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SS Kragenspiegel rechts Mannschaften und Unterführer Totenkopfverbände.jpg
Totenkopf (Death's head) collar insignia, 13th Standarte of the SS-Totenkopfverbände
Bundesarchiv Bild 192-206, KZ Mauthausen, SS-Männer vor Gefangenen.jpg
SS-TV officers standing in front of prisoners at KZ Gusen in October 1941.
Agency overview
Formed June 1934
Dissolved May 8, 1945
Type Paramilitary Organisation
Jurisdiction Germany Nazi Germany
Occupied Europe
Headquarters Oranienburg, near Berlin
Employees 22,033 (SS-TV 1939[1] and
SS Division Totenkopf c.1942)
Minister responsible
Agency executives
Parent agency Flag of the Schutzstaffel.svg Schutzstaffel

SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), rendered in English as "Death's-Head Units,"[2] was the SS organization responsible for administering the Nazi concentration camps for the Third Reich.

The SS-TV was an independent unit within the SS with its own ranks and command structure. It ran the camps throughout Germany, such as Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald; in Nazi-occupied Europe, it ran Auschwitz in German occupied Poland and Mauthausen in Austria as well as numerous other concentration and death camps. The death camps' primary function was genocide and included Treblinka, Bełżec extermination camp and Sobibor. It was responsible for facilitating what was called the Final Solution, known since as the Holocaust, in collaboration with the Reich Main Security Office[3] and the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office or WVHA.

At the outbreak of WWII one of the first combat units of the Waffen-SS, the SS Division Totenkopf, was formed from SS-TV personnel. It soon developed a reputation for ferocity and fanaticism, participating in several war crimes such as the Le Paradis massacre in 1940 during the Fall of France and the murder of Russian civilians in Operation Barbarossa.

While the Totenkopf (English: Death's Head) was the universal cap badge of the SS, the SS-TV also wore the insignia on the right collar to distinguish itself from other SS units.


On 26 June 1933, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler appointed SS-Oberführer Theodor Eicke the Kommandant of the first Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.[4] Eicke requested a permanent unit that would be subordinate only to him and Himmler granted the request; the SS-Wachverband (Guard Unit) was formed.[5] Promoted on 30 January 1934 to SS-Brigadeführer (equivalent to Major-general in the Army), Eicke as commander of Dachau began new reforms. He reorganized the SS camp, establishing new guarding provisions, which included blind obedience to orders, and tightening disciplinary and punishment regulations for detainees, which were adopted by all concentration camps of the Third Reich on 1 January 1934. Following the Night of the Long Knives (at the end June 1934), Eicke, who had played a major role in the affair, was again promoted to the rank of SS-Gruppenführer and appointed Inspector of Concentration Camps and Commander of SS guard formations.

Personnel from Dachau then went on to work at Sachsenhausen and Oranienburg, where Eicke established his central office. In 1935 Dachau became the training center for the concentration camps service. Many of the early recruits came from the ranks of the SA and Allgemeine SS. Senior roles were filled by personnel from the German police service. On 29 March 1936, concentration camp guards and administration units were officially designated as the SS-Totenkopfverbände.

By April 1938, the SS-TV had four regiments of three storm battalions with three infantry companies, one machine gun company and medical, communication and transportation units.[6]


Heinrich Himmler (front right, beside prisoner) visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1936

When the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) was formally established in 1936, the group was organized into six Wachtruppen situated at each of Germany's major concentration camps. Theodor Eicke, at this stage, was technically only the commander of the Dachau concentration camp (need citation), although it was without question that he was the effective head of the entire SS-TV.

In 1935, as the concentration camp system within Germany expanded, groups of camps were organized into Wachsturmbanne (battalions) under the office of the Inspector of Concentration Camps who answered directly to the SS headquarters office and Heinrich Himmler. In 1937, the Wachsturmbanne were in turn organized into three main SS-Totenkopfstandarten (regiments).

