What is the Difference Between the German Army, Gestapo, Nazi Party, SA, SS, and Wehrmacht?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Adolph Hitler was the Nazi Party's most famous leader.
Adolph Hitler was the Nazi Party's most famous leader.

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.

The Gestapo sent people to German prison camps in World War II.
The Gestapo sent people to German prison camps in World War II.

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 In 1934, the SA was superceded by the SS, a paramilitary force which was fanatically loyal to Hitler.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 Nazi Party used a swastika as its symbol.
The Nazi Party used a swastika as its symbol.

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.

The Wehrmacht was a unified military force that included the German air force.
The Wehrmacht was a unified military force that included the German air force.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


"Some people use the term 'Wehrmacht' to refer specifically to the German army, although this is incorrect." This is not correct. Nazi and the Wehrmacht units were separate, and there was a divided allegiance, bickering, and requirements between them and they had different chains of command. The Wehrmacht fought the SS at the end of the war, along with the Allied forces, at Castle Itter in Austria.


Some that wiseGEEK or most may not know (and ya sure as heck will not learn it in the history books in school -- the strangest battle of WW II), is that on 5 May 1945, five days after Hitler killed himself, three Sherman tanks from the 23rd Tank Battalion of the U.S. 12th Armored Division led under the command of Capt. John C. ‘Jack’ Lee Jr., liberated an Austrian castle called Schloss Itter in the Tyrol, a special prison that housed various French VIPs, including the ex-prime ministers Paul Reynaud and Eduard Daladier and former commanders-in-chief Generals Maxime Weygand and Paul Gamelin, amongst several others. When the units of the veteran 17th Waffen-SS Panzer Grenadier Division arrived to retake the castle and kill the prisoners, Lee’s tired and outnumbered men were joined by anti-Nazi German soldiers of the Wehrmacht, as well as some of the ticked off feisty wives and girlfriends of the (needless-to-say bickering) French VIPs, and together they fought off some of the best crack troops of the Third Reich.

The battle for the 13th century Castle Itter was the only time in World War II that American and German troops joined together in combat, and it was also the only time in American history that U.S. troops defended a medieval castle against a constant attack by the enemy. To make it even more interesting, two of the women imprisoned at Schloss Itter- Augusta Bruchlen, who was the mistress of the labor leader Leon Jouhaux, and Madame Weygand, the wife General Maxime Weygand—were there because they chose to stand by their men. They, along with Paul Reynaud’s mistress Christiane Mabire, were incredibly strong, capable, and determined women.

The name of the book is ‘The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe’ By Stephen Harding. 256 pages. Da Capo. $25.99. There are two "up-front" heroes of this, (an actual historical event), story. Jack Lee was the "must-be" warrior: smart, aggressive, innovative — and, of course, a cigar-chewing, hard-drinking man who watched out for his men and was willing to think way, way outside the box whenever it demanded it, as it certainly did once the Waffen-SS started to attack the castle. The other was the much-decorated Wehrmacht officer Major Josef "Sepp" Gangl, who died helping the Americans protect the VIPs. This is the first time that Gangl’s story has been told in English, though he is rightly honored in present-day Austria and Germany as a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance.

I'm just wondering where are the movie-makers on this one? They make movies about anything else -- why not this?


The Germans had a strong affinity for Kantian ethics of duty, and would stubbornly follow orders if they were issued from an authority. While sometimes honorable, this code enabled madmen like Hitler to grab power easily and make some otherwise innocent followers into cruel Nazis. It is hard to draw a line between who was guilty and who was merely a mindless follower, but the farther up one goes in the chain of command of the Third Reich (common German, Nazi, SS, etc.) the more willful were the acts of savagery toward ones fellow man.


It was convenient that the German army uniforms of World War Two omitted the earlier Prussian war helmet Pickelhaube. This helmet had a conspicuous spike which stood up on its cap and was a relic of the older Prussian age.


I served as a British Army Soldier from 1961 for a long time (on and off 22 years) in Germany. I lived with a Herr and Frau Ferlack, an ex SS man (a senior officer) and his ex Reichfrau wife.

My good friend (at this time) was Ollie Braun, a(DB) Panzer Grenadier of 1970s. From these I learned the single mindedness demanded of a loyal soldier.

I also learned of the poison of political avarice that can corrupt the spirit of the young. Ferlack was tried and acquitted for his acts, (but had, himself a difficulty with reconciliation). To me, he was a good teacher!

I cannot condemn them. I would probably have joined their ranks, given the same provocation.

I thank them for the lessons of history but grieve that I and my comrades still face the world that has not yet learned those lessons.

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