The SCHUTZSTAFFEL (SS; also stylized as with
Armanen runes ; German
pronunciation: ( listen ); literally "Protection Squadron") was a
major paramilitary organization under
Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party
Nazi Germany , and later throughout German-occupied Europe
World War II
World War II . It began with a small guard unit known as the
Saal-Schutz (Hall-Protection) made up of
NSDAP volunteers to provide
security for party meetings in Munich. In 1925, Heinrich Himmler
joined the unit, which had by then been reformed and given its final
name. Under his direction (1929–45), it grew from a small
paramilitary formation to one of the most powerful organizations in
Nazi Germany. From 1929 until the regime's collapse in 1945, the SS
was the foremost agency of security, surveillance, and terror within
Germany and German-occupied Europe.
The two main constituent groups were the
Allgemeine SS (General SS)
Waffen-SS (Armed SS). The
Allgemeine SS was responsible for
enforcing the racial policy of
Nazi Germany and general policing,
Waffen-SS consisted of combat units of troops within Nazi
Germany's military. A third component of the SS, the
SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), ran the concentration camps and
extermination camps . Additional subdivisions of the SS included the
Gestapo and the
Sicherheitsdienst (SD) organizations. They were tasked
with the detection of actual or potential enemies of the Nazi state,
the neutralization of any opposition, policing the German people for
their commitment to
Nazi ideology , and providing domestic and foreign
The SS was the organization most responsible for the genocidal
killing of an estimated 5.5 to 6 million
Jews and millions of other
victims in the Holocaust . Members of all of its branches committed
war crimes and crimes against humanity during World War II
(1939–45). The SS was also involved in commercial enterprises and
exploited concentration camp inmates as slave labor. After Nazi
Germany's defeat, the SS and the
NSDAP were judged by the
International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg to be criminal
Ernst Kaltenbrunner , the highest-ranking surviving SS
officer at the time, was found guilty of crimes against humanity at
Nuremberg trials and hanged in 1946.
* 1 Origins
* 1.1 Forerunner of the SS
* 1.2 Early commanders
* 1.3 Himmler appointed
* 1.4 Ideology
* 2 Pre-war Germany
* 2.1 Hitler\'s personal bodyguards
* 2.2 Concentration camps founded
* 3 SS in
World War II
World War II
Invasion of Poland
Battle of France
Battle of France
* 3.3 Campaign in the Balkans
* 4 War in the east
* 4.2 Anti-partisan operations
* 4.3 Death camps
* 5 Business empire
* 6 Military reversals
* 6.2 Battle for Germany
* 7 SS units and branches
Reich Main Security Office
* 7.2 SS-Sonderkommandos
SS Court Main Office
* 7.5 SS Cavalry
SS Medical Corps
* 7.7 Other SS units
* 7.7.2 SS-Frauenkops
* 7.7.3 SS-Mannschaften
* 8 Foreign legions and volunteers
* 9 Ranks and uniforms
* 10 SS membership estimates 1925–45
* 11 SS offices
* 13 Post-war activity and aftermath
International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg
* 13.2 Escapes
* 14 See also
* 15 References
* 15.1 Citations
* 15.2 Bibliography
* 16 External links
FORERUNNER OF THE SS
By 1923, the
Nazi Party (NSDAP) led by
Adolf Hitler had created a
small volunteer guard unit known as the Saal-Schutz (Hall-Protection)
to provide security at their meetings in
Munich . 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
Battalion"; SA), which he did not trust. The new formation was
designated the Stabswache (Staff Guard). 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.
NSDAP supporters and stormtroopers in Munich
Beer Hall Putsch , 1923
The Stoßtrupp was abolished after the failed 1923
Beer Hall Putsch ,
an attempt by the
NSDAP to seize power in Munich. In 1925, Hitler
ordered Schreck to organize a new bodyguard unit, the Schutzkommando
(Protection Command). 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). Officially, the SS marked its
foundation on 9 November 1925 (the second anniversary of the Beer Hall
Putsch). The new SS was to provide protection for
throughout Germany. Hitler's personal SS protection unit was later
enlarged to include combat units.
Schreck, a founding member of the SA and a close confidant of Hitler,
became the first SS chief in March 1925. 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). Berchtold
was considered more dynamic than his predecessor, but became
increasingly frustrated by the authority the SA had over the SS. This
led to him transferring leadership of the SS to his deputy, Erhard
Heiden , on 1 March 1927. Under Heiden's leadership, a stricter code
of discipline was enforced than would have been tolerated in the SA.
Between 1925 and 1929, the SS was considered to be a small Gruppe
(battalion) of the SA. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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." Under Himmler,
the SS expanded and gained a larger foothold. He considered the SS an
elite, ideologically driven National Socialist organization, a
Teutonic knights , the
Jesuits , and Japanese Samurai
". His ultimate aim was to turn the SS into the most powerful
organization in Germany and most influential branch of the party. He
expanded the SS to 3,000 members in his first year as its leader.
In 1929, the
SS-Hauptamt (main SS office) was expanded and
reorganized into five main offices dealing with general
administration, personnel, finance, security, and race matters. At the
same time, the SS-Gaus were expanded into three SS-Oberführerbereiche
areas, namely the SS-Oberführerbereich Ost, SS-Oberführerbereich
West, and SS-Oberführerbereich Süd. 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. 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. By the
end of 1933, the membership of the SS reached 209,000. Under
Himmler's leadership the SS continued to gather greater power as more
and more state and party functions 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.
In the latter half of 1934, Himmler oversaw the creation of
Junker schools ), 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. The first schools were established at
Bad Tölz and
Braunschweig , with additional schools opening at
Prague during the war.
Ideology of the SS
The SS was regarded as the NSDAP's elite unit. 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. 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 . Other requirements were complete obedience to the
Führer and a commitment to the German people and nation. 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. 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. The crypt
Wewelsburg was repurposed by Himmler as a place to memorialize dead
SS members. Artwork commemorating the Holocaust hangs on the walls.
