There is no record of what specific instructions were given to Heinrich Himmler when he took over as National Leader of the SS on 20 January 1929. Following his two predecessors’ poor performance, it is likely that he was simply told to rejuvenate the organisation and increase its membership.
The entire strength of the SS at this time was approximately 280 subscription-paying members,1 who comprised fewer than 75 protection squads. The largest of these was attached to party headquarters in Munich and commanded by Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, who would later be a key figure in the militarised Waffen-SS. Many of the others consisted of just two or three members, so it is scarcely surprising that few other party members were inspired to join an organisation that was a long way from being a dynamic elite.
Dietrich, an earthy ex-soldier and -policeman, was a relatively recent addition to Hitler’s inner circle of gophers, drivers and bodyguards—the so-called Chauffeureska. He was born in the village of Hawangen in the Bavarian province of Swabia on 28 May 1892.2After some eight years of schooling, he was employed as a farmworker before travelling a little in Europe, eventually becoming an apprentice in the hotel trade in Switzerland. The Dietrich legend has it that he then served in the Bavarian Army as a cavalryman and professional NCO, before joining the elite Storm Troops* during the Great War and ending up as a senior NCO in Germany’s first tank unit. The truth is somewhat more prosaic: he did indeed join the Bavarian Army, in October 1911, but served in an artillery regiment and was invalided out little more than a month later, after falling from a horse. Thereafter, he worked as an errand boy for a baker. When he rejoined the army on the outbreak of war, he again served in an artillery regiment. He transferred to the Storm Troops only in late 1916. Just over a year later, he became a crewman in captured British Mark IV tanks, and he served in that capacity to the end of the war. He was certainly awarded the Iron Cross (second class) in November 1917, and was wounded several times before the armistice, but aside from that his Great War history is murky. By 1945, he was one of Germany’s most highly decorated soldiers, and he claimed to have received several of those decorations during the First World War. However, his biographer could find no record of Dietrich being awarded either the Iron Cross (first class) or the Austrian Bravery decoration.3
Similarly, his post-war career was somewhat obscure. He claimed to have served in various Free Corps—including the Oberland, during the Munich Putsch—but he also spent some time as a regular policeman. In short, it seems that his record was significantly edited in the late twenties and early thirties to paint him in a more politically favourable light. Again, there is no evidence to support his claim that he took part in the Putsch, even though he was awarded the Blood Order, instituted by Hitler in 1933 to honour participants. Indeed, there is no evidence that he was politically active at all until he joined the NSDAP in May 1928 at the urging of Christian Weber, who was employing him at a filling station. Dietrich joined the SS a week later. This lack of any obvious political hinterland has led Dietrich’s biographer to suggest that he was essentially apolitical,4 but such a claim cannot be supported. Dietrich did not disagree in any meaningful way with the verbose monologues that Hitler tried out on the Chauffeureska. Just like the other members of the inner circle, he retained his place at the table in Munich’s Café Heck every afternoon because of his soldierly good humour and his unquestioning acceptance of the corrosive, racist gibberish that was bandied around.
Dietrich’s protection squad was vibrant and healthy, but this was certainly the exception rather than the rule. Outside of Munich, no one could realistically expect such a tiny organisation to fulfil its primary function of protecting the party’s leadership. Indeed, many within the NSDAP saw the SS as little more than a group of newspaper salesmen and canvassers, rather than a quasi-military elite. However, at least they could not claim it was a drain on resources, as it was entirely self-funded. Most of the money came from members’ subscriptions, but there were also Fördernde Mitglieder (FM—sponsoring members), who contributed to SS funds without taking part in its activities. A smattering of Jewish names in this group suggests that becoming an FM was not always voluntary, and that the SS may have followed the custom of the SA and other paramilitary groups in operating shakedowns and protection rackets. Nevertheless, the SS operated on a shoestring budget, which was reflected in its relative lack of administrative and clerical support.
The central organisation and administration of the SS, such as it was, seems to have been almost entirely the responsibility of Himmler himself. He operated from party headquarters at 50 Schellingstrasse, Munich, and was the only member of the SS to receive a salary (albeit just RM200 per month, which was not really a living wage) from central party funds. In his first few months as National Leader, anything emanating from SS “headquarters” was invariably drafted, edited and typed by Himmler. At first, this was probably not too much of a stretch for him, but as the organisation expanded he began to be overwhelmed. Eventually, although he maintained an intense disdain for bureaucracy, he was forced to sanction the growth of an enormous and complex network of offices and staff.
