Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, or Secret State Police), common designation of the terrorist political police of the Nazi regime in Germany from 1933 to 1945; technically, however, the term refers only to its executive branch. The Gestapo was founded by Hermann Goring, one of Adolf Hitler’s lieutenants, in April 1933.
As a nucleus he used the political section of the police of the Weimar Republic, but he extended it greatly, removed from it all legal and constitutional restraints, and gave the organization its name. Its new purpose was to persecute all political opponents of the Nazi regime (including dissenting Nazis), not only defensively, in cases of oppositional acts, but also preventively, in cases of suspected or potential opposition. In this role, the Gestapo was to collaborate with the SD (Sicherheitdienst, or Security Service), an organization of the Nazi party; the SD did the intelligence work that served as the basis for Gestapo operations. Suspects were arrested and usually placed in concentration camps. It was at the Gestapo’s discretion whether or not the arrested were brought to trial and whether or not they were released if acquitted.
In April 1934, Göring’s rival, who headed the paramilitary SS (Schutzstaffel, or Defense Squads; also called Black Shirts), won control over the Gestapo, a step in his ascendancy that in June 1936 carried him to the command of all German police forces. The SS then gradually infiltrated the police, which was reorganized in two divisions: the regular and the security police. The latter, the political police—headed until 1942 by Reinhard Heydrich and thereafter by Ernst Kaltenbrunner—then included the SD, also run by Heydrich; the Gestapo, led from 1936 to 1945 by Heinrich Muller;; and the Kripo (Kriminalpolizei, or Criminal Police), a detective service aimed against nonpolitical criminals, run from 1936 to 1945 by Artur Nebe.
In September 1939, after the outbreak of World War II, the security police received a central staff, the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or State Security Head Office), thus preparing it to serve as a nearly omnipotent tool for Hitler’s racist and terrorist plans in Nazi-controlled Europe, including extermination policies against Jews and other “undesirables.” Rivalries between the various branches nonetheless continued. Thus, the concentration camps, including the death camps, were actually run by the SS, although technically they were under the control of the Gestapo. After the war, the Gestapo was dissolved and declared a criminal organization.