As we have seen, the Race and Settlement Main Office began life in 1931 as the SS Race Office. Although small, it exercised a disproportionately large influence in the pre-war SS largely because it was led by Richard Darré, Himmler’s friend and adviser. In its first few years of operation, the Race Office had a primarily advisory function: setting basic racial criteria for recruitment into the SS, for officer commissions and for engagements and marriages of SS men. In practice, new recruits were admitted to the organisation, commissioned and given permission to marry by their local commanders, who then simply notified the Race Office.
Darré was also highly active in agricultural policy. Before he joined the SS, he had been central in setting up the NSDAP’s “Farm Policy Apparatus,” and it was his idea that the SS should become an agricultural aristocracy,1 with SS families settled in farms, smallholdings and “garden cities.” The “settlement” branch of the Race Office was created to implement this. Darré assiduously cultivated middle- and upper-class farmers—often influential local community leaders—and persuaded many of them to join the SS or, at least, the National Socialist Party. He was installed as Minister of Agriculture at the end of June 1933, replacing Alfred Hugenberg, the Nationalist press baron, who had originally held the agriculture portfolio in the NSDAP-Nationalist coalition cabinet of January 1933.2 The Farm Policy Apparatus effectively became a branch of the state, with Darré’s contacts installed as regional and local “farm leaders.” In subsequent years, Darré would often utilise these men as his regional race and settlement “experts” within the Race and Settlement Office.
On 30 January 1935, the Race and Settlement Office gained equal status to the SS-Main Office. It now had four main responsibilities: the ideological training of SS members; racial selection and filtering of members and their spouses; agricultural settlement and training for members; and family welfare.3 The settlement branch was notably active, particularly once Curt von Gottberg—a minor East Prussian aristocrat who had joined the SS a few weeks before the National Socialists assumed power—became its leader in 1936. Von Gottberg started to use Agricultural Settlement Companies, wholly or partly owned by the SS, to gain control of large estates that could then be divided into small farms for SS members, and he imposed central control over all SS housing projects.4
Another particularly active branch was the Sippenamt (Office for Family Affairs), which assumed responsibility for the racial vetting of all SS applicants, and for checking the racial background of members’ spouses. Any SS man who wished to marry had to produce a detailed family tree going back to at least 1750 for both himself and his fiancée, proving that neither had Jewish or any other “undesirable” antecedents,* together with medical reports, political references and other background information, accompanied by portrait and full-length photographs. In theory, all of this information would be checked in detail by local representatives of the Race and Settlement Office, by SS units and, in “difficult” cases, by the central office in Berlin; Himmler continued to take a close interest in the racial exclusivity of the SS until 1945, and he was frequently called upon to act as final arbiter in problematic cases.*
The Office for Family Affairs also oversaw the activities of one of the more controversial SS organisations: the Lebensborn e. V. (Well of Life Society), which was founded in 1935.5 Post-war sensationalism has obscured this society’s true role—to increase Germany’s birthrate. (The rate had declined dramatically in the early 1930s because young men were reluctant to take on the financial burden of providing for a family in the midst of a depression.6) In 1936, Himmler wrote to SS members ordering them to support the society and explaining why it had been established:
The organisation “Lebensborn e. V.” serves the SS leaders in the selection and adoption of qualified children. The organisation “Lebensborn e. V.” is under my personal direction, is part of the Race and Settlement Main Office of the SS, and has the following obligations:
1. Aid for racially and biologically hereditarily valuable families.
2. The accommodation of racially and biologically hereditarily valuable mothers in appropriate homes, etc.
3. Care of the children of such families.
4. Care of the mothers.7
The society built a number of maternity homes, where SS men’s wives could give birth and receive advice, help and medical treatment. The homes also cared for other “racially suitable” women, even if they were unmarried, particularly when the father was in the SS. They were eventually built throughout Germany, in occupied North-West Europe (there were at least nine in Norway alone), and in Poland. Between 20,000 and 25,000 children were born within the system.
