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Authors: Roger Moorhouse

Berlin at War (47 page)

illustrates very well the threats that it perceived. There were sections

devoted not only to the ‘usual suspects’ of socialists, communists, gypsies

and Jews, but also to liberalism, Freemasonry, ‘Political Catholicism’,

sabotage and forgery.

In combating these threats, the Gestapo was permitted to operate

outside the law if necessary. As a political police force, it served the

Nazi regime rather than the established judicial process, and in order

to function effectively it had to have free rein to arrest and imprison

suspects without recourse to the norms of law, which were seen to be

lagging behind the more immediate demands of the Nazi revolution.

The Gestapo, therefore, did not derive its authority from the grand

traditions of German justice, or even from the narrower requirements

of the administrative machine. Rather, its power came from Hitler

himself. It answered – ultimately – to no one but the Führer.

In order to better understand how the Gestapo worked, it is essential

to grasp the Nazi concept of justice. Unlike the Western legal tradition,

the watchers and the watched


Nazi justice was not blind: prejudice, in the literal sense of the word, as

prior judgement, was one of the central tenets of the new legal thinking.

When investigating a crime, therefore, the Gestapo would minutely

examine not only the circumstances of the offence itself, but also the

racial and social background of the suspects. Nazi theory held that suppos-

edly inferior racial groups, such as Jews, gypsies and Slavs, had a natural

predilection towards crime. Whereas it was thought that Aryan crim-

inals might possibly be redeemed, rehabilitated or re-educated by a fine

or a spell in a concentration camp, non-Aryan suspects were accorded

no such leeway. Damned
a priori
by their racial status, they could expect heavier sentences than their Aryan neighbours would receive for the

same offence.

Many suspects, however, did not even have the benefit of a formal

trial. The Gestapo was quite able to use the courts and the due legal

process, but in the majority of cases it used the expedient of
, or ‘protective custody’, thereby circumventing the judicial process

entirely. In this way, individuals whom the Gestapo deemed to be a

threat to society, or racially undesirable, could be detained even though

there was little evidence of serious wrongdoing. Those thus imprisoned

had no recourse to the established mechanisms of law, or any right of

appeal. They could be interrogated indefinitely and ultimately – whether

the evidence demanded it or not – sent to one of the myriad concen-

tration or ‘re-education’ camps, where they would serve whatever

sentence was required.7 For all its simplicity, it was remarkably effective.

Given its apparent omnipotence, it was assumed by many contem-

poraries that the number of Gestapo operatives and agents in the

German capital ran to many thousands. Social Democratic sources,

for instance, claimed that Berlin contained what was known as an

‘Iron Reserve’ of several thousand Gestapo officers and operatives,

who lived inconspicuously in apartment blocks across the city and

spied on their neighbours.8 Similarly, the American correspondent

Howard Smith was told in the autumn of 1941 by ‘a well-informed

German source’ that 10,000 young Gestapo agents were being sent to

Berlin ‘fresh from their training institute in Bavaria’.9 This force, he

was told, amounted to a doubling of the complement of agents

formerly responsible for the capital. It is easy to see how the popular

belief could be engendered that an agent or informer was hiding around

every corner, tapping every phone call and eavesdropping on every


berlin at war

conversation. It was an assumption that was nurtured by the air of

mystery and menace that surrounded the secret police. As SD-Chief

Reinhard Heydrich proclaimed to the audience at the German Police

Day in 1941: ‘The Gestapo, Kripo and SD are enveloped with all the

hushed and whispered secrets of the criminal novel.’10

In fact, statistics gleaned from official documents and internal memo-

randa show that the number of Gestapo employees in the German

capital was surprisingly modest. Starting from only 39111 in 1935, the

complement of agents responsible for Berlin – as opposed to those

based in Berlin but with national or regional responsibilities – rose to

697 by the outbreak of war and to 78712 by January 1945. Therefore,

even at its peak, the Gestapo never exceeded 800 agents and opera-

tives in Berlin. And, in a city of around four and a half million souls,

this equated to only one agent for every 5,600 or so Berliners.

So, while the Gestapo was effectively omnipotent – able to bend

or break the rules at will in pursuit of the real or perceived enemies

of the Reich – it was certainly not omniscient. For all its real or theor -

etical menace, it had neither the manpower nor the technology to

keep the entire German nation under close surveillance and so could

not work in isolation. Rather, it tended to rely on two primary sources

of information. The first, referrals from the regular police – the method

by which Bruno Wattermann was arrested – accounted for around

one in ten investigations. The vast majority, however, came via the

second route: information supplied by Party functionaries, V-men and


The first of these sources of information was the Party hierarchy

that spread throughout society in Nazi Germany. At its base stood the

(‘block warden’) who was responsible for the polit-

ical supervision of between forty and sixty households. Usually a lowly

local functionary, the
played a vital dual role in the propa-

gation of Nazi propaganda and the maintenance of order. Not only

did he serve as the first point of contact for those individuals who

required assistance from the state, such as those bombed out or

requiring ration cards and so on, he was also the primary conduit

through which the Party’s authority penetrated into the social subsoil

of every German community, serving as the eyes and ears of the

regime. If he suspected that an individual within his block was polit-

ically dubious – left-leaning, oppositional or sympathetic towards the

the watchers and the watched


Jews – he would report his suspicions to his Party superiors and in

due course the suspect could expect a visit from the Gestapo.13

In practice, therefore, the lowly
was generally despised.

