Military Wiki
Schutzstaffel Abzeichen.svg
SS insignia (sig runes)
Flag Schutzstaffel.svg
SS flag
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H04436, Klagenfurt, Adolf Hitler, Ehrenkompanie.jpg
Adolf Hitler inspects the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler on arrival at Klagenfurt in April 1938. Heinrich Himmler is standing slightly behind Hitler's right side.
Agency overview
Formed April 4, 1925
Preceding agencies
Dissolved May 8, 1945
Superseding agency
  • SA-Logo.svg Sturmabteilung (formerly)
Type Paramilitary
Jurisdiction Nazi Germany Nazi Germany
German-occupied Europe
Headquarters SS-Hauptamt, Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, Berlin
Employees 1,250,000 (c. February 1945)
Ministers responsible
Agency executives
Parent agency Nazi Germany NSDAP
Child agencies

The Schutzstaffel (German pronunciation: [ˈʃʊtsˌʃtafəl], translated to Protection Squadron or defence corps, abbreviated SS—or Runic "ᛋᛋ" with stylized "Armanen" sig runes) was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (NSDAP). It began at the end of 1920 as a small, permanent guard unit known as the "Saal-Schutz" (Hall-Protection)[1] made up of NSDAP volunteers to provide security for Nazi Party meetings in Munich. Later, in 1925, Heinrich Himmler joined the unit which had by then been reformed and renamed the "Schutz-Staffel". Under Himmler's leadership (1929–45), it grew from a small paramilitary formation to one of the largest and most powerful organizations in the Third Reich.[2] Built upon the Nazi ideology, the SS under Himmler's command was responsible for many of the crimes against humanity during World War II (1939–45). The SS, along with the Nazi Party, was declared a criminal organization by the International Military Tribunal, and banned in Germany after 1945.


The SS grew from a small paramilitary unit to a powerful force that served as the Führer's body guard, the Nazi Party's "Protection Squadron" and a force that, fielding almost a million men (both on the front lines and as political police), managed to exert as much political influence in the Third Reich as the Wehrmacht, Germany's regular armed forces.

According to the Nuremberg Trials, as well as many war crimes investigations and trials conducted since then, the SS was responsible for the vast majority of Nazi war crimes. In particular, it was the primary organization which carried out the Holocaust.[3] 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.

Initially a small branch of the Sturmabteilung ("Brownshirts" or stormtroopers, abbreviated as SA), the SS grew in size and power due to its exclusive loyalty to Adolf Hitler, as opposed to the SA, which was seen as semi-independent and a threat to Adolf Hitler's hegemony over the party. Under Himmler, the SS selected its members according to the Nazi ideology. Creating elite police and military units such as the Waffen-SS, Adolf Hitler used the SS to form an order of men claimed to be superior in racial purity and ability to other Germans and national groups, a model for the Nazi vision of a master race. During World War II, SS units operated alongside the regular Heer (German Army). However, by the final stages of the war, the SS came to dominate the Wehrmacht in order to eliminate perceived threats to Adolf Hitler's power while implementing his strategies, despite the increasingly futile German war effort.

Chosen to implement the Nazi "Final Solution" for the Jews and other groups deemed inferior (and/or enemies of the state), the SS was the lead branch in carrying out the killing, torture and enslavement of approximately 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 trades 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.

Foreseeing defeat, a significant number of SS personnel organised their escape to South American nations. These escapes are said to have been assisted by an organisation known as ODESSA, an acronym of the German phrase Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, which translates as the Organisation of Former Members of the SS. Many others were captured and prosecuted by Allied authorities at the Nuremberg Trials for war crimes, and absconding SS criminals were the targets of police forces in various Allied nations, post-war West and East Germany, Austria and Israel.

The Nazis regarded the SS as an elite unit, the party's "Praetorian Guard", with all SS personnel (originally) selected on the principles of racial purity and loyalty to the Nazi Party and Germany.[3][4] The SS was restricted for people to people who were only of "pure Aryan German" ancestry, requiring proof of racial purity,[5] in the early days of the SS, it was required that officer candidates had to trace and prove their family had no Jewish ancestors and were only of German "Aryan" ancestry back to 1750 and for other ranks to 1800.[6][7] 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.

In contrast to the black-uniformed Allgemeine SS (the political wing of the SS), the Waffen-SS (the military wing) evolved into a second German army aside the Wehrmacht (the regular national armed forces) and operating in tandem with them; especially with the Heer (German Army).

Special ranks and uniforms

The SS was distinguished from other branches of the German military, the National Socialist Party, and German state officials by its own rank structure, unit insignia, and uniforms. The all-black SS uniform was designed by SS-Oberführer Prof. Karl Diebitsch and graphic designer SS-Sturmhauptführer Walter Heck.[8] 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.[9] In place of the black uniform, SS men wore uniforms of earth-grey (Erdgrau) or Army field-grey (grey-green) with distinctive insignia. The uniforms were made by hundreds of clothing factories licensed by the RZM, including Hugo Boss, with some workers being prisoners of war forced into labour work.[10] Many were made in concentration camps. The SS also developed its own field uniforms. Initially these were similar to standard Wehrmacht wool uniforms but they also included reversible smocks and helmet covers printed with camouflage patterns with a brown–green "spring" side and a brown–brown "autumn" side. In 1944 the Waffen-SS began using a universal camouflage uniform intended to replace the wool field uniform.

File:Finnish SS volunteers in Gross Born.jpg

Finnish Waffen-SS volunteers of the battalion in Gross Born Truppenlager in 1941.


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 organisation.[11] The SS also 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 organisation 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.

Merger with police forces

As the Nazi party monopolized political power in Germany, key government functions such as law enforcement were absorbed by the SS, while many SS organizations became de facto government agencies. To maintain the political power and security of the Nazi party (and later the nation), the SS established and ran the SD (Security service) and took over the administration of Gestapo (Secret state police), Kripo (criminal investigative police), and the Orpo (regular uniformed police).[12] Moreover, legal jurisdiction over the SS and its members was taken away from the civilian courts and given to courts run by the SS itself. These actions effectively put the SS above the law.

Personal control by Himmler

Inspection by Himmler at Dachau on 8 May 1936.

Himmler, the leader of the SS, was a chief architect of the Final Solution. The SS Einsatzgruppen death squads, formed by his deputy, Heydrich, murdered many civilian non-combatants, primarily Jews, in the countries occupied by Germany during World War II. Himmler was responsible for establishing and operating concentration camps and extermination camps in which millions of inmates died of systematic mass gassing, shooting, hanging, inhumane treatment, overwork, malnutrition or medical experiments. After the war, the judges of the Nuremberg Trials declared the SS and its sub-parts criminal organizations responsible for the implementation of racial policies of genocide and committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.


The history of the SS may be grouped into several key periods of the organization's existence. The first group associated with SS (but not known as such) existed briefly in 1923, before being disbanded and re-founded in 1925. This second version of the SS, sometimes known as the "Pre-Himmler SS", existed from 1925 to 1929; then the more recognizable SS under Heinrich Himmler came into being. Himmler's SS existed from 1929 to 1945, and may itself be divided into a peacetime SS until 1939, replaced by a wartime SS lasting until the end of World War II. The group was formally disbanded upon the defeat of Nazi Germany.