By 1936, Eicke had also begun to establish military formations of concentration camp personnel which eventually became the Totenkopf Division and other units of the Waffen-SS. In the early days of the military camp service formation, the group's exact chain of command was contested since Eicke as Führer der Totenkopfverbände exercised personal control of the group but also, being a military SS formation, authority over the armed units was claimed by the SS-Verfügungstruppe (who would get it in August 1940). But at this time Eicke and Himmler envisioned the armed SS-TV not as combat soldiers, but as troops for carrying out what were euphemistically described as "police and security operations" behind the front lines. Thus Eicke's men were trained by a cadre of camp personnel without outside intervention; the first major training exercise in 1935 resulted in the clearing of the entire Dachau camp for several weeks while the Totenkopf military formation was organized.

On 17 August 1938 Hitler decreed, at Himmler's request, the SS-TV to be the reserve for the SS-Verfügungstruppe;[7] this would over the course of the war lead to a constant flux of men between the Waffen-SS and the concentration camps. Himmler's intention, however, was simply to expand his private army by using the SS-TV (as well as the police, which he also controlled) as a manpower pool. Himmler sought and obtained a further decree, issued on 18 May 1939, which authorized the expansion of the SS-TV to 50,000 men, and directed the Army to provide it with military equipment, something the Army had resisted.[7]

By the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939 Eicke's SS-TV field forces numbered four infantry regiments and a cavalry regiment, plus two battalions clandestinely placed in independent Danzig. However, their role in the invasion of Poland was not military; unlike the Leibstandarte and the SS-VT they were not under Army High Command (OKH) control, but Himmler's. "Their military capabilities were employed instead in terrorizing the civilian population through acts that included hunting down straggling Polish soldiers, confiscating agricultural produce and livestock, and torturing and murdering large numbers of Polish political leaders, aristocrats, businessmen, priests, intellectuals, and Jews." [8] The behavior of these Standarten in Poland elicited disgust and protests from officers of the Army, including 8th Army commander Johannes Blaskowitz who wrote a lengthy memorandum to von Brauchitsch detailing SS-TV atrocities (to no avail).

In the wake of the Polish conquest the three senior Totenkopf-Standarten were combined with the SS Heimwehr Danzig and some support units transferred from the Army to create the Totenkopf-Division, with Eicke in command. From fall 1939 to spring 1940 a massive recruitment effort raised no fewer than twelve new TK-Standarten (four times the size of the SS-VT) in anticipation of the coming attack on France. By now, however, Eicke's ambition had aroused Himmler's suspicion, and Hausser's and Dietrich's resentment, especially his designation of TK-Standarten as reserves for his Totenkopf-Division alone, and his appropriation of Verfügungstruppe military supplies which were stored at Eicke's concentration camps. After the TK-Division, and Eicke personally, performed poorly during Fall Gelb Himmler resolved to curb his subordinate. Cynically using as justification several well-publicized atrocities committed by the Division in France, on 15 August 1940 he dissolved Eicke's Inspectorate of SS-Totenkopfstandarten and transferred the Totenkopf-Division, the independent TK-Standarten, and their reserve and replacement system to the newly formed Waffen-SS high command.[9] In February 1941 the Totenkopf designation was removed from the names of all units other than the TK-Division and the camp Totenkopfwachsturmbanne, and their personnel exchanged the Death's-Head collar insignia for the Waffen-SS Sig-runes.

Soviet POWs, Mauthausen concentration camp

The camp system expanded greatly after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, when large numbers of Russian soldiers were captured. Some were transferred to the camps, where their inhumane treatment became normal. The Totenkopf Division still had close ties to the camp service and its members continued to wear the Death's-Head as their unit insignia. They were known for brutal tactics, a result of the original doctrine of "no pity" which Eicke had instilled in his camp personnel as far back as 1934, together with the fact that the original Totenkopfstandarte had "trained" themselves. The Division's ineffectiveness in France, as well as its war crimes, can in part be explained by its personnel who were more thugs than soldiers. However, over the course of the savage fighting in the East (during which the Division was twice effectively destroyed and recreated), the Totenkopf became one of the crack combat units of the German military. Very few of the men who were part of the 1939 Standarten in Poland were still in the Division by 1945.

