How did Hitler succeed in creating a police state?

Hitler had acquired a dictatorship by August 1934. To remain in power successfully, he needed to ensure the German people did not question his leadership. A key tool in achieving this was by instilling terror to German society. How did Hitler achieve this, and why did the German people comply?

You can download the worksheet for this lesson here. If you cannot download the worksheet, complete the questions as laid out in the yellow boxes below.

Concentration camp = Large detention centres that held large numbers of political prisoners and those that the Nazis considered ‘undesirable’.
Trial by jury = When a group of civilians decide the guilt or innocence of someone that has been accused of a crime. An important part of a fair trial.


Watch the video below that shows an early concentration camp at Oranienburg (just north of Berlin). The video shows a group of civilian prisoners going about their ‘daily routine’. Consider the following questions when watching:
1) The video was directed and produced by the Nazi Party. How does this affect the reliability of the source? Why?
2) What might conditions have actually been like at Oranienburg?
3) Why do you think the Nazis produced this video?

TASK ONE: How did Hitler implement a Nazi police state?

Read the information below on how Hitler transformed the German state in to a Nazi police state.
As you are reading, complete the table below. The table asks you to describe the features of each part of the police state, and also asks you to pick out one piece of SPEND evidence for each one (statistics, places, events, names and dates).
You also need to decide, on a scale on 0 to 10, how important each part was for helping Hitler maintain control over the German people. You are then asked to explain your grade.

What is a ‘police state’?

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Hitler needed to control the people of Germany to limit any potential opposition to his power. Hitler made use of the police to create a police state, meaning that the police were used to control the population.

This resulted in the implementation of serious punishments to civilians that did anything to harm the German state or the Nazi Party. The police would be responsible for monitoring the German people and catching any enemies of the state. Some historians have called this the ‘Nazification’ of the German legal system.

What did Hitlers police state look like, and what were its key institutions and features?

Key features of Hitler’s police state

One of the key features of Hitler’s police state was the police system itself. This was split in to three divisions: The SS (Protection Squad), the SD (Security Service) and the Gestapo (the Secret Police). The first of these institutions was responsible for the latter two.

The SS

The Schutzstaffel (SS) was originally set up to be Hitler’s personal protection squad in 1925. Since 1929, the organisation was run by Heinrich Himmler, a professional individual that Hitler trusted greatly. The SS were distinguished against the ‘brownshirts’ (the SA) by having black uniform. Instead of thugs, Himmler wanted examples of ‘perfect manhood’ in the SS: Aryan men who married ‘racially pure’ wives were preferred to be part of what he considered a prestigious institution.

The SS began with 240 men in 1925, but was expanded to 240,000 men in the 1930s. The institution was given control of all other police services, and Himmler encouraged his men to work on the wrong side of the law if it meant justice for the German state.

‘It does not matter in the least if our actions are against… the law; in my work for the Führer and the nation, I do what is in my conscience and common sense tells me is right.

Heinrich Himmler addressing the Committee for Police Law in 1936.
Himmler was head of the SS from 1929 onwards. Unlike Röhm, Hitler trusted him greatly.

The SD

The Sicherheitsdienst (SD) was set up by Himmler in 1931 to act as an intelligence agency within Germany. Its main purpose was to keep information on the opponents of the Nazi Party. It was lead by Reinhard Heydrich.

The force kept a card index on everyone, both at home and abroad, that might be involved in opposing the Nazi Party. They were not kept in any government building, and were instead kept safe in Nazi Party headquarters. This ensured that details could be kept of potential conspirators in government.

The Gestapo

Set up in 1933, the Gestapo were set up as a highly secretive police force to protect the Nazi state from opponents. The Gestapo was brought under control of Heydrich in 1936, effectively bringing the SD and the Gestapo together.

The Gestapo was a terrifying organisation for the German people. They spied on people, tapped phone-lines and hired a network of informants to report back to the police. They even had permission to use torture when questioning suspects. It was common for people to disappear in the night – the Gestapo would break in to people’s homes in the early hours of the morning to arrest them. In 1939 alone, 160,000 people in Germany were detained by the Gestapo.

The Gestapo relied on people to provide information to them of anyone they considered to be dangerous or a threat to the state: it is estimated that around 80% of the arrests they made were in response to being tipped-off by the public.

From 1936 onwards, Reinhard Heydrich was in charge of both the SD and the Gestapo. He was effectively Hitler’s spymaster.

Concentration Camps

The increase of prisoners under the Nazi police state required an overhaul of Germany’s prison system. To deal with the increase of prisoner numbers, large-scale detention centres run by the SS and SA were built to contain high numbers of prisoners.

Concentration camps were located in isolated, rural areas, far away from the cities. The first concentration camp was opened in Dachau (in the south of Germany) in 1933. The majority of its inmates were political prisoners, made up primarily of socialists and communists. Conditions were dreadful, and the death of inmates was common. In May 1933, a German schoolteacher was shot dead by the SS for attempting to escape. The murder was covered up as suicide to ensure the German public were not concerned by the treatment of prisoners by the Nazis.

As time went on, the Nazis used concentration camps for more than just political prisoners. ‘Undesirables’, such as prostitutes, homosexuals and ethnic minorities (particularly Jewish people), were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Many concentration camps in Germany were turned into death camps where ‘undesirables’ of the Nazi state were systematically murdered.

A picture of inmates at Dachau, 1933.

Controlling German judges

Although judges were regularly appointed by the head of state in Germany, they were politically-neutral. This was an important part of democracy, as it allowed people to receive a fair trial.

When Hitler became dictator, he ordered all judges to join the National Socialist League for the Maintenance of the Law. This brought all judges in Germany under Nazi control. Any judge that refused to sign up to the League were dismissed.

Controlling German law courts

Hitler also announced that trial by jury was to be abolished. Instead, judges would listen to the trial and decide on the defendants innocence and the punishment to be received.

The People’s Court was also set up. This was the highest court in Germany which heard all cases of treason against the Nazi state. Trials were held in secret and defendants could not appeal against the verdict of the People’s Court.

The outcomes of the People’s Court were often ludicrous. People’s Court judges such as Roland Freisler became well known for bullying defendants and refusing to let them speak. 90% of the cases heard by Freisler resulted in the defendant receiving the death penalty.

Roland Freisler (centre) performing the Hitler salute before hearing trials at the People’s Court.

TASK TWO: Source question

Below is a quote from a speech Heinrich Himmler gave to SS commanders in 1937. Read the source and attempt the following question.

Give two things you can infer from Source A about the Nazi police state from 1933-39.

Remember to use the sentence starters:
This source suggests
Details that show this…
A second thing the source suggests…
Details that show this…

Source A: Heinrich Himmler speaking to SS commanders, 18 February 1937.

‘In the SS we have about one case of homosexuality a month. They will be publicly degraded, expelled, and handed over to the courts… They will be sent to a concentration camp and shot… Thereby, the healthy blood which we are cultivating for Germany, will be kept pure’.

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