From 1934, the SS was consciously promoted as not only a racial élite but also a dark and secret Order. To that end, symbolic insignia and carefully designed uniforms were created, and these proved to be fatal attractions which drew thousands of ordinary citizens into the web-like structures of Himmler’s empire.

Of all SS uniform trappings, the one emblem which endured throughout the history of the organisation and became firmly associated with it was the death’s head or Totenkopf, an eerie motif comprising a skull and crossed bones. The death’s head was the only badge common to all SS formations, whether Allgemeine-SS, Germanic-SS or Waffen-SS, German or non-German. It has often been assumed that the Totenkopf was adopted simply to strike terror into the hearts of those who saw it. However, that was not so. It was chosen as a direct and emotional link with the past, and in particular with the élite military units of imperial Germany.

Medieval German literature and romantic poems were filled with references to dark forces and the symbols of death and destruction, a typical example being the following short excerpt from an epic work by the fifteenth-century writer, Garnier von Susteren:

Behold the knight

In solemn black manner,

With a skull on his crest

And blood on his banner . . .

That verse could have been composed with the SS uniform in mind! In 1740, a large right-facing jawless death’s head with the bones lying behind the skull, embroidered in silver bullion, adorned the black funeral trappings of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm I. In his memory, the Leib-Husaren Regiments Nos 1 and 2, élite Prussian Royal Bodyguard units, took black as the colour of their uniforms and wore a massive Totenkopf of similar design on their pelzmützen or busbies. The State of Brunswick followed suit in 1809 when the death’s head was adopted by its Hussar Regiment No. 17 and the third battalion of Infantry Regiment No. 92. The Brunswick Totenkopf differed slightly in design from the Prussian one, with the skull facing forward and situated directly above the crossed bones. During the First World War, the death’s head was chosen as a formation badge by a number of crack German army units, particularly the storm troops, flamethrower detachments and tank battalions. Several pilots of the Schutzstaffeln, including the air ace Georg von Hantelmann who had served in the Death’s Head Hussars, also used variants of it as personal emblems. Almost immediately after the end of hostilities in 1918 the death’s head could be seen again, this time painted on the helmets and vehicles of some of the finest and most famous Freikorps. Because of its association with these formations it became symbolic not only of wartime daring and self-sacrifice, but also of postwar traditionalism, anti-liberalism and anti-Bolshevism. Nationalist ex-servicemen even had death’s head rings, cuff links, tie pins and other adornments privately made for wear with their civilian clothes.


The German death’s head was first used by Prussian cavalry regiments in the eighteenth century. The Totenkopf featured on the tall mirliton caps of the 5th Hussars (the ‘Black’ or ‘Death’ Hussars), while the mirlitons of the 9th Hussars bore a reclining skeleton which led to their being called the ‘Total Death’ Hussars. This busby dates from around 1910 and was worn by a member of the 1st Leib-Husaren Regiment based at Danzig-Langfuhr.

It is not surprising, therefore, that members of the Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler eagerly took the Totenkopf as their distinctive emblem in 1923, initially acquiring a small stock of appropriate army surplus cap badges. Their successors in the SS thereafter contracted the firm of Deschler in Munich to restrike large quantities of the Prussian-style jawless death’s head which they used on their headgear for the next eleven years. As Hitler’s personal guards, they liked to model themselves on the imperial Bodyguard Hussars, who had become known as the ‘Schwarze Totenkopfhusaren’, and were fond of singing their old regimental song, with its emotive verse:


This version of the Prussian-style death’s head was adopted by the Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler in 1923 and worn by the SS until 1934.


The 1934-pattern SS death’s head. This particular example was produced by the firm of Deschler in Munich.

In black we are dressed,

In blood we are drenched,

Death’s Head on our helmets.

Hurrah! Hurrah!

We stand unshaken!

In 1934, when the Prussian-style Totenkopf began to be used as an élite badge by the new army Panzer units which were, after all, the natural successors to the imperial cavalry regiments, the SS devised its own unique pattern of grinning death’s head, with lower jaw, which it wore thereafter.

The 1934-pattern SS Totenkopf ultimately took various forms, right-facing, left-facing and front-facing, and appeared on the cloth headgear of all SS members and on the tunics and vehicles of the SS-Totenkopfverbände and Totenkopf-Division. It was the centrepiece of the prestigious SS death’s head ring and could be seen on dagger and gorget suspension chains, mess jackets, flags, standards, drum covers, trumpet banners and the SS and police Guerrilla Warfare Badge. Moreover, because of its direct associations with Danzig, where the Prussian Leib-Husaren regiments had been garrisoned until 1918, it was selected as the special formation badge of the SS-Heimwehr Danzig and the Danzig Police. Himmler wanted his men to be proud of their heritage and there is no doubt that the honourable associations of the German death’s head were well used to that end. It became an inspiration to those who were granted the privilege of wearing it.

Alongside the Totenkopf, the SS Runen, or SS runes, represented the élitism and brotherly comradeship of the organisation, and were elevated to an almost holy status. Indeed, as SS men marched off to war in 1939, they sang their hymn ‘SS Wir Alle’ (‘We are all SS’) which included the line: ‘Wir alle stehen zum Kampf bereit, wenn Runen und Totenkopf führen’ (‘We all stand ready for battle, inspired by runes and death’s head’). The word ‘rune’ derives from the Old Norse ‘run’, meaning ‘secret script’. Runes were characters which formed the alphabets used by the Germanic tribes of pre-Christian Europe for both magical and ordinary writing. There were three major branches of the runic alphabet and a number of minor variants, and some runes doubled as symbols representative of human traits or ideals, much as the Romans used oak and laurel leaves to denote strength and victory. In AD 98, in his work Germania, the historian Cornelius Tacitus described in detail how the Germans engaged in divination by runes.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, runes began to be re-examined by the fashionable ‘Völkisch’ or ‘folk’ movements of northern Europe, which promoted interest in traditional stories, beliefs and festivals. The Thule Society was among these groups, and through his association with its activities Himmler began to look back to the mystical Dark Age Germanic period for much of his inspiration. He had always had a fascination for cryptic codes and hidden messages, so it was doubly appropriate that he should tap many of the ideas in pagan symbolism and adopt, or at least adapt, certain runes for use by his SS. All pre-1939 Allgemeine-SS Anwärter were instructed in runic symbolism as part of their probationary training. By 1945, fourteen main varieties of rune were in use by the SS, and these are described on pp. 146–7 and seen in the accompanying illustration.


