Police and Right-wing dictatorships

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By Shahvaiz Fawad


Writer is a UK based Pakistani student of Essex University UK.


With Reference to at least two countries, in which ways were police forces involved in stabilizing Europe’s right-wing dictatorships in the twentieth century?

The 1930s had turned out to be a very turbulent period in inter-war Europe, due to the emergence of right-wing regimes across the continent. Germany and Spain in particular, were two such countries in Western Europe where reactionary right-wing governments came to power, due to the ineptness of democratic regimes in both countries. The Weimar Republic (1919-33) failed to solve the problems Germany faced in the aftermath of World War I and lost support from German elites, had a limited base of popular support and could not deal with the ongoing economic problems. Hitler and his Nazi party used this weakness of the State to their advantage by the promotion of racist, nationalist and anti-democratic ideas which appealed to a broad spectrum of German people, especially the middle classes. Hitler thus managed to take power in 1933 as Chancellor and set about to form an authoritarian State in line with Nazi ideals. In Spain, General Francisco Franco as commander-in-chief of the armed forces attempted a military coup against the Second Spanish Republic in 1936, which resulted in a chaotic civil war that lasted for 3 years. In September 1936 Franco also became head of the rebel government that was in opposition to the pro-Republican forces throughout the civil war. The Second Spanish Republic (1931-36) was also an inefficient government that did not bring about stability in Spain and antagonized conservative factions in society such as the army, due to its leftist orientation. The failure of the Republican government resulted in the subsequent military coup and civil war (1936-39).

In both Nazi Germany and Francoist Spain, police forces played a major role in the maintenance of authoritarian rule. This was due to the fact that German and Spanish Police systems underwent significant transformations after the rise to power of the extreme right. However the two right-wing dictatorships also claimed to have established full control over societies by means of all-powerful policing systems, even though the level of success in both regimes varied and in no way was total control achieved. The Francoist dictatorship distinguished itself from the Nazi regime due to the dominance of the military in policing, and also maintained strong links with pre-existing systems and was not subject to high levels of ideological infiltration. This reflected the development of an authoritarian regime, as opposed to a totalitarian one. The German police however underwent a considerable process of “Nazification”, which indicated a more determined move towards totalitarian rule.

From 1933 till 1936 German police forces played a significant role in the suppression of political opposition to Hitler’s regime, but were also involved in the arrest and imprisonment of racial, social and political elements that were deemed to be incompatible with the Nazi State. Policing in Nazi Germany was mainly carried out by the Gestapo (secret police) and Kripo (criminal police).The Kripo was responsible for the maintenance of general law and order i.e dealing with asocials and thieves. The Gestapo on the other hand was the key policing organization for upholding the regime by the use of surveillance and repression. It had a reputation for brutality and could arrest and detain anyone without trial.

The presidential decree of 4 February 1933 for the ‘Protection of the German People’, followed by the decree for the ‘Protection of the People and the State’ of 28 February 1933 empowered the Gestapo to apply arbitrarily preventive custody (Schutzhaft) and preventive detention (Vorbeugungshaft).Such measures had been taken against the Communists and Socialists which meant that their civil and legal rights had been indefinitely suspended. Legislation had also been passed on 24 November 1933 which allowed the Kriminalpolizei to operate preventive detention against habitual criminals or individuals that were capable of committing crimes. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 authorized the detention of Jews and non-Jewish sympathizers, which also resulted in the Gestapo attempting to prevent any sort of sexual deviance between Jews and Gentile Germans. A system of Polizeijustiz (police justice) had also been created which allowed the Nazi police to detain a large number of people in concentration camps indefinitely, without having to go through any court procedure.

Throughout these three years, there were two parallel and overlapping systems of justice that operated in the Third Reich. One system (Kripo) concerned itself with infringements on the criminal code while the other (Gestapo) looked after more explicitly political matters. As time passed there was a convergence between the two as the Kripo became more and more like the Gestapo, complete with powers of “preventive arrest” especially when it came to the criminality of groups such as the gypsies. The aims of the Gestapo, “only a tiny percentage” of which could be spoken of publicly stated Heydrich, involved working against enemies of the people and State such as spies, saboteurs and traitors. It also had the duty to enforce laws and ordinances on how to deal with “The Jewish question”. The Kripo cooperated with the Gestapo by providing them with relevant information about suspicious groups in German society and vice versa. Even though there was considerable overlap between these two organizations, when it came to enforcing racial policy the Gestapo was in charge.

In spite of these and some other shared features, there is no doubt about the fact that the Gestapo played a greater role in the Nazi system of terror. This was because the Gestapo expressly concerned itself with the regimes attempts to modify political attitudes and behaviour of all kinds, well beyond dealing with deviations from criminal law. The leading officials of the Gestapo also possessed executive authority, which meant that they could act in an arbitrary fashion. The work of the Gestapo was deliberately shrouded in secrecy and the uncertainty about the forces that moved it helped convey an impression of omnipotence. Friedrich Zipfel points out that the secretness of the Gestapo was purposely fostered in order to intensify the isolation of an citizen; “One can evade a danger that one recognizes, but a police working in the dark becomes uncanny. Nowhere does one feel safe from it.While not omnipresent it could appear, search and arrest. The worried citizen no longer knows whom he ought to trust.”

