SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), rendered in English as Death's Head
Units, was the SS organization responsible for administering the
Nazi concentration camps
Nazi concentration camps for the Third Reich, among similar duties.
Totenkopf (skull) was the universal cap badge of the SS, the
SS-TV also wore the Death's Head insignia on the right collar when
needed; to distinguish itself from other Nazi
The SS-TV created originally in 1933 was an independent unit within
the SS with its own ranks and command structure. It ran the camps
Germany and later in occupied Europe. Camps in Germany
included Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Buchenwald; camps elsewhere in
Europe included Auschwitz-
Birkenau in German occupied
Mauthausen in Austria among the numerous other concentration camps,
and death camps handled with the utmost of secrecy. The extermination
camps' function was genocide; they included Treblinka, Bełżec, and
Sobibór built specifically for Aktion Reinhard, as well as the
original Chełmno extermination camp, and Majdanek which was fitted
with mass killing facilities, along with Auschwitz. They were
responsible for facilitating what the Nazis called the Final Solution,
known since the war as the Holocaust; perpetrated by the SS within
the command structure of the
Reich Main Security Office
Reich Main Security Office subordinate to
Heinrich Himmler, and the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office
At the outbreak of
World War II
World War II one of the first combat units of the
Waffen-SS, the SS Division Totenkopf, was formed from SS-TV personnel.
It soon developed a reputation for brutality, participating in war
crimes such as the
Le Paradis massacre
Le Paradis massacre in 1940 during the Fall of
France. On the Eastern Front the mass shootings of Polish and Soviet
Operation Barbarossa was the work of special task forces
known as Einsatzgruppen, which were organized by
Heinrich Himmler and
2 Further development
3 Invasion of Poland
3.1 System of concentration camps
4 The Holocaust
4.1 Concentration camp personnel
5 Combat formations
6 See also
After taking national power in 1933, the
Nazi Party launched a new
programme of mass incarceration of the so-called enemies of the state.
Originally there were only wild camps in operation. Springing up in
every town across
Germany like mushrooms after the rain (Himmler's
quote), the early camps utilized lockable spaces usually without
infrastructure for permanent detention (i.e. engine rooms, brewery
floors, storage facilities, cellars). Following the fall from power
of the paramilitary Brownshirts of the SA during the NSDAP purge known
Night of the Long Knives
Night of the Long Knives (30 June to 2 July 1934), the SS took
control of the fledgling camp system. The SS founded state-run
concentration camps at Dachau, Oranienburg, and Esterwegen, which held
the total of 107,000 'undesirables' already by 1935.
On 26 June 1933,
Heinrich Himmler appointed
Theodor Eicke the Kommandant of the Nazi concentration
camp at Dachau. Eicke requested a permanent unit that would be
subordinate only to him and the SS-Wachverbände was formed. Eicke
began his infamous tenure by issuing new orders about the killing of
inmates trying to escape (Postenpflicht). He developed the first Nazi
Punishment Catalogue regulating the system of extreme disciplinary
sanctions for detainees (Lagerordnung). His rules were adopted by all
concentration camps of Nazi
Germany as of 1 January 1934. Eicke was
promoted to SS-
Brigadeführer (equivalent to Major-general in the
army) on 30 January 1934. Following the Night of the Long Knives,
Eicke – who had played a role in the affair – was again promoted
to the rank of SS-
Gruppenführer and officially appointed Inspector of
Concentration Camps and Commander of SS-guard formations. Thereafter,
all remaining SA-run camps were taken over by the SS. In
his role as the Concentration Camps Inspector, Eicke began a large
reorganisation of the camps in 1935. The smaller camps were
Dachau concentration camp
Dachau concentration camp remained, then personnel from
Dachau went on to work at Sachsenhausen and Oranienburg, where Eicke
established his central office.
