The armed SS units required officers at all levels. In the early days, these were primarily SS members with experience of low-level command in the German Army or the Free Corps—men like Sepp Dietrich, who had been a sergeant major in the Tank Regiment and a police NCO. However, to create a credible force, an injection of higher-level military talent was required, so Himmler began the process of recruiting senior officers. Of course, like their subordinates, all of these men had to display a suitable outlook.

The most important of these officer recruits was Paul Hausser, born in 1880 to an aristocratic Prussian family. He joined the German Army as a cadet in 1892 and graduated from Lichterfelde to become an infantry officer in 1899. In the 1900s, he attended the Prussian Kriegsakademie (War College) and was selected for the General Staff—the true elite of the German Army. He was promoted to captain shortly before the outbreak of the First World War.

Hausser’s war record was steady rather than spectacular. He served on the staffs of a number of formations, as well as on Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria’s personal staff, and was a major by the time of the armistice. Thereafter, he briefly commanded an infantry regiment and border-defence units along Germany’s eastern frontier before joining the newly constituted, post-Versailles 100,000-man army. His career continued in its unspectacular fashion: after a series of promotions, he reached the rank of major general in 1931. The next year, according to Hausser’s SS file, political differences with the army forced his resignation. He left with the honorary rank (and pension) of a lieutenant general.

Hausser then became a regional leader for the broadly nationalist Stahlhelm Old Comrades’ Association. When this group was incorporated into the SA, he was happy to accept the “reserve” rank of SA-colonel. A little later, when Himmler came looking for a suitable candidate to oversee the creation of an officer-training system for the SS, Hausser was equally happy to move across to the SS, which he did on 15 November 1934. He became member 239795, a number that reflected the startling growth of the SS since 1929.

The first SS officer-training school had already been set up by SS-Colonel Paul Lettow, a former army colonel and police tactician, in the centre of the Bavarian town of Bad Tölz in October 1934. Hausser now established his school in a former castle of the dukes of Brunswick (Braunschweig). In the absence of experienced officers in the SS, he recruited the majority of his staff from former members of the army. A typical example was Fritz von Paris, born in Münster, Westphalia, in 1886. During the First World War, Captain von Paris had served in South-West Africa, where he was captured by the British Army in 1917. Later, he joined the Free Corps, but he showed no particular interest in politics until he joined the SS as an officer in February 1934. As an SS-Obersturmführer(lieutenant), he was appointed Taktiklehrer (tactics instructor) at the Officer Cadet School Braunschweig on 1 February 1935.

The aim of the cadet schools was to produce flexible, adaptable officers who would be able to perform a role in any part of the SS, be it in a concentration camp, a combat unit, the police or the wider SS organisation. Thus, while the course concentrated on mobile small-unit tactics—raids, ambushes, patrols and so forth—the cadets gained a wider appreciation of all military planning and logistical issues. However, Richard Schulze, the last commander of the school at Bad Tölz, later claimed: “in addition to the purely military training which occupied first place…great stress was laid upon training corresponding to the English educational ideals, which included character training, the most vital point being self-control, chivalry, decency, and love of truth, differing from the German ideal, which was based upon the pure acquisition of knowledge, often overlooking shortcomings in favour of this development.”1 Hans Zech-Nenntwich, the Waffen-SS officer who defected to Britain in 1943, told his interrogators that “both [cadet schools] are essentially professional, i.e. nonpolitical, in atmosphere.”2 Clearly this was not true—there was ideological instruction on the course and throughout the SS—but the intention was to create an atmosphere of professionalism that would motivate young German men to join the SS officer corps, and add to the prestige of the organisation in German society as a whole.