Runic symbols used by the SS.

A.The Hakenkreuz

The Hakenkreuz, or swastika, was the pagan Germanic sign of Donner (or Thor), the god of adventurers. During the nineteenth century it came to be regarded as symbolic of nationalism and racial struggle, and in the post-1918 period was adopted by several Freikorps units, primarily the Ehrhardt Brigade. As the senior badge of the Nazi party and state, it inevitably featured on many SS accoutrements, either static (i.e. standing flat) or mobile (i.e. standing on one point to give the appearance of an advancing movement). An elongated version of the mobile swastika was used by the Germanic-SS in Flanders.

B.The Sonnenrad

The Sonnenrad, or sunwheel swastika, was the Old Norse representation of the sun, and was taken up as an emblem by the Thule Society. It was later used as a sign by the Waffen-SS Divisions ‘Wiking’ and ‘Nordland’, many of whose members were Scandinavian nationals, and also by the Schalburg Corps. It formed the main part of the design of the Germanic Proficiency Rune, and was worn by the Norwegian SS.

C.The Sig-Rune

The Sig-Rune (also known as the Siegrune) was symbolic of victory. In 1931, SS-Sturmführer Walter Heck, who was a graphic designer employed by the badge manufacturing firm of Ferdinand Hoffstätter in Bonn, drew two Sig-Runes side by side and thus created the ubiquitous ‘SS Runes’ insignia widely used by all branches of the organisation after 1933. The SS paid him 2.50 Reichsmarks for the rights to his design! Heck was likewise responsible for the ‘SA Runes’ badge, which combined a runic ‘S’ with a Gothic ‘A’.

D.The Ger-Rune

The Ger-Rune was symbolic of communal spirit, and featured as a variant divisional sign of the Waffen-SS Division ‘Nordland’.

E.The Wolfsangel

The Wolfsangel, or wolf hook, was a heraldic symbol representing a wolf trap, and as such still features to this day on the coat-of-arms of the city of Wolfstein. Adopted as an emblem by fifteenth-century peasants in their revolt against the mercenaries of the German princes, the Wolfsangel was thereafter regarded as being symbolic of liberty and independence and was popularised as the badge of the German peasant hero Harm Wulf in Herman Löns’ novel Der Wehrwulf (1910) set during the Thirty Years War. The Wolfsangel was an early emblem of the Nazi Party, and was later used as a sign by the Waffen-SS Division ‘Das Reich’.

F.The Wolfsangel (variant)

A squat version of the Wolfsangel with hooked arms was the emblem of the Germanic-SS in the Netherlands and was later adopted by the Waffen-SS Division ‘Landstorm Nederland’, which comprised Dutch volunteers.

G.The Opfer-Rune

The Opfer-Rune symbolised self-sacrifice. It was used after 1918 by the Stahlhelm war veterans’ association and was later the badge which commemorated the Nazi martyrs of the 1923 Munich putsch. It also formed part of the design of the SA Sports Badge for War Wounded, which could be won by disabled SS ex-servicemen.

H.The Eif-Rune

The Eif-Rune represented zeal and enthusiasm. It was the early insignia of specially selected SS adjutants assigned personally to Hitler and, as such, was worn by Rudolf Hess in 1929.

I.The Leben-Rune

The Leben-Rune, or life rune, symbolised life and was adopted by the SS Lebensborn Society and Ahnenerbe. It likewise featured on SS documents and grave markers to show date of birth.

J.The Toten-Rune

The Toten-Rune, or death rune, represented death, and was used on SS documents and grave markers to show date of death.

K.The Tyr-Rune

The Tyr-Rune, also known as the Kampf-Rune or battle rune, was the pagan Germanic sign of Tyr, the god of war, and was symbolic of leadership in battle. It was commonly used by the SS as a grave marker, replacing the Christian cross, and a Tyr-Rune worn on the upper left arm indicated graduation from the SA-Reichsführerschule, which trained SS officers until 1934. It was later the specialist badge of the SS recruiting and training branch, and an emblem of the Waffen-SS Division ‘30 Januar’ which comprised staff and pupils from various SS training schools.

L.The Heilszeichen

The Heilszeichen, or prosperity symbols, represented success and good fortune, and appeared on the SS death’s head ring.

M.The Hagall-Rune

The Hagall-Rune stood for unshakable faith, which was expected of all SS members. It featured on the SS death’s head ring as well as on ceremonial accoutrements used at SS weddings. It was also chosen as the sign of the SS-Polizei-Division, since it resembled the traditional ‘Police Star’ badge.

N.The Odal-Rune

The Odal-Rune symbolised kinship and family and the bringing together of people of similar blood. It was the badge of the SS Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt and emblem of the Waffen-SS Division ‘Prinz Eugen’, which comprised mainly Volksdeutsche from the Balkans.

