The combat history of the Waffen-SS—the armed military units of the SS—has been recounted in numerous books since the early 1960s. These have ranged from scholarly, exhaustively researched accounts at one end of the scale to schoolboyish hagiographies at the other. However, the background story of the Waffen-SS still remains shrouded in myth and misconception. For some, this organisation was nothing more than an integral part of the apparatus that murdered millions of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians and others. On the other hand, there is a band of enthusiasts who argue that the Waffen-SS was a superb military elite, a fourth—superior—branch of the German armed forces that was barely related to the killers of the concentration camps, special task groups and extermination centres, with whom it merely shared administrative arrangements.
In part, this dispute stems from a continuing misapprehension about what the Waffen-SS really was and its complex relationships with the NSDAP, the state and the armed forces. Some of this misapprehension can be addressed fairly easily. The Waffen-SS was certainly not a military elite: in all, roughly 900,000 men served within its ranks during the course of the war in some thirty-eight divisional-sized combat formations, many regimental- and brigade-sized units, and numerous smaller units and sub-units. The leadership, training, equipment and tactical effectiveness of these formations varied from excellent to abysmal. Some of its longer-established formations—primarily composed of native German volunteers and led by men who had been through officer training school—were of a very high standard indeed: the likes of the Das Reich and Totenkopf divisions were among the most effective field formations the Germans had, be it in the regular army or the SS. However, the Kossovar-Albanian Skanderbeg Division and theWeissruthenisch (Byelorussian) “volunteers” of the Waffen-SS 30th Grenadier Division were of such dubious loyalty and utility that they barely functioned as fighting units. Most German members of the Waffen-SS and some volunteers from the occupied territories saw themselves as part of a corps d’élite—as was expected within the SS’s ideological framework—but this was as much racial/political as it was military. Himmler was keen to establish an effective fighting force, but he was much more interested in the SS’s role in the rejuvenation of the Germanic/Nordic race. Consequently, racial and political criteria were given much more weight than military considerations in recruitment to the Waffen-SS.
Another myth is that the Waffen-SS did not participate in the Holocaust. During the war, any member of the SS could fulfil his obligatory national military service within the Waffen-SS1—without joining the army, navy or air force—and thousands did just that. So a member of the Waffen-SS was just as likely to be a guard at Auschwitz as he was to be a grenadier in the Das Reich Division. For instance, Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz from May 1940 to November 1943, held his rank in the Waffen-SS, not in one of the other branches of the SS.2
Occasionally, distinctions are drawn between the combat formations of the Waffen-SS and other parts of the organisation. For instance, one former Waffen-SS regimental commander wrote: “Formations such as the Dirlewanger unit and the Guard Battalions ofthe Concentration Camps were not considered to be fighting troops and their inclusion in the Waffen-SS was [merely] a matter of administrative convenience.”3 However, this is completely spurious. Waffen-SS formations serving in the front line came under the operational command of the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces), but these same units were subordinated to the SS-Leadership Main Office when they were not in the combat zone. This was as true of the elite Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler as it was of a humble disciplinary unit like Dirlewanger’s. (see Chapter 19 for details of Dirlewanger.) The difference was simply one of duration: the major combat divisions were in demand at the front in a way that the lesser units were not, and thus spent more time under conventional military command.
On the other hand, Waffen-SS units are often accused of committing more battlefield atrocities than their conventional army counterparts. This should be treated with scepticism, but that should not disguise the fact the Waffen-SS committed numerous war crimes, most notably against prisoners of war and civilians. For instance, in May 1940, members of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler—then a motorised regiment—murdered around eighty British Army prisoners near Calais. Around the same time, members of the Death’s Head Division massacred ninety-seven members of the 2nd Royal Norfolks. (see Chapter 18 for further details of both of these war crimes.) These were terrible atrocities, but so were those committed by the German Army. For instance, 140 civilians were murdered by the 225th Division at Vinkt, Belgium, and hundreds of disarmed prisoners of war were killed by army units during the Polish campaign of 1939. Later, in September 1943, at least five thousand disarmed and defenceless Italian soldiers were murdered on the Greek island of Cephalonia by members of the army’s supposedly elite Mountain Infantry.*
So how did the German Army retain its reputation for battlefield decency while the Waffen-SS was deservedly castigated for all of its atrocities? The answer is fairly straightforward. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the army’s war crimes were downplayed and even trivialised by all sides for political reasons. The newly created Federal and Democratic republics (West and East Germany, respectively) both needed to establish functioning armed forces and both needed to recruit former officers and NCOs of the Wehrmacht to lead them. Under these circumstances, it was convenient to imply (if not outright declare) that the vast majority of war crimes had been committed by the Waffen-SS—an organisation that was already beyond redemption because of its involvement in the Holocaust. In reality, the Waffen-SS and the German Army were both guilty of war crimes, as each was a component of the National Socialist state’s machinery of war.
