In the first few years of his leadership, Himmler experimented with and soon abandoned several administrative formats for SS headquarters.1 Between 1929 and 1931, the SS-Oberstab (Higher Staff), which was personally headed by Himmler himself, comprised five branches: I Administration, II Personnel, III Finance, IV Security and V Race. This was partially replaced in 1932 by the SS-Amt (Office), originally headed by SS-Colonel Ernst Bach, which was given responsibility for administration, personnel, reserves and medical services. Meanwhile, security was put in the hands of Heydrich’s fledgling intelligence service, and racial issues were entrusted to Darré’s Race Office. The expansion of both the NSDAP and the SS itself in the run-up to 1933 increased the funding available to Himmler, so he started to recruit full-time “technical” experts to replace the part-time “old fighters” who had formed the bulk of his staff hitherto. Around this time, Himmler’s adjutant, Waldeck-Pyrmont, also took on the role of executive officer and chief of his personal staff. He was succeeded in 1934 by Karl Wolff, a dapper, well-spoken banker and ex–army officer who would go on to hold the position until the end of the war.

After January 1933, as Himmler and Heydrich began to take control of the German police system and Himmler began the creation of the first militarised SS units, the organisation became a hybrid: part party formation, part state agency. Reflecting this, Himmler created the Führungsstab (Leadership Staff) as a liaison office between the SS and various state and party agencies. Siegfried Seidel-Dittmarsch, a Prussian ex–army officer, was put in charge, but he died suddenly at the beginning of 1934 and his liaison function was passed on to Waldeck-Pyrmont as leader of the so-called “Special Duties Staff.”

However, none of these arrangements proved satisfactory for Himmler, so at the beginning of 1935 he began the process of creating the twelve Hauptämter (Main Offices) that would ultimately form the bureaucratic core of the SS. The first and initially most important of these was the SS-Hauptamt (Main Office), led by SS-Major General Kurt Wittje, a former general staff officer. It was formed on 30 January 1935 as part of a general reorganisation which also saw the creation of an SD-Main Office under Heydrich and the Rasse und Siedlungs Hauptamt (Race and Settlement Main Office—RuSHA) under Darré. There were six staff branches within the SS-Main Office: the Command Staff, responsible for militarised units; the Personnel Office; the Recruiting Office; the Administrative Office for Military Courts; the Administration and Supply Office; and the Medical Office. Additionally, the Main Office itself housed a press department, a welfare office and the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps.

Wittje was dismissed from the SS in May 1935 amid rumours about his homosexuality, to be replaced by SS-Brigade Leader August Heissmeyer, a lawyer who had served as a pilot in the First World War. Heissmeyer reorganised the Command Staff, separating functions that supported the General-SS from those linked to the SS-Verfügungstruppe (Special Purpose Troops), the newly formed, full-time military SS units that were the forerunners of the Waffen-SS.

A key figure within the Main Office at this time was Oswald Pohl, who had been appointed to the Administration and Supply Branch. Born in 1892, his father was a foreman in a steelworks in the Ruhr. Pohl graduated from his local high school in 1912, enlisted in the navy’s administrative branch, and spent the First World War as a paymaster.2 After his demobilisation, he began legal studies at the University of Kiel, but he gave these up when the navy asked him to rejoin and continue his administrative career. He first joined the NSDAP as early as 1922, and remained an activist even when the party was banned after the Munich Putsch. Unlike most commissioned officers in the German armed forces, he was officially classified as a naval civil servant, which meant he was allowed to join a political party, and he duly rejoined the “reformed” NSDAP in August 1926.3

Pohl came to the attention of Himmler in 1933 because of a letter he wrote to Hitler concerning the naval career of Heydrich. Pohl reported that some of his fellow officers at the Kiel Naval Base had joked that Heydrich had been forced to leave the navy because of his immoral conduct, and that was the only reason why he was now following a career in the SS. According to Pohl: “I wrote to Hitler that if all the things rumoured about Heydrich were true, I couldn’t understand why he was permitted to wear an SS uniform.”4In May, Himmler visited the naval base and met Pohl—who was by now a Kapitänleutnant (Commander)—during a reception in the officers’ mess. Doubtless Himmler recalled Pohl’s letter, but he had also received a recommendation from Wilhelm Canaris, Heydrich’s old first officer and now commander of the battleship Schlesien. Canaris, who had been deeply involved in the nationalist political scene in the 1920s, pointed out that Pohl was a loyal National Socialist and a “first rate man in every way.”5

Himmler was looking for an officer to take over the administrative and financial side of the SS, and he evidently took a shine to Pohl. He explained that the rumours about Heydrich were untrue and asked whether Pohl might be interested in joining the SS. By now, Pohl had a secure, successful career—he headed a staff of over five hundred men at Kiel—but as an enthusiastic National Socialist, he was interested. And clearly the National Leader thought he was the right man for the job:

Himmler became very insistent and wrote me one letter after another urging that I take over the administrative organisation of the SS. In December 1933 and January 1934, he invited me to Berlin and Munich, and showed me the whole SS administrative set-up and the many complex problems that were involved. It was only in February 1934, after I saw what a big job was in store for me, that I finally accepted.6

Pohl initially joined Himmler’s personal staff as chief of the administrative section with the rank of SS-Obersturmbannführer (senior battalion leader). He remembered:

When I took over my office, the SS was a comparatively small organisation, like a union, with a group here and there in various towns and cities. I started by installing administrative commands in various key cities, and I selected personnel who would be fit for their jobs. I inaugurated schools that taught these administrative officials for a few weeks before they were dispatched to take over my branch offices all over Germany. I achieved a sound administration in the SS, with orderly bookkeeping and financial sections.7

With the creation of the Main Office the following year, Pohl became head of the Administrative Branch and also retained his role as chief of administration on Himmler’s staff.

Before January 1933, much of the SS’s funding had come from membership dues, with occasional subsidies from party headquarters for special projects, but as it began to take over state functions, it increasingly became eligible for state funding. It was in this area that Pohl really made his mark. Despite the supposedly revolutionary nature of the National Socialist government, expenditure still had to be justified, budgets formulated and fiscal probity maintained to the satisfaction of both the civil service and the party. Pohl, drawing on his long experience in naval administration, succeeded in achieving all of this. In addition, he established relationships between his office and the various departments and ministries on whom the SS depended for its budget: the party treasury, the Finance Ministry, the Ministry of the Interior, the Army Ministry and so forth. Among the first SS recipients of state funding were the Special Purpose Troops being formed at various locations around Germany. Later, following Himmler’s appointment as Chief of the German Police in 1936, a much wider range of SS activities was brought under the umbrella of state support, including running the concentration camps.8

In the last months of 1934, Himmler had launched the SS’s first “corporate venture” when he founded a publishing house—the Nordland Verlag—which went on to produce a wide range of ideological tracts, training manuals, propaganda texts and novels.9 This was followed by a porcelain factory—Allach Industries—which produced commemorative plates and figurines as well as symbolic items, like “Yule candlesticks,” that were presented to SS families; a photographic studio; and even a company that produced electric bicycle lights. None of these ventures was intended to be profitable; instead, they were founded to demonstrate the superiority of the SS order and to act as cultural showcases.10

Meanwhile, the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps determined to make the camps economically productive. Part of the motivation for this was the shortage of materials and workers for the reconstruction projects that Hitler and his favourite architect, Albert Speer, were developing. An obvious answer seemed to be to force concentration camp prisoners to quarry stone and make bricks, cement and other materials.11 However, the SS had no experience in managing building projects or indeed any other type of business. This was highlighted by the large financial losses incurred by several of the businesses, particularly the German Earth and Stone Works, which operated brick-making plants and stone quarries at Buchenwald, Neuengamme, Sachsenhausen, Flössenberg and Mauthausen. This failure was a source of acute embarrassment to Himmler. His solution was to create a new Main Office that would allow Pohl to control all of the businesses and then develop them to generate profits for the SS. Accordingly, in April 1939, theVerwaltung und Wirtschaft Hauptamt (VuWHA—Administration and Business Main Office) was set up, with Pohl combining his former tasks of chief administrator and treasurer with two new roles: control over all of the SS’s construction projects and business enterprises. However, the Interior Ministry was concerned that state funds might now be diverted towards SS businesses, so another new Main Office—“Budget and Buildings”—was established to deal with funding and administration, while the VuWHA concentrated on the business side.12 Pohl recruited young, idealistic, professional managers and engineers to turn around the businesses. They did this by welding the large pool of available, cheap (effectively slave) labour to modern management techniques.

Inevitably, utilising manpower from the camps required ever-closer relations between the VuWHA and the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps, which was now led by Richard Glücks. Between 1939 and 1942, a new hierarchy of administrators was created within the camps to manage SS production and the outsourcing of prisoner labour to private industry. The logical conclusion of this came in February 1942, when the VuWHA, the Household and Budget Main Office and the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps were merged to create the Wirtschafts und Verwaltung Hauptamt (WVHA—Business Administration Main Office). This gave Pohl and his staff direct control over the concentration camps and the exploitation of their prisoners.

By now, SS businesses had expanded considerably. Among its interests were: land and forestry; brick-making; stone quarrying; fine porcelain and pottery; building materials; cement; mineral water extraction and bottling; meat processing; bakeries; small-arms manufacture and repair; wooden furniture design and production; military clothing and accessories; herbal medicine; fish processing; book and magazine publishing; art acquisition and restoration; and production of ceremonial swords, knives and daggers. Unsurprisingly, the concentration camps supplied a significant amount of the clothing, weapons, equipment and insignia for the Waffen-SS.

