Consent or coercion?


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Consent or coercion?

Law enforcement in the Soviet-Union and Nazi-Germany between 1934 and 1945.

Lennart Huyts


Master thesis

Comparative History

Subject supervisor: Dr. G.G. von Frijtag Drabbe Kunzel

Method supervisor: Dr. M.R. Prak

Introduction 3

Thesis-question 7

The comparative method 9

Two dictators 11

Two systems 15

The organization of the NKVD and the Gestapo 18

The methods of the NKVD and the Gestapo 24

The culprits 31

‘Cumulative Radicalization’ 35

Denunciations 37

Interpretation 43

The victims 48

Conclusion 53

Literature 57

Totalitarianism was a concept developed in the West after World War II to describe the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which were tyrannies of a very different character from the traditional authoritarianisms of the nineteenth century. Hitler and Stalin redefined the meaning of a strong state by the very audacity of their social and political agenda's. Traditional despotisms like Franco's Spain or the various military dictatorships of Latin America never sought to crush “civil society”- that is, society's sphere of private interests – but only to control it.”
Francis Fukuyama1

The study of totalitarian states and systems has been an extremely varied and interesting process. The sheer multitude of factors that make up a totalitarian system is enormous. Every aspect of a “normal” state can be found in a totalitarian state, like economic, political, cultural and environmental factors. But there are also factors unique to totalitarian states, for instance a highly centralized government, often a dictator and his party, a dominant ideology and a strong emphasis on military might and internal security forces. However, as Francis Fukuyama highlights, the main characteristic of a totalitarian system is the pervasive wish to dominate every aspect of life.

Since the earliest ages of civilization there have been numerous dictators and tyrants. Powerful, aggressive, deranged or sadistic rulers like Herod, Nero or Dzengis Khan struck fear in the hearts of their subjects for generations. Often these men ruled with an iron fist, depending on armed forces and terror to keep them in place. They squeezed their subjects for taxes and services, and responded with extreme violence when they encountered opposition.

Hitler and Stalin were not like these rulers. According to Alex Inkeles “the difference between the action of the modern totalitarian and that of earlier seekers after power is [...] lying in the thoroughness and effectiveness of the technical means of control both necessary to and possible for the ruler of a modern industrial society.”2 Though this is true, I would like to add to this statement that another main difference lies in the extraordinary mobilization of society that characterizes totalitarianism. Earlier tyrants often were not really interested whether they were popular or not, at least not in the way Hitler and Stalin were. They mobilized the masses in a way that was unheard of before the twentieth century.

The term totalitarianism first came into use in the 1920’s, although for some time totalitarianism was mistaken for super-absolutism. Lots of books and articles have been written in which Hitler and Stalin were portrayed as all-knowing, all-powerful masters, with their claws firmly in every nook and cranny of society. Deutscher and Bullock, amongst others, have written works from this point of view. In their works Stalin and Hitler almost resembled evil geniuses from early James Bond-films, plotting in their bunkers and laughing eerily whenever one of their devilish plans to control the population came into effect. Their ever-present secret policemen behaved like myrmidons, doing whatever their masters told them to do.

The policemen in these books were considered to be constantly on the lookout for subversive actions or malignant gossip, and woe to the unlucky person who fell into their hands. Their victims awaited jail, torture and execution. The hapless population was considered to be at the mercy of their dictatorial masters.3 A good example of this classic depiction of totalitarianism is 1984, the famous novel by George Orwell. The main character, Winston Smith, experiences the wrath of a (fictional) totalitarian system, completely confirming this image of the all-powerful system and the powerless individual: Big Brother is watching his every move, listening in on his every word and eventually controlling him completely.

So the subjects of a dictator were considered to be at the mercy of the “invisible author, manager and producer”, unable to change their lot, continuously subjected to bullying to make sure they dared not speak up.4 Terrorizing the nation seemed to be the dictators’ only way to gain and stay in power. And, according to his archenemy Leon Trotsky, Stalin used these same methods against his closest comrades; in effect becoming the single culprit behind all that was to befall the entire Soviet Union.5 In short, these studies mainly saw the dictator and his henchmen as active culprits, while the overall population was depicted as a scared mass of passive victims.

