Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
Teaser Image

Waffen-SS (Schutzstaffel)

Military component of the German Schutzstaffel (SS) that fought alongside the Wehrmacht (German army) as an elite National Socialist force. Created in 1925 through the merger of the guard organization of the Nazi Party (the Stabswache) and the Nazi Stosstruppe (shock troop), the SS initially functioned was as a bodyguard unit for the Nazi hierarchy and contained the most ideologically fervent party members. Party leader Adolf Hitler appointed Heinrich Himmler as the SS-Reichsführer) in 1929, and Himmler increased SS membership from 280 to 50,000 and endowed members with a distinctive black uniform, as well as the skull and double runic S symbols. Himmler's aim was to transform the SS from its security function within the Nazi Party into a separate and powerful bureaucratic organ of the German state.

Between 1933 and 1936, Himmler combined all state police functions, merging the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, or secret state police) with the Nazi Party's security organization (Sicherheitsdeinst, or SD) to create the Reichssicherheithauptamt (RSHA). He ensured his organization a more pervasive role in 1939 after his appointment as Reichskommissar for the Strengthening of German Ethnicity. Through this post, the SS was assured economic and political control of occupied Europe, especially in the east where Nazi ideology envisaged a German territorial expansion ( Lebensraum) and the subordination/elimination of the Slavic and Jewish populations. To achieve this goal, Himmler created a separate economic office for the SS, the Wirtschafts und Verwaltungs Hauptamt (WVHA), and oversaw the Race and Population Resettlement program (Rasse und Siedlungshauptamt, or RuSHA).

Himmler had much higher ambitions for the SS than mere police functions. He wanted it to be a professional military body that might one day subsume the German army itself. As its political and bureaucratic functions expanded, the SS formed illegal military units, originally known as Verfügungstruppe, or special assignment troops. On 17 March 1933, Josef "Sepp" Dietrich established, on Hitler's direct order, a personal armed guard, the Liebstandarte. Early on, members of the unit served, among other things, as honor guards and color guards at parades and other events, such as the 1934 Nuremberg rally. The rally involved Dietrich's SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, composed of 2,600 men. But Himmler also employed such units in liquidating the leadership of the Sturmabteilung (SA, or storm troops) during the Blood Purge of June 1934.

To qualify for the Verfügungstruppe, males had to be between 17 and 22 years old and at least 5'11" tall. These units were supposed to be superior to army formations in training and morale and were to receive the best weapons. Early armed SS personnel also included concentration camp guards, the SS Totenkopfverbände (or Death's Head formations), organized by Theodor Eicke. By March 1936, the SS was subdivided into five Sturmbanne (battalions) totaling 3,500 men: No. 1 Oberbayern, No. 2 Elbe, No. 3 Sachsen, No. 4 Ostfriedland, and No. 5 Brandenburg. After Germany introduced conscription in 1935, the SS organized two 5,000-man regiments, the Deutschland and the Germania.

On 1 October 1936, the SS Inspectorate was created to supervise the two SS officer training schools in operation at Bad Tolz and Braunschweig, under the supervision of Oberstgruppenführers Paul Hausser and Felix Steiner. Early applicants had to have served at least two years in the army. Training emphasized physical fitness and endurance rather than parade-ground drill, so that fully equipped troops could march/run 1.86 miles within 20 minutes. There was also a rigorous combat-training course. Steiner's demanding standards meant that, in 1937, only 15 of every 100 SS applicants were accepted. Steiner also sought to instill a sense of family in each SS unit, encouraging officers to consort with noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and not to address one another by rank but rather as "comrade." In addition, the SS oath contained a sense of elitism and personal bond to the Führer: "I swear to Adolf Hitler, as Führer and Chancellor of the German Reich, loyalty and bravery. I vow obedience to you and to the superiors whom you shall appoint, obedience unto death, so help me God."

The SS motto was "Loyalty is my honor" ( Meine Ehre Heisst Treue). Mystique and symbolism were used to entice and muster group solidarity. Only those who had graduated from the two officer training schools and possessed the rank of Untersturmführer or above were permitted to carry a special dagger. SS recruits were also tattooed in their armpits, and the first 10,000 received an SS ring (later on, only officers who had served three years might wear the ring). Himmler also created a pseudo-Arthurian court at Wewelsburg Castle near Paderborn in Westphalia, where he organized a round table of favorite officers (the Circle of Friends of the SS-Reichsführer), with a runic coat of arms for each member.

On 17 August 1938, a decree by Hitler set up a separate headquarters for the military training of these SS units and established their military character as fighting ( Waffen) SS. For obvious reasons, the leaders of the Army High Command (OKH) rejected the idea of another military establishment independent of its authority and had some success in limiting its size. By the eve of the war, there were only about 23,000 men in the SS formations, including the Death's Head groups. But with the coming of the war, the size and scope of SS activities increased dramatically. During the Polish Campaign of September 1939, Waffen-SS regiments were merged together within regular Wehrmacht divisions. In October, the first three SS divisions were formed, one each from the Verfügungstruppe (later known as SS Das Reich Division), the Death's Head units (SS Totenkopf Division), and the police (Polizedivision). Hitler's Leibstandarte, initially a motorized regiment, became a fourth SS division (SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler). In November, the various SS branches were united under the name Waffen-SS.

