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The Schutzstaffel (German pronunciation: [ˈʃʊtsʃtafəl] ( listen), Protection Squadron), abbreviated SS—or with stylized „Armanen” Sig runes—was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Built upon the Nazi ideology, the SS, under Heinrich Himmler’s command, was responsible for many of the crimes against humanity during World War II (1939–1945). After 1945, the SS was banned in Germany, along with the Nazi Party, as a criminal organization.
The SS was formed in 1925 under the then name „Saal-Schutz” (Assembly-Hall-Protection), intended for providing security for Nazi party meetings and as a personal protection squad for Adolf Hitler. Under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler between 1929 and 1945, the SS was renamed to „Schutz-Staffel” and grew from a small paramilitary formation to one of the largest and most powerful organizations in the Third Reich.
The SS grew from a small paramilitary unit to a powerful force that served as the Führer’s „Praetorian Guard”, the Nazi Party’s „Protection Squadron” and a force that, fielding almost a million men (both on the front lines and as political police), managed to exert as much political influence in the Third Reich as the Wehrmacht (Germany’s regular armed forces).
According to the Nuremberg Trials, as well as many war crimes investigations and trials conducted since then, the SS was responsible for the vast majority of war crimes perpetrated under the Nazi regime. In particular, it was the primary organization which carried out The Holocaust. As a part of its race-centric functions, the SS oversaw the isolation and displacement of Jews from the populations of the conquered territories, seizing their assets and transporting them to concentration camps and ghettos where they would be used as slave labor (pending extermination) or immediately killed.
Initially a small branch of the Sturmabteilung (the „Brownshirts” or Stormtroopers, abbreviated in German as SA), the SS grew in size and power due to its exclusive loyalty to Adolf Hitler, as opposed to the SA, which was seen as semi-independent and a threat to Adolf Hitler’s hegemony over the party. Under Himmler, the SS selected its members according to the Nazi ideology. Creating elite police and military units such as the Waffen-SS, Adolf Hitler used the SS to form an order of men claimed to be superior in racial purity and ability to other Germans and national groups, a model for the Nazi vision of a master race. During World War II, SS units operated alongside the regular Heer (German Army). However, by the final stages of the war, the SS came to dominate the Wehrmacht in order to eliminate perceived threats to Adolf Hitler’s power while implementing his strategies, despite the increasingly futile German war effort.
Chosen to implement the Nazi „Final Solution” for the Jews and other groups deemed inferior (and/or enemies of the state), the SS was the lead branch in carrying out the killing, torture and enslavement of approximately twelve million people. Most victims were Jews or of Polish or other Slavic extraction. However, other racial/ethnic groups such as the Roma made up a significant number of victims, as well. Furthermore, the SS purge was extended to those viewed as threats to „race hygiene” or Nazi ideology—including the mentally or physically handicapped, homosexuals, or political dissidents. Members of labor organizations and those perceived to be affiliated with groups (religious, political, social and otherwise) that opposed the regime, or were seen to have views contradictory to the goals of the Nazi government, were rounded up in large numbers; these included clergy of all faiths, Jehovah’s Witnesses,Freemasons, Communists, and Rotary Club members.
Foreseeing Nazi defeat in the war, a significant number of SS personnel organized their escape to South American nations. These escapes are said to have been assisted by an organization known as ODESSA, an acronym of the German phrase Organisation der ehemaligen SS–Angehörigen, which translates as the Organization of Former Members of the SS. Many others were captured and prosecuted by Allied authorities at the Nuremberg Trials for war crimes, and absconding SS criminals were the targets of police forces in various Allied nations, post-war West and East Germany, Austria and Israel.
The Nazis regarded the SS as an elite unit, the party’s „Praetorian Guard”, with all SS personnel (originally) selected on the principles of racial purity and loyalty to the Nazi Party. In the early days of the SS, officer candidates had to prove German ancestry to 1750. They also were required to prove that they had no Jewish ancestors. Later, when the requirements of the war made it impossible to confirm the ancestry of officer candidates, the proof of ancestry regulation was dropped.
In contrast to the black-uniformed Allgemeine SS (the political wing of the SS), the Waffen-SS (the military wing) evolved into a second German army aside the Wehrmacht (the regular national armed forces) and operating in tandem with them; especially with the Heer (German Army).
Special ranks and uniforms
The SS was distinguished from other branches of the German military, the National Socialist Party, and German state officials by its own rank structure, unit insignia, and uniforms. The all-black SS uniform was designed by SS-Oberführer Prof. Karl Diebitsch and graphic designer SS-Sturmhauptführer Walter Heck. These uniforms were rarely worn after the war began, however, as Himmler ordered that the all-black uniforms be turned in for use by others. They were sent east where they were used by native auxiliary police units and west to be used by Germanic-SS units such as the ones in Holland and Denmark. In place of the black uniform, SS men wore uniforms of dove-grey or Army field-grey with distinctive insignia. The uniforms were made by hundreds of clothing factories licensed by the RZM, including Hugo Boss, with some workers being prisoners of war forced into labor work. Many were made in concentration camps. The SS also developed its own field uniforms. Initially these were similar to standard Wehrmacht wool uniforms but they also included reversible smocks and helmet covers printed with camouflage patterns with a brown/green „spring” side and a brown/brown „autumn” side. In 1944, the Waffen SS began using a universal camouflage uniform intended to replace the wool field uniform.
In contrast to the Imperial military tradition, the nature of the SS was based on an ideology where commitment, effectiveness and political reliability, not class or education, would determine how far they succeeded in the organization. The SS also stressed total loyalty and obedience to orders unto death. It become a powerful tool used by Hitler and the Nazi state for political ends. The SS ideology and values of the organization was one of the main reasons why the SS was entrusted with the execution of many Nazi atrocities and war crimes of the Nazi state.