Burdened with a raft of petty orders and decrees from an ever-watchful

government, he was rarely able to exercise sufficient tact in enforcing

their implementation among an often apathetic and recalcitrant popu-

lation. As a result, his dealings with local inhabitants could be fraught

with latent conflict; he would be given a wide berth by ‘his’ people,

and earned a number of derogatory nicknames – from ‘the stair terrier’

to ‘the snooper’. In many cases, he was simply referred to as
der Braune

‘the brown one’, in reference to the colour of the SA uniform that

many of his number wore.14

The second network on which the Gestapo depended was that of

its informers, both the so-called V-Men, and its many voluntary, unof-

ficial informers from among the civilian population. The V-Men – from

’, meaning a ‘person of trust’ – were nothing new and

had featured in the police networks of both Wilhelmine Germany

and the Weimar Republic. However, in Nazi Germany, with its totali-

tarian pretensions, they were to play an especially important role.

The typical V-Man was someone who was viewed by the Gestapo

as politically ‘compromised’: he might have committed some minor

misdemeanour, offered a bribe or been a member of some banned

organisation. In many cases, he would have been released early from

a concentration camp upon the promise of future ‘cooperation’.

Importantly, a would-be V-Man was frequently in a position of some

authority; perhaps a university lecturer, a small businessman or a factory

foreman. There were, of course, a proportion of V-Men who were

motivated by greed, or who were simply braggarts and busybodies,

but most were citizens upon whom the Gestapo felt a certain pressure

could be applied, and from whom information of some value might

be gleaned. Expected to report on the activities and political reliability

of their neighbours and colleagues, the V-Men occupied a somewhat

tragic position, as both victims and collaborators of the Nazi regime.15

The precise numbers of V-Men operating in Berlin is unknown.

The card indices containing that information were viewed as extremely

sensitive and would have been among the first items to be destroyed

by the Gestapo as the war came to an end in 1945. Some figures for

other German cities have survived, but they offer few clues; Frankfurt


berlin at war

for instance, had 1,200 V-Men16 while Nuremberg had only around

100.17 Given Berlin’s status and size, one would expect its complement

of V-Men to be at the top end of that range.

The activities of the V-Men were clearly widely understood. One story

serves to demonstrate the degree to which the V-Men had become

common currency in the capital. In the summer of 1940, a schoolboy

named Erich Vinck was being punished for playing truant from school

when he claimed that the real reason for his absences was that he was,

in fact, working for the Gestapo. Though he was initially unwilling to

explain his connections to the secret police, claiming that he was forbidden

to do so, he soon overcame his scruples and told his teachers that he

was required to go to clandestine meetings and to spy on workers at an

armaments factory. As a reward for his ‘work’, he said, he had even been

given a new bicycle.

Naturally, the teachers suspected otherwise. When the boy’s mother

confirmed his story, they contacted the Gestapo direct, whereupon

young Erich was called in for an interview. Only then did the truth

finally emerge: Erich had been missing school to indulge in some petty

crime, and the bicycle had been stolen.18 This episode not only seems

to indicate that the existence and role of the V-Men was well known

in the capital, but also suggests that their actions were not viewed

entirely negatively: Erich would scarcely have chosen as cover a ‘profes-

sion’ that he considered unacceptable or reprehensible.

Perhaps the most controversial component of the Gestapo network,

however, was the legion of unofficial, civilian informers. Right from

the seizure of power in 1933, senior Nazis had requested the help of

the public in keeping their fellows in line. Rudolf Hess, for instance,

said in a speech in 1934: ‘Every party and fellow comrade impelled by

honest concern for the movement and the nation shall have access to

the Führer or me without being taken to task.’19 Similarly, three years

later, the Civil Service law had been revised to place the onus of

reporting anti-state activities on all civil servants.

Even considering the official encouragement, the German public seems

to have informed on its fellows with astonishing alacrity. As one Jewish

Berliner would later complain: ‘The common people, they were watching

you. They were all detectives in civilian clothes.’20 Informants were

motivated not only by a sense of patriotic duty, but also by personal ambi-

tion or petty spite – and some Berliners would undoubtedly have used

the watchers and the watched


the simple expedient of denunciation to rid themselves of a business rival

or an adulterous spouse. Whatever the motivation, they denounced in

their droves – so much so that it has been estimated that fully 80 per cent

of all Gestapo investigations were started in response to denunciations

from ordinary members of the public.21 Paradoxically, the authorities were

often forced to take measures to reduce the sheer volume of denunci a-

tions that was flooding in. Some government offices in Berlin even displayed

a poster proclaiming that ‘Informers receive a cuff around the ear’.22

This culture of denunciation seems to have sprung from a general

deterioration of civic relations in the capital, resulting in a pernicious

spiral of suspicion and accusation. Though this situation was already

present in the febrile atmosphere of the 1920s and 1930s, it was naturally

exacerbated by the advent of war in 1939. Howard Smith noted how,

even comparatively early in the war, Berlin society was already losing its

collective bonhomie and solidarity. ‘Berliners are ill-humoured’, he wrote,

I can recommend no more effective remedy for a chance fit of good

humour than a ten-station ride on a Berlin tube train. If the packed train

suddenly lurches forward and pushes your elbow against the back of the

man standing in front of you, it is the occasion for a violent ten-minute

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