The administration of law and order in Germany during WW2 must have been confusing — and frightening — for ordinary Germans. Police and security services were provided by a bewildering number of organizations, some that existed before Hitler came to power, others that were established as by-products of the Nazi Party.
Pre-war, the police force consisted of the Ordnungspolizei – Orpo (uniformed police) and the Sickerheitspolizei – Sipo (security police).
The Orpo consisted of the Schutzpolizei – Schupo (municipal police), Gendarmerie (rural police) and Gemeindepolizei (local police).
The Sipo was made up of the Kriminalpolizei – Kripo (criminal police) and the Geheime Staatspolizei – Gestapo (Secret State Police) – see below.
With the rise of the Nazi Party, the NSDAP, came the Sturmabteilung (SA) under Ernst Roehm, a paramilitary force used by the Nazis to bully their way to power. When the SA grew to 3 million men, Hitler saw it as a threat to his own leadership and, on the night of the long knives (1 July, 1934) he dismantled it, executing its leadership.
The SS (Schutzstaffel) was a paramilitary force that emerged from the early SA. Members of the SS provided personal protection for the Nazi leaders. The SS was directly responsible for almost all of the war crimes committed under the Nazi regime, including the Holocaust. By the end of the war, SS numbers had risen, under Heinrich Himmler’s leadership, to over a million.
The Gestapo – the Secret State Police – grew out of the Prussian police force, under Hermann Goring. Well funded and resourced, they operated, from 1936, beyond the jurisdiction of the courts. This meant they had the power to arrest, interrogate and detain any citizen without oversight or limit. They routinely used torture to extract confessions, and many died at their hands. From 1935, the Gestapo was put in charge of setting up and operating concentration camps. Only members of the SS were eligible to join the Gestapo.
The Sicherheitsdienst – SD (security service) was the intelligence arm of the SS. Its brief was the identification and elimination of threats to the Nazi leadership at home and abroad, a role which was largely duplicated by the Gestapo.
In 1939 the SD was divided into two organizations SD-Inland and SD-Ausland. At the same time, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD, persuaded his boss, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, to create a new police and security umbrella organization, the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt – National Security HQ). With Heydrich at the helm, this new organization ran the Sipo and the SD – that is, Kripo, Gestapo and SD. Ostensibly, this should have engendered greater cooperation between the Sipo and the SD, but under Heydrich’s iron rule, the rivalry intensified.
The Wehrmacht (armed forces) had its own military intelligence organization, Admiral Canaris’s Abwehr. Once the war started, much of SD-Ausland’s work overlapped and interfered with Abwehr operations. In 1944, two years after Heydrich’s assassination, parts of the Abwehr were subsumed within the RSHA.
The SD and Gestapo were considered sister organizations, the SD largely an information-gathering organization while the Gestapo was the operational force in the partnership. The SD numbered a few hundred officers; the Gestapo had more men, but functioned largely thanks to a network of thousands of informants. Rivalry between these organs of state security was fierce. Jostling for power, they competed for attention and glory, and each guarded its secrets and its cache of information.
Watch out for The Wings of the Eagle, the sequel to The Black Orchestra, due to be released early in 2014.