After the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, many policemen remained skeptical of the party and its intentions. Nazi agitation, especially in the latter years of the Weimar Republic, had been subversive and the police had been investigating both the Nazis and the Communists with vigor. Nevertheless Hitler posed as a champion of law and order, claiming he would uphold traditional German values. The police and many other conservatives looked forward to the extension of police power promised by a strong centralized state, welcomed the end of factional politics, and agreed to end democracy.
In addition to expanding the powers of the police, the Nazis also wanted to guarantee that loyal—meaning Nazi—policemen controlled and filled Germany’s police institutions. This would make it easier for the Nazis to use the police forces for their ideological and dictatorial goals. The Nazis did not simply abolish the police or replace them all with Nazis. They needed existing police experience, knowledge, skill, and expertise.
The Nazi state alleviated many of the frustrations the police experienced in the Weimar Republic. The Nazis shielded the police from public criticism by censoring the press. They ended street fighting by eliminating the Communist threat. Police manpower was even extended by the incorporation of Nazi paramilitary organizations as auxiliary policemen. The Nazis centralized and fully funded the police to better combat criminal gangs and promote state security. The Nazi state increased staff and training, and modernized police equipment. The Nazis offered the police the broadest latitude in arrests, incarceration, and the treatment of prisoners. The police moved to take “preventive action,” that is, to make arrests without the evidence required for a conviction in court and indeed without court supervision at all.
Conservative policemen were initially satisfied with the results of their cooperation with the Nazi state. Crime did indeed go down and the operation of criminal gangs ended. Order was restored. But there was a price. The Nazi state was not a restoration of the imperial tradition. It was at its core thoroughly racist. The Nazis took control and transformed the traditional police forces of the Weimar Republic into an instrument of state repression.
Police leadership positions were politically appointed. This meant that whoever controlled the state and local governments could appoint the police chiefs. As the Nazis gained control of state and local government positions, they immediately appointed Nazi Party loyalists, often SA men, to police leadership positions. The same men who had been terrorizing the police and the public just months before were now in charge of major police departments across Germany.
Lower-level German policemen were civil servants, which came with certain job protections. Thus, to achieve their goals, the Nazis needed a legal reason to fire them or force them to retire. A new Nazi law adopted on April 7, 1933, did just that. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service gave the government the power to remove Jews and political opponents from the civil service. This included policemen. In Cologne, for example, thirty-one police officers (out of approximately 2,600) were removed under the law, mostly for political activity. Nonetheless, this purge of the police was relatively minor.
Although most German police officers were not Nazi Party members, very few of them openly opposed the new regime. Many of the daily duties and responsibilities of German police officers remained the same, but now their work began to further Nazi goals. The Nazi regime relied on the routine work of police to carry out its policies, and German police forces helped implement systems of persecution that over time would lead to genocide.
Shortly after taking power, the Nazi Party began persecuting Communists, Socialists, and other political opponents. Many German police officers supported this campaign and helped carry out arrests and seizures of property. The regime deliberately blurred the lines of authority between the police and the Nazi Party by deputizing members of the SA and the SS as policemen in early 1933. Nazi officials tried bringing German police closer to the regime by staging public ceremonies and placing Nazis in leadership positions in German police forces. Hoping to establish their place in the new regime’s security forces, many German police officers supported these developments.
Beginning in 1934, celebrations called “The Day of the German Police” honored the connection between the police and the people with parades and speeches. During those events, which eventually expanded to a full week, German policemen stood on street corners and collected money for the Nazi charity program Winter Relief (Winterhilfswerk). Propaganda depicted German policemen directing traffic, returning lost children, shaking hands with people, and teaching children new skills.
Nazi ideology became central to police training and police practice. In police newspapers and booklets, Nazi police leaders contrasted the new National Socialist police ideal with the Weimar-era police, whom the Nazis condemned as servants of a weak constitutional state. The new Nazi police were supposedly the “friend and helper” of the German people.
