Answer Man: What's the difference between SS troops and the Gestapo?

News-DemocratJune 28, 2014 

I was watching a documentary about Adolph Hitler. It talked about his SS troops and Gestapo. I always thought they were one and the same. -- S.K., of Belleville

While most people likely associate both with the same ghastly acts during Hitler's reign of terror, they actually had different origins and, at first, different objectives.

In extremely crude terms, you might think of their initial aims as the difference between the U.S. Secret Service (the SS) and a very nasty FBI (the Gestapo). Here's why:

They say the SS -- or Schutzstaffel (protection squad) -- can trace its roots back to 1915. That's when Imperial Germany began organizing small groups of specialized assault troops to try to break the Western Front stalemate during World War I. They called these groups "Sturmabteilung" (Storm Detachment), which later became popularly known as storm troopers and brown shirts.

Well, after Hitler joined the German Workers' Party in 1919, he soon saw the benefits of having goon squads around him for protection. Already on Nov. 13, 1919, Hitler's military friends ejected opponents by force from a small beer hall meeting.

By February 1920 Emil Maurice took charge of a permanent group of these thugs known as the Saalschutz Abteilung -- the (beer) hall defense detachment, if you will. Two years later, they adopted the old name of Sturmabteilung.

Through the '20s, this SA grew like wildfire until it had thousands of members. However, it also wound up outliving its original purpose. As the Nazi party moved from the extreme to the mainstream, the SA's heavy-handed tactics were no longer needed to acquire power and suppress enemies.

Even worse, the SA grew too big for its britches. It began seeing itself as a replacement for the German Army, which had been limited to 100,000 soldiers by the Treaty of Versailles that followed World War I.

Hitler and others saw this as a growing threat to himself and the party power structure, so he created the SS and placed it under the direction of Heinrich Himmler. Like the Secret Service guards the U.S. president, its main goal was to protect Hitler from SA rogues and other enemies.

But its duties soon went far beyond being simple bodyguards. Unlike the SA, officer candidates in the SS were from the middle rather than lower classes and initially had to prove they could trace their pure Aryan ancestry back to 1750.

These members of Hitler's "master race" eventually were put in charge of killing, torturing and enslaving some 12 million undesirables, including Jews, Poles, the infirm and homosexuals, just to name a few. Eventually, the SS was split into more specialized groups such as the Waffen SS (the military wing), the Allgemeine SS (the political wing) and the Totenkopfverbande SS (the concentration camps).

The Gestapo, on the other hand, came into being in April 1933 through the heavy-handed tactics of Hermann Goring.

As part of the maneuvers that made Hitler chancellor of Germany three months before, Goring was named interior minister of Prussia. This gave him control of Germany's largest police force but Goring wanted more power so he detached the political and intelligence sections from the police and filled their ranks with Nazis.

Finally, on April 26, he merged those special sections to create the Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police) -- or Gestapo for short. This consolidated police power at the national level was a departure from the country's tradition of allowing more local control of most law enforcement.

But they were only getting started. Fearing even the Gestapo could not counteract the power of the SA, Goring in 1934 turned his reins over to Himmler, our old friend from the SS. Then, in June 1936, Hitler unified all police in the Third Reich under Himmler.

Their ruthless reign would last for the next decade under the Schutzhaft (protective custody) -- a law allowing anyone to be jailed without judicial process.

"From its creation in 1933 until Hitler's death in May 1945, anyone living in Nazi-controlled territory lived in fear of a visit from the Gestapo," historian Rupert Butler wrote in his book "Gestapo." "Young or old, rich or poor, nobody was beyond the attention of a brutally efficient organization that spread its malign influence into every corner of Europe in the wake of the all-conquering German armed forces."

Today's trivia

What was the first rock 'n' roll band to play Carnegie Hall in New York?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: The songs "Stardust" and "The Blue Skirt Waltz" seem to have as much in common as, say, "Moon River" and "Space Oddity." So you might be as surprised as I was when Joe Quevreaux told me that their lyrics were written by the same man: Mitchell Parish, who also wrote the words to "Deep Purple," "Sleigh Ride" and "Sophisticated Lady." The great Hoagy Carmichael wrote the music for "Stardust" in 1927 before Parish added his lyrics two years later. The result was a classic that has been recorded more than 1,500 times. In the early 1940s, Vaclav Blaha used an old Bohemian melody as the musical basis for "The Blue Skirt Waltz," and Parish again added his creative lyrics. Frankie Yankovic went platinum with it in 1949, and it's been an oom-pah standard ever since.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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