The Third Reich: Police State or Self-Policing Society?

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter explores the impact of perspectives 'from below' on the historiography of the Third Reich in general and on the Nazi terror in particular. It argues that, from the 1980s onward, as 'history from below' slipped free of its earlier moorings in Marxism, it also relinquished its essentially optimistic stance. Where historians had concentrated on showing the extent of 'structural resistance' to the claims of Nazi ideology, emphasis then switched to demonstrating the importance of popular collaboration in sustaining the regime. While acknowledging a number of ways in which recent scholarship has transformed our understanding of the relationship between rulers and ruled in the Third Reich, the chapter challenges the methodology and conclusions of the new historiography of the Gestapo, casting doubt on the notion that pressures 'from below' contributed to the criminalisation of German society between 1933 and 1945. It takes issue with a number of experts on the policing of 'totalitarian' societies in general who have dramatised their approach as a 'paradigm-shift' and invited us to substitute the concept 'self-policing society' for 'police state'. Historians of Nazi Germany have focused on the phenomenon of voluntary denunciation. Occurring on a massive scale, according to Robert Gellately, such denunciations explain how the under-staffed Gestapo could function effectively. By contrast, Eric A. Johnson has argued persuasively that, where their ideologically-inspired enemies were concerned, the Gestapo received few denunciations, and were quite capable of taking initiatives of their own. Yet, via these wholly divergent routes, the two historians have arrived at the same destination, namely the conclusion that there was an over-arching pro-Nazi consensus in German society. I argue that the significance of the Gestapo and of voluntary denunciation has been overplayed, and that the Nazi terror was instituted 'from above' and by a wide range of coercive authorities and measures.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEveryday Life in Mass Dictatorship
EditorsAlf Lüdtke
Place of PublicationBasingstoke
PublisherSpringer Nature
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-137-44277-2
ISBN (Print)978-1-137-44277-2, 113744276X
Publication statusPublished - 09 Nov 2015

Publication series

NameMass Dictatorship in the Twentieth Century
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan


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