On average, the process of training an SS officer took about nineteen months. In a nod to National Socialist egalitarianism, candidates were supposedly identified within SS units on the basis of aptitude rather than social class or educational achievement (although, inevitably, recruits from the “right” background were viewed as potential officers). In theory, this should have been an efficient way to select high-quality cadets; in practice, it was not. In 1940, an inspection of the officer schools suggested that as many as 40 per cent of the cadets were not fit for the role because of gaps in their education or basic military training as well as character failings.3 Partly this was due to similar failings among the men who were selecting the cadets, the senior SS officers, who were often political appointees rather than experienced military leaders. As Bernd Wegner has pointed out, this was a typical situation within the SS: “On the one hand, [it was] ideally suited, like no other branch of the regime, to break down social and educational barriers; on the other, [it was] debilitated by structural weaknesses anchored in their very beginnings.”4

The course normally consisted of approximately six months’ basic training and probationary service in an SS-Special Purpose Troops or concentration camp unit, followed by ten months at Braunschweig or Bad Tölz. Exams were taken after four months and ten months, with failures returned to their units (the failure rate was usually 30 to 40 per cent). Finally, there would be two to three months’ training within the individual cadet’s specialist area at an SS or Army school.

A typical week of training might break down roughly as follows:

Tactics and manoeuvre (including map reading)

 10 hours

Political education

  5 hours

Weapons training

 16 hours

Military affairs

  3 hours

Practical training (target practice, tactics, instruction)

  7 hours

Physical education

  2 hours

Instruction in weapons

  1 hour

Combat engineering

  1 hour

Automotive mechanics

  1 hour

Additionally, cadets were expected to use as much as one-third of their off-duty time in sport and physical recreation. They “were required to ski, swim, sail, ride, fence, box and partake in organised track and field events,”5 and were encouraged to take part in an equally wide range of non-mandatory activities, all designed to produce the alert, fit, situationally aware officer who came to represent the SS ideal. As if to emphasise the “English educational ideal,” one of the sports offered at Bad Tölz was cricket.

Throughout their training, the cadets held NCO ranks, initially as SS-Junker (cadet corporal) until they had passed their first set of exams; then as SS-Standartenjunker (cadet sergeant) until they had passed their final exams; and finally as SS-Standartenoberjunker (cadet sergeant major) during their “special-to-arm” training. If they were successful in this, in the pre-war and early war period a graduation ceremony was held in Munich on 9 November, when the cadets were commissioned with the rank of SS-Untersturmführer (second lieutenant) and presented with a ceremonial SS officer’s dagger.

In total, with the notable exception of the ideological element, this course was entirely comparable with a modern officer-training syllabus. However, there was no attempt to combine military instruction with academic learning: in contrast to West Point in the United States or Duntroon in Australia, the SS schools were not degree-awarding institutions. Instead, they focused on practical elements. Requiring the cadets to serve a probationary period in a unit should have ensured that little, if any, time needed to be devoted in the syllabus to teaching basic military skills, such as weapons handling and foot drill; but, as we have seen, these were still taught by the schools. Inclusion of such elements in the training meant that the SS schools could never be called “revolutionary.” In fact, in many respects, their syllabuses were strikingly similar to those already in use in Germany and elsewhere. However, they could be considered evolutionary, because they provided an effective, professional military education to a much more heterogeneous group than would be found in similar institutions at the time.

Even so, the rapid wartime expansion of the Waffen-SS meant that a minority of senior officers in the organisation had been trained at the schools: by July 1944, only about 20 per cent of all majors and 12–13 per cent of more senior officers had attended.6 The great majority of junior officers during the war received their training through truncated courses and reserve officer courses.*

The most significant weakness in the SS officer selection system was the extent to which politics was allowed to intrude: although the recruiters claimed to make their selections primarily on the basis of the candidate’s aptitude, in reality that was often judged in terms of political zeal. Indeed, right until the end of the war, many Waffen-SS officers had received virtually no formal military training. Instead, they owed their positions entirely to their political activities and personal connections. In 1944, a substantial majority of the senior officers—major and above—had been members of the General-SS and/or the NSDAP before joining the Waffen-SS.7

