The origins of the SS are linked inextricably with the events and aftermath of the First World War. This epic conflict had a profound effect upon Adolf Hitler, who, after years of aimless drifting in Vienna and Munich, suddenly found his true vocation fighting on the western front. From the very beginning the German army, unlike that of Great Britain, actively encouraged initiative on the part of its NCOs and private soldiers, so Gefreiter Hitler was more than accustomed to making front-line decisions in his ‘deputy officer’ capacity. As a trench messenger, he constantly ran the gauntlet of British and French machine guns, receiving the Bavarian Military Cross of Merit 3rd Class and a Regimental Citation for Bravery in the Face of the Enemy. He was wounded twice, gassed, temporarily blinded and emerged with the Iron Cross 1st Class, an unusually high decoration for an enlisted man and one which he wore proudly until the day of his death.

Once the stalemate of trench warfare had set in, Germany was quick to realise the potential of developing élite units of hand-picked infantrymen to act as assault parties and trench raiders. Early in 1915 Major Eugen Kaslow, a pioneer officer, was tasked with evaluating experimental steel helmets, body armour and a new light cannon. To do so, he formed a small assault detachment which came to be known as Sturmabteilung Kaslow. Under his leadership and that of his successor, Hauptmann Willi Rohr, the Sturmabteilung evolved new tactics to break into an enemy trench system. Combat operations in the Vosges mountains that autumn suggested that these ideas were sound and, in January 1916, Sturmabteilung Rohr was duly transferred to Verdun. At that time, the detachment comprised three-man teams called Stosstruppe, or shock troops, whose method of attack involved storming a trench in flank. The first of the trio was armed with a sharpened entrenching tool and a shield made from a machine gun mounting. He was followed by the second man carrying haversacks full of short-fused stick grenades, and the third soldier armed with a knife, bayonet or club. The Stosstruppe technique proved so successful that a number of Sturmkompanie, or assault companies, were soon formed and attached to divisions on a permanent basis. By 1918, most German armies on the western front had expanded units known as Sturmbataillone or assault battalions, each comprising an HQ company, four assault companies, an infantry artillery company armed with the 37 mm Sturmkanone, a machine gun company, a light trench mortar detachment and a flamethrower detachment.

The storm troops, as they became known to their British adversaries, were accorded the status of romantic heroes by the German popular press. Unlike ordinary infantrymen, they spent little time skulking in filthy trenches. Instead, they attacked suddenly then returned to base with the inevitable cache of prisoners. Raids were reported not only at home but also in the front-line newspapers, one of which was even called Der Stosstrupp and carried a regular section headed ‘Stosstruppgeist’, or Shock Troop Spirit. These select soldiers employed a variety of emotive titles, including Sturmtruppe (assault troops), Jagdkommando (hunting groups) and Patrouillentruppe (raiding parties), all of which were tolerated by the High Command. Officially, special insignia for the storm troops was frowned upon, but many varieties of locally adopted badges were worn. These typically featured bayonets, hand grenades and steel helmets. The most popular badge taken up by the Stosstruppe, however, was the Totenkopf or death’s head, a skull over crossed bones, which was initially worn by personnel of the 3rd Guard Reserve Pioneer Regiment, an all-volunteer unit created to operate the new flamethrowers. The Totenkopf became representative of a devil-may-care attitude in the face of constant danger and high casualties.

Just as the storm troops were the best the army could offer, so the new élite formations of the emerging German Air Arm were the flights of fast fighters which escorted and protected unwieldy bombers and recon-naissance aircraft. The fighters were sometimes grouped together as aerial shock troops for the purpose of attacking ground targets, but because of their primary role they were given the title of protection squadrons or Schutzstaffeln, Schustas for short. Prominent Schusta members included Hermann Göring and Eduard Ritter von Schleich, the so-called Black Knight, who later commanded the SS-Fliegersturmbann.

