The Schutzstaffel (SS; also stylized as with Armanen runes; German pronunciation: [ˈʃʊtsˌʃtafəl] ( listen); literally "Protection Squadron") was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP; Nazi Party). It began with a small guard unit known as the Saal-Schutz ("Hall-Protection") made up of NSDAP volunteers to provide security for Nazi Party meetings in Munich. In 1925, Heinrich Himmler joined the unit, which had by then been reformed and given its final name. Under Himmler's direction (1929–45), it grew from a small paramilitary formation to one of the most powerful organizations in the Third Reich. From 1929 until Nazi Germany's collapse in 1945, the SS was the foremost agency of surveillance and terror within Germany itself and the occupied territories in Europe.
The main two constituent groups were the Allgemeine-SS ("General-SS"), and Waffen-SS ("Armed SS"). The Allgemeine-SS concerned itself with police and racial matters within the German Reich, whereas the Waffen-SS consisted of combat units of troops within Nazi Germany's military. A third component of the SS, the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), ran the concentration camps and extermination camps. Additional subdivisions of the SS included the Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) organizations tasked with policing the German people for their commitment to Nazi ideology and providing domestic and foreign intelligence.
The SS was the organization most responsible for the implementation of the Final Solution and members of all of its branches committed numerous crimes against humanity during World War II (1939–45). After Nazi Germany's defeat, the whole SS corps, along with the Nazi Party, were judged by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg to have been a criminal organization.
Forerunner of the SS
By 1923, a small permanent guard unit known as the Saal-Schutz ("Hall-Protection") made up of NSDAP volunteers provided security for Nazi Party meetings in Munich. That same year, party leader Adolf Hitler ordered the formation of a small separate bodyguard dedicated to his service rather than "a suspect mass" of the party, such as the paramilitary force the Sturmabteilung ("Storm Battalion"; SA). It was designated the Stabswache ("Staff Guard"). Originally the unit was composed of only eight men, commanded by Julius Schreck and Joseph Berchtold and was modeled after the Erhardt Naval Brigade, a Freikorps of the time. The unit was then renamed Stoßtrupp ("Shock Troops") in May 1923.
After the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch attempt in which the Nazi Party aimed to seize power of Munich, the Stoßtrupp was abolished. In 1925, Hitler ordered Schreck to organise the formation of a new bodyguard unit, the Schutzkommando ("Protection Command"). It was given the task of providing personal protection for Hitler at Nazi Party functions and events. That same year, the Schutzkommando was expanded to a national level, and renamed successively the Sturmstaffel ("Storm Squadron"), and finally the Schutzstaffel ("Protection Squad"; SS). Officially, the SS marked its foundation on 9 November 1925 (the second anniversary of the Beer-Hall Putsch). 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.
Julius Schreck was a founding member of the SA and became the first official SS chief in March 1925. Schreck was a close confidant of Hitler and had previously served in a Freikorps unit. On 15 April 1926, Joseph Berchtold became the successor to Schreck as chief of the SS. Berchtold changed the title of the office position which became known as the Reichsführer-SS ("Reich Leader-SS"). Berchtold was considered more dynamic than his predecessor, but became increasingly frustrated by the authority the SA had over the SS. This led to Berchtold transferring leadership of the SS to his deputy, Erhard Heiden on 1 March 1927. Under Heiden's leadership a stricter code of discipline was enforced than would have been tolerated in the SA. Except for the Munich area, the unit was unable to maintain any momentum. Membership of the SS declined from 1000 to 280 as the SS continued to struggle under the rapid-growing SA.
Between 1925 and 1929, the SS was considered merely a small Gruppe (battalion) of the SA. As Heiden attempted to keep the small group from dissolving, Heinrich Himmler became his deputy in September 1927. Himmler displayed good organizational abilities in comparison to Heiden. Although still small in size, established a number of Gaus (German for region or province). The SS-Gaus consisted of SS-Gau Berlin, SS-Gau Berlin Brandenburg, SS-Gau Franken, SS-Gau Niederbayern, SS-Gau Rheinland-Süd, and SS-Gau Sachsen.
Himmler takes charge
With Hitler's approval, Himmler assumed the position of Reichsführer-SS in January 1929. There are differing accounts of the reason for Heiden's dismissal from his position as head of the SS. The party merely stated that it was for "family reasons". Under Himmler, the SS expanded and gained a larger foothold. His ultimate aim was to turn the SS into the most powerful organization in Germany and most influential branch of the party. Over the year, Himmler expanded the SS to 3,000 members. Himmler considered the SS an elite, ideologically driven National Socialist organization that was a "conflation of Teutonic knights, the Jesuits, and Japanese Samurai".
In 1929, the SS-Hauptamt (main SS office) was expanded and reorganized into five main offices dealing with general administration, personnel, finance, security and race matters. At the same time, the SS-Gaus were expanded into three SS-Oberführerbereiche areas, namely the SS-Oberführerbereiche Ost, SS-Oberführerbereiche West and SS-Oberführerbereiche Süd. The lower levels of the SS remained largely unchanged. However, it was during this time that the SS began to establish its independence from the SA, although officially still considered a sub-organization of the SA and answerable to the Stabschef (SA Chief-of-Staff). By the end of 1933, the membership of the SS reached 209,000. Under Himmler's leadership the SS continued to gather greater power as more and more state and party functions passed under the jurisdiction of the SS. Over time the SS became an "executive" agency of Hitler, a development which more broadly typified the organizational structure of the entire Nazi regime, where legal norms were replaced by actions undertaken at "the will of the Führer."
Ideology and culture
The thrust of the SS ideology was aimed at annihilating the so-called Untermenschen ("sub-humans") and "Judeo-Bolsheviks." As Himmler wrote in the 1936 pamphlet The SS as an Anti-Bolshevist Fighting Organization, "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."
Commitment to SS ideology is evidenced throughout the entire recruitment and membership continuum and the related esprit de corps. Acting as the vanguards of National Socialism, members of the SS were indoctrinated in the idea of the supremacy of Germanic people, the necessity to cleanse the German race of impure genetic material and foreign ideals, obedience to the Führer, and a commitment to the German people (Herrenvolk) and nation. Suffusing SS members even further with the Nazi covenant were esoteric rituals as well as the awarding of regalia and insignia for key milestones in the SS man's career.
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 stressed total loyalty and obedience to orders unto death. It became a powerful tool used by Hitler and the Nazi state for political ends. The SS ideology and values of the organization were one of the main reasons why the SS was entrusted with the execution of many Nazi atrocities and war crimes of the Nazi state. Along these lines, Himmler once wrote that an SS man "hesitates not for a single instant, but executes unquestioningly any order coming from the Führer". Additional evidence for the unconditional loyalty of the SS can be found in Himmler's comments concerning the notion of the Führer-Befehl ("Führer order") for members of the SS using religious connotations.
The SS grew in size and power due to its exclusive loyalty to Hitler, as opposed to the SA, which was seen as semi-independent and a threat to Hitler's hegemony over the party, mainly because they demanded a "second revolution" beyond the one that brought the Nazis to power. Under Himmler, the SS selected its members according to the Nazi ideology.
The Nazis regarded the SS as an elite unit, the party's "Praetorian Guard", originally with all SS personnel being selected on the principles of racial purity and loyalty to the Nazi Party and Germany. The SS was restricted to people who were of "Aryan ancestry", requiring proof of racial purity. In the early days of the SS, it was required for all officer candidates to prove their genealogy had no evidence of any "non-Aryan" ancestors back to 1750 and for other ranks to 1800.