Forerunner of the SS

NSDAP supporters and stormtroopers in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch, 1923

By 1923, the Nazi Party (NSDAP) led by Adolf Hitler had created a small volunteer guard unit known as the Saal-Schutz (Hall Security) to provide security at their meetings in Munich.[13][14] The same year, Hitler ordered the formation of a small bodyguard unit dedicated to his personal service. He wished it to be separate from the "suspect mass" of the party, including the paramilitary Sturmabteilung ("Storm Battalion"; SA), which he did not trust.[15] The new formation was designated the Stabswache (Staff Guard).[16] Originally the unit was composed of 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 renamed Stoßtrupp (Shock Troops) in May 1923.[17][18]

The Stoßtrupp was abolished after the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt by the NSDAP to seize power in Munich.[19] In 1925, Hitler ordered Schreck to organize a new bodyguard unit, the Schutzkommando (Protection Command).[20] It was tasked with providing personal protection for Hitler at NSDAP functions and events. That same year, the Schutzkommando was expanded to a national organization and renamed successively the Sturmstaffel (Storm Squadron), and finally the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squad; SS).[21] Officially, the SS marked its foundation on 9 November 1925 (the second anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch).[22] The new SS protected NSDAP leaders throughout Germany. Hitler's personal SS protection unit was later enlarged to include combat units.[23]

Early commanders

Schreck, a founding member of the SA and a close confidant of Hitler, became the first SS chief in March 1925.[24] On 15 April 1926, Joseph Berchtold succeeded him as chief of the SS. Berchtold changed the title of the office to Reichsführer-SS (Reich Leader-SS).[25] Berchtold was considered more dynamic than his predecessor, but became increasingly frustrated by the authority the SA had over the SS.[26] This led to him transferring leadership of the SS to his deputy, Erhard Heiden, on 1 March 1927.[27] Under Heiden's leadership, a stricter code of discipline was enforced than would have been tolerated in the SA.[26]

Between 1925 and 1929, the SS was considered to be a small Gruppe (battalion) of the SA.[28] Except in the Munich area, the SS was unable to maintain any momentum in its membership numbers, which declined from 1,000 to 280 as the SA continued its rapid growth.[29] As Heiden attempted to keep the SS from dissolving, Heinrich Himmler became his deputy in September 1927. Himmler displayed good organizational abilities compared to Heiden.[28] The SS established a number of Gaus (regions or provinces). 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.[30]

Himmler appointed

Heinrich Himmler (with glasses, to the left of Adolf Hitler) was an early supporter of the NSDAP.

With Hitler's approval, Himmler assumed the position of Reichsführer-SS in January 1929.[31][32] There are differing accounts of the reason for Heiden's dismissal from his position as head of the SS. The party announced that it was for "family reasons."[33] Under Himmler, the SS expanded and gained a larger foothold. He considered the SS an elite, ideologically driven National Socialist organization, a "conflation of Teutonic knights, the Jesuits, and Japanese Samurai".[34] His ultimate aim was to turn the SS into the most powerful organization in Germany and most influential branch of the party.[35] He expanded the SS to 3,000 members in his first year as its leader.[34]

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-Gaue were divided into three SS-Oberführerbereiche areas, namely the SS-Oberführerbereich Ost, SS-Oberführerbereich West, and SS-Oberführerbereich Süd.[36] The lower levels of the SS remained largely unchanged. Although officially still considered a sub-organization of the SA and answerable to the Stabschef (SA Chief of Staff), it was also during this time that Himmler began to establish the independence of the SS from the SA.[37] 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 NSDAP to power.[38] By the end of 1933, the membership of the SS reached 209,000.[39] Under Himmler's leadership, the SS continued to gather greater power as more and more state and party functions were assigned to its jurisdiction. Over time the SS became answerable only to Hitler, a development typical of the organizational structure of the entire Nazi regime, where legal norms were replaced by actions undertaken under the Führerprinzip (leader principle), where Hitler's will was considered to be above the law.[40]

In the latter half of 1934, Himmler oversaw the creation of SS-Junkerschule, institutions where SS officer candidates received leadership training, political and ideological indoctrination, and military instruction. The training stressed ruthlessness and toughness as part of the SS value system, which helped foster a sense of superiority among the men and taught them self-confidence.[41] The first schools were established at Bad Tölz and Braunschweig, with additional schools opening at Klagenfurt and Prague during the war.[42]


The SS was regarded as the NSDAP's elite unit.[43] In keeping with the racial policy of Nazi Germany, in the early days all SS officer candidates had to provide proof of Aryan ancestry back to 1750 and for other ranks to 1800.[44] Once the war started and it became more difficult to confirm ancestry, the regulation was amended to just proving the candidate's grandparents were Aryan, as spelled out in the Nuremberg Laws.[45] Other requirements were complete obedience to the Führer and a commitment to the German people and nation.[46] Himmler also tried to institute physical criteria based on appearance and height, but these requirements were only loosely enforced, and over half the SS men did not meet the criteria.[47] Inducements such as higher salaries and larger homes were provided to members of the SS since they were expected to produce more children than the average German family as part of their commitment to NSDAP doctrine.[48]

The crypt at Wewelsburg was repurposed by Himmler as a place to memorialize dead SS members.[49] Artwork commemorating the Holocaust hangs on the walls.

Commitment to SS ideology was emphasized throughout the recruitment, membership process, and training.[50] Members of the SS were indoctrinated in the racial policy of Nazi Germany, and were taught that it was necessary to remove from Germany people deemed by that policy as inferior.[51] Esoteric rituals and the awarding of regalia and insignia for milestones in the SS man's career suffused SS members even further with Nazi ideology.[52] Members were expected to renounce their Christian faith, and Christmas was replaced with a solstice celebration.[53] Church weddings were replaced with SS Ehewein, a pagan ceremony invented by Himmler.[54] These pseudo-religious rites and ceremonies often took place near SS-dedicated monuments or in special SS-designated places.[55] In 1933, Himmler bought Wewelsburg, a castle in Westphalia. He initially intended it to be used as an SS training center, but its role came to include hosting SS dinners and neo-pagan rituals.[56]

The SS ideology included the application of brutality and terror as a solution to military and political problems.[57] The SS stressed total loyalty and obedience to orders unto death. Hitler used this as a powerful tool to further his aims and those of the NSDAP. The SS was entrusted with the commission of atrocities, illegal activities, and war crimes. Himmler once wrote that an SS man "hesitates not for a single instant, but executes unquestioningly ..." any Führer-Befehl (Führer order).[58] Their official motto was "Meine Ehre heißt Treue" (My Honour is Loyalty).[59]

As part of its race-centric functions during World War II, the SS oversaw the isolation and displacement of Jews from the populations of the conquered territories, seizing their assets and deporting them to concentration camps and ghettos, where they were used as slave labor or immediately killed.[45] Chosen to implement the Final Solution ordered by Hitler, the SS were the main group responsible for the institutional killing and democide of more than 20 million people during the Holocaust, including approximately 5.2 million[60] to 6 million[61] Jews and 10.5 million Slavs.[60] A significant number of victims were members of other racial or ethnic groups such as the 258,000 Romani.[60] The SS was involved in killing people 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 that opposed the regime (religious, political, social, and otherwise), or those whose views were contradictory to the goals of the NSDAP government, were rounded up in large numbers; these included clergy of all faiths, Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons, Communists, and Rotary Club members.[62] According to the judgments rendered at 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 organization which carried out the Holocaust.[63]

Pre-war Germany

After Hitler and the NSDAP came to power on 30 January 1933, the SS was considered a state organization and a branch of the government.[64] Law enforcement gradually became the purview of the SS, and many SS organizations became de facto government agencies.[65]

Reinhard Heydrich (right) was Himmler's protégé and a leading SS figure until his assassination in 1942.

