One of the things that surprised me when I started researching the Nazi police apparatus for Summer of Long Knives was how small the Gestapo really was: 40,000 agents and staff to monitor a country of over 60 million people. To put that in perspective, New York City has 34,000 uniformed police for a city of 10 million people. Many larger German cities had fewer than twenty active Gestapo agents. Given their limited numbers, how did the Gestapo effect rule by terror?
One big source of free help was the Nazi block wardens.
Block wardens, whose territory consisted 40-60 households within a neighborhood, occupied a low level of the Nazi party structure. Prior to 1933, their function had been to pass to stormtroopers names of neighbors who needed a threat or a beating, and to give lodging to Nazis who’d travelled some distance to participate in rallies or events. Starting in 1933, when the Nazis rose to power, they kept close watch on their neighbors, turning them over to SA units for arrest and torture in the stormtroopers’ ad hoc jails. When the concentration camp and protective custody systems began in March of 1933, block wardens started many of their neighbors and friends on their journeys to Dachau. Failure to salute a block warden or to hang out appropriate bunting during events could result in a knock at the door in the middle of the night.
In this sense, the block warden was a bit like the the kid in The Twilight Zone who could read minds and send people to the cornfield with a thought. It was important to say only cheerful things around a block warden and to agree wholeheartedly with whatever came out of their faces. Block wardens reveled in the power they had over their neighbors, and were usually keen to turn people in with the expectation that their efforts would lead to a rise in status within the Nazi party.
Block wardens were hardly the Gestapo’s only source of information. The Gestapo also kept networks of paid informants who spied on underground opposition groups, and their files are full of statements from ordinary people turning in neighbors, relatives, and friends–sometimes for patriotic reasons, but more often because quotidian disputes over property lines, debts, and personality conflicts would get out of hand.
We tend to think of the Nazi regime as rotten from the top down, but in many ways, ordinary people used the state’s instruments of terror as a weapon against those they disliked. The Hitler state had the hideous talent of bringing out the pent-up evil in vast numbers of people.
Here’s a link to a kind of how-to article for Nazi block wardens: “Duties of the Cell and Block Warden”
Start the video below at 25:58 to hear one story of how an ordinary young German woman named Resi Kraus destroyed one of her neighbors, Ilsa Sonja Totzke. Totzke’s crimes: friendships with Jews, inconsistent saluting habits, and abnormal “predispositions”.