The symbolism of death’s head and runes was brought together in one of the most potent yet most obscure of all SS uniform accoutrements, the Totenkopfring der SS, or SS death’s head ring, instituted by Himmler on 10 April 1934. The ring was not classed as a national decoration since it was in the gift of the Reichsführer. However, it ranked as a senior award within the SS brotherhood, recognising the wearer’s personal achievement, devotion to duty and loyalty to Hitler and his ideals. The concept and runic form of the ring were undoubtedly adopted by Himmler from Germanic mythology, which related how the god Thor possessed a pure silver ring on which people could take oaths (much as Christians swear on the Bible), and how binding treaties were carved in runes on Wotan’s spear. The Totenkopfring comprised a massive band of oakleaves deeply engraved with a death’s head and a number of runes. The award document presented with each ring described the latter and interpreted them thus:


The Sig-Runes collar patch, initially restricted to members of the Leibstandarte but eventually worn by all German formations of the Waffen-SS.

The Sig-Rune in a triangle represented membership of the SS

The swastika in a square stood for Nazi philosophy

The Heilszeichen in a circle stood for prosperity

The Hagall-Rune in a hexagon denoted unshakable faith.

However, these were much diluted meanings in comparison to those initially drawn up by SS-Brigadeführer Karl-Maria Wiligut-Weisthor, an expert on runes and their coded symbolism, who designed the ring for Himmler. Wiligut-Weisthor’s interpretations are given below and, meeting with the Reichsführer’s approval, give an interesting insight into the workings of Himmler’s mind at the time he was planning the future of his Black Order:

The Sig-Rune in a Triangle

The triangle means life is eternal. The three sides stand for birth/development/death, or past/present/future. Each death is the way to a new life and the triangle symbolises the eternal cycle of creation. The Sig-Rune represents the sun and good health. It was also the pagan symbol of victory. Hence it encompasses both the greeting (‘Heil’ or ‘Good Health’) and the battle-cry (‘Sieg’ or ‘Victory’) of the Germanic ancestors of the SS. (This combination of ancient greeting and battle-cry gave the Nazis their ‘Sieg Heil’.)


Close-up of the Sig-Runes key which featured on SS typewriters from 1936. SS documents and printed publications invariably used the Sig-Runes instead of the usual Roman letters ‘SS’.

The Swastika in a Square

The swastika comprises four ‘U’-Runes. The ‘U’-Rune represents the path of the sun and is symbolic of fertility. A split or halved swastika results in the ‘G’-Rune or Gibor-Rune, which means handing down to one’s descendants. The total symbolism of this rune is man being at one with god and eternity.

The Heilszeichen in a Circle

In the circle are two Sig-Runes and one combined Tyr-Rune and Os-Rune. The circle stands for the circulation of divinity in nature, which forged the human spirit. It is the circle of life. The Sig-Runes stand for the SS and prosperity. The Tyr-Rune is the spear of Tyr, the Norse god of war. This all means that death is powerless and should not be feared. Those who fight bravely to ensure the prosperity of their Volk shall be forever remembered.

The Hagall-Rune in a Hexagon

All eighteen runes derive from the hexagon. Carrying this symbol gives strength over adversity as it encompasses the total power of all the runes. The overall interpretation of this rune is to believe in yourself and you will become the master of everything.

It is clear that Himmler personally believed in all the foregoing, and he treated the ring with extreme reverence. Initially, the Totenkopfring was reserved for those Old Guard veterans with SS membership numbers below 3,000. In effect, this meant that the ring was restricted to officers, for on 20 April 1934 Himmler commissioned as Sturmführer all SS men with membership numbers below 3,000 who were not already officers. All of these thousand or so individuals had joined the SS prior to September 1930, when the Nazis scored their first notable election success. Qualification for award of the ring was gradually extended, until by 1939 most SS officers with three years’ service were entitled to wear it. Entitlement could be postponed or withdrawn for anything between three months and three years if the holder had been punished under the SS discipline code. Rings were bestowed on set SS and NSDAP festival dates, namely 20 April, 21 June, 9 November and 21 December, and all awards were recorded in the Dienstaltersliste. When a ring holder died, his ring had to be returned to the SS Personalhauptamt, which arranged for its preservation in a special shrine at Himmler’s castle at Wewelsburg.


The SS death’s head ring. The first such rings were presented by Himmler to the SS Old Guard on 24 December 1933, four months before publication of the order which elevated the Totenkopfring to the status of an official SS award. It is noteworthy that those who eventually qualified for the ring had to apply for it through the usual SS channels. This explains why many officers entitled to the ring never received it – they simply forgot to apply for it, or chose not to do so. Fewer than 100 death’s head rings are known to survive in private collections.

Between 1934 and 1944, around 14,500 death’s head rings were awarded. As at 1 January 1945, 64 per cent of these had been returned to the SS on the deaths of their holders, 10 per cent had been lost on the battlefield, and 26 per cent were either still in the possession of ring holders or otherwise unaccounted for. That would mean that, in theory, about 3,500 rings might have been in circulation at the end of the war. The Totenkopfring became so sought after an honour that many SS and police officers and men not entitled to wear it had a variety of unofficial ‘skull rings’ produced in gold or silver by local jewellers and even concentration camp inmates. However, these lacked the runic symbolism and were rather vulgar representations of the real thing.

