This article is an edited transcript of The Myth and Reality of Hitler’s Secret Police with Frank McDonough, available on History Hit TV.
There is a widespread view that everybody was terrified of the Gestapo in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, that they went to bed at night fearing the sound of the Gestapo knocking in the middle of the night and taking them away, straight to a concentration camp.
But when you actually look at how the Gestapo operated, the first thing that’s striking is that it was a very small organisation – only 16,000 active officers.
Of course, an organisation of that size couldn’t hope to police a population of 66 million people without some help. And they did get help. The Gestapo relied extensively on ordinary people – busybodies, for want of a better word.
An army of busybodies
The organisation effectively made use of a glorified home watch. People would send denunciations to the Gestapo and the Gestapo would then investigate them.
On the face of it, that sounds pretty straightforward – the Gestapo could simply use the intelligence sent to them to investigate people who were suspected of being opponents of the state.
But there was a complicating factor.
It turned out that people were actually settling scores with their partners, with colleagues at work or with their bosses. It became a way for members of the public to get one over on the bloke living next door.
There were plenty of cases of married couples shopping each other to the Gestapo, almost as an alternative to divorce.
Jewish women were encouraged to bail out on their husband. The message was, effectively, “You’re an Aryan, why are you staying married to this Jewish person? Why don’t you leave them?”.
There were instances of that actually happening but, in fact, most Jewish couples stayed together. It was more often the German couples that tended to shop each other.
The case of a woman we’ll call Frau Hoff is a good example.
She denounced her husband to the Gestapo, saying he was a communist. He came in every Friday night always drunk, and then he started ranting and raving about how terrible Hitler was. And then he started saying that the Gestapo was awful, and denouncing Hermann Göring and making jokes about Joseph Goebbels…
The Gestapo started an investigation, but when they began to interrogate Frau Hof it turned out she was more concerned about the fact that her husband beat her up after he came back from the pub.
She talked about going to hospital and being nearly kicked to death.
So they got the husband in and they questioned him. He denied that he was beating her up, although he did say that he was getting a divorce from her and that maybe she was carrying on an affair.
She was only doing this, he said, to get rid of him. He was adamant that he wasn’t an anti-Nazi, claiming that he actually cut out photographs from the newspapers and put them on the wall.
The Gestapo officer looked at both sides of the story and concluded that, in all probability, Frau Hof wanted to get rid of her husband for purely domestic reasons. He concluded that, even if the husband was ranting and raving against Hitler in his own house when he was a bit drunk, it didn’t really matter.
Ultimately the officer concluded that it wasn’t an issue for the Gestapo to solve. Let them go away and solve it themselves.
It’s a good example of the Gestapo looking at a case in which a man is possibly making anti-German statements, but the organisation ultimately taking the view that he’s doing it in his own home and therefore not threatening the system.
The unlucky 1%
Perhaps surprisingly, only a very small proportion of Germans came into contact with the Gestapo – about 1 per cent of the population. And most of those cases were dismissed.
There is a popular perception that if the Gestapo knocked on your door then it would circumvent the due process of law and ship you straight off to a concentration camp. But that simply didn’t happen.
In actual fact, the Gestapo typically held suspects in the organisation’s headquarters, usually for a number of days, while it investigated an allegation.
If they found that there was no case to answer, they’d let you go. And they mostly let people go.
The people who ended up going before the public prosecutor and on to a concentration camp tended to be the dedicated communists. These were people who were producing leaflets or newspapers and distributing them, or who were involved in other underground activity.
The Gestapo did jump on such people and send them to concentration camps.
They tended to do this according to a priority list. If you were a German person, they gave you the benefit of the doubt, because you were seen as to be a national comrade and you could be re-educated. Usually at the end of the 10-15-day process, they would let you go.
It’s surprising how many cases ended up with a suspect getting off.
But some cases that ultimately turned out to be minor nonetheless ended in a tragic outcome.
One case in particular concerned a man called Peter Oldenburg. He was a salesman who was nearing retirement, aged around 65.
He lived in an apartment and the woman who lived next door to him started listening at the wall, and she heard him listening to the BBC. She could clearly hear English accents, according to her denunciation.
It was an illegal offence to listen to the radio, and so she reported him to the Gestapo. But Oldenburg denied the allegations, telling the Gestapo that no, he wasn’t listening to the radio.
He brought in his cleaner and he brought in a friend who often visited to drink wine with him in the evenings. She told the Gestapo that she had never heard him listening to the radio, and also got another friend to vouch for him.
As with so many such cases, one group claimed one thing and another claimed the opposite. It would come down to which group was believed.
Oldenburg was arrested by the Gestapo, which must have been very traumatic for a disabled 65-year-old, and hung himself in his cell. In all probability, the allegation would have been dismissed.