Hitler drew on his valuable First World War experiences long after the end of hostilities. In the early days of the Nazi movement, he considered that a front-line combat posting during 1914–18 was an essential prerequisite for any position of leadership in his National Socialist Party, and the regimented organisation and military terminology later used by the NSDAP was directly carried over from its members’ army service. The terms Stosstrupp, Sturmabteilung and Schutzstaffel, devised to describe the crack German forces of land and air, were soon adopted by the Nazis for their own paramilitaries and were to take on an entirely new significance in the postwar era.

In November 1918, Germany faced disaster. The war had been lost, the Kaiser had abdicated and the government had collapsed. The armed forces were, in effect, disbanded, and groups of demobilised left-wing soldiers with no prospects roamed the streets calling for a Bolshevik uprising like that which had just taken hold in Russia. The country was also under extreme pressure from the civilian Spartacist revolutionaries, and Polish insurgents threatened to invade Silesia and the eastern Baltic territories of the Reich.

To meet these challenges, new ad hoc Freikorps units were hastily formed by right-wing troops who found themselves anxious to defend their Fatherland and its traditional values, but were without a proper army in which to do so. Such groups traced their ancestry to the Freiwilligenkorps, or volunteer corps, which had been mustered in times of crisis in Germany since the Middle Ages. Still in possession of their wartime uniforms, weapons and transport, they banded together to follow local heroes or well-known military personalities. The usual method of recruitment was simply for an ex-officer to circulate literature or display posters inviting former soldiers to attend at a specified location on a given date and join his Freikorps. In many cases thousands turned up, eager to enlist whether for payment or not. As well as the promise of action, a big attraction was the fact that discipline in the Freikorps was very lax in comparison to that of the imperial army. Officers were commonly referred to by their forenames and enlisted men saluted only those officers whom they personally respected or admired. The troops paid little attention to formal instructions issued by the weak provisional government and gave their loyalty totally to their Freikorps commander, whom they referred to as their Führer, or leader. To these destitute soldiers, units and comrades became homes and families.


Freikorps troops in Munich, 2 May 1919. This picture was taken by Heinrich Hoffmann, later Hitler’s personal photographer, and shows to good effect the death’s head emblem painted on the front of the armoured car.

The state was in desperate need of trained military men to assert control and these Freikorps freebooters provided the experienced manpower at just the right time. Dedicated above all to preventing Germany becoming a Bolshevik regime, they smashed riots, kept order in the streets, protected public buildings and became a mainstay of the law until they were dissolved in 1919, at least on paper, by the Treaty of Versailles, which laid down the conditions for the setting up of the Reichswehr, the reconstituted and much-reduced army of the Weimar Republic. Those Freikorps men who were not accepted back into the new army tended to drift into right-wing paramilitary groups such as the Stahlhelm and Reichskriegsflagge of the nationalists, the Jungdeutscher Orden and the Organisation Rossbach. Such men included Himmler himself, and the future SS Generals Kurt Daluege, ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, Reinhard Heydrich, Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, Karl Wolff and Udo von Woyrsch, among many others.

In all, during the period 1919–20, there were some 250 individual Freikorps units in existence, comprising more than 70,000 men. They created their own range of medals, badges and insignia, and prominent among these were the swastika of the Ehrhardt Brigade and the death’s head, borrowed from the imperial storm troops. The following Freikorps are known to have used the Totenkopf on their helmets and vehicles:


Freikorps Brüssow


Commanded by Leutnant Hans Brüssow between January and April 1919, this unit had a strength of 1,200 men and later became Reichswehr Infantry Regiment 4.


Eiserne Division


One of the most famous of all the Freikorps, this brigade-strength unit under Major Bischoff carried out extensive raids in the Baltic area between November 1918 and February 1920. The following month it was disbanded, together with the Erhhardt Brigade, for its participation in the rightist Kapp Putsch in Berlin. Its veterans were welcomed into the SS a few years later.