Within the framework of the NSDAP, the biggest obstacle in the way of expansion of the SS was the SA, of which it was still nominally a subordinate formation. By bringing in a number of former military and Free Corps comrades as regional leaders, Pfeffer von Salomon had given Hitler what he had demanded back in 1926: a more controllable and disciplined SA that was still large enough to project the NSDAP’s “strength” on the streets. However, in return, Pfeffer von Salomon had demanded authority over the nascent SS. When he had still been Heiden’s deputy, Himmler had attempted to assert the independence of the SS from the SA, but on 12 April 1929 the following order was issued from SA headquarters: “The SS is a special formation of the SA. The basic regulations of the SA are thus valid for the SS, provided no special instruction has been enacted.”5
The only solution seemed to be to build up the SS’s strength through a recruitment drive. By the end of 1929, Himmler, almost single-handedly, had got membership up to the thousand mark; and the following month, he wrote to his old colleague Röhm, with whom he had remained in correspondence during Röhm’s absence in South America, to say that he expected to reach two thousand by the end of April.6
Running in parallel with this expansion was a process of organisational restructuring that would continue throughout the SS’s existence. Up to this point, each individual protection squad had been commanded by an “officer” who reported directly to the National Leader. With no intermediate ranks or organisational strata, each unit should, in theory, have received equal attention from the National Leader. However, this became impossible as the organisation grew, so, from August 1929, the SS began to ape the organisational model of the SA. The smallest unit became the Schar (squad), which comprised approximately eight men and roughly corresponded to a military section. This squad was commanded by a Scharführer (squad leader)—equivalent to an NCO. Three squads formed aTrupp (troop) of between twenty and sixty men—equivalent to a military platoon. This was commanded by a Truppführer (troop leader). Three troops then formed a Sturm (company), which was commanded by the lowest “officer” rank:Sturmführer (company leader). Three companies constituted a Sturmbann (battalion), which was led by a Sturmbannführer (battalion leader). Three or four battalions formed a Standarte (regiment), which was commanded by a Standartenführer (regimental leader). Two or more regiments formed an Untergruppe (sub-group)—later renamed a Brigade (brigade) and then an Abschnitt (division)—which was commanded by an Oberführer (senior leader). Several sub-groups constituted a Gruppe (group).*
To help him implement all of this, in 1930 Himmler acquired a business manager, a treasurer and an adjutant in the shape of Josias Erbprinz zu Waldeck-Pyrmont.
Waldeck-Pyrmont was born in 1896—the son and heir of the ruler of the principality of Waldeck-Pyrmont. He was also a nephew of the Dutch queen Emma and was related by marriage to the British royal family. He served as an infantry officer in the First World War and then studied agriculture before taking over the management of his family estates. He joined the NSDAP in November 1929 and the SS—as one of Himmler’s earliest aristocratic recruits—in March 1930. In some respects, this was a coup for Himmler: he was anxious to promote the notion that the SS constituted an elite within both the movement and the Germanic race as a whole, and what better way to do this, in class-conscious Germany, than by the recruitment of members of the hereditary nobility? Within a month of joining the SS, Waldeck-Pyrmont was promoted to the rank of battalion leader; and within two months he was a regimental leader and adjutant of the SS-Brigade Bayern.7 In September, he became Himmler’s adjutant and head of the National Leader’s personal staff.
IN THE 1928 general election, the NSDAP had gained 810,000 votes, which meant it secured just 12 out of the 491 Reichstag deputies. In the September 1930 elections, it garnered 6,371,000 votes and 107 seats in the Reichstag, which meant it was now the second-largest party in the parliament after the Social Democrats. Several factors lay behind this extraordinary turnaround in the party’s fortunes.
As we have seen, the Dawes Plan of 1924 had helped resolve the hyperinflation crisis and had given a much-needed boost to the country. However, by the end of the decade, Germany’s reparations payments were still hobbling the economy, so another attempt to address the issue was made by the American lawyer Owen D. Young. The Young Plan, signed in June 1929, reduced the total reparations bill to thirty-seven billion gold Reichsmarks and extended the payment period to fifty-nine years. Internationally this was widely seen as a good deal for Germany, but the nationalist right, who had never accepted the concept of German war guilt, was outraged. The media magnate Alfred Hugenberg led a campaign against the Young Plan, and he made his considerable newspaper resources available to Hitler. The more radical and anti-capitalist elements within the NSDAP—led by Gregor Strasser’s younger brother, Otto—expressed their distaste at this alliance, but Hitler exploited it to great political and personal advantage. The militant, radical NSDAP was able to reach a much wider audience, and it also gained an aura of respectability and credibility that had previously eluded it.