Later, when the requirements of the war made it impossible to confirm the ancestry of officer candidates, the proof of ancestry regulation was dropped to just proving their grandparents were "Aryan", which was the requirement of the Nuremberg Laws. During World War II, 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 labour (pending extermination) or immediately killed.
Chosen to implement the Nazi "Final Solution" for the Jews and other groups deemed inferior (and/or enemies of the state), the SS led the killing, torture and enslavement of approximately 12 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 and political dissidents. Members of trade unions 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. According to the Nuremberg trials, as well as many war crimes investigations and trials conducted since then, the SS was responsible for the majority of Nazi war crimes. In particular, it was the primary organisation which carried out the Holocaust.
In contrast to the Allgemeine SS, the Waffen-SS evolved into a second German army alongside of the Wehrmacht and operating in tandem with them; especially with the Heer (German Army). Their official 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, 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 generally did have equivalents in the other services.
Special ranks and uniforms
The SS had its own rank structure, unit insignia, and uniforms, which distinguished it from other branches of the German military and from German state officials, as well as from the rest of the Nazi Party. 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; in 1932 they adopted the all-black uniform. The all-black SS uniform was designed by SS-Oberführer Professor 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 auxiliary police units and west to be used by Germanic-SS units such as the ones in the Netherlands and Denmark.
In 1935, the military SS formations (the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and the SS-Verfügungstruppe) adopted a service uniform in what was termed erdgrau (earth-grey) for every day wear. In 1938, the Allgemeine-SS follow suit in adopting a pale-grey uniform. Later, the Waffen-SS wore a feldgrau (field-grey) uniform similar to the German Army. 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 their feldgrau uniforms became largely indistinguishable from those of the Heer, save for the insignia. 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 1945, the SS adopted the Leibermuster disruptive camouflage pattern that inspired many forms of modern battle dress, although it was not widely issued before the end of the war. The various uniforms for the SS were made by hundreds of clothing factories licensed by the RZM, including Hugo Boss, with some workers being prisoners of war forced into labour work. Many were made in concentration camps.
SS membership estimates 1925-45
|1944-45||7006100000000000000♠1,000,000||Heinrich Himmler and Karl Hanke|
The SS in Nazi Germany
Merger with police and independent status
After Hitler and his Nazi Party legally came to power on 30 January 1933 when he was appointed Chancellor of Germany by the aged President Paul von Hindenburg, the SS became regarded as a state organization and a branch of the established government. The most important SS organizations became full-time paid employees. The rest of the SS, such as the Allgemeine-SS, were considered part-time volunteers. Key government functions such as law enforcement were absorbed by the SS, while many SS organisations became de facto government agencies.
Hermann Göring had created a Prussian secret police force, the Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo in 1933, and appointed Rudolf Diels as its head. Göring, concerned that Diels was not ruthless enough to use the Gestapo effectively to counteract the power of the SA, handed over its control to Himmler on 20 April 1934. Also on that date, Hitler appointed Himmler chief of all German police outside Prussia. This was a radical departure from long-standing German practice that law enforcement was a state and local matter. Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's deputy and protégé, named chief of the Gestapo by Himmler on 22 April 1934, also continued as head of the SD. The Gestapo's transfer to Himmler was a prelude to the Night of the Long Knives in which most of the SA leadership were arrested and subsequently executed. The SS and Gestapo played a prominent role, carrying out most of the killings. On 20 July 1934, as a token of gratitude for its role, the SS was detached from the SA and became an independent elite corps of the Nazi Party answerable only to Hitler. Himmler's title of Reichsführer-SS now became an actual rank (his formal rank had previously been Obergruppenführer), equivalent to the rank of field marshal in the army. As Himmler's position and authority grew in Nazi Germany, so did his rank in a "de facto" sense.
On 17 June 1936 all police forces throughout Germany were united, following Hitler's appointment of Himmler as the national Chief of German Police. With this appointment by Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich became two of the most powerful men in the internal administration of Germany. Step by step the various police forces were incorporated into the general administrative edifice comprising the SS. In order to maintain the political power and security of the Nazi Party (and later the nation), the SS under Himmler had established the Sicherheitsdienst (SD; security service) and took over the administration of the Gestapo (secret state police), Kriminalpolizei (Kripo; criminal investigative police), and Ordnungspolizei (Orpo; regular uniformed police). Through control of these police and intelligence organs, the SS achieved and maintained a monopoly over domestic security for the state and maintained it until the regime's collapse. In September 1939, the security and police agencies (with the exception of the Orpo) were consolidated into the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), headed by Heydrich.
Later in September 1939, the overall authority of the SS expanded further when the senior SS officer in each military district also became Chief of Police. After Heydrich folded the SiPo and SD into the RSHA, the collective authority of the SS was increased. Most of these SS and Police Leaders normally held the rank of SS-Gruppenführer or above and answered directly to Himmler in all matters pertaining to the SS within their area of responsibility. Their role was to be part of the SS control mechanism within the state policing the German population and overseeing the activities of the SS men within each respective district. The men is these positions could bypass the main administrative offices in their district for the SS, SD, SiPo SS-TV and Orpo under the "guise of an emergency situation" thereby gaining direct operational control of these groups.
Hitler's personal bodyguards
By the autumn of 1933, Hitler's larger personal bodyguard unit (previously the 1st SS Standarte) 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 the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. In April 1934, Himmler modified the name to Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). The LSSAH would be on guard duty for Hitler's private residences and offices, thereby providing the outer ring of overall protection of the Führer's person and visitors. The LSSAH eventually grew into the first division of the Waffen-SS. Although nominally under Himmler, the real commander and day-to-day administration was handled by Sepp Dietrich.
For the inner ring of Hitler's personal protection there were two other SS units. The SS-Begleitkommando des Führers ("Escort Command of the Führer") was formed in February 1932 as Hitler's protection escort while travelling. The unit consisted of eight men who served around the clock protecting Hitler in three eight-hour shifts. Later the SS-Begleitkommando was expanded and became known as the Führerbegleitkommando ("Escort Command of the Führer"; FBK). It continued under separate command and remained responsible for Hitler's personal protection. The Führer Schutzkommando ("Führer Protection Command"; FSK) was a protection unit founded by Himmler in March 1933. Originally the FSK was charged with only protecting Hitler while he was inside the borders of Bavaria. In the spring of 1934, they replaced the SS-Begleitkommando for Hitler's overall protection throughout Germany. The FSK was renamed the Reichssicherheitsdienst ("Reich Security Service"; RSD) in August 1935.Johann Rattenhuber was chief of the RSD and took his orders for the most part from Hitler. The RSD and FBK worked together to provide personal security and protection for Hitler, but they operated as two groups. Rattenhuber was in overall command and the current FBK chief acted as his deputy.
The SS in World War II
By the outbreak of World War II, the SS had solidified into its final form. Correspondingly, the term "SS" could be applied to three separate organizations, mainly the Allgemeine-SS, SS-Totenkopfverbände and the Waffen-SS, which until July 1940 was officially known as the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT). When the war first began, the vast majority of SS members belonged to the Allgemeine-SS, but this statistic changed during the later stages of the war when the Waffen-SS opened up membership for non-Germans.
