The SS is one of the best known, yet least understood, organisations in history. To most people, it was simply a brutal arm of the Nazi state which had subjugation by terror as its sole purpose. Consequently, it will forever be equated with concentration camps, torture and mass extermination, and on that basis is fated to be almost universally loathed and detested for generations to come.

Yet this dark side is only part of the SS story. The whole saga is considerably more complex and, in many ways, almost defies belief. In ten years, the SS grew from a small, unpaid bodyguard for a minor politician to a force which dominated the racial, cultural and professional spheres of the most powerful empire mainland Europe has ever seen. All the domestic police agencies of the occupied territories were controlled by the SS, and a network of monopolistic business enterprises gave the organisation’s hundreds of factories direct access to their own raw materials, labour and internal markets. People in all walks of life, from farmers and soldiers to academics and members of the aristocracy, flocked to join the SS for their own selfish ends.

At the centre was Himmler, a ruthlessly ambitious idealist. From the day he took command, Himmler was the SS and the SS Himmler. The organisation’s progress became bound up with the career of its Reichsführer, who obtained one important post after another until by 1945 he had concentrated more power in his person than any other man except Hitler. Wherever Himmler secured a position, he took the SS with him. The SS became both the basis and the instrument of his strength. At the height of his influence, Himmler was Chief of Police, Reich Minister of the Interior, an NSDAP Reichsleiter, a Member of the Reichstag, Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of Germanism, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army, Chief of Military Armament and Commander of Army Groups on the Rhine and Vistula. In effect, he and his SS controlled all forces, military, paramilitary and police, on the German home front during the Second World War.

Yet, with his crippling fascination for genealogy, medievalism and Germanic lore, the Reichsführer-SS exercised total control over a juggernaut which he regarded not as a political vehicle but as a racial Order. So far as Himmler was concerned, the SS was first and foremost a multi-national family, a nordic clan which would eventually unite the Germanic peoples of Europe so that they would never again come into mutual conflict. Himmler planned that after the victorious conclusion of the war, that last great war of extermination in which the SS would prove itself through the achievements of its own battlefield units, he and his successors would build up the Order and produce the leaders to direct industry, agriculture, politics and the activities of the mind in a new pagan Europe, policed and guarded by the SS.

For his part, Adolf Hitler was content to allow his loyal follower’s fancies free rein, since he never needed to threaten would-be troublemakers with anything other than being ‘handed over to Himmler’. The knowledge that the all-powerful Reichsführer was lurking around as a sort of bogeyman was usually enough to ensure that Hitler received only fawning adulation from all but the strongest willed. As a result, Himmler’s personal hopes and dreams for the SS, however unrealistic, were permitted to shape the development of the entire organisation.

In writing this book, I hope to clear up some misconceptions and show that the SS had many more facets than those generally known. Within Germany itself during the Third Reich, the SS held a unique position. It was feared, yet it was also genuinely respected and, in some cases, even revered. SS membership was something to be highly valued, and the carefully designed uniforms and accoutrements intended to set the new élite apart became instant status symbols in the emerging empire. The extremely powerful influence of badges and regalia should never be forgotten when trying to seek answers to the often-asked question of why ordinary, law-abiding citizens happily subscribed to what is now generally regarded as a murderous organisation.

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