Commitment to SS ideology was emphasized throughout the recruitment,
membership process, and training. 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. 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. Members were expected to renounce
their Christian faith, and Christmas was replaced with a solstice
celebration . Church weddings were replaced with SS Ehewein, a pagan
ceremony invented by Himmler. These pseudo-religious rites and
ceremonies often took place near SS-dedicated monuments or in special
SS-designated places. In 1933, Himmler bought
Wewelsburg , a castle
Westphalia . He initially intended it to be used as an SS training
centre, but its role came to include hosting SS dinners and neo-pagan
The SS ideology included the application of brutality and terror as a
solution to military and political problems. 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). Their official motto was "Meine Ehre heißt Treue"
(My Honour is Loyalty).
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. Chosen to implement the
Final Solution for
Jews and other groups deemed inferior or enemies of the state, the SS
led the killing, torture, and enslavement of approximately 12 million
people. Most victims were
Jews or of Polish or other Slavic
extraction. A significant number of victims were members of other
racial or ethnic groups such as the
Romani people . The SS was
involved in killing people viewed as threats to race hygiene or NSDAP
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.
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 .
After Hitler and the
NSDAP came to power on 30 January 1933, the SS
were considered a state organization and a branch of the government.
Law enforcement gradually became the purview of the SS, and many SS
organizations became de facto government agencies. Reinhard
Heydrich 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. In his role as Minister President of
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
Gestapo effectively to counteract the power of the SA, Göring
handed over its control to Himmler on 20 April 1934. 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
Reinhard Heydrich chief of the
Gestapo on 22 April 1934.
Heydrich also continued as head of the
Sicherheitsdienst (SD; security
The Gestapo's transfer to Himmler was a prelude to the Night of the
Long Knives , in which most of the SA leadership were arrested and
subsequently executed. The SS and
Gestapo 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
independent elite corps of the NSDAP, answerable only to Hitler.
Himmler's title of
Reichsführer-SS now became his actual rank,
equivalent to the rank of field marshal in the army (his previous rank
Obergruppenführer ). As Himmler's position and authority grew,
so did his de facto rank.
On 17 June 1936, all police forces throughout Germany were united
under the purview of Himmler and the SS. Himmler and Heydrich thus
became two of the most powerful men in the country's administration.
Police and intelligence forces brought under their administrative
control included the SD, Gestapo,
Kriminalpolizei (Kripo; criminal
investigative police), and
Ordnungspolizei (Orpo; regular uniformed
police). In September 1939, the security and police agencies,
Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo; security police) and SD (but
not the Orpo), were consolidated into the Reich Main Security Office
(RSHA), headed by Heydrich. This further increased the collective
authority of the SS.
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. Most of these SS and police leaders held the rank of
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. By
declaring an emergency, they could bypass the district administrative
offices for the SS, SD, SiPo,
concentration camp guards), and Orpo, thereby gaining direct
operational control of these groups.
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. 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.
On 11 November, Heydrich reported a death toll of 36 people, but later
assessments put the number of deaths at up to two thousand. On
Hitler's orders, around 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to
concentration camps by 16 November. It is likely that as many as
2,500 of these people died in the following months. 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,
HITLER\'S PERSONAL BODYGUARDS
Main article: Adolf Hitler\'s bodyguard Troop inspection in
Berlin of Leibstandarte
Adolf Hitler , 1938
As the SS grew in size and importance, so too did Hitler's personal
protection units. 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
Chancellor of Germany .
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
his visitors. LSSAH men manned sentry posts at the entrances to the
Reich Chancellery and the new Reich Chancellery. The number of
LSSAH guards was increased during special events. At the Berghof ,
Hitler's residence in the
Obersalzberg , a large contingent of the
LSSAH patrolled an extensive cordoned security zone.
From 1941, forward, the Leibstandarte became four distinct entities,
Waffen-SS division (unconnected to Hitler's personal 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 personal
apartment and the Brown House
NSDAP headquarters in Munich. Although
the unit was nominally under Himmler, Dietrich was the real commander
and handled day-to-day administration.
Two other SS units composed the inner ring of Hitler's personal
SS-Begleitkommando des Führers (Escort Command of the
Führer), formed in February 1932, served as Hitler's protection
escort while he was travelling. This unit consisted of eight men who
served around the clock protecting Hitler in shifts. Later the
SS-Begleitkommando was expanded and became known as the
Führer Escort Command; FBK). It continued
under separate command and remained responsible for Hitler's personal
Führer Schutzkommando (
Führer Protection Command;
FSK) was a protection unit founded by Himmler in March 1933.
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. The
FSK was renamed the
Reichssicherheitsdienst (Reich Security Service;
RSD) in August 1935.
Johann Rattenhuber , chief of the RSD, for the
most part took his orders directly from Hitler. 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. By March 1938, both units wore the standard field grey
uniform of the SS. The RSD uniform had the SD diamond on the lower
CONCENTRATION CAMPS FOUNDED
Former prisoners at
Dachau concentration camp
Dachau concentration camp pose at the camp
crematorium, May 1945
The SS was closely associated with Nazi Germany's concentration camp
system. On 26 June 1933, Himmler appointed SS-
Eicke as commandant of
Dachau concentration camp
Dachau concentration camp , one of the first
Nazi concentration camps
Nazi concentration camps . 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. The organizational structure
Eicke instituted at Dachau stood as the model for all later
concentration camps. 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. 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. By 1935,
Himmler secured Hitler's approval and the finances necessary to
establish and operate additional camps. Six concentration camps
housing 21,400 inmates (mostly political prisoners) existed at the
start of the war in September 1939. 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. 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.
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. The
Waffen-SS evolved into a second German army alongside the Wehrmacht
and operated in tandem with them, especially with the Heer (German
Army). 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 from the Wehrmacht.
