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Police state: New book on Gestapo probes chilling questions about instrument of terror

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Heinrich Himmler (centre), head of the Gestapo and the Waffen-SS and minister of the interior of Nazi Germany from 1943 to 1945, reviews troops in June 1944.

U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Heinrich Himmler (centre), head of the Gestapo and the Waffen-SS and minister of the interior of Nazi Germany from 1943 to 1945, reviews troops in June 1944.

Michael Ruck's 1995 bibliography of Nazism contains over 37,000 entries, and this number has risen considerably since its publication; some 2,000 books were published on Nazi Germany in 2013 alone.

The University of Manitoba library catalogue contains 48,395 references to Nazi Germany, 17,870 to Nazism and 5,025 to the Gestapo. Now selling well in Germany is the satirical Er Ist Wieder Da (Look Who's Back), in which a miraculously resurrected Hitler surveys the contemporary scene.

All of which raises the question: Do we need another book on the Gestapo? In the case of this new history, the answer is yes -- The Gestapo draws on a large body of recent research that challenges some established ideas that are mostly accessible only in German. Its authors, Carsten Dams and Michael Stolle, are German academics who have written extensively on the Gestapo and its place in the Nazi regime.

They describe their book as a concise overview that closes a gap in the writing of history. This is a little unfair to Robert Gellately's The Gestapo and German Society (1990), George Browder's Hitler's Enforcers (1998), and Eric Johnson's Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans (1999), but Dams and Stolle have certainly produced a comprehensive, albeit largely institutional, overview of their subject.

They examine the Gestapo's organization, its personnel, and its methods of investigation and interrogation. They also detail the treatment of those seen as politically suspect or, more chillingly, as unworthy of membership in the so-called national German community, as well as wartime activities and involvement in the Holocaust and the post-war fate of its agents.

Recent research has challenged the myth of an all-powerful Gestapo, describing it instead it as seriously under-staffed, more reactive than proactive, and not especially efficient. Dams and Stolle describe this revisionist portrait as exaggerated, and argue that the Gestapo was an "effective instrument of terror."

Despite its name, the Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei, a.k.a. Gestapo) actively sought publicity, well aware that its intimidating reputation facilitated its work. Moreover, the Gestapo worked closely with the regular police and the SS and so had access to whatever resources it needed as the self-described "doctor of the German national body."

For the most part, the Gestapo targetted Jews, Roma, communists, socialists, Christians who took God too seriously, gays, and so-called "asocial" elements. Until the last years of the Second World War, most Germans had little or no contact with it, provided they were judged to pose no threat to the Nazi regime. Indeed, following much recent research, Dams and Stolle describe the Gestapo as benefiting from a general mood of consent and support.

Even if they avoided the Gestapo's attention, Germans were caught in a web of other state-controlled organizations -- from neighbourhood party officials and block wardens to the Hitler Youth, the League for German Girls, the Labour Front, the Militant League for German Culture and many others, all pursuing the Nazi vision of a radically new "national community." The media, the schools, and the churches operated under Nazi control.

Perhaps the most depressing finding of recent research is that roughly one-third of the Gestapo's workload consisted of following up on voluntary denunciations lodged by people against neighbours, co-workers, bosses, and sometimes even spouses, often to satisfy some personal grudge.

Dams and Stolle draw a disturbing conclusion, noting the new research on the Gestapo "makes very clear what people are capable of when state power gives them a mandate." We're left with the usual questions: How did Nazism take hold in such a culturally and educationally advanced country as Germany? In the right circumstances, could it happen elsewhere?

In this context, it's no comfort to realize Manitoba students are not required to study 20th-century world history and so, except for a few paragraphs in the Grade 11 Canadian history textbook, are taught nothing about Nazism.

To be ignorant of history is to risk becoming its victim; in this light, Dams and Stolle have given us a book that makes for necessary reading.

 

Ken Osborne is an emeritus professor in the University of Manitoba's faculty of education.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2014 G7

History

Updated on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at 7:18 AM CDT: Formatting.

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