The SS has exerted a powerful hold on the popular imagination for more than six decades. The most compelling reason for this is the central role that the SS and its leadership played in the German state’s attempt to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe and enslave many other people who found themselves under German control. But the enormity of the crimes committed by members of the SS has, in some ways, distorted our view of the organisation.
The SS (an abbreviation of Schutzstaffeln—protection squads) was created in 1925 as a small, local bodyguard for Adolf Hitler and other senior leaders of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) as they tried to re-establish themselves as an effective force in German politics following the disaster of the Munich Putsch. Over the next few years, its membership fluctuated from the low hundreds to a thousand or so, but the character of the SS remained much the same. Its members were a slightly more reliable and trustworthy brand of part-time political thug than the bullies and bruisers of the National Socialists’ main paramilitary force, the brown-shirted “Storm Troopers” of the Sturmabteilung (SA). Thereafter, though, the SS changed radically. The catalyst for this transformation was Heinrich Himmler, who became Deputy National Leader of the organisation in 1928 and took over as National Leader in January 1929. First, Himmler developed a national structure and role for the SS within the whole National Socialist movement. Second, he created a distinct ideology for the organisation, with the intention of making it attractive to the “best” members of the National Socialist movement and subsequently the German “race-community.” They would then be moved to join the SS, and Himmler would be at the head of an elite group in German society. Third, after the NSDAP came to power, Himmler assumed control of the policing and security apparatus of the German state, which enabled him to place many of the SS’s activities outside the realm of traditional legal structures. Finally, he developed a significant armed force that was independent of the traditional military structures of the state. All of this enabled the SS to function as an instrument of Hitler’s will—through Himmler—largely unfettered by traditional constitutional and moral constraints.
In the early years of the SS, the majority of its members were drawn from the generation that had recently fought in the First World War. Although the popular media have traditionally stereotyped SS personnel as either brutal, sadistic thugs or colourless bureaucrats, in reality many of the middle-ranking and senior officers were highly educated, creative, technically accomplished members of Germany’s intellectual elite. Just as Himmler had hoped, the organisation attracted many talented young men into its officer corps. They saw the SS as a vehicle for their professional and political ambitions in the new, National Socialist Germany, and embraced the organisation and its elitist outlook with enthusiasm. In all likelihood, they would have struggled to achieve similar success in the German Army, given its traditional social prejudice.
Since his suicide in British custody in 1945, Himmler has been portrayed as a homicidal monster, a hypocrite, a fussy pedant and a ditherer.1 He was all of these things, but also one of the most energetic, ferociously ambitious, sure-footed and successful political operators in the Third Reich. At school, he was an unusually bright student. Despite his somewhat weak physique and poor eyesight, he passed his training as an infantry officer with few problems (although he was too young to serve as a frontline soldier in the First World War). He sailed through both the practical and academic elements of his agriculture studies in Munich after the war. As a young political activist, he was well regarded and rose quickly through the ranks. He set himself realistic targets and worked diligently and creatively to achieve them. In short, he was well read, well educated and highly organised.
He was also an excellent selector of personnel. Much of the business of government in the Third Reich was hampered by cronyism: long-serving or well-connected party members were often given jobs that were well beyond the scope of their talents. This was much less the case in the SS: “old fighters” might be given something to do, but they rarely had roles of crucial importance to the functioning of the organisation and its operations unless they also possessed the talent to see it through.
As an intelligent and effective leader supported by high-quality subordinates, Himmler adopted the German military doctrine of Auftragstaktik (mission command). In this system, orders are given only in the form of broad directives, with authority delegated to the lowest appropriate level, so that actions can be carried out in a streamlined, timely and effective manner. This proved to be an ideal system for the SS as its mission developed. The organisation’s ideology gave its personnel a common doctrinal framework in which to operate, but mission command allowed them to use initiative to achieve specific objectives. Good examples of this can be seen in the activities of the Einsatzgruppen (special task groups) that followed the German Army into Russia in 1941. Each adopted a different approach to their overall mission of murdering Jews—with some fomenting anti-Semitic pogroms by local pro-German militias while others carried out the killing themselves—but all achieved comparable results. Meanwhile, the local SS commander in Lublin, SS-Obergruppenführer (General) Odilo Globocnik, set up static camps in which the majority of the Jews of south-eastern Poland—at least 1.5 million people—were murdered by a group of no more than 125 members of the SS, assisted by relatively small units of Ukrainian auxiliaries.2 The effectiveness of Zyklon B gas as an instrument of mass slaughter was discovered as a result of this sort of local experimentation at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex in Silesia.
Himmler advanced in the National Socialist hierarchy by making himself and his organisation available to carry out every order, no matter how distasteful. When Hitler wanted to eliminate one of his oldest collaborators, Himmler and the SS agreed to do it. When Hitler decided that the sick and the handicapped should be subjected to euthanasia, Himmler provided the men to staff the gas chambers and dispose of the bodies.* Hitler was no closer to Himmler than he was to any of his other senior collaborators, but Himmler’s determination to fulfil the dictator’s wishes earned him the nickname “Faithful Heinrich.” This was not simply slavish devotion. Himmler accepted the crude principles of National Socialist ideology and developed a specific ideological framework for the SS. He positioned the members of his organisation—whom he saw as a kind of chivalric order—as the vanguard of a new “breed” of German who would lead the people out of their racial, cultural, political and economic chaos by any means possible.3 Within this framework, the ferocious savagery that the SS visited upon the Jews and other supposed racial enemies of the German people became a political and biological imperative. This was the nature of the SS.
* While the SS provided most of the ancillary personnel in the euthanasia programme, the actual killing was largely done by doctors and nurses.