In addition to exploiting prisoners as labour, the WVHA profited through the confiscation of inmates’ clothing, property and goods, all of which could be recycled or sold; the confiscation of their cash and investments; and, most gruesomely, the exploitation of their bodies if they died within the system. Specifically, prisoners’ hair was used in the manufacture of felt insulation and gold fillings were routinely extracted, melted down and deposited in the Reichsbank or converted into cash. This continued until late 1944, when control of prison labour was transferred to Speer’s Armaments Ministry in a last, desperate bid to keep the German military machine working.

AS THE SPECIAL Purpose Troops, the camp guard force of Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Head units) and the General-SS all continued to expand in the run-up to the Second World War, the Main Office under Heissmeyer accrued ever more responsibility and power. By September 1938, it was responsible for the inspectorates of all the militarised SS formations, including the concentration camps; the military formations; the officer-training schools; border guards; riding schools; all SS garrison commands; the SS command staff; the SS personnel office; the SS courts system; the SS administrative office; the SS medical office; the SS recruiting office; SS records and archives; procurement for the General-SS; and a range of minor offices.13 In April 1939, Pohl’s administrative office was hived off from the Main Office to become a main office in its own right, but it was only after the outbreak of war that a major reduction in the scale of the Main Office took place.14

The Main Office was primarily structured to administer a “civilian” political organisation, and even though several of its sections had catered for the SS’s military formations, these arrangements had worked poorly. Consequently, when the formations went to war in 1939, they often exhibited serious deficiencies in organisation, equipment and training. Heissmeyer paid for these failings with his job at the beginning of April 1940. He was replaced by SS-Major General Gottlob Berger, who had hitherto been head of recruitment within the Main Office.15 Then, in the summer of 1940, the Main Office’s military supervisory functions were transferred to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. The heavily trimmed Main Office continued primarily as a recruitment agency.

Nevertheless, Berger became one of the most significant figures within the Waffen-SS, even though he was broadly disliked by many of the field commanders.16 Born in Gerstetten, near Ulm, in 1896, he was a shrewd, forceful, dynamic man. He served as an infantry officer during the First World War but was wounded four times and classified as 70 per cent disabled. Despite this, he later trained and worked as a physical education teacher. He first joined the NSDAP in 1922 and was briefly arrested after the MunichPutsch, but he then drifted away from politics. However, he rejoined the party and the SA in January 1931. He was recruited into the SS by Himmler in 1936 as the officer responsible for sports and physical training in SS-Regional Headquarters South West, and subsequently joined the National Leader’s personal staff as head of the sport office.17

From 1940, Berger* reorganised the Main Office to reflect its more limited—but still critical—role. In place of the previous multiple staff branches, he set up just four Amtsgruppen (business groups). Business Group A dealt with the administration of the Main Office itself. Business Group B was the Waffen-SS recruitment headquarters for Germans, and as such controlled regional Waffen-SS recruiting “kommandos” throughout Germany. It also ran the records office for the General-SS. Business Group C dealt with non-military training and political indoctrination for all German members of the Waffen-SS. And Business Group D oversaw the recruitment and welfare of all “Germanic” volunteers from Western Europe and the Baltic States, which meant it controlled the recruiting offices in Brussels, Liège, Oslo, Copenhagen, the Hague, Riga and Tallinn.18

Berger, then, more than anyone else, was responsible for the recruitment of large numbers of foreigners into Waffen-SS field units. Consequently, he was one of very few high-level SS men to retain Himmler’s confidence throughout the war. He would have preferred a field command, but Himmler always resisted appointing him to one, although he did serve for a few weeks as Senior SS and Police Leader in Slovakia in the autumn of 1944, when there was an attempted uprising against the German occupiers.19

Once Berger had recruited men into the Waffen-SS, it was the job of the Führungshauptamt (FHA—Command Main Office) to organise, train and equip them. The FHA also had responsibility for the General-SS,* but, unlike the German Army High Command, it did not have command authority over Waffen-SS units in the combat zone. So it functioned in much the same way as the Ersatzheer (Replacement Army)—as a home command.

Relationships between the Berger’s Main Office and the Command Main Office were fraught. The latter was headed by an ex–army officer, Hans Jüttner, and he and his staff of professional soldiers wanted the Waffen-SS to be a relatively small, highly professional elite. By contrast, Berger, supported by Himmler, knew that Hitler was desperate for as much combat power as possible, even if that meant many Waffen-SS units would be second- or third-rate.

* Berger was promoted to SS-Brigadeführer (major general) on 20 April 1940, to SS-Gruppenführer (lieutenant general) on 20 April 1942 and to SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS in June 1943.

* The outbreak of war reduced the part-time, unpaid, political General-SS to a rump. Members of military age were called up into all branches of the armed forces, not just the Waffen-SS. Consequently, the General-SS’s wartime mission was primarily to provide pre- and post-military training for SS men.

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