In the midst of this right-wing campaign against the Young Plan, two events occurred that had great significance for the future of the NSDAP and Germany. On 3 October, Gustav Stresemann, Germany’s foreign minister, died suddenly of a stroke at the age of fifty-one. He had steered Germany’s foreign relations throughout most of the 1920s with good sense and moderation, and his death left the country without a statesman of any particular international stature. That might not have been critically important, were it not for what happened three weeks later.
On 24 October, in a wave of panic selling, the value of shares on the New York stock market crashed. Individuals, businesses and banks faced bankruptcy, and the repercussions were severe all around the world, especially in Germany. The fragile German economy depended on loans from the United States, but threatened American bankers now began to call these in. Consequently, Germany was plunged into chaos. The hyperinflation of 1923 had pauperised the non-property-owning classes in Germany by destroying their savings. Now the process began again through unemployment.
This situation was the best possible recruiting sergeant for the NSDAP. It was the third major catastrophe in Germany in eleven years—first defeat in the war, then inflation, now the depression—so the NSDAP’s claim that the democratic Weimar system had failed seemed highly credible. Membership of the party and its various organisations soared as Germans looked for a solution to their problems. Moreover, because Hitler had chosen the path of legality rather than revolution after the Putsch, ordinary people were not afraid to throw in their lot with the National Socialists.
In reality, much of the NSDAP’s programme was old hat. Its anti-capitalism was shared by the Communists and Social Democrats; its nationalism was typical of the parties of the right; and it did not even have a monopoly on anti-Semitism. However, the National Socialists seemed to offer a degree of dynamism, vitality and action that the other parties lacked. They explicitly identified themselves as the movement of the “front generation”—the men who had taken Germany to the brink of victory only to be cruelly “stabbed in the back” by Jews, communists and other “November criminals.” And they offered a break with the failures of the Weimar system by harking back to the values that had supposedly made Germany great.
While the depression pushed the struggling and unemployed towards the NSDAP, the National Socialists’ propaganda techniques penetrated areas of German society that had hitherto been out of reach—sporting clubs, churches, businessmen’s associations—and this especially benefited the SS. As the praetorian guard of this new, dynamic movement, aloof from the violence and corruption of the SA rabble, Himmler’s SS cultivated an image of respectability, exclusivity and discipline. This soon proved very attractive to the educated, middle-class Germans who were now being drawn into the party.
The NSDAP’s 1930 election campaign was the first to be centrally coordinated by Josef Goebbels (in accordance with guidelines laid down by Hitler). Goebbels was born in Rheydt, on the edge of the Ruhr district, in 1897 into a lower-middle-class Catholic family. A childhood illness left him with a deformed right foot and lower leg, which meant he was turned down for military service in the First World War. Instead, he studied literature and philosophy at the universities of Bonn, Freiburg, Würzburg and Heidelberg, gaining a Ph.D. in eighteenth-century romantic literature in 1921. He joined the NSDAP in 1924 in response to the French occupation of the Ruhr, and soon gained a reputation as a highly intelligent, charismatic orator. Initially, he was associated with Strasser’s more “socialist” wing of the party, but Hitler recognised his ability in the mid-1920s and soon made him a key ally.
In 1930, Goebbels’ activists blanketed Germany in a blizzard of propaganda, agitation and street violence, forcing themselves onto the front pages of newspapers that had ignored them two years previously. The result of the election was astonishing: the NSDAP’s share of the vote rose from 2.6 to 18.3 per cent. As Ian Kershaw has pointed out: “the NSDAP was [now] no mere middle-class party, as used to be thought. Though not in equal proportions, the Hitler movement could reasonably claim to have won support from all sections of society. No other party in the Weimar period could claim the same.”8 That is a little misleading, as the party never gained mass working-class support, but it made significant inroads even in that sector in 1930.
However, in spite of this electoral success, the NSDAP had been lurching from one internal crisis to another. The first problem was precipitated by Otto Strasser, younger brother of Gregor, who questioned whether the party had a meaningful programme beyond its quest for political power. He espoused a variety of National Socialism that emphasised radical anti-capitalism alongside nationalism and anti-Semitism, and he soon gathered a coterie of supporters who propagated their ideas via his Berlin-based publishing house, Kampfverlag. They were dismayed by the NSDAP’s increasingly close relationship with the bourgeois establishment and heavy industry, and published ever more critical tracts against this tendency in the first few months of 1930. Hitler and especially Goebbels—who was Regional Leader in Berlin—were infuriated by this lack of loyalty. Goebbels now fully accepted Hitler’s argument that the party’s first priority was to achieve power—only then could it begin the National Socialist revolution.
