The Reichstag elections of September 1930 had established the NSDAP as a credible alternative to the traditional German political parties. Subsequently, its newfound prominence amplified the impact of National Socialist propaganda on the middle classes, war veterans and the rural population (although the NSDAP never really gained a foothold amid the urban working classes). The great depression was now exerting a profound influence on Germany, and Chancellor Brüning had been forced to introduce a raft of austerity measures. The NSDAP, never having participated in a national government, was ideally placed to claim that it could offer something different.
Paul von Hindenburg’s first presidential term was due to end in March 1932 and he planned to seek re-election. Hitler, wishing to gauge his electoral appeal, decided to stand against him. This was to be one of the first modern, mass-media electoral campaigns. The theme of the National Socialist campaign was “Hitler over Germany,” which combined the idea of Hitler as head of state with footage of him flying from city to city in his personal aircraft, conveying the impression of a young, energetic man of action in contrast to the elderly Hindenburg. It also allowed him to campaign in more than one city every day. Hitler’s candidacy provoked panic among the mainstream parties—the Social Democrats, the Catholic Centrum and the Conservatives—who all united behind Hindenburg. The only other candidates were Ernst Thälmann of the Communists and Theodor Düsterberg of the right-wing German National People’s Party. In the first round, Hitler came second, polling more than eleven million votes (30.1 per cent of the total). Hindenburg achieved 49.6 per cent, Thälmann 13 per cent and Düsterberg 6.8 per cent.1 In the second round, in April, it was a foregone conclusion that Hindenburg would win the necessary 50 per cent of the popular vote to gain re-election. Nevertheless, Hitler still managed to increase his support by 6.8 per cent by claiming the votes of almost all of those who had supported Düsterberg in the first round. The election firmly established the NSDAP’s leader as a major figure in German national politics.
Upon resuming office, Hindenburg urged the government to pursue a more authoritarian, right-wing stance in a bid to counter the National Socialist threat. Brüning resisted, preferring a more “parliamentary” approach to government, and he and his cabinet were swiftly dismissed. Hindenburg then handed the chancellorship to Franz von Papen, a Catholic nobleman who was a close adviser to the President and had the support of the right-wing, conservative bloc in the Reichstag. Von Papen called federal elections for July 1932 in the hope that he could secure a parliamentary majority, but the political momentum was now with the NSDAP. At the polls, the National Socialists secured 37 per cent of the popular vote, making them the largest single party in the Reichstag, with 230 seats.
The only hope left for von Papen was to try to persuade the NSDAP to join his government, so he offered Hitler the vice-chancellorship. Hitler refused, saying he would accept nothing less than the chancellorship itself, which he claimed by right as leader of the largest party in the Reichstag. However, Hindenburg was not prepared to make this “Austrian corporal” his Chancellor.
Throughout the summer of 1932, the government and the NSDAP manoeuvred against each other as von Papen sought to “wear down” the National Socialists. Meanwhile, the SA, the SS and communist paramilitaries fought increasingly violent battles in the streets. In some respects, the NSDAP’s electoral successes were starting to count against them: inside the party, there was pessimism that they were no closer to achieving power, in spite of their massive increase in support at the ballot box. Furthermore, the movement was now heavily in debt as a result of almost perpetual campaigning and because vast numbers of SA men effectively lived off the party. Nevertheless, von Papen still could not persuade the National Socialists to work with him; even more ominously, he was also unable to build a coalition against them in the Reichstag.
In September, when the new Reichstag met for the first time under the presidency of Hermann Goering (as representative of the largest party), a motion of no confidence proposed by the Communist Party was passed with a majority of 84 per cent. This meant yet more elections had to be called. The SS and SA were sent into the streets to rattle tins for donations. The elections duly took place in November and, as expected, the National Socialist vote slipped to just over 33 per cent, giving the NSDAP 196 seats in the Reichstag. It remained the largest single party, but von Papen was encouraged by its slight decline and thought Hitler would now be obliged to accept his offer of the vice-chancellorship. However, once again, Hitler refused.
