How Stuttgart’s Hotel Silber gave rise to the Gestapo

The exhibition “Hotel Silber”, which examines the history of Württemberg’s Political Police and its metamorphosis into the Gestapo has opened in the former Hotel Silber building in the centre of Stuttgart

How Stuttgart's Hotel Silber gave rise to the Gestapo
Hotel Silber mirrored in a car in 2014. Photo: DPA

From the outside, Hotel Silber seems to blend in with the town centre surroundings. 

But the grand building, which was bought in 1874 by Heinrich Silber who went on to operate it as a hotel until 1919, has a rich history. In fact it was used by the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), the national secret police agency of Adolf Hitler's regime, for the interrogation and murder of political opponents, as well as for the deportation of Jews and gay people to concentration camps. 

Between 1919 and 1928, Hotel Silber accommodated the Chief Post Office Directorate of Stuttgart. It transformed to the headquarters of the political police in 1928.

In the 1920s, each local department of the political police in Germany played a role in ensuring national security by keeping subversive groups and individuals under surveillance. Both the communist party (KPD) and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP, or Nazis) were monitored.

The political police assessed printed material and reports by “V persons” – Vertrauenspersonen or confidants who infiltrated organizations and reported their findings in secret statements.

A visitor browses Hotel Silber on the exhibit's opening on December 4th, 2018. Photo: DPA

In October 1936, the Württemberg Political State Police Department in Hotel Silber became the Secret State Police – the Gestapo.

The Gestapo monitored and prosecuted people not considered part of the national community (Volksgemeinschaft), and thanks to the unprecedented extent of its power, it was able to carry out its goals with remarkable speed and efficiency.

Apart from political opponents, the Gestapo also monitored homosexuals, the Jewish community and social misfits. Relying heavily on civilian reports, it used a wide margin of discretion and scope for manoeuvre.

“Anyone can call the Gestapo”, said exhibition curator Friedemann Rincke, emphasizing how easy it was to report someone to the secret police. “Their number is in the phone book.”

Targeted people in “enemy groups” had no rights and were subjected to the whims of officials, who frequently used physical and psychological force.

From that moment, it was the central instrument of repression in the Reich and internment in a concentration camp became the ultimate threat.

Following dismantlement of their parties, communists and socialists had formed underground movements, where they continued their political activities. The Gestapo intensified its fight against conspirative networks using V persons, themselves often communists and socialists, forced to work for the secret police. By summer 1937, large numbers of illegal KPD members in Württemberg had been arrested.

The death warrant of Ewald Funke, member of the KPD. Funke is arrested by the Gestapo in Stuttgart in May 1936 for creating a conspirative network for the KPD in South Germany. He is executed in March 1938. Photo: Kathy Quinlan-Flatter

Death warrants and other documents relating to political prisoners are on show in the exhibition, including the invoice for the burial of KPD official Max Stingl, at Dachau concentration camp. Stingl was betrayed by V man Eugen Wicker and arrested in May 1936. He commited suicide in October following severe torture, and the costs for his funeral were sent to his family.

Monitoring spreads

Hans Scholl, co-founder of the 1942 White Rose resistance movement, was arrested by the Stuttgart Gestapo and interned in November 1937. Scholl held a leading position in the Hitler Youth, but was also involved in the prohibited “Bündische Jugend” movement.

During his time at Hotel Silber, his homosexual activities come to light and he was prosecuted under the infamous Paragraph 175a of the Reich Criminal Code, which made homosexual acts a crime. Scholl was released at the end of the year but he and his sister Sophie were arrested again by the Gestapo in February 1943, tried for treason and executed.

Brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl who founded the White Rose resistance movement. Undated photo from dpa

By 1938, the Gestapo was subordinate to the Security Police, led by Reinhard Heydrich, which in turn reported directly to Police Chief Heinrich Himmler, and it held a wealth of information on the Jewish population.

In order to control and monitor people in this group, their exact whereabouts needed to be recorded. This proved to be an essential requirement for the subsequent mass deportation measures.

“With the outbreak of war in 1939, large numbers of staff were transferred to the occupied zones”, explains Rincke. “This means that manpower is lacking in Germany, thus increasing reliance on informants. During WW2, around 25 percent of all Gestapo staff are women”.

At the same time, the Gestapo was assigned new tasks – including assisting the criminal police in the deportation of the Jewish population and the genocide of Sinti and Roma people.

In the case of the latter, the police are responsible for organizing and implementing procedures, while the Gestapo is involved in confiscating the property of deported people. Hotel Silber recorded the measures in documents and photographs, several of which are shown in the exhibition.

The Gestapo itself organized the deportation of the Jewish population and by 1945, Hotel Silber had deported around 2500 Jews from Württemberg and Hohenzollern. Few survived the camps and there was little resistance to the deportations among the population.

Another essential Gestapo task was the surveillance of forced labourers – prisoners of war from the eastern occupied zones forced to work in the Reich.

“This group of people presented a risk to the national community,” says Rincke, explaining how the Nazis thought at the time. “Their ‘alien blood’ was not allowed to tarnish pure Germanic blood. It fell to the Gestapo to ensure that sexual relations were prevented between the two groups.”

The example of Rosa Weber, a 28-year old woman who fell pregnant by a POW working on her parents’ farm is explored in this part of the exhibition. Following a report to Hotel Silber in an anonymous letter from her village, she was prosecuted in January 1943, around six months into her pregnancy.

Legal regulations also provided the Gestapo with the ability to prosecute any criticism of the Nazi state and even comments made in private – particularly those undermining victory – could be penalized with a term in a concentration camp.

Judenfrei: Map from a report by Task Force A for the period October 15, 1941 to January 31, 1942. Walter Stahlecker – chief of the Württemberg Political Police/Gestapo from 1934 to 1937, was head of Task Force A in the Baltic. Under his command, over 200,000 people, mainly Baltic Jews, were murdered. In 1942 he sent this map to Headquarters in Berlin as part of a report about the Task Force’s activities. Photo: Kathy Quinlan-Flatter

Allied occupation

Stuttgart’s prisons were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944, and prisoners were confined in Hotel Silber’s basement under inhumane conditions in overfilled rooms. In early 1945, the Gestapo staff prepared for the end of the Nazi dictatorship and the Allied occupation. Like other state departments, they destroyed almost all files and documents, and shortly before the end of the war, they murdered all prisoners held in Hotel Silber.

Many of the staff went underground.

Directly after occupation by French troops, the new president of the police and the municipal criminal police moved into Hotel Silber. Unlike the Gestapo, the police were not outlawed or prohibited by the Allies, although the French demanded that all former party members be dismissed, effectively dissolving the Stuttgart criminal police.

Many of those persecuted under the Nazi regime applied to join the new police services, eager to cooperate in setting up the new democracy.

However, it is not long before dismissed officials, often successful in presenting themselves in a more positive light, started to return to the police service, and those formerly persecuted now work together with their former persecutors.

Many of the prejudices and concepts of the Nazis therefore prevailed longer than the Nazi state itself.

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.