The Gestapo were the Nazi secret state police, notorious for their brutality. Their name was an acronym for Geheime Staats-Polizei (Secret State Police). Since the end of Nazi Germany, the name has been used as a label for any kind of police or government agency which is seen as using brutal methods to maintain a totalitarian regime, or even any non-government group with such totalitarian aims.

The Gestapo were organized after the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933. Hermann Goering separated the political and espionage sections of the Prussian police into a new organization, which he commanded himself, purged of those he considered unreliable, and staffed with fellow Nazis. Soon the parallel police units in other parts of Germany were subsumed into the Gestapo. Due to political manuevering Heinrich Himmler, already commander of the SS, the Nazi paramilitary force, replaced Goering as commander of the Gestapo as well in 1936 (thus leading both the party's and the state's separate enforcement organizations). These groups worked together and the Gestapo often wore SS uniforms in German-occupied territories. Officially, the Gestapo's role was to investigate and root out anything dangerous to the State: treason, espionage, sabotage, and political opponents of the Nazi Party.

Over the next few years, there were mergers and crossovers with the Gestapo and other forces such the Criminal Police, and the Security Service from the military, so it was often difficult to say exactly what organization was supposed to be responsible for a particular function. However, the Einsatzgruppen (Task Force) which rounded up Jewish people in Germany and Germany's occupied territories was definitely a part of the Gestapo. By World War II, there were about 45,000 members of the Gestapo, as well as an estimated 160,000 agents and informers in their pay.

The Gestapo operated with no restrictions from civil authority, so its members were not supposed to be tried for any of their practices. The quotation most often used to express their freedom to use any tactic is from Nazi jurist Dr. Werner Best: "As long as the 'police' carries out the will of the leadership, it is acting legally." This gave them carte blanche to use any method including torture to obtain confessions. There were also no limits on "protective custody" -- imprisoning people with no judicial proceedings (in places such as the concentration camps). They killed many civilians of occupied areas, concentration camp inmates and prisoners of war; they were in charge of deporting people from occupied areas to perform forced labor. They also did such things as stage fake attacks on German borders from Poland (planting the corpses of executed German criminals dressed in Polish army uniforms)to give Germany an excuse to invade Poland in 1939.

After the war, during the Nuremberg trials, the Gestapo was indicted for crimes against humanity and convicted. However, most of its leaders were already dead (Himmler committed suicide by swallowing cyanide); a few escaped under new identities.


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