The dispute reached a head in April and May 1930. Hitler convened a series of meetings of the party leadership to denounce Kampfverlag, and followed these with a face-to-face meeting with Otto Strasser himself on 21 May. Opinions differ as to whether this was designed to bring Strasser into line or to force him out of the movement. Hitler was probably simply probing Strasser to see whether an accommodation could be reached or more decisive action was needed. Whatever the motive for the meeting, it did not go well. Strasser forcibly argued that “the idea” was greater than “the leader.” Leaders, he said, were fallible and temporary, while the idea was eternal. Not surprisingly, Hitler thought this was nonsense: “For us, the Leader is the Idea, and each party member has only to obey the Leader.”9 He was equally dismissive of Strasser’s claim that the NSDAP’s strategy of legality and cooperation with the bourgeois right would hinder the “Social Revolution” that they both espoused. In Hitler’s view, this was “Nothing but Marxism.”10
Despite the frosty nature of this meeting, Hitler typically hesitated before deciding to act against Strasser’s clique. In fact, he took so long that he was pre-empted by Strasser and his supporters, who in early July announced that they were leaving the NSDAP to create their own radical National Socialist organisation: the Union of Revolutionary National Socialists, later known as the Black Front. This proved to be political suicide: very few National Socialists followed Strasser, and his departure signalled the end of any serious “socialist” strand within the NSDAP. It also allowed Goebbels’ elevation to National Propaganda Chief.
The second internal party crisis—which also began in 1930, although it only came to a head the following year—had a profound effect on the position of the SS within the movement.
As we have seen, the chief of the SA, Pfeffer von Salomon, recruited a number of ex-officers from the German armed forces, the Free Corps and the Frontbann in a bid to instil some military-style discipline into a corrupt and brutal gang. One of these new recruits was a former police captain, Walter Stennes, who became SA-Oberführer Ost (SA-Senior Leader East)—responsible for Berlin and eastern Germany. However, this appointment effectively supplanted the man who had created and built up the Berlin SA into a force of over five hundred men: Kurt Daluege—a tall, burly building engineer. Born in Kreuzberg in 1897, Daluege had joined the NSDAP in 192211 and had swiftly gained a reputation as a vicious and effective operator in Berlin street politics (where his limited intelligence earned him the nickname “DummiDummi”12). Unsurprisingly, he was far from happy when Stennes was brought in to run “his” unit.
Stennes, for his part, seems to have been in sympathy with Otto Strasser. Certainly, both he and the men of the Berlin SA shared Strasser’s frustration at the slow pace of the National Socialist “revolution.” Their unrest grew when the party leadership refused to nominate Stennes and several other leading SA officers as candidates for the Reichstag. But this was just the tip of an iceberg of disquiet in Berlin and throughout the SA. Stennes was by no means alone in disagreeing with Hitler’s legal route to power, and the economic crisis that followed the Wall Street Crash threw this dispute into sharp focus.
The SA benefited greatly from the crisis, with its membership increasing in 1930 to between “60,000 and 100,000.”13 But most of these were not hard-core National Socialists; rather, they were unemployed and distressed, and had turned to the SA simply as a source of food and support. Stennes himself reported: “In some Berlin units 67% of the men are unemployed.”14 Meanwhile, the central party organisation—administrators who were widely derided within the SA as “civilians”—kept the SA on a tight financial rein. Resentment grew at the traffic of cash from SA street collections and membership dues to party headquarters, with little coming back the other way. SA commanders wanted to hang on to their new recruits, and felt the need to spend some money on them in order to do so, but all of that money—which they had collected—was being channelled into the election campaign.
Notwithstanding the SA’s lack of cash, its huge increase in membership, combined with its increased activity in the run-up to the September election, had the potential to cause a shift in the balance of power within the party. SA members were on the streets, fighting with their Communist and Social Democrat opponents, and this gave Stennes the opportunity to make his move. He demanded that senior SA commanders should be on the party’s electoral list for the Reichstag; an increase in funding for the SA, including payment for members who guarded party meetings; and a reduction in the power of the “civilian” regional leaders. On 23 August, just three weeks before the election, he led a delegation to Munich to put these demands directly to Hitler. The latter refused to see them, which led to a kind of strike by the Berlin SA: Stennes’ staff officers resigned and refused to carry out their propaganda or protection duties. Then, on 28 August, a group of SA men raided the Berlin party headquarters and beat up the business manager. In response to this attack, SS guards were posted at the building.
