If you want to control a population you need more than just propaganda, and more than political power. You need to use fear. From Ivan the Terrible’s elite assassins, to the notorious Iranian intelligence serviced – here are 10 brutal secret police forces.
Kempeitai was the secret police of Imperial Japan. It operated from 1881 to 1945 and reached it’s murderous peak during the second world war. They were responsible for psychological operations, counter-intelligence, and propaganda. They were also in control of the notorious Unit 731, a research facility now known for brutal human experimentation. Thousands of Chinese test subjects were at the mercy of the Kempeitai. Their limbs were amputated and then sewn back onto them. Or they were injected with deadly diseases. Many had their vital organs removed and were exposed to the plague. Even children were operated on without anaesthetic. These experiments were done in secret but the Kempeitai were well known. They once beheaded the editor of an anti-Japapese newspaper and tied his head to a lamppost. It is thought that they killed between 20 and 50 thousand civilians in Singapore alone. Their justification for this was that they were anti–Japanese operatives. But almost anything could lead to people being called anti–Japanese. If you had a tattoo… you were anti-Japanese. If you spoke English… you were anti-Japanese.
The Oprichnina were active in Russia between 1565 and 1572. They were put together by Ivan the terrible – and just like their founder, they were bloody terrible! Through acts of terror and cruelty they soon earned the nic name: “the Tsars dogs”. They executed civilians every single day in a bizarre ritual. They would then eat food while Ivan the terrible sang them songs. Some of their favourite execution methods were boiling people alive and tying their limbs to horses moving in different directions. In 1570, Ivan brought the Oprichnina to the city of Novgorod. He thought it’s population was planning a rebellion so he went crazy. The Oprichnina basically killed everyone they could find and looted local churches. 2 years later, the group was disbanded and Ivan the terrible outlawed the mention of their name.
In 1382 the Chinese emperor HongWu decided he needed secret police. Their initial responsibility was to spy on whoever Hongwu wanted but their activity soon broadened. In just 3 years their membership grew from 500 to 14 thousand. The increase was due to a justified paranoia; Chinese history has seen many power struggles and rebellions. So in the early 14 hundreds, they were given more power than anyone other than the Emperor himself, allowing them to interrogate and torture almost anyone. This included imperial family members and military officers. They once executed a General Lan Yu, and 40,000 of his associates. Lan yu is thought to have been innocent and only killed because the Jinyiwei set him up. As for the 40 thousand, I have no idea why they were killed. In 1644 they were disbanded after 260 years of political influence. By that time they were little more than assassins.
The NKVD was Joseph Stalin’s secret police. Well known for political violence – they regularly kidnapped, interrogated, and executed Stalin’s enemies. They were even more well known for being in charge of the Gulags. Gulags were the notorious forced labour camps of the Soviet Union. Anyone could be sent to the Gulag – from serious criminals to political prisoners. Their brutal conditions saw the deaths of 10 million people. Stalin used the NKDV to obliterate his political opponents. They would be branded an enemy of the state and swiftly executed. In 1937 and 1938, this fate met around 700 thousand people. You never knew when the NKVD would come. They could capture you at work, on a dark night, or even during a wedding. Some claim that Adolph Hitler’s secret police drew inspiration from the NKVD… it would certainly make sense. NKVD operation was only ended after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953.
Up until 1979, Iran had it’s own secret police force called SAVAK. This was before the 1979 revolution. So Iran was not yet a democracy, it was ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza – and he used SAVAK to maintain his regime. By use of torture and murder it became Iran’s most hated and feared organization. And that’s exactly what it was set up for – to discourage rebellion. As the Shah was a friend to the west and a capitalist, SAVAK put much of their resources into confronting communists. And when I say confronting… I mean electrocuting, executing, and exiling. At one point SAVAK employed 60 thousand agents, many of which trained by the CIA. One of their responsibilities was to spy on Iranian foreign students studying in Europe. Fast forward to 2016… European countries spy on their own students.
Even the Roman empire had it’s own secret police. They were called the Frumentarii, and there are just two main sources that tell of their existence. One of which is inscriptions on the gravestones of it’s members. The empire was large; Frumentarii life was therefore difficult as much travelling was required of them. But when they eventually did arrive at a city they’d be causing havoc, unless of course they were paid a huge bribe. When they weren’t doing that, or persecuting minority religious groups, they acted as the emperors private investigators. They spied on anyone with power, or with the potential of gaining power, or with the potential of knowing anyone with the potential of gaining power. They basically spied on everyone in Rome, which is really what led to their downfall. People just protested until the group was disbanded.
After the second world war, Germany was divided up into territories administered by different countries. Occupied by the Soviet Union, East Germany has been called the theatre of the cold war. And just like every other communist hell hole, secret police were fully utilised. The STASI was founded in 1950 and they soon got to work repressing political activity. Possibly their most effective tactic was a policy of maintaining a network of informants. In fact, 1 in 50 East-Germans had a connection to the STASI, which gave them a huge amount of power. It ensured all Germans were fearful of them. They knew that in their neighbourhood or apartment building there would be at least one informant. The STASI would strain the mind of their opponents with psychological intimidation. Suspects would be followed and harassed in the street. Their houses would be broken into and trashed. Their phones would be tapped. These strategies were learned from the KGB, as were many others. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the legacy of the STASI was discovered to be 111 miles of documents.
In old Cambodia the term “keeper of the peace” is translated as Santebal. This was the name given to the Khmer Rouge’s secret police. The Khmer Rouge ran a brutal regime in Cambodia during the 1970s. Orchestrating the Cambodian genocide, they killed one quarter of the countries population and produced 20 thousand mass graves. So as you’ll imagine, their secret police was particularly nightmarish. We know fairly little about them as they made an effort to destroy evidence of their actions. But we know they ran 150 prison camps. The camps saw torture, execution, and human experimentation. I don’t want to go into much more detail about their crimes but they were dark.
The Gestapo was Nazi Germany’s secret state police. Run by SS officers, they would come for their victims on dark nights, giving birth to horrifying stories. Gestapo officers were notorious for their unchallenged power and heartless interrogators. They really were inspired by the Soviet police, employing a vast network of informers. They even encouraged children to inform on their parents. And many did. For these tactics even the German army hated the Gestapo. There were 5 departments, each focusing on a different area. Department A dealt with their political opponents. Communists and liberals would be dragged away in the middle of the night, tortured until an addition of guilt was extracted, and usually executed.
Now I don’t want to end this article on something depressing so number one doesn’t actually exist. It’s the thought police from 1984. 1984 is George Orwell’s terrifying dystopia novel, in which the government is dominated by one single party who controls it’s population by punishing thought crime. As the name suggests, thought crime is simply thinking what the government doesn’t want you to think. The thought police run a false flag operation where they set up a supposed resistance movement. Anyone who joined the movement was arrested by them. That may sound quite bizarre but it’s something the Soviet Union genuinely did in real life. Unlike other secret police forces, the thought police attempt to force people to love their ideology rather than kill them. They did so in their torture chamber known as room 101, where you are exposed to your worst nightmare.
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