At this point, von Papen’s plans began to unravel. He had assumed that he could continue to serve as Chancellor, using dictatorial powers given to him by Hindenburg. But now some members of his own government—particularly Minister of Defence General Kurt von Schleicher—began to oppose him. Von Schleicher was a career soldier who had established himself in the late 1920s as the main liaison officer between the armed forces and the civilian government. Between 1930 and 1932, he had served as a principal aide to General Groener, the Minister of Defence, and had also assumed the role of éminence grise by forging a close association with Hindenburg, whom he knew through the President’s son, Oskar. It was von Schleicher who had been behind the ousting of Brüning and the appointment of von Papen, and now he insisted that the NSDAP must be brought into the government. In fact, von Schleicher had already opened channels of communication with Gregor Strasser, who appeared to represent the moderate wing of the NSDAP, with a view to the National Socialists joining a cabinet headed by himself. All of this manoeuvring came out of fear that the political deadlock was leading Germany towards catastrophe. In November, the Communists had secured some six million votes, which gave them 100 seats in the Reichstag. If something was not done, it surely would not be long before the German state came under attack from both the extreme left and the extreme right, with not enough people remaining in the middle to defend democracy.
At a meeting between Hindenburg, von Papen and von Schleicher on 1 December, von Papen admitted that his attempts to form a coalition government had failed. Nevertheless, he proposed that he should continue in office, with the Reichstag prorogued indefinitely while the constitution was amended and the electoral laws changed in order to break the deadlock. Von Schleicher argued that this suggestion was unconstitutional, likely to provoke civil war and, in any case, unnecessary, because he himself could command a majority in parliament comprising Gregor Strasser’s remaining followers in the National Socialist Party, the Social Democrats and the Centrists. Hindenburg was surprised by this claim, but decided to stick by von Papen for the time being.
However, events now moved quickly. At a cabinet meeting held the next day, von Schleicher announced that the army had no confidence in von Papen. He produced a military assessment which stated that if the National Socialists and the Communists launched rebellions, and Poland then took the opportunity to attack in the East, the army would be unable to cope. Stunned, von Papen reported back to Hindenburg, who felt he now had no option but to dismiss von Papen and appoint von Schleicher to the chancellorship.
Von Schleicher then went straight to Strasser. If Hitler were unwilling to accept the vice-chancellorship, perhaps Strasser would take the job, especially if he was also offered the important role of Minister-President of Prussia? Strasser wanted to accept, but instead he reported back to Hitler and the rest of the National Socialist leadership and sought advice. Opinion was bitterly divided. As head of party organisation, Strasser was well aware that the NSDAP’s electoral support was weakening and that the party was facing a funding crisis. But Hitler, Goering and Goebbels all felt that accepting the offer might cause a split in the movement, so they urged Strasser to turn it down. After a series of acrimonious meetings in Berlin, Strasser resigned his position in the party on 7 December without accepting von Schleicher’s offer.
Hitler quickly shored up his support within the party, while von Schleicher looked elsewhere—to the trade unions, the Social Democrats and the Centre Party—for backing. However, none of these groups trusted him, and his social policies—aimed primarily at reducing unemployment—began to stir up violent opposition from industrial and agricultural interests. Nevertheless, he naïvely believed that he would be able to turn the situation around.
At this point, von Papen re-entered the fray. Outraged by von Schleicher’s betrayal and keen to exact revenge, he emerged as leader of a cabal of businessmen and bankers intent on bringing down the new Chancellor. On 4 January 1933, he met Hitler secretly at a house in Cologne and the two men discussed how they might work together to remove von Schleicher. It was decided that von Papen would persuade Hindenburg and the conservative right to accept National Socialist involvement in a coalition government, while his rich friends would quietly settle the NSDAP’s debts and allow it to resume campaigning.
