The Police State

By August 1934 Hitler was a dictator with absolute power. In order to maintain this power he needed organisations that could control the population to ensure absolute loyalty to the Führer. After the demise of the SA on the Night of the Long Knives, there were three main interlinked organisations (in addition to the regular German police force) involved in controlling the German people through spying, intimidation and if necessary imprisonment:

The organisational structure of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD)
  • Schutzstaffel (SS) - Led by Heinrich Himmler, the SS was the most important of these organisations and oversaw the others. Initially set up as Hitler’s personal bodyguard service, the SS was fanatically loyal to the Führer. It later set up concentration camps where ‘enemies of the state’ were sent
  • Gestapo - This was the Nazis’ secret police force. Its job was to monitor the German population for signs of opposition or resistance to Nazi rule. It was greatly helped by ordinary German people informing on their fellow citizens.
  • Sicherheitsdienst (SD) - This was the intelligence gathering agency of the SS. It was responsible for the security of Hitler and other top Nazis and was led by Himmler’s right hand man, Reinhard Heydrich.

Revison tip:

A good mnemonic to help you remember some of the key features of this topic is:

  • Himmler’s - Head of the police state
  • Sight – The SS
  • Gradually – The Gestapo
  • Spreads – The SD

Nazi control of the legal system

The Nazis quickly swept away many of the freedoms that Germans had enjoyed under the Weimar constitution. The party’s control of the legal system made opposition to the regime very difficult indeed:

  • Judges had to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler and were expected to act always in the interests of the Nazi state.
  • All lawyers had to join the Nazi Lawyers' Association, which meant they could be controlled.
  • The role of defence lawyers in criminal trials was weakened.
  • Standard punishment for crimes were abolished and so local prosecutors could decide what penalties to impose on those found guilty.
Judges were independent and subject only to the law NOT the government.Under the Nazis, judges swore an oath of loyalty to Hitler and swore to act in the interest of Nazi Germany.
Lawyers were free to belong to any associations they decided to join. Lawyers had to be members of the Nazis Lawyers Association; the Nazis had oversight and control over them.
The defence lawyers were awarded equal rights as prosecution lawyers (access to evidence etc).Defence lawyers have fewer rights and it was more difficult to defend someone accused.
There were standard punishments for different crimes, which meant people were punished the same across Germany for the same crime.Local prosecutors could decide whatever punishments were appropriate; there was no uniformity and it all depended on the presiding judge.

These changes more than halved the number of criminal offences between 1933 and 1939, whilst the number of crimes that carried the death penalty increased from three to 46. Many convicted criminals were not released at the end of their sentences but instead were moved to the growing number of concentration camps being established by the SS.