functionaries whom he knew. When they tried to shut him up, he made matters worse by insulting one of the two men in his capacity as a Party official, so that the latter felt he could only restore his authority amongst the pub regulars by denouncing the postal worker to the police. Whatever the way in which a denunciation occurred, it was obviously dangerous to speak freely in public; people could never be sure who was listening. It was the unpredictability of denunciation, rather than its frequency, that mattered. It caused people to believe that agents of the Gestapo, paid or unpaid, were everywhere, and that the police knew everything that was going on. 202

Denunciations from ordinary people were important. By far the largest proportion of them came in from men; the places in which denouncers overheard suspicious statements, like pubs and bars, were frequently socially barred to women, and even when it was a woman who overheard a statement, perhaps in the stairway of a block of flats or in some similar domestic environment, she often left it to her husband or father to bring the matter to the attention of the police. The proportion varied from place to place, but on average about four out of five denouncers were male. The same domination of men obtained among the denounced. Politics in the Third Reich, even at this very basic level, was predominantly a man’s business.203 Denunciations, however, were only one of many different means of repression and control available to the Gestapo, and, of course, the proportion of ordinary people who actually sent in denunciations was extremely small when set against the population as a whole. A study of the Düsseldorf Gestapo office has shown that out of 825 Gestapo investigations in the historian’s random sample from the period 1933 to 1944, 26 per cent began with information sent in from members of the general population, 17 per cent from the criminal police and other agencies of law enforcement and control such as the SS, 15 per cent from the Gestapo’s own officers or informers, 13 per cent from persons under interrogation in the Gestapo’s cells, 7 per cent from local authorities and other agencies of the state, and 6 per cent from Nazi Party organizations of one kind and another.204 Some of these too may have been initiated in the first place by members of the population, for example sending in a denunciation to a Party agency or local government office. But Party agencies were undoubtedly very important in the whole process of bringing dissent before the Special Courts. In the Bavarian town of Augsburg, it was noted that areas with a strong tradition of labour movement solidarity and the presence of organized opposition to the regime produced fewer denunciations than districts with a high degree of support for the Nazis. Forty-two per cent of denouncers belonged to the Nazi Party or one of its organizations, and 30 per cent of these had joined before 1933.205

The role of active Nazis in denouncing critical or nonconformist statements was particularly prominent in 1933, 1934 and 1935. Not surprisingly, 54 per cent of those denounced in Augsburg were former Communists or Social Democrats, though as many as 22 per cent were actually Nazis, showing that the regime was not immune from criticism from within its own ranks at this time. As in other parts of Germany, many statements picked up by denouncers were made in the town’s pubs and bars, reflecting the long tradition of political discourse that existed in these social institutions. Most strikingly, however, while three-quarters of all critical remarks prosecuted by the courts were overheard in Augsburg’s pubs and bars in 1933, the proportion sank to two-thirds in 1934 and little more than a half in 1935. A few years later it was only one in ten. Clearly, fear of being overheard rapidly inhibited free conversation in pubs, destroying yet another aspect of social life that had hitherto existed free from Nazi control.206 Knowledge of the ever-present danger of denunciation for an incautious word or expression spoken in a public place was important in spreading general fear and anxiety among the population. ‘Everyone cringes with fear,’ wrote the Jewish professor Victor Klemperer in his diary on 19 August 1933: ‘No letter, no telephone conversation, no word on the street is safe any more. Everyone fears the next person may be an informer.’207 What counted was not whether or not there really were informers everywhere, but the fact that people thought there were. The disillusioned writer and journalist Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen recorded his friends’ and his own hatred of Hitler in the privacy of his diary and wondered on 9 September 1937 if anyone outside Germany had ‘any idea of how completely without legal status we are, of what it is to be threatened with denunciation at any time by the next hysteric who comes along’. How, he asked rhetorically, could foreigners comprehend the ‘deathlike loneliness’ of those who did not support the Nazis?208

People could, of course, try to relieve their fear by joking about the situation, preferably in private. ‘In future’, so one joke went, ‘teeth in Germany will be extracted through the nose, since nobody is allowed to open their mouth any more.’ Some began to speak of ‘the German glance’, a counterpart to ‘the German greeting’ when two friends happened on one another in public: it meant looking round to make sure nobody was within earshot. On ending a possibly subversive conversation, one might say to one’s companion instead of ‘Hail, Hitler!’, ‘You’ve said some things as well!’209 Humour could be anecdotal too, of course:

In Switzerland a Nazi bigwig asks the purpose of a public building. ‘That’s our Ministry of Marine,’ says the Swiss man. The Nazi laughs and mocks him. ‘You with your two or three ships, what do you need a Ministry of Marine for?’ The Swiss man: ‘Yes, - so what do you still need a Ministry of Justice in Germany for then?’210

Political jokes themselves might have been irresistible as a release from tension, but everyone knew they could also be dangerous. ‘In the winter-time, two men are standing in the tram making strange movements with their hands under their coats,’ began another one. ‘ “Look at those two”, says one passenger to his fellow, “what are they up to?” “Ah, I know those two, they’re deaf-mutes, they’re telling political jokes to each other!” ’211 Of course, in practice people often told each other political jokes in the open, in pubs, on trams, or when meeting on the street, as the files of the Gestapo agents who arrested them reveal. The authorities themselves realized that humour was usually a way people found to live with the regime; it seldom indicated real opposition to it. As one local police official noted in March 1937:

For some time the devising and telling of political jokes has grown to become a real nuisance. So long as these jokes are the expression of a sound spirit and are harmless in character, there will be, as has been repeatedly underlined at the top level of government, nothing to object to in them. But if they are slanderous in content, then for security reasons we can and must not tolerate their being spread around.212

The journalist Jochen Klepper agreed with this assessment: ‘For all their political jokes and private disappointments, the people are still living in the illusion of the “Third Reich”,’ he concluded resignedly in the summer of 1934.213 Those arrested for disrespectful humour were often released without charge if they had no previous convictions. Only where they had an oppositional record were matters taken further, often ending in a short spell in prison. What mattered in the end was the identity of the joker rather than the nature of the joke, and it is not surprising that the vast majority of those imprisoned under the relevant law (for ‘malicious gossip’) were working-class former Communists or Social Democrats.214 Yet it was the arbitrariness of the police and the defencelessness of those whom they arrested that struck people most. As another joke had it: ‘At the Belgian border crossing, huge numbers of rabbits appear one day and declare that they are political refugees. “The Gestapo wants to arrest all giraffes as enemies of the state.” - “But you’re not giraffes!” - “We know that, but try explaining that to the Gestapo!” ’215

Fear of being denounced, overheard or arrested extended even to private conversations, letters and telephone calls. As early as March and April 1933, Victor Klemperer was complaining in his diary: ‘Nobody dares to say anything any more, everyone’s afraid.’216The Reichstag Fire Decree of 28 February 1933 allowed the Gestapo to open people’s letters and tap their telephones, so, reported Klemperer: ‘People don’t dare write letters, people don’t dare to phone each other, they visit each other and calculate their chances.’217In Berlin, the journalist Charlotte Beradt heard a Social Democratic friend confide to her early in February 1933 a dream he had had, in which Goebbels had visited his workplace, but the dreamer had found it almost impossible to raise his arm in the Nazi salute, and when he finally managed it after half an hour, Goebbels said coldly: ‘I don’t want your salute.’ Alienation from himself, loss of identity, isolation, fear, doubt, all the feelings expressed here were so striking that Beradt decided to make a collection of people’s dreams. By the time she finally left for England in 1939, her unobtrusive inquiries among friends and acquaintances, particularly doctors, who were unlikely to arouse their patients’ suspicions by asking about their dreams, had amassed a collection large enough to fill a book even after all the dreams with no discernible political significance had been weeded out.218

