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Our Site Podcast with Frank McDonough

Our Site Podcast with Frank McDonough

Jackboot Germany: A New History of the Gestapo

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The Myth and Reality of Hitler’s Secret Police
By Frank McDonough
309 pp. Skyhorse Publishing. $24.99.

What would it be like to live in a police state? Sinclair Lewis wondered if “it can’t happen here” in his 1935 novel. Well, what happened over there, when Nazis took power in 1933? Germany was not an unfamiliar place. Citizens drank Coca-Cola, cherished walks on Sundays, scrimped to buy a motorcycle and went to the movies. With Hitler’s dictatorship, they also lived with the Gestapo, or secret police. Its agents have long been imagined as standing on every street corner. As one Nazi boasted, “The only people who still have a private life in Germany are those who are asleep.” Sorting out reality from myth in “The Gestapo,” Frank McDonough, who has written several books on the Third Reich, promises a new “understanding of terror in Nazi society.” The picture is more frightening than Orwellian ideas about Big Brother and his thought police.

“Underresourced and overstretched,” the Gestapo employed some 15,000 officers who policed 66 million Germans. As a result, it had to rely on denunciations from ordinary citizens. It is vexing to imagine how readily people felt licensed to vilify colleagues and neighbors, although McDonough exaggerates incidents of wives turning in husbands or children their parents. Law-abiding citizens could find themselves interrogated because they listened to the BBC or joked about Hitler, but the circumstances of denunciation usually resulted in lenient treatment.

In fact, most Germans rarely bumped into the Gestapo. They were satisfied with the dictatorship because they believed its promise to eliminate disruptive elements from public life: Communists, repeat offenders and so-called asocials who contributed nothing to the “national community.” Many citizens shared Gestapo fantasies of “cleaning up” the country by throwing “riffraff” into concentration camps. Family doctors and social workers joined Gestapo officers to identify “disabled” or “work-shy” individuals for incarceration or sterilization.

A majority of Germans did not find the boundary between order and disorder arbitrary. The Gestapo gained legitimacy precisely because it left most people alone. But when the Gestapo pursued so-called enemies, it did so relentlessly. Communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who ostentatiously refused to salute Hitler, were rounded up, tortured into giving up names and imprisoned with lengthy sentences. Other “enemies,” like the few Catholics and Protestants who recognized, as Hitler put it, that “one is either a Christian or a German,” were treated more cautiously. Here the Gestapo understood Germans’ religious sensibilities, a latitude the churches did not take advantage of since they were sufficiently loyal to remain silent about the persecution of Jews. McDonough notes Clemens von Galen’s condemnation of euthanasia, but the cardinal never mentioned anti-Semitism publicly or privately. Conclusions regarding Galen’s “strong defense of the sanctity of human life” fall short.

The energy the Gestapo spent policing relationships between Germans and Jews shows that not all citizens accepted Nazi racial policies. A few snoops could destroy many lives. “The Gestapo” teaches us that if you are not a designated enemy, you can live comfortably in a police state, but victims learned how easily neighbors jettisoned empathy and enforced distinctions between “us” and “them.” Martin Niemöller’s famous poem “First They Came,” first for others — socialists, trade unionists, then Jews — before “they came for me,” misplaces hope because terror succeeded by not threatening most people.

Unfortunately, McDonough is an unreliable guide. He makes elementary errors. Hermann Göring was not appointed Prussian minister of the interior months before Hitler’s seizure of power. Moreover, examples tumble over one another without being representative or telling. McDonough also scrambles statistics. Crime rates at once rise and fall, and indictments in Hamburg are compared to convictions in Frankfurt. There are good books on German society under the Nazis, but McDonough’s is too careless to illuminate the “hidden history of the Third Reich.”

Hitler's beer hall putsch The History Hour

Hitler made his first attempt at seizing power in Germany in 1923, ten years before he eventually became Chancellor. The failed "beer hall putsch" - so named because it started in a beer hall in the southern city of Munich - would become a foundational part of the Nazis' self-mythology. Professor Frank McDonough tells us more.

Plus, more Nazis with The Turner Diaries, the novel that inspired the US far right anti-Sikh riots in India the birth of Swahili-language publishing and the house fire in New Cross, South London, which led to a Black People's Day of Action.

PHOTO: Nazi members during the Beer Hall Putsch, Munich, Germany 1923 (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Hitler made his first attempt at seizing power in Germany in 1923, ten years before he eventually became Chancellor. The failed "beer hall putsch" - so named because it started in a beer hall in the southern city of Munich - would become a foundational part of the Nazis' self-mythology. Professor Frank McDonough tells us more.

Plus, more Nazis with The Turner Diaries, the novel that inspired the US far right anti-Sikh riots in India the birth of Swahili-language publishing and the house fire in New Cross, South London, which led to a Black People's Day of Action.