SS-TV officers at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, 1936
Dachau became the training center for the concentration camps
service. Many of the early recruits came from the ranks of the SA
and Allgemeine SS. Senior roles were filled by personnel from the
German police service. On 29 March 1936, concentration camp guards and
administration units were officially designated as the
SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV). In the summer of 1937, Buchenwald
became operational, followed by
Ravensbrück (near Lichtenburg) in May
1939. There were other new camps in Austria, such as Mauthausen-Gusen
concentration camp, which opened in 1938. All SS camps'
regulations, both for guards and prisoners, followed the
Heinrich Himmler (front right, beside prisoner) inspecting Dachau
Concentration Camp on 8 May 1936
In 1935, as the concentration camp system within
groups of camps were organized into Wachsturmbanne (battalions) under
the office of the Inspector of Concentration Camps who answered
directly to the SS headquarters office and Heinrich Himmler. When the
SS-Totenkopfverbände were formally established in March 1936, the
group was organized into six Wachtruppen situated at each of Germany's
major concentration camps. In April 1936, Eicke was named commander of
SS-Totenkopfverbände and the number of men under his command
increased from 2,876 to 3,222; the Concentration Camps Inspectorate
(CCI) was also provided official funding through the Reich's budget
office, and Eicke was allowed to recruit future troops from the Hitler
Youth based on regional needs. In 1937, the Wachsturmbanne were in
turn organized into three main SS-Totenkopfstandarten (regiments).
By 1936, Eicke had also begun to establish military formations of
concentration camp personnel which eventually became the Totenkopf
Division and other units of the Waffen-SS. In the early days of the
military camp service formation, the group's exact chain of command
was contested since Eicke as Führer der Totenkopfverbände exercised
personal control of the group but also, as it was considered an armed
SS formation, authority over the armed units was claimed by the
SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT), which had been first formed in 1934 as
combat troops for the Nazi Party. But at this time, Himmler and Eicke
envisioned the armed SS-VT as a force for internal "police and
security operations". Later by 1938, it became clear that the SS-VT
troops were to be used for front-line "purposes", as well.
Concentration Camp Inspector Theodor Eicke
Eicke in his role as the commander of the SS-TV, continued to
reorganize the camp system by dismantling smaller camps. By August
1937 only Dachau, Sachsenhausen,
in Germany. In 1938 Eicke oversaw the building of new camps in Austria
following the Anschluss, such as Mauthausen. Eicke's reorganization
and the introduction of forced labor made the camps one of the SS's
most powerful tools, but it earned him the enmity of
Sicherheitsdienst (SD) chief, Reinhard Heydrich, who wanted to take
over control of the concentration camp system. Himmler wanted to keep
a separation of power, so Eicke remained in command of the SS-TV and
camp operations. This kept control of the camps out of the hands of
Gestapo or the SD.
By April 1938, the SS-TV had four regiments of three storm battalions
with three infantry companies, one machine gun company and medical,
communication and transportation units. On 17 August 1938 Hitler
decreed, at Himmler's request, the SS-TV to be the official reserve
for the SS-VT; this would over the course of the war lead to a
constant flux of men between the
Waffen-SS and the concentration
camps. Himmler's intention was simply to expand his private army by
using the SS-TV (as well as the police, which he also controlled) as a
manpower pool. Himmler sought and obtained a further decree, issued on
18 May 1939, which authorized the expansion of the SS-TV to 50,000
men, and directed the army to provide it with military equipment,
something the army had resisted.
Invasion of Poland
The 1939 massacres of Poles in Piaśnica; victims who were named by
the secret Sonderfahndungsbuch Polen assembled at the Darżlubska
woods execution site; one of many murder sites in western Poland
Sonderfahndungsbuch Polen published in
Germany before the attack. Page
with symbols used in the extermination actions
Bodies of the Piaśnica victims of
Einsatzkommando § The earliest
During the invasion of Poland, Eicke's SS-TV field forces numbered
four infantry regiments and a cavalry regiment, plus two battalions
placed in Free City of Danzig. The SS-TV role in the attack on
Poland was not military in spite of close proximity to combat. "Their
military capabilities were employed instead in terrorizing the
civilian population through acts that included hunting down straggling
Polish soldiers, confiscating agricultural produce and livestock, and
torturing and murdering large numbers of Polish political leaders,
aristocrats, businessmen, priests, intellectuals, and Jews."
Eicke's three regiments, Oberbayern, Brandenburg and Thuringen, were
reformed as the first Einsatzgruppen; the Oberbayern and the Thuringen
(EG II and EG z. B.V) followed the Tenth Army in Upper Silesia; the
Brandenburg (EG III) followed the Eight Army across Warthegau. The
behavior of these
Poland elicited some protests from
officers of the army, including 8th Army commander Johannes Blaskowitz
who wrote a memorandum to
Walther von Brauchitsch
Walther von Brauchitsch detailing the SS-TV
atrocities, unaware that they were planned years in advance by the
Central Unit II P-
Poland under Heydrich who himself coordinated secret
extermination actions including
Operation Tannenberg and the
Intelligenzaktion both targeting more than 61,000 members of Polish
elites during the opening stages of World War II.