SS divisions were fully integrated into the regular army command structure, but that did not mean that there was no tension between regular army and SS commanders. The SS divisions were highly politicized and supported the National Socialist credo and its racial policies, especially in eastern Europe. They were also guilty of numerous atrocities. The same was not true of many German regular army units. There was also anger in the army over the fact that the SS units had claim on the best weaponry. Sharp tensions and inefficiencies also existed within SS headquarters, where Himmler mirrored his master in practicing a divide-and-rule style of leadership.

The Waffen-SS role was greatly expanded after the German invasion of the Soviet Union began in June 1941. It was a foregone conclusion that the SS would play a paramount role during this ideological war of annihilation. In addition to the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), there were five other Waffen-SS divisions at this time: the 2nd SS Panzer Division (Das Reich), the 3rd SS Panzer Division (Totenkopf), the 4th SS Polezei Panzergrenadier Division, the 5th SS Panzer Division (Viking), and the 6th SS Gebirge Division (Nord, composed largely of Norwegians). The SS Einsatzgruppen (special action groups), death squads to murder Jews and Communists, were also formed, a third of their membership being recruited from Waffen-SS units. Four of these groups of about 3,000 men each were formed by July 1941 to follow Army Groups North, Center, and South into the Soviet Union. Their role of exterminating Jews and Soviet officials had been decided prior to the Soviet invasion, and it was sanctioned by Hitler through his Commissar Order ( Komissarbefehlen) of May 1941, as well as the operational orders to the Wehrmacht stipulating that no German soldiers were to be disciplined for any action against the civilian Soviet population.

SS formations fought on all battlefronts in which Germany was engaged, with the exception of the Western Desert campaigns. As casualties mounted and following the general army reform of May 1943 that reduced divisional size, Waffen-SS units were amalgamated and renamed. By the end of the war, when the total number in the SS mounted to more than 800,000 men in 38 divisions, some 200,000 were foreign volunteers ( Freiwilligen). This practice of recruitment was accepted despite the SS pretense of representing only the most racially pure Germanic elements. Among the militarily effective new formations were the 9th SS Panzer Division (Hohenstaufen), the 10th SS Panzer Division (Frundsburg), and the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitler Jugend, composed largely of Latvians).

Paradoxically, the early Waffen-SS units suffered higher casualties than their regular Wehrmacht counterparts, specifically as a result of their ideological zeal to fight the enemy. As the war progressed, anti-Semitic and anti-Communist elements of the occupied populations formed their own Waffen-SS units, for example: Nordland, which was the first non-German organized (Norwegian and Danish); Lettisches (Baltic); Skanderbeg (Albanian); Maria Theresa (Austrian); Kama (Croatian); Niederland (Netherlands); Hunyadi (Hungarian); Charlemagne (French); Bohmen-Mahren (Czech and Slovak); Kalevala (Finnish); Galicia (Ukrainian); and Kaminski (Ukrainian and Russian).

Some Waffen-SS units were among the most effective German military formations, and there were a number of capable commanders. Undoubtedly, the most effective of the latter was Hausser, who became the first SS general to command a German field army and directed the Normandy defenses beginning in late June 1944. But Waffen-SS formations were also the most brutal German military units in their treatment of enemy prisoners and conquered peoples, and they committed numerous atrocities. The growing strength of the SS also posed a real threat to the ascendancy of the Wehrmacht, especially in the last year of the war. Hitler despised many of the army generals, and it is clear that, had Germany won the war, the Waffen-SS would have replaced the Wehrmacht as the army of the Reich. In all, as many as 250,000 Waffen-SS members may have been killed during the course of the war.

Neville Panthaki


Further Reading
Butler, Rupert. SS-Leibstandarte: The History of the First SS Division. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 2001.; Butler, Rupert. SS-Wiking: The History of the Fifth SS Division, 1941–45. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 2002.; Mann, Chris. SS-Totenkopf: The History of the Death's Head Division, 1940–45. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 2001.; Mattson, Gregory. SS-Das Reich: The History of the Second SS Division, 1939–45. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 2002.; Quarrie, B. Hitler's Samurai: The Waffen-SS in Action. New York: Arco, 1983.; Stein, George H. The Waffen SS: Hitler's Elite Guard at War, 1939–1945. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.; Wegner, R. The Waffen-SS: Organization, Ideology and Function. Trans. R. Webster. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
 

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
  Introduction
  Essays
  A
  B
  C
  D
  E
  F
  G
  H
  I
  J
  K
  L
  M
  N
  O
  P
  Q
  R
  S
  T
  U
  V
  W
  X
  Y
  Z
  Documents Prior to 1938
  1939 Documents
  1940 Documents
  1941 Documents
  1942 Documents
  1943 Documents
  1944 Documents
  1945 Documents
  Images
ABC-cLIO Footer