Sub-Units of the Eiserne Division, in particular:


Beuthener Selbstschutz-Kompanie

Freiwilligen Batterie Zenetti

Freiwilligen Jägerkorps Goldingen

Kurländisches Infanterie-Regiment

Ostpreussisches Jägerkorps

Selbstschutz Bataillon Begerhoff

Selbstschutz Bataillon Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

Selbstschutz Oberschlesien

Freikorps Tilsit


Freikorps Erlangen


This battalion-size unit existed from April to June 1919, and was commanded by Generalmajor Engelhardt. It was incorporated into Reichswehr Infantry Regiment 47 and Artillery Regiment 42.


Freikorps Gerth


Commanded by Leutnant Gerth between April and June 1919, this formation numbered 625 men and was absorbed into Reichswehr Infantry Regiment 40.


Minenwerfer Detachment Heuschkel


A veteran storm troop trench mortar unit, unusually led by an NCO, Feldwebel Heuschkel.


Freiwilligen Detachment von Schauroth


A small number of ex-storm troops who banded together under their former commanding officer, Major von Schauroth.

Because of its association with these units, the death’s head, already a wartime badge of daring and self-sacrifice, now became a symbol of traditionalism, anti-liberalism and anti-Bolshevism, an ideal totem for the embryonic Nazi élite.

In December 1918, Adolf Hitler was discharged from the military hospital at Pasewalk near Stettin where he had been recovering from a gassing. He volunteered for guard duty at a prisoner-of-war camp at Traunstein, but by January 1919 its last inmate had left. At a loose end, and still in uniform, Hitler made his way to Munich and joined the Bavarian Freikorps which had been formed by the war hero Franz Ritter von Epp to liberate the city from its new Marxist government. This it did with much bloodshed.

Nationalist groups were springing up all over Germany, with the objective of ridding the country of the ‘November Traitors’ who had brought the disgrace of the dictated peace, and of the communists, whose first loyalty was to Russia. Nationalists came from every level of society, and at the lower end of the Munich social scale was Anton Drexler’s tiny German Workers’ Party, one of whose meetings Hitler attended as a military observer on 12 September 1919. It was a grouping which brought together racist intellectuals to fight, by means of argument, Marxist influence and ‘Jewish infiltration’ into the working class. They found the Jews principally responsible for popular Red revolution, citing the fact that all the leaders of the leftist movement, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Kurt Eisner and the rest, were Jewish. Hitler found that Drexler’s ideas paralleled his own. He joined the party and, through his forceful personality and powers of oratory, virtually took it over from the outset, changing its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter-partei or NSDAP) and giving it a nationalistic, anti-Semitic, anti-capitalistic programme where, hitherto, it had possessed only a vague set of ideals.

Hitler’s speeches soon found a loud echo in the ranks of the Freikorps, and their units provided the new Nazi Führer with his first large followings. Hauptmann Ernst Röhm, von Epp’s adjutant, who also headed his own Reichskriegsflagge Freikorps, sent Hitler an incessant flood of officers, NCOs and men. Taking a leaf from the communists’ book, Hitler began to hire lorries and had them filled with party members, who drove noisily through the streets to meetings. The difference was that while the communists wore a curious assortment of dress, the Nazis, most of them ex-soldiers, sat bolt upright, wore smart Freikorps uniforms and seemed the very epitome of law and order reinstated. They were invariably cheered as they passed.