On 23 January, von Schleicher, finally accepting that he was unable to form a coalition, appealed to Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and grant him dictatorial powers. Hindenburg refused, repeating the very arguments that von Schleicher had used to bring down von Papen. Five days later, Hindenburg once again rejected von Schleicher’s request. By then, he knew that von Papen was on the verge of forming a coalition with the National Socialists and the Nationalists. This time, von Schleicher had little option but to resign, which he duly did.
A day of frantic negotiation followed, as von Papen put the finishing touches to his coalition amid rumours that von Schleicher was stirring the garrison of Potsdam, south-west of Berlin, into rebellion. In fact, Hindenburg had already decided that General von Blomberg was to be Minister of Defence in the new government, and this appointment was seen as giving Hitler the army’s imprimatur. The way was now clear for the NSDAP’s leader to become Chancellor on 30 January 1933.
In later years, Hitler and the National Socialists would revel in the lie that they “seized” power in 1933. However, as the events of late 1932 and early 1933 show, in reality they came to power through the kind of political machination Hitler affected to despise: “He was jobbed into office by a backstairs intrigue,”2 to use the memorable phrase of one of Hitler’s biographers.
The SS played a very minor role in this: all they did was intimidate opponents, sell newspapers, solicit donations and canvass voters. And it initially seemed that Himmler would gain little from the recent turn of events. His only tangible reward was his appointment, in March 1933, as acting Police President of Munich. By contrast, his colleague and rival Daluege became head of the Prussian uniformed police service, the Ordnungspolizei (Order Police), and was given the rank of Police Lieutenant General by Goering, who himself was now Prussian Minister of the Interior (as well as Minister without Portfolio) in Hitler’s cabinet. Certainly, SS men were co-opted as auxiliary policemen, but far more members of the SA were used in this capacity, and it seemed that the larger organisation was much more likely to benefit from the National Socialists’ new position. However, from these inauspicious beginnings, albeit through luck as much as judgement, Himmler soon gained control of the greater part of the police structure throughout the whole country.
Intelligence collection and reporting had been among the SS’s principal tasks ever since its foundation, but prior to Himmler’s elevation to National Leader it had not been centralised. Instead, the SS had relied on local commanders and their subordinates to collect and forward reports to the leadership on their own initiative. Consequently, the intelligence had usually comprised little more than general information, gossip and rumours about “enemies” of the movement. This can seldom have been of much practical use to the leadership, and it was certainly not “intelligence” in the accepted sense of the term.* Recognising this, in his reorganisation of the SS in 1929, Himmler specified that each local unit should include an “Ic” officer to coordinate the collection of information, analyse it, and only then forward it to headquarters.† Initially, the Ic was also obliged to act as adjutant to the unit commander, which suggests that intelligence collection was by no means seen as a top priority in the organisation.3
Then, in the summer of 1931, Himmler made one of the most important decisions of his first three years as National Leader: he recruited Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich as his Chief of Intelligence. At the post-war Nuremberg trials, Heydrich would assume the role of the ghost at the banquet: a Mephistophelean evil genius who escaped Allied justice by being assassinated in June 1942. In many respects, this assessment is perfectly fair, as Heydrich must bear much of the responsibility for one of the greatest crimes in history—the Holocaust. But it has made it difficult to understand what motivated this well-educated, cultured, highly intelligent man to become—along with Himmler—one of the principal architects of the Third Reich’s machinery of political repression and, ultimately, genocide.
Heydrich was born on 7 March 1904 in Halle, Saxony, into a respectable, well-off, middle-class family. His father, Bruno, was a composer, opera singer and founder of the Halle conservatoire; his mother, Elisabeth, was an actress and pianist. Bruno was a fan of Wagner and sang at Bayreuth during the Wagner Festival. Later, he become acquainted with the composer’s widow, Cosima, who ran the festival. Reinhard inherited his parents’ musical talent: he learned the piano and violin from an early age, with his skill on the latter—which he continued to play throughout his life—being particularly notable.4 He was also a dedicated sportsman. At around six months old he suffered an inflammation of the brain that endangered his life, and this was followed by a succession of other illnesses. To overcome this, his father encouraged him to take up as many sports as possible, including running, horse-riding, football, swimming and fencing. He would eventually represent Germany as a fencer in the 1930s, in parallel with his career as the SS Intelligence Chief.