At the beginning of war in
Europe on 1 September 1939 the SS forces
consisted of roughly 250,000 servicemen spread out across multiple
branches, with transferable ranks and service records from police
regiments and the army. Himmler's military formations at this time
comprised several subgroups, including the SS-Verfügungstruppe, which
would become the basis of the Waffen-SS. Hitler approved further
expansion of the armed SS formations. By October 1939, a new SS
military division the SS-
Totenkopf was formed. The
initially formed from concentration camp guards of the Standarten
(regiments) of the SS-TV and soldiers from the SS-Heimwehr "Danzig.
Members of other SS militias were also transferred into the division
in early 1940; these units had been involved in multiple massacres of
Polish civilians, political leaders and prisoners of war.
From fall 1939 to spring 1940 a massive recruitment effort in Germany
raised no fewer than twelve new TK-
Standarten (four times the size of
the SS-Verfügungstruppe) in anticipation of the coming attack on
France. Both Eicke personally and his
Totenkopf Division performed
Fall Gelb therefore Himmler resolved to curb his
decisions which had spurred a conflict with Hausser and Dietrich;
especially his designation of TK-
Standarten as reserves for his
Totenkopf Division alone, and the fact that the SS-Verfügungstruppe
military supplies were stored at Eicke's concentration camps. On 15
August 1940 Himmler dissolved Eicke's Inspectorate of
SS-Totenkopfstandarten using as justification several well-publicized
atrocities committed by the Division in France, and transferred the
Totenkopf Division, the independent TK-Standarten, and their reserve
and replacement system to the newly formed
Waffen-SS high command.
In February 1941 the
Totenkopf designation was removed from the names
of all units other than the
Totenkopf Division and the camp
Totenkopfwachsturmbanne, and their personnel exchanged the
Death's-Head collar insignia for the
Waffen-SS Sig-runes. The camp
system expanded greatly after the invasion of the
Soviet Union in
1941, when large numbers of Soviet soldiers were captured. Some were
transferred to the camps, where their inhumane treatment became
Totenkopf Division still had close ties to the camp service and
its members continued to wear the Death's-Head as their unit insignia.
They were known for brutal tactics, a result of the original doctrine
of "no pity" which Eicke had instilled in his camp personnel as far
back as 1934, together with the fact that the original
Totenkopfstandarte had "trained" themselves. The Division's
ineffectiveness in France, as well as its war crimes, can in part be
explained by its personnel who were more thugs than soldiers. When
first formed a total of 6,500 men from the SS-TV were transferred into
Totenkopf Division. However, over the course of the savage
fighting in the East (during which the Division was twice effectively
destroyed and recreated), the
Totenkopf became one of the crack combat
units of the German military. Very few of the men who were part of the
Poland were still in the Division by 1945.
After the close of the Battle of France, the
officially renamed the
Waffen-SS in a speech made by Hitler in July
1940. Himmler also gained approval for the
Waffen-SS to form its
own high command, the Kommandoamt der
Waffen-SS within the
SS-Führungshauptamt, which was created in August 1940. It received
command of the
Leibstandarte and the
SS-Verfügungs-Division, renamed Reich) and the armed SS-TV regiments
(the Totenkopf-Division together with the independent
Waffen-SS was greatly expanded and allowed
to recruit volunteers from conquered territories from the ethnic
German and Germanic populations.
System of concentration camps
After Eicke was reassigned to combat duty, his Chief of Staff
Richard Glücks was appointed the new Concentration
Camps Inspectorate (CCI) or IKL (Inspektion der Konzentrationslager)
chief by Himmler. By 1940, the CCI came under the control of the
Verwaltung und Wirtschaftshauptamt Hauptamt (VuWHA; Administration and
Business office) which was set up under Oswald Pohl. Then in 1942,
the CCI became Amt D (Office D) of the consolidated main office known
SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (SS Economic and
Administrative Department; WVHA) under Pohl. Glücks continued to
manage the camp administration until the end of the war. Therefore,
the entire concentration camp system was placed under the authority of
the WVHA with the Inspector of Concentration Camps a subordinate to
the Chief of the WVHA.
Majdanek concentration camp
Majdanek concentration camp which was run by the SS-Totenkopfverbände
was also the location of defense contractor Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke
(DAW); owned and operated by the
By 1941, prior to the "Final Solution", the concentration camps run by
SS-TV, both in
Germany and across occupied territories, grew into a
massive system of institutionalized forced labour for the SS. The
concentration camp personnel began to arrive from the front-line SS
formations upon medical discharge. Attack dogs were introduced to
compensate for the personnel shortage.