Many of the dreams Beradt collected bore witness to people’s fear of surveillance. One doctor dreamed in 1934 that the walls of his consulting-room and of all the houses and flats in the neighbourhood suddenly vanished, while a loudspeaker blared forth the announcement that it was ‘according to the Decree for the Abolition of Walls, passed on the 17th of this month’. A woman dreamed that when she was at the opera, watching a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, a troop of policemen marched into her box immediately after the line ‘That’s surely the Devil’ had been sung, because they had noted that she had thought of Hitler in connection with the word Devil. As she looked around for help, the old gentleman in the next box spat on her. A girl reported that in a dream she had seen the two pictures of angels that hung over her bed move their eyes downwards from their accustomed heavenward gaze so that they could keep her under observation. A number of people dreamed of being imprisoned behind barbed wire, or having their telephone conversations interrupted, like one man who, after telling his brother over the telephone ‘I can’t enjoy anything any more’, dreamed the same night that his phone had rung and an expressionless voice had announced itself as ‘Office for the Surveillance of Telephone Conversations’: the dreamer immediately realized that being depressed in the Third Reich was a crime, and had asked for forgiveness, but met with nothing but silence. A few dreamed of carrying out small acts of resistance that always turned out to be futile, like the woman who dreamed that she removed the swastika from the Nazi flag every night, but it reappeared every morning all the same.219 In recounting and analysing all these dreams, Charlotte Beradt recalled a claim by the Labour Front leader Robert Ley: ‘The only person in Germany who still has a private life is a person who’s sleeping.’ The dreams she collected showed, she concluded gloomily, that even this was not true.220


The Gestapo, the Nazi Party and the stormtroopers turned their attention not just to opponents, dissenters and malcontents, but also to those who failed to show sufficient enthusiasm for the Third Reich and its policies. Every group of houses had a ‘Block Warden’, the popular name for a variety of officials on the lowest rung of the Nazi hierarchy, whose task it was to ensure that everybody hung out bunting and Nazi flags on special occasions and went along to Nazi rallies and parades. Every local branch of the Nazi Party had an average of eight cells, each organized into roughly fifty blocks containing around fifty households each. The Political Leaders of the Nazi Party, as these low-ranking local officials were generally known, looked after one block each and in turn appointed helpers to cover each block of flats or small group of houses. Already by 1935 there were perhaps 200,000 of these Political Leaders; including their helpers there were almost two million ‘Block Wardens’ by the beginning of the war. Over two-thirds of the Political Leaders were of middle-class origin according to the 1935 Party statistics, and they were particularly hated in working-class districts with a strong Communist or Social Democratic past. They were often the first port of call for denouncers, and they exercised close surveillance over known dissenters, Jews and those who maintained contact with them, and ‘politically unreliable’ people, usually former opponents of the Nazis. Known derisively as ‘golden pheasants’ from their brown-gold uniforms with red collar epaulettes, they were required to report ‘rumour-mongers’ and anyone who failed to conform to the district Party organization, which would pass on their names and their misdemeanours to the Gestapo. Those who fell foul of the Block Wardens could also be denied state benefits and welfare payments. Other branches of the huge Nazi Party apparatus had similar local officials, ranging from the welfare service to the Labour Front and the women’s organization, and all of them carried out similar functions of surveillance and control.221 In factories and workplaces, officials of the Labour Front, the employers, the foremen and the Nazi Security Service took over the functions of the Block Warden. Those workers who did not toe the line were singled out for discriminatory treatment, denial of promotion, transfer to less congenial duties, or even dismissal.222 ‘You couldn’t say anything,’ recalled one worker in the Krupp engineering factory later: ‘the foreman was always standing behind you, nobody could risk it.’223The Nazi terror machine reached down even to the smallest units of everyday life and daily work.