Camp organization

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SS-TV Unterscharführer (Blockführer) at Sachsenhausen in 1936

In 1941, the concentration camps themselves were part of a massive system both in Germany and the occupied territories. By this time, special death camps had also come into operation while an extensive labor camp system was providing forced labor to the SS. As a result, the entire concentration camp system was placed under the authority of the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (WVHA) with the Inspector of Concentration Camps now a subordinate to the Chief of the WVHA. The camps themselves were then administratively separated into three main divisions of Labor Camps, Concentration Camps, and Death Camps.

As a final measure, in 1942 all camp personnel were folded into the Waffen-SS to allow for easier rotation of wounded Waffen-SS personnel into camp positions and for camp personnel to be easily transferred into combat units should the need arise. This last measure was frequently used for SS personnel who were deemed "too soft" for duty in a concentration camp or for those who showed compassion to prisoners or refused to obey illegal orders such as the gassing of prisoners or the shooting of women and children. This policy of quick transfer into a combat unit was a large incentive for SS personnel to participate in atrocities, as the alternative could be front line service on the Eastern Front. On the reverse, the SS procedures for camp personnel who refused to engage in war crimes proved that there were never any cases where SS soldiers were under threat of death unless they carried out atrocities (a common defense claim of captured SS personnel at the end of the war). At the trial of Treblinka camp personnel, it was in fact proven that there had never been a single case in the SS where someone was killed for refusing to carry out an illegal order and that such persons were simply transferred into combat with the Waffen-SS.

Within the camps themselves, there existed a hierarchy of camp titles and positions which were unique only to the camp service. Each camp was commanded by a Kommandant, sometimes referred to as Lagerkommandant, who was assisted by a camp adjutant and command staff. The prison barracks within the camp were supervised by a Rapportführer who was responsible for daily roll call and the camp daily schedule. The individual prisoner barracks were overseen by junior SS-NCOs called Blockführer who, in turn had one to two squads of SS soldiers responsible for overseeing the prisoners. Within extermination camps, the Blockführer was in charge of the Sonderkommando and was also the person who would physically gas victims in the camp gas chambers.

Sonderkommando men working at the Crematorium at Dachau

The camp perimeter and watch towers were overseen by a separate formation called the Guard Battalion, or the Wachbattalion. The guard battalion commander was responsible for providing watch bills to man guard towers and oversaw security patrols outside the camp. The battalion was organized on typical military lines with companies, platoons, and squads. The battalion commander was subordinate directly to the camp commander.

Concentration camps also had supply and medical personnel, attached to the headquarters office under the camp commander, as well as a security office with Gestapo and Sicherheitsdienst (SD) personnel attached temporarily to the camp. These security personnel, while answering to the camp commander, were also under direct command of Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo) and RSHA commanders independent of the camps. As a result, SD and Gestapo personnel within the concentration camps were seen as "outsiders" by the full-time camp personnel and frequently looked down upon with distrust by the regular SS-TV members.

In addition to the regular SS personnel assigned to the Concentration Camp, there also existed a prisoner system of trustees known as Kapos who performed a wide variety of duties from administration to overseeing other groups of prisoners. The Sonderkommando were special groups of Jewish prisoner who assisted in the extermination camps with the disposal of bodies and other tasks. The duty of actually gassing prisoners was, however, always carried out by the SS.



A mass grave in Treblinka opened in March 1943; the bodies were removed for burning. In the background, dark grey piles of ash from cremated bodies can be seen.

