UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133b Homepage > Hist 133b Book Essays Index page > Student essay

cover of Gellately, Gestapo and German society

"Popular Support for State Terror"

Book Essay on: Robert Gellately,
The Gestapo and German Society

(Oxford UP, 1991), 320 pages

by Jessica Wong
March 19, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
and Link
Plagiarism Warning
$20 & searchable
at amazon

About Jessica Wong

Jessica Wong is a senior history major at UCSB who visited Berlin and Cologne while studying abroad in England.

Essay (back to top)

The terror in Germany during the years of Nazi rule was brought about by many different factors. However, this common fear among the population was embodied in the secret police , the Gestapo. Despite its small numbers, the Gestapo effectively controlled many aspects of society, most notably, its citizens. In his book, The Gestapo and German Society, Robert Gellately addresses the development of the Gestapo and its effects on civilian life. By relying on surviving records in the regions of Würzburg and Lower Franconia, Gellately explains the origins of the secret police and their effect on the population. Using the evidence provided in these records, he successfully argues the Gestapo was built upon already existing institutions of the Weimar Republic, and the participation of ordinary citizens was a crucial aspect of the group’s success in carrying out the Nazi’s racist policies. Although not everyone followed Nazi policies and denounced others, many willingly played a crucial role in the influence of the Gestapo.

Gellately appropriately separates his book into three sections: the evolution of the Gestapo, German society, and the enforcing of racial policy. While addressing these three areas, he attempts to answer many different questions: How did the Gestapo attain its reputation and efficiency? How was it organized locally, who served in it, how did it go about its tasks, and how did it initiate cases? How were anti-Semitic policies enforced? These different questions represent many of the mysteries surrounding the Gestapo, and Gellately aims at dissolving misconceptions. Many of these mistaken beliefs relate to the creation of the Gestapo.

In the first part of his book, Gellately answers the questions related to the organization and reputation of the Gestapo. The group’s legacy of instilling fear among Germans led many to assume it was an original creation of Hitler and the Third Reich. However, it was actually a development of previous police structures from the Weimar Republic and governments before the Nazi period (Gellately 25). The Nazi government took already existing police practices and formed the Gestapo. What made this police institution so unique in its formation in 1933 was the freedom it was given by the government. Gellately claims though the Gestapo was built on traditions of German policing, they took them much further. “Not only was it centralized as never before, but it claimed to stand outside the law, justice system, and traditional administrative and police discipline” (Gellately 43). These are important distinction that would lead to local organization and citizens’ participation in the Gestapo’s goals.

The Gestapo’s hold on society would not have been possible without its local support and organization. Nuremberg helped uncover many Gestapo records. Elke Fröhlich discovered Middle Franconia, between the years 1943-44, “there were some 80-100 people regularly informing the Gestapo but not formally members of it” (Gellately 62). This number varied in different areas, but gives an idea of the voluntary involvement of the German people. Although the Gestapo’s members were rarely common citizens, its units formed in towns with the support of the local population. Therefore, the Gestapo did not hold as much control over society as many people have thought.

Many historians have previously credited the Gestapo with power they most likely did not possess. Gellately argues while they did possess the power of being above the law, they also had to rely on the support of others. Other police groups, such as the Kripo, could uncover information helpful to the secret police (Gellately 71). The Gestapo was also made up of a much smaller group than others have estimated. Gellately states, “It did not possess the omnipotence often attributed to it, but relied upon the collaboration of a whole host of organizations and institutions” (75). Though Gellately makes a strong argument, it must be kept in mind he does not mention the number of individuals who do not take any action, whether in favor or against the Gestapo. But the organizations he does speak of included both outside police forces as well as ordinary citizens.

Because the Gestapo’s influence heavily relied on the common people, the motives of these denouncers must be considered. Although Hitler’s power seemed to stretch across Germany, in reality, there were many different feelings amongst the population. The anti-Semitic laws of the Nazis affected everyone across the nation. But some areas adhered to these laws more strictly than others. The two locations Gellately studies, Würzburg and Lower Franconia, were both places with no real base of anti-Semitism (Gellately 87). However, propaganda also played a part in pushing involvement in policies.

Gellately refers to the work of Ian Kershaw’s The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich to create a better understanding of how citizens reacted to the anti-Semitic laws. Kershaw argues there was a lack of concern among most citizens regarding the fate of the Jews (Gellately 9). Kershaw’s argument is supported by the fact that many citizens did denounce citizens helping Jews and the Gestapo had consistant cases to follow up on. However, Gellately argues that within the region of Lower Franconia, it is hard to determine “the role of anti-Semitism in the ‘success’ of the Nazis”. Furthermore, he says, “many who voted Nazi simply ignored or rationalized the anti-Semitism of the party” (Gellately 91). His point supports his argument of varying attitudes throughout different regions towards racist policies.