The SS established a police state within Nazi Germany, using the secret state police and security forces under Himmler's control to suppress resistance to Hitler.[66] In his role as Minister President of Prussia, Hermann Göring had in 1933 created a Prussian secret police force, the Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo, and appointed Rudolf Diels as its head. Concerned that Diels was not ruthless enough to use the Gestapo effectively to counteract the power of the SA, Göring handed over its control to Himmler on 20 April 1934.[67] Also on that date, in a departure from long-standing German practice that law enforcement was a state and local matter, Hitler appointed Himmler chief of all German police outside Prussia. Himmler named his deputy and protégé Reinhard Heydrich chief of the Gestapo on 22 April 1934. Heydrich also continued as head of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD; security service).[68]

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.[69] The SS and Gestapo carried out most of the killings. On 20 July 1934, Hitler detached the SS from the SA, which was no longer an influential force after the purge. The SS became an elite corps of the NSDAP, answerable only to Hitler. Himmler's title of Reichsführer-SS now became his actual rank – and the highest rank in the SS, equivalent to the rank of field marshal in the army (his previous rank was Obergruppenführer).[70] As Himmler's position and authority grew, so in effect did his rank.[71]

On 17 June 1936, all police forces throughout Germany were united under the purview of Himmler and the SS.[65] Himmler and Heydrich thus became two of the most powerful men in the country's administration.[72] Police and intelligence forces brought under their administrative control included the SD, Gestapo, Kriminalpolizei (Kripo; criminal investigative police), and Ordnungspolizei (Orpo; regular uniformed police).[73] In his capacity as police chief, Himmler was nominally subordinate to Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick. In practice, since the SS answered only to Hitler, the de facto merger of the SS and the police made the police independent of Frick's control.[64][74] In September 1939, the security and police agencies, including the Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo; security police) and SD (but not the Orpo), were consolidated into the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), headed by Heydrich.[75] This further increased the collective authority of the SS.[76]

During Kristallnacht (9–10 November 1938), SS security services clandestinely coordinated violence against Jews as the SS, Gestapo, SD, Kripo, SiPo, and regular police did what they could to ensure that while Jewish synagogues and community centers were destroyed, Jewish-owned businesses and housing remained intact so that they could later be seized.[77] In the end, thousands of Jewish businesses, homes, and graveyards were vandalized and looted, particularly by members of the SA. Some 500 to 1,000 synagogues were destroyed, mostly by arson.[78] On 11 November, Heydrich reported a death toll of 36 people, but later assessments put the number of deaths at up to two thousand.[79][80] On Hitler's orders, around 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps by 16 November.[81] As many as 2,500 of these people died in the following months.[79] It was at this point that the SS state began in earnest its campaign of terror against political and religious opponents, who they imprisoned without trial or judicial oversight for the sake of "security, re-education, or prevention".[82][83]

In September 1939, the authority of the SS expanded further when the senior SS officer in each military district also became its chief of police.[84] Most of these SS and police leaders held the rank of SS-Gruppenführer or above, and answered directly to Himmler in all SS matters within their district. Their role was to police the population and oversee the activities of the SS men within their district.[85] By declaring an emergency, they could bypass the district administrative offices for the SS, SD, SiPo, SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV; concentration camp guards), and Orpo, thereby gaining direct operational control of these groups.[86]

Hitler's personal bodyguards

Troop inspection in Berlin of Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 1938

As the SS grew in size and importance, so too did Hitler's personal protection forces.[87] Three main SS groups were assigned to protect Hitler. In 1933, his larger personal bodyguard unit (previously the 1st SS-Standarte) was called to Berlin to replace the Army Chancellery Guard, assigned to protect the Chancellor of Germany.[88] Sepp Dietrich commanded the new unit, previously known as SS-Stabswache Berlin; the name was changed to SS-Sonderkommando Berlin. In November 1933, the name was changed to Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. In April 1934, Himmler modified the name to Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). The LSSAH guarded Hitler's private residences and offices, providing an outer ring of protection for the Führer and his visitors.[89] LSSAH men manned sentry posts at the entrances to the old Reich Chancellery and the new Reich Chancellery.[90] The number of LSSAH guards was increased during special events.[91] At the Berghof, Hitler's residence in the Obersalzberg, a large contingent of the LSSAH patrolled an extensive cordoned security zone.[92]

From 1941 forward, the Leibstandarte became four distinct entities, the Waffen-SS division (unconnected to Hitler's protection but a formation of the Waffen-SS), the Berlin Chancellory Guard, the SS security regiment assigned to the Obersalzberg, and a Munich-based bodyguard unit which protected Hitler when he visited his apartment and the Brown House NSDAP headquarters in Munich.[93][94] Although the unit was nominally under Himmler, Dietrich was the real commander and handled day-to-day administration.[95]

Two other SS units composed the inner ring of Hitler's protection. The SS-Begleitkommando des Führers (Escort Command of the Führer), formed in February 1932, served as Hitler's protection escort while he was traveling. This unit consisted of eight men who served around the clock protecting Hitler in shifts.[96] Later the SS-Begleitkommando was expanded and became known as the Führerbegleitkommando (Führer Escort Command; FBK). It continued under separate command and remained responsible for Hitler's protection.[97] The Führer Schutzkommando (Führer Protection Command; FSK) was a protection unit founded by Himmler in March 1933.[98] Originally it was charged with protecting Hitler only while he was inside the borders of Bavaria. In early 1934, they replaced the SS-Begleitkommando for Hitler's protection throughout Germany.[99] The FSK was renamed the Reichssicherheitsdienst (Reich Security Service; RSD) in August 1935.[100] Johann Rattenhuber, chief of the RSD, for the most part, took his orders directly from Hitler.[100] The current FBK chief acted as his deputy. Wherever Hitler was in residence, members of the RSD and FBK would be present. RSD men patrolled the grounds and FBK men provided close security protection inside. The RSD and FBK worked together for security and personal protection during Hitler's trips and public events, but they operated as two groups and used separate vehicles.[101] By March 1938, both units wore the standard field grey uniform of the SS.[102] The RSD uniform had the SD diamond on the lower left sleeve.[103]

Concentration camps founded

Crematorium at Dachau concentration camp, May 1945 (photo taken after liberation)

The SS was closely associated with Nazi Germany's concentration camp system. On 26 June 1933, Himmler appointed SS-Oberführer Theodor Eicke as commandant of Dachau concentration camp, one of the first Nazi concentration camps.[104] It was created to consolidate the many small camps that had been set up by various police agencies and the NSDAP to house political prisoners.[105] The organizational structure Eicke instituted at Dachau stood as the model for all later concentration camps.[106] After 1934, Eicke was named commander of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), the SS formation responsible for running the concentration camps under the authority of the SS and Himmler.[107] 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. Leadership at the camps was divided into five departments: commander and adjutant, political affairs division, protective custody, administration, and medical personnel.[108] By 1935, Himmler secured Hitler's approval and the finances necessary to establish and operate additional camps.[109] Six concentration camps[lower-alpha 1] housing 21,400 inmates (mostly political prisoners) existed at the start of the war in September 1939.[111] By the end of the war, hundreds of camps of varying size and function had been created, holding nearly 715,000 people, most of whom were targeted by the regime because of their race.[112][113] The concentration camp population rose in tandem with the defeats suffered by the Nazi regime; the worse the catastrophe seemed, the greater the fear of subversion, prompting the SS to intensify their repression and terror.[114]

SS in World War II

By the outbreak of World War II, the SS had consolidated into its final form, which comprised three main organizations: the Allgemeine SS, SS-Totenkopfverbände, and the Waffen-SS, which was founded in 1934 as the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT) and renamed in 1940.[115][116] The Waffen-SS evolved into a second German army alongside the Wehrmacht and operated in tandem with them, especially with the Heer (German Army).[117] However, it never obtained total "independence of command", nor was it ever a "serious rival" to the German Army. Members were never able to join the ranks of the German High Command and it was dependent on the army for heavy weaponry and equipment.[118] Although SS ranks generally had equivalents in the other services, the SS rank system did not copy the terms and ranks used by the Wehrmacht's branches. Instead, it used the ranks established by the post-World War I Freikorps and the SA. This was primarily done to emphasize the SS as being independent of the Wehrmacht.[119]

Invasion of Poland

Polish Jews arrested by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and police, September 1939