INVASION OF POLAND
Jews arrested by the
Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and police,
In the September 1939 invasion of Poland , the LSSAH and SS-VT fought
as separate mobile infantry regiments. The LSSAH became notorious for
torching villages without military justification. Members of the
LSSAH committed atrocities in numerous towns, including the murder of
Błonie and the massacre of 200 civilians, including
children, who were machine gunned in
Złoczew . Shootings also took
Mława , and
Włocławek . 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. Generaloberst
Fedor von Bock
Fedor von Bock was quite critical; following an April 1940 visit of
Totenkopf division, he found their battle training was
"insufficient". Hitler thought the criticism was typical of the
army's "outmoded conception of chivalry." In its defence, the SS
insisted that its armed formations had been hampered by having to
fight piecemeal and were improperly equipped by the army.
After the invasion, Hitler entrusted the SS with extermination
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.
Some 65,000 Polish civilians, including activists , intelligentsia ,
scholars, teachers, actors, former officers, and others, were killed
by the end of 1939. 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." The first systematic mass shooting of
Jews by the
Einsatzgruppen took place on 6 September 1939 during the attack on
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. 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 .
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. The SS gained control over its own
recruitment, logistics, and supply systems for its armed formations at
this time. 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.
BATTLE OF FRANCE
On 10 May 1940, Hitler launched the
Battle of France
Battle of France , a major
offensive against France and the
Low Countries . The SS supplied two
of the 89 divisions employed. The LSSAH and elements of the SS-VT
participated in the ground invasion of the
Battle of the Netherlands
Battle of the Netherlands .
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 a number of
clashes with Dutch defenders. 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
Meuse . Instead, the SS-
Totenkopf was summoned from the
army reserve to fight in support of
Erwin Rommel 's 7th
Panzer Division as they advanced toward the
English Channel . On 21
May, the British launched an armored counterattack against the flanks
of 7th Panzer Division and SS-Totenkopf. The Germans then trapped the
British and French troops in a huge pocket at
Dunkirk . On 27 May, 4
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. 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. 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-
during the invasion were typical of the SS troops as a whole.
At the close of the campaign, Hitler expressed his pleasure with the
performance of the SS-Leibstandarte, telling them: "Henceforth it will
be an honour for you, who bear my name, to lead every German attack."
The SS-VT was renamed the
Waffen-SS in a speech made by Hitler in July
1940. Hitler then authorized the enlistment of "people perceived to
be of related stock", as Himmler put it, to expand the ranks. A
number of Danes, Dutch, Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns volunteered to
fight in the
Waffen-SS under the command of German officers. They
were brought together to form the new division SS-Wiking . 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.
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. 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. Similar to
Poland, the war policies of the Nazis in the Balkans resulted in
brutal occupation and racist mass murder. Serbia became the second
Estonia ) declared
Judenfrei (free of Jews).
In Greece, the
Waffen-SS encountered resistance from
the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and Greek Army . The fighting
was intensified by the mountainous terrain, with its heavily defended
narrow passes. The LSSAH was at the forefront of the German push. The
BEF evacuated by sea to
Crete , but had to flee again in late May when
the Germans arrived. Like Yugoslavia, the conquest of Greece brought
Jews into danger, as the Nazis immediately took a variety of
measures against them. Initially confined in ghettos, most were
Auschwitz concentration camp
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.
WAR IN THE EAST
On 22 June 1941, Hitler launched
Operation Barbarossa , the invasion
Soviet Union . 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. On 20 January 1942, Heydrich chaired
a meeting, called the
Wannsee Conference , to discuss the
implementation of the plan.
During battles in
Soviet Union in 1941 and 1942, the Waffen-SS
suffered enormous casualties. The LSSAH and Das Reich lost over half
their troops to illness and combat casualties. In need of recruits,
Himmler began to accept soldiers that did not fit the original SS
racial profile. In early 1942, SS-Leibstandarte, SS-Totenkopf, and
SS-Das Reich were withdrawn to the West to refit and were converted to
Panzergrenadier divisions. The SS-Panzer Corps returned to the Soviet
Union in 1943 and participated in the
Third Battle of Kharkov in
February and March.
Ivanhorod , 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 . Augmented by personnel from the Kripo, Orpo
(Order Police), and Waffen-SS, 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
Special Purposes operated in
eastern Poland starting in July 1941. 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. Following Operation Barbarossa, these
Einsatzgruppen units, together with the
Waffen-SS and Order Police,
engaged in the mass killing of the Jewish population in occupied
eastern Poland and the Soviet Union. The greatest extent of
Einsatzgruppen action occurred in 1941 and 1942 in Ukraine and Russia.
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.
The extermination activities of the
Einsatzgruppen generally followed
a standard procedure, with the
Einsatzgruppen chief contacting the
Wehrmacht unit commander to inform him of the impending
action; this was done so they could coordinate and control access to
the execution grounds. Initially the victims were shot, but this
method proved impracticable for an operation of this scale. Also,
after Himmler observed the shooting of 100
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 .
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.
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. 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. In July 1942 Himmler ordered that the term
"partisan" should no longer be used; instead resisters to Nazi rule
would be described as "bandits".
Himmler set the SS and SD to work on developing additional
anti-partisan tactics and launched a propaganda campaign. Sometime in
June 1943, Himmler issued the Bandenbekämpfung (bandit fighting)
order, simultaneously announcing the existence of the
Bandenkampfverbände (bandit fighting formations), with
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. 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. 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.
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. An increasing numbers
Jews and German citizens deemed politically suspect or social
outsiders were arrested. 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.
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. Victims at
these new extermination camps were killed with the use of carbon
monoxide gas from automobile engines. 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), with squads of
Trawniki men (Eastern
European collaborators) overseeing hundreds of Sonderkommando
prisoners, who were forced to work in the gas chambers and crematoria
before being murdered themselves. 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
Zyklon B .
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 . Richard Glücks
served as the
Inspector of Concentration Camps , which in 1942 became
office "D" under the WVHA. 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. 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 .
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
Waffen-SS members. 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 .