Merger with police forces
As the Nazi party monopolized political power in Germany, key government functions such as law enforcement were absorbed by the SS, while many SS organizations became de facto government agencies. To maintain the political power and security of the Nazi party (and later the nation), the SS established and ran the SD(Security service) and took over the administration of Gestapo (Secret state police), Kripo (criminal investigative police), and the Orpo (regular uniformed police). Moreover, legal jurisdiction over the SS and its members was taken away from the civilian courts and given to courts run by the SS itself. These actions effectively put the SS above the law.
Personal control by Himmler
Himmler, the leader of the SS, was a chief architect of the Final Solution. The SS Einsatzgruppen death squads, formed by his deputy, Heydrich, murdered many civilian non-combatants, mostly Jews, in the countries occupied by Germany during World War II. Himmler was responsible for establishing and operating concentration camps and extermination camps in which millions of inmates died of systematic mass gassing, shooting, hanging, inhumane treatment, overwork, malnutrition, or medical experiments. After the war, the judges of the Nuremberg Trials declared the SS and its sub-parts criminal organizations responsible for the implementation of racial policies of genocide and committingwar crimes and crimes against humanity.
The History of the SS may be grouped into several key periods of the organization’s existence. The first group associated with SS (but not known as such) existed briefly in 1923, before being disbanded and re-founded in 1925. This second version of the SS, sometimes known as the „Pre-Himmler SS”, existed from 1925 to 1929; the more recognizable SS under Heinrich Himmler then came into being. Himmler’s SS existed from 1929 to 1945, and may itself be divided into a peacetime SS until 1939, replaced by a wartime SS lasting until the end of World War II. The group was formally disbanded upon the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The group was first formed in 1923, as a company of the SA who were given the task of protecting senior leaders of the Nazi Party at rallies, speeches, and other public events. Commanded by Emil Maurice, and known as the Stabswache (Staff Guard), the original group consisted of eight men and was modeled after the Erhardt Naval Brigade, a violentFreikorps of the time.
After the failed 1923 Putsch by the Nazi Party, the SA and the Stabswache were abolished, yet they returned in 1925. At that time, the Stabswache was reestablished as the 30-man „Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler”, given the task of providing personal protection for Hitler at Nazi Party functions and events. That same year, the Stosstrupp was expanded to a national level, and renamed successively the Sturmstaffel (storm squadron), then the Schutzkommando (protection command), and finally the Schutzstaffel (SS). The new SS was delegated to be a protection company of various Nazi Party leaders throughout Germany. Hitler’s personal SS protection unit was later enlarged to include combat units and after April 13, 1934, was known as the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). After Germany mobilized in 1939, the combat units in the LSSAH were mobilized as well, leaving behind an honour guard battalion to protect Hitler. It is these SS troops that are seen at the Reich Chancellery and Hitler’s Obersalzberg estate in his personal 8 mm movies.
Between 1925 and 1929, the SS was considered merely a small Gruppe of the SA and numbered no more than 1000 personnel; by 1929 that number was down to 280. On January 6, 1929, Hitler appointed Himmler as the leader of the SS, and by the end of 1932, the SS had 52,000 members. By the end of the next year, it had over 209,000 members. Himmler’s expansion of the SS was based on models from other groups, such as the Knights Templar and the Italian Blackshirts. According to SS–Obergruppenführer and General of the Waffen-SS, Karl Wolff, it was also based on the model from the Society of Jesus of absolute obedience to the Pope. The motto of the SS was „Treu, Tapfer, Gehorsam”(Loyalty, Valiance, Obedience).
Before 1929, the SS wore the same brown uniform as the SA, with the exception of a black tie and a black cap with a Totenkopf („death’s head”) skull and bones symbol on it. In that year Himmler extended the black colour to include breeches, boots, belts, and armband edges; and in 1932 they adopted the all-black uniform, designed by Prof. Diebitsch and Walter Heck. In 1936 an „earth-grey” uniform was issued. The Waffen („armed”) SS wore a field-grey (feldgrau) uniform similar to the regular army, or Heer. During the war, Waffen-SS units wore a wide range of items printed with camouflage patterns (such as Platanenmuster, Erbsenmuster, captured Italian Telo Mimetico, etc.), while theirfeldgrau uniforms became largely indistinguishable from those of the Heer, save for the insignia. In 1945, the SS adopted the Leibermuster disruptive pattern that inspired many forms of modern battle dress, although it was not widely issued before the end of the war.
Their motto was „Meine Ehre heißt Treue („My Honour is Loyalty.”) The SS rank system was unique in that it did not copy the terms and ranks used by the Wehrmacht’s branches (Heer(„army”), Luftwaffe („air force”), and Kriegsmarine („navy”)), but instead used the ranks established by the post-World War I Freikorps and taken over by the SA. This was mainly done to establish the SS as being independent from the Wehrmacht, although SS ranks did generally have equivalents in the other services.
Heinrich Himmler, together with his right-hand man, Reinhard Heydrich, consolidated the power of the organization. In 1931, Himmler gave Heydrich the assignment to build an intelligence and security service inside the SS, which became the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). By the time the war began, the number of members rose to 250,000, and the Waffen-SS was formed in August 1940, expanding the earlier armed SS troops who had fought in Poland and France in 1939–40, to serve alongside the Wehrmacht, Germany’s regular armed forces. Himmler also received control of the Gestapo in 1934, and, that same year, Hitler had given the SS jurisdiction over all concentration camps. In the wake of the plot against Hitler’s life by a group of regular military generals in July 1944, the Führer came to distrust his regular military, putting ever more trust in the SS, particularly Himmler, who had acted against the plotters and their families. This attitude of Hitler’s was further shown at the very end of the war, when he refused to station himself in the OKW bunker in Berlin, claiming that he did not ‘trust the strength of army concrete’, however the true reason was probably that he feared another generals’ plot and so chose to stay in his own headquarters, surrounded by an apparently more loyal SS retinue.
