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The Gestapo: The Myth and Reality of Hitler's Secret Police Hardcover – 2012
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In this thoroughly researched and elegantly written book, Frank McDonough confronts decades of myth-making to uncover the complex realities of Hitler's notorious secret police. The Gestapo is as surprising as it is illuminating, and it sets a new standard for this vitally important subject.” Roger Moorhouse, best-selling author of Berlin at War
A new look at Hitler's secret state police as a smaller crack force than is widely known . . . a nuanced study of the Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo . . . A well-researched book that clarifies many misconceptions"—Kirkus
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It is true, “chilling” is the key word: McDonough’s profound and fascinating account of The Gestapo provides a new doorway into the everyday life of the Third Reich and gives powerful testimony from the victims of Nazi terror.
McDonough is extremely good and knowledgable when it comes to illuminating motives of religious opposition to the Nazi regime. Research into resistance is about motives, scope and action. Hardly any reader will know that the devoted Catholic Stauffenberg had visited the Rosenkranzkirche (church of the rosary) in Berlin on the evening before his assassination attempt.
McDonought pays tribute to Bishop von Galen and his powerful sermons. After Bishop von Galen’s outburst on the Nazi regime decided to scale down its killing of handicapped people.
I found the story of Helmut Hesse, a pastor belonging to the Confessing Church, particularly poignant. This radical Christian was arrested by the Gestapo for giving sermons attacking the Nazi persecution of the Jews. What Hesse did not know was that his sermons were being monitored by the Gestapo. In June 1943 he was arrested and sent to the notorious Dachau concentration camp near Munich. He was killed by a lethal injection there on 24 November 1943. At just twenty-seven years of age, Helmut Hesse became the youngest martyr of the Confessing Church. Today’s Protestants ought to be proud of him – despite Luther’s anti-Semitic diatribes.
Equally important and illuminating are the chapters “Hunting the Communists” and “Persecuting the Jews”.
Frank McDonough's work has been described as, 'modern history writing at its very best: Ground-breaking, fascinating, occasionally deeply revisionist'. I take the view: Since Frank McDonough is Britain’s leading post-revisionist historian he should have put forward this bold and challenging thesis: The godfathers of the Gestapo are William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, who in April 1576 had set up the Elizabethan police state, whose spies recorded everything. And torture was used more than in any other English reign. Thomas (“rackmaster”) Norton and Richard (“torturer”) Topcliffe figure prominently here.
Finally I wholeheartedly agree with Matthew Feldman and Roger Moorhouse and with their respective appraisals of McDonough’s brilliant achievement: “A compelling and crisply written new history of the Third Reich's central instrument on domestic terror between 1933 and 1945. McDonough moves beyond the administrative history of the Gestapo to examine the key target groups not just political and religious opponents, but social outsiders and Jews He provides a nuanced account via Gestapo files and courtroom testimony. In setting a range of victims' life stories revealed in these neglected Gestapo case files against long standing historical views of either an all pervasive surveillance or total reliance on public denunciations, The Gestapo provides an original and welcome perspective on this often misunderstood symbol of Nazi repression and enforced conformity. Impressive, illuminated by real victim stories, this book is strongly recommended.” (…) “The Gestapo is as surprising as it is illuminating, and it sets a new standard for this vitally important subject.”
It is my firm belief that historians with a mission like Frank McDonough are our society’s conscience. They are custodians of our human experience in its misery and in its glory, in its encircling gloom and it its kindly light. The political history of all nations has hardly ever produced anything more malicious and evil than Hitler’s Gestapo and SS. But at the same time there is hardly anything greater and nobler than the opposition which existed in Germany.
Note that the focus is the Gestapo only in Germany proper; the force seems to have been more brutal in non-German occupied territories. The force in Germany never exceeded 16,000, not large enough to dominate a population of 60 million. The revisionist part is that while the Gestapo investigated many cases, often the cases were resolved and the person let go (laws allowed preventive and indefinite incarceration). Don't misread the book--it does not excuse gestapo brutality or argue that it was just another police force--it was often brutal, got more so as the war went along, and was quite capable of torture that inflicted grave harm or death on suspects. The regional directors were well-educated, in 1938 87% of them had college degrees and nearly half had doctorates, although the common officers were not educated and often had been career officers in other forces. The book covers the force not just in the war, but the 1930s between the Nazi consolidation of power and the war's start as well. What is unusual is the individual cases and detail--the readers has names, dates, context, and results that act to humanize the cases investigated by Gestapo personnel.
The book discusses the background of policing, and how the Nazi regime set up the police forces. It sees the Hitler regime as chaotic, allowing empire builders like the SS's Himmler to achieve power through winning bureaucratic struggles. In terms of covering what the Gestapo actually did, the chapters cover aspects.
Chapter 3 is on policing religion, such as outspoken priests and religious dissidents, with cases amply illustrating that some German religious had amazing if foolhardy courage. Some were briefly incarcerated and got a few days in jail as a warning, and some were sent to concentration camps. Of some 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned, about a thousand died; it seems to have been their intransigence that irritated the authorities most. Chapter 4 covers hunting down and dealing with Communists, who were seen as highly dangerous and treated harshly, perhaps because of the history of Nazi and Communist thugs battling in the streets before Hitler achieved power. It's this chapter that the Gestapo most closely resembles the common view that the force was brutal and omnisciently repressive.
Chapter 5 concerns how the force dealt with denunciations of people--neighbors, strangers overhearing comments in a bar, graffiti in the bathrooms and so on, Some 26% of Gestapo cases began as this kind of denunciation (versus 15% from Gestapo surveillance). These often stemmed from family disagreements, jealousies, drunken improprieties and marriage quarrels. The Gestapo seems to have dealt with most of these as any police force at the time would have, investigated, issued warning if appropriate and released people. Chapter 6 considers policing what might be called racial matters, that is persons considered liabilities to the idealized German race. This would include locating and processing (sending to institutions and such) the feeble minded, male homosexuals (not female), the blind and deaf, Gypsies, beggars, alcoholics, epileptics, the mentally ill, the seriously disabled, prostitutes and others. Such people were sometimes sent to camps to be killed, and often to be sterilized (some 300,000 to 400,000 in Germany). Chapter 7 describes the Gestapo's work in organizing the deportation of Jews from Germany; it's a fascinating chapter, partly because it describes the gradually but inexorable tightening restrictions on Jewish life.
Chapter 8 describes the gestapo facing trial after the war. A few of the higher ups were executed or faced substantial prison terms, and some escaped, but most did not suffer punishment.