Hitler’s main aim at this stage was to replace the party’s small discussion groups with mass meetings, and the first of these, at the Festsaal of the Munich Hofbräuhaus on 24 February 1920, attracted nearly 2,000 people. The stewards on this auspicious occasion, when the NSDAP programme was laid down, were a squad of Zeitfreiwilligen or temporary volunteers, armed with pistols and clad in the field-grey of the Munich Reichswehr to which they were attached. Such supporters might well have been sympathetic, but they certainly had no undying loyalty to the new movement. So, towards the end of 1920, a permanent and regular Nazi formation called the Saalschutz, or Hall Guard, was set up to protect speakers at NSDAP gatherings. The Saalschutz was short-lived, however, for it was expanded and consolidated into a fresh body, the Sturmabteilung, or SA, during 1921. This was the work of Röhm and an ex-naval Leutnant, Hans-Ulrich Klintzsch, who created the SA as a new Freikorps to hammer the Reds and fend off opponents at political meetings. Whereas the Saalschutz had been designed to defend, the SA was to attack. Yet while the SA was affiliated to the party, it did not initially come under Hitler’s personal authority, for its members had little respect for the finesse of politics. It took its orders from its own Führer, the self-appointed Commander-in-Chief Oberstleutnant Hermann Kriebel, who thought that, ‘the best thing political blokes could do would be to belt up’. Originally confined to Munich, the SA made its first important foray outside the city when, on 14–15 October 1922, it took part in a ‘German Day’ at Coburg which resulted in a pitched battle with the communists who controlled the town. The 800 SA men present, almost the entire membership of the Sturmabteilung, succeeded in breaking the hold of the Red Front on Coburg, and press coverage of the incident served to make Hitler’s name known to a wider public.

The first national rally of the NSDAP was held on 28 January 1923, when some 6,000 newly recruited SA men paraded before Hitler, who presented standards to the first four full SA regiments, entitled ‘München’, ‘München II’, ‘Nürnberg’ and ‘Landshut’. There were sufficient volunteers during the next month alone to form a fifth regiment, and, in an effort to control better the rapidly growing organisation, Hitler appointed a new man of politics, the former air ace Hauptmann Hermann Göring, to lead it. Göring brought with him the prestige of a great wartime hero, the last commander of the von Richthofen squadron, victor of twenty-two aerial dog-fights and holder of Germany’s highest gallantry decoration, the Order ‘Pour le Mérite’. However, he was by nature lazy and self-indulgent. The true driving force behind the SA remained Röhm, who continued to use his army and Freikorps connections to supply the SA with arms. So, in spite of Göring’s appointment, the SA in 1923 was far from being submissive. Its independence, upheld by the former leaders of the Freikorps, compelled Hitler to set up a small troop of men, from outside the SA, which would be entirely devoted to him. It was in this atmosphere that the SS was born.


Hermann Göring as Commander-in-Chief of the SA, 1923. Note the Ehrhardt Brigade steel helmet with swastika, and the order ‘Pour le Mérite’ at the neck. Rank is denoted by the wide stripes on the armband.

In March 1923, Hitler ordered the formation of a Munich-based bodyguard known as the Stabswache, comprising twelve old comrades who swore an oath of loyalty to him personally and owed no allegiance to the leaders of the Freikorps or SA. Two months later, using the Stabswache as cadre, the 100-man Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler was created and fully kitted out with military-style uniforms and two trucks. The Stosstrupp quickly adopted the death’s head as its distinctive emblem, and was led by Hauptmann Julius Schreck and Leutnant Josef Berchtold, both veterans of the Ehrhardt Brigade. Its headquarters were located in the Torbräu public house, and there met the first members of Hitler’s bodyguard, who were destined to remain faithful to him at all times and follow his way up the political ladder. They included ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, Ulrich Graf, Rudolf Hess, Emil Maurice, Julius Schaub and Christian Weber.

Hitler quickly recognised that the volatile situation of 1923 was a transient thing, and he resolved to take full advantage of it. He reckoned that his SA and its Freikorps allies might at last be strong enough to seize power in Bavaria and, with luck, march from Munich on Berlin for a final triumph. Similar coups had taken place with varying degrees of success elsewhere in Germany since 1918, and the fascists under Mussolini had just swept to power in Italy after a march on Rome. At the beginning of November, the 15,000 men of the SA were put on full alert and a suitable opportunity suddenly arose on the 8th of the month. That day, the three most powerful men in Bavaria, Prime Minister von Kahr, local army commander Lossow and police chief Seisser, attended a political meeting in the Munich Burger-bräukeller where they could be handily seized by a strongarm squad. The Reichskriegsflagge Freikorps was having a ‘social’ in the Augustiner beer cellar when its commander, Röhm, was ordered in his SA capacity to seize the Reichswehr Ministry on the Leopoldstrasse. His troops immediately set off, led by a young former army officer cadet, Heinrich Himmler, who carried an imperial war flag, the banner of the unit which bore its name. Meanwhile, armed SA men surrounded the Burgerbräukeller and Hitler had von Kahr, Lossow and Seisser arrested and bundled into a side room. They managed to escape, however, and sped off to organise resistance to the Nazi putsch.


