Werner Best, the chief ideologist of the Nazi secret state police—the infamous Gestapo—described the organization he served loyally for many years as the “doctor to the German national body.” It was necessary, wrote Best, “to identify each symptom in good time and locate the destructive germs—whether they have arisen through internal corruption or have been carried in from the outside by deliberate poisoning—before using all appropriate means to get rid of them.” Like Best, the agency’s chief architect and overseer, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS and chief of all German police forces, typically spoke of the Gestapo’s work in biological metaphors, and encouraged its agents to do the same, for the Gestapo, in the eyes of its leaders, was ultimately in the health business.
That they could think this way about what this organization did is appalling, to put it mildly, for one of the many revelations that authors Carsten Dams and Michael Stolle include in The Gestapo: Power and Terror in the Third Reich, is that the Gestapo in the contemporary popular imagination differs very little from the real thing, back when it was doing a great deal of extremely nasty work in the darkest days of the 20th century. The Geheime Staatspolizei—Gestapo, for short—was indeed a frighteningly efficient bureaucracy of thugs, killers, and very meticulous clerks. Its field agents were masters in the black arts of terror and mass murder, meted out not infrequently with a hefty dose of sadism.
First in Germany during Hitler’s ascendancy, then in Nazi-occupied Europe, everyone lived in fear of a visit from the cool, hard men in the leather overcoats and black fedoras. What made the Gestapo so feared, of course, was that it had a monopoly on the power to place real or imagined enemies of the state under “protective custody” in concentration camps, and keep them there as long as it pleased. Many thousands held in such custody did not survive. Gestapo decisions regarding protective custody were not subject to review in the criminal courts. Victims had neither voice nor redress. The director of the Gestapo answered only to Heinrich Himmler, and Himmler, only to the Fuhrer himself.