Early SS Disunity
Far from the united instrument of oppression that the SS would eventually become, in its first years of existence, the SS was in fact significantly divided into several factions both geographically within Germany as well as within the structure of the SS as a whole. In addition, prior to April 1934, the Gestapo was a civilian state police agency outside the control of SS leadership. In some cases, it came into direct conflict with the SS and even attempted to arrest some of its members.
The first major division in the early SS was between SS units in Northern Germany, situated around Berlin, and SS units in southern Germany headquartered around Munich. The „Northern-SS” was under the command of Kurt Daluege who had close ties to Hermann Göring and enjoyed his position in Berlin where most of the Nazi government offices were located. This in contrast to the SS in southern Germany, commanded unquestionably by Heinrich Himmler and located mostly in Munich which was the location of the major Nazi political offices.
Within the SS, early divisions also developed between the „General SS” and the SS under the command of Sepp Dietrich which would eventually become the Waffen-SS. The early military SS was kept quite separate from the regular SS and Dietrich introduced early regulations that the military SS answered directly to Hitler, and not Himmler, and for several months even ordered his troops to wear the black SS uniform without a swastika armband to separate the soldiers from other SS units once the black uniform had become common throughout Germany.
The division between the military and general SS never entirely disappeared even in the last days of World War II. Senior Waffen-SS commanders had little respect for Himmler and he was scornfully nicknamed „Reichsheini” by the Waffen-SS rank and file. Himmler worsened his own position when he attempted to hold a military command during the last months of the war and proved totally incompetent as a field commander.
The Gestapo, which would eventually become a semi-integrated part of the SS security forces, was at first a large „thorn in the side” to Himmler as the group was originally the Prussian state political police under the control of Hermann Göring and commanded by his protege Rudolf Diels. Early Gestapo activities came into direct conflict with the SS and it was not until the SA became a common enemy that Göring turned over control of the Gestapo to Himmler and Heydrich (the three then worked together to destroy the greater threat of the SA leadership). Even so, Göring was reported to have disliked Himmler to the last days of the war and even turned down honorary SS rank since he did not want to any way be subordinated to Himmler.
The SS before 1933
In early 1925, the future SS was a single, thirty-man company that was Hitler’s personal bodyguard. In September, all local NSDAP offices were ordered to create body guard units of no more than ten men apiece. By 1926, six SS-Gaus were established, supervising all such units in Germany. In turn, the SS-Gaus answered to the SS-Oberleitung, the headquarters unit. The SS-Oberleitung answered to the office of the Supreme SA Leader (Oberste SA-Führer), Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, clearly establishing the SS as a subordinate unit of theSturmabteilung.
Between 1926 and 1928, the SS command Gaus were as follows:
- SS-Gau Berlin Brandenburg
- SS-Gau Franken
- SS-Gau Niederbayern
- SS-Gau Rheinland-Süd
- SS-Gau Sachsen
In 1929, the SS-Oberleitung was expanded and reorganized into the SS-Oberstab with five main offices, as listed below:
- Abteilung I: Administration
- Abteilung II: Personnel
- Abteilung III: Finance
- Abteilung IV: Security
- Abteilung V: Race
At the same time, the SS-Gaus were expanded into three SS-Oberführerbereiche as listed below
- SS-Oberführerbereiche Ost
- SS-Oberführerbereiche West
- SS-Oberführerbereiche Süd
Each SS-Oberführerbereiche contained several SS-Brigaden, which in turn were divided into regiment-sized SS-Standarten.
In 1931, as the SS began to increase its membership to over 100,000, the organization was again restructured beginning with the SS-Oberleitung, which was replaced by the SS-Amt, divided into five sections as follows:
- Section I: Headquarters Staff
- Section II: Personnel Office
- Section III: Administration Office
- Section IV: SS Reserves
- Section V: SS Medical Corps
In addition to the SS-Amt, the SS-Rasseamt (Race Office) and Sicherheitsdienst Amt (Office of the SD) were established as two separate offices on an equal footing with the Headquarters Office.
At the same time that the SS Headquarters was being reorganized, the SS-Oberführerbereichen were replaced with five SS-Gruppen, listed as follows:
- SS-Gruppe Nord
- SS-Gruppe Ost
- SS-Gruppe Süd
- SS-Gruppe Südost
- SS-Gruppe West
The lower levels of the SS remained unchanged between 1931 and 1933. However, it was during this time that the SS began to establish its independence from the Sturmabteilung (SA), although officially the SS was still considered a sub-organization of the SA and answerable to the SA Chief of Staff.
The SS after the Nazi seizure of power
After the Nazi seizure of power, the mission of the SS expanded from the protection of the person of Adolf Hitler to the internal security of the Nazi regime. In 1936, Himmler described the new mission of the SS, protecting the internal security of the regime, in his pamphlet, „The SS as an Anti-bolshevist Fighting Organization.”
We shall unremittingly fulfill our task, the guaranty of the security of Germany from the interior, just as the Wehr-macht guarantees the safety, the honor, the greatness, and the peace of the Reich from the exterior. We shall take care that never again in Germany, the heart of Europe, will the Jewish-Bolshevistic revolution of subhumans be able to be kindled either from within or through emissaries from without. Without pity we shall be a merciless sword of justice for all those forces whose existence and activity we know, on the day of the slightest attempt, may it be today, may it be in decades or may it be in centuries.
