What happened to victims who were caught is common knowledge. Gulag and concentration camp awaited most that were not shot directly. Some poor individuals were unlucky enough to experience both countries' penal systems. During the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 the dictatorships actually exchanged prisoners. The Jewish refugee Alexander Weissberg, a former German Communist Party member, was transferred from his NKVD- to a Gestapo-cell. He told his NKVD guards that they were sentencing him to death. They were indifferent, and handed him over nonetheless.142
What kind of people worked as officers in the NKVD and the Gestapo? Were they the sadists and completely cynical careerists they are often made out to be? Or were they more like they liked to portray themselves; misunderstood knights of the new order who fought for the survival of their class or race?
A common aspect amongst the Nazi-functionaries that Paul and Mallmann examined is that almost all these men were too young too have experienced the First World War. They were only in their early teens when the War was being fought, experiencing the defeat of their country without being able to do anything about it, yet growing up with its mythology. According to Karin Orth “a segment of the male youth incorporated this mythology into their identity.”143 These men were part of the so-called Kriegsjugendgeneration144, convinced of the need to be violent and willing to kill and die for the cause. They had started their, often very violent, careers in chaotic post-war Germany, partaking in clashes between extreme rightwing Freikörper and communist street gangs. Similarly, many NKVD-men who carried out the Party-purges in 1936-1938 felt that they had also missed the forming experience of their lives. This generation was too young to partake in the Civil War. According to Orlando Figes, they therefore felt the urge to prove themselves worthy in fighting the enemies of Communism and Stalin.145 They leaped at every opportunity to show their zeal and commitment, seeing the internal purges as a continuation of the Civil war.146 As we have seen there were many Gestapo officials who had formerly been employed by the political police of the Weimar-republic. Fierce anti-Semitism (and, in all likeliness, anticommunism) was commonplace among German policemen before the Nazi takeover.147 Most likely all left-wing policemen were either converted to Nazism, sidetracked into administrative functions or send of into early retirement. Most kept their job probably because they managed to identify with the new regime enough to do its bidding. Nor were the political policemen alone in this respect. As Eric Johnson states: “[…] we know now that most of the judges and prosecutors in Nazi Germany were highly trained individuals who often had remained in the same positions they had held in the democratic Weimar Republic.”148 Gellately describes one high official, Franz Josef Huber, who actually had denounced colleagues before the Nazi takeover for using the greeting 'Heil Hitler!’ However, this was no impediment for the RSHA to make him Gestapo-chief in Vienna in 1939.149 But, to be sure, most Gestapo-officers were or became Nazi's, or at least anticommunist, anti-Semitic, right wing conservatives. Gellately quotes a former Gestapo-official as saying “that many of the higher officials were by no means all Nazi's. For the most part they were young professional civil service officers who felt ashamed at having been placed in this den of thieves.”150 This, however, is probably put too easily; after all, everyone with a reasonably clear mind knew what the Gestapo did. As Overy states: “Arrest, investigation and deportation were the responsibilities of the political police force […]”.151 Gerhard Paul and Klaus-Michael Mallmann claim that it were most (former) military men and police-officers, “unzufriedenen Männern” who were looking for “Existenzsicherheit und Karrierechance”, who flooded into the repressive organs of the Nazi-state.152 After all “der Machtantritt der National-sozialisten und der damit verbundene Ausbau des Polizeiapparates eröffnete weitere Karrierechancen.”153
