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The Gestapo was a federal police agency in Germany during the time of National Socialism. The name itself came from the official abbrevation of "Geheimes Staatspolizei-Amt (GeStaPA)" and soon became "Gestapo". Under the overall administration of the Schutzstaffel (SS), it was administered by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) (“head office of the Reich security service”) and was considered a dual organization of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) (“security service”) and also a suboffice of the Sicherheitspolizei (SIPO) (“security police”).
Founding and early development
The Gestapo was established on April 26, 1933, in Prussia, from the existing organization of the Prussian State Police (Preussische Geheime Staatspolizei). The Gestapo was first simply a branch of the Prussian Police known as “Department 1A of the Prussian State Police”.
Its first commander was Rudolf Diels, who recruited members from professional police departments and ran the Gestapo as a federal police agency, comparable to several modern examples such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States. The Gestapo’s role as a political police force was only established after Hermann Göring was appointed to succeed Diels as Gestapo commander in 1934. Göring urged the new government to extend Gestapo power beyond Prussia to encompass all of Germany. In this Göring was mostly successful except in Bavaria, where Heinrich Himmler (head of the SS) served as the Bavarian police president and used local SS units as a political police force.
In April 1934, Göring and Himmler agreed to put aside their differences and Göring transferred full authority over the Gestapo to the SS. At that point, the Gestapo was incorporated into the Sicherheitspolizei and considered a sister organization of the Sicherheitsdienst.
Increasing power under the SS
Laws passed in 1936 effectively gave the Gestapo carte blanche to operate without judicial oversight. The Gestapo was specifically exempted from responsibility to administrative courts, where citizens normally could sue the state to conform to laws.
A further law passed later in the year gave the Gestapo responsibility for setting up and administering concentration camps. Also in 1936, Reinhard Heydrich became head of the Gestapo and Heinrich Müller, chief of operations; Müller would later assume overall command after Heydrich's assassination in 1942. During World War II, the Gestapo was expanded to around 45,000 members.
From its inception the Gestapo was a well-established bureaucratic mechanism, having been created from the Prussian State Police. In 1934 the Gestapo was transferred from the Prussian Interior Ministry to the authority of the Schutzstaffel (SS), and for the next five years underwent a massive expansion.
In 1939 the entire Gestapo was placed under the authority of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), the main office of the SS. Within the RSHA the Gestapo was known as Amt IV (“office IV”). The internal organization of the group is outlined below.
Referat N: Central Intelligence Office
The Central Command Office of the Gestapo, formed in 1941. Before 1939 the Gestapo command was under the authority of the office of the Sicherheitspolizei und Sicherheitsdienst (SD), to which the commanding general of the Gestapo answered. Between 1939 and 1941 the Gestapo was run directly through the overall command of the RSHA.
The Gestapo also maintained offices at all concentration camps, held an office on the staff of the SS and Police Leaders, and supplied personnel as needed to formations such as the Einsatzgruppen. Personnel assigned to these auxiliary duties were often removed from the Gestapo chain of command and fell under the authority of other branches of the SS.
Contrary to popular belief the Gestapo was not an omnipotent agency that had agents in every nook and cranny of German society. “V-men”, as undercover Gestapo agents were known, were used to infiltrate Social Democratic and Communist opposition groups, but this was the exception, not the rule.
As historian Robert Gellately's analysis of the Gestapostellen established, the Gestapo was for the most part made up of bureaucrats and clerical workers who depended upon denunciations by ordinary Germans for their information. Indeed, the Gestapo was overwhelmed with denunciations and spent most of its time sorting out the credible from the less credible denunciations. Far from being an all-powerful agency that knew everything about what was happening in German society, the local Gestapostellen were under-staffed, over-worked officers who struggled with the paper load caused by so many denunciations. The ratio of Gestapo officers to the population of the areas they were responsible for was extremely low; for example, for Lower Franconia, with a population of about one million in the 1930s, there was only one Gestapo office with 28 staff, half of whom were clerical workers.