Notwithstanding this, in many respects, the Waffen-SS was unique. First and foremost, it was a primarily military force created out of a primarily political organisation. As we have seen, the SS was founded to protect the leadership of the NSDAP, and many aspects of its expansion after the National Socialists came to power can be viewed as logical extensions of this role. The creation of the Sipo, the concentration camps and central control of policing were all understandable adjuncts to the activities of a security-obsessed, violently inclined political organisation that had achieved absolute power.
However, the creation of a relatively small military force to operate in parallel to the conventional armed forces is less easy to explain. At the time, the government claimed that military intervention was inappropriate for many internal security tasks, so it needed a new, politically controlled force to deal with them. This is unconvincing: when the new units were set up, any physical threat from political opponents of the NSDAP was little more than a distant memory, while dissenters within the National Socialist movement itself had long since been purged. Furthermore, by then, the SS had acquired complete control over the regular, uniformed police. Equally, the armed SS units never rivalled the strength of the regular armed forces, so it seems unlikely that they were established to counter the threat of a coup. Indeed, in 1944, when elements within the army did attempt to seize power, all agencies of the SS—armed and otherwise—proved powerless to intervene. Rather, it was left to other army units to come to Hitler’s aid. According to Gottlob Berger, the guiding force of the Waffen-SS towards the end of the war, the army originally treated the idea of an armed SS force with contempt. He quoted Generaloberst (Colonel General) von Fritsch, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, as remarking: “If the Reichs Transport Minister has his militarily trained Railway Police, why shouldn’t Himmler also play at soldiers?”4 This is perhaps the most accurate explanation for why the military SS units were created: they gave Himmler the opportunity to indulge in the type of military career that had eluded him as a young man. He wanted the SS to take a pioneering role in the colonisation and “Germanisation” of the conquered lands in the East, but it seems he never seriously envisaged the Waffen-SS supplanting the army. According to Berger, the intention was to reduce the strength of the Waffen-SS after the war to seven full-strength divisions and five reserve, or “cadre,” formations. Three of the regular divisions would be formed from non-German nationals: Das Reich from ethnic Germans from South-East Europe; Germania from ethnic Germans from elsewhere in the world; and Wiking from other Germanic races.5
No matter what Himmler’s future plans for the organisation may have been, the creation of a new, modern military force from scratch was a daunting task. However, he and his subordinates had the advantage of being able to use the proven and highly successful German military system as a template. Between 1934 and 1945, they created a parallel recruiting, training and logistics system, with its own officer-training schools, NCO schools and combat arms schools; hospitals; procurement, manufacture, research and development establishments; and even operational headquarters up to army level. All of this was separate from the established armed forces, and, to some extent, put the SS in competition with the regular army for funding and manpower. As the Waffen-SS continued to grow throughout the war, it demanded resources that could have been utilised by the conventional armed forces. In so doing, it became an entirely self-imposed limitation on Germany’s ability to wage total war.
THE WAFFEN-SS HAD its origins in the formation of full-time, armed SS units in the wake of the National Socialist assumption of power in January 1933. As we have seen, the Reichstag Fire Decree enabled Hitler’s coalition government to suspend human rights, and two months later the Enabling Act gave him the power to rule by decree without reference to the Reichstag. However, despite holding this unprecedented degree of power, Hitler remained anxious about his position. On 17 March 1933, he ordered Sepp Dietrich—who had been commanding the SS-Group North in Hamburg—to set up an armed SS guard unit in Berlin, similar to the troop that already protected him when he was in Munich. Dietrich recruited some 120 volunteers, primarily loyalists who were personally known to him from SS-Regiment 1 in Munich, to form what was initially called “SS-Staff Guard Dietrich” before being renamed “SS-Special Unit Berlin.” They quartered themselves in the barracks of the old cadet school at Berlin-Lichterfelde* and provided armed guard details for Hitler inside his offices at the Chancellery. (For the time being, members of the regular army remained on guard outside the Chancellery building.) Although a party organisation, from September 1933 they received their pay from the Prussian Ministry of the Interior and were under the disciplinary and administrative jurisdiction of the Berlin Police President. Immediate command authority for all of their activities outside the Chancellery came from the Lichterfelde garrison commander, Police Lieutenant Colonel Wecke.