Following Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany, the SS became regarded as a state organization and a branch of the established government. The Headquarters Staff, SD, and Race Office became full-time paid employees, as did the leaders of the SS-Gruppen and some of their command staffs. The rest of the SS were considered part-time volunteers, and in this concept the Allgemeine-SS came into being.
By the autumn of 1933, Hitler’s personal bodyguard (previously the 1st SS Standarte located in Munich) had been called to Berlin to replace the Army Chancellery Guard as protectors of the Chancellor of Germany. In November 1933, the SS guard in Berlin became known as the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. In April 1934, Himmler modified the name to Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). The LSSAH would later become the first division in the Order of Battle of the Waffen-SS.
On April 20, 1934, (as a prelude to the Night of the Long Knives), Göring transferred the Gestapo to Himmler, who was also named chief of all German police forces outside Prussia; two days later Himmler named Heydrich the head of the Gestapo.
Following the Night of the Long Knives, the SS again underwent a massive reorganization. The SS-Gruppen were renamed as SS-Oberabschnitt, and the former SS Headquarters and command offices were reorganized into three and then eight SS-Hauptämter. The SS-Hauptamt offices would eventually grow in number to twelve main offices by 1944. These offices remained unchanged in their names until the end of World War II and the fall of the SS.
By mid-1934, the SS had taken control of all concentration camps from the SA, and a new organization, the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) had been established as the SS Concentration Camp Service. The original SS-TV was organized into six Wachtruppen at each of Germany’s major concentration camps. The Wachtruppen were expanded in 1935 into Wachsturmbanne and again in 1937 into three main SS-Totenkopfstandarten. This structure would remain unchanged until 1941, when a massive labor and death camp system in the occupied territories necessitated the concentration camps to be placed under the Wirtschafts und Verwaltungshauptamt (SS-WVHA) in three main divisions of Labor Camps, Concentration Camps, and Death Camps.
The early Waffen-SS can trace its origins to 1934 in the SS-Verfügungstruppe: two Standarten (regiments) under retired general Paul Hausserarmed and trained to Army standards, and held ready at the personal disposal of the Führer in peace or war. Hausser also established twoJunkerschule for the training of SS officers.
Himmler was named the chief of all German police (nominally in that role subordinate to Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick) on June 17, 1936. He thereby assumed control of all of the German states’ regular police forces and, nationalizing them, formed the Ordnungspolizei and the Kriminalpolizei. The Orpo, uniformed police, were placed under the command of SS Obergruppenführer Kurt Daluege. Further, the Gestapo and the Kripo or Kriminalpolizei (Criminal Police) were incorporated into the SiPo or Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police) and considered a complementary organisation to the SD or Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service). Reinhard Heydrich was head of the SiPo (made up of the Gestapo and Kripo) and SD. Heinrich Müller, was chief of operations of the Gestapo. These events effectively placed all German police under the control of SS commanders. In September 1939, the security and police agencies of Nazi Germany (with the exception of the Orpo) were consolidated into the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), headed by Heydrich.
In 1939, from the existing Totenkopfverbände was formed the SS Division Totenkopf composed of members of the Concentration Camp service together with support units transferred from the Army. The Totenkopf or „Death’s Head” division would later become a division of the Waffen-SS.
The SS during World War II
By the outbreak of World War II, the SS had solidified into its final form. By this point, the term „SS” could be applied to two completely separate organizations, mainly the Allgemeine-SS and the Waffen-SS. The Allgemeine-SS also had control over a third SS branch, known as the Germanic-SS, which was composed of SS groups formed in occupied territories and allied countries. In the last months of World War II, a fourth branch of the SS known as the „Auxiliary-SS” was formed from non-SS members conscripted to serve in Germany’s concentration camps.
SS and police leaders
During the Second World War, the most powerful men in the SS were the SS and Police Leaders, divided into three levels: Regular Leaders, Higher Leaders, and Supreme Leaders. Such persons normally held the rank of SS-Gruppenführer or above and answered directly to Himmler in all matters pertaining to the SS in their area of responsibility. Thus, SS and Police Leaders bypassed all other chains of command. In Himmler’s grand dream of the SS, the SS and Police Leaders were eventually to become SS-Governors of the Lebensraum which would be ruled by SS-Lords, protected by SS-Legions, and worked and lived in by SS-Yeoman Warriors overseeing Slavic serfs.
By 1942, all activities of the SS were managed through twelve main offices of the Allgemeine-SS.
- Hauptamt Persönlicher Stab Reichsführer-SS, Personal Staff of the Reich Leader SS (i.e., Himmler)
- SS-Hauptamt, SS-HA, Main Administrative Office
- SS Führungshauptamt, SS-FHA, SS Main Operational Office (military command for the Waffen-SS)
- Hauptamt SS-Gericht, Main Office of SS Legal Matters
- SS-Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt, RuSHA, SS Office of Race and Settlement
- SS Personalhauptamt, SS Personnel Main Office
- SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA, Reich Main Security Office
- Hauptamt Ordnungspolizei, Main Office of the Order Police
- Wirtschafts und Verwaltungshauptamt, SS-WVHA, Economic and Administration Main Office (which administered the concentration camp system)
- Hauptamt Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle, VOMI, Racial German Assistance Main Office
- Hauptamt Dienststelle Heissmeyer, SS Education Office
- Hauptamt Reichskommissar für die Festigung Deutschen Volkstums, RKFVD, Main Office of the Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of German Nationhood
The Allgemeine-SS (the „General SS”) refers to a non-combat branch of the SS. The Allgemeine-SS formations were divided into Standarten, organized into larger formations known asAbschnitte and Oberabschnitte. Many personnel served in other branches of the state government, Nazi Party, and certain departments within the RSHA (e.g., the SD, Gestapo and Kripo). Members of the Allgemeine-SS were considered more or less reservists with many serving the German military, or the Waffen-SS. For those who served in the Waffen-SS, it was a standard practice to hold separate SS ranks for both the Allgemeine-SS and the Waffen-SS.