By now, the Berlin SS was under the control of Stennes’ predecessor, Daluege. Seething with resentment at Stennes’ appointment, he had left the SA and had joined its rival organisation on 25 July (membership number 1119). He gained immediate promotion to senior leader rank and was given command of the Berlin SS* in place of the relatively ineffectual Kurt Wege. Thereafter, Daluege was specifically commissioned by Hitler to keep an eye on the manoeuvrings of Stennes and his clique, and a number of trusted former SA colleagues supplied him with information. Even so, Daluege failed to predict the Berlin SA’s next move, which came on the night of 30 August. A large group of SA men again attacked the party headquarters, where they beat up the seven SS guards (two of whom received serious head injuries) and then smashed up the furniture inside. The raid was reported to Goebbels—who had been speaking at a party meeting in Breslau—and he drove through the night to take control of the situation. Humiliatingly, the only way to get Stennes’ men out of the headquarters was to enlist the help of the much despised Berlin Police. A riot squad duly arrived and arrested twenty-five SA men.
This infighting represented a real crisis for the NSDAP, so Goebbels quickly contacted Hitler, who was in Bayreuth, and asked him to intervene. The next day, Hitler met with Stennes at a hotel near the Anhalter railway station in Berlin. Then he toured Berlin’s SA bars and cafés, where he told the disgruntled SA men that they could trust him and that he would soon remedy their complaints.
Hitler’s intervention papered over the cracks for the time being. Little news of the dispute reached the press and the election duly passed off successfully. Nevertheless, Hitler was well aware that he would need to address the deep-rooted problems in the SA sooner rather than later. Before long, he dismissed Pfeffer von Salomon and took over the role of Oberste SA Führer (SA Commander-in-Chief) himself. He also wrote to Ernst Röhm (who was still in Bolivia) to ask him to return and become SA Stabschef(Chief of Staff). Röhm had kept in touch with the situation in Germany and was fully aware of the implications of the NSDAP’s success in the general election.15
Critically, the SS’s loyalty to the party leadership in the face of the SA unrest had not gone unnoticed, and soon it was given a new official function. In a circular sent to senior SA officers at the beginning of October 1930, the SS was described as a police organisation within the movement, with the authority to prevent illegality among party formations. This required the SS to be functionally independent of the SA in recruitment (its membership was supposedly capped at 10 per cent of total SA strength) and to perform its new policing function, even though it remained notionally subordinate to the SA.
At the same time, the overall role of the SA was re-examined. At a meeting of the organisation’s leadership in Munich on 30 November 1930, Hitler proposed Röhm as his nominee for Chief of Staff against considerable opposition, especially from the Stennes faction. Röhm was, in his own way, as radical in his views about the future role of the SA as anybody within the organisation. Nevertheless, he was a strict disciplinarian who could be counted on to recognise how high the stakes now were for the National Socialist movement. High on the momentum of the party’s recent electoral success and in the expectation that the NSDAP would soon assume power, the organisation’s existing leadership (Röhm did not take up his new role until January 1931) began to prepare themselves for their future after the seizure of power. In principle, the SA was to “turn away from propaganda, guard duty and the solicitation of funds”16 and start to organise itself into the NSDAP’s national military force. In turn, the SS would take over most of the SA’s former tasks as the movement’s political foot soldiers. On 1 December, Himmler—somewhat prematurely, as it turned out—announced the formal separation of the SS from the SA.17
If anything, the NSDAP’s success in the election heightened the tension between the party and the Stennes faction within the SA. With power almost within his grasp, Hitler knew he needed to tread carefully in order to avoid provoking the somewhat rattled establishment into a decisive strike against the whole National Socialist movement. But this softly-softly approach frustrated many members of the SA, who clung to their romantic, albeit brutal, notions of seizing power by force. The election campaign had witnessed an upsurge of political violence between right and left, and this had continued largely unabated afterwards, partly because the Communists had also significantly increased their support. This had led Röhm, in his first month as Chief of Staff, to ban SA participation in street battles. Meanwhile, Daluege’s Berlin SS continued to keep a wary eye on the Stennes clique, after all attempts to buy off and intimidate its leader had failed. For instance, when Stennes was offered the Interior Ministry of the state government of Brunswick—which had come under NSDAP control in the elections—he not only turned it down but openly criticised the corrupt and cynical party leadership in Munich.
