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Everyday Life: Roles, Motives, and Choices During the Holocaust

German Police and the Nazi Regime

The choices and actions of police forces in Nazi Germany had an enormous impact on the lives of countless people during World War II and the Holocaust. Many members of the police helped carry out Nazi policies of persecution and mass murder. These primary sources—including films, photographs, documents, and other items—explore how the German police became a critical part of the Nazi regime.

German Police and the Nazi Regime

After the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, German police forces played a key role in the Nazi program. Although most German police officers were not Nazi Party members, very few of them openly opposed the new regime. Many of the daily duties and responsibilities of German police officers remained the same, but now their work began to further Nazi goals. The Nazi regime relied on the routine work of police to carry out its policies, and German police forces helped implement systems of persecution that over time would lead to genocide.

Shortly after taking power, the Nazi Party began persecuting Communists, Socialists, and other political opponents. Many German police officers supported this campaign and helped carry out arrests and seizures of property.1 The regime deliberately blurred the lines of authority between the police and the Nazi Party by deputizing members of the SA and the SS as policemen in early 1933. Nazi officials tried bringing German police closer to the regime by staging public ceremonies and placing Nazis in leadership positions in German police forces.2 Hoping to establish their place in the new regime’s security forces, many German police officers supported these developments.3 

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The Nazi Party and the German police grew more closely linked when SS leader Heinrich Himmler became Chief of the German Police in 1936. Himmler centralized control of Germany’s many different police forces and divided them into two major branches: the Order Police (uniformed police forces responsible for traffic control, public safety, etc.) and the Security Police (the Gestapo and the Kripo). The Gestapo was responsible for investigating people deemed to be political or racial enemies of Nazi Germany.4 The Kripo investigated crimes such as theft and homicide—as well as individuals whom Nazi ideology claimed were social threats or professional criminals. Each branch of the German police had separate responsibilities, but they often worked closely with one another. 

The Nazi regime expanded the powers of the Security Police, giving them the authority to imprison people without trials. The use of “protective custody” gave the Gestapo the ability to jail anyone they suspected was a threat to national security. Within months of the Nazi rise to power, tens of thousands of people were detained under such “protective custody orders.” Similarly, the Kripo could place people under “preventive arrest” if they decided an individual was a "professional criminal" or a so-called “asocial” danger to the community.5

As the enforcers of the government’s laws, German police helped arrest and imprison the regime’s political opponents and "racial enemies." German police played a central role in the persecution of Jews under the Nazi regime. They investigated alleged violations of the Nuremberg Laws and other Nazi racial policies. They targeted Jews for arrest and harassment, and enforced the so-called “Aryanization” of businesses and professions in Germany. A November 1938 order on “measures against the Jews” from Reinhard Heydrich (head of the Security Police, the SS intelligence service [SD], and the Reich Main Security Office [RSHA]) shows how German police also supported the persecution of Jews during the anti-Jewish violence that has since become known as Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night,” or the “Night of Broken Glass”).

German police also had a central role in the Nazi persecution of Roma and Sinti. For example, criminal complaints against Douglas Bamberger give insights into how racist stereotypes about Romani criminal behavior contributed to discrimination against Roma and Sinti. These complaints also reveal how citizens and neighbors could bring the question of a family’s racial classification to the attention of the police.

German police also followed Nazi instructions to close gay, lesbian, and trans bars and meeting places. They enforced legal statutes that criminalized relationships between men. The “protective custody” order for Herbert Fröhlich and the photograph of the Eldorado Club illustrate how the routine work of German police determined the reach of these policies. In many cases, police officials’ attitudes and choices determined whether allegations of criminal behavior were pursued. Their decisions often held life-altering consequences for the accused.

Individual members of the German police did their jobs with varying degrees of commitment, compassion, and indifference. Some police continued to perform their duties out of a sense of professionalism and public service regardless of their personal politics. Others eagerly welcomed the new regime and its promise to be tough on crime. A 1938 film of the Vienna police shows officers wearing swastika armbands and giving Nazi salutes immediately after the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria. Some police acted cruelly while others demonstrated moments of kindness. The oral history of Solomon Fox explains how the Kripo officers who tortured him seemed to take pleasure in his torment. In contrast, the oral history of Henry Kanner describes how a police officer helped him survive. 

World War II transformed the responsibilities and daily routines of many German police. Himmler combined the intelligence service of the SS and the Nazi Party with the Security Police to create the RSHA.6 The RSHA became a leading force in the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish policies during the Holocaust. Security Police personnel formed the core of the Einsatzgruppen, and many Order Police units were sent to territories occupied by Germany. These police units oversaw deportations, guarded Jewish ghettos, and committed numerous acts of mass murder.7 German Order Police units and the Einsatzgruppen regularly carried out mass shootings. A photograph of Police Battalion 101 celebrating Christmas shows one such unit as the men relax and socialize. Another shows German police publicly humiliating a Jewish man, highlighting how members of the police became involved in the widespread harassment and abuse of Jews.

After the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II, relatively few police involved in acts of persecution or murder were held accountable for their crimes. Allied occupation forces pursued postwar justice8 for perpetrators and removed many Nazis from influential positions. However, lower-ranking officers and police who had not been members of the Nazi Party often continued their careers in the decades after the war. Letters from Harry Lerner demonstrate that issues with the German police continued after the war and could strain relationships between Germans, Allied occupation authorities, and Displaced Persons and Holocaust survivors.

German police played a pivotal role in the implementation of Nazi policies from 1933 to 1945. Routine policework helped advance the Nazi program, and many police officers commited acts of persecution and mass murder. Providing a glimpse into this complicated history, this collection shows how the German police became connected with the Nazi Party and became a crucial component of Nazi rule.

Many German police during the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) had grown hostile to Communists. To learn more, see the Experiencing History item Police Responding to Demonstrators in Berlin.

Before the reorganization of German police in 1936, individual German states had each controlled their own police forces.

 For example, a person arrested by the Order Police might then be investigated by the Kripo before being referred to the Gestapo.

See Carsten Dams and Michael Stolle, The Gestapo: Power and Terror in the Third Reich, translated by Charlotte Ryland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). 

The Kripo sent tens of thousands of people to concentration camps as "asocials" and "professional criminals." The category of "asocial" included people identified as vagabonds, beggars, prostitutes, pimps, alcoholics, homeless, and work-shy ("arbeitsscheu"). They wore a black badge in the concentration camp system. "Professional criminals" included people with multiple criminal convictions as well as individuals whom the Kripo believed were likely future offenders. In the concentration camp system, these prisoners wore a green badge. Among the imprisoned "professional criminals" were people with multiple convictions for performing illegal abortions and women with multiple convictions for prostitution. The group also included men with multiple convictions for violating Paragraph 175, the German statute banning sexual relations between men. Imprisoned as "homosexuals," many of these men were required to wear a pink triangle. The Kripo also played a central role in the persecution and murder of Roma and Sinti. For more, see Nikolaus Wachsmann, "From Indefinite Confinement to Extermination: 'Habitual Criminals' in the Third Reich," in Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany, edited by Robert Gellately and Nathan Stoltzfus (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 165–91.

See Michael Wildt, An Uncompromising Generation: The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office, translated by Tom Lampert (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009) and George C. Browder, Foundations of the Nazi Police State: The Formation of SIPO and SD (Louisville, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990).

See Edward B. Westermann, Hitler's Police Battalions: Enforcing Racial War in the East (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005) and Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998).

For more on some aspects of the pursuit of justice for Nazi war crimes, see the related Experiencing History collection, Postwar Justice.

All 14 Items in the German Police and the Nazi Regime Collection

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