Special death camps of
Aktion Reinhard had also come into existence. Under the WVHA, the
camps were separated into divisions of forced labor, concentration,
and extermination camps, all linked by record-high profit margins
propped up by the theft of cash and assets from the Holocaust victims.
Gigantic camps at
Auschwitz and Majdanek were built with the
expectation of Soviet prisoners of war entering the camp labour after
During the war, almost half of the concentration camp officers served
Waffen-SS combat divisions, including the Leibstandarte, Das
Reich, Wiking, the Nord Division, and Totenkopf. Some
concentration camp officers served as division commanders in the
Waffen-SS. By October 1944 the
Waffen-SS membership reached
800,000 and up to 910,000 men.
Within the camps themselves, there existed a hierarchy of camp titles
and positions which were unique only to the camp service. Each camp
was commanded by a Kommandant, sometimes referred to as
Lagerkommandant, who was assisted by a camp adjutant and command
staff. The prison barracks within the camp were supervised by a
Rapportführer who was responsible for daily roll call and the camp
daily schedule. The individual prisoner barracks were overseen by
junior SS-NCOs called Blockführer who, in turn had one to two squads
of SS soldiers responsible for overseeing the prisoners. Within the
extermination camps, the Blockführer was in charge of the prisoner
Sonderkommando and was also the person who would physically gas
victims in the camp's gas chambers.
Sonderkommando workers in turn, were terrorised by up to a
Trawniki men called Wachmannschaften.
Demonstration photo by former prisoners at the Crematorium in Dachau
The camp perimeter and watch towers were overseen by a separate
formation called the Guard Battalion, or the Wachbattalion. The guard
battalion commander was responsible for providing watch bills to man
guard towers and oversaw security patrols outside the camp. The
battalion was organized on typical military lines with companies,
platoons, and squads. The battalion commander was subordinate directly
to the camp commander.
Concentration camps also had supply and medical personnel, attached to
the headquarters office under the camp commander, as well as a
security office with
Kripo personnel attached to the camp.
Heydrich had been successful in getting control over the "political
departments" of the camps. These security personnel were under
direct command of
Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo) commanders until September
1939 and thereafter, the
RSHA commanders independent of the
In addition to the regular SS personnel assigned to the Concentration
Camp, there also existed a prisoner system of trustees known as Kapos
who performed a wide variety of duties from administration to
overseeing other groups of prisoners. The
Sonderkommando were special
groups of Jewish prisoners who assisted in the extermination camps
with the disposal of bodies and other tasks. The duty of actually
gassing prisoners was, however, always carried out by the SS.
Members of Totenkopfverbände from
Treblinka extermination camp
Treblinka extermination camp (from
left): Paul Bredow, Willi Mentz, Max Möller and Josef Hirtreiter.
In 1942 Glücks was increasingly involved in the administration of the
Endlösung, supplying personnel to assist in Aktion Reinhardt
(although the death camps of Belzec,
Treblinka and Sobibor were
administered by SS-und Polizei-führer
Odilo Globocnik of the General
Government). In July 1942, Glücks met Himmler to discuss medical
experiments on concentration camp inmates. All extermination orders
were issued from Glücks' office to SS-TV commands throughout Nazi
Germany and occupied Europe. He specifically authorized the purchase
Zyklon B for use at Auschwitz.
Carpathian Ruthenian Jews arrive at Auschwitz–Birkenau, May 1944.
Without being registered to the camp system, most were killed in gas
chambers hours after arriving.
Already in 1943 the SS-TV units began to receive orders to conceal as
much of the evidence of the Holocaust as possible. Himmler was most
concerned about covering up Nazi crimes ever since the Polish 22,000
victims of the Soviet
Katyn massacre were discovered well preserved
underground near Smolensk. The cremations began shortly thereafter
and continued until the camps' official closure. Camps were
meticulously destroyed, sick prisoners were shot and others were
marched on death marches away from the advancing Allies. The SS-TV
were also instrumental in the execution of hundreds of political
prisoners to prevent their liberation.
By April 1945 many SS-TV had left their posts. Due to their notoriety,
some removed their death head insignia to hide their identities. Camp
duties were increasingly turned over to so-called "Auxiliary-SS",
soldiers and civilians conscripted as camp guards so that the
Totenkopf men could escape. However, many were arrested by the Allies
and stood trial for war crimes at Nuremberg between 1946 and 1949.