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. Because of the labor
shortage and a desire for financial gain, the SS started exploiting
concentration camp inmates as slave labor. 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. 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. 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. Eventually the SS founded
nearly 200 holding companies for their businesses. Extermination
through labor . At
Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp
Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp , inmates were
forced to carry heavy granite blocks out of the quarry on the "Stairs
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.
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. Himmler took a particular interest in providing
IG Farben , which was constructing a synthetic rubber
factory at Auschwitz III–Monowitz . The plant was almost ready to
commence production when it was overrun by Soviet troops in 1945.
Life expectancy of inmates at Monowitz averaged about three months.
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 .
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). The entire
concentration camp system was placed under the authority of the WVHA.
The SS owned
Sudetenquell GbmH, 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.
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). In the occupied Eastern
territories, the SS acquired a monopoly in brick production by seizing
all 300 extant brickworks. 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.
The SS owned experimental farms, bakeries, meat packing plants,
leather works, clothing and uniform factories, and small arms
factories. 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. 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. The total value of assets looted from the victims
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. 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.
A Tiger tank commander of the SS-Das Reich during the Battle of
Kursk , 1943
On 5 July 1943, the Germans launched the
Battle of Kursk , an
offensive designed to eliminate the
Kursk salient. The
this time had been expanded to 12 divisions, and most took part in the
battle. 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. Thereafter, the Germans were forced onto the
defensive as the
Red Army began the liberation of Western Russia. The
losses incurred by the
Waffen-SS and the
Wehrmacht during the Battle
Kursk occurred nearly simultaneously with the Allied assault into
Italy , opening a two-front war for Germany.
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. 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. In addition to several static infantry divisions, eleven
Panzergrenadier divisions were deployed nearby. Four of
these formations were
Waffen-SS divisions. 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. The creation of the SS-Hitlerjugend
was a sign of Hitler's desperation for more troops, especially ones
with unquestioning obedience.
Indian Legion troops of the
Waffen-SS guard the
Atlantic Wall in
Bordeaux , 21 March 1944.
Normandy landings took place beginning 6 June 1944. 21st Panzer
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. 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
armoured reserve, Feuchtinger was obliged to seek clearance from OKW
before he could commit his formation. 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 . 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). On 7–8 and 17 June, members of the
SS-Hitlerjugend shot and killed twenty Canadian prisoners of war in
Ardenne Abbey massacre .
The Allies continued to make progress in the liberation of France,
and on 4 August Hitler ordered a counter-offensive (Operation Lüttich
Avranches . 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. On 21 August, 50,000 German troops, including most of
the LSSAH, were encircled by the Allies in the
Falaise Pocket .
Remnants of the LSSAH which escaped were withdrawn to Germany for
refitting. Paris was liberated on 25 August, and the last of the
German forces withdrew over the
Seine by the end of August, ending the
BATTLE FOR GERMANY
Waffen-SS units which 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
Operation Market Garden , a combined
airborne and land operation designed to seize control of the lower
Rhine . The 9th and 10th Panzers were among the units that repulsed
the attack. German infantry travel on foot in the Ardennes,
In December 1944, Hitler launched the
Ardennes Offensive, also known
Battle of the Bulge
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. 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. The battle groups 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 that
the Allied air forces could attack the German forces and their supply
columns, causing fuel shortages. In increasingly difficult conditions,
the German advance slowed and was stopped. Hitler's failed offensive
cost 700 tanks and most of their remaining mobile forces in the west,
as well as most of their irreplaceable reserves of manpower and
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 . 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.
American troops murdered by SS forces led by
Joachim Peiper in the
Malmedy massacre during the
Battle of the Bulge
Battle of the Bulge (December 1944)
In the east, the
Red Army resumed their 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. By
the end of the month, the
Red Army had made bridgeheads across the
Oder , the last geographic obstacle before Berlin. The western Allies
continued to advance as well, but not as rapidly as the Red Army. The
Panzer Corps conducted a successful defensive operation on 17–24
February at the
Hron River, stalling the Allied advance towards
Vienna. The 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Corps made their way towards
Austria, but were slowed by damaged railways.
Budapest fell on 13 February. Hitler ordered Dietrich's 6th SS
Panzer Army to move into Hungary to protect the
and refineries, which he deemed the most strategically valuable fuel
reserves on the Eastern Front. Frühlingserwachsen (Operation Spring
Awakening ), the final German offensive in the east, took place in
early March. German forces attacked near Lake Balaton, with 6th SS
Panzer Army advancing north towards Budapest and 2nd Panzer Army
moving east and south. 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. By 16 March the
battle was lost. 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.
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. Allied troops were filled
with disbelief and repugnance at the evidence of Nazi brutality in the
On 9 April 1945
Königsberg fell to the Red Army, and on 13 April
Dietrich's SS unit was forced out of Vienna. The Battle of Berlin
began at 03:30 on 16 April with a massive artillery barrage. Within
the week, fighting was taking place inside the city. Among the many
Berlin were French, Latvian, and Scandinavian
Waffen-SS troops. 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. The
Berlin garrison surrendered on 2 May, two
days after Hitler committed suicide . As members of SS expected
little mercy from the Red Army, they attempted to move westward to
surrender to the western Allies instead.
SS UNITS AND BRANCHES
REICH MAIN SECURITY OFFICE
Heydrich held the title of Chef des
Sicherheitspolizei und SD (Chief
of the Security Police and SD) until 27 September 1939, when he became
chief of the newly established
Reich Main Security Office (RSHA).
From that point forward, the
RSHA was in charge of SS security
services. It had under its command the SD, Kripo, and Gestapo, as well
as several offices to handle finance, administration, and supply.
Heinrich Müller , who had been chief of operations for the Gestapo,
Gestapo chief at this time.
Arthur Nebe was chief of
the Kripo, and the two branches of SD were commanded by a series of SS
Otto Ohlendorf and
Walter Schellenberg . The SD
was considered an elite branch of the SS, and its members were better
educated and typically more ambitious than those within the ranks of
the Allgemeine SS. Members of the SD were specially trained in
criminology, intelligence, and counter-intelligence. They also gained
a reputation for ruthlessness and unwavering commitment to Nazi
Heydrich was attacked in
Prague on 27 May 1942 by a British-trained
team of Czech and Slovak soldiers who had been sent by the
Czechoslovak government-in-exile to kill him in
Operation Anthropoid .