The Waffen-SS were frontline combat troops trained to fight in Germany’s battles during World War II. During the early campaigns against Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, military SS units were of regiment size and drawn from existing armed SS formations:
- The Leibstandarte, Hitler’s personal bodyguard.
- The Death’s-Head Battalions (German: Totenkopfverbände), which administered the concentration camps.
- The Dispositional Troops, (German: Verfügungstruppe).
For the invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940 (Fall Gelb) the three SS-VT and three of the SS-TV regiments were each organized into divisions (the future 2nd „Das Reich” and 3rd „Totenkopf”), and another division was raised from the Ordnungspolizei (later the 4th „Polizei”). Following the campaign, these units together with the Leibstandarte and additional SS-TV Standarten were amalgamated into the newly-formed Kommandoamt der Waffen-SS within the SS-Führungshauptamt.
In 1941 Himmler announced that additional Waffen-SS Freiwilligen units would be raised from non-German foreign nationals. His goal was to acquire additional manpower from occupied nations. These foreign legions eventually included volunteers from Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands.
While the Waffen-SS remained officially outside the Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) and under Himmler’s authority, they were placed under the operational command of the Armed Forces High Command (OKW) or Army High Command (OKH), and were largely funded by the Wehrmacht. During the war, the Waffen-SS grew to 38 divisions. The most famous are the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, 3rd SS Division Totenkopf, 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking and the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.
The Waffen-SS maintained several „Foreign Legions” of personnel from conquered territories and countries allied to Germany. The majority wore a distinctive national collar patch and preceded their SS rank titles with the prefix Waffen instead of SS. Volunteers from Scandinavian countries filled the ranks of two divisions, the 5th „Wiking” and 11th „Nordland.” Belgian Flemings joined Dutchmen to form the „Nederland” Legion,their Walloon compatriots joined the Sturmbrigade „Wallonien”. There was also a French volunteer division,(33rd Franzosiche Division), „Charlemagne”.
Racial restrictions were relaxed to the extent that Ukrainian Slavs, Albanians from Kosovo, Turkic Tatars, and even Asians from Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) units were recruited. The Ukrainians and the Tatars had both suffered persecution under Joseph Stalin and their motive was a hatred of communism rather than sympathy for National Socialism. The exiled Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, used hatred of Serbs and Jews to recruit an entire Waffen-SS division of Bosnian Muslims, the 13th SS Division „Handschar” (Scimitar). The year long Soviet occupation of the Baltic states at the beginning of World War II produced volunteers for Estonian and Latvian Waffen-SS units, though the majority of those units still was formed by forced draft. However, some other occupied countries such as Greece, Lithuania, Czech Republic and Poland never formed formal Waffen-SS legions. With that said, there were some countrymen that were in the service of the Waffen-SS. In Greece, the fascist organisation ESPO tried to create a Greek SS division, but the attempt was abandoned after its leader was assassinated.
The Indische Freiwilligen Infanterie Regiment 950 (also known at various stages as the Indische Freiwilligen-Legion der Waffen-SS, the Legion Freies Indien, and Azad Hind Fauj) was created in August 1942, chiefly from disaffected Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army, captured by the Axis in North Africa. Many, if not most, of the Indian volunteers who switched sides to fight with the German Army and against the British were strongly nationalistic supporters of the exiled, anti-British, former president of the Indian National Congress, Netaji (the Leader) Subhash Chandra Bose. See also the Tiger Legion and the Indian National Army.
The Germanic-SS was an SS-modeled structure formed in occupied territories and allied countries. The main purpose of the Germanic-SS was enforcement of Nazi racial doctrine and anti-semitic policies. Denmark and Belgium were the two largest participants in the Germanic-SS program. Germanic-SS members wore the all-black SS uniforms favored by the pre-war German SS. After the war began, Himmler ordered the uniforms to be turned in and many were then sent west to be used by Germanic-SS units such as the ones in Holland and Denmark. These groups had their own uniforms with a modification of SS rank titles and insignia. All Germanic-SS units answered to the SS headquarters in Germany.
The Auxiliary-SS (SS mannschaft) was an organization that arose in 1945 as a last-ditch effort to keep concentration camps running. Auxiliary-SS members were not considered regular SS personnel, but were conscripted members from other branches of the German military, the Nazi Party, and the Volkssturm. Such personnel wore a distinctive twin swastika collar patch and served as camp guard and administrative personnel until the surrender of Germany.
Auxiliary SS members had the distinct disadvantage of being the „last ones in the camp” as the major concentration camps were liberated by allied forces. As a result, many auxiliary SS members, in particular those captured by Russian forces, faced swift and fierce retaliation and were often held personally responsible for the carnage of the camps to which some had only been assigned for a few weeks or even days.
There also exist very few records of the Auxiliary SS since, at the time of this group’s creation, it was a foregone conclusion that Germany had lost the Second World War and the entire purpose of the Auxiliary SS was to serve in support roles while members of the SS proper escaped from allied forces. Thus, there was never a serious effort to properly train, equip, or maintain records on the Auxiliary SS.