All of this tension finally came to a head on 28 March 1931, when President Hindenburg gave Chancellor Heinrich Brüning’s government the power to act against political excesses. The NSDAP leadership viewed this as a possible prelude to a ban on the party—or at least the SA—so Hitler ordered strict compliance with the rule of law. Stennes, seeing this as an attempt to curb his freedom of action, refused. Then, at a meeting in Weimar on 31 March, Hitler announced that Stennes was to leave his role as SA-Senior Leader East and would become Röhm’s executive officer in Munich. This transfer could have been seen as a sideways move rather than a demotion, but there is no doubt that Hitler—warned of Stennes’ continued plotting by Daluege—fully intended to provoke a strong reaction. He did not have to wait long. The very next day, the SS guards at Berlin’s party offices were again beaten up by a mob of Stennes’ SA supporters, who then occupied the headquarters as well as the offices of Goebbels’ newspaper, Der Angriff(The Attack). Stennes then announced Hitler’s “dismissal” as party leader, and SA leaders throughout northern and eastern Germany publicly declared their support for their man.
Berlin Regional Leader Goebbels had been trying to steer a middle course between Stennes and the Munich party leadership for many months, but now he clearly had to choose one side or the other. He had considerable personal sympathy for Stennes’ political views, but after being given plenipotentiary powers by Hitler to resolve the crisis, he came out firmly in support of the leadership. The Berlin Police again cleared the SA men from party headquarters. Then, in the face of a barrage of propaganda and persuasion from Hitler and Goebbels, support for Stennes collapsed. A few hundred of his leading supporters were purged, the dust settled, and the revolt was over.
As an odd postscript to this tale, Stennes managed to survive the Third Reich. Imprisoned in a concentration camp after the NSDAP came to power, he was released after the personal intervention of Hermann Goering. He was smuggled across the Dutch border and then made his way to China, where he served as commander of Chiang Kai-shek’s bodyguard. During that time, he became an agent of Soviet Military Intelligence,18 but his warnings about the imminent German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 went unheeded by Stalin. He left China when the Nationalists were defeated in 1949 and returned to Germany, where he died in 1989.
The SS’s unwavering loyalty during the Stennes faction’s revolt cemented its de facto independent role as the party’s police force, even though Hitler had reaffirmed its subordination to the SA as recently as January 1931. In a letter to Daluege, Hitler wrote: “SS-Mann, Deine Ehre heisst Treue” (“SS-man, your honour is called loyalty”). Daluege then had the message printed on thank-you cards that were circulated among the Berlin SS on Hitler’s behalf.19 The phrase evidently resonated with Himmler, too. He slightly altered it to “Meine Ehre heisst Treue” (“My honour is called loyalty”) and then adopted it as the organisation’s motto. It was subsequently stamped on the SS’s metal belt buckles and various other regalia.
But there were far more important consequences of Stennes’ revolt than the coining of a pithy maxim. The SS had been given the opportunity to consolidate its unique role within the NSDAP, and this would enable Himmler to extend his organisation’s reach throughout the movement and position it for future power struggles within National Socialism. Less welcome for Himmler was Daluege’s continuing meteoric rise. As head of the Berlin SS, he had an independent power base and was now effectively number two in the organisation, even though he had joined less than a year before. Henceforth, Himmler would view Daluege as, at best, a potential rival and, at worst, an enemy.20
DESPITE HIS WORRIES about his subordinate, Himmler was determined to press ahead with distancing the SS from the SA and building up its power. He decided that one of the best ways to achieve this was by giving the organisation its own distinct ideological framework, which would help to establish it as the elite of the National Socialist movement. To assist him in this endeavour, he turned to an old friend from his days in the Artamanen Society, Richard Walther Darré.
Darré was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1895, the son of a prosperous German businessman. He was educated at private schools in Argentina, Germany and, briefly, Britain, where he attended King’s College School, Wimbledon. He entered the German Colonial School at Witzenhausen in 1914, but completed only one term before volunteering for military service. After a relatively successful war, in which he was commissioned as a reserve officer, he returned to civilian life to study agriculture, specialising in animal breeding.21
During the 1920s, as he continued to study, work in agriculture and participate in the Artamanen Society, he developed a theory that would later prove to be ideal for what Himmler had in mind for the SS. In effect, he argued that peoples and races are always led by aristocracies, and that “It is an undisputed empirical fact of history that the growth and success of a nation is directly related to the health, both physical and moral, of its nobility.”22 He then went on to say that the old German nobility had been corrupted by the decline in “Germanic consciousness,” which was the direct result of the rise of “liberalism” since the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. This liberalism had led to “race defilement, materialism, greed and a disregard for the welfare of society.” Aristocratic selfishness and disinterest in the “collective” had thus led to an overall decline in the Volk. To Darré, the solution was simple: Germany needed a new aristocracy. He even suggested where its members could be found: among the Nordic peasant farmers, “the true repository of the Germanic spirit and race.” The peasantry comprised the wellspring of the German nation and had “always formed the only reliable basis for [the German] people from the point of view of the blood.” As a result, the state had a duty to protect and expand this sector of society by promoting settlement schemes and providing incentives to raise the birthrate and curtail the rural drift to urban areas. All of the great empires, in Darré’s view, had been created by men of Nordic blood, but had subsequently decayed because they had succumbed to humanistic ideologies: Freemasonry and Christianity, for example. They had also allowed their blood to become “diluted and impure.” He particularly bemoaned the ongoing process in Eastern Europe, where Germanic blood was becoming increasingly intermingled with “inferior” Jewish and Slavic blood.
