Secret Police
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Secret Police

Secret police (or political police)[1] are intelligence, security or police agencies that engage in covert operations against a government's political opponents and dissidents. Secret police organizations are characteristic of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.[2] They protect the political power of a dictator or regime, and often operate outside the law to repress dissidents and weaken political opposition, frequently using violence.[3]


East Asia


In East Asia, the jinyiwei (Embroidered Uniform Guard) of the Ming Dynasty was founded in the 1360s by the Hongwu Emperor and served as the dynasty's secret police until the collapse of Ming rule in 1644. Originally, their main functions were to serve as the emperor's bodyguard and to spy on his subjects and report any plots of rebellion or regicide directly to the emperor. Over time, the organization took on law enforcement and judicial functions and grew to be immensely powerful, with the power to overrule ordinary judicial rulings and to investigate, interrogate, and punish anyone, including members of the imperial family. In 1420, a second secret police organization run by eunuchs, known as the dongchang (Eastern Depot), was formed to suppress suspected political opposition to the usurpation of the throne by the Yongle Emperor. Combined, these two organizations made the Ming Dynasty one of the world's first police states.[4]


In Japan, there was the Battotai from 1877, and later the Kenpeitai from 1881 to 1945.


Secret police organizations originated in 18th-century Europe after the French Revolution. Such operations were established in an effort to detect any possible conspiracies or revolutionary subversion. The peak of secret-police operations in most of Europe was 1815 to 1860, "when restrictions on voting, assembly, association, unions and the press were so severe in most European countries that opposition groups were forced into conspiratorial activities."[5] The secret police of the Austrian Empire were particularly notorious during this period.[5] After 1860, the use of secret police declined due to increasing liberalization, except in autocratic regimes such as the Russian Empire.[5]


Russia has a long history of secret police, starting with the Oprichnina of Ivan the Terrible. In the Russian Empire, the secret police forces were the Third Section of the Imperial Chancery and then the Okhrana. After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union established the OGPU, NKVD, NKGB, MVD, and KGB.[6]


In Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, the Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police, Gestapo) was used to eliminate opposition. As part of the Reich Main Security Office, it also was a key organizer of the Holocaust. Although the Gestapo had a relatively small number membership (32,000 in 1944), "it maximized these small resources through informants and a large number of denunciations from the local population".[7] After the defeat of the Nazis, the East German secret police, the Stasi, likewise made use of an extensive network of civilian informers.[8]

Functions and methods

Ilan Berman and J. Michael Waller describe the secret police as central to totalitarian regimes and "an indispensable device for the consolidation of power, neutralization of the opposition, and construction of a single-party state".[1] In addition to these activities, secret police may also be responsible for tasks not related to suppressing internal dissent, such as gathering foreign intelligence, engaging in counterintelligence, organizing border security, and guarding government buildings and officials.[1] Secret police forces sometimes endure even after the fall of a totalitarian regime.[1]

Arbitrary detention, abduction and forced disappearance, torture, and assassination are all tools wielded by secret police "to prevent, investigate, or punish (real or imagined) opposition."[9] Because secret police typically act with great discretionary powers "to decide what is a crime" and are a tool used to target political opponents, they operate outside the rule of law.[10]

People apprehended by the secret police are often arbitrarily arrested and detained without due process. While in detention, arrestees may be tortured or subjected to inhumane treatment. Suspects may not receive a public trial, and instead may be convicted in a kangaroo court-style show trial, or by a secret tribunal. Secret police known to have used these approaches in history included the secret police of East Germany (the Ministry for State Security or Stasi) and Portuguese PIDE.[11]


A machine used by Stasi to re-glue envelopes after mail had been opened for exaímination.

A single secret service may pose a potential threat to the central political authority. Political scientist Sheena Chestnut Greitens writes that:

"When it comes to their security forces, autocrats face a fundamental 'coercing dilemma' between empowerment and control. ... Autocrats must empower their security forces with enough coercing capacity to enforce internal order and conduct external defense. Equally important to their survival, however, they must control that capacity, to ensure it is not turned against them."[12]

Authoritarian regimes therefore attempt to engage in "coup-proofing" (designing institutions to minimize risks of a coup). Two methods of doing so are:

  • increasing fragmentation (i.e., dividing powers among the regime security apparatuses to prevent "any single agency from amassing enough political power to carry out a coup") and
  • increasing exclusivity (i.e., purging the regime security apparatus to favor familial, social, ethnic, religious, and tribal groups perceived as more loyal).[12]


See also


  1. ^ a b c d Berman, Ilan; Waller, J. Michael (2006). "Introduction: The Centrality of the Secret Police". Dismantling Tyranny: Transitioning Beyond Totalitarian Regimes. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. XV.
  2. ^ Juan José Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (Lynne Rienner, 2000), p. 65.
  3. ^ "Secret police". Cambridge Dictionary.
  4. ^ James A. Flath & Norman Smith (2011). Beyond Suffering: Recounting War in Modern China. Vancouver: UBC Press. ISBN 9780774819558. OCLC 758370695.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  5. ^ a b c Robert Justin Goldstein, Political Repression in 19th Century Europe (1983; Routledge 2013 ed.)
  6. ^ Stephen J. Lee, Russia and the USSR, 1855-1991: Autocracy and Dictatorship (Routledge, 2006), passim.
  7. ^ Gestapo, Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  8. ^ Gary Bruce, The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi (Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 81-83.
  9. ^ Dragomir, Elna (2018). "Police State". In Arrigo, Bruce A. (ed.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Surveillance, Security, and Privacy. SAGE Publications, Inc. pp. 753-56.
  10. ^ Gaus, Gerald F. (1996). Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory. Oxford University Press. p. 196.
  11. ^ Stove, R. J. (2003). The Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims. Encounter Books. San Francisco. ISBN 1-893554-66-X.
  12. ^ a b Greitens, Sheena Chestnut (2016). Dictators and their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence. Cambridge University Press. pp. 23-25.

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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