In the September 1939 invasion of Poland, the LSSAH and SS-VT fought as separate mobile infantry regiments.[120] The LSSAH became notorious for torching villages without military justification.[121] Members of the LSSAH committed atrocities in numerous towns, including the murder of 50 Polish Jews in Błonie and the massacre of 200 civilians, including children, who were machine-gunned in Złoczew. Shootings also took place in Bolesławiec, Torzeniec, Goworowo, Mława, and Włocławek.[122] Some senior members of the Wehrmacht were not convinced the units were fully prepared for combat. Its units took unnecessary risks and had a higher casualty rate than the army.[123] Generaloberst Fedor von Bock was quite critical; following an April 1940 visit of the SS-Totenkopf division, he found their battle training was "insufficient".[124] Hitler thought the criticism was typical of the army's "outmoded conception of chivalry."[125] In its defense, the SS insisted that its armed formations had been hampered by having to fight piecemeal and were improperly equipped by the army.[123]

After the invasion, Hitler entrusted the SS with extermination actions codenamed Operation Tannenberg and AB-Aktion to remove potential leaders who could form a resistance to German occupation. The killings were committed by Einsatzgruppen (task forces; deployment groups), assisted by local paramilitary groups. Men for the Einsatzgruppen units were drawn from the SS, the SD, and the police.[126] Some 65,000 Polish civilians, including activists, intelligentsia, scholars, teachers, actors, former officers, and others, were killed by the end of 1939.[127][128] When the army leadership registered complaints about the brutality being meted out by the Einsatzgruppen, Heydrich informed them that he was acting "in accordance with the special order of the Führer."[129] The first systematic mass shooting of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen took place on 6 September 1939 during the attack on Kraków.[130]

Einsatzgruppe shoot civilians in Kórnik, 1939

Satisfied with their performance in Poland, Hitler allowed further expansion of the armed SS formations, but insisted new units remain under the operational control of the army.[131] While the SS-Leibstandarte remained an independent regiment functioning as Hitler's personal bodyguards, the other regiments—SS-Deutschland, SS-Germania, and SS-Der Führer—were combined to form the SS-Verfügungs-Division.[132][123] A second SS division, the SS-Totenkopf, was formed from SS-TV concentration camp guards, and a third, the SS-Polizei, was created from police volunteers.[133][134] The SS gained control over its own recruitment, logistics, and supply systems for its armed formations at this time.[134] The SS, Gestapo, and SD were in charge of the provisional military administration in Poland until the appointment of Hans Frank as Governor-General on 26 October 1939.[135][136]

Battle of France

On 10 May 1940, Hitler launched the Battle of France, a major offensive against France and the Low Countries.[137] The SS supplied two of the 89 divisions employed.[138] The LSSAH and elements of the SS-VT participated in the ground invasion of the Battle of the Netherlands.[139] Simultaneously, airborne troops were dropped to capture key Dutch airfields, bridges, and railways. In the five-day campaign, the LSSAH linked up with army units and airborne troops after several clashes with Dutch defenders.[139]

Himmler inspecting Sturmgeschütz III of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler in Metz, France, September 1940

SS troops did not take part in the thrust through the Ardennes and the river Meuse.[139] Instead, the SS-Totenkopf was summoned from the army reserve to fight in support of Generalmajor Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division as they advanced toward the English Channel.[140] On 21 May, the British launched an armored counterattack against the flanks of the 7th Panzer Division and SS-Totenkopf. The Germans then trapped the British and French troops in a huge pocket at Dunkirk.[141] On 27 May, 4 Company, SS-Totenkopf perpetrated the Le Paradis massacre, where 97 men of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment were machine-gunned after surrendering, with survivors finished off with bayonets. Two men survived.[142] By 28 May the SS-Leibstandarte had taken Wormhout, 10 miles (16 km) 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.[143] According to historian Charles Sydnor, the "fanatical recklessness in the assault, suicidal defense against enemy attacks, and savage atrocities committed in the face of frustrated objectives" exhibited by the SS-Totenkopf division during the invasion were typical of the SS troops as a whole.[144]

At the close of the campaign, Hitler expressed his pleasure with the performance of the SS-Leibstandarte, telling them: "Henceforth it will be an honor for you, who bear my name, to lead every German attack."[145] The SS-VT was renamed the Waffen-SS in a speech made by Hitler in July 1940.[116] Hitler then authorized the enlistment of "people perceived to be of related stock", as Himmler put it, to expand the ranks.[146] Danes, Dutch, Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns volunteered to fight in the Waffen-SS under the command of German officers.[147] They were brought together to form the new division SS-Wiking.[146] In January 1941, the SS-Verfügungs Division was renamed SS-Reich Division (Motorized), and was renamed as the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich when it was reorganized as a Panzergrenadier division in 1942.[148]

Campaign in the Balkans

In April 1941, the German Army invaded Yugoslavia and Greece. The LSSAH and Das Reich were attached to separate army Panzer corps. Fritz Klingenberg, a company commander in the Das Reich, led his men across Yugoslavia to the capital, Belgrade, where a small group in the vanguard accepted the surrender of the city on 13 April. A few days later Yugoslavia surrendered.[149][150] SS police units immediately began taking hostages and carrying out reprisals, a practice that became common. In some cases, they were joined by the Wehrmacht.[151] 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) declared Judenfrei (free of Jews).[152]

In Greece, the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS encountered resistance from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and Greek Army.[153] The fighting was intensified by the mountainous terrain, with its heavily defended narrow passes. The LSSAH was at the forefront of the German push.[154] The BEF evacuated by sea to Crete, but had to flee again in late May when the Germans arrived.[155] Like Yugoslavia, the conquest of Greece brought its Jews into danger, as the Nazis immediately took a variety of measures against them.[156] Initially confined in ghettos, most were transported to Auschwitz concentration camp in March 1943, where they were killed in the gas chambers on arrival. Of Greece's 80,000 Jews, only 20 percent survived the war.[157]

War in the east

On 22 June 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.[158] 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.[159] Rapid acquisition of vast territories in the East placed considerable strain on the SS police organizations as they struggled to adjust to the changing security challenges.[160]

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, but 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 formed firing parties that participated in the liquidation of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union.[161][162]

On 31 July 1941, Göring gave Heydrich written authorization to ensure the cooperation of administrative leaders of various government departments to undertake genocide of the Jews in territories under German control.[163] Heydrich was instrumental in carrying out these exterminations, as the Gestapo was ready to organize deportations in the West and his Einsatzgruppen were already conducting extensive killing operations in the East.[164] On 20 January 1942, Heydrich chaired a meeting, called the Wannsee Conference, to discuss the implementation of the plan.[165]

During battles in the Soviet Union during 1941 and 1942, the Waffen-SS suffered enormous casualties. The LSSAH and Das Reich lost over half their troops to illness and combat casualties.[166] In need of recruits, Himmler began to accept soldiers that did not fit the original SS racial profile.[167] In early 1942, SS-Leibstandarte, SS-Totenkopf, and SS-Das Reich were withdrawn to the West to refit and were converted to Panzergrenadier divisions.[168] The SS-Panzer Corps returned to the Soviet Union in 1943 and participated in the Third Battle of Kharkov in February and March.[169]

The Holocaust

Einsatzgruppen murder Jews in Ivanhorod, Ukraine, 1942

The SS was built on a culture of violence, which was exhibited in its most extreme form by the mass murder of civilians and prisoners of war on the Eastern Front.[170] Augmented by personnel from the Kripo, Orpo (Order Police), and Waffen-SS,[171] the Einsatzgruppen reached a total strength of 3,000 men. Einsatzgruppen A, B, and C were attached to Army Groups North, Centre, and South; Einsatzgruppe D was assigned to the 11th Army. The Einsatzgruppe for Special Purposes operated in eastern Poland starting in July 1941.[172] The historian Richard Rhodes describes them as being "outside the bounds of morality"; they were "judge, jury and executioner all in one", with the authority to kill anyone at their discretion.[173] Following Operation Barbarossa, these Einsatzgruppen units, together with the Waffen-SS and Order Police as well as with assistance from the Wehrmacht, engaged in the mass killing of the Jewish population in occupied eastern Poland and the Soviet Union.[173][174][175] The greatest extent of Einsatzgruppen action occurred in 1941 and 1942 in Ukraine and Russia.[176] Before the invasion there were five million registered Jews throughout the Soviet Union, with three million of those residing in the territories occupied by the Germans; by the time the war ended, over two million of these had been murdered.[177]