The powerful and symbolic SS uniform of the late 1930s and early 1940s developed from very humble origins. The earliest Nazis wore normal civilian clothing and were distinguished only by their crudely homemade Kampfbinde, or swastika armbands, worn on the left upper arm. With the advent of the paramilitary SA in 1921, however, it became necessary to evolve a uniform specifically for its members. At first, their dress lacked any consistency and was characteristically Freikorps in style, generally taking the form of field-grey army surplus double-breasted windcheater jackets, waist belts with cross-straps, grey trousers, trench boots, steel helmets and mountain caps. Many SA men simply retained the uniforms they had worn during the 1914–18 war, stripped of badges. The swastika armband was the only constant feature, sometimes bearing a metal numeral or emblem to indicate unit identity and a metal ‘pip’ or cloth stripes to denote rank. The Commander of the 1st Company of SA Regiment ‘München’, for example, wore a Brunswick-style death’s head over the numeral ‘1’ and a single pip on his armband. In 1923, members of the Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler wore similar garb with the addition of a Prussian-pattern Totenkopf on the cap, usually surmounted by the ‘Reichskokarde’, a circular metal cockade in the imperial colours of black, white and red. After the failure of the Munich putsch and the banning of the SA and Stosstrupp, the men continued to wear their old uniforms as members of the Frontbanne, adding a steel helmet badge to the centre of the swastika armband.

At the end of 1924 Leutnant Gerhard Rossbach, formerly one of the most famous of the Freikorps and SA leaders, acquired a bargain lot of surplus German army tropical brown shirts in Austria. These items, which had been destined for the Reich’s colonies in Africa, were not in fact shirts at all, but blouses with collars and pockets which were worn over an ordinary collarless shirt. When the NSDAP was reconstituted and the SA reactivated in February 1925, Hitler kitted his men out with these readily available shirts and had ties, breeches and kepis made to match. Thus by chance circumstances rather than design, brown became the adopted colour of the SA and the Nazi party in general. When the SS was formed in April of the same year, its members too were issued with brown shirts. To distinguish them from the SA, however, they retained their Stosstrupp death’s heads and wore black kepis, black ties, black breeches and black borders to the swastika armband. By the end of 1925, the brown shirt with black accoutrements was firmly established as the ‘traditional uniform’ of the SS. The vast majority of SS men, who were also members of the NSDAP, wore the Nazi party badge on their ties.

On 9 November 1926, the rapidly expanding SA introduced collar patches or Kragenspiegel to indicate unit and rank, replacing the badges and stripes formerly worn on the armband. The right patch bore unit numerals and the left patch a Stahlhelm-type system of rank pips, bars and oakleaves. By contrasting the colour of the patch with that of the numerals, an attempt was made to reflect the state colours of the district in which the unit concerned was located. For example, Berlin SA men wore black and white patches, Hamburg SA men red and white, Munich men blue and white, and so on. This arrangement proved difficult to sustain and the colour combinations ultimately underwent a number of changes. SA unit patches were particularly complex, accommodating not only Standarte, specialist and staff appointments, but also Sturmbann and Sturm designations. In August 1929, the SS likewise introduced collar patches to denote rank and unit. As with the SA, rank was shown on the left patch, or both patches for Standartenführer and above, with unit markings on the right patch. However, the SS system was much more simple than that of the SA. All SS collar patches were black in colour with white, silver or grey numerals, pips, bars and oakleaves. Moreover, the unit collar patches were restricted to indicating Standarte, specialist or staff appointment.


The plain SS traditional uniform as worn by Himmler in 1929 (see p. 12).

To show Sturmbann and Sturm membership, the SS devised their own complicated system of cuff titles or Ärmelstreifen, narrow black bands worn on the lower left sleeve. Within every Fuss-Standarte, each Sturmbann was assigned a colour which bordered the upper and lower edges of the cuff title. The prescribed Sturmbann colours were:

Sturmbann I


Sturmbann II

Dark Blue

Sturmbann III


Sturmbann IV (Reserve)

Light Blue

The number and, if appropriate, honour name of the wearer’s Sturm appeared embroidered in grey or silver thread on the title. Thus a member of the 2nd Sturm, 1st Sturmbann, 41st SS Fuss-Standarte would wear a green-bordered cuff title bearing the numeral ‘2’ in conjunction with the number ‘41’ on his right collar patch. A man in the 11th Sturm, ‘Adolf Höh’, 3rd Sturmbann, 30th SS Fuss-Standarte would sport a red-edged cuff title with the legend ‘11 Adolf Höh’, and regimental numeral ‘30’ on the right collar patch. All members of the Allgemeine-SS cavalry units had yellow-edged cuff titles, while those of signals and pioneer formations had their titles bordered in brown and black, respectively. A relatively small number of cuff titles bore Roman numerals or designations relating to staff or specialist appointments.


Early SA belt buckle, worn by the SS until 1931.

During the autumn of 1929, at the same time as the new SS collar patches and cuff titles were being manufactured and distributed, a small sharp-winged eagle and swastika badge, or Hoheitsabzeichen, was introduced for wear on the SA and SS kepi in place of the Reichskokarde. SS bandsmen’s uniforms were further modified by the addition of black and white military-style ‘swallow’s nests’ worn at the shoulder.

At the end of 1931, the SS adopted the motto ‘Meine Ehre heisst Treue’ (‘My Honour is Loyalty’) following a well-publicised open letter which Hitler had sent to Kurt Daluege after the Stennes putsch, declaring in his praise: ‘SS Mann, deine Ehre heisst Treue’. Almost immediately, a belt buckle incorporating the motto into its design was commissioned and produced by the Overhoff firm of Lüdenscheid to replace the SA buckle hitherto worn by all members of the SS. The new belt buckle was circular in form for officers and rectangular for lower ranks, and continued in wear unchanged until 1945. In May 1933, shoulder straps, or Achselstücke, were devised for wear on the right shoulder only. These straps were adornments to be used in conjunction with the collar insignia already in existence and indicated rank level only (i.e. enlisted man or NCO/junior officer/intermediate officer/senior officer) rather than actual rank. In February 1934, a silver Honour Chevron for the Old Guard (Ehrenwinkel für Alte Kämpfer) was authorised for wear on the upper right arm by all members of the SS who had joined the SS, NSDAP or any of the other party-affiliated organisations prior to 30 January 1933. Qualification was later extended to include former members of the police, armed forces or Stahlhelm who fulfilled certain conditions and transferred into the SS. The traditional brown shirt uniform of the SS therefore developed almost continually over eleven years and incorporated many additions or alterations at specific times. These can be of great assistance in dating period photographs. The traditional uniform was gradually phased out after the Nazi assumption of power and was not generally worn after 1934, except on special ceremonial occasions by members of the SS Old Guard. At such events, some of the Alte Kämpfer even sported their homemade armbands from the 1921–2 era.


