Detecting Crime in a Police State: Fact and Fiction, Quotes

Reading William Ryan’s The Holy Thief and getting to know Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Division set me to thinking about the role of a police detective in a totalitarian state, often called a “police state.” What does a regular police detective, someone used to seeking out criminals as a way of enforcing of law and order, do in a police state?  My mind went automatically to Hans Fallada’s Jeder stirbt für sich allein,[Everyone dies alone], and in particular to his police inspector Escherich, investigating crime in Nazi Germany.  And then I saw the exhibit in Berlin in the Historical Museum,(1 April to 31 July 2011): Ordnung und Vernichtung. Die Polizei im NS-Staat [Order and Destruction. The Police in the Nazi State]—an impressive and disturbing comprehensive study of this topic.   I am soon going to write on Fallada’s Escherich in this blog, but here are a few quotations to set you thinking about the issues involved.

From William Ryan, The Holy Thief , Chapter One

 Korolev scratched his neck as he mounted the stairs toward the second floor and considered what the removal of Commissar Yagoda’s statue might mean for the Moscow Criminal Investigation Division. Up until now the Workers’ and Peasants’ Militia, to give the Soviet Union’s regular police its full title, included among its responsibilities maintaining public order, directing traffic, guarding important buildings and sundry other tasks, not least of which was, of course, the investigation and prevention of criminal activity—which was where he and the rest of Moscow CID came in.  Most of the political work was left to the NKVD—State Security—although when you lived in a worker state, almost everything was political to some extent. In some people’s eyes, any crime was an attack on the entire socialist system, but the distinction between traditional crimes and political crimes still remained, for the moment at least.

And from Chapter 15:

[Speaking to Korolev]  “You’re an honest man. And you are a Believer, aren’t you?” Kolya seemed to be weighing him up.

“It’s none of your business.”

“Maybe it isn’t. But what if, at some stage, you have to decide between your loyalty to the church and your loyalty to Comrade Stalin. How do you think you would decide?”

“I’m a loyal citizen of the Soviet Union.”

“But no Party member . . .”

An the last line in this chapter:

. . . Korolev knew the time for choosing between duty and life had come.

From: Ordnung und Vernichtung: Die Polizei im NS-Staat [Order and Destruction: The Police in the Nazi State], Catalog of the Exhibition, (Dresden, Sandstein Verlag, 2011) (my translations)

Exhibit No.64  Esslingers Entlassung aus dem Polizeidienst [Esslinger’s Dismissal from the Police Force]  Dortmund, 9 December 1933

Police Officer Eduard Esslinger took part on 19 April 1932 in Dortmund in an action against violent SA-men, in which the police stormed into an office of the Nazi party. Because of this, Esslinger and several colleagues were indicted on a charge of severe bodily harm and disturbing the peace. The court case against the policemen was conducted by a judge known to be sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Esslinger was sentenced to 15 months in jail. The sentence was upheld on appeal in 1933. The Nazi-press celebrated the verdict as a victory over the “Marxist soldateska.” Democratic newspapers criticized it as disproportionately harsh.  Many policemen interpreted it as a warning not to act against the National Socialist Party (p.132).

[My note: I have tried to find out what happened to Officer Esslinger later, but so far have found nothing. Does any reader know anything about him?]

From the introduction to the Catalog, Section entitled,  “The War against Crime.”

Promises of career advancement were an important reason for the fact that that many criminal investigation officers after 1933 acted not merely as opportunists and people taking orders, but worked quite consciously for the Nazi-regime and developed their own initiatives in keeping with the wishes of their superiors. There were indeed policemen who withdrew into niches of supposedly innocuous crime detection work;  some few even helped the persecuted. Typical however were the others: policemen who did not hesitate to use their time-honored methods of law enforcement searches, their finger-printing and photographic techniques and their card-catalogs of criminals, in the service of the Nazi-system, civil servants who put into action the guidelines and procedures of the Nazi war on crime with bureaucratic precision and decisiveness  . . .  (p.48)

From Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone, translated by Michael Hofmann: (Longtime police inspector Escherich is roughed up in his own office by an SS-man)

The inspector feels a vivid pain and the disgusting warm taste of blood in his mouth . . . he thinks, I must make my position clear. Of course, I’m ready to do anything. Door-to-door searches the length and breadth of Berlin. Spies in every building  . . .  I’ll do whatever you want, but you can’t just tell your stooges to punch me in the face, me, a long-serving detective and holder of the Iron Cross !      . . .

The Obergruppenführer watched the wretched inspector with sadistic pleasure. Then he turned away from Escherich with an angry “Bah, scum,” and asked Zott [Senior Police Investigator], “Do you require this man for briefing purposes, Herr Zott?”

It was an unwritten rule that all long-serving detectives transferred to the gestapo stayed together through thick and thin, just as the SS itself stuck together—often against the detectives themselves.  It would never have occurred to Escherich to betray a colleague to the SS, whatever his faults; rather he would have been at pains to hide his shortcomings from them. And now he had to look on as Zott, with a cursory glance in Escherich’s direction, coldly said, “This man? For a briefing? No thanks, Obergruppenführer.  I’d do a better briefing myself.”

“Take him away, boys,” screamed the Obergruppenführer .

I shall come back to Fallada’s police detective.  If you have not read the novel, and you read German, you will find a new edition now easily available, Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Berlin, Aufbau, 2011). This edition is based on Fallada’s original typescript in the archives of the Aufbau, Staatsbibiliothek, Berlin, and differs in some small but interesting ways from the text we already know. Readers of English can turn to the very successful translated version of Michael Hofmann, Every Man Dies Alone (New York, Melville House Publishing, 2009), from which I have quoted above.  The U.K edition of this version is sold under the oddly changed title of Alone in Berlin.

More on all this very soon.

About dorothyjames

Welsh-American writer, German scholar, translator, traveller.
This entry was posted in detective fiction, quotations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Detecting Crime in a Police State: Fact and Fiction, Quotes

  1. Alex Baugh says:

    This is an interesting post. I will have to look into William Ryan’s novel, since I do read other things besides WW II books. I am curious to see what you have to say about the Fallada book. It is one of the novels I have been thinking about using in the fall to introduce Crossover works on my blog, in this case adult books that would appeal to teens.
    The exhibition on Ordnung und Vernichtung sounds like it must have been chilling to see, a deadly time to live through.

    • dorothyjames says:

      Thanks, Alex. About the appeal of “Every Man Dies Alone” to teens: I can say that I read it in classes in German with undergraduates (including some late teens) and with graduate students, and they really liked it — well, maybe “liked” isn’t quite the word. They found it very exciting, and always thought it gave them great insight into the period. I cannot quite imagine its effect on much younger people — it is for one thing a very long novel and for another it has some horrifying details in it. But still, it is in my opinion a great book, and you know a lot more about what really young people read nowadays. I will be interested to see what you decide.

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