Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans by Eric Johnson provides an historical “reality check” on the coercive power exercised by the Gestapo on Nazi German society. In the current debate on the role of “ordinary” Germans in allowing the Holocaust to be carried out, one central argument made is that the Gestapo effectively created an atmosphere of terror that “forced” Germans to follow orders or remain silent during the political and racial persecution of their neighbors. Previous studies of the Gestapo have focused on the Nazi Party leadership and structure that set the terror in motion and determined its broad contours. In contrast, Johnson investigated local Gestapo officials in representative areas in Germany to determine the forcefulness with which they carried out their duties. He interviewed Holocaust survivors and ordinary Germans alive at the time to see if they indeed felt such a terror. He conducted his primary research using personnel files and trial transcripts regarding three Gestapo men and the three cities in which they worked: Cologne, Bergheim, and Krefeld. Johnson followed Gestapo cases from beginning to end and researched Gestapo agents from birth through post-war life. He interviewed Gestapo officials, read material from denazification hearings, and conducted a major survey of Germans who were alive during the Nazi era, along with follow-up interviews.
Johnson found that conclusions from previous studies of the Gestapo often reflected the mindset of post-war scholars, especially German scholars, who found it more comfortable to blame the lack of German resistance to Nazi persecution on an all-pervasive police state that prevented individual dissent. Only now, he argues, are Germans more willing to acknowledge the voluntary nature of their complicity in the persecution of enemies of the Nazi state, especially concerning Jews. The actual “terror” most Germans felt of their local Gestapo office was, by their own admissions, minimal. Johnson’s research showed that local Gestapo offices were frequently understaffed and that cases more often came to them voluntarily, mostly from neighbors turning in neighbors, and then more out of personal feuds than political concerns.
His research revealed that the vast majority of local Gestapo cases were dismissed or settled with mild punishments when the people involved were German citizens. His survey and follow-up interviews suggested that most Germans felt they were able to complain privately and make jokes about Nazi policies, listen to illegal BBC broadcasts and engage in similar activity without much fear of reprisal. In other words, their loyalty, complicity and/or silence had little to do with a fear of being denounced or arrested.
While Germans in general did not fear imminent arrest, the case was very different for those labeled enemies of the state, especially Jews, Communists, and very open resisters to Nazism, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jews were much more likely to have a file opened against them and when punished, were apt to receive a much more severe sentence. Files also revealed that occasionally the local Gestapo office took a more moderate stance towards Jews than some elements in the German population.
After the war started, the situation deteriorated drastically for Jews. However, most Germans by their own admission still did not feel unusually fearful of local Gestapo officers or police. They could find the courage to dance to forbidden Swing music and listen to outlawed BBC broadcasts, but could not find the courage to protest, even mildly, the murder of millions.
This work includes 19 quantitative tables, 22 black and white photographs, detailed endnotes (that run for 105 pages), and an index. The extensive bibliography lists archival sources, interviews, newspapers, and secondary sources, as well as private collections consulted and written communications with the author.
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