Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Police State
from Encyclopedia of Power

The concept of a police state has its roots in 18th-century Prussia, although its contemporary usage is derived primarily from the organization of the National Socialist state in Germany during the 1930s. A police state is generally one in which the police come to assume many of the functions traditionally held by other social institutions. Police states are also typically antithetical to liberal ideas concerning the separation of powers that oversee and regulate police functions. Police states are best characterized as possessing a decidedly unbalanced institutional arrangement of power such that police are able to act in an unchecked fashion. This entry summarizes the historical development of the term police state within the context of the transition from the Weimar Republic to National Socialism in Germany.

The term police state is a translation of the German term polizeistaat, and was one of three phrases used in the 18th century to jurisprudentially characterize nation-states. The term was used again within the Weimar Republic to describe a system of administration thought necessary for the maintenance of state stability. The power of the state in relation to its neighbors was seen as necessary to the complementary interests of maintaining order and guaranteeing political stability to citizens. Consequently, the system of administration was marked by a bureaucracy responsive to the demands of state leaders in regulating economic and political expansion. The interests of the state were also promoted as superior to the individual interests of citizens, because individual interest was contingent upon order and stability.

While the early conceptualization of a police state could not be considered liberal, neither was it characterized by the excessive dominance of police institutions that would eventually typify more contemporary conceptualizations. Early references to the polizeistaat emphasized its promotion of an orderly and predictable government through economic self-sufficiency and political might. The term was devoid of reference to abusive and oppressive police institutions or the arbitrary enforcement of rules and regulations that often coexist.

After National Socialism became the dominant state ethos in Germany in 1933, the general concept of what defines a police state changed to reflect the historical realities of Nazism. In short, the administrative organization of Weimar Germany was dismantled in favor of more centralized system of governance. The police were granted power without the restrictions of external oversight or control such that no other state entity could challenge the institutional legitimacy or authority of the police.

The evolution of German governmental administration into a form whereby the police came to dominate all other social institutions can be traced through a series of policy enactments. In the mid-1920s, private police entities worked at the behest of the National Socialist party, where they were charged with enforcing order at party meetings and rallies. They also protected the party from its many enemies, both real and imagined, within the party itself and in the Weimar Republic. When the National Socialist party assumed power in 1933, along with the abolition of traditional liberal-democratic institutions the private party police transformed itself into the German state police. This occurred in the midst of menacing threats from party leaders against those opposing the ideologically charged positions of the new regime. Furthermore, the new institutional arrangement had dire implications, as the new state police had no inclination toward the type of administrative rationality that characterized the police under Weimar.

In 1936, the police were centralized and unified under the control of Heinrich Himmler, who also instituted a secret police that was given absolute authority to arrest those presumed to be enemies of the regime (now functionally equivalent to the state) without appeal or oversight. Enemies of the party were transformed into enemies of the state, and the list of purported enemies the police sought to control grew proportionately with that expansion in power.

The transition toward the dominance of police in the institutional balance of power within German society occurred rather quickly and undermined the ability of other social institutions to develop mechanisms aimed at challenging that authority. The judiciary was rendered impotent in overseeing or challenging the authority of police, who could take those seen as potentially threatening to the regime into “protective custody,” a euphemism that often meant a trip to a concentration camp, torture, or death. Because business owners and tradesmen “could” potentially be operating for subversive purposes, the police were given the authority to regulate and approve applications for business licenses, further expanding the scope of their authority. The army, which in Germany had traditionally been used to quell domestic disturbances, saw their authority strictly limited to engaging foreign powers in war. Furthermore, the police were given the authority to rule over conquered and occupied territories, and military commanders who protested were either blackmailed or blackballed. Even the party itself was subject to the overwhelming authority of the police apparatus, evident in the murder of dissenting party members in what has become known as the Night of the Long Knives.

What differentiates a police state from an authoritarian one is that, in the case of the police state, the police come to dominate all other social institutions. In contrast, within authoritarian regimes the police are typically subordinate to the interests of the party. In a police state, terror is used as a weapon—first against dissenting members of its own ranks (party members within the historical context of the Nazis) and then against society at large. The hallmarks of a police state are a variety of institutions aimed at controlling dissent while providing the illusion of enforced order: concentration camps, forced labor, and mass deportations. The police come to view themselves as the only legitimate institution in society, and view all others as suspect or potentially hostile. One of the defining moments in the development of a police state occurs when the party itself loses its hegemonic control over ideology and the state, becoming submissive to the authoritative demands of police institutions.

See Also

Authority, Balance of Power, Domination, Fascism, Fear, Use of, Legitimation, Organization of the State, Security

Further Readings
  • Chapman, B. The police-state. Government and Opposition, 3,: 1968.
  • Payne, H. C. An early concept of the modern police state in nineteenth century France. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 43,: 1952.
  • Dallier, Douglas J.
    © SAGE Publications, Inc

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Police State
    Encyclopedia of Power

    The concept of a police state has its roots in 18th-century Prussia, although its contemporary usage is derived primarily from the organization...

    Full text Article police state
    The Blackwell Dictionary of Political Science

    A term coined in the 1930s and a translation of the German polizeistaat . The police state is an essential part of any totalitarian system...

    Full text Article police state
    Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

    (1851) : a political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usu. by an arbitrary exercise of

    See more from Credo