Heydrich’s family seems to have been strict and disciplinarian, but loving. His tall, stout father had a reputation as a joker, but he could also be pompous and overbearing, and he seems to have taken little interest in his children’s education. However, like Gebhard Himmler with his sons, he introduced them to German folk myths at an early age. There are many rumours—most of them unsubstantiated—about Heydrich’s youth and background. The majority of them seem to have gained momentum because of a supposition that he must have suffered some kind of childhood trauma which would explain—if not excuse—his later monstrosities. The most persistent of these—which caused him some problems even during his lifetime—was that Heydrich himself was of Jewish extraction. But this was not true. The confusion arose because Heydrich’s grandmother married a locksmith called Gustav Süss after her first husband, Bruno’s father, died. Süss was a common German-Jewish name at the time,* although Gustav himself was not Jewish. Nevertheless, as Heydrich’s grandmother occasionally referred to herself as Frau Süss-Heydrich, people started to assume that the family, including Bruno, had Jewish blood. This was compounded in 1916 when that year’s edition of Riemann’sMusiker-Lexicon, a directory of German musicians, listed “Heydrich, Bruno alias Süss.”5 The pro-nationalist Bruno insisted that the error must be corrected in future editions. Notwithstanding the rumours about his heritage, Heydrich satisfied both the NSDAP and the SS about his racial origins as early as 1932, after the matter had been brought to Himmler’s attention.
There is some anecdotal evidence that Heydrich was bullied at school because of his father’s alleged Jewishness, but it seems highly unlikely that this fuelled his later hatred of the whole Jewish race. In fact, he suffered much more teasing as a child because of his odd, high-pitched voice: he was known as “Hebbe” (Goat). He was also a solitary, arrogant young man who did not bond with his peers and even appeared to hold them in contempt. So, if he was traumatised by bullying at school, it seems that he largely brought it upon himself.
The family’s income declined steadily during the war as the number of students attending the conservatoire dropped off. Then they were caught up in the revolutionary upheaval that followed the armistice. Despite being only fifteen years old (and thus two years underage), Heydrich volunteered for service in the Maercker Free Corps in March 1919. He served as a messenger with both the Free Corps and the Halle Citizens’ Militia for more than a year while continuing his studies. Later, he joined another armed group, the extreme nationalist Völkischer Schutz- und Trutzebund (People’s Protection and Retaliation League), which was affiliated to the Thule Society. This affiliation suggests that he leaned towards the extreme right on racial issues long before joining either the NSDAP or the SS.
Having graduated from Halle Grammar School, Heydrich entered the navy as an officer cadet in 1922. Part of his training took place aboard the cruiser Berlin, whose first officer at the time was Commander Wilhelm Canaris, who went on to become head of German Military Intelligence in 1935. Heydrich’s naval career initially followed a straightforward path. He was promoted to Fähnrich zur See (midshipman) in 1926 and Leutnant zur See (sub-lieutenant) later the same year. Then, after attending the Naval Signals School, he became a communications officer on board the Schleswig-Holstein, one of the few First World War–era battleships that the Allies had allowed Germany to keep. Thereafter, he was stationed in the communications division of the Baltic Naval Station at Kiel, but he may have had some connection with the intelligence branch of naval headquarters as well.6
However, his naval career came to an abrupt end because of his private life. According to Walter Schellenberg, who later became head of the SS’s Foreign Intelligence Service, “Heydrich’s only weakness was his ungovernable sexual appetite. To this he would surrender himself without inhibition or caution and the calculated control which characterised him in everything he did left him completely.”7 In December 1930, he became engaged to Lina von Osten, the beautiful, blond, nineteen-year-old daughter of a schoolteacher from the island of Fehmarn, in the Baltic. Shortly thereafter, though, a previous girlfriend appeared and claimed he had already proposed to her—after they had spent the night together in a hotel. Heydrich vigorously refuted the woman’s claims, but her father complained to the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, and in early 1931 a Naval Court of Honour was convened to examine Heydrich’s behaviour. The standard version is that Heydrich defended himself before the court with a confidence that bordered on arrogance—to the point where he was reprimanded for insubordination—and was subsequently dismissed for “impropriety.” However, Peter