Law Enforcement & The Nazi State

The Weimar Republic

World War I (1914-1918) gave rise to the Weimar Republic in Germany.  Created in 1918, the new Republic faced problems from the start. In spite of the responsibility of the monarchy for the war, many Germans blamed democratic parties for both the defeat and the humiliating peace treaty that followed. All Germans, no matter their political beliefs, regarded the treaty of Versailles as unjust. This would remain an ignition point in the years to come.

Economic and infrastructure losses from World War I, along with the destabilization of the economy brought on by war reparations and the depression era meant that the government of the Weimar Republic was always short of money.

There was no centralized police force during the Weimar Republic;each state in the German federation had its own policies and procedures. The police faced heavy funding cuts in hiring and training, and a severe lack of money for modernization such as new forensic equipment or firearms.  Due in part to the economic distress, criminal gangs, robbery, prostitution and burglary developed and flourished in the new republic, with police often overpowered. Despite their professionalism and dedication, law enforcement often had difficulty adjusting to the new democratic order of the Weimar Republic due to restrictions on police authority and the emergence of a free press that was highly critical of police operations and failures.

The Rise of Nazism

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Hitler positioned himself as a champion of law and order. The police and many other conservatives looked forward to renewed police power promised by a strong centralized state and welcomed the end of fractured politics.

Most of the police in 1933 were not Nazis, they generally thought of themselves as neutral professionals. This posed problematic as the core ideology of the new government was racist at its core. The Nazi state eventually fused the police together with the SS, one of the most radical Nazi organizations, and transformed them into an instrument of state repression, and eventually, of genocide.

The Nazis alleviated many problems law enforcement faced by censoring the press and eliminating many of the street gangs that had ruled the republic. The Nazis offered police the broadest latitude in arrests,incarceration and the treatment of prisoners. As a result, police often moved to take “preventative action” – to make arrests without necessary evidence.  Nazi ideology became part of all police activity,including combating the so-called racial enemies designated by the Nazi government.

Under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, the newly established Third Reich appeared to have full control of Germany. Despite this, Hitler feared being ousted and having his powers seized. A former comrade of Hitler’s,Ernst Röhm, head of the 3 million men strong SA (Sturm Abteilung), was seen as a likely candidate.  

The Night of the Long Knives

By early 1934, top Nazi officials had begun feeding Hitler information about and other potential dissidents,increasing his paranoia. He was acutely aware that Röhm had the power to remove him.

Alleging that Röhm was staging a putsch, Hitler ordered a carefully orchestrated massacre. On June 29, 1934, Hitler, accompanied by the newly established SS (Schutzstaffel) arrived at Wiesse, where he personally arrested Röhm. During the subsequent 24 hours, 200 other senior officials were also arrested, many of whom were shot upon arrival.

The Night of the Long Knives was kept secret by Nazi officials until a July 13, 1934 speech in which Hitler declared that 61 men had been executed while 13 were shot resisting arrest and 3 had committed suicide.The explanation for the arrests and murders was to protect the German people from treasonous officials intent on destroying the Third Reich. Many historians argue that as many as 400 people were killed during the purge.

The only obstacle standing in the way of Hitler was ailing President Hindenburg, who had the power to overrule the chancellor. A few weeks after the Night of Long Knives, Hitler saw his chance. President Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934, at which point the German generals agreed to combine the office of the President and the supreme head of the armed forced under the chancellery,giving Adolf Hitler complete power. From then on the Third Reich became a totalitarian structure with one man as head of state, commander in chief, and leader of the only political party.

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