While the widespread role of German police in terror is certain, there is still the question about how spontaneously they employed it.The Weimar political police(Abteilung 1A) for instance, functioned under the legal constraints of a democratic state, however after the Nazis came to power in 1933 many ex-members of the political police had been transferred into the Gestapo. Christoph Graf points out that when Hitler came to power, the political police actively assisted in the preparation, execution and safeguarding of the Nazi takeover. Eric Johnson has also highlighted that in the early years of the Nazi regime, the Gestapo tortured its prisoners in order to get information out of them. Yet even within the Gestapo, a certain amount of psychological training in radical policing was necessary. Robert Gellatley suggests that: “Nazi ideology (of which there were many variants) could readily be grafted onto traditional demands of police for more power to fight criminals; for a reduction of the rights of the accused; and for a campaign to clean up the country from what many in the police regarded as criminal, or just immoral practices. ”Similarly Browder argued that: “the common denominators of nationalism, anti-Communism, and a general combativeness towards anything that weakened national strength created powerful personal linkages that carried over from traditional detective to Gestapo and finally SS work.”

Browder points out that the brutalization of behaviour within both the Gestapo and Kriminalpolizei was partly encouraged by the presence of uniformed Nazi infiltrators that challenged the commitment of the professional policemen and “goaded him to take the extra step that proved patriotism and dedication. ”In reference to the socio-psychological impact on the police, Browder stated that compliance in inhumane acts was achieved through a process of authorization (those in authority assume moral responsibility), bolstering (group support and conformity), routinization (focus on the job rather than on larger consequences) and dehumanization (denying the humanity of the victim and his right to moral consideration). There was also some rivalry between police forces, which albeit did not result in conflict, but was exploited by the political elites as a means of inducing the employment of terror. Severin Roeseling argued that the Gestapo and Kriminalpolizei competed in radical forms of policing in an effort to fulfill the growing demands of the political leadership. Wagner also indicated that Himmler encouraged competition between these two police corps in the fight against homosexuality, so that maximum results could be achieved in this process.

George Browder made the claim that professional policemen in the Gestapo and Kriminalpolizei were “willing participants in the first steps toward the police state”, but later suffered from professional identity crisis after realizing the extent of SS influence regarding Police matters. Whilst some members had resigned, most policemen deluded themselves that they were not acting in a cruel way as they believed in the propaganda that the Nazi leadership had built up, which portrayed the professional policemen as honored and trusted by the people. The Nazis also made sure that the German police did not have anything more than a formal link with the SS.

Whilst the Gestapo certainly did have a reputation for creating an atmosphere of trepidation in German society, their job was made easier due to the political denunciations given out by the German public. Martin Broszat makes it clear that denunciation represented an integral part of the social constitution of Nazi Germany and that it played an important role in the terror system. William Sheridan Allen further emphasizes this point by stating that although the police were not everywhere as citizens evidently thought, however “the Gestapo became extraordinarily efficient by reason of rumours and fears.” Allen further argued that most German cities with a population less than 10,000 or so never had a Gestapo official permanently stationed in the area. A large part of the fear amongst citizens was due to the concern they felt about being denounced by a fellow citizen who, might go to the police or any other interested organization because they witnessed or suspected some peculiar behaviour .As he (Allen) puts it “the atmosphere of terror, even people who were friends felt that they must betray each other in order to survive.”

More importantly, the people that were more or less involved in surveillance beyond the Gestapo were zealous, ruthless and numerous. They consisted of people from the intelligence service SD volunteers, Kripo members to all kinds of other officials such as doctors, lawyers and even civil servants. This showed that even though there were a small number of Gestapo members on the ground, there was a large network of officials augmented by many amateur helpers on which it could rely on for information. It was these sorts of activities that convinced many inside Nazi Germany that the eyes and ears of the Gestapo were everywhere, and hardly anyone felt safe regardless of whether they were at work, school or even at home.

By 1936 the Gestapo and Kriminalpolizei were more or less able to act above the law and were no longer under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry. Their decisions on the fate of their victims were no longer subject to outside scrutiny. The Interior Ministry lost direct control because in 1936 Heinrich Himmler started a process of centralization of the police forces under the control of the SS.Himmler had taken the title of Reich SS Leader and Chief of all German Police within the Reich Ministry of Interior. All of the German police forces, even the Gestapo were now under the command of Himmler.