Invasion of Poland
In the September 1939 invasion of Poland, the LSSAH and SS-VT fought as separate, mobile infantry regiments. The LSSAH torched villages and brutalized civilians during the invasion. In spite of the swift military victory over Poland, the regular army felt that the performance of the SS-VT left much to be desired; its units took unnecessary risks and had a higher casualty rate than the army. Undeterred by certain complaints from traditional military leadership, Hitler thought their criticism of the SS was typical for the army with their "outmoded conception of chivalry." Hitler further entrusted the SS with one of the extermination actions that was directed at the Polish nationals. Code named Operation Tannenberg nearly 20,000 Poles were shot at 760 mass execution sites by Einsatzgruppen units. Men for the Einsatzgruppen units were drawn from the SS, the SD, and the police.
Satisfied with their performance in Poland, Hitler agreed to allow further expansion, but insisted the new SS units remained under the operational control of the army. While the SS-Leibstandarte remained an independent regiment to function as Hitler's personal bodyguards, the other regiments—SS-Deutschland, SS-Germania and SS-Der Führer—were combined into a complete division, the SS-Verfügungs. A second SS division the SS-Totenkopf was formed from the SS-TV units originally created to guard the concentration camps, and a third was created from police volunteers, the SS-Polizei. The Waffen-SS further obtained control over its recruitment, logistics and supply systems. Atop these powers, the SS, Gestapo and SD essentially became the masters of western Poland during the Nazi occupation until the provisional military administration was passed to Governor-General Hans Frank.
Despite their improved readiness, some senior members of the Wehrmacht were not convinced that the Waffen-SS was fully prepared. Wehrmacht General Fedor von Bock was quite critical; following an April 1940 visit of the SS-Totenkopf division, Bock claimed their battle training was "insufficient". Criticisms of his SS-Totenkopf division aside, SS-Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke obtained all the arms and equipment necessary to fully outfit his unit before the month was out and he, along with his men, looked forward to the imminent invasion westwards.
Battle of France
On 10 May 1940, Hitler launched his offensive against France and the Low Countries., with the LSSAH and parts of the SS-VT participating the invasion of the Netherlands. Simultaneously, airborne troops were dropped to capture key Dutch airfields, bridges and railways. In the five-day campaign that followed, the LSSAH linked up with the army units and airborne troops after a number of clashes with Dutch defenders.
The Waffen-SS did not take part in the thrust throughout the forests of the Ardennes and the river Meuse. But as they began to advance close to the English Channel, the SS-Totenkopf was summoned from the army reserve to fight in support of General Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division. On 21 May, the British launched an armored counterattack against the flanks of 7th Panzer Division and SS-Totenkopf. The Germans then trapped the British and French troops in a huge pocket around the port of Dunkirk. The LSSAH joined in the fighting to reduce small groups of resistance outside the port that had been cut off by the encirclement. On 27 May a unit from the SS-Totenkopf, the 14 Company, was involved in the Le Paradis massacre, where 99 men of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment were machine gunned after surrendering, with survivors finished off with bayonets. By 28 May the SS-Leibstandarte had taken Wormhout, only ten miles from Dunkirk. There, soldiers of the 2nd Battalion were responsible for the Wormhoudt massacre, where 80 British and French soldiers were murdered after they surrendered. The fighting in France continued until the armistice was signed in June 1940. Hitler expressed his pleasure with the performance of the SS-Leibstandarte in the Netherlands and France, telling them, "Henceforth it will be an honour for you, who bear my name, to lead every German attack." The SS-VT was officially renamed the Waffen-SS in a speech made by Hitler in July 1940.
According to historian Charles Sydnor, characteristic behaviors of the Waffen-SS which were typified by the SS-Totenkopf division throughout the fighting in France included "fanatical recklessness in the assault, suicidal defense against enemy attacks, and savage atrocities committed in the face of frustrated objectives". However, the campaign in the western theater was only marginally influenced by the participation of the SS since there had only been two full Waffen-SS divisions fighting amid the 89 division employed in total. Problems still existed between the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS and despite their shared success in the West, Himmler was still poorly disposed towards the men of the Wehrmacht and General Erich von Manstein in particular, whom he accused of deliberately starving his men of armor and equipment.
Following the campaign in the West, Hitler authorized the enlistment of "people perceived to be of related stock", as Himmler put it, to expand the ranks. A number of Danes, Dutch, Norwegians, Swedes and Finns volunteered to fight in the Waffen-SS under the command of German officers. They were brought together to form the new division SS-Wiking. By January 1941, the SS-Verfügungs-Division was renamed SS-Infanterie-Division Reich, and in 1942, became known as the SS-Das Reich.
Campaign in the Balkans
In April 1941, the Germany Army invaded Yugoslavia and then Greece. Both the LSSAH and Das Reich were attached to separate army Panzer Corps. Fritz Klingenberg, a company commander in the Das Reich, led his men in a race to capture the Yugoslav capital. Klingenberg, along with a very small unit of men accepted the surrender of Belgrade and a few days later the army of Yugoslavia surrendered. Immediately upon the German occupation of Yugoslavia, the SS police units began taking hostages and carrying out reprisals, a practice that became common and one where in some cases, they were joined by the Wehrmacht. Similar to Poland, the war policies of the Nazis in the Balkans resulted in brutal occupation and racist mass murder. Serbia became the second country after Estonia officially declared "judenfrei" (free of Jews).
The fighting then shifted to Greece. Both the German Army and the Waffen-SS encountered stiff resistance from the British Expeditionary Force and Greek Army. The fighting was intensified by the terrain as it was mountainous and narrow passes were heavily defended. The LSSAH was at the forefront of the German push. Finally, in late April the Greek Army surrendered. Like Yugoslavia, the conquest of Greece brought a substantial number of Jews into danger, as the Nazis immediately took a variety of measures against them.
War in the east
On 22 June 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. By now the SS-Leibstandarte had been expanded to a fully fledged division, and all other existing Waffen-SS divisions (SS-Das Reich, SS-Totenkopf, SS-Polizei, SS-Wiking and SS-Nord) took part in the initial assault. The purpose of Barbarossa was to destroy the Soviet Union and seize its vast natural resources to prepare for a greater war against the West. Meanwhile, the expanding war and the need to control occupied territories provided the conditions for Himmler to further consolidate the police and military organs of the SS.
The 1st and 2nd SS Infantry Brigades, which had been formed from surplus concentration camp guards of the SS-TV, and the SS Cavalry Brigade moved into the Soviet Union behind the advancing armies. At first they fought Soviet partisans, however, by the autumn of 1941, they left the anti-partisan role to other units and actively took part in the Holocaust. While assisting the Einsatzgruppen, they participated in the liquidation of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union, forming firing parties when required.
The Waffen-SS proved itself during the battles of the winter of 1941 and 1942 through showing its "steadfastness in defence". That spring three divisions, SS-Leibstandarte, SS-Totenkopf and SS-Das Reich, were withdrawn to the West to refit and were converted to Panzergrenadier divisions. Formed into the SS-Panzer Corps, these units were better equipped and closer to full strength than the equivalent army divisions. The SS-Panzer Corps returned to Russia in 1943 and participated in the recapture of Kharkov that spring. By now, the Wehrmacht commanders came to deploy Waffen-SS units as their "fire brigade" by sending its divisions to critical points of the battlefield.