Red-edged cuff title indicating membership of the 12th Sturm, 3rd Sturmbann of an SS Fuss-Standarte.

A major change to SS uniform was made in 1932, in response to a governmental demand that the SA and SS should adopt a more ‘respectable’ outfit as a condition of the lifting of the ban on political uniforms. On 7 July, a black tunic and peaked cap, harking back to the garb of the imperial Leib-Husaren, were introduced for the SS to replace the brown shirt and kepi. These items were made available first to officers, then lower ranks, and were worn side-by-side with the traditional uniform during 1933 while all members were being kitted out. By the beginning of 1934, sufficient quantities of the black uniform had been manufactured for it to be in general use. During the remainder of the 1930s, the black service uniform was developed as the SS organisation expanded. Greatcoats were produced and a series of specialist arm diamonds, or Ärmelraute, devised for wear on the lower left sleeve. On 21 June 1936 a new and larger SS cap eagle replaced the old 1929-pattern, and white shirts were authorised for wear under the tunic, instead of brown shirts, on ceremonial occasions. For evening functions such as parties, dances and so on there were black mess jackets for officers and white ‘monkey suits’ for waiters, all bearing full SS insignia. As from 27 June 1939, officers were provided with an all-white version of the service uniform for walking out during the summer period, officially defined as 1 April to 30 September each year.


SS men in formalised traditional uniform mount a guard of honour over their comrade Fritz Schulz, killed in street fighting in Berlin, August 1932.

Full-time SS men were regularly issued with items of uniform and equipment. So far as part-timers were concerned, however, all uniform articles had to be purchased by the SS members themselves at their own expense. The only exceptions were replacements for items lost or damaged during the course of duty, which were provided free of charge. If an SS man wished to acquire a new tunic, for example, he could either buy it direct from a tailoring shop which was an approved sales outlet of the Reichszeugmeisterei der NSDAP, i.e. an authorised dealer in Nazi party uniforms and equipment, or else place a prepaid order with his local Trupp or Sturm which would, in turn, arrange to requisition a tunic on his behalf from one of the clothing stores run by the SS administrative department. The latter regularly produced price lists which were circulated to all SS formations for the attention of would-be buyers. The following small selection of prices is taken from the extensive Allgemeine-SS price list of January 1938, and gives a general idea of the cost of items for sale at that time:


SA and SS men parading during the ban on political uniforms in 1932.


Price in Reichsmarks

Black service tunic


Black breeches


Black trousers


Black overcoat


Peaked cap for NCOs and lower ranks


Peaked cap for officers


Peaked cap for generals


Field cap


Steel helmet


White tunic


Waiter’s jacket


Athletic vest with SS runes


Brown shirt


Black tie


Riding boots

27.50 per pair

Marching boots

23.70 per pair

1933 service dagger


1936 chained dagger


Belt buckle for NCOs and lower ranks


Belt buckle for officers


Shoulder strap


Collar piping

0.05 per metre

Collar patch


Swastika armband


Cuff title


Sleeve diamond


Old Guard chevron


Eagle for peaked cap


Death’s head for peaked cap


Vehicle pennant


Command flag



An Allgemeine-SS Schar on parade, 1933. Note the mixture of traditional and black uniforms.

The reduction in the number of active part-time Allgemeine-SS men because of the enhancement of conscription at the outbreak of war, led to a surplus of black uniforms building up in SS stores after 1939. In 1942, the police collected most of the unwanted black Allgemeine-SS uniforms in Germany and sent them east for distribution to Schuma units, or west for issuing to the Germanic-SS. Those destined for the Schuma had their SS badges removed and distinctive bright green lapels, shoulder straps, pocket flaps and cuffs added. Similarly, the Germanic-SS attached their own special insignia to these uniforms. As a result, very few black Allgemeine-SS tunics survived the war with their original German badges intact.


Sig-Runes embossed in gold under the celluloid sweat shield of an Allgemeine-SS peaked cap, indicating that it was manufactured to comply with SS uniform regulations and supplied through SS channels.

In 1938, the Allgemeine-SS introduced a very elegant pale-grey uniform for its fulltime staff, thus bringing the SS into line with the general war footing of the other uniformed services. The new outfit was identical in style to the black uniform, but bore an SS-pattern shoulder strap on the left shoulder as well as one on the right, and replaced the swastika armband with a cloth version of the 1936-pattern SS eagle. The idea was to give the appearance of a military rather than political uniform, thus lending some authority to full-time Allgemeine-SS officers who were, by the nature of their employment, exempt from service in the Wehrmacht. The pale-grey uniform was issued first to Hauptamt personnel and thereafter to others qualified to wear it. The 40,000 or so active part-time members of the Allgemeine-SS, who were almost exclusively engaged in reserved occupations, were never issued with grey outfits and continued to wear the black uniform proudly while on duty in Germany. By 1945, however, that most impressive of all uniforms, which had been such a status symbol in the prewar days, had become an object of derision since its wearers were increasingly thought of as shirking military service.