"Immediately after their seizure by the Russians on May 9-10, 1945 –
wrote Sydnor – the officers and men in the
Totenkopf Division were
transported to several detention camps inside the Soviet Union. Within
six months of the end of the war, many prominent SSTK officers,
including Becker, disappeared, most likely the victims of secret
Concentration camp personnel
Buchenwald concentration camp prisoner identifies a member of
the SS camp guard
From the SS-TV inception, Eicke fostered an attitude of "inflexible
harshness" exercised by the masters. This core belief continued to
influence SS guards in all concentration camps even after Eicke had
taken over command of the SS
Totenkopf Division. Recruits were taught
to hate their enemies through tough training regimes and Nazi
The SS-TV personnel had no sympathy nor compassion for the sufferings
of prisoners. Within camps, guards subjugated the inmates in an
atmosphere of controlled, disciplined cruelty. This environment of
formalized brutality influenced some of the SS-TV's most infamous
commandants including Rudolf Höß, Franz Ziereis, Karl Otto Koch, Max
Kögel, and Amon Göth.
In the last days of World War II, a special group called the
"Auxiliary-SS" (SS-Mannschaft) was formed as a last-ditch effort to
keep concentration camps running and allow regular SS personnel to
escape. Auxiliary-SS members were not considered regular SS personnel,
but were conscripted members from other branches of the German
military, the Nazi Party, and the Volkssturm. Such personnel wore a
distinctive twin swastika collar patch and served as camp guard and
administrative personnel until the surrender of Germany.
Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp
Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in the
standard uniform worn by SS-TV. His collar patch displays the
Totenkopf insignia worn by concentration camp staff.
1st TK-Standarte 'Oberbayern'. Formed 1937 at Dachau. During the
Polish invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines.
Redesignated 1. SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment, and assigned to
Totenkopf Division 10/39.
2nd TK-Standarte 'Brandenburg'. Formed 1937 at Oranienburg. During the
Polish invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines.
Redesignated 2. SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment, and assigned to
Totenkopf Division 10/39.
3rd TK-Standarte 'Thüringen'. Formed 1937 at Buchenwald. During the
Polish invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines.
Redesignated 3. SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment and assigned to
Totenkopf Division, with some men forming the cadre of the 10.
4th TK-Standarte 'Ostmark'. Formed 1938 at Vienna and Berlin. III
Sturmbann Götze detached to form the core of
SS Heimwehr Danzig
SS Heimwehr Danzig 7/39.
Garrison duty at Prague 10/39 and in the Netherlands 6/40. Designated
4. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to 2. SS-Infanterie-Brigade
SS-Wachsturmbann 'Eimann'. Formed 1939 at Danzig. During the Polish
invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines. Dissolved
TK-Reiter-Standarte. Formed 9/39 in
Poland to conduct "security
operations" behind the lines. Expanded and divided into 1. and 2.
Standarten 5/40. Redesignated 1. and 2.
SS-Kavallerie-Regimenter 2/41, combined into SS-Kavallerie-Brigade
(later SS-Kavallerie-Division 'Florian Geyer') 9/41.
5th TK-Standarte 'Dietrich Eckart'. Formed 1939 at
Oranienburg. Designated 5. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to 2.
6th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Prague. Garrison duty in Norway 5/40.
Designated 6. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to Kampfgruppe
Nord (later 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division Nord) spring 41.
7th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Brno. Garrison duty in Norway 5/40.
Designated 7. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to Kampfgruppe
Nord (later 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division Nord) spring 41.
8th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Crakow. Designated 8.
SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to 1. SS-Infanterie-Brigade
9th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Danzig. Reorganized (with elements of
St. 12) into Standarte "K" (Kirkenes, Norway) 8-11/40, redesignated 9.
SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to Kampfgruppe Nord spring 41.
Incorporated into SS-Regiment Thule 8/42.
10th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Buchenwald. Garrison duties in
Poland 1940. Designated 10. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to
1. SS-Infanterie-Brigade 4/41.
11th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Radom. Garrison duty in the
Netherlands 5/40. Assigned to SS-Infanterie-Division (mot) Reich to
replace the 2. SS-Infanterie-Regiment Germania 12/40 and redesignated
Standarten 12-16 were raised in the winter of 1939-40, but
disbanded the following summer, their personnel used to fill out other
German war crimes
Glossary of Nazi Germany
List of SS personnel
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^ a b c The title
Totenkopf was retained by these three regiments to
distinguish them from the three regiments of the SS-VT
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