The extermination activities of the Einsatzgruppen generally followed a standard procedure, with the Einsatzgruppen chief contacting the nearest Wehrmacht unit commander to inform him of the impending action; this was done so they could coordinate and control access to the execution grounds.[178] Initially, the victims were shot, but this method proved impracticable for an operation of this scale.[179] Also, after Himmler observed the shooting of 100 Jews at Minsk in August 1941, he grew concerned about the impact such actions were having on the mental health of his SS men. He decided that alternate methods of killing should be found, which led to introduction of gas vans.[180][181] However, these were not popular with the men, because removing the dead bodies from the van and burying them was a horrible ordeal. Prisoners or auxiliaries were often assigned to do this task so as to spare the SS men the trauma.[182]

Anti-partisan operations

In response to the army's difficulties in dealing with Soviet partisans, Hitler decided in July 1942 to transfer anti-partisan operations to the police. This placed the matter under Himmler's purview.[183][184] As Hitler had ordered on 8 July 1941 that all Jews were to be regarded as partisans, the term "anti-partisan operations" was used as a euphemism for the murder of Jews as well as actual combat against resistance elements.[185][186] In July 1942 Himmler ordered that the term "partisan" should no longer be used; instead resisters to Nazi rule would be described as "bandits".[187]

Himmler set the SS and SD to work on developing additional anti-partisan tactics and launched a propaganda campaign.[188] Sometime in June 1943, Himmler issued the Bandenbekämpfung (bandit fighting) order, simultaneously announcing the existence of the Bandenkampfverbände (bandit fighting formations), with SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski as its chief. Employing troops primarily from the SS police and Waffen-SS, the Bandenkampfverbände had four principal operational components: propaganda, centralized control and coordination of security operations, training of troops, and battle operations.[189] Once the Wehrmacht had secured territorial objectives, the Bandenkampfverbände first secured communications facilities, roads, railways, and waterways. Thereafter, they secured rural communities and economic installations such as factories and administrative buildings. An additional priority was securing agricultural and forestry resources. The SS oversaw the collection of the harvest, which was deemed critical to strategic operations.[190] Any Jews in the area were rounded up and killed. Communists and people of Asiatic descent were killed presumptively under the assumption that they were Soviet agents.[191]

Death camps

Jews from Carpathian Ruthenia arriving at Auschwitz concentration camp, 1944

After the start of the war, Himmler intensified the activity of the SS within Germany and in Nazi-occupied Europe. Increasing numbers of Jews and German citizens deemed politically suspect or social outsiders were arrested.[192] As the Nazi regime became more oppressive, the concentration camp system grew in size and lethal operation, and grew in scope as the economic ambitions of the SS intensified.[193]

Intensification of the killing operations took place in late 1941 when the SS began construction of stationary gassing facilities to replace the use of Einsatzgruppen for mass killings.[194][195] Victims at these new extermination camps were killed with the use of carbon monoxide gas from automobile engines.[196] During Operation Reinhard, run by officers from the Totenkopfverbände, who were sworn to secrecy, three death camps were built in occupied Poland: Bełżec (operational by March 1942), Sobibór (operational by May 1942), and Treblinka (operational by July 1942),[197] with squads of Trawniki men (Eastern European collaborators) overseeing hundreds of Sonderkommando prisoners,[lower-alpha 2] who were forced to work in the gas chambers and crematoria before being murdered themselves.[198] On Himmler's orders, by early 1942 the concentration camp at Auschwitz was greatly expanded to include the addition of gas chambers, where victims were killed using the pesticide Zyklon B.[199][200]

For administrative reasons, all concentration camp guards and administrative staff became full members of the Waffen-SS in 1942. The concentration camps were placed under the command of the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (SS Main Economic and Administrative Office; WVHA) under Oswald Pohl.[201] Richard Glücks served as the Inspector of Concentration Camps, which in 1942 became office "D" under the WVHA.[202][203] Exploitation and extermination became a balancing act as the military situation deteriorated. The labor needs of the war economy, especially for skilled workers, meant that some Jews escaped the genocide.[204] On 30 October 1942, due to severe labor shortages, Himmler ordered that large numbers of able-bodied people in the Soviet-occupied territories should be taken prisoner and sent to Germany as forced labor.[205]

By 1944, the SS-TV had been organized into three divisions: staff of the concentration camps in Germany and Austria, in the occupied territories, and of the extermination camps in Poland. By 1944, it became standard practice to rotate SS members in and out of the camps, partly based on manpower needs, but also to provide easier assignments to wounded Waffen-SS members.[206] This rotation of personnel meant that nearly the entire SS knew what was going on inside the concentration camps, making the entire organization liable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.[207]

Business empire

In 1934, Himmler founded the first SS business venture, Nordland-Verlag, a publishing house that released propaganda material and SS training manuals. Thereafter, he purchased Allach Porcelain, which then began to produce SS memorabilia.[208] Because of the labor shortage and a desire for financial gain, the SS started exploiting concentration camp inmates as slave labor.[209] Most of the SS businesses lost money until Himmler placed them under the administration of Pohl's Verwaltung und Wirtschaftshauptamt Hauptamt (Administration and Business office; VuWHA) in 1939.[203] Even then, most of the enterprises were poorly run and did not fare well, as SS men were not selected for their business experience, and the workers were starving.[210] In July 1940 Pohl established the Deutsche Wirtschaftsbetriebe GmbH (German Businesses Ltd; DWB), an umbrella corporation under which he took over administration of all SS business concerns.[211] Eventually, the SS founded nearly 200 holding companies for their businesses.[212]

Extermination through labor. At Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, inmates were forced to carry heavy granite blocks out of the quarry on the "Stairs of Death".

In May 1941 the VuWHA founded the Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke GmbH (German Equipment Works; DAW), which was created to integrate the SS business enterprises with the burgeoning concentration camp system.[213] Himmler subsequently established four major new concentration camps in 1941: Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Natzweiler-Struthof, and Neuengamme. Each had at least one factory or quarry nearby where the inmates were forced to work.[214] Himmler took a particular interest in providing laborers for IG Farben, which was constructing a synthetic rubber factory at Auschwitz III–Monowitz.[215] The plant was almost ready to commence production when it was overrun by Soviet troops in 1945.[216] The life expectancy of inmates at Monowitz averaged about three months.[217] This was typical of the camps, as inmates were underfed and lived under disastrously bad living conditions. Their workload was intentionally made impossibly high, under the policy of extermination through labor.[218]

In 1942, Himmler consolidated all of the offices for which Pohl was responsible into one, creating the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office (Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA).[201] The entire concentration camp system was placed under the authority of the WVHA.[202] The SS owned Sudetenquell GmbH, a mineral water producer in Sudetenland. By 1944, the SS had purchased 75 percent of the mineral water producers in Germany and were intending to acquire a monopoly.[219] Several concentration camps produced building materials such as stone, bricks, and cement for the SS-owned Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke (German Earth And Stone Works; DEST).[220] In the occupied Eastern territories, the SS acquired a monopoly in brick production by seizing all 300 extant brickworks.[219] The DWB also founded the Ost-Deutsche Baustoffwerke (East German Building Supply Works; GmbH or ODBS) and Deutsche Edelmöbel GmbH (German Noble Furniture). These operated in factories the SS had confiscated from Jews and Poles.[221]

