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The Evolution of Secret Police Forces

Some argue that secret police forces have always been primarily concerned with the security of the state and that they are invariably created by governmental action, but this is not the case. Thus the formidable Vehmgericht of medieval Germany was a spontaneous creation of a segment of the people to protect its interests; it may be argued that the Vehme and similar institutions were secret societies rather than bodies of secret police, but the distinction is not always easy to make.

The institution of a secret police has existed in most societies where a minority has exercised an uneasy rule over a majority. In ancient Sparta, a well-organized secret police controlled the helots and ruthlessly suppressed any sign of rebellion. In Rome, particularly under the Julian emperors, a professional class of informers who received a share of their victims' confiscated fortunes, was employed by the state. Among the earliest secret police forces organized along modern lines were the Venetian Inquisition (see Ten, Council of) and the Oprichina of Czar Ivan IV of Russia. The institution has reached its most menacing aspect in the modern state—largely because of the improved technology at its disposal. Two 20th-century examples, that of Russia and later the Soviet Union and that of Nazi Germany, illustrate the workings of modern secret police forces.

Russia and the Soviet Union

After the abortive Decembrist coup of 1825, a powerful secret police was organized in Russia at the order of the repressive Nicholas I. This notorious Third Section (thus named because it was the third department of the czar's chancery), established a rigid and complicated system of censorship and sought to suppress not only subversive activity but even subversive thought. (The culmination of this trend, typical of police states, was symbolized by the name of the Japanese secret police before 1945—Thought Police.) The use of agents provocateurs by the czarist police led to such extremes that secret police, posing as revolutionists, actually helped to assassinate government officials.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Soviet government instituted its own secret police, the Cheka (the Russian acronym for All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Suppression of Counterrevolution and Sabotage), under Feliks Dzerzhinsky. This was reorganized (1922) as the GPU, later the OGPU (United State Political Administration). In 1934 the functions of the OGPU were transferred to the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), which was also responsible for all places of detention (e.g., forced labor camps) and for the regular police. In 1936, Stalin named Nikolai Yezhov as its head, and under Yezhov's direction Stalinist purges culminated in the wave of terror (1936–38) known as the Yezhovshchina. When Yezhov himself was convicted of conspiracy in the 1938 Moscow treason trials, he was succeeded by Lavrenti Beria.

Under Beria's long tenure the vast apparatus of the Soviet security organs became the most powerful and the most feared section of society. The NKVD was split (1943) into the NKVD and the NKGB (People's Commissariat for State Security), the former retaining responsibility for internal security; in 1946 the NKVD became the MVD (Ministry of Interior), and the NKGB became the MGB (Ministry of State Security). After Stalin's death in 1953 the two ministries were fused into a new MVD under Beria. Later in the year Beria was arrested on charges of conspiracy and was killed; the charges illustrated the inherent danger of a strong secret police and its potential for overthrowing the very state that it is supposed to protect.

After Beria's fall the Soviet security service was placed under the KGB (Committee of State Security). Although the KGB's functions resembled those of its predecessors, it employed terror to a far lesser degree. Subordinated to party control, its main duties were concerned with internal intelligence. Much of what is now known about the secret police in the Soviet Union was made public in reports by Khrushchev. Under Gorbachev's policies, the power of the KGB was strongly curtailed, and in the aftermath of the attempted coup (1991) against him, in which KGB leaders played a major role, reformers were named to head the KGB and Interior Ministry. The KGB was then renamed and restricted to counterintelligence, economic crimes, and air and rail security. Foreign intelligence gathering was assigned to the new Central Intelligence Service.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia absorbed the KGB's remnants, combining most of them under the Security and Internal Affairs Ministry. President Boris Yeltsin ordered the ministry replaced with a new Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK) in 1993. In 1995 the FSK was given expanded powers and renamed the Federal Security Service (FSB). Since the collapse of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, many documents have been made available concerning the activities of the secret police.

Nazi Germany

Although the secret police in Italy during Mussolini's rule were notorious, probably the most extreme and terrible example was that in Germany under Adolf Hitler. Under National Socialism, Germany became a police state, a state where the power of the police, and especially the secret police, over security and justice was tyrannically applied with virtually no procedural checks.

The German secret police had its genesis in the SS, or Schutzstaffel [defense echelon], created as Hitler's bodyguard under the SA (the military arm of the Nazi party), and in the SD, or Sicherheitsdienst [security service], organized in 1931 as the intelligence branch of the SS. From 1929, Heinrich Himmler controlled the SS. The Gestapo (secret state police) originated in 1933 under Hermann Goering and was ultimately merged with the SD. Just as the Gestapo had its secret operatives among the mass of the population, the SD had agents, known only to the chief SD officers, in every department of the German government, in the armed forces, in the Nazi party, among chief industrial executives, and among the Gestapo itself. While the Gestapo was known and feared, the existence of the SD was known to few.

The powers of the Gestapo, the SS, and the SD were vast; virtually any person suspected of disloyalty to the regime or of social aberration could be summarily arrested, executed, or interred in a concentration camp. The SS, literally a separate army, was responsible to Himmler alone; thus, probably for the first time in history, a secret police wielded virtually absolute power. The crimes and atrocities of the Nazi authorities in Germany itself and throughout German-occupied Europe during World War II were largely carried out by the SS and the Gestapo, who controlled the concentration and extermination camps, and who set up their subsidiary agencies in every conquered country.

Other Modern Nations

Many states, including Chile, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Romania, and South Africa, have used secret police to control internal dissent; the former East Germany's much feared Stasi (State Security Ministry) controlled every aspect of life, including the postal service and communications industry. Before 20,000 Germans stormed its headquarters, it included an extremely loyal 10,000-man army alongside 86,000 regulars, and owned its own prisons, hospitals, and construction firms. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been accused of operating as a secret police force. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal a history of domestic political spying on famous authors such as Ernest Hemingway, on civil-rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and on a wide variety of legitimate organizations. These domestic counterintelligence programs (COINTELPROs) used infiltration, eavesdropping, and disinformation campaigns to harass and destroy such groups as the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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