I’ve recently been preparing lesson materials for the second year of the Democracy & Dictatorship module for A-level History. Over the course of the first year of study we covered German history from the end of the First World War (1918) up to the seizure of power by the Nazis (1933-34). I’m looking forward to the year ahead, however, this does mean the sizeable task of updating and creating brand new lesson materials. The first task, then, was to deal with the section on the Nazi ‘Terror State’.

This particular section outlines the police system of Nazi Germany, bringing in detail on the SS, the SD, and the Gestapo, whilst also outlining debates on the level of obedience and dissent in 1930s Germany. It leads onto a wider and more involving debate about the level of totalitarian control in Nazi Germany: did the likes of the Gestapo, for example, have the all-seeing power that fiction tends to portray?

Himmler: head of the SS and the Gestapo

For a long time the assumption was clear: the power and brutal methods of the police state was unmatched, and therefore this created total control. However, this traditional argument has been challenged in recent decades by historians who have dug deeper into a form of microhistory called ‘Alltagsgeschichte’; meaning ‘everyday history’. The contending thesis suggests that although the Gestapo were most definitely brutal, the organisation itself was too chaotic, disordered and understaffed to have full control befitting a totalitarian state.

The Gestapo are an interesting case-study for ‘everyday history’. It was the secret state police that was taken under the control of Himmler and his SS empire (the so-called ‘state within a state’). Fear was the main goal of the Gestapo, with ordinary Germans believing that agents were active on every street-corner, in pubs, and in the work-places. Furthermore, Germans themselves could take the task of informing on those around them, including their friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues (by reporting to a block warden). The thought that instantly springs to mind is the character of poor Parsons from the George Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four; a devout follower of Big Brother who is denounced by his children due to babbling dissenting comments in his sleep. Of course, where did Orwell find his inspiration: Nazi Germany itself.

Winston Smith and Parsons: Nineteen Eighteen-Four

Jacques Delaure has highglihted the power of the Nazi police state:

‘Never before, in no other land and at no other time, had an organisation attained such a comprehensive penetration [of society], possessed such power, and reached such a degree of ‘completeness’ in its ability to arouse terror and horror, as well as in its actual effectiveness’.

However, historians now attack the notion of the monolithic power of the SS and the Gestapo. By delving into the method of ‘everyday history’ they have explored different regions of Germany in order to come up with some startling figures. For example, although there were 20,000-30,000 Gestapo officers across Germany, the majority of them were office-based. Major centres – such as Frankfurt and Hanover – had under 50 officers. Such figures mean that the Gestapo themselves were unable to be all-seeing, which begs the question as to how they obtained their information? It is clear that they depended on the large supply of information from regular Germans reporting suspicious activity. Statistics bear this out, with some 50-80% of cases in some regions relying on denunciations from citizens.

Furthermore, others – such as Professor Gellately – have commented that many denunciations were not politically related (such as being anti-Nazi) and were instead related to personal and private feuds. Such an argument instantly reminds me of the Witch-craze of the 16th-17th centuries and some of the reasons for the rise in witch accusations; locals used the notion of a witch in order to end pent up emotions and tensions. Historians who promote such a view believe that the Witch-craze was driven by pressures ‘from below’, rather than directed by those ‘from above’ (such as the Church or kings). Proponents of ‘everyday history’ are most definitely social historians who prioritise ‘from below’ factors in explaining debates in Nazi Germany.

Channel 5 TV show: exposing the tensions of neighbours

Unfortunately, the Gestapo were flooded with denunciations, which actually made the organisation less effective. They were overwhelmed and did not have the staff to organise itself efficiently, which led to an increase of arbitrary arrest and terror. Hale and Hinton have concluded that:

‘The Gestapo was essentially a reactive institution dependent upon the willing co-operation of the Germans.’

Such a reactive response refutes the notion of it being all-seeing and all-powerful. This is not to say that the Gestapo themselves were not capable of acts of great power and brutality, as the evidence shows that they removed freedoms, to imprisoned thousands, and punished countless numbers. However, many historians are keen to find a balance beyond an omnipotent organisation; as Mallman and Paul note:

‘The Nazi regime was quite definitely not in the position to engage in comprehensive surveillance or perfect repression. Although the Nazi regime’s aspirations were totalitarian, the reality was not.’

So, why did the Gestapo myth grow to such proportions? Much of the blame lies in Allied propaganda during the war, as well as the Gestapo’s enduring popularity in post-war films and TV (even appearing as a figure of amusement in British sit-com Allo Allo in the form of the character Herr Flick).

Herr Flick: Allo Allo

However, the myth could be traced back much earlier to Germany itself. The Gestapo relied on the support of the Germans in order to rule, perhaps relying on this support more than on terror. Perhaps Germans from the period wanted to excuse their passivity and broad acceptance of the Nazis by promoting the Gestapo and the constraints that they lived under. Eric Johnson develops this argument further by claiming that the German population and the Nazis essentially formed an unspoken pact: the population was left untouched by minor law-breaking just as long as the Nazis had a free hand at persecution of political dissidents and ‘undesirables’.

‘They were everywhere,’ one witness – now an old man – told a historian in the 1990s. The man himself lived in Wurzburg during the 1930s, a place in which records reveal that there were only 28 Gestapo officers covering the million who lived in the region. Clearly, then, they were not everywhere. But although the records show a limited number of active operatives, ordinary Germans faced something bigger: fear. The fear that they could be denounced, the fear of saying the wrong thing, the fear of being imprisoned and never seeing light again. So, although the Gestapo were not part of a complete totalitarian state, the myth of their power was incredibly potent and was enough to intimidate ordinary citizens.