Students of European history often encounter discussions of the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), Wehrmacht, Sturmabteilung (SA), Schutzstaffel (SS), and Nationalsozialisische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party) in books and commentaries about Germany in the first half of the 20th century. These organizations all had slightly different roles in Germany in the 1930s through 1940s, contributing to Hitler's rise to power and the conflict of the Second World War. Understanding the precise role and function of each organization can be helpful to people who are trying to understand the military and political structure of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Nazi Party was a political party which took control of Germany, utilizing a variety of tactics ranging from running very effective political campaigns during open elections to actively launching offensives with the use of its own paramilitary organizations. The most famous leader of the Nazi Party was Adolf Hitler, who eventually took over power in Germany, sparking the Second World War when he attempted to take over neighboring nations. Germany effectively became a single party state under the Nazi Party, with the Nazi Party controlling the German military, police, and government.
While the thought of a political party with paramilitary arms might seem odd, the Nazi Party actually had two, the SA and the SS. The SA or assault troops were the first, commanded most notably by Ernst Röhm. However, the SA challenged the authority of the German army, and they were not totally committed to Hitler. In 1934, the SA was superceded by the SS, a paramilitary force which was fanatically loyal to Hitler. The SS had a number of branches which were active all over Germany and in the nations occupied by Germany. Members of the SA and SS were expected to be members of the Nazi Party, with a low party number being especially coveted, since it indicated early loyalty to the Nazi cause.
The Wehrmacht was a unified military force which included the German army, German air force, and German navy. Some people use the term “Wehrmacht” to refer specifically to the German army, although this is incorrect. It was commanded by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW. It was used in much the way that other conventional military forces are used, to launch specific offenses against military targets, and to defend Germany from attack. Many high-ranking members of the military were also in the SS, specifically the Waffen-SS, the armed branch of the SS. The Wehrmacht existed from 1935 until 1945, when Germany's armed forces were dissolved by treaty.
The Gestapo was the secret police force of Nazi Germany. Gestapo officials investigated a variety of domestic crimes, and they were empowered to imprison people, send individuals to concentration camps, torture prisoners, and engage in a wide variety of other activities which were designed to protect the German state. It became infamous for its ruthlessness and cruelty, leading to the use of “Gestapo” as a slang term for any brutal police force, and it was dissolved after Germany's defeat in the war.
In 1955, the German armed forces were reformed, with a less centralized power structure. The German army and other armed wings of the German defense force were specifically designed as defensive forces, rather than offensive ones, and some of the formal titles used within the military were changed to reduce confusion with terms used during the Nazi era. The modern German army, navy, and air force have a command structure which is open to members of all political parties, and a structure which makes power takeovers and coups much more challenging than they were in the 1930s, when Hitler's Nazi Party quietly took control.