Padfield argues that it would have been highly unlikely for a promising young naval officer to be dismissed merely because he had betrayed one girl for another. Instead, he suggests two alternatives: that Heydrich was planted by Naval Intelligence into the SS in order to monitor the activities of the National Socialist movement from the heart of its new “police” branch; or that he was genuinely dismissed, but because he was already involved in National Socialist political activities.8 Unfortunately, neither of these theories is supported by any evidence. The proceedings of the court have not survived, and the spurned girl has never been positively identified. For what it is worth, Lina von Osten, whom Heydrich went on to marry and who lived into the 1980s, subsequently stated: “He was just a professional naval officer; he was wedded to his naval career. His only other interest was sport. He knew nothing about politics—and had never shown any great interest in them.”9 This can be taken with a large pinch of salt, though, because von Osten was an enthusiastic National Socialist at the time and it was she who led him into the party. Interestingly, despite the immense power that he wielded later, Heydrich never took action against the members of the court that ejected him from the navy.
Heydrich’s dismissal came when he was just a few weeks short of being eligible for a naval pension,10 and there were few options for gainful employment in the harsh economic climate of May 1931. He explored the possibility of becoming a sailing instructor at a yacht club, then of joining the merchant navy, but neither appealed. Instead, at the prompting of his wife, he joined the naval branch of the SA and used a family contact to secure a paid position within the NSDAP. That contact was Friedrich Karl Freiherr von Eberstein, the son of Heydrich’s godmother. Von Eberstein was ten years older than Heydrich and had had a distinguished career as a reserve officer during the First World War before becoming a banker. He had originally joined the NSDAP as early as October 1922, and had rejoined soon after the party became legal again in 1925. In April 1929 he had been recruited by Himmler as one of the first SS officers; and two years later he held the dual ranks of SS-company leader and SA-regimental leader as adjutant to the quartermaster of the SA High Command. Knowing that Himmler was expanding the SS, and perhaps seeing useful qualities in Heydrich, von Eberstein wrote to the National Leader to recommend Heydrich as a potential recruit.
In a speech in 1943, Himmler described how he selected Heydrich to be his chief of intelligence:
I recruited Lieutenant Heydrich through the recommendation of the then Gruppenführer von Eberstein. This recruitment was actually based on an error. Somewhat at least. Heydrich was a “Nachrichtenoffizier” (information or communication officer). I didn’t know much about it in 1930 [sic—it was 1931] and I thought a “Nachrichtenoffizier” was a man who got “Nachrichten.”11
Nachrichten is news, information or intelligence (the current German intelligence service is called the Bundesnachrichtendienst), but it is also the military term for communications, and Heydrich had trained as a technical signals officer.
Summoned to an interview at Himmler’s farm on 15 June, Himmler asked the younger man to outline how he would organise an intelligence branch for the SS. Despite his lack of practical intelligence experience, this was a straightforward task for a professionally trained naval officer and Himmler gave Heydrich the job more or less on the spot. Heydrich returned home to Hamburg to prepare for his new job. He was appointed to Himmler’s personal staff as a company leader on 10 August; then, after relocating to Munich, he set to work on the SS’s existing intelligence files. At this stage, he had no role in collecting or directing the intelligence-collection efforts of the local SS units. Rather, he simply collated any material that was passed to him by Himmler’s adjutant, Waldeck-Pyrmont.12
But Heydrich was an opportunist, and he was quick to see the advantages that his position gave him within a movement that, to some extent, defined itself by its enemies, both real and imagined. According to George Browder, “Heydrich built his authority upon an ability to paint two pictures convincingly. He depicted first the Movement, then the national community, as surrounded and penetrated by enemies, successfully camouflaging themselves as loyalists.”13 Heydrich developed a vision of the Ic-Dienst(Intelligence Service) as an instrument of surveillance over all aspects of German national life, guaranteeing the total dominance of the National Socialist Party, and he convinced Himmler of the merit of this idea. Nevertheless, it started in a very limited way. The Intelligence Service was no more than a staff branch within the main SS headquarters in Munich, linked to intelligence officers in subordinate SS headquarters.