The Honour Chevron for the Old Guard. This came to be regarded as the badge of the ‘die-hard’ Nazi, even though an eighteen-year-old SS recruit in 1939 would have been entitled to wear it had he been a ten-year-old Hitler Youth in 1931.


RZM label inside an Allgemeine-SS peaked cap, indicating that the manufacturer was approved by the NSDAP. As of 16 January 1935, all Nazi uniform items were obliged by law to carry these tags. Unauthorised production of NSDAP equipment was strictly forbidden, and there were severe penalties for noncompliance with the regulations. The RZM had the authority to close down offending firms, and the owners were liable to be imprisoned.


RZM label on the reverse of an SS armband. It can be decoded as follows: RZM – approved by the RZM; SS – approved by the SS; D – ‘Dienstkleidung’ or service uniform division of the RZM; A4 – cloth insignia manufacturer; 275 – maker’s number, allocated by the RZM; A No. 293333 – serial number of the armband, allocated by the RZM.

Although the SS became one of the most complex of all Nazi paramilitary organisations, its rank structure remained relatively stable and underwent few major alterations. Until 1930 there were basically only two SS ranks, namely SS-Mann and SS-Staffelführer. That year, with the evolution of Stürme and Sturmbanne, nine grades began to be employed by the SS, based on those of the SA. These were:











Himmler wearing the elegant pale-grey Allgemeine-SS uniform introduced in 1938.

On 19 May 1933, a further eight ranks were created to accommodate the general expansion of the SS, namely:









In August 1934, Himmler was elevated to the new rank of Reichsführer-SS and given insignia unique to his position, replacing the SS-Obergruppenführer badges he wore prior to that time.

On 15 October 1934, further revisions were made to the SS rank system:

SS-Bewerber was added as the lowest rank

SS-Anwärter was added as the second lowest rank

SS-Scharführer became SS-Unterscharführer

SS-Oberscharführer became SS-Scharführer

SS-Truppführer became SS-Oberscharführer

SS-Obertruppführer became SS-Hauptscharführer

SS-Sturmführer became SS-Untersturmführer

SS-Sturmhauptführer became SS-Hauptsturmführer

Rank insignia remained unchanged from that point until 7 April 1942, when new collar patches were introduced for:





At the same time, a new and senior rank of SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer was created.

The final and definitive Allgemeine-SS rank system, dating from April 1942 and lasting until the end of the war, was as follows:

Mannschaften (Other Ranks)







SS-Sturmmann (Strm.)

Lance Corporal

SS-Rottenführer (Rotf.)

Senior Lance


Unterführer (NCOs)

SS-Unterscharführer (Uschaf.)


SS-Scharführer (Schaf.)


SS-Oberscharführer (Oschaf.)

Staff Sergeant

SS-Hauptscharführer (Hschaf.)


Untere Führer (Junior Officers)

SS-Untersturmführer (Ustuf.)

2nd Lieutenant

SS-Obersturmführer (Ostuf.)


SS-Hauptsturmführer (Hstuf.)


Mittlere Führer (Intermediate Officers)

SS-Sturmbannführer (Stubaf.)


SS-Obersturmbannführer (Ostubaf.)


Höhere Führer (Senior Officers)

SS-Standartenführer (Staf.)



SS-Oberführer (Oberf.)

Senior Colonel

SS-Brigadeführer (Brigf.)


SS-Gruppenführer (Gruf.)


SS-Obergruppenführer (Ogruf.)


SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer (Obstgruf.)


Reichsführer-SS (RfSS)

Supreme Commander

As with all NSDAP formations, Hitler was ultimately Commander-in-Chief of the SS and held the personal title of ‘Der Oberste Führer der Schutzstaffel’.

During the war, where an Allgemeine-SS member temporarily serving in the Wehrmacht attained a military rank higher than his rank in the SS, the Wehrmacht rank generally preceded that of the SS so far as ordinary day-to-day affairs were concerned. However, in official SS correspondence and publications the Allgemeine-SS rank always took precedence over all other designations, even governmental titles. For example, ‘Das Schwarze Korps’ constantly referred to the German Foreign Minister by his honorary position as ‘SS-Obergruppenführer von Ribbentrop’ rather than by his ministerial appointment. Similarly, Allgemeine-SS ranks took precedence over those of the Waffen-SS and police. In April 1941, Himmler arranged for a blanket appointment of all HSSPfs to the ranks of Generalmajor, Generalleutnant or General der Polizei and, after 20 July 1944, the HSSPfs were also made generals of the Waffen-SS. So a man who was nominated to be a general in the Allgemeine-SS, the police and the Waffen-SS would be entitled ‘SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS und Polizei’, in that order.


The 1933-pattern SS dagger, showing the single strap hanger (left) and the vertical hanger (right).

The symbolic uniforms and exclusive ranks and titles of the SS were further enhanced by the Black Order’s use of decorative edged weaponry. The SS service dagger, or Dienstdolch, was introduced along with its SA counterpart by the interim Chief of Staff of the SA and Himmler’s then superior, Obergruppenführer von Krausser, under SA Order No. 1734/33 of 15 December 1933. Black and silver in colour, it bore the SS motto etched on the blade and runes and eagle on the grip, and its general design was based on that of a seventeenth-century German hunting dagger known as the ‘Holbein’, which bore a representation of Holbein’s painting ‘The Dance of Death’ on its scabbard. Worn by all ranks of the Allgemeine-SS with service and walking out dress, the SS dagger was presented to its owner only at the special 9 November ceremony when he graduated from SS-Anwärter to SS-Mann. It was not issued at any other time, or en masse like the daggers of the plebian SA. Each SS-Anwärter paid the full cost of his dagger, usually in small instalments, prior to its presentation.