Post-war accounts of the society suggested that it was also involved in the forced adoption and relocation of supposedly “Germanic” children from occupied countries, and that the homes provided SS men to impregnate women whose husbands were infertile. However, neither of these claims is true. The society did arrange the adoption of children born to unmarried mothers, but this was always done with the consent of the mother (although some of the women might not have realised that their children would subsequently be taken to Germany). The confusion probably arose because up to 200,000 children were kidnapped in occupied territories and relocated to Germany, for adoption or fostering by German families, but this was never done by Well of Life personnel. Furthermore, there is no evidence whatsoever that SS men were ever “put out to stud.”
In keeping with the racial “mission” of the SS, the Well of Life was funded by substantial compulsory deductions from SS officers’ pay. This was highly unpopular and many sought to avoid it. (For example, the personnel file of the homosexual Waffen-SS General Felix Steiner indicates that he strongly resented the tax.8) Even so, the Well of Life was one of the few SS organisations that played a generally positive and beneficial role in German society, notwithstanding the fact that it worked within the framework of National Socialist racist ideology. In 1938, administration of the society was transferred from the Race and Settlement Office to Himmler’s personal staff.
FROM 1931 THROUGH to 1938, Darré was one of the leading personalities in the SS, acting, in effect, as Himmler’s ideological mentor. However, his relationship with the National Leader began to deteriorate, and in September 1938 he was replaced as chief of the Race andSettlement Office by Günther Pancke.9 The ostensible reason for this was a dispute over ideological training. Himmler complained that much of the training material being produced by the Schulungsamt (Education Office) of the Race and Settlement Office was too theoretical and had little practical use for the regional and local training officers. In response, Darré refused to continue with his ideological training role and he was quietly dismissed. However, it is likely that Himmler manufactured this disagreement in order to oust Darré. His old friend had an independent power base as Agriculture Minister, and he was closely connected with Goering, Himmler’s main rival in the political dogfighting that determined pre-eminence within the Third Reich.
Darré continued as Agriculture Minister until 1942, when he resigned for health reasons.* He remained an honorary SS officer on Himmler’s personal staff, but no longer had a significant role to play in the organisation. Ideological training eventually became the responsibility of the Main Office and it remained there until the end of the Third Reich.10
The standing of the Race and Settlement Office was further diminished by the activities of von Gottberg’s Settlement Office. The sheer volume of cash passing through von Gottberg’s settlement companies (and rumours of financial impropriety) led to them being put under the control of Pohl’s administration office. But von Gottberg found a way to circumvent this by shifting the focus of his operations away from Germany and into the newly acquired “Protectorate” of Bohemia-Moravia. In June 1939, he was named head of the Czech Land Registry. Thereafter, his seizure of land and property was so predatory that he and several of his staff were temporarily suspended. Some of his team were ultimately imprisoned in concentration camps for corruption,11 but von Gottberg himself was eventually cleared of all charges and reinstated. He eventually rose to the rank of SS-general and was awarded the Knight’s Cross as Senior SS and Police Commander in Byelorussia and Central Russia. He was also Anti-Partisan Operations Commander in occupied France in 1944. Nevertheless, the settlement branch never recovered from the land-grabbing scandal, and it finally dwindled into inactivity.
ALTHOUGH THE RACE and Settlement Office eventually lost control of the Well of Life Society, and corruption finally put paid to its settlement activities, it remained active in another of its original spheres of interest right up to 1945: ideological training.
As we have seen, Himmler’s ideological framework for the SS harked back to romantic ideals of chivalry and honour, and he was keen to give this aspect of his “order” a more concrete expression. Of course, he was as ruthless as any of his colleagues in the senior leadership of the Third Reich, but he always retained a fondness for the romantic myths and legends that his father had taught him. Furthermore, while it would be misleading to overstate Himmler’s belief in the occult, he was certainly prepared to accommodate some aspects of it within his worldview.
In 1933, Himmler was introduced to Karl-Maria Wiligut, who claimed to be able to trace his lineage back to the Norse god Thor and the ancient German chief Arminius, whose warriors slaughtered three Roman legions in the Teutoberg Forest in AD 9. Furthermore, he said that his ancestors had been the guardians of the secret knowledge of the Irminist religion. This sect believed that the Bible was written in Germany to celebrate an Irminist god called Krist, only later to be corrupted and appropriated by Christians. Wiligut substantiated these extraordinary claims by “channelling” the clan memories of his ancestors during clairvoyant trances in which he described the rituals and actions of the ancient German tribes.