But Heydrich worked hard over the next two years to develop his organisation, partly by forging an extremely close working relationship with Himmler. There was never any doubt about who was in charge, though: Heydrich was always remarkably formal and deferential towards Himmler. In return, Heydrich’s work was highly valued by Himmler, who started to receive ever more information about potential enemies both within and outside the National Socialist movement. Thus, when Himmler was put in charge of the Munich Police, naturally he took Heydrich with him.
AS SOON AS he became Chancellor on 30 January 1933, Hitler prevailed upon President Hindenburg to call new elections. Through these, he hoped to gain enough strength in the Reichstag to pass an Enabling Act, which would allow him to rule by decree. The elections were set for 5 March. During the campaign, the NSDAP fully exploited the fact that they now had some control over the state’s machinery of government. On 22 February, Prussian Minister of the Interior Goering established a 50,000-strong auxiliary police force, including 25,000 SA members and 15,000 SS men.14 This both legitimised National Socialist terror against their political opponents—especially the Social Democrats and the Communists—and shifted the burden for funding a significant section of the NSDAP’s paramilitary machine from the party to the state. The National Socialists justified the creation of this auxiliary force by claiming it was needed to forestall an imminent revolt from the left. Of course, this only heightened the atmosphere of hysteria among the electorate, which further boosted support for the NSDAP.
Then, during the evening of 27 February 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire. Arriving at the scene, the Berlin Police managed to apprehend the arsonist, who was running around, shirtless, inside the building. He was a twenty-four-year-old Dutch leftist, Marinus van der Lubbe.* There has been much speculation over the years that the National Socialists themselves orchestrated this attack, but it now seems that it came as a complete surprise to them.15 They may even have believed that it presaged the start of an actual left-wing revolution. However, van der Lubbe seems to have acted entirely alone, motivated by fury about the National Socialists’ rise to power and the subsequent inactivity of the German Communist Party. Unsurprisingly, the National Socialists immediately branded him an agent of a left-wing conspiracy, while the Communists portrayed him as a deranged tool of the NSDAP.16 Most ordinary people simply did not know what to believe.
Irrespective of what motivated van der Lubbe, his attack had an immediate, ominous consequence: the so-called “Reichstag Fire Decree,” promulgated on 28 February after hurried discussions, which effectively ended civil liberty within Germany. Habeas corpuswas suspended, as were freedom of the person, freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, confidentiality of post and telecommunication, and the right to protect one’s home and property.17 This was originally formulated at the Prussian Ministry of the Interior and was to be applied only in Prussia, but the national Interior Minister, Wilhelm Frick, soon came up with a version to be enforced nationwide. It was passed by Hitler’s cabinet and signed into law the same day by Hindenburg. By now, though, the President was descending into senile dementia, beset by ill-health and largely under the control of his son Oskar.
A wave of anti-opposition terror was legitimised by the decree, and it was a pivotal piece of legislation in facilitating the creation of what later became the National Socialist security state. Critically, it separated the judiciary from the exercise of the power of detention: suspects could now be rounded up by agents of the state, including the newly formed auxiliaries, and detained without any legal scrutiny of the case against them. Consequently, worried friends and relations often had no idea why an individual had been detained, nor even where they were being held.
