SS (for Schutzstaffel, German for "Protective Squadron") was part of the Nazi party noted for its fanaticism in battle and for its control of the death camps during the Holocaust. It was first established in 1925 as Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard, but by the time the Nazis seized power in 1933, it had ballooned to over 52,000 men believing themselves to be the "racial elite" of the Nazi future. In 1934, Hitler made the SS an independent force under Heinrich Himmler, who controlled it until shortly before the end and used it to increase his personal power. By 1939, the SS under Himmler had taken control of, and centralized, Germany’s police organizations and turned them into an elite paramilitary with distinct units, one of which was the Sicherheitsdienst (SD, the intelligence service) that included the Gestapo (Secret State Police). Hitler used the SS as a personal security force without legal restraint and tasked it with the removal, and eventual murder, of political enemies and those whose race he despised. The SS led the "Final Solution", the mass murder of European Jews. Throughout the Nazi regime, the SS and its police system competed with the German military, the German civil service, the Nazi party, and others for Hitler's favor.
Third Reich: 1933-39
World War II
Soldiers in Waffen SS
While the regular German military opposed the SS forming more than security troops, by the Second World War, they had formed divisions, and, during the war, corps. Within the SS Main Office, the Waffen SS was under Oberstgruppenfuhrer Paul Hausser.
The Waffen-SS organized 38 divisions comprising (at one time or another) about 800,000 soldiers; 25% were killed in battle. While they served under Wehrmacht command, their discipline was separate and they had a reputation for brutality, mistreatment and killing of prisoners and civilians, and war crimes. In December 1944 on the Western Front during the "Battle of the Bulge" elements of the Waffen SS Leibstandarte Division shot between 86 and 100 Americans prisoners near Malmedy. After the war the colonel Joachim Peiper and 65 other SS soldiers of the Leibstandarte were tried, convicted and imprisoned for war crimes; two were hung.
Huffman (2005) examines Waffen-SS soldiers and their experiences, actions, and importance during World War II. He explores the Waffen-SS in terms of ideology and indoctrination, everyday life and combat experiences, comradeship, battle front and home front influences, and connections between the " Frontgemeinschaft " (front community) and the " Volksgemeinschaft " (people's community). Huffman focuses on the Waffen-SS junior officers, NCOs, and enlisted men. Waffen-SS soldiers experienced a "totality" of war as a concrete, lived, total experience, and thus the front experiences became normalized to a large extent. They were much better trained than regular army units, with dangerous simulated combat exercise; it was rigorous, realistic and often brutal. Strong comradeship among the troops was important, and helped account for their strong cohesiveness and fighting strength. The Volksgemeinschaft and Frontgemeinschaft and the strong attendant home front and battle front influences were not just words; there was a reality of overall solidarity, and the Volksgemeinschaft and Frontgemeinschaft served for millions of Germans as structures around which to cast their belief systems and actions. The German civilian populace was militarized during the war, and the German military formations, especially the Waffen-SS, were greatly militarized.<ref. Huffman (2005)</ref>
Ideology, indoctrination, and combat had significant influences on the mentalities and experiences, as well as the increased fanaticization and radicalization of the soldiers and their subsequent actions, which included a greater propensity to follow criminal orders and commit war crimes. Ideology was absorbed and accepted by Waffen-SS soldiers far more readily because of the nature of World War II with all of its racism and savageness. Waffen-SS troops were the most radicalized and politicized troops in the German armed forces and the fanaticized military elite and political soldiers of Nazi Germany.
The Waffen SS recruited soldiers, whether of German background or not, from many different ethnic groups across Europe. About 6,000 Norwegians volunteered; most of them were assigned to divisions that included both Germans and volunteers from other countries, about 2,300 served under the Waffen-SS in a separate national unit, the Norwegian Legion; there were also Danish, Flemish and Dutch units. Some 10,000 Frenchmen served in units the Légion des Volontaires Français (LVF, French Volunteer Legion) and Charlemagne Division of the Waffen-SS. Most volunteered in 1944 and had been members of the Milice Française and other collaborationist groups; they left France with the Germans to avoid reprisals by the Resistance. Knowledge of their fate if they were captured and sent home made them more fanatic. 5500 men served in the Danish Freikorps (Danish Legion), on the Eastern Front.
Bowen (2001) describes volunteers in Waffen-SS units late in the war. Under Allied pressure, Francisco Franco withdrew his earlier support of Nazi Germany to a position of neutrality. He ordered the repatriation of the Blue Division to Spain, a unit that lost 22,000 of 47,000 men in the Stalingrad campaign. However, thousands of Spaniards committed to the Nazis' New World Order remained illegally in Germany, joining Norwegians, Danes, Dutch, and others who chose to fight alongside the Germans to the bitter end. Franco proved unable to persuade these Spaniards to quit a lost cause.
- SS and police at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, last access 5/19/2023.
- The SS at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, last access 5/19/2023.
- Wegner, Bernd. The Waffen-SS: Organization, Ideology and Function (1990)
- James J. Weingartner, Crossroads of Death: The Story of the Malmédy Massacre and Trial. 1979
- Koethe (1994)
- Huffman (2005); Koethe (1994)
- Smith et al (1999)
- Wayne H. Bowen, "The Ghost Battalion: Spaniards in the Waffen-SS, 1944-1945." Historian 2001 63(2): 373-385. Issn: 0018-2370 Fulltext: in Ebsco