The SS owned experimental farms, bakeries, meat packing plants, leather works, clothing and uniform factories, and small arms factories.[222][223] Under the direction of the WVHA, the SS sold camp labor to various factories at a rate of three to six Reichsmarks per prisoner per day.[224] The SS confiscated and sold the property of concentration camp inmates, confiscated their investment portfolios and their cash, and profited from their dead bodies by selling their hair to make felt and melting down their dental work to obtain gold from the fillings.[225] The total value of assets looted from the victims of Operation Reinhard alone (not including Auschwitz) was listed by Odilo Globocnik as 178,745,960.59 Reichsmarks. Items seized included 2,909.68 kilograms of gold worth 843,802.75 RM, as well as 18,733.69 kg of silver, 1,514 kg of platinum, 249,771.50 American dollars, 130 diamond solitaires, 2,511.87 carats of brilliants, 13,458.62 carats of diamonds, and 114 kg of pearls.[226] According to Nazi legislation, Jewish property belonged to the state, but many SS camp commandants and guards stole items such as diamonds or currency for personal gain or took seized foodstuffs and liquor to sell on the black market.[227]

Military reversals

On 5 July 1943, the Germans launched the Battle of Kursk, an offensive designed to eliminate the Kursk salient.[228] The Waffen-SS by this time had been expanded to 12 divisions, and most took part in the battle.[229] Due to stiff Soviet resistance, Hitler halted the attack by the evening of 12 July. On 17 July he called off the operation and ordered a withdrawal.[230] Thereafter, the Germans were forced onto the defensive as the Red Army began the liberation of Western Russia.[231] The losses incurred by the Waffen-SS and the Wehrmacht during the Battle of Kursk occurred nearly simultaneously with the Allied assault into Italy, opening a two-front war for Germany.[232]

Normandy landings

Indian Legion troops of the Waffen-SS guard the Atlantic Wall in Bordeaux, 21 March 1944

Alarmed by the raids on St Nazaire and Dieppe in 1942, Hitler had ordered the construction of fortifications he called the Atlantic Wall all along the Atlantic coast, from Spain to Norway, to protect against an expected Allied invasion.[233] Concrete gun emplacements were constructed at strategic points along the coast, and wooden stakes, metal tripods, mines, and large anti-tank obstacles were placed on the beaches to delay the approach of landing craft and impede the movement of tanks.[234] In addition to several static infantry divisions, eleven panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions were deployed nearby.[235][236] Four of these formations were Waffen-SS divisions.[237] In addition, the SS-Das Reich was located in Southern France, the LSSAH was in Belgium refitting after fighting in the Soviet Union, and the newly formed panzer division SS-Hitlerjugend, consisting of 17- and 18-year-old Hitler Youth members supported by combat veterans and experienced NCOs, was stationed west of Paris.[238] The creation of the SS-Hitlerjugend was a sign of Hitler's desperation for more troops, especially ones with unquestioning obedience.[239]

The Normandy landings took place beginning 6 June 1944. 21st Panzer Division under Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger, positioned south of Caen, was the only panzer division close to the beaches. The division included 146 tanks and 50 assault guns, plus supporting infantry and artillery.[240] At 02:00, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Richter, commander of the 716th Static Infantry Division, ordered 21st Panzer Division into position to counter-attack. However, as the division was part of the armored reserve, Feuchtinger was obliged to seek clearance from OKW before he could commit his formation.[241] Feuchtinger did not receive orders until nearly 09:00, but in the meantime, on his own initiative he put together a battle group (including tanks) to fight the British forces east of the Orne.[242] SS-Hitlerjugend began to deploy in the afternoon of 6 June, with its units undertaking defensive actions the following day. They also took part in the Battle for Caen (June–August 1944).[243] On 7–8 and 17 June, members of the SS-Hitlerjugend shot and killed twenty Canadian prisoners of war in the Ardenne Abbey massacre.[244]

The Allies continued to make progress in the liberation of France, and on 4 August Hitler ordered a counter-offensive (Operation Lüttich) from Vire towards Avranches.[245] The operation included LSSAH, Das Reich, 2nd, and 116th Panzer Divisions, with support from infantry and elements of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen under SS-Oberstgruppenführer Paul Hausser. These forces were to mount an offensive near Mortain and drive west through Avranches to the coast. The Allied forces were prepared for this offensive, and an air assault on the combined German units proved devastating.[246] On 21 August, 50,000 German troops, including most of the LSSAH, were encircled by the Allies in the Falaise Pocket.[247] Remnants of the LSSAH which escaped were withdrawn to Germany for refitting.[248] Paris was liberated on 25 August, and the last of the German forces withdrew over the Seine by the end of August, ending the Normandy campaign.[249]

Battle for Germany

Waffen-SS units that had survived the summer campaigns were withdrawn from the front line to refit. Two of them, the 9th SS and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, did so in the Arnhem region of Holland in early September 1944. Coincidentally, on 17 September, the Allies launched in the same area Operation Market Garden, a combined airborne and land operation designed to seize control of the lower Rhine.[250] The 9th and 10th Panzers were among the units that repulsed the attack.[251]

German infantry travel on foot in the Ardennes, December 1944

In December 1944, Hitler launched the Ardennes Offensive, also known as the Battle of the Bulge, a significant counterattack against the western Allies through the Ardennes with the aim of reaching Antwerp while encircling the Allied armies in the area.[252] The offensive began with an artillery barrage shortly before dawn on 16 December. Spearheading the attack were two panzer armies composed largely of Waffen-SS divisions.[253] The battlegroups found advancing through the forests and wooded hills of the Ardennes difficult in the winter weather, but they initially made good progress in the northern sector. They soon encountered strong resistance from the US 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions. By 23 December, the weather improved enough for Allied air forces to attack the German forces and their supply columns, causing fuel shortages. In increasingly difficult conditions, the German advance slowed and was stopped.[254] Hitler's failed offensive cost 700 tanks and most of their remaining mobile forces in the west,[255] as well as most of their irreplaceable reserves of manpower and materiel.[256]

During the battle, SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper left a path of destruction, which included Waffen-SS soldiers under his command murdering American POWs and unarmed Belgian civilians in the Malmedy massacre.[257] Captured SS soldiers who were part of Kampfgruppe Peiper were tried during the Malmedy massacre trial following the war for this massacre and several others in the area. Many of the perpetrators were sentenced to hang, but the sentences were commuted. Peiper was imprisoned for eleven years for his role in the killings.[258]

American POWs murdered by SS forces led by Joachim Peiper in the Malmedy massacre during the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944)

In the east, the Red Army resumed its offensive on 12 January 1945. German forces were outnumbered twenty to one in aircraft, eleven to one in infantry, and seven to one in tanks on the Eastern Front.[259] By the end of the month, the Red Army had made bridgeheads across the Oder, the last geographic obstacle before Berlin.[260] The western Allies continued to advance as well, but not as rapidly as the Red Army.[261] The Panzer Corps conducted a successful defensive operation on 17–24 February at the Hron River, stalling the Allied advance towards Vienna.[262] The 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Corps made their way towards Austria, but were slowed by damaged railways.[263]

Budapest fell on 13 February.[264] Hitler ordered Dietrich's 6th Panzer Army to move into Hungary to protect the Nagykanizsa oilfields and refineries, which he deemed the most strategically valuable fuel reserves on the Eastern Front.[265][262] Frühlingserwachsen (Operation Spring Awakening), the final German offensive in the east, took place in early March. German forces attacked near Lake Balaton, with 6th Panzer Army advancing north towards Budapest and 2nd Panzer Army moving east and south.[266] Dietrich's forces at first made good progress, but as they drew near the Danube, the combination of muddy terrain and strong Soviet resistance brought them to a halt.[267] By 16 March the battle was lost.[268] Enraged by the defeat, Hitler ordered the Waffen-SS units involved to remove their cuff titles as a mark of disgrace. Dietrich refused to carry out the order.[269]

By this time, on both the Eastern and Western Front, the activities of the SS were becoming clear to the Allies, as the concentration and extermination camps were being overrun.[270] Allied troops were filled with disbelief and repugnance at the evidence of Nazi brutality in the camps.[271]