However since the 1970’s the study of totalitarian states has experienced a shift of focus.6 History stopped being the realm of science that simply studied “big men doing big things”. The sociological, feminist and Marxist influences on historians made them more interested in “ordinary” people and everyday life. The twentieth century was recognized as a century “in which the masses came onto the stage of history as active participants in events.”7 Where the focus used to be on the leaders, these people all too often tended to be forgotten or, as mentioned above, were depicted as mere victims. More recent studies have painted a rather different and more varied picture. From this newer point of view, Hitler and Stalin did not come into power simply by terror or violence. They came into power because a large part of the citizens in their respective countries wanted them in power. Hitler and Stalin did not need to constantly threaten or coerce their populations, nor could they. These popular dictators also had to rely “on compromise and consensus on the part of the civilian population, and they had to be respectful of popular opinion and willing to negotiate. That they did these things helps to account for their popularity.”8

Their subjects obeyed them not just out of fear of the consequences if they did not; but rather because they saw their interests safeguarded by the new regime. Lots of ordinary Germans and Russians wanted to be thought of as loyal citizens, and acted accordingly. The USSR and the Third Reich nowadays are seen more as “’self-policing’ state[s] operating within a ‘consensus-dictatorship’.”9 The focus of investigation has therefore come to be more on this mobilized society, the ordinary people, and on the ways they responded to dictatorship. Authors like Orlando Figes, Richard Overy, Ian Kershaw and Robert Gellately have painted colorful pictures of everyday people living their lives under the most murderous regimes of the twentieth century. These authors have demonstrated that a lot of the people formerly described as passive subjects were actually active participants in totalitarian society.

So over the years it has become clear that totalitarian regimes needed their subjects. Totalitarian regimes were not like Hobbes’s Leviathan. Arguably, the dictators did not even steer events to the extent as they were steered by events. Hitler and Stalin had to respond to demands from society to stay in power. In this aspect they are of course not alone; every government needs a population willing to be governed. To put the matter in extreme terms: a state can not exist without its population, and a society does not function without the consent of the majority of its population. Therefore every population decides to some degree by whom it is governed and in what way. This would of course be too easy an explanation, since it completely ignores factors like tradition, culture or religion. It also does not appreciate the effects of terror that a regime might use to coerce its population into obedience. However the persons involved in this terror are drawn from the same population that is being terrorized. So in dictatorial societies there had to be at least a hard core of active believers (or mindless criminals) to do the regimes dirty work. But this hard core would be a tiny minority, which the majority could easily overthrow if it wanted to. So there had to be other, larger groups with an interest in sustaining the status quo. As Richard Overy put it: “If repression is to work, a substantial section of society must identify with or even approve its activities.”10 And as Karl Deutsch has stated: “[…every] government must be to a considerable extent accessible and predictable. It must be accessible to the questions, problems, needs, desires and communications of it’s subjects; it’s office must be accessible to personnel recruited from their ranks; the minds of it’s decision-makers must remain open to the hopes, fears and wishes of it’s population.” 11

When a democratically chosen person loses an election, he or she retires. When a dictator loses support, he runs a great risk of losing a lot more. In this way Hitler and Stalin needed their subjects even more than their subjects needed the regime. Though both violent and utterly dictatorial, Stalin and Hitler thus had to be overall supported by a significant part of their populations. I will return to this theme in the chapter that deals with the two systems.

From 1933 to 1945 the Nazi party controlled the German people through various security organizations, but primarily through the Gestapo (an abbreviation of Geheime Staatspolizei). During the same period the people of the Soviet Union were under scrutiny of the NKVD (Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, translated in English as the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), the secret police force of the communist party.

Recent literature has shown that the NKVD and the Gestapo, bone chilling as their reputations may be, could not operate without the steady flow of information from the population. Orlando Figes’ groundbreaking book The Whisperers shows the common people as the eyes and ears of the Soviet-regime. The continuous stream of political prisoners that filled the Gulag may have been ordered from the top of the system, but was enabled and enforced from the bottom. Ordinary people not only informed on others, they helped state-officials with law enforcement in various other ways as well.