In Weimar Germany’s last free elections, in November 1932, the Social Democrats and the Communists had received a fraction under 38 per cent of the vote, with the Communists accounting for 16.9 per cent of this. Just over four months later, with Hitler and the NSDAP in control of the machinery of government and many elements of state security, the majority of Communist leaders and deputies were either under arrest or had fled the country. In Goering’s Prussia, ten thousand Communists and sympathisers were arrested in the week leading up to the 5 March election. By the end of the month, some twenty-five thousand Communists were either in prison or in one of several hastily set-up concentration camps.18 By the summer, more than a hundred thousand Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists and other opponents of the NSDAP had been arrested. A conservative official estimate suggests that at least six hundred of them died in captivity.19
The National Socialists won the election with 43.9 per cent of the vote, an increase of 10 percentage points since November. This did not give the NSDAP the overall majority that Hitler had wanted and predicted, but it meant it could form a coalition government with just one other party—the conservative-nationalist German National People’s Party. In spite of the oppression that had been directed at the Communist Party, it still managed to poll more than 12 per cent of the vote, which entitled it to eighty-one deputies. But with its leaders in custody, hiding or exile, there were a lot of empty seats in the Reichstag. The scene was now set for the government to seek the votes of the Catholic Centrum Party and gain the necessary two-thirds majority to pass an Enabling Act.20 This duly happened on 23 March, when the newly elected Reichstag convened. With a series of Hitler’s empty promises ringing in their ears, the Centrum deputies voted with the government and brought Weimar democracy to an end.21 Effectively, Hitler’s word was now law. Meanwhile, the increasingly frail Hindenburg announced that he would be withdrawing from the day-to-day affairs of government, and would not normally need to be consulted on legislation passed under the Enabling Act.
On 27 March, Hitler appointed Franz Ritter von Epp, one of his longest-serving collaborators, as Reichskommissar (Governor) of Bavaria, which opened the way for Himmler to become the new police chief of Munich. Himmler immediately installed Heydrich as head of the force’s “political desk,”22 which effectively put him in charge of surveillance of potential enemies of the Bavarian state.
Himmler’s position in Munich was strengthened on 1 April when he became a special adviser to the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior and was appointed Commander of the statewide Bavarian political police. Again, Heydrich rose with him, becoming Himmler’s executive deputy, and set about reorganising the Bavarian political police. Hitherto, this had been a branch of the general police service, but Heydrich made it an entirely separate body, free from any administrative ties to the mainstream police, yet still able to use the latter’s resources, if needed. At first, most of the manpower came from the existing Bavarian political police, but this was supplemented by members of Heydrich’s Intelligence Service—now renamed the Sicherheitsdienst (SD—Security Service)—which he had been gradually building up over the past two years. Importantly, one of Himmler’s new responsibilities was to assume control of the concentration camps that had been set up in the wake of the Reichstag fire. He closed down the existing camps in Bavaria, and replaced them with one, centralised camp in the Munich suburb of Dachau. Command of this camp was put in the hands of SS-Battalion Leader Hilmar Wäckerle, an early National Socialist who had been a student with Himmler in Munich.23
Circumstances gave Himmler an ally in his quest to expand and consolidate his power base from the Bavarian political police in the shape of Minister of the Interior Frick. Prior to the National Socialist takeover, many of the powers of government within Germany, including the police forces, were in the hands of the individual Länder (states—such as Bavaria and Saxony). But in March and April 1933, Frick introduced a series of decrees that redefined the relationship between central government and the states, established the primacy of central government and vested ultimate local authority in “Reich Governors”—who were tasked with ensuring that their states observed “the political principles laid down by the Reich Chancellor.”24 He also began to work towards converting the provincial police forces into a unified, national force under the Ministry of the Interior. However, these plans were opposed by Frick’s National Socialist cabinet colleague, Goering, who exercised de facto control over more than half of Germany’s police, first in his role as Prussian Interior Minister and then as Minister-President of Prussia.