Intimidation was particularly evident during the national plebiscites and elections that Hitler held from time to time to provide the appearance of legitimacy to his actions, especially in foreign policy. The tightening of the regime’s grip can be read from the growing proportion of votes it secured at these propaganda events, which were legitimized by a law of 14 July 1933, passed at the same time as the law turning Germany into a one-party state. The new law allowed the government ‘to consult the people’ on particular policies on its own initiative, a stark difference from the situation under the Weimar Republic, when the power to initiate plebiscites lay with the people. Under the Third Reich, plebiscites and elections became propaganda exercises in which the regime mobilized the electorate, by all the means at its disposal, to provide the appearance of popular legitimacy for controversial measures.224 The first opportunity for using these methods came with the Reichstag election of 12 November 1933. The decree dissolving the Reichstag also permanently abolished the regional state parliaments, whose collective assembly, the Reichsrat, the upper house of the national legislature, was abolished early in 1934. In the Reichstag election, voters were presented with a single party list against which they could record a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. To placate middle-class electors, the list included a number of non-Nazi conservatives such as Papen and Hugenberg, and even a few former representatives of the Centre Party and the People’s Party. A massive propaganda campaign, including a radio broadcast by Hindenburg, was backed up by confidential instructions from the Reich Interior Ministry allowing returning officers wide latitude to interpret spoiled ballot papers as ‘yes’ votes. Some critical spirits suspected that this was what would happen anyway. Victor Klemperer for example noted in his diary on 23 October that ‘no one will dare not to vote, and no one will respond with a No in the vote of confidence. Because 1) Nobody believes in the secrecy of the ballot and 2) a No will be taken as a Yes anyway.’225 Few people dared to complain openly of manipulation, but those who did revealed malpractices such as the violation of ballot secrecy through the numbering of ballot papers, the filling-in of blank papers by returning officers, the removal of opponents of the regime from the electoral register and much more besides. Those who demonstratively refused to vote were arrested; and the presence of Nazis and brownshirts in the polling stations put pressure on people to show their loyalty to the regime by voting openly instead of in the secrecy of the polling booths. With the help of such methods, the regime obtained a ‘yes’ vote of 88 per cent, although almost three and a half million spoiled ballots were cast. Nearly 5 per cent of the voters put a cross against the ‘no’ in the accompanying plebiscite.226

The methods used to obtain such results were made clear in the plebiscite held on 19 August 1934 to set the seal of popular approval on Hitler’s self-appointment as Head of State after Hindenburg’s death. Clandestine reports from Social Democratic agents to their party headquarters in exile noted that the polling stations were surrounded by brownshirts, creating a ‘terror-atmosphere, which did not fail to have an effect even where terror was not directly employed’. In many places, the polling booths had been removed, or access to them was barred by brownshirts, or they were labelled ‘Only traitors enter here’. Clubs and societies were marched en masse by groups of stormtroopers to the polling stations and forced to cast their votes in public. In some polling stations all the ballot papers were already marked ‘yes’, while in others spoiled papers were counted as ‘yes’ votes. So many ‘no’ votes were replaced with one or more forged ‘yes’ votes that the number of votes cast actually exceeded the number of electors in some constituencies. The degree of terror varied from area to area, so that in the Palatinate, where the Social Democratic agents reported record levels of intimidation and falsification, the ‘yes’ votes were well above average, at 94.8 per cent of the electorate, while in a few less heavily policed Rhenish constituencies, by contrast, up to half the votes were recorded as ‘no’ votes or spoiled ballots. In Hamburg only 73 per cent of the electorate voted yes, in Berlin only 74 per cent, and in some former Communist strongholds like Wilmersdorf and Charlottenburg the vote was below 70 per cent. Remarkably, under such circumstances, the regime only managed to secure the votes of 85 per cent of the electors. Five million electors refused to endorse the law, either by voting ‘no’ or by spoiling their ballot papers.227 Despite the massive pressure to vote ‘yes’, many Germans still thought the vote had been free: Luise Solmitz called it on polling day ‘a plebiscite of which one cannot predict the result, at least I could not’.228 Victor Klemperer was less sanguine. ‘One-third said yes out of fear,’ he wrote, ‘one-third out of intoxication, one-third out of fear and intoxication. ’229