PHOTO: Nazi members during the Beer Hall Putsch, Munich, Germany 1923 (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The History Hour BBC

An hour of historical reporting told by the people who were there.

When Israel destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor

On 7 June 1981 Israeli fighter jets launched a surprise attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor located outside Baghdad, killing 11 people. The French-built reactor was still under construction and there was no leakage of nuclear material, but the bombing was widely condemned internationally. We hear from Dr Fadhil Muslim al Janabi, a former consultant for Iraq's nuclear agency. Also this week, eye-witness testimony to the fall of Madrid in 1939 Hamas' unexpected election victoryin 2006, the plight of legal sex workers in Tunisia and taking part in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at the consecration of Coventry's new cathedral.

Photo: The Tammuz light-water nuclear materials testing reactor under construction in Al-Tuwaitha, just outside of Baghdad, 1979. (Getty Images)

US President Richard Nixon declared illegal drugs 'public enemy number one' in 1971 and launched a worldwide 'war' on the narcotics trade. 50 years on we revisit key moments in the ongoing fight against the powerful criminal groups involved from Columbia to Afghanistan. We'll hear personal stories from the front line of drug addiction, plus journalist and author Ioan Grillo joins our presenter Max Pearson to discuss, what went wrong in the war on drugs?

Photo: US President Richard Nixon (BBC)

Amilcar Cabral: an African liberation legend

We remember Amilcar Cabral, who led the armed struggle against Portuguese colonial rule in West Africa in the 1970s and speak to Dr Nayanka Perdigao about his legacy. Plus the shocking fallout of the Indian rail strike in 1974 which was - at the time - the biggest industrial action on record and from a century ago, the Tulsa race massacre, when thousands of African Americans were left homeless and hundreds were killed. We'll also find out how Lotfia Elnadi became the first Arab woman pilot in 1933 and the story behind the first big charity fundraising rock concert in the Soviet Union when communism broke with its antipathy toward western pop music.

Photo: Rebel soldiers on patrol in Guinea Bissau during the Portuguese Colonial War in West Africa, 1972. Credit: Reg Lancaster/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Under the slogan 'kefaya' which means 'enough' in Arabic, in 2004 Egyptians began protesting in Cairo against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak. The months of demonstrations took place several years before the Arab Spring swept through the region and drew many people onto the streets for the first time in their lives. We get an eye-witness account.

Plus, Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in 2000, the women who staged strikes against military rule in South Korea, and the landmark 1971 conference on saving the world's wetlands.

PHOTO: Protestors in Egypt in 2004 (AFP/Getty Images)

Why a British MP was filmed taking mescaline

# Warning: This programme contains descriptions of drug use #
In 1955 Christopher Mayhew MP took the hallucinogenic drug mescaline for a TV experiment. We look back at the history of psychedelic research and speak to Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London. Plus, the battle to legalise contraception in Ireland, a pro-democracy activist in China, the chemical and biological weapons programme in apartheid South Africa, and why thousands of Jews secretly fled Iraq in the 1970s.

The IRA hunger strikes of 1981 – Max Pearson hears from Suzanne Breen of the Belfast Telegraph about the impact of the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland. Plus, one man’s story of surviving Guantanamo Bay, how a French winemaker exposed a wine fraudster, feminist science fiction pioneer Ursula Le Guin, and cannabis coffee shops in Amsterdam.

Talking History BOA

Talking History with British Online Archives is a platform for scholars to discuss and debate history and historiography in a collegiate environment.

Fireside Chats 2: The Downfall of Chamberlain & Rise of Churchill

In the second episode of our new ‘Fireside Chats’ feature, Dr. Kris Lovell of Coventry University discusses downfall of Neville Chamberlain and the rise of Winston Churchill, explaining how neither was as inevitable as we often think.

-Iain Macleod, 'Neville Chamberlain' (London, 1961). A sympathetic, if problematic, account of Chamberlain’s life written by a British Conservative minister that explores in detail Chamberlain’s early reforms.
-Frank McDonough, 'Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement and the British Road to War' (Manchester, 1998). A classic account of Chamberlain and his political career. It presents a very different view of Chamberlain to Macleod.
-Peter Neville, 'Neville Chamberlain: A Study in Failure?' (1992). Peter Neville’s book a short but enticing introduction to Chamberlain’s life and is particularly suited for A-Level students. At the end of each chapter, Neville offers a series of exercises designed to explain some of the issues Chamberlain faced.
-Jonathan Schneer, 'Ministers at War: Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet' (London, 2015). With enviable style, Schneer produces a history of high politics that reads at times like a well-written political thriller and he brings to life many of the rich personalities that clashed so frequently during the war.

