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SS Gestapo, a Tool of Repression

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“The potency of the SS Gestapo as a tool of repression explains why there was so little opposition to the Third Reich between 1939 and 1945”. How far do you agree with this statement?

According to American historian Benjamin Sax, “the SS was not merely a police, surveillance and paramilitary organisation. Its main objective, from which it derived its ‘legitimate’ use of force, was to create the racially pure Volksgemeinschaft”. This description of the SS Gestapo incorporates many opinions revolving around its position in the Third Reich; he infers that its use of ‘legitimate force’ had an impact on how society behaved, which suggests that Hitler used this force as a tool of repression. However Volksgemeinschaft was an ideology respected by the masses of Germany’s ‘Aryan race’, particularly after the ‘stab in the back’ myth of 1918. Therefore, Sax may also be inferring that the SS Gestapo had little opposition due to the shared support of what they stood for: Hitler’s propaganda fuelled vision of his German Empire. This divided view is supported by the ‘alltagsgeschichte’ approach (the study of everyday life) in which the Third Reich can be seen as based partly on popular support, as well as an intrusive and arbitrary terror. “What we have written and said is in the minds of all of you, but you lack the courage to say it aloud”; Sophie Scholl’s statement during her trial in 1943 raises a key question about the opposition to the Third Reich from 1939 to 1945 – was fear the main reason for the lack of resistance? Scholl seems to suggest that either limited opposition or even mass German cynicism never rebelled due to lack of courage, which may stem from fear of the SS Gestapo. It is also interesting to note that the only successful opposition to the regime came in 1945 by the military might of the Soviet Union, the United States of America and their allies showing that internal forces of resistance to the police were either unproductive or weaker than the SS Gestapo. In this totalitarian regime, opposition could be considered anyone non-compliant; resistance was therefore seen in hundreds of sub-groups and thousands of individuals. Although these statistics seem quite extensive, they all had different aims for Germany, and methods of fulfilling them. The differing groups were from: the Churches, youths, the Army, members of Government, the Judiciary, the workers, opposition parties and traditional elites. Some of these groups actually led quite strong movements against the regime; one in which members spanned across the sub-groups was the ‘Kreisau Circle’ which was formed by church-men, scholars and politicians who did not par-take in active resistance, but only planned an alternative future for Germany. The main focus of active resistance came from the military, a few individuals in the church, and male working class youths. One of the most famous attempts to oppose the regime was the 1944 ‘July Bomb Plot’, an attempt to assassinate Hitler, led by Former General Ludwig Beck, Head of the Military Intelligence Wilhelm Canaris and Chief of Staff Army Reserve Claus von Stauffenberg. A number of movements arose by young males, such as the Edelweiss Pirates (edelweisspiraten) and the White Rose movement (WR -weisserose) were met with sheer force by the SS Gestapo, and the WR leaders, the Scholls were trialled and executed. Even all the members of the silent Kreisau Circle were executed, as well as 175 Protestant pastors were arrested for not recognizing the Nazi Church as a legitimate church. It is evident that any organisation that opposed the regime was repressed by the SS Gestapo, and it could be considered that any other attempt to rebel was quashed by fears of their violent, repressive nature. However, the phrase ‘so little opposition’ should be questioned; although it is clear that active resistance was repressed historians have been observing ‘alltagsgeschichte’ to see other methods of citizen opposition, such as non-conformity, which could show more of a wide-scale defiance to the regime, which was nonetheless still too weak or fearful to challenge the SS Gestapo. Research from Kershaw’s studies of public opinion highlighted large-scale unrest, whilst Peukert’s studies of Hamburg and Cologne identified considerable discontent by young people, particularly in the par-taking, or actually unwillingness to par-take in Hitler Youth. A SOPADE report from 1937 opines that ‘the majority of people have two faces; one which they show to their good and reliable acquaintances; and the other for the authorities, the Party Officers, keen Nazis and for strangers. It was clearly dangerous to show true public opinion if it condemned Nazism, however a few accounts show the subtle opposition people attempted such as ‘applauding potentially subversive speeches in plays’ or listening to ‘un-German’ jazz and blues music like the swing-groups through Berlin, Hamburg and Dresden. However, even these minor acts of opposition were dangerous, due to the very nature of the SS Gestapo. The SS and the Gestapo originated from distinct bodies: the state body and the part body (from Hitler’s bodyguards in 1925) respectively. In 1936, Himmler was made Chief of German Police, which reinforced the overlap of his and Heydrich’s police units into what Kershaw describes as “the most powerful agency of repression, with the most dynamic ideological force in the Nazi movement”. Within this body was a typically confusing variety of repressive agencies, which makes the ‘Emergency Power decree’ of February 1933 and the Gestapo Law of 1936 all the more dangerous, considering these brutal and chaotic unites were effectively outside of any formal laws and free of legal recourse. For example, Himmler actually states that the SS were responsible for ‘creating the new order’, allowing them to do anything in the name of Volksgemeinschaft. The amalgamation of these powers in Heydrich’s ‘RSHA’ (Reich Security Office) served four main functions: intelligence gathering by the SD (security police); policing by the Gestapo and Kripo (maintenance of general law and