Takeover By The Security Police
The Nazi Party and the German police grew more closely linked when SS leader Heinrich Himmler became Chief of the German Police in 1936. Himmler centralized control of Germany’s many different police forces and divided them into two major branches: the Order Police (uniformed police forces responsible for traffic control, public safety, etc.) and the Security Police (the Gestapo and the Kripo). The Gestapo was responsible for investigating people deemed to be political or racial enemies of Nazi Germany. The Kripo investigated crimes such as theft and homicide—as well as individuals whom Nazi ideology claimed were social threats or professional criminals. Each branch of the German police had separate responsibilities, but they often worked closely with one another.
The Nazi regime expanded the powers of the Security Police, giving them the authority to imprison people without trials. The use of “protective custody” gave the Gestapo the ability to jail anyone they suspected was a threat to national security. Within months of the Nazi rise to power, tens of thousands of people were detained under such “protective custody orders.” Similarly, the Kripo could place people under “preventive arrest” if they decided an individual was a “professional criminal” or a so-called “asocial” danger to the community.
As the enforcers of the government’s laws, German police helped arrest and imprison the regime’s political opponents and “racial enemies.” German police played a central role in the persecution of Jews under the Nazi regime. They investigated alleged violations of the Nuremberg Laws and other Nazi racial policies. They targeted Jews for arrest and harassment, and enforced the so-called “Aryanization” of businesses and professions in Germany. A November 1938 order on “measures against the Jews” from Reinhard Heydrich shows how German police supported the persecution of Jews during Kristallnacht, including the arrest of approximately 30,000 Jewish men who were sent to concentration camps.
Tools of Persecution
German police also had a central role in the Nazi persecution of Roma and Sinti. For example, criminal complaints against Douglas Bamberger give insights into how racist stereotypes about Romani criminal behavior contributed to discrimination against Roma and Sinti. These complaints also reveal how citizens and neighbors could bring the question of a family’s racial classification to the attention of the police.
German police also followed Nazi instructions to close gay, lesbian, and trans bars and meeting places. They enforced legal statutes that criminalized relationships between men. The “protective custody” order for Herbert Fröhlich and the photograph of the Eldorado Club illustrate how the routine work of German police determined the reach of these policies. In many cases, police officials’ attitudes and choices determined whether allegations of criminal behavior were pursued. Their decisions often held life-altering consequences for the accused.
Individual members of the German police did their jobs with varying degrees of commitment, compassion, and indifference. Some police continued to perform their duties out of a sense of professionalism and public service regardless of their personal politics. Others eagerly welcomed the new regime and its promise to be tough on crime. A 1938 film of the Vienna police shows officers wearing swastika armbands and giving Nazi salutes immediately after the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria. Some police acted cruelly while others demonstrated moments of kindness.
World War II transformed the responsibilities and daily routines of many German police. Himmler combined the intelligence service of the SS and the Nazi Party with the Security Police to create the RSHA. The RSHA became a leading force in the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish policies during the Holocaust. Security Police personnel formed the core of the Einsatzgruppen, and many Order Police units were sent to territories occupied by Germany. These police units oversaw deportations, guarded Jewish ghettos, and committed numerous acts of mass murder. German Order Police units and the Einsatzgruppen regularly carried out mass shootings.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II, relatively few police involved in acts of persecution or murder were held accountable for their crimes. Allied occupation forces pursued postwar justice for perpetrators and removed many Nazis from influential positions. However, lower-ranking officers and police who had not been members of the Nazi Party often continued their careers in the decades after the war. Letters from Harry Lerner demonstrate that issues with the German police continued after the war and could strain relationships between Germans, Allied occupation authorities, and Displaced Persons and Holocaust survivors.
German police played a pivotal role in the implementation of Nazi policies from 1933 to 1945. Routine policework helped advance the Nazi program, and many police officers commited acts of persecution and mass murder. Providing a glimpse into this complicated history, this collection shows how the German police became connected with the Nazi Party and became a crucial component of Nazi rule.
Sources: “German Police and the Nazi Regime,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“The Nazification Of The German Police, 1933–1939,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Location: Berlin, 1933.