Four years later, the regime had perfected its techniques of electoral terror and manipulation to the extent that it achieved a ‘yes’ vote of more than 99 per cent in the April 1938 plebiscite on the union with Austria, which was coupled with a personal vote of confidence in Hitler and his actions to date. The conflation of these two issues alone muddied the waters by making it clear that anyone who voted against the union was also voting against Hitler and could thus fall under the provisions of the treason laws. Gangs of brownshirts toured every street at regular intervals, forcing people out of their homes and carting them off to the polling stations. The sick and bedridden were made to cast their votes at mobile polling stations that visited them at home. People who refused to vote, or threatened to vote ‘no’, were beaten up, forced to parade through the streets with a placard round their neck with words such as ‘I am a traitor to the people’, dragged round pubs to be shouted at and spat upon, or consigned unceremoniously to lunatic asylums. In many places, known opponents of the regime were arrested in advance and kept in custody until polling day had passed. In others, they were given specially marked ballot papers, with a number typed on them by a typewriter without a ribbon and the same number placed by the name on the list of electors. On 7 May 1938, the Koblenz branch of the SS Security Service reported that in this way it had been able ‘to discover the persons who had voted “no” or spoiled their papers. Skimmed milk’, it reported in pedantic and humourless detail, ‘was used to bring out the numbers.’ In many towns, the overwhelming majority of electors were forced to cast their votes in public, at long tables manned by groups of brownshirts; in some, they were simply handed ballot papers already marked ‘yes’ by the officiating brownshirts. Even where the appearance of a secret ballot was maintained, rumours were deliberately circulated in advance that the ballot papers would be marked so that all voters if necessary could be identified during the count, and in some places indeed they were. Where, despite all these precautions, a substantial number of spoiled ballot papers or ‘no’ votes appeared at the count, they were simply discounted. And when a voter took the unusual step of publicly announcing his abstention, as the Catholic bishop Joannes Sproll did in protest against the inclusion of Alfred Rosenberg and Robert Ley on the Nazi Party list, the reaction was severe; Bishop Sproll’s action called forth raucous demonstrations by brownshirts outside his church, and led to his expulsion from his diocese, though the regime regarded him as too prominent to be arrested.230 Despite such incidents, many Germans who supported the Nazis in such plebiscites glowed with pride at the results. ‘99 per cent for the Leader,’ noted Luise Solmitz triumphantly, ‘that must make an overwhelming impression on foreign countries.’231

Map 3. The Plebiscite of 12 November 1933


How far, then, did terror and intimidation penetrate into German society under the Nazis? Blatant intimidation and manipulation at election time may have rendered the results completely unreliable as an indicator of popular attitudes, but they undoubtedly concealed a good deal of support for the regime as well as stifling criticism and opposition, and on some issues at least - the remilitarization of the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria, for instance - it is more than likely that a majority would have voted ‘yes’ even had the election been completely free. Moreover, for most Germans, Nazi terror, as we have seen, rapidly evolved from a reality, as it was in the near-universal violence of the first half of 1933, into a threat that was seldom translated into action. In 1933 a huge apparatus of surveillance and control was rapidly brought into being to track down, arrest and punish anyone who opposed the Nazi regime, including a good third of the electorate who had voted for the parties of the left in the last free German elections. By the end of 1935 organized opposition had been completely crushed. The ‘Night of the Long Knives’ was also a lesson to dissenters within the Nazi movement, above all of course to the millions of men who belonged to the turbulent brownshirt paramilitary movement. Politicians in many other parties, from the Democrats to the Nationalists, had been arrested, threatened, even murdered as a warning to others to fall into line. But from 1936 onwards, overt terror was directed increasingly against relatively small minorities such as persistent or committed Communists and Social Democrats, the asocial and work-shy, petty criminals and, as we shall see later in this book, Jews and homosexuals. For the vast majority of Germans, including millions of former Communists and Social Democrats, provided they kept their noses clean, the threat of arrest, imprisonment and concentration camp receded into the background.232

Recently, indeed, some historians have built upon these facts to argue that the Nazis did not rule by terror at all. Violence and intimidation rarely touched the lives of most ordinary Germans. After 1933 at least, terror was highly selective, concentrating on small and marginal groups whose persecution not only met with the approval of the vast majority of Germans, but was actually carried out with the co-operation and often voluntary participation at the local level of the broad mass of ordinary German citizens. German society under the Nazis was, in this view, a society engaged in ‘self-surveillance’.233 This went beyond denunciations for personal motives to include a good degree of ideological input, as was clear, for example, in the case of Augsburg. Statistics of denunciations that include, for example, reports to the Gestapo by customers in inns and bars or ‘colleagues at work’ make no mention of how many of these were in fact loyal Nazi Party members or officials of organizations like the Labour Front; a good many of them are likely to have been, given the huge numbers of people who had joined the Nazi Party by the mid-1930s or belonged to ancillary organizations like the stormtroopers, the Hitler Youth and so on. If we look at the composition of the inmate population of concentration camps at any time in the Third Reich, we do indeed find overwhelmingly members of minorities who were generally regarded with suspicion by a large part of the German population.