In July 1943, the Germans launched an offensive designed to eliminate the Kursk salient. The Waffen-SS by this time had been expanded to 12 divisions and most took part in the battle. By the evening of 12 July, Hitler halted the attack due to the stiff Soviet resistance, and, by July 17, the operation was called off to address the developing Soviet offensives. Thereafter, the Germans were forced onto the defensive as the Red Army began the liberation of Western Russia. Meanwhile, the losses incurred by the Waffen-SS and the Wehrmacht during the Battle of Kursk occurred nearly in-tandem with the Allied assault into Italy, opening a two-front war for Germany.
During the war in the east, the Einsatzgruppen units together with the Waffen-SS, engaged in the "wholesale slaughter" of the Jewish population in eastern Europe and the Soviet union in particular. Before the invasion there were approximately five million registered Jews throughout the USSR with roughly three million residing in the territories occupied by the Germans; by the time the war ended, over two million of them had been murdered.
Initially the victims were killed with gas vans or firing squad by Einsatzgruppen units, but these methods proved impracticable for an operation of the scale carried out by the Nazi state. In August 1941, SS leader Himmler attended the shooting of 100 Jews at Minsk. Nauseated and shaken by the experience, he was concerned about the impact such actions would have on the mental health of his SS men. He decided that alternate methods of killing should be found. On his orders, by spring 1942 the concentration camp at Auschwitz had been greatly expanded, including the addition of gas chambers, where victims were killed using the pesticide Zyklon B.
By the spring of 1944, the German forces in France and the Low Countries stood waiting for the Anglo-American assault. Behind the coastal guns and beach obstacles of Hitler's so-called "Atlantic Wall", and the infantry divisions that supported it, were deployed 11 panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions. Four of these formations were Waffen-SS divisions. The SS-Das Reich was located in Southern France, the LSSAH was in Belgium, refitting after fighting in Russia, and west of Paris was the newly formed panzer division SS-Hitlerjugend, consisting of 17- and 18-year-old members of the Hitler Youth, supported by combat veterans and experienced NCO's. Educated totally under Nazi ideology since birth, they were some of the most fanatical of all Hitler's political troops. The creation of the SS-Hitlerjugend within the Waffen-SS was also a sign of Hitler's desperation for more troops, especially ones with unquestioning obedience.
When the Allies did land in Normandy on D-Day 6 June, only one panzer division was close to the beaches, but its units were too scattered for it to assist in repelling the landings. Hitler had refused to allow the bulk of the panzer divisions to moved without his permission. It was not until the afternoon that the SS-Hitlerjugend began to deploy, with its units going into action on 7 June. But rather than being able to mount a decisive counteroffensive to contain the Allies' beachhead, the SS-Hitlerjugend found themselves fighting a defensive battle. They were, however, notable during the Battle of Caen where, in spite of their declining strength, they repeatedly frustrated British and Canadian efforts to break through. However, by 17 June, twenty Canadian prisoners had been murdered by soldiers of the SS-Hitlerjugend in what became known as the Ardenne Abbey massacre.
A last ditch effort was ordered by Hitler and on 7 August, the 1st SS, 2nd SS, 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions with support from infantry and elements of the 17th SS-Panzergrenadier division under SS-Oberstgruppenführer Paul Hausser was launched. His forces were to mount an all-out offensive near Mortain and drive west through Avranches to the coast. The Americans were prepared for this offensive and an air-assault on the combined German units proved devastating. By late August, the LSSAH, which had only been committed to battle since 6 July, found itself caught in the encirclement by the western Allied armies in the Falaise Pocket, which ended the Battle of Normandy with a German defeat. The remnants of the LSSAH which escaped the encirclement were withdrawn to Germany for refitting.
Battle for Germany
By late 1944, the Waffen-SS soldiers who had survived the summer campaigns were withdrawn from the front line to refit. Two of them, the 9th and 10th Waffen-SS panzer divisions, did so in the Arnhem region of Holland in early September, 1944. This was to prove disastrous for the Allies. On 17 September, the Allies launched Operation Market Garden, a combined airborne and land operation designed to seize control over the lower Rhine. Coordinating with the deployment of the American 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions elsewhere along the river, British and Polish paratroops were dropped at Arnhem. The Waffen-SS units, which, unknown to the Allies, were refitting in the area, repulsed the attack on Arnhem.
In late 1944, Hitler launched what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, a significant counterattack attack against the western Allies through the Ardennes sector, with the aim of reaching Antwerp and causing a "second Dunkirk". The plan was to split the British in the north from the Americans in the south. Spearheading the attack were two panzer armies, one of them commanded by then SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Dietrich, which consisted largely of Waffen-SS divisions. Shortly before dawn on 16 December 1944 the Germans offensive opened up with an artillery barrage. Dietrich's battle group drove through the Americans. However, advancing through the forests and wooded hills of the Ardennes proved difficult in the winter weather. Initially the Germans made good progress in the northern end of its advance. However, they ran into unexpectedly strong resistance by the U.S. 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions. By 23 December, weather conditions started improving, allowing the Allied air forces, which had been grounded, to attack. In increasingly difficult conditions, the German advance slowed.
During the battle, SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper left a path of destruction in the wake of his retreat, which included Waffen-SS soldiers murdering American POWs and unarmed Belgian civilians at Malmedy, a massacre for which Peiper and his troops stood trial in Nuremberg after the war.
Despite the efforts of the Waffen-SS and the German Army, the fuel shortages, stiff American resistance, including in and around the town of Bastogne and Allied air-assaults on German supply columns proved too much, costing the Germans 700 tanks and most of their remaining mobile forces in the west. Hitler's failed counteroffensive has used most of Germany's remaining reserves of manpower and materiel, which could not be replaced.
In the East, by the end of 1944 the Red Army had amassed "fifty-five full armies, six tank armies, and thirteen air armies commanding 500 rifle divisions, ninety-four artillery divisions and 149 independent artillery brigades," with upwards of 15,000 tanks and 15,000 military aircraft ready for the onslaught. As 1945 began, the well-equipped Red Army prepared for the assault which would take them into Germany. The Waffen-SS fought hard and the 4th SS Panzer Corps managed to conduct a successful spoiling operation from 17–24 February, "which eliminated the Russian bridgeheads over the Hron River and thereby lessened the immediate threat to Bratislava and Vienna." Ultimately, the German efforts at Budapest failed. In the interim, the 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Corps made their way towards Austria, but were slowed down due to damaged railways.
In Hitler’s estimation, the Nagykanizsa oilfields southwest of Lake Balaton were the most strategically valuable reserves on the Eastern Front. For this reason, Hitler ordered Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army to move to Hungary in order to protect the oilfields and refineries there. The final German offensive in the east took place in early March. Named Frühlingserwachsen (Spring Awakening) the German forces attacked near Lake Balaton with the Sixth SS Panzer Army advancing northwards towards Budapest and the 2nd Panzer Army moving eastwards and south. Dietrich's army struggled forward in the snow and mud against strong Soviet resistance. Within a week, the attack was halted. The overwhelming numerical superiority of the Red Army made any defense impossible, yet Hitler somehow believed victory was possible. So enraged was Hitler when he learned of the operation's failure, that he ordered members of the LSSAH to remove their "Adolf Hitler" armbands so as to overtly mark their disgrace. However, Dietrich refused to carry out the order.