Though the book is split up into three parts, it is tied with the common theme of “the enforcement of racial policies designed by the Nazis as ‘racially foreign’ required the cooperation or collaboration of ‘ordinary citizens’” (Gellately 7). These racial policies became a reality for all Jews and non-Jews with the introduction of the Nuremburg laws (Gellately 108). Along with other police groups, it was the Gestapo’s job to enforce these new racist policies. In order to obtain information, the group was deliberately “shrouded in secrecy” to convey the sense they were in control of all aspects of people’s lives. In reality, they lacked resources to put the majority of the population under surveillance (Gellately 129). Therefore, the populace themselves helped the Gestapo immensely.

Although encouraged, ordinary citizens were not forced to denounce each other. Gellately refers to Reinhard Mann’s studies of denunciations to explain their effect on Nazi policies. Gellately concludes Mann’s study, while informative, is also limited as it does not take into consideration the racist motives of those helping the Gesetapo (Gellately 134). Although regions such as Lower Franconia may not have had racist motivations for their denunciations, it was sometimes a strong incentive in other areas and for party leaders. Despite this fact, Mann’s research supports Gellately’s argument that a large number, if not the majority, of cases were initiated by ordinary citizens accusing their fellow citizens of crimes. Because normal residents were initiating these investigations, their motives must also be considered.

The racist policies were not the only factors driving the denunciations. Although many people did attempt to denounce those of “inferior races”, they sometimes had other motivations. Many people took advantage of their right to denounce and turned in people they held grudges against (Gellately 139). Instead of having racist intentions, other individuals were more concerned with the economic benefits. Still other people falsely accused others of crimes and each case had to be looked into by the Gestapo. Gellately gives many examples of people using denunciations to settle scores with others. These included a number of cases involving employers and employees, husbands and wives, and between neighbors. Each case was handled and details were observed by the Gestapo.

Specific cases were investigated and recorded by the secret police. In one case, a wife accused her husband of claiming he did not want his children to be killed in the war because of the Third Reich. After investigation, the Gestapo came to the conclusion the wife’s claim had no basis because she was seeking revenge on her husband after an argument (Gellately 148). This is simply one example of the types of claims people accused others of. Similar to this case between the wife and her husband, other informants accused people of not supporting Hitler or Nazi policy. Gellately addresses these cases, but also focuses on cases developed out of accusations regarding racial policy.

The Nuremburg laws forced German non-Jews to choose how they acted towards the Jews in their community. Not all areas had a large, or existing, Jewish population. Despite this fact, there are still many Gestapo cases involving “race defilement” and “friendship to Jews” (Gellately 165). False charges were especially common regarding these two accusations because they were very hard to prove. People were varyingly accused of renting a house from a Jew, allowing Jews in their shops, meeting with Jewish friends, and having sexual relations with Jews (Gellately 167-168). These anti-Semitic policies opened the doors for many people to accuse others of crimes, but also forced citizens to choose whether or not they would follow Nazi policy.

Many ordinary citizens chose to reject racist laws, while others complied under pressure. Cases of non-compliance are common enough to suggest Jews’ “social and economic privileges persisted” (Gellately 179). Many people continued to have Jewish contacts, including the Baumann couple. They were party members, but their continued contact with Jews led to their ejection from the party. In another case, nurse Bettina Werner suspected a Jewish woman had been hired by a widow, Irmgard Junge, to help her with chores. The local police sent the case to the Gestapo in Würzburg, and Junge’s behavior was considered a disregard of government regulations. She had to sign a document where she was “warned under threat of the most drastic state police measures” (Gellately 193). Gellately does not mention what happened to specific Jews accused of breaking the law, but it can be assumed their punishments were not as lenient as these reports. As exemplified by these two cases, even the smallest contact with Jews was cause for suspicion. It is evident from the case files, each denunciation was researched and recorded. The Gestapo’s attention to detail was one of the reasons they instilled such fear among the population and remain a legacy today.

Some citizens did choose to ignore or break laws set up by the Nazis. The Gestapo’s responsibility was to catch those not adhering to these rules. With the help of their political freedom in surveillance and taking people into “protective custody”, the Gestapo created the image they could discover any secret. However, Gellately proves that this secret police group was actually formed out of previous political police groups, and their influence, though effective, was reliant on the cooperation of the populace. The Gestapo, along with the local police, forced many individuals to comply with anti-Semitism. But a great number also willingly denounced their acquaintances, whether for personal reasons or to truly accuse someone of breaking the law.

Yet, it must also be kept in mind while many ordinary citizens reported Jews and those in contact with Jews, it was the Gestapo itself that was responsible for the ultimate fate of the Jews. Gellately convincingly supports his arguments about the origins of the police group and the involvement of German citizens. He provides a detailed look into the lives of citizens and their relationship with the Gestapo. However, I do not suggest this book for someone who wants to know about the fate of the Jews. It also does not address the Nazi government or Hitler. But if anyone is interested in the history of the Gestapo or the effects of the secret police on German society, this book will give valuable insight into these subjects of the period of the Third Reich.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/22/07)


  • Geoffrey J. Giles, in: The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Dec., 1993), pp. 905-907 (jstor)
  • by George C. Browder, in: German Studies Review, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Oct., 1992), pp. 637-638 (jstor)


(back to top)

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/21/07; last updated: 3/27/07
back to top, to Hist 133b homepage, 133b Book Essays index page; Prof. Marcuse's Courses page; Professor's homepage