During the Nuremberg National Socialist Party rally of September 1933, Hitler renamed the unit the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler; and on the tenth anniversary of the Munich Putsch on 9 November, its members swore a personal oath of loyalty to him. By then, the unit had been granted the status of a special organisation, still separate from but with a comparable status to the army.6 At the time, few people noticed that all of this had effectively created an armed force whose loyalty was not to the state, nor even to the head of state, but to the leader of a political party. Even Himmler, the National Leader of the SS, was cut out of this particular loop.
While the Leibstandarte was being formed in Berlin, local National Socialist organisations were mobilising their SA and SS contingents as auxiliaries. SS units of company strength and below—armed with privately owned weapons—acquired the status ofSonderkommandos (special units), while larger formations were termed Politische Bereitschäfte (political readiness units). These formed up in Hamburg, Dresden, Munich, Ellwangen, Arolsen and many other towns and cities,7 where they operated as auxiliary police squads assigned to intimidate the National Socialists’ political opponents—notwithstanding the fact that, by then, almost all physical opposition to the ruling regime had already been eliminated. Meanwhile, other armed, full-time squads were created to act as guards at the newly established detention centres and concentration camps. The political readiness units were not particularly large at this stage: for instance, SS-Regiment 1’s political readiness unit in Munich could call on only two hundred men in 1934.8 Nor were they particularly controversial in the context of 1930s Germany: as we have seen, squads of armed toughs had been doing the dirty work of the state ever since the end of the First World War.
However, this began to change on the Night of the Long Knives—30 June 1934. The majority of the killings on that night and throughout the following week were undertaken by political readiness units, especially the Leibstandarte, which provided the firing squad in Stadelheim Prison. Their reward came on 26 July, when Hitler declared that the SS was now an independent organisation within the NSDAP. This was followed by his directive that the organisation should press ahead with the creation of “a politically dependable SS security force, distinct from the army, upon which he could call for prompt action in times of stress or crisis for the protection of the German people and the State.”9 After discussions in September between Himmler and the Ministry of Defence, a directive was issued on the 24th by Defence Minister General von Blomberg, setting out the organisational structure of the new armed force—the SS-Special Purpose Troops. The directive also stated that they were to be recruited from members of the political readiness units.
As originally envisaged, the force was to comprise three regiments that would be organised, equipped and manned in the same way as regular army infantry regiments, together with a separate signals battalion. (In December 1934, it was decided to add a reconnaissance battalion, based in Satzweld, and an engineering battalion, based in Dresden, to this order of battle.) Training and logistical support were to be provided by the army (which would be reimbursed by the SS); pay would be provided by the Ministry of the Interior, and would follow the appropriate military scales. An official decree issued by Hitler on 2 February 1935 gave these arrangements legal force, and further explained that the Special Purpose Troops would be organised into a division in time of war—with a divisional headquarters, artillery and “divisional troops” supplied by the regular army. This decree also specified that the concentration camp guards of the Death’s Head units were to receive military training under the supervision of the Ministry of Defence.
The command relationships within the Special Purpose Troops in peacetime were complex. Military training and organisation were the responsibilities of the army, through local military district and garrison commanders, but non-military matters were handled by the regional SS command system. In wartime, everything was to be placed under army control.