By this time, on both the Eastern and Western Front, the sinister activities of the SS were becoming clear to the Allies, as the concentration and extermination camps were being overrun. Allied troops working westward encountered the remains of Nazi brutality at the camps in their areas of occupation which elicited understandable expressions of disbelief and repugnance.
On 9 April 1945, the capital of East Prussia, Königsberg fell to the Soviets and on 13 April Dietrich’s SS unit was forced out of Vienna. The Soviet assault on Berlin began on 16 April at 03:30 AM with a massive artillery barrage accompanied by searchlights to light the path of the attackers. Within just a week, fighting was taking place inside the city itself. Among the many elements defending Berlin, were French, Latvian, and Scandinavian Waffen-SS troops. Hitler still hoped that his remaining SS soldiers would produce a miracle and rescue the capital, but he was now living in isolation in the Führerbunker under the Reich Chancellery, and his hopes were nothing but fantasy. Meanwhile, members of the SS patrolled the city despite the futility of maintaining discipline, shooting or hanging soldiers and civilians for what they determined were acts of cowardice or defeatism.
The Berlin garrison finally surrendered on 2 May, two days after Hitler had committed suicide, and Berlin fell silent. As members of SS could expect little mercy from the Red Army, there was now a rush among the surviving SS and army formations to surrender to the western Allies. A number of Waffen-SS divisions conducted formal surrender campaigns to demonstrate their defiance.
Foreign legions and volunteers
In March 1941, the SS Main Office established the Germanische Leitstelle ("Germanic Guidance Office") whose task was to find new recruits for the Waffen-SS. Constantly struggling with the Wehrmacht for recruits, Himmler solved this problem through the creation of Waffen-SS units composed of Germanic folk groups taken from the Balkans and eastern Europe. Equally vital were inclusions from among the Germanic peoples in Holland, Norway, Belgium, Denmark and Finland. 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 SS-Wiking and SS-Nordland. By the conclusion of 1943, roughly one-fourth of the SS (310,000 men), consisted of "racial Germans" from across Europe. Belgian Flemings joined Dutchmen to form the SS-Nederland legion, their Walloon compatriots joined the SS-Wallonien. There was also a French volunteer division, SS-Charlemagne which was formed mainly from the remnants of the "Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism" (LVF) and French Sturmbrigade in 1944.
Additional units of the Waffen-SS were added elsewhere from among the Ukrainians, Albanians from Kosovo, Serbians, Croatians, Turkic, Caucasians, Cossack, and even Tatar Legions, The Ukrainians and the Tatars had both suffered persecution under Stalin and they were likely motivated primarily by opposition to the Soviet government rather than genuine ideological agreement with the SS. The exiled Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin al-Husayni was made an SS-Gruppenführer by Himmler in May 1943, subsequently he used anti-Semitism and anti-Serb racism to recruit an entire Waffen-SS division of Bosnian Muslims, the SS-Handschar. Himmler had convinced himself that Bosniaks and Croats were Germanic rather than Slavic, and he admired Islam. The year-long Soviet occupation of the Baltic states at the beginning of World War II produced volunteers for Latvian and Estonian Waffen-SS units. The Estonian Legion, for example, had 1,280 volunteers under training by the end of 1942. However, by February 1944 the German military situation on the Eastern front had worsened. As the result, another 10,000 Estonia men were conscripted into the Waffen-SS. Approximately 25,000 men served in the Estonian SS division (with thousands more conscripted into the "Police Front" battalions and border guard units). During the spring of 1944 as Himmler became more and more desperate for recruits, he contacted Oswald Pohl, lead of the Economic and Administrative Head Office, about releasing Muslim prisoners from the concentration camps to supplement his SS troops.
There was, from August 1944 until the end of the war, an Indische Freiwilligen-Legion der Waffen-SS ("Waffen-SS Indian Volunteer Legion") which had been formed as a Heer (army) unit 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 and former president of the Indian National Congress, Subhas Chandra Bose.
Concentration camps and death camps
The SS is closely associated with Nazi Germany's concentration camp system. After 1934, the running of Germany's concentration 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. The Dachau camp served as a model for subsequent facilities. Leadership at the camps was divided into five distinct departments: commander and adjutant, political affairs division, protective custody, administration and camp doctor. By 1935, Himmler secured the finances necessary to run and establish additional camps with Hitler's approval. There were more Nazi concentration camps to come, including Sachsenhausen in 1936 and Buchenwald in July 1937. Close to the Czech border, the Flossenbürg concentration camp was opened in May 1938, Mauthausen began operations in August 1938 in upper Austria, and just north of Berlin, Ravensbrück, a camp intended for women was running by May 1939. During 1939, the Totenkopfverbände expanded into a military division with the establishment of the Totenkopf division, which by 1940 became a full division within the Waffen-SS.
As the Nazi regime became more oppressive in the last years before the war began, so too did the concentration camp system increase in size and in its lethal operation. Himmler intensified the activity of the SS both within Germany itself, as increasing numbers of Jews and German citizens deemed politically suspect or social outsiders were arrested, but also his reach extended into Nazi occupied Europe as well. The concentration camp system "mirrored the wider reach of Nazi terror" and grew in scope as the economic ambitions of the SS intensified. The SS operated and owned a large number of economic enterprises, many of them staffed with concentration camp inmates which transformed the camp system from one being operated for the sake of political goals to one of forced labor as well. Besides working many of the camp inmates to death, the SS also in September 1941 began experimenting at Auschwitz with various means to kill them; inspired to some degree by the euthanasia T4 Program, the SS began using poison gas. Further intensification of the killing operations took place in that same autumn of 1941 when the SS began construction of stationary gassing facilities at Riga, Łódź (Chelmo), Lublin (Belzec) and Minsk (Mogilev).
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 overseeing 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 at that time Richard Glücks served as the Inspector of Concentration Camps. Exploitation and extermination were fused in the East as the military situation deteriorated. Consequently, the SS used the concentration camp labor force to supplement arms production and to finance their operations. Camp labor was sold to various factories under the direction of the WVHA of the SS at a rate of three to six Reichsmarks per prisoner per day.
Consequent to the escalation of World War II, the SS-Totenkopfverbände began an even larger expansion of the concentration camp system, one that developed into three branches covering each type of camp the SS operated. By 1944, there existed three divisions of the SS-TV, those being the staff of the concentration camps proper in Germany and Austria, the labor camp system in occupied territories, and the guards and staff of the extermination camps in Poland that were involved in the Holocaust. 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. 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.
By 1942 all activities of the SS were managed through twelve main offices of the Allgemeine-SS.
- Persönlicher Stab Reichsführer-SS Hauptamt ("Personal Staff of the Reich Leader SS")
- SS-Hauptamt ("Main Administrative Office"; SS-HA)
- SS Führungshauptamt ("SS Main Operational Office"; SS-FHA)
- Hauptamt SS-Gericht ("Main Office of SS Legal Matters")
- SS-Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt ("SS Office of Race and Settlement"; RuSHA)
- SS Personalhauptamt ("SS Personnel Main Office")
- Reichssicherheitshauptamt ("Reich Main Security Office"; RSHA)
- Ordnungspolizei Hauptamt ("Main Office of the Order Police")
- Wirtschafts und Verwaltungshauptamt ("Economic and Administration Main Office"; SS-WVHA)
- Hauptamt Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle ("Racial German Assistance Main Office"; VOMI)
- Hauptamt Dienststelle Heissmeyer ("SS Education Office")
- Hauptamt Reichskommissar für die Festigung Deutschen Volkstums ("Main Office of the Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of German Nationhood"; RKFDV)
SS units and branches
Within the main branches of the Allgemeine-SS, SS-Totenkopfverbände and Waffen-SS, there further existed sub-branches; some with overlapping duties while other SS commands had little to no contact with each other. In addition, by 1936 the SS had complete control over the German Police, and by 1939 many police members were 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.