SS Units and Branches
Within the two main branches of the Allgemeine-SS and Waffen-SS, there further existed several branches and sub-branches some with overlapping duties while other SS commands had little to no contact with each other. In addition, by 1939 the SS had complete control over the German Police, with many police member serving as dual SS members. Most of these branches committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, and many individuals were tried for these offences after the war.
The SS is closely associated with Nazi Germany’s concentration camp system. After 1934, the running of Germany’sconcentration camps was placed under the total authority of the SS and an SS formation known as the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), under the command of Theodor Eicke. Known as the „Death’s Head Units”, the SS-TV was first organized as several battalions, each based at one of Germany’s major concentration camps, the oldest of which was at Dachau. In 1939, the Totenkopfverbände expanded into a military division with the establishment of the Totenkopfdivision, which in 1940 would become a full division within the Waffen-SS.
With the start of World War II, the Totenkopfverbände began a large expansion that eventually would develop into three branches covering each type of concentration camp the SS operated. By 1944, there existed three divisions of the SS-TV, those being the staffs of the concentration camps proper in Germany and Austria, the labor camp system in occupied territories, and the guards and staffs of the extermination camps in Poland that were involved in the Holocaust.
In 1942, for administrative reasons, the guard and administrative staff of all the concentration camps became full members of the Waffen-SS. In addition, to oversee the large administrative burden of an extensive labor camp system, the concentration camps were placed under the command of the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (WVHA). Oswald Pohl commanded the WVHA, while Richard Glücks served as the Inspector of Concentration Camps.
By 1944, with the concentration camps fully integrated with the Waffen-SS and under the control of the WVHA, a standard practice developed to rotate SS members in and out of the camps, based on manpower needs and also to give assignments to wounded Waffen-SS officers and soldiers who could no longer serve in front-line combat duties. This rotation of personnel is the main argument that nearly the entire SS knew of the concentration camps, and what actions were committed within, making the entire organization liable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In addition to running Germany’s concentration camps, the SS is well known for establishing the police state of Nazi Germany and suppressing all resistance to Adolf Hitler through the use of security forces, such as, the Gestapo.
The RSHA was the main office in charge of SS security services and had under its command the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), Kriminalpolizei (Kripo), and the Gestapo as well as several additional offices to handle finance, administration, and supply. The term Sicherheitspolizei referred to the combined forces of the Kriminalpolizei, and the Gestapo, police and security offices.
Reinhard Heydrich is viewed as the mastermind behind the SS security forces and held the title of Chef des Sicherheitspolizei und SD until 27 September 1939 when he became the overall supreme commander of the Reich Main Security Office. Heinrich Müller became Gestapo Chief, Arthur Nebe, chief of the Criminal Police (Kripo), and the two branches of SD were commanded by various SS officers such as Otto Ohlendorf and Walter Schellenberg. Heydrich was assassinated in 1942. His positions were taken over by Ernst Kaltenbrunner in January 1943, following a few short months of Heinrich Himmler personally running the RSHA while searching for Heydrich’s replacement.
The Einsatzgruppen were special units of the SS that were formed on an ‘as-needed’ basis under the authority of the Sicherheitspolizei and later the RSHA, whose commander was Heydrich. The first Einsatzgruppen were created in 1938 for use during the Anschluss of Austria and again in 1939 for the annexation of Czechoslovakia. The original purpose of the Einsatzgruppen was to ‘enter occupied areas, seize vital records, and neutralize potential threats’. In Austria and Czechoslovakia, the activities of the Einsatzgruppen were mainly limited to Nazification of local governments and assistance with the establishment of new concentration camps.
In 1939 the Einsatzgruppen were reactivated and sent into Poland to exterminate the Polish elite (Operation Tannenberg, AB-Aktion), so that there would be no leadership to form a resistance to German occupation. In 1941, the Einsatzgruppen reached their height when they were sent into Russia to begin large-scale extermination and genocide of „undesirables” such as Jews, Gypsies, and communists. TheEinsatzgruppen were responsible for the murders of over 1,000,000 people. The most notorious massacre of Jews in the Soviet Union was at a ravine called Babi Yar outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on September 29–30, 1941.
The last Einsatzgruppen were disbanded in mid 1944 (although on paper some continued to exist until 1945) due to the retreating German forces on both fronts and the inability to carry on with further „in-the-field” extermination activities. Former Einsatzgruppen members were either folded into the Waffen-SS or took up roles in the more established Concentration Camps such as Auschwitz.
Special action units
Beginning in 1938, the SS enacted a procedure where offices and units of the SS could form smaller sub-units, known as Sonderkommandos, to carry out special tasks and actions which might involve sending agents or troops into the field. The use of Sonderkommandos was very widespread, and according to former SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Wilhelm Höttl, not even the SS leadership knew how manySonderkommandos were constantly being formed, disbanded, and reformed for various tasks.
The best-known Sonderkommandos were formed from the SS Economic-Administrative Head Office, the SS Head Office, and also Department VII of the Reich Main Security Office (Science and Research) whose duties were to confiscate valuable items from Jewish libraries.
The Eichmann Sonderkommando was attached to the Security Police and the SD in terms of provisioning and manpower, but maintained a special position in the SS due to its direct role in the deportation of Jews to the death camps as part of the Final Solution.
The term „Sonderkommando” was ironically also used to describe the teams of Jewish prisoners who were forced to work in gas chambers and crematoria, receiving special privileges and above-average treatment, before then being gassed themselves. The obvious distinction was that these Jewish „special-action units” were not SS Sonderkommandos; the term was simply applied to these obviously non-SS personnel due to the nature of the tasks which they performed.
