The Gestapo


I’m not much interested in World War Two.

Or, to be precise, I’m not really all that interested in reading about World War Two.

Now part of that is, in grade school, I read all 33 volumes of Colonel Dewey’s “Young People’s History of World War II”. At least that’s what my memory says it was called. I’ve never been able to actually find any reference to such a series. [Update: I discovered, in a bookstore last week, that this series was not by Colonel Dewey but Colonel Trevor N. Dupuy. It was the 18 volume Military History of World War II and not intended for just juvenile readers. What does it say about my memory that 18 books became 33?]

In high school, I read some of Time-Life’s series on World War Two.

As an adult, though, I can’t remember any books I’ve read solely on World War Two. The books I’ve read that touch on the subject deal mostly with espionage: John Keegan’s Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaedavarious biographies of Kim Philby, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB by Christopher Andrew.

Part of my disinterest in reading about the subject is that American culture has a lot of information about the war that can be absorbed casually via tv documentaries, magazines, and even movies.

Part of my disinterest is that I simply don’t come from a family with a large military tradition. The last American war for my ancestors to fight in (on both sides) was the American Revolution. An ancestor was in the Union Army during the Civil War, but his Wisconsin unit seemed to have spent its time hunting down deserters. Thus I have no direct family connection to the events (though several uncles of my mother were in WWII).

World War One exerts more interest for me. There’s the snob appeal of it being less popular in America than World War Two. World War One has, in its black and white photos of gas-masked skeletons at the bottom of trenches, its duckwalks through the quagmires of no-man’s land, its strange campaigns in Africa, a naval battle off the Falklands, a bizarre German expedition to Afghanistan, the valor of the French so mocked for their martial glory in America, and the sheer complexity of how and why it started, much more to draw me.

And the draw is increasing. I’ve found myself reading more about the Great War in the past few years. In my few trips to England, I’ve seen, even in small towns, memorials to the Great War. Five years ago, my best friend, an amateur historian, died and left me much of his library, including many books on WWI. “You’ll have to carry on the work after I’m gone,” he said.

Well, I won’t be contributing any histories myself. But, like millions, I’m feeling historical memory, its tidal force increasing with the upcoming centenary, pulling on me as June 28, 2014 nears.

All of which is a long way of saying, I wish I would have spent the time reading this book, and it was a quick read, reading more about World War One instead.

Review: The Gestapo: Power and Terror in the Third Reich by Carsten Dams and Michael Stolle, translated by Charlotte Ryland

Unlike most Oxford University Press books I’ve read, this one doesn’t repeat itself from chapter to chapter. That probably explains its short length.

I read it hoping for some information on the Gestapo’s counter-intelligence operations. That is mentioned, in passing, like a lot of things are mentioned just in passing here. We really get only a paragraph on the Soviet Red Orchestra spy ring, and you even have to hunt for that since, oddly, this book comes with no index.

My starting level of knowledge about the Gestapo was practically zero, so I did learn a few things.

The term “Gestapo” is, in fact, an acronym in German for the Geheime Staatspolizei (secret state police).

Gestapo members were generally not sadistic thugs. They were former policeman, ambitious party men, and, at one point in its history, many were unemployed lawyers in their twenties.

On paper, the staffing levels and organizational chart of the Gestapo make it look rather inefficient. And it was inefficient at times and missed major acts of resistance including the attempted assassination of Hitler. But it was good enough to kill and imprison millions. Mostly that was due to sort of a fluid and informal appropriation of army personnel, civilians, and regular policeman to help with the work. Want to do a mass shooting? Get some local cops to close off the area for the execution. Looking to put a few thousand people on the train to the death camp when you empty a ghetto? Get some local police to help. Need to root out some Jews in hiding? Get yourself some informants – by blackmail or threats to their family or promise of better treatment – to help you penetrate disguises. The book’s most important point is that a lot of people who were not Gestapo on paper helped with their odious deeds and for a variety of motives ranging from self-preservation and blackmail to political ambition and ideology.

There was a deliberate policy of rotating Gestapo men from Germany out to Poland and Eastern European countries where extermination work was mostly conducted. One reason was for improved morale so no aspersions could be cast on office members in Germany and their non-contributions to the effort.

There were, for reasons not explained, actual formal policies on how many blows a beating could inflict on a suspect. Unfortunately, this is just one more area where a question is raised and not answered. Was this policy actually enforced? For how long?

Peculiarities in German denazification laws allowed a lot of Gestapo members to avoid convictions on war crimes.

A great deal of Gestapo effort was directed toward keeping foreign workers in the Reich in line and, in the case of Polish workers especially, making sure they didn’t have sex with German women.

There are two interesting case studies. One follows the investigation of a German truck driver, a World War One veteran, investigated for making anti-war remarks on his delivery rounds. The second is about two “Graspers”, Stella Kübler and Rolf Isaakson, Jews recruited by the Gestapo to find Jews hiding in Berlin. Given all the effort directed against them, a surprising number of Jews survived the war in Berlin.

However, this is all covered in arid prose only an academic, one wanting to answer a question about approximate operational details in a particular time and place, would turn to. And, needless to say, the bibliography references almost exclusively German language sources. A helpful glossary of terms and equivalent table of Gestapo and Allied military ranks are included.


An index exists for more reviews of espionage non-fiction.

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