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 secret state police and security forces. The Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo) was the combined forces of the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) and the Gestapo, police and security offices. Heydrich is viewed as the mastermind behind the SS security forces and held the title of Chef des Sicherheitspolizei und SD ("Chief of the Security Police and SD") until 27 September 1939 when he became the overall supreme commander of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA).
From that point forward, the RSHA was in charge of SS security services and had under its command the Sicherheitsdienst (Security services; SD), the Kripo, and Gestapo as well as several additional offices to handle finance, administration, and supply.Heinrich Müller, who had been chief of operations for the Gestapo, was appointed its chief.Arthur Nebe was chief of the Criminal Police (Kripo), and the two branches of SD were commanded by several SS officers, including Otto Ohlendorf and Walter Schellenberg. Heydrich was attacked in Prague on 27 May 1942 by a British-trained team of Czech and Slovak soldiers who had been sent by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile to kill him in Operation Anthropoid. He died from his injuries a week later. In January 1943, Heydrich's positions were taken over by Ernst Kaltenbrunner 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, under 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. Another role assigned to the Einsatzgruppen was to follow in the wake of the forward deployed Wehrmacht troops and eradicate any potential partisans. Hitler felt that the total destruction of the "Jewish-Bolshevik intelligentsia" was too difficult and important to be entrusted to the military. 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. The first systematic mass-shooting of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen took place on 6 September 1939 during the occupation of Kraków. Another mass shooting early sometime in 1942 claimed the lives of over 10,000 Jews at the industrial city of Kharkov in the Ukraine. 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. The Einsatzgruppen were responsible for the murders of more than one million 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.
Augmented by personnel from the criminal police (Kripo), the Order Police and the Waffen-SS, the Einsatzgruppen eventually reached a strength of 3,000 men which were subdivided into to smaller units (Einsatzgruppen A, B, C, and D) where they were assigned to the army groups North, Middle, South, and the Black Sea coast along the Eastern front. Generally the extermination activities of the Einsatzgruppen followed a standard operational procedure with the Einsatzgruppen chief contacting the nearest Wehrmacht unit commander to inform him of the impending "Aktion"; this was done so they could coordinate and control access in or out of the execution grounds. Both Einsatzgruppen and Order Police committed mass murder all throughout the eastern territories under Nazi occupation, acting under the auspices of a quasi-military operation and "outside the bounds of morality"; they were, as historian Richard Rhodes described, "judge, jury and executioner all in one" with the authority to kill anyone who even looked at them sideways. 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. A total of twenty-four Einsatzgruppen commanders were placed on trial following the war, becoming notorious for commanding units of men whose brutality was unprecedented.
Special action units
Beginning in 1938 and throughout World War II, the SS enacted a procedure where offices and units of the SS could form smaller sub-units, known as SS-Sonderkommandos, to carry out special tasks and actions which might involve sending agents or troops into the field to facilitate large-scale murder operations. The use of SS-Sonderkommandos was widespread, and according to former SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Wilhelm Höttl, not even the SS leadership knew how many SS-Sonderkommandos were constantly being formed, disbanded, and reformed for various tasks especially on the Eastern Front. Closer to home in Germany, an SS-Sonderkommando unit led by SS-Sturmbannführer Herbert Lange gassed 1201 psychiatric patients to death on 7 December 1939 at the Tiegenhof psychiatric hospital, marking the first use of gas wagons. In 1941-42, SS-Sonderkommandos under Lange killed approximately 152,000 Jewish victims using mobile gas wagons at Chelmno.
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. When Eichmann's staff was sent from Berlin to Budapest, they specifically came as an established SS-Sonderkommando. Intent on carrying out the Final Solution in Hungary during mid-March 1944 as quickly as possible, the SS-Sonderkommandos enlisted the aide of anti-Semitic elements from the Hungarian gendarmerie and the pro-German administrators from within the Hungarian Interior Ministry. Immediately, the SS-Sonderkommandos ghettoized the provincial Jews and deported them to Auschwitz.
The term "Sonderkommando" was 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 murdered themselves. The 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, like transporting corpses to the crematoria. Their sole function in the SS machine of destruction was to keep the death factories running.
The SS-Mannschaften´("Auxiliary-SS") were the SS personnel who were not considered regular SS members, but were conscripted from other branches of the German military, the Nazi Party, SA, Werkschutz, and the Volkssturm for service with the camps, including the extermination camps of Aktion Reinhardt such as Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and KZ Lublin Majdanek. From 1944 on, such personnel (the SS-Wachmannschaften) wore a distinctive double-armed 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 Soviet 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.
SS and police courts
The Hauptamt SS-Gericht ("SS Court Main Office") was created so the SS would be beyond the reach of civilian legal authority. It provided an internal legal system for conducting investigations, trials and punishment for the SS and police. Himmler would and did intervene as he saw fit when it came to convictions and punishment. There were over 600 lawyers who staffed the main office and courts in Munich. There were 38 regional SS courts throughout Nazi Germany. The SS and police courts were special tribunals which were the only authority authorized to try SS personnel for crimes. The one exception to the SS and Police Courts jurisdiction involved members of the 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. As a result of the officially sanctioned arbitrary power given to the SS within the legal system and the totalitarian police-state that accompanied it, all manner of truly objective legal procedure disappeared in Germany, rendering citizens defenseless against the "summary justice of the SS terror."
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. There were three main SS groups most closely associated with protecting the life of Adolf Hitler.
The outer ring of Hitler's overall protection for his person, offices and residences was provided by the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). Buildings protected included the old Reich Chancellery, the new Reich Chancellery, and the Berghof in the Obersalzberg of the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden, Bavaria. The entrances to the old and new Reich Chancellery had LSSAH men at sentry posts. Wherever Hitler was in residence, members of the Reichssicherheitsdienst (RSD) and Führerbegleitkommando (FBK) would be present. The RSD men patrolled the grounds and the FBK men provided close security protection inside the residence. For special events, the number of LSSAH guards were increased. At Hitler's Berghof residence, a large contingent of the LSSAH patrolled an extensive cordoned security zone. From 1941, forward, the Leibstandarte became four distinct entities, 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 and an Munich-based bodyguard unit which protected Hitler when he visited his personal apartment and the Brown House Nazi Party headquarters in Munich. The RSD and FBK worked together for security and personal protection of Hitler during trips and public events, but they operated as two groups and used separate vehicles. RSD chief Johann Rattenhuber was in overall command and the current FBK chief acted as his deputy.
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 mounted 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 unit to conduct historical research into Nordic-Germanic origins.
SS Cavalry Corps
Like many of the other sporting associations, the primary body over horse breeding and riders pledged its support of some 250,000 persons to Adolf Hitler when he seized national power in 1933. Shortly thereafter, most all of the horse riding associations were immediately converted to SA and SS riding associations. Later implications for the SA and SS-Reiterei included formal training of the units, as the members had to become hardened and possess the corresponding nerve for their future employment in the field. The SS Cavalry Corps (Reiter-SS) comprised several Reiterstandarten and Reiterabschnitte, which were really equestrian clubs to attract the German upper class and nobility into the SS.