SA men, in an assortment of military and civilian clothing, muster at Oberwiesenfeld prior to attending the Labour Day parade in Munich on 1 May 1923. Such events usually ended in street fighting between Nazis and communists, hence the distribution of rifles.


The Stosstrupp Hitler leaving for ‘German Day’ in Bayreuth, 2 September 1923. Josef Berchtold stands leaning on the cab, beside von Salomon and Ulrich Graf. Julius Schreck, with goggles, is seated at the left of the front row.

On the morning of 9 November, the main force of the SA under Röhm was besieged in the War Ministry by regular army units summoned by Lossow. Hitler and Göring organised a relief column of 2,000 SA men and, accompanied by the former General Erich Ludendorff, marched through the streets of Munich. They ran into the first cordon of Seisser’s police on the Ludwig Bridge, but brushed them aside. A second police cordon on the edge of the Odeonsplatz, however, gave them a different reception. They were in a strategic spot outside the Feldherrnhalle war memorial and were determined not to retreat. Ulrich Graf, who with the rest of the Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler was present to protect his Führer, stepped out and shouted to the police officer in charge, ‘Don’t shoot! His Excellency Ludendorff is here!’. But this was the police, not the army, and Ludendorff’s name had no magic sound. A volley of shots rang out. Josef Berchtold collapsed under a hail of bullets. Andreas Bauriedl, the swastika standard-bearer, was in his death throes, drenching the flag with his blood. The tattered artefact was rapidly gathered up and spirited away, to be piously preserved as the famed Blutfahne, or Blood Banner. Hitler had locked his left arm with the right of his close confidant, Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, and when the latter fell mortally wounded he pulled Hitler to the ground with him. Instantly, Ulrich Graf threw himself on his leader and was at once peppered by a dozen bullets which might otherwise have killed Hitler. Somehow, Graf survived it. Sixteen Nazis lay dead and the rest dispersed or were captured, but the Stosstrupp had fulfilled its primary duty – Hitler’s life was preserved. The firing outside the Feldherrnhalle finally ended the era of the Freikorps, which had started, five years before to the day, with the revolution of 1918. The time for fighting men had now passed, giving way to the politicians.


A group of the Reichskriegsflagge Freikorps behind the Bavarian War Ministry on 9 November 1923. From left to right in the foreground are: Weickert, Kitzinger, Himmler (with imperial war flag), Seidel-Dittmarsch and Röhm.

The reverse experienced at the Munich putsch and Hitler’s subsequent imprisonment, far from harming the cause of the party and its leader, merely served to get them better known. Yet there were still plenty of troubles ahead. Following the putsch, the NSDAP was banned and the SA and Stosstrupp dissolved. Those Nazi leaders who managed to avoid arrest fled to other German states where Bavarian law could not touch them. Refugees from Munich set up personal clandestine SA units under the name Frontbanne, with overall control being exercised by Ludendorff and his deputy, Albert von Gräfe. The largest was Frontbann Nord, centred around Berlin and commanded by Kurt Daluege. Hitler, cooped up in jail with his bodyguards penning Mein Kampf, realised that an armed insurrection against a government which enjoyed the loyalty of both the police and the army would be doomed. Henceforth, he determined to employ only legal methods in his struggle for power.

On his release from Landsberg prison on 20 December 1924, Hitler began to rebuild his party, and in February 1925 the NSDAP was reconstituted and the SA reactivated. Hitler the politician now categorically forbade the SA to bear arms or function as any sort of private army. Its purpose was solely to clear the streets of his political enemies, a role hotly contested by Röhm, who envisaged the SA as a citizen army which could bolster and ultimately supersede the Reichswehr. The disagreement between the two became so bitter that Röhm eventually resigned from the party and quit Germany for a military adviser’s post in Bolivia. His job as Chief of Staff of the SA fell to the former Freikorps leader Franz Felix Pfeffer von Salomon, but the latter failed to enjoy Hitler’s confidence and Röhm was duly reinstated in a stronger position than ever.