He died from his injuries a week later. Himmler ran the RSHA
personally until 30 January 1943, when Heydrich's positions were taken
Ernst Kaltenbrunner .
Beginning in 1938 and throughout World War II, the SS enacted a
procedure where offices and units of the SS could form smaller
sub-units, known as SS-Sonderkommandos, to carry out special tasks,
including large-scale murder operations. The use of SS-Sonderkommandos
was widespread. According to former SS
Sturmbannführer Wilhelm Höttl
, not even the SS leadership knew how many SS-Sonderkommandos were
constantly being formed, disbanded, and reformed for various tasks,
especially on the Eastern Front.
Sonderkommando unit led by SS-
Sturmbannführer Herbert Lange
murdered 1,201 psychiatric patients at the
hospital in the
Free City of Danzig
Free City of Danzig , 1,100 patients in
2,750 patients at
Kościan , and 1,558 patients at
Działdowo , as
well as hundreds of
Fort VII , where the mobile gas van and
gassing bunker were developed. In 1941–42, SS-
set up and managed the first extermination camp, at Chełmno , where
Jews were killed using gas vans.
After the battle of Stalingrad in February 1943, Himmler realised
that Germany would likely lose the war, and ordered the formation of
Sonderkommando 1005 , a special task force under SS-Standartenführer
Paul Blobel . The unit's assignment was to visit mass graves on the
Eastern Front to exhume bodies and burn them in an attempt to cover up
the genocide. The task remained unfinished at the end of the war, and
many mass graves remain unmarked and unexcavated.
Sonderkommando was a task force headed by Adolf Eichmann
that arrived in Budapest on 19 March 1944, the same day that Axis
forces invaded Hungary . Their task was to take a direct role in the
deportation of Hungarian
Jews to Auschwitz. The SS-Sonderkommandos
enlisted the aide of antisemitic elements from the Hungarian
gendarmerie and pro-German administrators from within the Hungarian
Interior Ministry. Round-ups began on 16 April, and from 14 May, four
trains of 3,000
Jews per day left Hungary and travelled to the camp at
Auschwitz II-Birkenau, arriving along a newly built spur line that
terminated a few hundred metres from the gas chambers. Between 10
and 25 percent of the people on each train were chosen as forced
laborers; the rest were killed within hours of arrival. Under
international pressure, the Hungarian government halted deportations
on 6 July 1944, by which time over 437,000 of Hungary's 725,000 Jews
SS killings in
Zboriv , 1941. A teenage boy is brought to view
his dead family before being shot himself.
Einsatzgruppen had its origins in the ad hoc Einsatzkommando
formed by Heydrich following the
Anschluss in Austria in March 1938.
Two units of
Einsatzgruppen were stationed in the
October 1938. When military action turned out not to be necessary
because of the
Munich Agreement , the
Einsatzgruppen were assigned to
confiscate government papers and police documents. They secured
government buildings, questioned senior civil servants, and arrested
as many as 10,000 Czech communists and German citizens. The
Einsatzgruppen also followed
Wehrmacht troops and killed potential
partisans. Similar groups were used in 1939 for the occupation of
Hitler felt that the planned extermination of the
Jews was too
difficult and important to be entrusted to the military. In 1941 the
Einsatzgruppen were sent into the
Soviet Union to begin large-scale
genocide of Jews,
Romani people , and communists. Historian Raul
Hilberg estimates that between 1941 and 1945 the
related agencies killed more than two million people, including 1.3
million Jews. The largest mass shooting perpetrated by the
Einsatzgruppen was at
Babi Yar outside
Kiev , where 33,771
killed in a single operation on 29–30 September 1941. In the
Rumbula massacre (November–December 1941), 25,000 victims from the
Riga ghetto were killed. Another mass shooting early in 1942 claimed
the lives of over 10,000
Einsatzgruppen were disbanded in mid-1944 (although some
continued to exist on paper until 1945) due to the German retreat on
both fronts and the consequent inability to continue extermination
Einsatzgruppen members were either assigned duties
Waffen-SS or concentration camps. Twenty-four Einsatzgruppen
commanders were tried for war crimes following the war.
SS COURT MAIN OFFICE
SS Court Main Office (Hauptamt SS-Gericht) was an internal legal
system for conducting investigations, trials, and punishment of the SS
and police. It had more than 600 lawyers on staff in the main offices
Berlin and Munich. Proceedings were conducted at 38 regional SS
courts throughout Germany. It was the only authority authorized to try
SS personnel, except for SS members who were on active duty in the
Wehrmacht (in such cases, the SS member in question was tried by a
standard military tribunal). Its creation placed the SS beyond the
reach of civilian legal authority. Himmler personally intervened as he
saw fit regarding convictions and punishment. The historian Karl
Dietrich Bracher describes this court system as one factor in the
creation of the Nazi totalitarian police state, as it removed
objective legal procedures, rendering citizens defenseless against the
"summary justice of the SS terror."
Shortly after Hitler seized power in 1933, most horse riding
associations were taken over by the SA and SS. Members received
combat training to serve in the Reiter-SS (SS Cavalry Corps). The
first SS cavalry regiment, designated SS-
Totenkopf Reitstandarte 1,
was formed in September 1939. Commanded by then SS-Standartenführer
Hermann Fegelein , the unit was assigned to Poland, where they took
part in the extermination of Polish intelligentsia. Additional
squadrons were added in May 1940, for a total of fourteen.