On 9 April 1945 Königsberg fell to the Red Army, and on 13 April Dietrich's SS unit was forced out of Vienna.[272] The Battle of Berlin began at 03:30 on 16 April with a massive artillery barrage.[273] Within the week, fighting was taking place inside the city. Among the many elements defending Berlin were French, Latvian, and Scandinavian Waffen-SS troops.[274][275] Hitler, now living in the Führerbunker under the Reich Chancellery, still hoped that his remaining SS soldiers could rescue the capital. In spite of the hopelessness of the situation, members of the SS patrolling the city continued to shoot or hang soldiers and civilians for what they considered to be acts of cowardice or defeatism.[276] The Berlin garrison surrendered on 2 May, two days after Hitler committed suicide.[273] As members of SS expected little mercy from the Red Army, they attempted to move westward to surrender to the western Allies instead.[277]

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

The SS Cavalry Corps (German: Reiter-SS) comprised several Reiterstandarten and Reiterabschnitte, which were really equestrian clubs to attract the German upper class and nobility into the SS. In the 1930s, the Reiter-SS was considered as a nucleus for a military branch of the SS, but this idea was phased out with the rise of the SS-Verfügungstruppe (later the Waffen-SS).

By 1941 the Reiter-SS was little more than a social club. Most of the serious cavalry officers transferred to combat units in the Waffen-SS and the SS Cavalry Brigade. Between 1942 and 1945, the Reiter-SS effectively ceased to exist except on paper, with only a handful of members. During the Nuremberg Trials, when the Tribunal declared the SS to be a criminal organization, the Reiter-SS was expressly excluded, due to its insignificant involvement in other SS activities.

SS Medical Corps

Nazi gas van used to murder people at Chelmno extermination camp.

Carpathian Ruthenian Jews arrive at Auschwitz–Birkenau, May 1944. The camp SS doctors would carry out the selection process generally after arrival.

The SS Medical Corps first appeared in the 1930s as small companies of SS personnel known as the Sanitätsstaffel. After 1931, the SS formed a headquarters office known as Amt V, which was the central office for SS medical units.

In 1945, after the surrender of Germany, the SS was declared an illegal criminal organization by the Allies. SS doctors, in particular, were marked as war criminals due to the wide range of human medical experimentation which had been conducted during World War II as well as the role SS doctors had played in the gas chamber selections of the Holocaust. The most infamous member, Doctor Josef Mengele, served as 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 conducted 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.[citation needed]

SS Women's Corps

The SS-Helferinnenkorps ("Women Helper Corps") comprised 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 an "elite" core of women who, amongst other things, were taught Nazi ideology, specialist communications, "mother schooling", and fitness.[278] 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.[278][279] 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.[279][280][281][282][283]

The criminal guilt of the SS-Helferinnen has been attributed to their voluntary participation as Mittäterinnen, Zuschauerinnen und zum Teil – auch Zeuginnen von Gewalttätigkeiten or "accomplices, spectators and sometimes even witnesses of violence" in the bureaucratic apparatus of the SS.[278] As well as collective guilt, each SS-Helferin bore "individual responsibility over what she did, saw and knew".[278] The Reichsschule was closed in 1944 due to the advance of the Allies.[citation needed] In order to evaluate the criminal responsibility of the SS-Helferinnen following German surrender in 1945, the Allied war crimes tribunals sought to investigate if the Reichsschule-trained women were integral components of the SS structure or rather auxiliaries of it, resulting in various conflicting conclusions.[278] At such postwar de-Nazification tribunals "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."[278]

SS Scientific Corps

The Scientific Branch of the SS that was used to provide scientific and archeological proof of Aryan supremacy. Formed in 1935 by Himmler and Herman Wirth, the society did not become part of the SS until 1939.

Other SS groups


Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Heinrich Himmler, August Eigruber, and other SS officials visiting Mauthausen concentration camp in 1941.

The term "Austrian-SS" was never a recognized branch of the SS, but is often used to describe that portion of the SS membership 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 1932 and, by 1934, was acting as a covert force to influence the Anschluss with Germany which would eventually occur in 1938. The early Austrian SS was led by Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Arthur Seyss-Inquart and was technically under the command of the SS in Germany, but often acted independently concerning Austrian affairs. In 1936 the Austrian-SS was declared illegal by the Austrian government.

After 1938, when Austria was annexed by Germany, the Austrian SS was folded into SS-Oberabschnitt Donau with the 3rd regiment of the SS-Verfugungstruppe, Der Führer, and the fourth Totenkopf regiment, Ostmark, recruited in Austria shortly thereafter. A new concentration camp at Mauthausen also opened under the authority of the SS Death's Head units.

Austrian SS members served in every branch of the SS, including Concentration Camps, Einsatzgruppen, and the Security Services. One notable Austrian-SS member was Amon Göth, immortalized in the film Schindler's List. The fictional character of Hans Landa in the film Inglourious Basterds was also depicted as a member of the Austrian-SS.

According to political science academic David Art:

Austrians also played a central role in Nazi crimes. Although Austrians comprised only 8 percent of the Third Reich's population, over 13 percent of the SS were Austrian. Many of the key figures in the extermination project of the Third Reich (Hitler, Eichmann, Kaltenbrunner, Globocnik, to name a few) were Austrian, as were over 75 percent of commanders and 40 percent of the staff at Nazi death camps. Simon Wiesenthal estimates that Austrians were directly responsible for the deaths of 3 million Jews.[284]

Contract workers

To conduct upkeep, house-keeping, and the general maintenance of its many headquarters buildings both in Germany and in other occupied countries, the SS frequently hired civilian contract workers to perform such duties as maids, maintenance workers, and general laborers. The SS also occasionally employed civilian secretaries, but more often used the female SS corps for these duties.

Within the concentration camps, the SS used a different method to gain such work skills, mainly through the use of slave labor by "assigning" concentration camp inmates to work in certain jobs. This included doctors, such as Miklós Nyiszli who, while a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, served as Chief Pathologist and personal assistant to Josef Mengele.

In occupied countries, especially France and the Low Countries, various resistance groups made use of the SS need for low-level workers by planting resistance members in certain jobs within SS headquarters buildings. This allowed for intelligence gathering which assisted resistance attacks against German forces; resistance groups in the conquered eastern lands also used this method, with less success, although groups in Norway conducted several assassinations of SS officers through the use of intelligence plants within SS offices. The SS was often aware of such "moles" and actively attempted to locate such persons and, on occasion, even used the resistance plants to German advantage by supplying bad information in an attempt to bring resistance groups out into the open and destroy them.

The French Resistance was by far the most successful in using SS contracted civilian workers to achieve intelligence gathering and conduct partisan operations. At the end of World War II, resistance groups also rounded up local civilians who had worked for the SS, subjecting them to humiliating ordeals; such as, the shaving of heads in public squares.

Several motion pictures have been the subject of local civilians working for the SS, such as A Woman at War, starring Martha Plimpton, and Black Book, starring Christian Berkel.

ODESSA and Postwar activity

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.

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.[285]

However, SS members who escaped judicial punishment were often subject to summary execution, torture and beatings at the hands of freed prisoners, displaced persons or Allied soldiers.[citation needed] Waffen SS soldiers were executed by U.S. soldiers during the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, and SS officer Oskar Dirlewanger was beaten and tortured to death at the end of the war.[286] 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.[287]

Argentinian citizen and water company worker Ricardo Klement was discovered to be Adolf Eichmann in the 1950s, by former Jewish Dachau worker Lothar Hermann, whose daughter, Sylvia, became romantically involved with Klaus Klement (born Klaus Eichmann in 1936 in Berlin). He was captured by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, in a suburb of Buenos Aires on May 11, 1960, and tried in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961, where he explicitly declared that he had abdicated his conscience in order to follow the Führerprinzip (the "leader principle", or superior orders). Eichmann was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Approaching the end of the war Eichmann was quoted saying "I will jump into my grave with joy knowing that I am taking 10,000 jews with me".