Yet to speak of a self-policing society understates the element of top-down terror and intimidation in the functioning of the Third Reich.234 Those cases that landed up on the Gestapo’s desks constituted only a tiny proportion of criminally liable statements in any given year. The vast majority were never denounced by anybody. Denunciation was the exception, not the rule, as far as the behaviour of the vast majority of Germans was concerned. In Lippe, for instance, a district with 176,000 inhabitants, the total number of denunciations sent in to Party agencies from 1933 to 1945 was a mere 292; the maximum submitted in any single year was only 51, the minimum was three denunciations.235 In 1937, moreover, only 17,168 cases of contravention of the Law on Malicious Gossip were reported by the Gestapo in the whole of the German Reich. The actual number of contraventions is likely to have been many hundred times greater. Thus, from whatever motive, the overwhelming majority of witnesses to such contraventions declined to become denouncers. Particularly in working-class districts, the fear of ostracism or counter-denunciation, even of revenge attacks, must have been considerable. Moreover, it was not ordinary German people who engaged in surveillance, it was the Gestapo; nothing happened until the Gestapo received a denunciation, and it was the Gestapo’s active pursuit of deviance and dissent that was the only thing that gave denunciations meaning. After they had broken labour movement resistance, the Gestapo turned to suppressing a far broader range of less ideological forms of dissent, and the consequences for those whom it brought in for questioning and prosecution could be serious indeed, beginning with brutal violence and torture meted out by Gestapo officers themselves, or under their supervision, in the course of interrogation, and ending in the courts, the prisons and the camps.236 In this process, the Gestapo called on a network of local officials of the regime, from the Block Warden upwards, and the very existence of such a network, with the Gestapo at its centre, was in itself an incentive to denunciation. Nazi officials knew that failure to pursue dissent could easily land them in trouble themselves; they also knew that bringing it to the Gestapo’s attention could earn them approbation as true servants of the Third Reich. Ultimately, it was the Gestapo and the agencies it employed, exploited or worked alongside, who kept Germans under surveillance, not the Germans themselves.237

In defence of the argument that the overwhelming majority of Germans approved of the repressive policy of the regime, it has been pointed out, correctly, that the Nazis, far from concealing the existence of repressive institutions and practices, regularly announced executions, prison sentences, court verdicts against dissent, ‘malicious gossip’ and so on, in the newspapers and other propaganda organs of the regime. Therefore, the argument continues, the vast majority of ordinary people who read the newspapers had no objection to these practices. But such publicity cut more than one way, and a major function of advertising the terror imposed by the regime on deviants and dissenters was to deter millions of ordinary Germans from going down the same road. The open threat of concentration camp for people who spread rumours about the Röhm purge only made explicit what was implicit in every report of this kind. In a similar way, the fact that top police and SS officials like Reinhard Heydrich and Werner Best saw the Gestapo as working on behalf of the German people and with its co-operation in a kind of ethnic and political purification, encompassing the whole of society, should not simply be taken at face value: Nazi ideology constantly reiterated the belief that the regime in all its aspects enjoyed the support of all the people, but in fact the openly proclaimed vastness of the Gestapo’s ambition was yet another instrument of terror in itself, fostering the belief amongst the broad mass of Germans that its agents were everywhere and knew everything that was going on.238

Despised minorities were, to be sure, put in the concentration camps; but to focus exclusively on this ignores the much larger number of political and other deviants condemned by the courts and put in state prisons and penitentiaries. The further in time we get from Nazi Germany, the more difficult it becomes for historians living in democratic political systems and in cultures which respect the rights of the individual to make the leap of imagination necessary to understand people’s behaviour in a state such as Nazi Germany, where imprisonment, torture or even death might await anyone who dared to voice the slightest criticism of the regime and its leaders. Those who approved of such repression were in all likelihood a minority, active supporters and functionaries of the Party like the Block Wardens, and a good number of middle- and upper-class, conservative Germans who thought the best place for Marxists to be was in prison anyway. Even they, however, knew well enough that they had to be careful about what they said and did, and the dangers of not doing so became abundantly clear once opposition began to spread among these groups too. The shots that killed Kurt von Schleicher, Herbert von Bose, Edgar Jung, Gustav von Kahr, Erich Klausener and Kurt von Bredow at the beginning of July 1934 were also a warning to upper- and middle-class conservatives to keep their heads down if they did not want them to be blown off.239