The unit was split into two regiments in December 1939, with Fegelein
in charge of both. By March 1941 their strength was 3,500 men. In
July 1941, they were assigned to the Pripyat swamps punitive operation
, tasked with rounding up and exterminating
Jews and partisans. The
two regiments were amalgamated into the
SS Cavalry Brigade on 31 July,
twelve days after the operation started. Fegelein's final report,
dated 18 September 1941, states that they killed 14,178 Jews, 1,001
partisans, and 699
Red Army soldiers, with 830 prisoners taken. The
historian Henning Pieper estimates the actual number of
was closer to 23,700. The
SS Cavalry Brigade took serious losses in
November 1941 in the
Battle of Moscow
Battle of Moscow , with casualties of up to 60
per cent in some squadrons. Fegelein was appointed as commander of
8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer on 20 April 1943. This unit
saw service in the
Soviet Union in attacks on partisans and civilians.
In addition, SS Cavalry regiments served in Croatia and Hungary.
SS MEDICAL CORPS
Jews on the Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) after
disembarking from the transport trains . Photo from the Auschwitz
Album (May 1944). Main article:
SS Medical Corps
SS Medical Corps were initially known as the Sanitätsstaffel
(sanitary units). After 1931, the SS formed the headquarters office
Amt V as the central office for SS medical units. An SS medical
academy was established in
Berlin in 1938 to train Waffen-SS
physicians. SS medical personnel did not often provide actual medical
care; their primary responsibility was medicalized genocide. At
Auschwitz, about three-quarters of new arrivals, including almost all
children, women with small children, all the elderly, and all those
who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not
to be completely fit were killed within hours of arrival. In their
role as Desinfektoren (disinfectors), SS doctors also made selections
among existing prisoners as to their fitness to work, and supervised
the killing of those deemed unfit. Inmates in deteriorating health
were examined by SS doctors, who decided whether or not they would be
able to recover in less than two weeks. Those too ill or injured to
recover in that time frame were killed.
At Auschwitz, the actual delivery of gas to the victims was always
handled by the SS, on the order of the supervising SS doctor. Many
of the SS doctors also conducted inhumane medical experiments on camp
prisoners. The most infamous SS doctor,
Josef Mengele , served as a
medical officer at Auschwitz under the command of
Eduard Wirths of the
camp's medical corps. Mengele undertook selections even when he was
not assigned to do so in the hope of finding subjects for his
experiments. He was particularly interested in locating sets of
twins. In contrast to most of the doctors, who viewed undertaking
selections as one of their most stressful and horrible duties, Mengele
undertook the task with a flamboyant air, often smiling or whistling a
tune. After the war, many SS doctors were charged with war crimes
for their inhumane medical experiments and for their role in gas
OTHER SS UNITS
Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage Organization) was founded in 1935
by Himmler, and became part of the SS in 1939. It was an umbrella
agency for more than fifty organizations tasked with studying the
German racial identity and ancient Germanic traditions and language.
The agency sponsored archaeological expeditions in Germany,
Scandinavia, the Middle East, Tibet, and elsewhere to search for
evidence of Aryan roots, influence, and superiority. Further planned
expeditions were postponed indefinitely at the start of the war.
The SS-Frauenkops was an auxiliary reporting and clerical unit,
which included the SS-Helferinnenkorps (Women Helper Corps), made up
of female volunteers. Members were assigned as administrative staff
and supply personnel, and served in command positions and as guards at
women's concentration camps. Like their male equivalents in the SS,
females participated in atrocities against Jews, Poles, and others.
In 1942, Himmler set up the Reichsschule für SS Helferinnen (Reich
school for SS helpers) in
Oberehnheim to train women in communications
so that they could free up men for combat roles. Himmler also intended
to replace all female civilian employees in his service with
SS-Helferinnen members, as they were selected and trained according to
NSDAP ideology. The school was closed on 22 November 1944 due to the
The SS-Mannschaften (Auxiliary-SS) were not considered regular SS
members, but were conscripted from other branches of the German
military, the NSDAP, SA, and the
Volkssturm for service in
concentration camps and extermination camps.
FOREIGN LEGIONS AND VOLUNTEERS
Waffen-SS foreign volunteers and conscripts
Beginning in 1940, Himmler opened up
Waffen-SS recruiting to ethnic
Germans that were not German citizens. In March 1941, the SS Main
Office established the Germanische Leitstelle (Germanic Guidance
Office) to establish
Waffen-SS recruiting offices in Nazi-occupied
Europe. The majority of the resulting foreign
Waffen-SS units wore a
distinctive national collar patch and preceded their SS rank titles
with the prefix Waffen instead of SS. Volunteers from Scandinavian
countries filled the ranks of two divisions, the SS-Wiking and
SS-Nordland . Belgian Flemings joined Dutchmen to form the
SS-Nederland legion, and their Walloon compatriots joined the
SS-Wallonien . By the end of 1943 about a quarter of the SS were
ethnic Germans from across Europe, and by June 1944, half the
Waffen-SS were foreign nationals.
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj
Amin al-Husseini greeting Bosniak SS volunteers before their departure
to the Eastern Front, 1943
Waffen-SS units were added from the Ukrainians , Albanians
Kosovo , Serbians, Croatians, Turkic, Caucasians, Cossack , and
Tatars. The Ukrainians and Tatars, who had suffered persecution under
Stalin , were likely motivated primarily by opposition to the Soviet
government rather than ideological agreement with the SS. The exiled
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem
Amin al-Husseini was made an
Gruppenführer by Himmler in May 1943. He subsequently used
antisemitism and anti-Serb racism to recruit a
Waffen-SS division of
Bosnian Muslims , the SS-Handschar . The year-long Soviet occupation
of the Baltic states at the beginning of
World War II
World War II resulted in
volunteers for Latvian and Estonian
Waffen-SS units. The Estonian
Legion had 1,280 volunteers under training by the end of 1942.
Eventually, approximately 25,000 men served in the Estonian SS
division, with thousands more conscripted into Police Front battalions
and border guard units. Most of the Estonians were fighting primarily
to regain their independence and as many as 15,000 of them died
fighting alongside the Germans. In early 1944, Himmler even contacted
Pohl to suggest releasing Muslim prisoners from concentration camps to
supplement his SS troops.