Somewhat disturbed by the violence that he had unleashed in the wake of the Reichstag fire, Goering called upon the help of a small, obscure section within the Prussian police headquarters, section IA—the Prussian political police. This was the closest thing Germany had to a national political intelligence clearinghouse. Goering appointed Dr. Rudolf Diels, a lawyer and professional civil servant who had been working as head of the political police in Berlin, to lead IA. Diels was a fellow traveller rather than an ideologically committed National Socialist, but he was prepared to work with Goering to create a Prussian political police force similar to the one being set up by Himmler and Heydrich in Bavaria. It would be used as an executive instrument of the state to suppress the National Socialists’ political enemies, both outside and inside the NSDAP. Diels recruited detectives from the criminal branches of the mainstream police, while Goering put in place the legal framework that would enable them to operate unfettered. Primarily, he allowed the force to arrest and detain suspects on their own authority, without any judicial oversight. At the end of April, Diels’ section was officially renamed the Geheime Staatspolizeiamt (Secret State Police Office) and made an independent police authority responsible only to the Minister-President of Prussia—that is, Goering himself. The new organisation was officially abbreviated to “Gestapa,” but in popular slang it was given the better-known sobriquet “Gestapo.” Before long, it had set up its offices in a former arts and crafts school on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse in central Berlin.25
Diels began to exercise his new powers to bring order back to Prussia by clamping down on the excesses of the SA. A major part of the problem was that the auxiliaries mobilised by Goering after the Reichstag Fire Decree owed their primary loyalty to their SA (or SS) commanders, not to him, so setting them in motion actually reduced rather than enhanced his power to influence events. Diels used his expanded force to collect intelligence on SA activities and, where necessary, curtail them. In a series of raids, his men swooped on SA-run “illegal” concentration camps, released the inmates and arrested the gaolers.
Having reasserted his authority in Prussia through the Gestapo, Goering was not inclined to hand control of his police forces over to Frick at the Ministry of the Interior, so a political standoff developed between the two men. Frick needed an ally to overcome Goring’s resistance to a national police force, and the obvious candidate was Himmler. So, between November 1933 and January 1934, Frick helped manoeuvre Himmler into command of every state-level political police force, save for Prussia’s.
Initially, Goering fought back by increasing his personal control over the Gestapo, in order to prevent a Himmler takeover there as well. But he soon accepted that this battle was not worth fighting—primarily because he was facing a greater threat. Instead, he decided that a new tactical political alliance was in order. In April 1934, he appointed Himmler as “Inspector”* of the Prussian Gestapo, which finally sealed Himmler’s control over all of Germany’s political police forces. Heydrich, as ever following on the coat-tails of his boss, became the operational chief of the Gestapo.
A little later, in November 1934, Daluege, who was still head of the Prussian uniformed police, had his authority extended throughout Germany. This came about when the Prussian Ministry of the Interior was combined with the national ministry, creating a united police department for the whole country. Meanwhile, Arthur Nebe, a long-time National Socialist and member of the SS who had been serving as executive head of the Gestapo, was appointed chief of the Prussian Kriminalpolizei (Kripo—Criminal Detective Branch).
Officially, these men had been appointed by the national Interior Ministry, the Prussian government, or one of the smaller state governments, so in theory they owed allegiance to one of those institutions. In practice, in under two years, the SS had assumed effective control over the entire German police force.26
* Broadly speaking, “intelligence” is information that is gathered and analysed before informing decisions. Without the crucial analysis step—or at least being put in some kind of context—it is of little or no value.
† This followed the German general staff system, in which “Ia” was the chief operations officer, “Ib” the chief logistics officer and “Ic” the chief intelligence officer.
* In 1940, Hitler’s government funded a notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film called Jud Süss (Jew Süss), which was a remake of a 1933 British film of the same title (although the original film was far more sympathetic to the eponymous character).
* Van der Lubbe had been a member of the Dutch Communist Party, but had broken with them and joined the Council Communists, who espoused a form of syndicalism.
* Inspekteur—an appointment implying responsibility for the proper conduct of training, administration and operations, without direct operational command.