Ordinary conservative citizens like Luise Solmitz, who harboured no thoughts of political activism, may have turned aside from the bleak fact of the regime’s willingness to murder its opponents, revealed so starkly in late June and early July 1934, in their relief that the order they craved had been restored; to such people, Röhm’s stormtroopers seemed as great a menace as the Reichsbanner or the Red Front-Fighters’ League of the Weimar years. Yet behind closed doors they cannot have been oblivious to the fate of the conservative clique around Vice-Chancellor von Papen. It was not only the third or so of the population who had been committed to the Marxist left before 1933 that was subject to massive intimidation. Indeed, scarcely had the murderous violence of the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ receded, than an even larger minority than the Marxists, that of the German Catholics, began to be prosecuted and imprisoned as they gave vent to their increasingly critical views of the regime in public. More general still were measures such as the Law on Malicious Gossip, which clamped down on the most trivial expressions of dissent and put people who told jokes about Hitler and Göring in prison. These were mainly members of the German working class, it is true, but the working class after all made up around half the entire population, and middle- and even upper-class offenders in this respect were brought before the Special Courts as well. Successful prosecutions under this law were a further instrument of mass intimidation, adding to the general climate of fear and helping to create the spiral of silence in which the regime could commit ever greater crimes without fear of public censure or opposition.240

The truth is that far from Nazi terror being levelled exclusively against small and despised minorities, the threat of arrest, prosecution and incarceration in increasingly brutal and violent conditions loomed over everyone in the Third Reich, even, as we have seen in the cases brought before the Special Courts, over members of the Nazi Party itself. The regime intimidated Germans into acquiescence, visiting a whole range of sanctions upon those who dared to oppose it, systematically disorienting people, and depriving them of their traditional social and cultural milieux, such as the pub or the club or the voluntary association, above all where these could be seen as a potential source of resistance, as in the case of the labour movement. Fear and terror were integral parts of the Nazis’ armoury of political weapons from the very beginning.241 The state and the Party could use them because within a few months of Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor, they had systematically deprived all Germans of virtually every basic human and civil right they had enjoyed under the Weimar Republic. The law was no protection against the state if the state or any of its agencies suspected that a citizen was disinclined to demonstrate approval of its policies and purposes. On the contrary, vast numbers of new, often draconian laws were decreed that gave the police, the Gestapo and the SS a virtual carte blanche to deal with anyone suspected of deviating from the norms of human behaviour laid down by the Third Reich for its citizens. In this situation, it was not surprising that ordinary people and lower-level officials of the Nazi Party began to reinforce the atmosphere of pervasive terror and intimidation by sending their own unsolicited denunciations of deviants to the Gestapo.

At the same time, the Gestapo was only one part of a much wider net of surveillance, terror and persecution cast by the Nazi regime over German society in the 1930s; others included the SA and SS, the Criminal Police, the prison service, the social services and employment offices, the medical profession, health centres and hospitals, the Hitler Youth, the Block Wardens and even apparently politically neutral organizations like tax offices, the railway and the post office. All of these furnished information about deviants and dissidents to the Gestapo, the courts and the prosecution service, forming a polymorphous, uncoordinated but pervasive system of control in which the Gestapo was merely one institution among many.242 Everything that happened in the Third Reich took place in this pervasive atmosphere of fear and terror, which never slackened and indeed became far more intense towards the end. ‘Do you know what fear is?’ an elderly worker asked an interviewer some years after it was all over: ‘No. The Third Reich was fear.’243 Yet terrorism was only one of the Third Reich’s techniques of rule. For the Nazis did not just seek to batter the population into passive, sullen acquiescence. They also wanted to rouse it into positive, enthusiastic endorsement of their ideals and their policies, to change people’s minds and spirits and to create a new German culture that would reflect their values alone. This meant propaganda, and here too, as we shall now see, they went to unprecedented lengths to achieve their aims.

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