Eicke, in his role as the commander of the SS-TV, continued to reorganize the camp system by dismantling smaller camps. By August 1937 only Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Ravensbrück remained in Germany. In 1938 Eicke oversaw the building of new camps in Austria following the Anschluss, such as Mauthausen.

Eicke's reorganization and the introduction of forced labor made the camps one of the SS's most powerful tools, but it earned him the enmity of RSHA director, Reinhard Heydrich, who was attempting to take over control of Dachau. However, Himmler wanted to keep a separation of power so Eicke remained in command of the SS-TV and camp operations. This kept control of the camps out of the hands of the Gestapo or the SD.

In September 1939, Eicke became the commander of the SS Totenkopf Division. In 1940, the Concentration Camps Inspectorate became part of the Amt D of the Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt under SS-Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl. Eicke was replaced by his Head of Staff, SS-Gruppenführer Richard Glücks who continued to manage the camp administration until the end of the war.

In 1942 Glücks was increasingly involved in the administration of the Endlösung, supplying personnel to assist in Aktion Reinhardt (although the death camps of Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor were administered by SS-und Polizei-führer Odilo Globocnik of the General Government). [10] In July 1942, Glücks met Himmler to discuss medical experiments on concentration camp inmates. All extermination orders were issued from Glücks' office to SS-TV commands throughout Nazi Germany and occupied Europe. He specifically authorized the purchase of Zyklon B for use at Auschwitz.

Carpathian Ruthenian Jews arrive at Auschwitz–Birkenau, May 1944. Without being registered to the camp system, most were killed in gas chambers hours after arriving.

But as the tide of war changed in Europe, conditions became increasingly harsh for surviving camp inmates. In 1945 SS-TV units began to receive orders to conceal as much of the evidence of The Holocaust as possible. Camps were destroyed, sick prisoners were shot and others were marched on death marches away from the advancing Allies. The SS-TV were also instrumental in the execution of hundreds of political prisoners to prevent their liberation.

By April 1945 many SS-TV had left their posts. Due to their notoriety, some removed their death head insignia to hide their identities. Camp duties were increasingly turned over to so-called "Auxiliary-SS", soldiers and civilians conscripted as camp guards so that the Totenkopf men could escape. However, many were caught by Allied war crime investigators and tried at Nuremberg between 1946 and 1949.

SS KZ personnel

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Rudolf Höß immediately before being hanged in 1947.

From its inception, Eicke fostered an attitude of "inflexible harshness" in the SS-TV. This core belief continued to influence guards in all concentration camps even after Eicke had taken over command of the SS Totenkopf Division. Recruits were taught to hate their enemies through tough training regimes and Nazi indoctrination.

SS-TV personnel lost any compassion for camp inmates. Within camps, guards created an atmosphere of controlled, disciplined cruelty that subjugated prisoners. This brutal ethos influenced some of the SS-TV's most infamous members including Rudolf Höß, Franz Ziereis, Karl Otto Koch, Max Kögel and Amon Goeth.

In the last days of World War II, a special group called the "Auxiliary-SS" (SS-Mannschaft) was formed as a last-ditch effort to keep concentration camps running and allow regular SS personnel to escape. Auxiliary-SS members were not considered regular SS personnel, but were conscripted members from other branches of the German military, the Nazi Party, and the Volkssturm. Such personnel wore a distinctive twin swastika collar patch and served as camp guard and administrative personnel until the surrender of Germany.

Combat formations

An SS-TV Scharführer from KZ Mauthausen. His collar patch shows the Totenkopf insignia of a concentration camp guard.