SS and police courts
SS and police courts were special tribunals which were the only authority authorized to try SS personnel for crimes. The different SS and Police Courts were as follows:
- SS- und Polizeigericht: Standard SS and Police Court for trial of SS officers and enlisted men accused of minor and somewhat serious crimes
- Feldgerichte: Waffen-SS Court for court martial of Waffen-SS military personnel accused of violating the military penal code of the German Armed Forces.
- Oberstes SS- und Polizeigericht: The Supreme SS and Police Court for trial of serious crimes and also any infraction committed by SS Generals.
- SS- und Polizeigericht z.b. V.: The Extraordinary SS and Police Court was a secret tribunal that was assembled to deal with highly sensitive issues which were desired to be kept secret even from the SS itself.
The one exception to the SS and Police Courts jurisdiction involved members of the Allgemeine-SS who were serving on active duty in the regular Wehrmacht. In such cases, the SS member in question was subject to regular Wehrmacht military law and could face charges before a standard military tribunal.
Special protection units
The original purpose of the SS, that of safeguarding the leadership of the Nazi Party (Adolf Hitler) continued until the very end of the group’s existence. Hitler had used bodyguards for protection since the 1920s, and as the SS grew in size and importance, so too did Hitler’s personnel protection unit. In all, there were two main SS groups most closely associated with protecting the life of Adolf Hitler.
- Leibstandarte: The Leibstandarate was the end product of several previous groups which had protected Hitler while he was living in Munich, before he became Chancellor of Germany. By the start of World War II, the Leibstandarte itself had become four distinct entities mainly the Waffen-SS division (unconnected to Hitler’s personal protection but a key formation of the Waffen-SS), the Berlin Chancellory Guard, the SS security regiment assigned to the Obersalzberg in Berchtesgaden, and an original remnant of the Munich based bodyguard unit which protected Hitler when he visited his personal apartment and the Brown House Nazi Party headquarters in Munich.
- RSD: The RSD, or Reichssicherheitsdienst was a special corps of personal bodyguards who protected Hitler from physical attack. While the Leibstandarte was concerned with security in and around Hitler, the RSD was trained to protect Hitler’s actual person and to give their lives in order to prevent harm or death to the Führer.
Hitler also made use of regular military protection, especially when travelling into the field or to operational headquarters (such as the Wolf’s Lair). Hitler always maintained an SS escort, however, and his security was mainly handled by the Leibstandarte and the RSD.
SS Special Purpose Corps
Another section of the SS consisted of special purpose units which assisted the main SS with a variety of tasks. The first such units were SS cavalry formations formed in the 1930s as part of the Allgemeine-SS (these units were entirely separate from the later Waffen-SS cavalry commands).
One of the more infamous SS special purpose corps were the SS medical units, composed mostly of doctors who became involved in both euthanasia and human experimentation. The SS also formed a special corps for women, since full SS membership was available only for men, as well as a scientific corps to conduct historical research into Nordic-Germanic origins.
SS Cavalry Corps
The SS Cavalry Corps (German: Reiter-SS) comprised several Reiterstandarten and Reiterabschnitte, which were really equestrian clubs to attract the German upper class and nobility into the SS. In the 1930s, the Reiter-SS was considered as a nucleus for a military branch of the SS, but this idea was phased out with the rise of the SS-Verfügungstruppe (later theWaffen-SS).
By 1941, the Reiter-SS was little more than a social club. Most of the serious cavalry officers transferred to combat units in the Waffen-SS and the SS Cavalry Brigade. Between 1942 and 1945, the Reiter-SS effectively ceased to exist except on paper, with only a handful of members. During the Nuremberg Trials, when the Tribunal declared the SS to be a criminal organization, the Reiter-SS was expressly excluded, due to its insignificant involvement in other SS activities.
SS Medical Corps
The SS Medical Corps first appeared in the 1930s as small companies of SS personnel known as the Sanitätsstaffel. After 1931, the SS formed a headquarters office known as Amt V, which was the central office for SS medical units.
In 1945, after the surrender of Germany, the SS was declared an illegal criminal organization by the Allies. SS doctors, in particular, were marked as war criminals due to the wide range of human medical experimentation which had been conducted during World War II as well as the role SS doctors had played in the gas chamber selections of the Holocaust. The most infamous member, Doctor Josef Mengele, served as Head Medical Officer of Auschwitz and was responsible for the daily gas chamber selections of people as well as experiments at the camp.
SS Womens Corps
The SS-Helferinnenkorps, translated literally as ‘Women Helper Corps’, comprised women volunteers who joined the SS as auxiliary personnel. Such personnel were not considered actual SS members, since SS membership was closed to women.
The Helferin Corps maintained a simple system of ranks, mainly SS-Helfer, SS-Oberhelfer, and SS-Haupthelfer. Members of the Helferin Corps were assigned to a wide variety of activities such as administrative staff, supply support personnel, and female guards at concentration camps.
SS Scientific Corps
The Scientific Branch of the SS that was used to provide scientific and archeological proof of Aryan supremacy. Formed in 1935 by Himmler and Herman Wirth, the society did not become part of the SS until 1939.
Other SS Groups
Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Heinrich Himmler,August Eigruber, and other SS officials visiting Mauthausen concentration camp in 1941.
The term „Austrian-SS” was never a recognized branch of the SS, but is often used to describe that portion of the SS membership fromAustria. Both Germany and Austria contributed to a single SS and Austrian SS members were seen as regular SS personnel, in contrast to SS members from other countries which were grouped into either the Germanic-SS or the Foreign Legions of the Waffen-SS.