order); disciplining the opposition (mainly through concentration camps); military action by the Waffen SS. These four groups proved to be a ‘state within a state’ epitomised by Jacques Delarele in 1962, who supported the view of their complete control by opinion that “never before… had an organisation attained such a comprehensive penetration [of society]”. This control of society ‘can be based on both terror tactics and co-operation for the masses. The co-operation can be seen as either forced to do so out of fear, or out of genuine support for the whole regime. The SS Gestapo set many examples of repression, such as the purging of SA members in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, using those who returned from concentration camps as ‘advertisement’ and even indoctrinating German Youths (through education and the Hitler Youth) by encouraging them to inform their teacher if their parents made disparaging comments about Hitler. The fact that there was never a mass rebellion, let alone a successful one, does not just show fear of the SS Gestapo, but also contentment or even disillusionment with the regime. Considering the laws of the SS were all for the aim of Volksgemeinschaft, many supported their ‘D-notice’ arrests (in which people were jailed on the grounds of Protective Custody) possibly due to not fully understanding the injustice, or genuinely supporting the arrest of innocent people who weren’t considered typically German. This was particularly visible with the German citizens who were affirmed with the ‘stab in the back’ myth and Hitler’s anti-sematic propaganda. A well-known example of co-operation is from 1940 in which Ilse Totke denounced her neighbour Maria Kraus due to her ‘Jewish appearance’ of ‘activity harmful to the German Reich’ by simply not responding the greeting of ‘Heil Hitler’ – if that is even true. The SS Gestapo relied heavily on this co-operation and were allowed to arrest people simply on suspicion of a crime such as ‘treason espionage, sabotage and cases of criminal acts on the Nazi Party’. By 1939, over 225,000 Germans were convicted and put in protective custody with a further 162,000 after 1939. In fact, in some areas, over 80% of investigations and arrests stemmed from voluntary denunciations like that of Totzke’s. By December 1941, statistics held by the Central Office of the SS Reich Security Office show that 405 people were arrested as communist or Marxist, and in that same month, 7,408 people were arrested for refusing to work (who were subsequently sent to labour camps). This shows that not only did the SS Gestapo have the power to do what they wanted, but they had control of many in the German society to keep Hitler’s regime in order, simply by co-operation, not just fear of repression. Actually referring to the Nazi Regime as ‘Hitler’s’ can show why many people co-operated with the SS Gestapo: they all had one key visionary figure to work for. Kershaw believes that ‘we cannot quantify Hitler’s popularity at any given time during the Third Reich’ – a notion which opens up the structuralist vs intentionalist debate. Many records during 1939 to 1945 show mass support due to propaganda and the Nazis’ self-proclaimed figure of political greatness and stability, which could still show support if the propaganda was effective. However, statistics also show that in the March 1933 elections, nearly 17 million people had not voted for Nazis or the Nationalist movement (which may have changed by 1939, however 17 million in addition to those of the occupied territories by 1945 is still a huge amount to arrest, purge or convert). There is obviously plenty of evidence to support both arguments, however, in this case, due to the lack of opposition to the SS Gestapo, and the conditions that Nazism rose in, the intentionalist view of support and agreement with Hitler’s propaganda and policies may have helped decrease opposition to the regime. Hitler deployed many propaganda tactics in the Third Reich; his powerful speeches gave an element of control and mass support, which if the structuralist view is correct, successfully covered the chaotic and weak dictatorship he had hidden in Government. However, an even stronger propaganda tool can be seen in the merging of the Church with the Nazi regime, specifically seen in 1933 in which Hitler opined that ‘you are either Christian or German. You can’t be both’. In this same (private) conversation, Hitler inferred that he will ‘make peace with the Church…as in Italy’, suggesting that he would us the Church as a propaganda tool like Mussolini used the Church to try and secure a totalitarian state. An example of this is a cartoon from 1933, which depicts Christ holding a re-adjusted Cross as a Swastika, and another poster which states that “every German Catholic understands Hitler and will vote yes”. Although the founding of the State Church was in 1933, prior to the main focus of the SS Gestapo in 1939, using the Church as a propaganda tool is a long-term device, as Hitler stated himself “Christianity is the unshakeable foundation of the moral life of [the German] people”. The use of religious propaganda helped Hitler re-instate that image of an all-powerful leader of the Reich similar to that of the Kaiser. Another reason people may not have opposed the regime apart from the repressive police force, could be genuine support for Nazi policies and World War II, not just by being brainwashed by propaganda. Nazi policies were indoctrinated into the German people, such as through children’s education, Hitler Youth and appreciation of the Nazi economic policy in which Hitler was able to restore full employment to Germany by 1941 (employment rates actually included those in concentration camps). From 1939 to 1941, World War II actually helped Hitler’s image – although the declaration of war was not received with the patriotic frenzy of 1914, the successful Blitzkrieg tactics and failures of Britain and France to help Poland boosted German morale. By 1941, Hitler was untouchable by law anyway and in the minds of many German people, and with the help of the repressive SS Gestapo, opposition to the war had little power.

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