Training of the soldiers in the SS-Special Purpose Troops was equally rigorous in the early years of the organisation. As with the officer training, great emphasis was placed on physical fitness, and this was carried through into the field units of the Special Purpose Troops, where regular individual and team sports were used to foster comradeship between officers, NCOs and soldiers. This was a key feature of the Special Purpose Troops and later the Waffen-SS: the formal hierarchies of the German Army were rejected in favour of a system in which “The comradeship was terrific, the relationship between Officer and man the most democratic I have known, yet the discipline was solid as a rock.”8 That was the opinion of a Sandhurst-trained ex–British Army officer turned RAF pilot Railton Freeman, who served in a Waffen-SS unit in 1944–45. Great efforts were made to develop trust and cooperation in these units. In barracks, doors and cupboards were routinely left unlocked; and officers and men socialised with each other. This was all a far cry from the formality of the Wehrmacht.

In October 1936, Himmler created the Inspectorate of Special Purpose Troops and named Hausser (who had been promoted to the rank of SS-major general that May) as the Inspector. He was responsible for overseeing the development, training and equipping of the organisation. At the same time, the various scattered elements of the Special Purpose Troops (together with the Leibstandarte) were brought into two infantry regiments: Deutschland, under SS-Colonel Felix Steiner in Munich; and Germania, under SS-Colonel Karl Maria Demelhuber in Hamburg. Of the two colonels, Steiner had by far the greater impact on the development of the Waffen-SS.

Born in East Prussia in 1896, he joined the Prussian Army shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Commissioned at the beginning of 1915, he served as an infantry officer on both the Eastern and the Western fronts, commanding machine-gun units and taking part in the “storm troop” operations that seemed to presage a new, groundbreaking form of warfare. At the end of the war, he served briefly in an East Prussian Free Corps, taking part in the fighting for control of Königsberg, but then he found a place as an officer in the regular army.9 This says something about the esteem in which he was held by the army leadership, because the stipulations of the Versailles Treaty meant that there were very few available officer positions.

He left the army in early 1933 to take a job as a military training specialist on the staff of Röhm at SA headquarters. This was at the height of Röhm’s ambitions to convert the SA into Germany’s “people’s army,” and Steiner, a captain with the acting rank of major, may well have thought that his new superior was going to succeed. Of course, subsequent reversals in the fortunes of both Röhm and the SA would have forced him to revise his opinion, and he joined the SS in April 1935, initially as a battalion commander in the SS-Special Purpose Troops.

Steiner greatly enhanced the reputation of the emerging Waffen-SS. While Hausser shaped the officer corps through the two cadet schools, Steiner—as commander of the Deutschland Regiment—produced the soldiers. His training regime emphasised physical fitness and individual initiative to produce the “hunter, poacher, athlete” type of soldier, rather than the traditional well-drilled, obedient infantrymen who had populated mass armies for well over a century. There was nothing particularly new about this concept: the more independent, “light” infantryman (Jäger in German military nomenclature) had been around for many years. However, these troops had operated as specialists in small units, working discretely from large formations. Steiner’s innovation was to apply the idea to the regular, “heavy” infantry. His idea caught on quickly within the Special Purpose Troops and characterised much, although not all, of the subsequent Waffen-SS.

Even so, the Special Purpose Troops’ training was not revolutionary; it simply focused on producing the kind of adaptable soldiers demanded by Steiner. All of its elements would have been entirely familiar to most professional soldiers of the period. George H. Stein, in his history of the Waffen-SS, writes: “SS combat exercises were conducted with live ammunition and actual barrages of artillery ‘so that every man became accustomed to his weapons and also to being within 50 to 70 metres of the explosions of his own artillery fire.’”10 Some fantasists have taken this to mean that armed SS units regularly exercised against each other with live ammunition. But, of course, that would have been an act of abject lunacy in an organisation where manpower was precious. Stein is actually describing “field firing” ranges—marksmanship training under simulated combat conditions—that all military forces employ from time to time. In fact, Special Purpose Troops veterans could recall only one instance of live artillery fire being used at very close quarters during their training: for an infantry demonstration in front of Hitler in 1938.11