In April 1925, Hitler formed a new bodyguard commanded by Schreck, Schaub and his other Stosstrupp favourites. The guard, which came under the auspices of the SA High Command, was known first as the Schutzkommando, then the Sturmstaffel, but on 9 November, probably at the suggestion of Göring, it adopted the old fighter squadron title of Schutzstaffel, which was not subject to any of the governmental prohibitions and was not identified with any of the Freikorps traditions. The ‘Schutzstaffel der NSDAP’ soon commonly came to be known as the SS.


Men of the newly formed SS proudly display an NSDAP Feldzeichen at the end of 1925. Note the wild variety of dress, particularly the strange caps with massive eagle insignia, and the assorted belt buckles.

From the start, it was laid down that the SS, unlike the SA, should never become a mass organisation. In September 1925, Schreck sent a circular to all regional groups of the NSDAP asking them to form a local bodyguard, the strength of which was to be fixed at one leader and ten men. This was the beginning of the so-called ‘Zehnerstaffeln’ or Groups of Ten. Not just anybody could join, for the seeds of élitism had already been sown. Applicants had to be between 25 and 35 years of age, have two sponsors, be registered with the police as residents of at least five years’ standing, and be sober, disciplined, strong and healthy. Habitual drunkards and gossip-mongers were not to be admitted. The reason for all this was simple. Hitler and his followers were beginning to travel outside Bavaria in their tireless campaigning to increase the membership of the NSDAP. They were now venturing into areas where Nazi allegiance was local, rather than to Hitler himself. The Führer needed a small, hand-picked bodyguard on which he could rely wherever he went. The new SS had its first opportunity to distinguish itself at Chemnitz in Saxony at the end of the year. It was a bold decision to hold a public meeting in this Red territory, but Hitler’s audacious stroke proved to be justified. In anticipation of trouble, Schreck gathered fifty SS men from Chemnitz, Dresden, Plauen and Zwickau. They had to face some several hundred counter-demonstrators armed with iron bars and knives. The SS taught them such a lesson in street fighting that Hitler’s meetings in that region were henceforth conducted almost without opposition.

In April 1926, Schreck was nominated personal bodyguard and chauffeur to the Führer, and Josef Berchtold re-emerged to take over command of the SS, which then numbered about 1,000 men. On the second anniversary of the Munich putsch, the existence of the SS had been officially proclaimed in a ceremony outside the Feldherrnhalle, and in the spring of 1926 no less than seventy-five Schutzstaffeln were formed right across the country. A new SS-Oberleitung was created and Berchtold adopted the self-styled title of Reichsführer der SS. On 4 July, in a gesture symbolising his intention that the SS should become the true guardian of Nazi values, Hitler solemnly handed over the Blutfahne from the Munich putsch into their safekeeping and appointed Jakob Grimminger from the Munich SS detachment to be official bearer of the Blutfahne at all subsequent special party rituals. Yet despite the extension of its numbers and theoretical prestige, the SS remained a limited organisation subordinated to the SA. When von Salomon attempted to absorb the SS completely in March 1927, Berchtold resigned and was replaced by his deputy, Erhard Heiden, who managed to retain its partial autonomy. However, the SA kept a jealous eye on SS expansion and local SA commanders consistently used the SS under their control for the most demeaning tasks, such as distributing propaganda leaflets and recruiting subscribers to the party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter. By the end of 1928, morale in the SS was at an all-time low and membership had fallen to 280. On 6 January 1929, a dejected Heiden resigned his titular position as Reichsführer der SS in favour of his timid young deputy, Heinrich Himmler. The SA leadership were cock-a-hoop. This colourless nonentity posed little threat and was just the man to command the SS and to ensure its continued subordination to the SA. They were in for a rude awakening.