All of this provided Himmler with the perfect ideological niche into which he could insert his organisation. It also allowed him to put the SS at the forefront of a mission that was a central plank of National Socialism: the reinvigoration and defence of the Germanic race. To achieve this aim, the SS would have to become both a military and a racial elite.
Bizarre (and indeed repugnant) as Darré’s theories now appear, they were far from radical at the time. Many German nationalists, as well as innumerable supposedly “progressive” thinkers in other countries, held similar opinions. In large part, this was due to the widespread acceptance of the pseudo-science of eugenics throughout the Western world.23 Eugenics fitted the National Socialist worldview perfectly. Although it did not promote the hatred and persecution of other races, many of its proponents were happy to accept a racial ranking system with Germanic, Nordic and Aryan peoples at the top, and Mediterraneans, Slavs, Asians, Jews, Africans and so on much lower down. National Socialist supporters usually believed that such a ranking was virtually self-evident. To their minds, human evolution could be characterised scientifically as the struggle for mastery between various races, and the Germanic race had emerged on top.
Himmler’s SS was wedded to mainstream eugenic thinking within Germany, so many people would have viewed its ideology as “science,” rather than blind prejudice. Furthermore, he could point to his academic background in agronomy to buttress his own credibility on the subject. His plan was to make the SS selective and exclusive on the basis of racial background and characteristics, and ultimately the biological foundation of a renewed German nation. He had little difficulty in gaining support for this project within the National Socialist movement as a whole, as well as in the SS, and this basic idea underpinned many of his subsequent actions.
As a first step, he introduced physical as well as political criteria into SS recruitment. Hitherto, potential SS members had only had to display absolute political loyalty, discipline and obedience, but now that often would not be enough. In a wartime speech, he described how he “went about it like a nursery gardener trying to reproduce a good old strain which has been adulterated and debased; we started from the principles of plant selection and then proceeded, quite unashamedly, to weed out the men whom we did not think we could use for the build up of the SS.”24 This, like many of Himmler’s later pronouncements on matters of principle, was not entirely true. There was no “weeding out” because the physical criteria were not—at that time—applied to existing members (if they had been, Himmler would have lost about half his manpower overnight). And they were not even universally enforced among new members: Himmler was always prepared to turn a blind eye to allow politically or socially well-connected individuals to join the SS, no matter what they looked like.
Nevertheless, on the whole, he was serious about his project. In late 1931, he appointed Darré as leader of the SS Rassenamt (Race Office) and began to enact measures to turn their ideas into reality. The most important of these was the SS Marriage Law, promulgated by Himmler on 31 December 1931, which read:
The SS is a band of German men of strictly Nordic descent chosen according to certain principles.
In accordance with National Socialist ideology and in the realisation that the future of our Volk rests upon the preservation of the race through selection and the healthy inheritance of good blood, I hereby institute the “Marriage Certificate” for all unmarried members of the SS, effective 1 January 1932.
The desired aim is to create a hereditarily healthy clan of a strictly Nordic German sort.
The marriage certificate will be awarded or denied solely on the basis of racial health and heredity.
Every SS man who intends to get married must procure for this purpose the marriage certificate of the National Leader of the SS.
SS members who marry despite having been denied marriage certificates will be stricken from the SS; they will be given the choice of withdrawing.
Working out the details of marriage petitions is the task of the Race Office of the SS.
The Race Office of the SS is in charge of the Clan Book of the SS, in which the families of SS members will be entered after being awarded the marriage certificate or after acquiescing to the petition to enter into marriage.
The National Leader of the SS, the Leader of the Race Office, and the specialists of this office are duty bound to secrecy on their word of honour.