While Steiner was making great strides with the Deutschland Regiment, Hausser was having problems coordinating the training for the Special Purpose Troops as a whole. Principally, this was due to Sepp Dietrich and his Leibstandarte. Although theLeibstandarte was of regimental strength, Dietrich was an SS-general and so outranked Hausser within the SS system; he also enjoyed a good personal relationship and easy access to Hitler as commander of the “palace guard.” Consequently, Dietrich and his officers felt free to ignore Himmler’s and Hausser’s orders almost at will. Hausser finally snapped in May 1938 and wrote to Himmler to complain about Dietrich’s non-compliance. He also put forward suggestions for improving the Leibstandarte’s military performance, including cross-posting NCOs and officers between the Leibstandarte and the remainder of the Special Purpose Troops. Naturally, Dietrich resisted, but Hausser’s proposals were ultimately adopted in time for the Leibstandarte to achieve a reasonable level of combat readiness before the Second World War began.12

In addition to operating in a slightly different manner to the German Army, the Special Purpose Troops looked different. In 1935, when the army assumed responsibility for the initial military training of the armed SS, the latter swapped their black service uniforms for the traditional field grey of the German Army for reasons of convenience and security (Germany was still notionally bound by the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty). But this was anathema to Himmler, who took a peculiarly close interest in uniforms, military heraldry and insignia. He wanted to differentiate his soldiers from those of the army, so, for a while, the Special Purpose Troops wore “earth grey” (a kind of muddy khaki) uniforms. However, these had to be abandoned in 1938, when the SS armed units started to take part in live operations with the army. Clearly, in those circumstances, all the soldiers had to wear the same basic uniform for identification purposes, and it was the traditional army one that was adopted.

Nevertheless, the Special Purpose Troops were able to differentiate themselves in another way: through their innovations in the use of camouflage clothing. After the war, credit for this was claimed by Gottlob Berger, the chief of SS recruiting. His story was that he wore a camouflage jacket when hunting bustards in Pomerania, and mentioned the item to Dietrich. The latter then recognised the jacket’s potential application in warfare and ordered a large number for the Leibstandarte.13 This was probably a tall tale, but, nonetheless, from 1938 onwards, the Special Purpose Troops sported mottled camouflage smocks—with reversible green (spring and summer) and brown (autumn) patterns—and camouflage helmet covers. These, more than anything else, set them apart from the regular army.

Under Hausser and Steiner’s leadership, a number of other ex–German Army officers flourished in the SS. Herbert Otto Gille served as an artillery officer in the First World War and joined the SS in 1932. He was made platoon leader of the Political Readiness Unit Ellwangen in 1934, and subsequently commanded the defence company and the machine-gun company under Steiner when these units were incorporated into the Deutschland Regiment. Later, he transferred into the Germania Regiment, where he was promoted to captain and placed in command of the 2nd Battalion. During the war, he commanded the Wiking Division and the IV SS-Armoured-Corps. In the process, he became the most decorated member of the SS, and one of the most highly decorated members of the German armed forces.14

Hans Jüttner also began his SS career under Steiner and Hausser. An infantry officer in the First World War, seeing service in Syria and Iraq, he joined the NSDAP in 1931 but did not enter the SS until 1935, when he became a battalion commander inDeutschland. The next year he moved to the Inspectorate, where he worked under Hausser. He went on to become chief of the SS-Command Staff (in effect the general staff) of the Waffen-SS in 1943.15

These men were forward thinking and progressive, and they presided over an organisation with a novel military ethos. However, the whole set-up remained entirely untested until the Third Reich embarked on the path of military and physical expansion that would ultimately lead to its annihilation.

* During the course of the war, two further officer schools were opened in Klagenfurt (November 1943) and Prague (July 1944).

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