Josef Mengele, disguised as a member of the regular German infantry, was captured and released by the Allies, oblivious of who he was. He was able to go and work in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1949 and to Altos, Paraguay, in 1959 where he was discovered by Nazi hunters. From the late 1960s on, he exercised his medical practice in Embu, a small city near São Paulo, Brazil, under the identity of Wolfgang Gerhard, where in 1979, he suffered a stroke while swimming and drowned.

The British writer Gitta Sereny (born in 1921 in Hungary), who conducted interviews with SS men, considers the story about ODESSA untrue and attributes the escape of notorious SS members to postwar chaos, an individual bishop in the Vatican, and the Vatican's inability to investigate the stories of those people who came requesting help.

The Argentine author and journalist Uki Goñi's book, The Real Odessa, claims that such a network in fact existed, and in Argentina was largely run by Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón, a Nazi sympathiser who had been impressed by Benito Mussolini's reign in Italy during a military tour of duty in that country which also took him to Nazi Germany. More recently researched (2002) than Sereny's interviews, counterclaimants point out that it is at a far greater chronological remove—multiple decades, not simply a year or two—from the actual point(s) in time he asserts such events occurred, a remove material enough that it could call into question the veracity of a number of his claims.

In the modern age, several neo-Nazi groups claim to be successor organizations to the SS. There is no single group, however, that is recognized as a continuation of the SS, and most such present-day organizations are loosely organized with separate agendas.

Oath of the SS

The full Eidformel der Schutzstaffel (Oath of the SS) consisted of three questions and answers. The following text is cited from a primary source written by Heinrich Himmler.

German English
"Wie lautet Dein Eid ?" - "Ich schwöre Dir, Adolf Hitler, als Führer und Kanzler des Deutschen Reiches Treue und Tapferkeit. Wir geloben Dir und den von Dir bestimmten Vorgesetzten Gehorsam bis in den Tod. So wahr mir Gott helfe !"

"Also glaubst Du an einen Gott ?" - "Ja, ich glaube an einen Herrgott."

"Was hältst Du von einem Menschen, der nicht an einen Gott glaubt?" - "Ich halte ihn für überheblich, größenwahnsinnig und dumm; er ist nicht für uns geeignet. [1][288]"

"What is your oath ?" - "I vow to you, Adolf Hitler, as Führer and chancellor of the German Reich loyalty and bravery. I vow to you and to the leaders, that you set for me, absolute allegiance, till death. So help me god !"

"So you believe in a god ?" - "Yes, I believe in a supreme being."

"What do you think about a man who does not believe in a god ?" - "I think he is overbearing, megalomaniac and foolish; he is not adequate for our society."

See also


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  • Art, David (2006). The Politics of the Nazi Past in Germany and Austria. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-85683-3
  • Bishop, Chris (2005). Hitler's Foreign Divisions: 1940–45. Amber. ISBN 978-1904687375.
  • Bishop, Chris (2007). Waffen-SS Divisions: 1939–45. Amber. ISBN 1-905704-55-0.
  • Cook, Stan & Bender, Roger James (1994). Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler: Uniforms, Organization, & History. San Jose, CA: R. James Bender Publishing. ISBN 978-0-912138-55-8.
  • International Military Tribunal (IMT) (1947–49). Record of the Nuremberg Trials November 14, 1945 – October 1, 1946. 42 Vols. London: HMSO.
  • Lumsden, Robin (1997). Himmler's Black Order 1923–45. Sutton. ISBN 0-7509-1396-7.
  • Lumsden, Robin (2000). A Collector's Guide To: The Waffen-SS. Ian Allan Publishing, Inc. ISBN 0-7110-2285-2.
  • Lumsden, Robin (2002). A Collector's Guide To: The Allgemeine-SS. Ian Allan Publishing, Inc. ISBN 0-7110-2905-9.
  • McNab, Chris (2009). The SS: 1923–1945. Amber Books. ISBN 978-1-906626-49-5. 
  • Mollo, Andrew (1991). Uniforms of the SS: Volume 3: SS-Verfügungstruppe. Historical Research Unit. ISBN 1-872004-51-2.
  • "Organizations Book of the NSDAP for 1943", NCA, V, Washington, D.C. 1946: U.S. GPO, 1943
  • Stein, George H. (1984). The Waffen SS: Hitler's Elite Guard at War, 1939–1945. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-9275-0.
  • Weale, Adrian (2010). The SS: A New History. London: Little, Brown. ISBN 978-1408703045. 
  • Williams, Max (2001). Reinhard Heydrich: The Biography: Volume 1. Ulric Publishing. ISBN 0-9537577-5-7.
  • Yerger, Mark C. (1997). Allgemeine-SS: The Commands, Units, and Leaders of the General SS. Schiffer Publishing. ISBN 0-7643-0145-4.

Further reading

  • Arenhövel, Verlag. Topography of Terror. Berlin: Berliner Festspiele GmbH. (1989). ISBN 3-922912-25-7
  • Browder, George C. Foundations of the Nazi Police State—The Formation of Sipo and SD, University of Kentucky, Lexington, (1990). ISBN 0-8131-1697-X
  • Buchheim, Hans (1968). "Command and Compliance". Anatomy of the SS state. New York: Walker. pp. 303–396. OCLC 1084. 
  • Höhne, Heinz. Der Orden unter dem Totenkopf, Verlag Der Spiegel, Hamburg 1966; English translation by Richard Barry entitled The Order of the Death's Head: The Story of Hitler's SS, London: Pan Books (1969). ISBN 0-330-02963-0.
  • Koehl, Robert Lewis. The Black Corps, University of Wisconsin Press (1983).
  • Koehl, Robert Lewis. The SS: A History 1919–1945, Tempus Publishing Limited (1989). ISBN 0-7524-2559-5
  • Krausnick, Helmut (editor). Anatomy of the SS State, with contributions by Hans Buchheim; Martin Broszat & Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, translated from the German by Richard Barry, Marian Jackson, Dorothy Long, New York : Walker (1968).
  • Lasik Aleksander. Sztafety Ochronne w systemie niemieckich obozów koncentracyjnych. Rozwój organizacyjny, ewolucja zadań i struktur oraz socjologiczny obraz obozowych załóg SS, wyd. Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oświęcim (2007). ISBN 978-83-60210-32-1.
  • Library of Congress Military Legal Resources: Office of the United States Chief of Counsel For Prosecution of Axis Criminality, OCCPAC Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Volumes I though VIII
  • Merkel, Reiner: Hans Kammler – Manager des Todes, 2010 August von Goethe Literaturverlag, Frankfurt am Main. ISBN 978-3-8372-0817-7.
  • Mollo, Andrew. Pictorial History of the SS (1923–1945), Stein & Day (1977). ISBN 0-7128-2174-0
  • Reitlinger, Gerald. The SS: Alibi of a Nation 1922–1945, Viking (Da Capo reprint), New York (1957). ISBN 0-306-80351-8
  • Shirer, William L.. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Gramercy (1960). ISBN 0-517-10294-3
  • Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich, pp. 45, 94, 95, 144, 268–69 (Russian POWs), pp. 369–371 (concentration camp labor), pp. 372–374 (business enterprises and labor camps), Macmillan, New York (1970). ISBN 0-517-38579-1 (1982 Bonanza reprint).
  • SS Officer Personnel Files, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD
  • Tetens, T. H. The New Germany and the Old Nazis. (LCN 61-7240)
  • Weale, Adrian. The SS: A New History, Little, Brown, (2007). ISBN 978-0-316-72723-5
  • Wechsbert, Joseph and Wiesenthal, Simon, The Murderers Among Us, Bantam, (1973). ASIN: B000KXLBOQ

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