The SS believes that, with this command, it has taken a step of great significance. Derision, scorn and incomprehension do not move us; the future belongs to us!25
In 1932, Darré recruited two friends, Dr. Schultz and Dr. Rechenbach (an anthropologist and an army veterinarian, respectively), into the Race Office. These two men introduced the concept of the “scientific” eugenic racial examiner, who was supposedly able to determine racial origin objectively—through measurement of body parts, eye colour, hair colour and so on. Over the next two years, when there was a massive increase in applications to join the SS, all potential recruits were vetted for these characteristics by racial desk officers—medically trained collaborators and “experts” who also acted as instructors in SS racial ideology. These officers worked to guidelines drawn up by Schultz that meant all candidates (and existing SS members’ proposed spouses) were placed in one of five groups: “pure Nordic”; “predominantly Nordic or Phalic”; harmonious bastard with slight “Alpine, Dinaric or Mediterranean characteristics”; bastards of predominantly East Baltic or Alpine origin; and bastards of extra-European origin. In theory, only those in the first three groups would be allowed to join the SS or marry one of its members.26
Auslese (selectivity) thus became the overarching, founding principle of the SS’s ideological framework. As guardian of the National Socialist movement and wellspring for the reinvigoration of the Germanic people, it could proceed only on the basis of having the “correct” racial material. But Himmler added a further five key principles: struggle, honour, loyalty, obedience and Führerprinzip (the principle of leadership). The regeneration of the Germanic race would entail a struggle to eliminate “impurities,” but through that struggle each SS man would gain strength and endurance. In some respects, this was a racist twist on the Marxist doctrine of class struggle. Himmler wrote:
As long as humans have existed on earth, war between humans and sub-humans has become a rule of history. As far back [in history] as we can see, this Jewish-led battle has become the natural course of life on this planet. However, you may rest assured that this struggle for life and death is as much a law of nature as man’s fight against anything else. Such is the fight between the bacillus and a healthy human body.27
Thus, the SS was explicitly involved in a racial war to cleanse the Germanic race of the Jewish “bacillus,” and obedience was vital to achieve this. Absolute obedience to the will of Hitler—the authoritative interpreter of National Socialism—would guarantee that the movement’s programme would be implemented. In that way the New Order—and consequently freedom for the Germanic people—would be realised.
Complementing struggle and obedience were honour and loyalty. This linked the SS to the romantic ideal of the old German chivalric orders:
The true SS man, like the true knight, was to be judged by his loyalty to the Cause, and the honour displayed in pursuing it…With this, we mean loyalties of every kind, including loyalty to the Führer and consequently to the German people; loyalty to one’s conscience and race, blood loyalty; loyalty to one’s ancestors and descendants; loyalty to one’s “clan”; loyalty to one’s comrades and loyalty to the absolute laws of decency, cleanliness and chivalry.28
The principle of leadership was intended to be a binding force. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had articulated it as his reason for rejecting democracy.29 As far as he was concerned, “The progress of culture and humanity are not a product of the majority, but rest exclusively on the genius and energy of the personality.” In Hitler’s view, a leader should hold absolute power while bearing absolute responsibility to the people for his decisions and actions. Democracy, based on a principle of equality, meant that rule was inevitably given to “inferiors” who were more interested in maintaining power than in wielding it for the good of the people, which meant that leaders could not be held to account for their actions. It was also “unnatural,” because it eliminated the struggle for supremacy between unequals in which the strong would inevitably come to the fore. Consequently, “inferior” races had inhibited the supremacy of the Germanic people. Hitler believed that absolute authority was the right of a leader who had shown his worth by struggling to the top; it should not be granted (and potentially withdrawn) by the governed in democratic elections.
The SS leadership principle was a refinement of this, with a disciplined, meritocratic hierarchy being formed from the organisation’s racial and political elite. An SS man would thus be able to rise to the limit of his abilities within the hierarchy, but would still recognise his absolute subordination to those whose talents had raised them even higher. Ultimately, of course, they would always remain subordinate to Hitler—the Führer—himself.
For the most part, National Socialism’s “enemies” had already been identified by Hitler: Jews, Marxists, democrats, liberals, capitalists, the bourgeoisie, Freemasons, internationalists and homosexuals. The SS was quite explicit in adding the Roman Catholic Church to this list. But there were secret enemies too—ostensible National Socialists who were subverting the movement from within. The SS had to be prepared to strike them down. They had already done so in the case of Stennes and his supporters, but soon their attacks on the “enemy within” would become much more comprehensive.
* These were specialised infantry units who mounted commando-style raids on enemy trenches to facilitate the movement of conventional infantry.
* Although it is tempting to ascribe military equivalence to all of these ranks and groupings, it would be wrong to do so at this stage in the development of the SS. Rank in the SS was of purely political significance until after the National Socialist seizure of power, when the SS set up its own military units and started to penetrate the police and security forces. Even then, it was common for individuals to hold a political rank in the SS and a totally different rank, with genuine military equivalence, in the Waffen-SS or the police.
* Then referred to as “SS-Senior Leader Command East,” and subsequently as “SS-Regional Headquarters–Spree.”