Indian Legion was a
Wehrmacht unit formed in August 1942 chiefly
from disaffected Indian soldiers of the
British Indian Army
British Indian Army captured
North African Campaign . In August 1944 it was transferred to
the auspices of the
Waffen-SS as the Indische Freiwilligen-Legion der
Waffen-SS. There was also a French volunteer division, SS-Charlemagne
, which was formed in 1944 mainly from the remnants of the Legion of
French Volunteers Against Bolshevism and French Sturmbrigade.
RANKS AND UNIFORMS
Uniforms and insignia of the Schutzstaffel See also:
Runic insignia of the Schutzstaffel
The SS established its own symbolism, rituals, customs, ranks and
uniforms to set itself apart from other organizations. Before 1929,
the SS wore the same brown uniform as the SA, with the addition of a
black tie and a black cap with a
Totenkopf (death's head) skull and
bones symbol, moving to an all-black uniform in 1932. In 1935, the SS
combat formations adopted a service uniform in field grey for everyday
wear. The SS also developed its own field uniforms, which included
reversible smocks and helmet covers printed with camouflage patterns.
Uniforms were manufactured in hundreds of licensed factories, with
some workers being prisoners of war performing forced labor. Many were
produced in concentration camps.
Hitler and the
NSDAP understood the power of emblems and insignia to
influence public opinion. The stylized lightning bolt logo of the SS
was chosen in 1932. The logo is a pair of runes from a set of 18
Armanen runes created by
Guido von List in 1906. It is similar to the
Sowilō rune, which symbolizes the sun, but was renamed as
"Sig" (victory) in List's iconography. The
Totenkopf symbolized the
wearer's willingness to fight unto the death, and also served to
frighten the enemy.
SS MEMBERSHIP ESTIMATES 1925–45
After 1933 a career in the SS became increasingly attractive to
Germany's social elite, who began joining the movement in great
numbers, usually motivated by political opportunism. By 1938 about
one-third of the SS leadership were members of the upper middle class
. The trend reversed after the first Soviet counter-offensive of 1942.
(the bandwagon effect)
Heinrich Himmler (establishment of the
Heinrich Himmler and
By 1942 all activities of the SS were managed through twelve main
* Personal Staff
SS Main Office (SS-HA)
* SS-Führungshauptamt (SS Main Operational Office; SS-FHA)
Reich Main Security Office (RSHA)
SS Main Economic and Administrative Office (WVHA)
Ordnungspolizei Hauptamt (Main Office of the Order Police)
SS Court Main Office
SS-Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt (SS Office of Race and Settlement;
SS Personnel Main Office
SS Personnel Main Office
Hauptamt Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle (Racial German Assistance Main
SS Education Office
* Main Office of the Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of
German Nationhood (RKFDV)
Ernst Kaltenbrunner ,
Heinrich Himmler ,
August Eigruber , and
other SS officials visit Mauthausen concentration camp, 1941. Main
The term "Austrian SS" is often used to describe that portion of the
SS membership from Austria, but it was never a recognized branch of
the SS. In contrast to SS members from other countries, who were
grouped into either the
Germanic-SS or the Foreign Legions of the
Austrian SS members were regular SS personnel. It was
technically under the command of the SS in Germany, but often acted
independently concerning Austrian affairs. The
Austrian SS was founded
in 1930 and by 1934 was acting as a covert force to bring about the
Anschluss with Germany, which occurred in March 1938. Early Austrian
SS leaders were Kaltenbrunner and
Arthur Seyss-Inquart . Austrian SS
members served in every branch of the SS. Political scientist David
Tufts University notes that Austrians constituted 8 percent of
the Third Reich's population and 13 percent of the SS; he states that
40 percent of the staff and 75 percent of commanders at death camps
After the Anschluss, the
Austrian SS was folded into SS-Oberabschnitt
Donau . The third regiment of the
SS-Verfügungstruppe (Der Führer)
and the fourth
Totenkopf regiment (Ostmark) were recruited in Austria
shortly thereafter. On Heydrich's orders, mass arrests of potential
enemies of the Reich began immediately after the Anschluss.
Mauthausen was the first concentration camp opened in Austria
following the Anschluss. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union,
Mauthausen was the harshest of the camps in the Greater German Reich.
The Hotel Metropole was transformed into
Gestapo headquarters in
Vienna in April 1938. With a staff of 900 (80 percent of whom were
recruited from the Austrian police), it was the largest
outside Berlin. An estimated 50,000 people were interrogated or
tortured there. The
Gestapo in Vienna was headed by Franz Josef Huber
, who also served as chief of the Central Agency for Jewish Emigration
in Vienna . Although its de facto leaders were
Adolf Eichmann and
Alois Brunner , Huber was nevertheless responsible for the mass
deportation of Austrian Jews.
POST-WAR ACTIVITY AND AFTERMATH
Latvian Legion Day
Latvian Legion Day , 16 March 2008
Following Nazi Germany's collapse, the SS ceased to exist. Numerous
members of the SS, many of them still committed Nazis, remained at
large in Germany and across Europe. On 21 May 1945, the British
captured Himmler, who was in disguise and using a false passport. At
an internment camp near
Lüneburg , he committed suicide by biting
down on a cyanide capsule. Several other leading members of the SS
fled, but some were quickly captured. Kaltenbrunner, chief of the RSHA
and the highest-ranking member of the SS upon Himmler's suicide, was
captured and arrested in the
Bavarian Alps . He was among the 24
defendants put on trial at the
International Military Tribunal in
Some SS members were subject to summary execution, torture, and
beatings at the hands of freed prisoners, displaced persons, or Allied
soldiers. American soldiers of the 157th Regiment, who entered the
concentration camp at Dachau in April 1945 and saw the human
deprivation and cruelty committed by the SS, shot some of the
remaining SS camp guards . On 15 April 1945, British troops entered
Bergen-Belsen. They placed the SS guards on starvation rations, made
them work without breaks, forced them to deal with the remaining
corpses, and stabbed them with bayonets or struck them with their
rifle butts if they slowed their pace. Some members of the US Army
Counter Intelligence Corps delivered captured SS camp guards to
displaced persons camps, where they knew they would be subject to
INTERNATIONAL MILITARY TRIBUNAL AT NUREMBERG
Nuremberg trials Kaltenbrunner, the
highest-ranking surviving SS officer, after execution by hanging on 16
The Allies commenced legal proceedings against captured Nazis,
International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945.