Of course, Churchill’s own account of events is worth reading (even if it requires a slight pinch of salt). For his account see his 'The Second World War: Volume II: Their Finest Hour' (1951).

Talking History 4: Did Leon Trotsky Invent Racism?

In the fourth episode of Talking History, regular host Jim Chisem examines a curious anecdote, popular among the far right, that Leon Trotsky coined the word ‘racist’, thus giving birth to the modern (and supposedly pernicious) concept of racism.

Fireside Chats 1: The Legacy of Appeasement

In the first episode of our new ‘Fireside Chats’ feature, Dr. Kris Lovell of Coventry University discusses the history and legacy of appeasement—a controversial and often misunderstood subject.

Talking History 2: Dr. Clarke Vs. The Flying Saucers

British Online Archives speak to Dr. David Clarke, Principal Research Fellow of the Journalism Subject Group at Sheffield Hallam University, curator of The National Archives UFO Project, and author of the critically acclaimed ‘How UFOs Conquered the World’.

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The Hitler Years

At the beginning of 1940 Germany was at the pinnacle of its power. By May 1945 Hitler was dead and Germany had suffered a disastrous defeat.

Hitler had failed to achieve his aim of making Germany a super power and had left her people to cope with the endless shame of the Holocaust.

Disaster 1940-1945, Professor Frank McDonough charts the dramatic change of fortune for the Third Reich, and challenges long-held accounts of the Holocaust and Germany's ultimate defeat.

Despite Hitler's grand ambitions and the successful early stages of the Third Reich's advances into Europe, Frank McDonough argues that Germany was only ever a middle-ranking power and never truly stood a chance against the combined forces of the Allies.

Praise for Frank McDonough:

'Superbly scholarly and just as readable' Dan Snow

Disaster and its companion volume, The Hitler Years

Triumph, are not just informative on a nearly encyclopaedic level, they are well-researched, well-structured, and well-written. What's more, they are relevant and challenging. Through questioning the myths that still exist, they encourage the reader to think in a new way, not just about the past, but about the present and the future' Get History

'McDonough has provided fascinating insights into the experiences of Germans in a fickle and frightening world' The Times, on The Gestapo

Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 9781789542806
Number of pages: 656
Dimensions: 234 x 156 mm


Careless whispers: how the German public used and abused the Gestapo

The Gestapo was a key element in the Nazi terror system. The very word conjures up a nightmare image of an all-powerful Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ style secret police force keeping the German public under constant surveillance. Films, novels and TV documentaries have embedded this image in the popular mind. But is it true? In reality, the Gestapo was a very small organisation. In 1933, it had 1,000 employees and even at its peak in 1944, its active officers within Germany numbered 16,000, policing a population of 66 million. In Düsselfdorf, with a population of 500,000, there were 126 Gestapo officers in 1937. Essen had 650,000 inhabitants and just 43. The same pattern was repeated in all the other major German cities. Most rural towns had no Gestapo presence at all. The Gestapo was underfunded, under-resourced and over stretched.

Yet this did not mean the Gestapo was a weak or inefficient instrument of Nazi terror. To make up for a lack of staff, the Gestapo decided the vast majority of the population were loyal to the regime. It ruthlessly targeted its resources against groups within German society defined as political opponents, most notably, communists and socialists, religious dissidents, Jews, and a much broader group of ‘racial’ enemies, including long-term criminals, prostitutes, homosexuals, Gypsies, juvenile gangs and the long-term unemployed. If you did not belong to any of these groups then you had no reason to fear a knock on the door late at night by a Gestapo officer.

The Gestapo was extremely pro-active in hunting down communists, who were rarely treated leniently. Over 70 per cent of the surviving Gestapo files relate to communists. In 1933,600,000 communists were arrested and 2,000 killed in concentration camps. The killers were SS, not the Gestapo. By October 1935, of the 422 key Communist Party (KPD) officials in post in 1933, 219 were in custody, 125 in exile, 24 had been killed, 42 had left the party and only 12 were still at large. The fate of communist activist Eva Buch is typical. Eva was studying foreign languages at Humboldt University when she became involved with a socialist resistance group called the Red Orchestra. They had associates in academia and within the Air Ministry. They were accused of passing on secrets to the Soviet Union. On October 10th, 1942, Eva was arrested by the Gestapo after her flat was raided and an anti-Nazi leaflet she had translated into French was discovered. When a Gestapo officer told her during her interrogation she’d be treated more leniently if she named other collaborators within the group, she replied: ‘That would make me as low as you want me to appear.’ She was sentenced to death.