According to Levytsky the NKVD-officers were of a variety of backgrounds. However almost all were convinced communists (or, like Lavrenti Beria, managed to hide their sepsis very well). Immediately after the Revolution there were a lot of what Levytsky calls “Romantic Terror[ists]”154 in the Cheka. These leather coat and cartridge belt-wearing men saw themselves as makers of revolution, warriors of Marxism, not as police-officers. There were very flamboyant figures amongst them, most notably Felix Dzerzhinsky himself; a writer and poet merged with a sadistic knight of the proletariat.155 During Stalin’s reign, the image of the service changed. His NKVD needed not to make revolution; it needed to root out spies and opposition. The flamboyance and romanticism of the revolution gave way to a grim systematized seek-and-destroy mentality. Stalin’s personal NKVD-thugs were brutal torturers like Yezhov, Beria and Abakumov, who interrogated prisoners personally.156 Their underlings were, at least to the outside world, almost faceless and robotic myrmidons. According to Robert Conquest these men were quite literally disposable; “the actual expertise could readily have been mastered in a few weeks – most of it available in a little book”.157 Since the NKVD-agents themselves were closely watched they often tried to make as much arrests as possible, trying to show their loyalty to the state. As Levytsky put it: “A part of Stalin's 'strategic genius' in the struggle for personal power was his faculty of getting rid of his closest supporters at the right time, so as to secure the continuity of his own plans, without having to pay the penalty for all that had happened in the meantime.”158
Moshe Lewin points out another interesting difference between the Gestapo (or, for that matter the SS) and the NKVD. The Gestapo drew most of its agents from amongst “professional academics – notably lawyers, judges and […] nobility”.159These people were educated, often relatively well to do and thus were socially considered (upper) middle class. Working in the Gestapo was not automatically considered to be a dark and evil thing. Higher Gestapo-officials were in any case not the persons who handled informers or made arrests; rather they were the brains of the organization, planning operations from behind desks.160 Their main goal was to do their job as good as possible in order to make a career, what Paul and Mallmann have called “engagierte Profiteure der Tat.”161These men were in a position where their “Überzeugung und Eigennutz, der Vollzug einer Weltanschauung und der Rausch grenzenloser Macht”162 all contributed to their own personal benefit.
The NKVD-men on the other hand were often considered to be the dregs of society.163 The brute force applied by the Chekists in the Civil War left its mark on the Russian population; they often saw the NKVD as nothing more than a, at times maybe useful, murderous bunch of criminals. In this they were of course not completely mistaken. Especially during the Terror there were a lot of men who, purely because of their proletarian roots combined with a thirst for power, enrolled in the NKVD. They were incapable of investigation in any other form than using brute force on defenseless persons.164 It almost appears as if during the Terror the only requirement to become an operative in the NKVD was to have no conscience whatsoever. In this period it is often hard to discriminate between common gangsters and NKVD-officers. According to Levytsky, after the Terror, under the leadership of Beria, the character of the NKVD changed. He states that the “treacherous assassinations and blind terror of the Yagoda and Yezhov period” ceased, and that “the expert came to the fore.”165 This in my opinion was not such a drastic change as Levytsky claims; the NKVD-men received better training perhaps, but it is very doubtful that their moral fiber increased as well. After all, the mass killing and torturing of innocents did not cease after the Terror, and cynical opportunists could still find their way in the NKVD. However, there also were zealous communists in the NKVD, like this testimony of a former guard at the White Sea Canal illustrates:
“I did not understand why we had to drive so many convicts to their deaths to finish the canal. Why did it have to be done so fast? At times it troubled me. But I justified it by the conviction that we were building something great, not just a canal, but a new society that could not have been built by voluntary means.”166
Perhaps trying to define between true believers and opportunists is a bit too anachronistic; after all, the communist high priest Stalin himself was an arch-opportunist. He showed no qualms about working together with whomever as long as it helped him achieve his goals.
So for both NKVD and Gestapo personnel, the feeling that they had to prove themselves combined with the obvious advantages and career prospects were enough persuasion to join the political police. The main difference in my opinion between officials from the NKVD and the Gestapo was the fact that Gestapo-officers were often trained professionals, who were seen by the Nazi-state as useful and valuable employees, while NKVD-men under Stalin were considered disposable. And NKVD-men knew that they were disposable. Stalin did not trust his state security apparatus any more than he trusted his party, his army or his officials. The NKVD was not just an object of terror; it was almost constantly subjected to terror.
Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin did not start out as the murderous systems they would later be infamous for. Both dictatorships underwent a crisis, which, their leaders felt, urged them to give their repressive organizations almost unlimited power. After the Reichstag fire in 1933 the German police gained the right to take anybody they wanted into ‘protective custody’, Schutzhaft in German. Once a person had been taken in protective custody, he or she could be detained indeterminably, without the right to an attorney or even knowing the charges.167 In Soviet Russia, the murder of Leningrad boss Serge Kirov in 1934 produced the so-called Kirov- or 1st December laws.168 These laws provided the authorities with a same kind of draconian omnipotence.169 So both countries created a legal footing for the repression of (possible) malcontents. The organizations that dealt with punishing and controlling their disobedient citizens also changed. As Stalin’s power grew the NKVD became more and more his own realm, instead of the defender of communism. After the murder of Leningrad’s first commissar Kirov in 1934 Stalin decided to deal with his real and imagined enemies once and for all. On his order the Board of Justice was abolished, which up until this point had tried to safeguard at least some legal procedures.170 In its place came the so-called Special Boards, which in the Terror would be known as troikas; tribunals of three NKVD-men who could sentence anyone to death or imprisonment.171 Lists of names of people who were to be arrested began circulating, not only from the Kremlin but also from local NKVD-units.Through the so-called Kirov-law the NKVD virtually had gotten a carte blanche to repress whoever they wanted. So the Soviet-government ordered the zealous young communists in the NKVD to arrest more ‘enemies of the people’, while they in their turn urged the central government to take ever stronger measures. The ensuing killing frenzy finally had to be halted by Stalin.
The Gestapo experienced a period of ‘cumulative radicalization’ not unsimilar to that of the NKVD. The Reichstag-fire and the ensuing legislation of arbitrary state repression allowed for ever greater ferocity in dealing with the regimes enemies. From 1938 onwards the state intensified its actions against certain groups, notably homosexuals, ‘anti-socials’ and the handicapped. In the state system of Nazi-Germany the new laws gave the political police almost unlimited power to repress whomever they thought necessary. The ensuing outbreak of war gave officials the emergency-situation in which every action seemed justified. And as the tide of the war turned against Germany the interior repression grew. The Nazi’s of the Kriegsjugendgeneration saw violence as the answer to every form of popular discontent. To quote Gellately, “as the war was literally brought home to Germany the Gestapo grew more ruthless than ever”172.
In both these instances, the authorities in the two systems reacted to reports coming in from the provinces by ordering increasingly radical measures, which in turn anticipated more radical demands from the periphery. The glorifying of violence and harshness inherent to both Nazism and communism resulted in a situation where there was almost no boundary to escalation.
It has become clear that the massive repression and murder of certain groups of people was known to at least some people in Germany and Russia at the time. There was no way one could have been a socially active citizen in either society without noticing at least something of the massive repression. Richard Overy clearly shows that by the end of World War Two, Germany was divided in a free and an un-free world.173 These worlds touched upon each other many times, with for instance concentration camp inmates being hired out to private entrepreneurs.174 This was the new order in practice, as designed by the regime and as supported by a large part of the population. In the Soviet-Union the construction of the infamous Belomor-canal by political prisoners was widely covered in the press, with famous poets and writers visiting the site and writing in praise about its purpose of re-educating the bourgeoisie175. In Nazi Germany “SS families often used inmates as servants, gardeners or other help”.176 The citizens of the USSR and Nazi-Germany knew about the concentration camps (Dachau for instance was opened with a press-conference177) and did adapt themselves to the regimes that made these possible. In both societies, the crimes committed by the regime were by no means “secret events that occurred in specially cordoned-off zones in “the east” to which no witnesses were granted access.”178 They knew that for a person to get on the wrong side of the regime was very dangerous. Involuntary involvement with the secret police was a very negative and possibly lethal experience.
History has left various examples of people who either denounced or were denounced in both states. Unfortunately none of these cases have been documented in their entirety. This of course would not have been possible, since we simply can not know what inner reasons people may have had for their actions. We also can only guess at how they felt about what they were doing. But we can try to understand the positions people found themselves in, and examine what they did in the given situation. Of course we must be careful not to pass judgment, since the purpose of history is not to judge but to understand the past. This is not easy to do in some of the cases listed below.
I have chosen the following cases because of the fact that they were the most extensively described, even though the information given sometimes still seems marginal. The cases I have selected are taken from two books that have been written in different years and with different objectives. The Gestapo and German society, written by Robert Gellately and first published in 1990, focuses on the organization and methods of the Gestapo, only secondarily touching upon the victims. The whisperers, written by Orlando Figes and published in 2007, was written primarily from the point of view of common people in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Furthermore it must be mentioned that Gellately has studied “only” the Würzburg-area, which is a part of Germany, while Figes has tried to include the entire Soviet Union. A regionally based study can obviously make no claim to be typical of Germany as a whole. Still, when reading both books I found remarkable common features. Gellately and Figes have tried to approach their subject on a personal scale. They have not just stated facts; rather they have painted pictures of persons and situations. The focus on the individual and the attention for personal cases in both books make the past really come to life. As an, in my view indispensable, illustration of the reality of living in a totalitarian society I have decided to add ten cases from both books. The following cases will show in what various ways one could get on the wrong side of the Gestapo or the NKVD.