In the case of Germany the literature points in a similar direction. It was impossible for the German government to know details about someone’s former political allegiance or part-Jewish ancestry without an informer. In Robert Gellately’s book The Gestapo and German society, amongst others, it has been demonstrated that here too ordinary people were all too willing to denounce one another to the authorities.


This thesis will examine the ways the regimes of the USSR under Stalin and Germany under Hitler used their political police forces to control the population. I have chosen to limit my subject to the period 1934-1945, following Richard Overy in his conclusions that by 1934 Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin both were the undisputed leaders of their countries.12 Geographically, I will limit my subject to the internal situation of both states, in so far as possible. After all, during World war Two the borders of the respective countries were not quite stationary.

Since it has been sufficiently demonstrated that citizens were a vital part in law-enforcement, this thesis will also try to shed some light on the reasons and motivations people had to cooperate with the authorities. It will deal with the question why the population was willing and sometimes eager to help the state fight its real or imagined enemies. The emphasis in this thesis will be on the interaction between the political police forces and the population. The main question will be: how did political police forces help enforce the totalitarian nature of these states?

Through this question I hope to get some understanding of the “driving force” behind the industries of terror in Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. The thesis will deal with such questions as: Were the NKVD and the Gestapo active or re-active law enforcing institutions? How large were these organizations, and what did they do? What kind of people worked in the Gestapo or the NKVD? How did these organizations evolve over time? Was there a difference between their levels of autonomy? Did both services experience radicalization at some point in their existence? And did they have a different level of impact on the societies they controlled? In all I recognize ten different factors that defined the working of political police forces in a totalitarian system. I will compare the Gestapo and the NKVD on each of these factors. A schematic expression of the comparison I will make is shown in table 1.



Size of organization


Level of autonomy

Active investigations

Dependence on denouncers/informers

Number of denouncers/informers

Involvement in large security operations

Level of public participation in law-enforcement

‘Cumulative radicalization’

Impact on society

Table 1: Schematic impression of the comparison

As mentioned above, I will also examine the question whether it was mainly consent or coercion that made people betray their neighbors, friends or even kin. Since it is nearly impossible to examine inner convictions or beliefs, I will examine the reasons people gave themselves (in so far as these have been recorded). A number of cases will be touched upon in which people cooperated with the secret services of Nazi-Germany or the USSR. The examining of these cases will focus on such questions as: Why did ordinary citizens help in enforcing the repressive policies? How did they help? Were the collaborators social misfits seeking revenge against their superiors? And were there differences between what happened with those arrested by the NKVD and the Gestapo? A secondary goal of this method is to find out whether there were significant differences between the willingness of the two populations to cooperate.

The importance of examining these aspects of totalitarian regimes may not seem evident. The days of the NKVD and the Gestapo are, thankfully, long gone. Denouncers and victims are in their eighties and nineties, if not already dead. But for our own understanding of the functioning of totalitarian regimes it is of the utmost importance to know why people were willing to help the authorities. It is equally important to understand how these police-apparatuses assisted the regimes in sustaining the level of control generated by a totalitarian regime. Since these police forces did not operate in a vacuum, I will concisely describe the totalitarian systems and their dictators to provide the necessary background.

Of course both totalitarian systems evolved and changed over the period under investigation. Likewise, the manner and intensity of state-repression differed greatly over this eleven-year period. Both regimes knew periods of relative relaxation and periods of high tension. The Gestapo and the NKVD also changed over time. These developments made the actual situation more differentiated than can be described in this thesis. However throughout the period under investigation both systems were arresting, deporting and killing innocent people on a massive scale. And during this period the populations of the USSR and Nazi-Germany were actively or passively assisting the repressive police forces of their respective states. A final chapter will deal with the victims of both regimes, as a necessary illustration of the results of this cooperation between law-enforcers and citizens.

The comparative method

Why should we compare historic events and phenomena? What can a comparison add to our knowledge and understanding of the past? Isn't every historic event unique? And if it is unique (and thus it’s not going to occur again) what can we learn from it?