Brave individuals such as this appear frequently in Gestapo files related to religious opponents too. The story of Paul Schneider is particularly heroic. He was a Protestant Evangelical preacher who opposed the attempt to Nazify the Lutheran churches. During the winter of 1935-36, Schneider was reported to the Gestapo on no fewer than 12 occasions for making anti-Nazi comments. He was banned from preaching. He was sent by the Gestapo to the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp and placed in solitary confinement. He would loudly recite passages from the Bible from the window of his cell to comfort other inmates every evening. For this, he was subjected to brutal beatings by SS guards. Karl-Otto Koch, the camp commandant, realised he could not break Schneider. He offered him the chance of release if he signed a declaration promising never to preach again. Schneider refused to sign it. On July 18th, 1939, he was killed by lethal injection. He was 27.

It’s been estimated that only 15 per cent of Gestapo cases started because of surveillance operations. A far greater number began following a tip-off from a member of the public. Every allegation, no matter how trivial, was investigated with meticulous and time-consuming thoroughness. It’s been estimated that about 40 per cent of these denunciations were personally motivated. A Berlin stoker reported a prostitute who gave him venereal disease. She was placed in a concentration camp. Gestapo officers were extremely wary of husbands and wives who informed on each other. A housewife in Mannheim told the Gestapo her husband was making derogatory comments about Hitler’s regime. After a lengthy investigation, it emerged that the wife wanted her husband out of the way to continue a love affair with an off-duty soldier. In another case, two married doctors were involved. The wife accused the husband of carrying out illegal abortions. This led to his arrest and imprisonment. The husband claimed his wife had a vengeful motive. The husband had passed on a sexually transmitted disease to his wife, while carrying on a love affair. Her motive was revenge, but he served eight months in prison before this was finally established.

During the second World War, denunciations increased as a raft of new regulations were brought in. This was a golden age for snitchers. One offence in particular relied heavily on tip-offs from the public: listening to foreign radio broadcasts, particularly those of the BBC. Peter Holdenberg, a 64-year-old disabled bookseller, who lived in Essen, was accused by his neighbour Helen Stuffel of this offence, which carried a prison sentence of up to 18 months. She had listened at the wall of Peter’s next-door apartment. She said she could clearly hear him listening to BBC programmes during the evening. Another neighbour, Irmgard Pierce, corroborated her allegations. Holdenberg was brought in for questioning by the Gestapo on December 10th, 1942. ‘This is all a conspiracy,’ he complained. ‘I’ve had trouble with Stuffel in the past and Pierce always backed her up.’ He depicted the allegations as foolish gossip. He was not anti-Nazi at all. The ordeal of his arrest and confinement in a Gestapo cell was obviously deeply traumatic. On the evening of his arrest, Holdenberg was found hanging in his cell. He died in hospital on the following day, without ever regaining consciousness. His denouncer had caused his death.

The German public progressively realised uttering critical comments against the regime in public had to be avoided. A study of denunciations from the court files of the Bavarian city of Augsburg shows that in 1933, 75 per cent of cases began with a denouncement after overhearing anti-Nazi comments in pubs, but in 1939, this figure had fallen to 10 per cent.

If the success of a police force is measured by the numbers of cases that end in a court conviction, the Gestapo can be regarded as deeply inefficient. A study of a sample of cases that began with public tips-offs from the Würzburg area reveals that only 20 per cent ever went to court and a whopping 75 per cent failed to end up with a conviction.

The Gestapo came to realise investigating false allegations was wasting a great deal of its time. As a letter, dated August 1st, 1943, from the Ministry of Justice in Berlin put it: ‘The denouncer is the biggest scoundrel in the whole country.’

The Gestapo: The Myth and Reality of Hitler’s Secret Police by Frank McDonough is published by Coronet, £20. McDonough is professor of international history at Liverpool John Moores University and specialises in the history of the Third Reich.

My favourite place: Berlin

In the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine, Frank McDonough selects Berlin as his favourite place. History Extra caught up with him to find out more.

This competition is now closed

Published: April 22, 2016 at 7:30 am

Q: When did you last travel to Berlin and why were you there?

A: I travelled to Berlin for a study visit with my students in 2014.

Q: Why do you love the location?

A: I love Berlin as it resonates with my own research interests on Germany, particularly the era of the Third Reich. I love the fact that is a very quirky place due to Nazi era and the Cold War. This means that it has no real centre, and so you can explore new areas and go to different suburbs.

Q: Which historical sight would you recommend and why?

A: The Brandeburg Gate: although an obvious place it is a must visit and it is within walking distance of other important historical sites.

Q: During what period of history would you have most wanted to visit Berlin and why?

A: I would have liked to have visited Germany during the Weimar era, the period before the Nazis came to power and when it was the centre of cabaret culture.

Q: Where else in the world would you most like to visit and why?

A: I would like to visit the Great Wall of China, mainly because I’ve never been and would like to see this wonder of the world.

Frank McDonough is professor of international history at Liverpool John Moores University.

You can read more about Frank’s experiences in Berlin in the May issue of BBC History Magazine.

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