On 17 February 1934, SS-Gruppenführer Kurt Wittje, Chief of the SS-Amt who was dismissed the following year for homosexuality, forbade the private purchase or ‘trading in’ of SS daggers on the open market. Henceforth, daggers could be ordered only from manufacturers through the SS-Amt, for issue via the three main SS uniform distribution centres at Munich, Dresden and Berlin, which regularly processed requisitions received from the various Oberabschnitte headquarters. Moreover, it was made a disciplinary offence for an SS man to dispose of or lose his dagger, on the grounds that it was a symbol of his office. In that way, it was assured that no unauthorised person could buy or otherwise acquire an SS dagger. As of 25 January 1935, members dismissed from the SS had to surrender their daggers, even if they were personal property paid for from their own funds. In cases of voluntary resignation or normal retirement, however, daggers could be retained and the person in question was given a certificate stating that he was entitled to possess the dagger.

The SS dagger was suspended at an angle from a single leather strap until November 1934, when Himmler introduced a vertical hanger for wear with service dress during crowd control. However, the vertical hanger, while more stable, was too reminiscent of the humble bayonet frog and in 1936 the single strap was reintroduced for both the walking out and service uniforms. Thereafter, the vertical hanger was restricted to use on route marches and military exercises.

In September 1940, due to national economies, the 1933-pattern dagger was withdrawn from production for the duration of the war.

A more ornate SS dagger, to be worn only by officers and by those Old Guard NCOs and other ranks who had joined the organisation prior to 30 January 1933, was introduced by Himmler on 21 June 1936. Generally known as the ‘chained dagger’, it was very similar to the 1933-pattern but was suspended by means of linked octagonal plates, finely embossed with death’s heads and SS runes, and featured a central scabbard mount decorated with swastikas. The dagger could be worn only with the black uniform until 1943, when Waffen-SS and security police officers were permitted to sport it with their field-grey walking out dress, and were allowed to attach knots in the army style. Production of the chained dagger had to be discontinued at the end of 1943 because of material shortages, and its wear was subsequently forbidden for the duration of the war.

In addition to the standard 1933-pattern and 1936-pattern SS daggers, several special presentation variants were also produced. The first of these was the so-called Röhm SS Honour Dagger, 9,900 of which were distributed in February 1934 by SA Stabschef Ernst Röhm to members of the SS Old Guard. It took the form of a basic 1933-pattern dagger with the addition of the dedication ‘In herzlicher Kameradschaft, Ernst Röhm’ (‘In heartfelt comradeship, Ernst Röhm’) etched on the reverse of the blade. Following the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, 200 similar daggers, etched ‘In herzlicher Kameradschaft, H. Himmler’, were presented by the Reichsführer to SS personnel who had participated in the bloody purge of the SA. A very ornate and expensive SS honour dagger, with oakleaf-decorated crossguards, leather-covered scabbard and Damascus steel blade, was created by Himmler in 1936 for award to high-ranking officers in recognition of special achievement. When one was presented to the NSDAP Treasurer, Franz Xaver Schwarz, he responded by secretly commissioning the Eickhorn firm to produce an even more elaborate example, with fittings and chain hanger in solid silver, which he then gave to Himmler as a birthday present!


The 1936-pattern chained SS dagger, with regulation portepee knot authorised in 1943 for wear by officers of the Waffen-SS, Sipo and SD.

During the 1933–6 era, SS officers and NCOs engaged in ceremonial duties were permitted to wear a variety of privately purchased army-pattern sabres, often with silver rather than regulation gilt fittings. In 1936, however, a series of standardised swords in the classic straight-bladed ‘Degen’ style, was introduced specifically for members of the SS and police, emphasising the close relationship between the two organisations. There were minor differences between Degen for officers and those for NCOs, while SS swords featured runes on the grip and police examples the police eagle. Policemen who were also members of the SS could sport the SS runes on the pommel of their police sword. Personnel attached to SS Reiterstandarten retained the traditional curved sabre for use on horseback.

The SS officer’s sword, which was referred to as the Ehrendegen des Reichsführers-SS, or Reichsführer’s Sword of Honour, was given an elevated status and could not be worn automatically by every SS officer. It was bestowed by Himmler only upon selected Allgemeine-SS commanders and graduates of the Waffen-SS Junkerschulen at Bad Tölz and Braunschweig. Each presentation of the Ehrendegen was accompanied by a citation in which the Reichsführer instructed the recipient: ‘Ich verleihe Ihnen den Degen der SS. Ziehen Sie ihn niemals ohne Not! Stecken Sie ihn niemals ein ohne Ehre!’ (‘I award you the SS sword. Never draw it without reason, or sheathe it without honour!’). Awards of the officer’s sword, like those of the death’s head ring, were recorded in the Dienstaltersliste, which reveals that only 86 per cent of even the most senior SS commanders were entitled to wear it. That percentage can be broken down as follows:


The Ehrendegen des Reichsführers-SS, or Reichsführer’s Sword of Honour.













Manufacture of the Ehrendegen ceased on 25 January 1941.

Still more exclusive were the so-called ‘Geburtstagsdegen’, or ‘birthday swords’, given by Himmler to SS generals and other leading Nazi personalities as birthday presents. They were made to order by Germany’s master swordsmith, Paul Müller, Director of the SS Damascus School at Dachau, and featured hallmarked silver fittings and blades of the finest Damascus steel with exquisitely raised and gilded personal dedications from Himmler. The sword gifted to von Ribbentrop on his birthday in 1939, for example, bore the golden legend ‘Meinem lieben Joachim von Ribbentrop zum 30.4.39 – H. Himmler, Reichsführer-SS’ set between two swastikas. Hitler received a similar weapon, the blade inscription of which extolled the virtues and loyalty of the entire SS officer corps. Müller continued producing Geburtstagsdegen on commission from Himmler until 1944.