Perhaps some of this critique is true. However history is a science that studies people and the way people act in certain situations. Psychological and sociological studies have shown that most people act likewise in comparable situations. There are of course exceptions, but as a rule human beings prefer not to experience physical pain or mental anguish. A person who is hungry will try to find food, a person who is cold will seek warmth and a person who is grieving will seek comfort. These same rules apply to groups of people. For example, there are no cultures in which a shortage of food is considered positive. There are no cultures in which childbirth (within marriage) is seen as negative. In practically every society the dead are mourned, the birth of new life is celebrated and people work in order to improve their lot. So we can state that people live and act according to patterns. These patterns can be recognized and studied. The comparison between two groups of people or historical events serves as a way to recognize these patterns.

So when we compare the French Revolution with the Russian Revolution it is not to prove that they are the same, or to prove that they are different. It is a way to get insight in the patterns of human behavior and why these can sometimes lead to revolutions. And when we have concluded why these revolutions may have occurred, we can compare these findings to other events with comparable situations in which there was no revolution.

So is it possible to come to a meaningful comparison between Nazi Germany and the USSR under Stalin? The answer is: Yes, because both states were totalitarian. But, one might ask, as Carl J. Friedrich has done: “why do we say that fascist and communist totalitarian society are basically alike? For it is obvious that they are not alike in intention. The sharply divergent content of their ideologies proves it.”13 His answer to this question is not as straightforward as one might hope, however it is equally unavoidable: “In the first instance, the qualifying adverb “basically” is intended to indicate that they are not wholly alike.”14 All right, one might think, but then in what ways were they alike? Friedrich answers this question by giving us “five closely linked clusters of characteristic features.” of totalitarian states.15 Totalitarian states, according to him, all have:

An official ideology covering all vital aspects of man's existence.

A single mass party dedicated to this ideology.

A (near-complete) monopoly of control of all armed forces.

A (near-complete) monopoly of all modes of mass-communication.

A system of (terroristic) police control directed not only against demonstrable enemies of the regime but also against groups of people deemed undesirable.16

(A sixth characteristic feature of a totalitarian system was later added: a centralized bureaucratic management of the economy.17)

Nazi Germany and the USSR under Stalin both had these features; thus they were both totalitarian, thus they can be compared. However, in his book The dictators, Richard Overy starts his introduction by asking the equally important question whether the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin should be compared, meaning whether it would help us understand more if we would compare. I would like to quote his answer, as I consider it to be the guiding thought that made me want to write about this subject: “The historians responsibility is [...] to try to understand the differing historical processes and states of mind that led both these dictatorships to murder on such a colossal scale.”18
I for one do not believe that historians can create mathematical equations that can capture historical reality in all its aspects. But we can create scientific frameworks in which we can compare events and thus expand our knowledge. And, quoting Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin, “once this is admitted, we can theorize; and we can and should compare19. Of course all events are to some point unique; however this does not have to make them incomparable. In fact, it is self-evident that only comparison allows an understanding of uniqueness.”20 This understanding in my view exists of more than just historical facts. Rather it is knowledge of the functioning of the human race. My objective is to find out how political police forces functioned in totalitarian regimes. I also hope to gain insight in why people would betray their friends, neighbors, relatives and others to murderous and utterly immoral regimes. To get to the heart of the matter I felt it necessary to start the comparison on a grand scale, the scale of the dictators and their systems, and from there on focus on the smaller aspects of political police forces, denouncers and victims. To keep these subjects within bounds I decided to use most recent literature wherever possible. However, in order not to get bogged down in details, I sometimes have had to generalize. By comparing the functioning of both police apparatuses as well as the reasons for denouncing others I hope to expand the knowledge and understanding of totalitarian regimes.

Two dictators

Hitler and Stalin were arguably the two most influential men of the twentieth century. Together with the Chinese Communist Party’s Chairman Mao one might call them the big three, rated by the numbers of victims, political impact and disruption of society they caused.21 I will not go into detail on the lives of Hitler or Stalin, since many distinguished scholars, for instance Ian Kershaw, Richard Overy and Simon Sebag Montefiore, have abundantly described these. I will however highlight the way both dictators came into power and portray the main characteristics of their personalities.

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