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Students of European history often encounter discussions of the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), Wehrmacht, Sturmabteilung (SA), Schutzstaffel (SS), and Nationalsozialisische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party) in books and commentaries about Germany in the first half of the 20th century. These organizations all had slightly different roles in Germany in the 1930s through 1940s, contributing to Hitler's rise to power and the conflict of the Second World War. Understanding the precise role and function of each organization can be helpful to people who are trying to understand the military and political structure of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Nazi Party was a political party which took control of Germany, utilizing a variety of tactics ranging from running very effective political campaigns during open elections to actively launching offensives with the use of its own paramilitary organizations. The most famous leader of the Nazi Party was Adolf Hitler, who eventually took over power in Germany, sparking the Second World War when he attempted to take over neighboring nations. Germany effectively became a single party state under the Nazi Party, with the Nazi Party controlling the German military, police, and government.
While the thought of a political party with paramilitary arms might seem odd, the Nazi Party actually had two, the SA and the SS. The SA or assault troops were the first, commanded most notably by Ernst Röhm. However, the SA challenged the authority of the German army, and they were not totally committed to Hitler. In 1934, the SA was superceded by the SS, a paramilitary force which was fanatically loyal to Hitler. The SS had a number of branches which were active all over Germany and in the nations occupied by Germany. Members of the SA and SS were expected to be members of the Nazi Party, with a low party number being especially coveted, since it indicated early loyalty to the Nazi cause.
The Wehrmacht was a unified military force which included the German army, German air force, and German navy. Some people use the term “Wehrmacht” to refer specifically to the German army, although this is incorrect. It was commanded by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW. It was used in much the way that other conventional military forces are used, to launch specific offenses against military targets, and to defend Germany from attack. Many high-ranking members of the military were also in the SS, specifically the Waffen-SS, the armed branch of the SS. The Wehrmacht existed from 1935 until 1945, when Germany's armed forces were dissolved by treaty.
The Gestapo was the secret police force of Nazi Germany. Gestapo officials investigated a variety of domestic crimes, and they were empowered to imprison people, send individuals to concentration camps, torture prisoners, and engage in a wide variety of other activities which were designed to protect the German state. It became infamous for its ruthlessness and cruelty, leading to the use of “Gestapo” as a slang term for any brutal police force, and it was dissolved after Germany's defeat in the war.
In 1955, the German armed forces were reformed, with a less centralized power structure. The German army and other armed wings of the German defense force were specifically designed as defensive forces, rather than offensive ones, and some of the formal titles used within the military were changed to reduce confusion with terms used during the Nazi era. The modern German army, navy, and air force have a command structure which is open to members of all political parties, and a structure which makes power takeovers and coups much more challenging than they were in the 1930s, when Hitler's Nazi Party quietly took control.
Frequently Asked Questions
What were the primary roles of the Gestapo compared to the SS during the Nazi regime?
The Gestapo, short for Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police), was the official secret police of Nazi Germany, focusing on political policing and suppressing opposition to the regime. The SS (Schutzstaffel), on the other hand, started as a personal protection unit for Adolf Hitler and evolved into a major paramilitary organization responsible for many of the crimes against humanity during the Holocaust. The SS oversaw concentration camps and carried out racial policies, while the Gestapo worked to eliminate political threats through surveillance and arrest.
How did the responsibilities of the Wehrmacht differ from those of the SA?
The Wehrmacht was the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany, encompassing the Heer (army), Kriegsmarine (navy), and Luftwaffe (air force). It was responsible for military operations and warfare during World War II. The SA (Sturmabteilung), or Storm Troopers, was originally a paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, primarily involved in protecting party meetings, intimidating rivals, and helping to establish Nazi control. The SA's influence waned after the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, where many of its leaders were purged, and the Wehrmacht became the dominant military force.
What distinguished the Nazi Party from the German Army in terms of objectives and governance?
The Nazi Party, officially the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), was a political entity led by Adolf Hitler, with the goal of establishing a totalitarian state, promoting Aryan supremacy, and expanding German territory. The German Army, part of the Wehrmacht, was the land warfare branch of the military, and while it was under the control of the Nazi regime during World War II, it was not a political party. Its primary objective was to conduct military operations as directed by the state's leadership.
Can you explain the evolution of the SS from its inception to the end of World War II?
The SS began as a small personal guard unit for Hitler but grew into a vast organization with multiple branches, including the Waffen-SS, the military wing that fought alongside the Wehrmacht, and the Allgemeine-SS, which managed internal security. The SS played a central role in the execution of the Holocaust through its control of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) and concentration camps. By the end of World War II, the SS had become synonymous with war crimes and atrocities, leading to its disbandment and prosecution during the Nuremberg Trials.
What was the relationship between the German Army and the Nazi Party during World War II?
During World War II, the German Army, as part of the Wehrmacht, was under the control of the Nazi Party, with Adolf Hitler as the supreme commander. While the army maintained a degree of professional autonomy, it was increasingly influenced by Nazi ideology, particularly in the upper echelons of its leadership. The army was instrumental in carrying out military campaigns that were in line with the Nazi Party's aggressive expansionist policies and racial ideology, although there was some internal resistance and dissent among its ranks.