While all of this was being clarified, Himmler took the opportunity to establish the status of each branch of his organisation.10 Henceforth, the SS would consist of three distinct elements: the Special Purpose Troops (including the Leibstandarte), which would be the organisation’s full-time military force; the guard units (later the Death’s Head units), comprising concentration camp guards and other specialised guard and security details; and the Allgemeine-SS (General-SS), consisting of “all former active SS units not quartered in barracks’11—in effect, members of the old political SS who had largely political duties. With this established, Himmler’s primary task was to find volunteers for the new military branch. The Leibstandarte and the political readiness units had originally been staffed from the General-SS, but the creation of the Special Purpose Troops had added a new element: service in either them or the Leibstandarte would now fulfil an individual’s obligation to perform national military service. Clearly, this required a different type of man from the typical SS political bruiser, but the principle of strict selectivity in recruitment would still apply. The key stipulations were that applicants had to be under twenty-three years of age and prepared to enlist for five years. They also had to be at least 1.7 metres tall and must not need spectacles. On application, they had to show their eligibility for military service by presenting their defence registration number, as well as a certificate of medical fitness, a police reference or a copy of their police record and a reference from a previous employer. Finally, they had to draw up a family tree to prove their “Aryan” ancestry. At this stage, applicants from the General-SS were permitted to transfer into the Special Purpose Troops and retain their existing rank or grade. The application criteria were made a little stricter the next year, when the minimum height was increased to 1.74 metres. Furthermore, members of the General-SS could no longer take their rank with them if they joined the Special Purpose Troops. On the other hand, the enlistment period was reduced to four years.
In December 1936, the selection criteria were reviewed yet again. The “Leaflet for Enlistment in the SS-Special Purpose Troops and Death’s Head Units” issued the following guidelines:
SS-Special Purpose Troops volunteers to report for recruiting for the spring entry by 31 Oct the previous year; and for the autumn entry by 30 April.
SS-Death’s Head units volunteers can report at any time of year.
All applicants must be:
• German nationals.
• Able to prove Aryan ancestry back to 1800.
• Morally, spiritually, physically and racially problem free, of basic National Socialist outlook and must have a strong desire for SS service.
• Free of any criminal record (with the exception of crimes committed on behalf of the movement).
Minimum period of service in the SS-Special Purpose Troops: 4 years; SS-Death’s Head units: 1 year.
• Leibstandarte: 1.78m
• Foot units: 1.74m
• Pioneer, signals and music units; SS-Death’s Head units: 1.72m
• SS-Special Purpose Troops: completed 17th year.
• SS-Death’s Head units: completed 16th year.
• SS-Special Purpose Troops: completed 23rd year.
• SS-Death’s Head units: completed 23rd year.
Compulsory Labour Service: All SS-Special Purpose Troops recruits must have completed it; SS-Death’s Head units recruits must have either completed it or been discharged from it.
The first two years of service in the SS-Special Purpose Troops constitutes compulsory military service but volunteers for the SS-Death’s Head units must still fulfil their military obligations in the SS-Special Purpose Troops or the Wehrmacht.
Younger volunteers may join with the written permission of their parents.
Dental examination is necessary before joining.
Spectacle wearers may not join.
Applicants may follow an officer career. After a successful first year, candidates may be sent to an SS officer school for 1 year. Officer careers are open to every member of the SS.
NCO candidates have the opportunity of a 12-year career.
SS-Special Purpose Troops members have all the benefits of a Wehrmacht career (subsequent service in the police, etc.); Death’s Head units members are paid under the SS system and will be cared for if they receive any service injury.
Anyone not fulfilling the requirements for SS membership but who is a member of an NSDAP organisation may volunteer for service in the Regiment General Goering.*12
Seven years later, in a speech to naval officers, Himmler famously remarked: “Until 1936, we did not accept a man in the Leibstandarte or Special Purpose Troops if he had even one filled tooth. We were able to assemble the most magnificent manhood in the early Waffen-SS.”13 This was an exaggeration: the stringent conditions set by Himmler were unsustainable and they simply had to be relaxed. In December 1938 he issued14 the following instruction:
In the coming years we cannot completely enforce the health standards for SS applicants as, in their childhood and youth during the emergency of the Weimar Republic, they will have suffered and starved. So:
• Six or fewer dental cavities or faults are not grounds for rejection.
• Poor posture, shortness and muscular faults caused by rickets or malnutrition are not decisive for rejection.
• Spectacles up to 4 dioptres are acceptable, as is astigmatism.
As the war continued, all pretence at maintaining even these standards was abandoned outside of high-profile, specialised units such as Hitler’s Kommando escort. In practice, the physical criterion for SS membership was essentially reduced to no more than basic medical fitness.
* This incident features in the novel and film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. A further four thousand prisoners subsequently died when the ships transporting them from Cephalonia struck mines and sank.
* This building is now the headquarters of the Berlin branch of the German Federal Archives.
* This was a militarised unit of the Prussian Police, rather than the similarly named Luftwaffe unit created some years later.