Wiligut was born in Vienna in 1866, the son and grandson of Austrian Army officers. He followed the family tradition and entered the Imperial Officer Cadet School in Vienna at the age of fourteen, subsequently qualifying as an infantry officer. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was an infantry major and also had a moderate literary reputation, having published poems that celebrated Germanic myths, nature and regimental history.12 He had a good war, being decorated for bravery and rising to the rank of colonel, and retired from the army in January 1919 to live with his wife and two young daughters in Salzburg. It was now that the mystical Wiligut started to emerge. He founded an extreme anti-Semitic group and edited a periodical called The Iron Broom, which attacked Christians, Jews and Freemasons. This generated a devoted circle of admirers who genuinely believed Wiligut’s fantasies. However, according to his wife, he was a violent and unpredictable alcoholic who routinely beat her and threatened her with a loaded revolver.13 She also took to locking their daughters’ bedroom doors at night, after becoming concerned about the degree of physical affection Wiligut displayed towards them.14
By November 1924, his wife had finally had enough, and she had Wiligut forcibly committed to the Salzburg mental asylum and certified insane. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and megalomaniac and paranoid delusions. The asylum’s report on his mental state also noted his domestic violence, eccentric behaviour, history of grandiose projects and occultism. A court that examined his case unsurprisingly ruled that he was unable to look after his own interests. Nevertheless, Wiligut’s admirers continued to believe in him, and when he was discharged from the asylum in 1927, he resumed his activities as a Germanic mystic.
In 1932, he settled in Munich, having adopted the name “Weisthor” (Wise Thor). Nevertheless, the following year, he was sane enough to recognise that his own obsession with the Germanic past was congruent with the ideology of the new National Socialist regime. And Himmler was sufficiently impressed by Wiligut to ask him to act as an adviser on early Germanic history and traditions. He was inducted into the SS as an officer in September 1933, and appointed head of a department of pre- and early history within the Race and Settlement Office.
In January 1933, Himmler had stayed in Grevenburg Castle in Westphalia and had been most impressed by the region. Consequently, he decided to acquire a Westphalian castle for the SS, perhaps to act as an education centre. After consulting Wiligut, he visited Wewelsburg Castle, near Paderborn, and bought it for the SS in April 1934. Renovation work quickly began, but at the urging of Wiligut, Himmler soon abandoned the idea of using the castle merely as an education centre. Wiligut reported a local legend that predicted that Westphalia would be the site of an apocalyptic battle between East and West, in which the West would triumph and the Rhine would run red with blood. He then pronounced that Wewelsburg would be the bastion where this battle would take place. Himmler was sufficiently taken with this idea that in 1935 he placed the castle under the control of his personal staff so that it could become the headquarters of the SS as a chivalric order. Ever more grandiose plans were devised to accommodate this new role, and vast resources were directed towards it. Eventually, the castle boasted a “Grail Room,” in which a complex lighting system illuminated a large rock crystal that was reputedly “a magical stone of light which had fallen from the diadem of an ancient sun god,”15 as well as a great chamber with a round table, modelled on the Arthurian legend, at which the National Leader could confer with his twelve senior officers. In the west wing, there was a museum that displayed a diverse collection of ancient artefacts (and replicas) which ranged from a diorama reconstructing an ancient peasant farm dwelling to the fossil of a large aquatic dinosaur. Most of these items were acquired by the museum’s curator, an artist and archaeologist named Wilhelm Jordan.
The Wewelsburg project was never fully completed, even though a concentration camp was erected close by primarily to supply slave labour. Niederhagen was opened in May 1939 as a sub-camp of Sachsenhausen, with the prisoners initially accommodated in tents in the castle grounds. However, in 1941 they were moved to a permanent camp that operated independently. Nearly 4,000 prisoners passed through its gates, of whom 1,285 are known to have died. In 1943, when Himmler curtailed work on Wewelsburg because of the deteriorating war situation, the camp was scaled down and came under the administration of Buchenwald. Just fifty or so prisoners remained to act as maintenance workers for the complex.