The first war crimes trial of 24 prominent figures such as Göring,
Albert Speer ,
Joachim von Ribbentrop
Joachim von Ribbentrop ,
Alfred Rosenberg , Hans Frank
, and Kaltenbrunner took place beginning in November 1945. They were
accused of four counts: conspiracy, waging a war of aggression, war
crimes, and crimes against humanity in violation of international law.
Twelve received the death penalty, including Kaltenbrunner, who was
convicted of crimes against humanity and executed on 16 October 1946.
The former commandant at Auschwitz,
Rudolf Höss , who testified on
behalf of Kaltenbrunner and others, was tried and executed in 1947.
Additional SS trials and convictions followed. Many defendants
attempted to exculpate themselves using the excuse that they were
merely following superior orders , which they had to obey
unconditionally as part of their sworn oath and duty. The courts did
not find this to be a legitimate defense. A trial of 40 SS officers
and guards from Auschwitz took place in
Kraków in November 1947. Most
were found guilty, and 23 received the death penalty. In addition to
those tried by the Western allies, an estimated 37,000 members of the
SS were tried and convicted in Soviet courts. Sentences included
hangings and long terms of hard labor.
Piotr Cywiński , the director
of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, estimates that of the 70,000 members
of the SS involved in crimes in concentration camps, only about 1,650
to 1,700 were tried after the war. The International Military
Tribunal declared the SS a criminal organization in 1946.
Red Cross passport under the name of "Ricardo Klement" that
Adolf Eichmann used to enter Argentina in 1950
After the war, many former Nazis fled to South America, especially to
Argentina, where they were welcomed by
Juan Perón 's regime. In the
1950s, former Dachau inmate Lothar Hermann discovered that Buenos
Aires resident Ricardo Klement was in fact Adolf Eichmann, who had in
1948 obtained false identification and a landing permit for Argentina
through an organization directed by Bishop
Alois Hudal , an Austrian
cleric with Nazi sympathies then residing in Italy. Eichmann was
Buenos Aires on 11 May 1960 by
Mossad , the Israeli
intelligence agency. At his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, he was found
guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Eichmann was quoted as
having stated, "I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact
that I have the death of five million
Jews on my conscience gives me
Franz Stangl , the commandant of
Treblinka, also escaped to South America with the assistance of
Hudal's network. He was deported to Germany in 1967 and was sentenced
to life in prison in 1970. He died in 1971.
Mengele, worried that his capture would mean a death sentence, fled
Germany on 17 April 1949. Assisted by a network of former SS members,
he traveled to
Genoa , where he obtained a passport under the alias
"Helmut Gregor" from the
International Committee of the Red Cross
International Committee of the Red Cross . He
sailed to Argentina in July. Aware that he was still a wanted man, he
moved to Paraguay in 1958 and Brazil in 1960. In both instances he was
assisted by former
Hans-Ulrich Rudel . Mengele
suffered a stroke while swimming and drowned in 1979.
Thousands of Nazis, including former SS members such as Trawniki
Jakob Reimer and Circassian collaborator
Tscherim Soobzokov ,
fled to the United States under the guise of refugees, sometimes using
forged documents. Other SS men, such as Soobzokov, SD officer Wilhelm
Höttl , Eichmann aide
Otto von Bolschwing , and accused war criminal
Theodor Saevecke, were employed by American intelligence agencies
against the Soviets. As CIA officer Harry Rositzke noted, "It was a
visceral business of using any bastard so long as he was
anti-Communist ... The eagerness or desire to enlist collaborators
means that sure, you didn't look at their credentials too closely."
Similarly, the Soviets used SS personnel after the war; Operation
Theo, for instance, disseminated "subversive rumours" in
Simon Wiesenthal and others have speculated about the existence of a
Nazi fugitive network code-named
ODESSA (an acronym for Organisation
der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, Organization of former SS members)
that allegedly helped war criminals find refuge in
Latin America .
Gitta Sereny , who conducted interviews with SS men,
considers the story untrue and attributes the escapes to postwar chaos
and Hudal's Vatican-based network. While the existence of ODESSA
remains unproven, Sereny notes that "there certainly were various
kinds of Nazi aid organizations after the war — it would have been
astonishing if there hadn't been."
* Glossary of
List of SS personnel
SS State of Burgundy
* ^ Buchenwald , Dachau , Flossenbürg , Mauthausen , Ravensbrück
, and Sachsenhausen .
* ^ Not to be confused with SS-Sonderkommandos, ad hoc SS units
that used the same name.
* ^ In an act of reprisal, upwards of 10,000 Czechs were arrested;
1,300 were shot, including all male inhabitants from the nearby town
Lidice (where Heydrich's assassins had supposedly been harbored),
and the town was razed.
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* ^ Evans 2003 , p. 228.
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* ^ McNab 2009 , p. 14.
* ^ Weale 2010 , p. 16.
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* ^ Hein 2015 , p. 10.
* ^ Weale 2010 , p. 26.
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* ^ Koehl 2004 , p. 34.
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* ^ Weale 2010 , p. 30.
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International Military Tribunal 1946 .
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Wikisource has original text related to this article: COMPREHENSIVE
REPORT OF EINSATZGRUPPE A UP TO 15 OCTOBER 1941
* Judgment of
Nuremberg Trials on the SS
* SS at the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
* Testimonies concerning SS crimes in occupied Poland in "Chronicles
of Terror" testimony database
ARTICLES AND TOPICS RELATED TO SS (NAZI GERMANY)