The regalia of the Allgemeine-SS also included an extensive range of flags and banners. From 4 July 1926, the SS had the distinction of keeping the most revered flag in the Third Reich, the Blutfahne, which had been carried at the head of the Nazi Old Guard during the Munich putsch when they were fired upon by the police. It was splattered with the gore of those shot during the encounter and was thereafter considered to be something of a ‘holy relic’. SS-Mann Jakob Grimminger from the Munich SS detachment, a veteran of the First World War Gallipoli campaign and participant in the 1922 ‘Battle of Coburg’, was accorded the honour of being appointed the first official bearer of the Blutfahne and he retained that position throughout his career. Grimminger was a wood-carver by trade, and had no particular qualification as the Reich’s ‘number one standard-bearer’, other than the fact that he had been a ‘tail-end’ marcher when the shooting started at the Feldherrnhalle. By April 1944, when the Blutfahne made its last public appearance at the funeral of Adolf Wagner, Gauleiter of Munich-Upper Bavaria, Grimminger had attained the rank of SS-Standartenführer, his association with the mystical flag having assured him a steady succession of promotions.

Every Allgemeine-SS Standarte was represented by a banner, or Feldzeichen, which was itself known as the regimental ‘Standarte’. Somewhat reminiscent of the ancient Roman vexillum banner, it took the form of a wooden pole surmounted by a metal eagle and wreathed swastika, below which was a black and silver boxed nameplate. The plate bore the SS area name (e.g. ‘Kassel’ or ‘Giessen’) or regimental honour title (e.g. ‘Julius Schreck’ or ‘Loeper’) on the front and the initials ‘NSDAP’ on the back. From the box was suspended a red silk flag with a black static swastika on a white circle. The motto ‘Deutschland Erwache’ (‘Germany Awake’) was embroidered in white thread on the obverse, with ‘Nat. Soz. Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – Sturmabteilung’ on the reverse. The whole item was finished off with a black/white/red fringe and tassels. Apart from the black name box, the SS Feldzeichen was identical to that of the SA. When an SS unit achieved roughly regimental proportions, it was awarded a Feldzeichen in a mass pseudoreligious ceremony known as the Fahnenweihe which took place each September as part of the annual NSDAP celebrations at Nürnberg. During the proceedings, Hitler would present many new standards to regimental commanders and touch them with the Blutfahne which Grimminger was carrying alongside, so linking in spirit the most recent SS members with the martyrs of the Munich putsch. The table below shows all the area names which featured on Allgemeine-SS infantry Feldzeichen (i.e. those not bearing honour titles or the name of the regimental HQ town) and the Standarten to which they referred.


Himmler placing a wreath at the Feldherrnhalle on the eleventh anniversary of the Munich putsch, 9 November 1934. The Blood Banner, held by Jakob Grimminger in traditional brownshirt uniform, stands in the background. A ‘Mahnmal’ or Martyrs’ Monument was erected at this spot, and every member of the public walking past it was obliged to give the Nazi salute. Two SS men guarded the monument in perpetuity.

SS Reiterstandarten carried similar but distinctive Feldzeichen which had the ‘Deutschland Erwache’ flag hanging from a wooden bar fixed at right angles to the standard pole. In place of the name box, these cavalry standards featured a black patch, or Fahnenspiegel, on the flag cloth, bearing crossed lances and the unit numeral in silver.

Each SS Sturmbann was represented by a Sturmbannfahne, or Battalion Flag, in the form of a swastika flag with black and silver twisted cord edging. In the upper left corner or canton, a black Fahnenspiegel was embroidered in silver thread, with the Sturmbann and Standarte numbers in Roman and Arabic numerals, respectively.


Allgemeine-SS standards. Top: The ‘Deutschland Erwache’ standard or Feldzeichen, of the 1st SS Fuss-Standarte ‘Julius Schreck’; bottom left: battalion flag of Sturmbann III of the 1st SS Fuss-Standarte; bottom right: cavalry standard of the 15th SS Reiterstandarte. (Reproduced from the Organisationsbuch der NSDAP, 1938 edition.)


Area Name

SS Fuss-Standarte No.

Alt Bayern






















Hanauer Land






























Ob der Enns
















































Thüringer Wald






















Württemberg Süd



The Feldzeichen and Sturmbannfahne of the SS-VT on display at Nürnberg, September 1937. All the standard-bearers wear gorgets and bandoliers.

Command flags, or Kommandoflaggen, in the shape of rigid pennants on flag poles, were carried as unit markers at large parades or, in smaller versions, were flown from the front nearside mudwing of staff cars. They were square, rectangular or triangular in form depending upon designation, and were made of black and white waterproof cloth with rustproof silver thread. Command flags were usually covered in a transparent celluloid casing during inclement weather. Each SS Oberabschnitt was required to keep on hand one official vehicle flag and one command pennant for the Reichsführer-SS, for use in the event of a ‘flying visit’ by Himmler. Other Kommandoflaggen included those for the heads of SS Hauptämter, SS Oberabschnitte and Abschnitte com-manders, the leaders of Standarten, Reiterstandarten, Sturmbanne, SS stores and inspectorates, and senior members of the FM organisation.

In 1934, Himmler noted: ‘A sworn oath is not enough. It is essential that every SS man be committed to the very roots of his being’. The symbolism and regalia of the Allgemeine-SS went a long way to achieving that end, instilling a feeling of superiority and ‘belonging’ in every member of the Black Order.

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