The first SS-Totenkopf horsed cavalry designated SS-Totenkopf Reitstandarte 1 was formed in September 1939. Commanded by then SS-Standartenführer Hermann Fegelein, who took the SS-Kavallerie unit into Poland for security duties. Additional squadrons were added in May 1940 when there were 14 squadrons in total with specialist support elements and horse gun batteries. By March 1941 the SS-Kavalerie had 2 regiments with a strength of 3500 men. A few months later, the SS-Kavallerie units were operating in Russia where they conducted mop-up operations, including the infamous Pripyat swamps operation designed to round up and exterminate Jews, partisans, and civilians. Fegelein's final report on the operation, dated 18 September 1941, states that they killed 14,178 Jews, 1,001 partisans, 699 Red Army soldiers, with 830 prisoners taken and losses of 17 dead, 36 wounded, and 3 missing. Later in 1943, Fegelein led his SS-Kavallerie Division (which acquired the title "Florian Geyer") into central Russia for anti-partisan raids. Fighting in Croatia, Hungary, Poland, and Russia, the SS-Kavallerie saw significant action in the eastern theater.
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. An SS Medical Academy was established in Berlin during 1938 to train physicians bound for duty in the Waffen-SS. Medical personnel in the SS did not often participate in traditional medicine. For SS doctors, their primary responsibility was the institutionalization of medicalized genocide. Acting as the leader of a "medical corps" given the task of being Desinfektoren (disinfectors), the SS doctor supervised the actual killing procedures. They also conducted selection of inmates as they arrived, scrutinizing their general health so as to determine their fitness for work, sending those deemed questionable directly to their deaths at certain locations. Existing inmates whose health became questionable were also evaluated by SS doctors, who decided whether or not they would be able to recover from any medical treatment in less than two-weeks; for those too ill or injured to recover in time, the practice of medical triage-murder was implemented, a practice which became a standard policy for the SS.
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 they conducted during World War II and for their role in the gas chamber selections of persons exterminated during the Holocaust. The most infamous member, Doctor Josef Mengele, served as a medical officer at Auschwitz under the command of Eduard Wirth of the Auschwitz medical corps. Eduard Wirth was "organizer-in-chief" of selections, which he often attended himself. Josef Mengele also made the daily gas chamber selections of people as well as conducting many experiments at the camp. After the trial of members as to crimes against humanity, it was determined that in the territory of the Krasnodar Territory of the USSR about 7,000 civilians were killed by gas poisoning.
SS Scientific Corps
The Scientific branch of the SS which was used to provide scientific and archeological proof of Aryan supremacy was called the Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage Organization). Formed in 1935 by Himmler, the organization did not become part of the SS until 1939. Its tasks were not only the evaluation of racial identity among the German people, but also concerned itself with ancient Germanic traditions and language, atop pseudo-scientific esoteric endeavors like the connection between house design and race, and even the occult properties of church bells and Runic script. Through the establishment of this academically-oriented organization, Himmler sought prominence for highly educated members of the SS and pursued "scientific" endeavors under those auspices. Racial mythology and ultra-nationalism were suffused by the activity of the Ahnenerbe and some scholars like Bettina Arnold associate aspects of Nazi genocide to this organization. A considerable part of the Germanization (Germanisierung) of Poland in 1940 was the result of collaborative efforts between the RSHA and Nordicist intellectuals from among the SS Ahnenerbe. Splitting the populations groups according to "scientifically" proven racial value," enabled SS racial experts to more effectively implement the exploitation and annihilation of people throughout the re-Germanization process of the occupied territories.
During the German invasion eastward into Poland, the Balkans and Russia, where upwards of 250,000 persons of Sinti and/or Roma heritage were killed by the SS Einsatzgruppen, Himmler asked his SS Ahnenerbe to keep some of them alive on a reservation as an "ethnic curiosity." Practicing scholarly "science" within Nazi Germany and abroad as the SS did on numerous fronts was subjective at times. Nonetheless, the SS Ahnenerbe attempted to link natural sciences with the arts and accordingly promote a more holistic understanding of the world through an admixture of genetics, geopolitics, philology, anthropology, history, and archaeology - which they blended with astrology, mythology and the occult; all brought together for the sake of legitimizing the Nazi Weltanschauung.
SS Women's Corps
Realizing that German women constituted a significant number of persons available for war effort along with the overall labor force of carrying out his genocidal plans across Europe, Himmler established a female reporting and clerical unit known as the SS-Frauenkops. Appealing to the cause and to women as more than mere biological contributors to the success of the Reich, Himmler gave a speech in Poznan in October 1943 where he praised his erstwhile SS leaders for sending their sisters, girlfriends, brides, and daughters to the "elite" training program. Part of the SS-Frauenkorps also included the SS-Helferinnenkorps ("Women Helper Corps"), an assembly which consisted of women volunteers who joined the SS as auxiliary personnel. 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.
Himmler set up the Reichsschule für SS Helferinnen at Oberenheim in 1942 to train a corps of women who, amongst other things, were taught Nazi ideology, specialist communications, "mother schooling", and fitness. The intention was that in addition to facilitating the transfer of men from communications into combat roles, the SS-Helferinnen women would eventually replace all female civilian employees in the service of the Reichsführer. It was postulated that the SS-Helferinnen would be more suitable and reliable because they were to be trained and selected according to NSDAP racist ideology. The designation SS-Helferin was used only for those who had been trained at the Reichsschule-SS at Oberehnheim in Elsass, although whether this made them officially accepted SS members has been debated. In her review of Jutta Muhlenberg's book, Das SS-Helferinnenkorps: Ausbildung, Einsatz und Entnazifizierung der weiblichen Angehörigen der Waffen-SS 1942–1949, Rachel Century writes:
- Mühlenberg is very careful not to generalise and tar all the SS-Helferinnen with the same brush. Although all these women were a part of the bureaucratic staff, and were Mittäterinnen, Zuschauerinnen und zum Teil – auch Zeuginnen von Gewalttätigkeiten [accomplices, spectators and sometimes even witnesses of violence] (p. 416), she notes that each woman still had individual responsibility over what she did, saw and knew, and it would be very difficult to identify the individual responsibilities of each SS-Helferin....In later years, the SS-Helferinnen had to go through the de-Nazification process. Within each tribunal it was disputed whether these women were members of the criminal SS organization. As a consequence, there were many different and conflicting decisions in individual proceedings. Despite her acknowledgement of the varying degrees of individual responsibility, Mühlenberg concludes that the guilt of the former SS-Helferinnen lies in their voluntary participation in the bureaucratic apparatus of the SS.
The Reichsschule für SS Helferinnen was closed on 22 November 1944 as the personnel made a hasty exodus from the Alsace region due to the advance of the Allies. From the outset, Himmler intended for women's concentration camps to be run by German women and admonished male members of the SS against entering them. Female administrators and those who obtained leadership within the SS were placed in commanding positions, particularly within the concentration camp system where they gained unprecedented power as a revered and uniformed member of the Nazi government. Like their male equivalents in the SS, female members, whether in integrated environments where they worked as clerical assistants or in places like Ravensbrück concentration camp where they predominated as guards, participated in atrocities against Poles, Jews, and others in the process of making mass murder a standard operating procedure in the Nazi regime.