Apart from Wewelsburg, Wiligut’s principal contribution to the SS came in the form of ritual activities and heraldry. It was he who devised the rituals and symbolism that were employed in various SS ceremonies, including weddings, which Wiligut himself conducted at Wewelsburg while wielding an “ivory-handled stick bound with blue ribbon and carved with runes,”16 as well as spring, solstice, harvest and Yule festivals. He also designed the Julleuchter (Yule lights), kitschy ceramic candleholders made by the Allach porcelain works and inscribed with runic symbols that were presented to favoured SS families; and the Totenkopfring (Death’s Head ring), a silver ring inscribed with runes that Himmler personally awarded to SS officers with at least three years’ unblemished service. The latter was a cherished item within the SS. If the holder left the organisation, the ring had to be returned to Himmler; if the holder died, it was ceremoniously taken to Wewelsburg, where it was stored to symbolise the owner’s ongoing, posthumous membership of the SS chivalric order.
Wiligut “retired” from the SS at the beginning of 1939, having achieved the rank of brigade leader. Officially, this was because of his age and poor health—he was seventy-two years old, a heavy smoker and still a chronic alcoholic—but in reality he may well have been pushed out because of his increasingly erratic behaviour. Furthermore, SS-General Karl Wolff—Himmler’s personal staff officer—had visited Wiligut’s wife in November 1938 and had learned of his three years in the asylum. Nevertheless, Himmler remained fond of the ageing mystic: the SS supplied him with a housekeeper/companion and accommodation until the Third Reich finally collapsed. Wiligut died after suffering a stroke in January 1946.17
Himmler’s sponsorship of Karl-Maria Wiligut reveals his fascination with the bizarre and occult side of Germanic history, but he was similarly intrigued by more academic research. On 1 July 1935, he and Darré hosted a meeting in Berlin that resulted in the creation of a new department in the Race and Settlement Office. This was the Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte‚ Deutsches Ahnenerbe e. V. (Society for the Study of Primordial History, German Ancestral Heritage), usually abbreviated simply to theAhnenerbe.18 Its public face was Herman Wirth, the Dutch-born son of a German university lecturer who was a well-known populariser of prehistoric Nordic folk culture. But its day-to-day operations were organised by Wolfram Sievers, an SS officer who had previously led a historical/archaeological research programme for Himmler in the Teutoberg Forest.19
The Ahnenerbe provided a focus and funding for research projects that explored the history of the Nordic race, both inside and outside Germany. In the pre-war years, it sponsored expeditions to Bohuslän in south-western Sweden, where Wirth studied ancient rock carvings that he believed held the key to a prehistoric Nordic language; to Karelia, where a team studied and recorded old Finnish folklore, sorcery and witchcraft; to the Mauern caves in the Jura, where an archaeological dig unearthed a number of Neanderthal artefacts; and, famously, to Tibet in 1938, where a team led by SS member Ernst Schäfer looked for evidence of the ancient Aryan race that had reputedly ruled Asia.20 These investigations had mixed results: some were relatively scholarly; some were based on pure speculation; some were outright shams. But all operated within the framework of National Socialist racial ideas that had no basis in fact.
The outbreak of war brought the Ahnenerbe’s overseas missions to a halt, but then it took on a new role: plundering important historical artefacts from the occupied territories in conjunction with the Reichsicherheitshauptamt (RSHA—Reich Security Main Office—see Chapter 10).21 It also organised medical research on behalf of the Waffen-SS, including Rascher’s experiments, the testing of chemical weapons on human subjects at Natzweiler concentration camp, and the creation of a collection of more than one hundred skeletons of Jews—who were specifically murdered for the purpose—for the University of Strasbourg (with Natzweiler again being the source).
PANCKE WAS SUCCEEDED as head of the Race and Settlement Office by SS-Major General Otto Hofmann in September 1939, who himself was replaced by SS-Lieutenant General Richard Hildebrandt in April 1943.22 By the end of the war, the much-diminished office was primarily concerned with vetting SS applicants and their intended spouses, and acting as an advisory body on race issues.
* In reality, though, only Jewish antecedents were ever seriously problematic.
* However, the thoroughness of this checking is open to question. In early 1945, a British SS volunteer, Eric Pleasants, obtained permission to marry a secretary from the SS–Main Office. Among the many untruths in his application were the claims that he had been a sergeant in the British Army and that he had been born in Ireland. Permission to marry was granted with neither of these falsehoods being questioned.
* Darré died in 1953 from liver cancer that was probably due to chronic alcoholism.