In the Francoist system of repression after the military rebellion of 1936, Franco’s rebels used the existing military powers and jurisdiction in matters of law and order, as well as a new legislation. From 1936 onwards the regime was in an almost continuous state of Martial Law, where political offences had gone before Court Martials and usually resulted in long periods of imprisonment for dissidents. Throughout the civil war and even after it, the Spanish army was in charge of maintaining public order, and consequently military justice was preeminent in enforcing it.The Spanish army had maintained a sort of militarismo i.e. the predominance of the army as an institution not only in the government and administration but also in the maintenance of security. This meant that the national police force (Civil Guard) and Assault Guards as well as the Spanish security corps (Seguridad) was organized as a military body, subjected to a military justice code and commanded by military officers.

Physical violence had been implemented soon as follows and from July 1936 onwards the detention of” red” elements(Socialist, Communists) and subsequent killings authorized by the rebel army were carried out by the police militias. Most of the people assassinated by the militias were rural and urban workers who had joined socialist or anarchist movements, but also consisted of Republican politicians and even anticlerical middle-class members. During the summer of 1936, when most assassinations occurred, there was no kind of judicial process for the victims. This method only applied to military officers that had not joined the rebellion. During this initial stage of the Civil War many people had been assassinated on the streets, denounced and even imprisoned. After a while, some prisoners were taken out of prison in groups and were executed near the cemeteries at dawn. Many of the victims did not enjoy any kind of judicial protection, and many deaths were not officially registered. Most of these people were buried in a common grave and were registered as “man” or “woman”.

In rural areas the Civil Guard were the main agents of the task of repression. The Civil Guard had a long tradition of collaboration with the local caciques (native chiefs) and the most influential people in every village. This allowed an increase in the membership of rebel militias as the most right-wing inhabitants had been integrated. This was the case in Seville where these new members, the so-called camisas nuevas had denounced and arrested people from their working environment. After 1937 violence had been regularized and executions occurred after a military trial, which had been carried out by military authorities. This had become the usual way of exercising violence. The intensity of repression had also declined, since the number assassinations carried out by the police militias had decreased.

The initial phase after March 1938 was characterized by denunciations, imprisonments, and torture and arbitrary executions carried out by the rebel militias. Most of the violence had been carried out against left-wing groups and the so-called Tribunales Populares created by Republican government which was supposed to carry out attacks against the rebel army. By this time Franco’s forces had gained a strong foothold in the country and by 1939 the Republican forces had been defeated. However after Franco’s victory in the civil war, a new wave of repression against political enemies had been carried out.

The Law of Political Responsibilities of 1939 allowed the prosecution by special courts of anyone who had supported the “Reds” since 1934.This included people involved in both political and trade union activities. The Law for the suppression of Masonry and Communism of March 1940 allowed the persecution of most political opposition to the regime. Laws were also passed for the protection of the birth rate and against abortion in January 1941.

After the civil war, the enforcement of rigid discipline and ideological conformity maintained the Civil Guard loyalty to the Franco regime. According to Diego Lopez Garrida, the ideological concepts and content of training manuals for members of the Civil Guard were very authoritarian in nature. This meant that other political ideologies such as Socialism, Marxism, Communism as well as Liberalism and other forms of democracy were considered as political subversion by the State. Hence the Civil Guard had to show its utmost loyalty to the Francoist regime and not have any affiliations with these ideologies.

In the immediate years after the cessation of hostilities, there were years of extreme terror, in which about 145,000 people had been executed, Whilst 40,000 individuals had been shifted to prison, concentration camps and labour squads. The extremely high figures for the initial years of Francoist rule were because of a desire to seek revenge against all those forces that opposed the military. A new law code had been set up in which the words ‘forgiveness’ and ‘amnesty’ had been erased from the Spanish language. Police participation in this terror had been high since they were under the protection of the military which allowed for brutal behaviour with relative impunity.

The collaboration of the public in enforcing social control and creating terror also helped the police forces to work efficiently. Angela Cenarro observes that in Franco’s regime, denunciation was one of the most effective means of consolidating the new government. A decree of April 1940, called for an investigation of crimes committed by the ‘Reds’, which was officially encouraged by the press and on the radio. This widespread denunciation by the victors against the Republican supporters became an integral part of purging society.

The police Law of 1941 amalgamated the Seguridad (security corps) and Asalto (Assault Guards), which formed the Policia Armada. The Civil Guard had been subjected to tighter control by the army whilst other police forces such as the border and coastal police had been integrated into the security corps. The Francoist police system also had an increase in surveillance activities run by information networks that relied on informers. This change in police structure tightened the grip of the military in Spanish society and prevented any sort of political opposition to Franco’s regime.

In conclusion I believe that police forces had a major role to play in stabilizing Hitler’s regime in Nazi Germany and Franco’s rule in Spain. The police played a key role in the terror and repression of political opponents in both right-wing dictatorships, and also made sure that Hitler and Franco established firm control in both Germany and Spain. This shows how important the institution of the police is in any dictatorship. It is also important to observe how influential police forces are in autocratic regimes, since they are fully subservient to the State and make sure that any sort of threat to the regime is severely dealt with.

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