  • 1st TK-Standarte Oberbayern. Formed 1937 at Dachau. During the Polish invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines. Redesignated 1. SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment[13] and assigned to the Totenkopf Division 10/39.
  • 2nd TK-Standarte Brandenburg. Formed 1937 at Oranienburg. During the Polish invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines. Redesignated 2. SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment[13] and assigned to the Totenkopf Division 10/39.
  • 3rd TK-Standarte Thüringen. Formed 1937 at Buchenwald. During the Polish invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines. Redesignated 3. SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment[13] and assigned to the Totenkopf Division, with some men forming the cadre of the 10. TK-Standarte, 11/39.
  • 4th TK-Standarte Ostmark. Formed 1938 at Vienna and Berlin. III Sturmbann Götze detached to form the core of SS Heimwehr Danzig 7/39. Garrison duty at Prague 10/39 and in Holland 6/40. Designated 4. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to 2. SS-Infanterie-Brigade 5/41.
  • SS-Wachsturmbann Eimann. Formed 1939 at Danzig. During the Polish invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines. Dissolved 1940.
  • TK-Reiter-Standarte. Formed 9/39 in Poland to conduct "security operations" behind the lines. Expanded and divided into 1. and 2. TK-Reiter-Standarten 5/40. Redesignated 1. and 2. SS-Kavallerie-Regimenter 2/41, combined into SS-Kavallerie-Brigade (later SS-Kavallerie-Division Florian Geyer) 9/41.
  • 5th TK-Standarte Dietrich Eckart. Formed 1939 at Berlin and Oranienburg. Designated 5. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to 2. SS-Infanterie-Brigade 5/41.
  • 6th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Prague. Garrison duty in Norway 5/40. Designated 6. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to Kampfgruppe Nord (later 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division Nord) spring 41.
  • 7th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Brno. Garrison duty in Norway 5/40. Designated 7. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to Kampfgruppe Nord (later 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division Nord) spring 41.
  • 8th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Crakow. Designated 8. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to 1. SS-Infanterie-Brigade 4/41.
  • 9th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Danzig. Reorganized (with elements of St. 12) into Standarte "K" (Kirkenes, Norway) 8-11/40, redesignated 9. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to Kampfgruppe Nord spring 41. Incorporated into SS-Regiment Thule 8/42.
  • 10th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Buchenwald. Garrison duties in Poland 1940. Designated 10. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to 1. SS-Infanterie-Brigade 4/41.
  • 11th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Radom. Garrison duty in Holland 5/40. Assigned to SS-Infanterie-Division (mot) Reich to replace the 2. SS-Infanterie-Regiment Germania 12/40 and redesignated 11. SS-Infanterie-Regiment.
  • TK-Standarten 12-16 were raised in the winter of 1939-40, but disbanded the following summer, their personnel used to fill out other units.

See also


  1. Sydnor, Charles W. Soldiers of Destruction: the SS Death's Head Division, 1933-1945. p. 34. 
  2. McNab, Chris. The SS: 1923–1945, p 137.
  3. McNab, Chris. The SS: 1923–1945, p 41.
  4. Padfield, Peter. Himmler, (2001) [1990], p 129.
  5. Padfield, Peter. Himmler, p 129.
  6. George H. Stein. The Waffen SS. Retrieved 2009-06-20. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Stein, George H., The Waffen SS: Hitler's Elite Guard at War, 1939-1945., p 33.
  8. Sydnor, Charles W., Soldiers of Destruction: the SS Death's Head Division, 1933-1945., p 37.
  9. Sydnor, p 134.
  10. David Crowe (2009-08-25). Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story about The List. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 The title Totenkopf was retained by these three regiments to distinguish them from the three regiments of the SS-VT


  • McNab, Chris (2001). The SS: 1923–1945, Amber Books Ltd. ISBN 978-1-906626-49-5.
  • Padfield, Peter (2001) [1990]. Himmler: Reichsführer-SS, Cassel & Co, London, ISBN 0-304-35839-8.
  • Stein, George H. (1984). The Waffen SS: Hitler's Elite Guard at War, 1939-1945. Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-9275-0.
  • Sydnor, Jr., Charles W. (1990). Soldiers of Destruction: the SS Death's Head Division, 1933-1945. Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-00853-1.

External links

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