Other SS groups
The term "Austrian-SS" was never a recognized branch of the SS, but is often used to describe that portion of the SS membership from Austria. 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 1930 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.
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. Austrian SS leader Kaltenbrunner replaced the Austrian State Secretary for Security, firmly establishing an SS foothold inside the newly acquired Ostmark, which was immediately followed by the arrest of potential enemies of the Reich, the foremost of whom were the Communists.Mauthausen was the first concentration camp opened in Austria following the Anschluss. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Mauthausen was the harshest of the camps in the Greater German Reich.
The Hotel Metropole in Vienna was transformed into the Gestapo headquarters. Franz Josef Huber was in charge and had a staff of 900, of which 80% were from the Austrian police. It was the largest Gestapo office outside of Berlin. It is estimated that 50,000 people were interrogated and tortured there. Huber was also the formal chief of the Central Agency for Jewish Emigration in Vienna, and although the de facto leaders were Adolf Eichmann and later Alois Brunner, was nevertheless responsible for the mass deportations of Jews.
Austrian SS members served in every branch of the SS, including Concentration Camps, Einsatzgruppen, and the Security Services. Besides Eichmann, Amon Göth was another notable Austrian-SS member. He became the commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp in Płaszów.
According to political scientist 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.
Post-war activity and aftermath
Following Nazi Germany's collapse, the SS organization disappeared. Near the end of May 1945, Himmler was captured by the British in disguise and under a false passport. At an internment camp near Lüneburg, he took his own life by biting down on a cyanide capsule. Several other leading members of the SS fled but many were unable to get far before being captured. Chief of the RHSA and the ranking member of the SS upon Himmler's suicide, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, was captured and arrested in the Bavarian Alps. What awaited him and many of the leading Nazis was an international tribunal to hold the remaining members of Nazi regime accountable for the unprecedented crimes committed against countless soldiers and civilians.
Some SS members who escaped the judicial punishment later administered never made it to a trial, as they were often subject to summary execution, torture and beatings at the hands of freed prisoners, displaced persons or Allied soldiers. Upon encountering the human deprivation and cruelty committed by the SS at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich in April 1945, American soldiers of the 157th Regiment shot some of the remaining SS camp guards. British troops were not as vengeful as the Americans when they entered the Bergen-Belsen camp in Lower Saxony on 15 April 1945. Instead of shooting the SS guards, the British soldiers placed them on starvation rations, made them work without breaks, forced them to deal with the remaining corpses, stabbed them with bayonets and struck them with their rifle butts if they slowed their work pace. In addition, at least some members of the U.S Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) delivered captured SS camp guards to displaced persons camps with the intention of them being extrajudicially executed.
International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg
Numerous members of the SS, many of them still committed Nazis, remained at large in Germany and across Europe at the end of the war. The Allies commenced legal proceedings against the surviving leadership in the Nazi hierarchy through the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg. Kaltenbrunner was tried at Nuremberg along with other leading Nazis like Hermann Göring, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, among others. Among the accusations levied against the Nazi leaders were: waging an aggressive war of conquest, committing mass murder against innocent civilians, and carrying out a wide variety of atrocities and crimes against humanity in violation of international laws governing war. Along with many of his accomplices, Kaltenbrunner was convicted of crimes against humanity and executed on 16 October 1946.
Additional trials of SS intellectuals and SS physicians followed and upon conviction, they were punished accordingly. Of note were the SS Ahnenerbe doctors whose Nazi convictions and Darwinist ideology drove them to kill the enfeebled and/or disabled persons deemed "unworthy to live" or who performed horrifying medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners. Although, it is estimated that out of roughly 70,000 members of the SS involved in crimes in German concentration camps, only about 1,650 to 1,700 were tried after the war. When members of the SS were on trial for their crimes, many of them attempted to exculpate themselves using the excuse that they were merely following orders during emergency conditions which they had to obey unconditionally as part of their sworn oath and duty. Their tactic of citing superior orders which was encapsulated by the German statement, Befehl ist Befehl ("an order is an order") was an attempt to intimate responsibility onto their superiors which they believed offered a legitimate defense, one that failed in the end. Due to the brutal treatment meted out to so many people prior to and throughout the course of the war, the SS was ultimately declared a "criminal organization". Upwards of 37,000 members of the SS were tried and convicted in Soviet courts which resulted in public hangings or long sentences of hard labor in gulags.
ODESSA and surviving members
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, Argentina. ODESSA allegedly helped Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Erich Priebke, and many other war criminals find postwar refuge in Latin America.
In the 1950s, Argentinian citizen and water company worker Ricardo Klement was discovered to be Adolf Eichmann, 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 Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, in a suburb of Buenos Aires on 11 May 1960, and tried in Jerusalem on 11 April 1961, where he explicitly declared that he had abdicated his conscience in order to follow the Führerprinzip (the "leader principle", or superior orders). Eichmann was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Nevertheless, Eichmann was quoted as having once stated, "I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five-million Jews [Reich enemies] on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction."
Josef Mengele, disguised as a member of the regular German infantry, was captured and released by the Allies, oblivious to his real identity. 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 operated a 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, 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. Correspondingly, Sereny asserted that even after thorough investigations were conducted, nobody could ever prove the existence of ODESSA, but she interestingly added the qualifying statement, "there certainly were various kinds of Nazi aid organizations after the war — it would have been astonishing if there hadn't been."
The Argentine author and journalist Uki Goñi's book, The Real Odessa, claims that such a network in fact existed, and in Argentina it was largely run by Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón, a Nazi sympathiser who had been impressed by Benito Mussolini's reign in Italy during a military tour of duty in Italy and Nazi Germany. More recently researched (2002) than Sereny's interviews, counterclaimants point out that it is at a far greater chronological distance, not simply a year or two—from the actual point(s) in time he asserts such events occurred, removed long enough to call into question the veracity of a number of his claims.
Links to contemporary movements
While there were some radical nationalist political movements in Germany during the late 1940s and into the 1960s, none of them ever gained the political traction or majority necessary to become a legitimate party. By the 1970s, radical nationalism had largely disappeared from the German political scene. Declining employment and economic slow-down accompanied by an influx of immigrant workers combined to cause a neo-Nazi revival of sorts in the 1980s, a movement (while small) still produced a significant number of neo-fascist attacks on racial minorities. Reports from 1992 indicated approximately 2500 race-related attacks occurred and 17 people were killed in the violence. Recent immigration problems and terror threats in Germany and Europe proper are causing a resurgence of right-wing radical nationalism. Despite the claims of radicalized fringe neo-Nazi movements who claim to be successors of the SS, there is no single group recognized as a continuation of the organization.
On 21 February 2012, The Council of Europe’s Commission against Racism and Intolerance published its report on Latvia (fourth monitoring cycle), in which it condemned Latvian Legion Day which commemorates persons who had fought in a Latvian unit of the Waffen-SS and takes place every year on 16 March. It is held in the centre of Riga. Within that report is the following statement which applies universally concerning the Waffen-SS, "All attempts to commemorate persons who fought in the Waffen-SS and collaborated with the Nazis, should be condemned. Any gathering or march legitimising Nazism in any way should be banned."
- Glossary of Nazi Germany
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- SS State of Burgundy
- Waffen-SS ranks and insignia