The Austrian branch of the SS first developed in 1932 and, by 1934, was acting as a covert force to influence the Anschluss with Germany which would eventually occur in 1938. The early Austrian SS was led by Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Arthur Seyss-Inquart and was technically under the command of the SS in Germany, but often acted independently concerning Austrian affairs. In 1936, the Austrian-SS was declared illegal by the Austrian government.
After 1938, when Austria was annexed by Germany, the Austrian SS was folded into SS-Oberabschnitt Donau with the 3rd regiment of the SS-Verfugungstruppe, Der Führer, and the fourth Totenkopf regiment, Ostmark, recruited in Austria shortly thereafter. A new concentration camp at Mauthausen also opened under the authority of the SS Death’s Head units.
Austrian SS members served in every branch of the SS, including Concentration Camps, Einsatzgruppen, and the Security Services. One notable Austrian-SS member was Amon Göth, immortalized in the film Schindler’s List. The fictional character of Hans Landa, seen in the filmInglorious Basterds was also depicted as a member of the Austrian-SS.
According to political science academic David Art:
Austrians also played a central role in Nazi crimes. Although Austrians comprised only 8 percent of the Third Reich’s population, over 13 percent of the SS were Austrian. Many of the key figures in the extermination project of the Third Reich (Hitler, Eichmann, Kaltenbrunner, Globocnik, to name a few) were Austrian, as were over 75 percent of commanders and 40 percent of the staff at Nazi death camps. Simon Wiesenthal estimates that Austrians were directly responsible for the deaths of 3 million Jews.
To conduct upkeep, house-keeping, and the general maintenance of its many headquarters buildings both in Germany and in other occupied countries, the SS frequently hired civilian contract workers to perform such duties as maids, maintenance workers, and general laborers. The SS also occasionally employed civilian secretaries, but more often used the female SS corps for these duties.
Within the concentration camps, the SS used a different method to gain such work skills, mainly through the use of slave labor by „assigning” concentration camp inmates to work in certain jobs. This included doctors, such as Miklós Nyiszli who, while a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, served as Chief Pathologist and personal assistant to Josef Mengele.
In occupied countries, especially France and the Low Countries, various resistance groups made use of the SS need for low level workers by planting resistance members in certain jobs within SS headquarters buildings. This allowed for intelligence gathering which assisted resistance attacks against German forces; resistance groups in the conquered eastern lands also used this method, with less success, although groups in Norway conducted several assassinations of SS officers through the use of intelligence plants within SS offices.. The SS was often aware of such „moles” and actively attempted to locate such persons and, on occasion, even used the resistance plants to German advantage by supplying bad information in an attempt to bring resistance groups out into the open and destroy them.
The French Resistance was by far the most successful in using SS contracted civilian workers to achieve intelligence gathering and conduct partisan operations. At the end of World War II, resistance groups also rounded up local civilians who had worked for the SS, usually subjecting them to humiliating ordeals such as the shaving of heads in public squares or carving swastikas into their foreheads with bowie knives.
Several motion pictures have been the subject of local civilians working for the SS, such as A Woman at War, starring Martha Plimpton, and Black Book, starring Christian Berkel.
Postwar activity and ODESSA
According to Simon Wiesenthal, toward the end of World War II, a group of former SS officers went to Argentina and set up a Nazi fugitive network code-named ODESSA, (an acronym for Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, „Organization of the former SS members”), with ties in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, operating out of Buenos Aires. ODESSA allegedly helped Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Erich Priebke, and many other war criminals find postwar refuge in Latin America.
It is estimated that out of roughly 70,000 members of the SS involved in crimes in German concentration camps, only between 1650 and 1700 were tried after the war.
However, SS members who escaped judicial punishment were often subject to summary execution, torture and beatings at the hands of freed prisoners, displaced persons or allied soldiers. Waffen SS soldiers were executed by U.S soldiers during the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, and SS officer Oskar Dirlewanger was beaten and tortured to death at the end of the war. In addition at least some members of the U.S Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) delivered captured SS camp guards to displaced person camps with the intention of them being extra-judicially executed.
Argentinian citizen and water company worker Ricardo Klement was discovered to be Adolf Eichmann in the 1950s, by former Jewish Dachau worker Lothar Hermann, whose daughter, Sylvia, became romantically involved with Klaus Klement (born Klaus Eichmann in 1936 in Berlin). He was captured by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, in a suburb of Buenos Aires on May 11, 1960, and tried in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961, where he explicitly declared that he had abdicated his conscience in order to follow the Führerprinzip (the ‘leader principle’ or superior orders).
Josef Mengele, disguised as a member of the regular German infantry, was captured and released by the Allies, oblivious of who he was. He was able to go and work in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1949 and to Altos, Paraguay, in 1959 where he was discovered by Nazi hunters. From the late 1960s on, he exercised his medical practice in Embu, a small city near São Paulo, Brazil, under the identity of Wolfgang Gerhard, where in 1979, he suffered a stroke while swimming and drowned.
The British writer Gitta Sereny (born in 1921 in Hungary), who conducted interviews with SS men, considers the story about ODESSA untrue and attributes the escape of notorious SS members to postwar chaos, an individual bishop in the Vatican, and the Vatican’s inability to investigate the stories of those people who came requesting help.
More recent research, however, notably by the Argentine author and journalist Uki Goñi in his book The Real Odessa, has shown that such a network in fact existed, and in Argentina was largely run by Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón, a Nazi sympathiser who had been impressed by Mussolini’s reign in Italy during a military tour of duty in that country which also took him to Nazi Germany.
In the modern age, several neo-Nazi groups claim to be successor organizations to the SS. There is no single group, however, that is recognized as a continuation of the SS, and most such present-day organizations are loosely organized with separate agendas.