The Gestapo files from Würzburg, as described by Robert Gellately, give us an interesting insight in everyday life in Nazi-Germany.
Case one came into being late 1943, when Johann Müller, father of two, overheard Hugo Engelhardt making a derogatory remark about families having more than three children. Since Nazi-authorities encouraged people to have as many children as possible, this was considered a felony. He reported Engelhardt, who was brought to trial.179
Case two is about a nurse, Maria Markler, who turned in Pastor Bach to the authorities. He supposedly had advised a local boy not to join the Hitler youth. Nothing of this turned out to be true; the boy apparently bore a grudge against the priest, so the priest was not persecuted.180
Case three centers on Dr. Ludwig Kneisel, who reported Ilse Totzke to the local Gestapo for “suspicious behavior”. In this he was not alone, many neighbors had complained about Ilse being “different”. The doctor claimed he felt bound by his duty as a reserve officer to report her. Totzke eventually died in Ravensbrück.181
Mr. Otto Leucht turned in Walburga Grafenberger for associating with Jews. After months of investigating her mail, there was nothing to the case. She had been seen socializing with a young man, but since in one of his letters he had asked Walburga to help with farm work, the Gestapo deduced that he couldn’t be Jewish. The assumption being that Jews did not work on farms.182
Bernard Martin accused the Jewish woman Anna Laska of being a prostitute and of sleeping with German men. Under investigation Bernard Martin admitted to having had sexual intercourse with this woman himself, and out of fear of getting in trouble had decided to denounce her before she could denounce him. He was sentenced to one year in prison.183
Paul Hellman turned in his neighbors, Christoff and Babette Klostermann, for being too friendly to their Polish domestic servant Janka. After investigation it was uncovered that the true reason for the whole matter was a long running feud with their neighbors, born out of conflicting business interests. The Klostermanns were however warned not to associate with Poles.184 Case seven describes how Michael Linz turned in barmaid Else Mores for not selling him a pack of cigarettes, while offering loose cigarettes to Poles. Petty jealousy and frustration undoubtedly added up to the felt insult, and Else Mores was warned not to give scarce goods to Poles.185
Doctor Brasch caused a lot of misery by informing the local Gestapo of the pregnancy of Cäcilie Bauer. It was discovered that she had had a relation with the Polish POW Kasimer Jankovski, and that her friend Elfriede Kort had had a relation with another Polish POW, Eduard Koncik. The two girls were mere teenagers so they were only briefly imprisoned. The two Polish men were send to a concentration camp where they were executed. The doctor explained his denunciation by stating he “felt duty-bound to protecting the village youth.”186
Dr. Karl Wesen and his student Jürgen Ernst did not need the authorities in correcting “wrong” behavior. Instead they took it upon themselves to correct the “provocative” behavior of the Jewish Alfons Golom and his friend Helena Valentin. After chasing the couple through the street and physically threatening them, they denounced Alfons and Helena to the local Gestapo on the ground of race defilement.187
Block leader Treu denounced Cäcile Heim and the Jewish merchant Albert Kuppel on the same charge. The couple was under investigation for months, until Kuppel suddenly died of natural causes. Treu probably acted out of greed, since he was a merchant in the same trade as Kuppel.188
Status of the denunciator
Status of the denounced
“Crime” of the denounced
Making a derogatory remark about large families.
Brought to trial, sentence unknown.
Had advised against joining the Hitler youth
Associating with Jews.
Being a Jewish prostitute and sleeping with German men.
Being too friendly to their Polish domestic servant.
Fruit and gardening business-owner
Offering cigarettes to Poles, while denying them to a German.
10 mark fine.
Sexual relations with a Polish POW (race-defilement)
Doctor and student
“Provocative” behavior and alleged race-defilement.