There was absolutely no sign of Himmler’s future greatness in 1929. The new SS leader was pale, mild-mannered and prim, with spectacles and prematurely receding hair. Born on 7 October 1900, he was a member of the best Bavarian society and was named after his godfather, Prince Heinrich of Bavaria, to whom his schoolmaster father was tutor. He had welcomed the outbreak of the First World War with enthusiasm, and reported for duty as an officer cadet with the 11th Bavarian Infantry Regiment in January 1918. However, he was sent to the front just at the moment when the armistice was signed and never saw action, something he always regretted. On 17 December 1918, Himmler was discharged from the army but he retained his military connections by joining the Oberland Freikorps in 1919. He gained an agricultural degree in 1922, then secured employment as a technical assistant with a fertiliser company, only to see his salary lose half its value to inflation in a single month. In August 1923, Himmler became a member of the NSDAP and two months later enrolled in Röhm’s Reichskriegsflagge and participated in the Munich putsch, an act which cost him his job. After the dissolution of the party, he took it upon himself to reorganise the NSDAP in Lower Bavaria in preparation for the elections of 1924. He spent much of his time riding around the countryside on an old motorcycle, indoctrinating the locals. Himmler soon became well known in Nazi circles for his energy, enthusiasm and organising ability, and on 12 March 1925 he was summoned by Hitler who appointed him Gauleiter in Lower Bavaria. He was one of the first to join the SS at the end of the year, and in 1926 became responsible for Nazi propaganda throughout Germany, directly under Hitler’s orders. Once he had become the Führer’s direct partner, Himmler persisted in putting forward his notion that the SS should become an élite force within the party, and one which would be totally devoted to Hitler. At a time when the SA was becoming increasingly rebellious, the notion appealed and so Hitler approved Himmler’s succession to Heiden as Reichsführer der SS.

In April 1929, Himmler persuaded Hitler and von Salomon to approve a recruiting plan designed to create a truly élite body out of the SS. In contrast to the SA, which took all comers, only properly selected candidates would be accepted for the SS, based primarily upon their voluntary discipline. There were none of the racial standards imposed on later recruits, but the early SS men had to demonstrate their willingness to be ready for any sacrifice, in individual rather than group action. At that time, recruits were liable to purchase their own uniforms, which could cost up to 40 marks, an enormous expense for an unemployed man, and that factor alone was enough to deter many. However, high personal standards had a great appeal to ex-soldiers and young nationalists, and veterans of the Freikorps also volunteered in large numbers. By the beginning of 1930, the SS had again grown to 1,000 men, which worried von Salomon. Yet it was still technically subordinated to the SA High Command, despite Hitler’s instruction that no SA officer was authorised to give orders to the SS during their day-to-day duties.


Protected by SS men, NSDAP Treasurer Franz Xaver Schwarz (left, in overcoat) watches a parade in his home town of Günzburg, September 1929. Himmler stands nearest the camera, his position of seniority as Reichsführer der SS indicated solely by the three white stripes on his armband.

Whereas the SS grew steadily, the SA exploded completely. Its sole purpose was to be a mass organisation of pro-Nazi street fighters, and by the time of the first great NSDAP electoral victory of September 1930, 60 per cent of the SA membership were unemployed ruffians who owed allegiance to their local generals, not Hitler. In the north, the SA split down the middle when the new party chief in Berlin, the flamboyant intellectual Dr Joseph Goebbels, arrived to take charge of the city. The Berlin SA began to complain that Hitler and his Bavarian friends were living in the lap of luxury while their comrades in the inner cities were starving. Röhm tried to take charge of the situation, but the SA leaders in Berlin, under SA-Oberführer Walther Stennes, rebelled. On 1 April 1931, Kurt Daluege, now in charge of the SS in Berlin, alerted Hitler that all the Berlin SA had taken sides for Stennes against him. The next day, Stennes’ men chased Gauleiter Goebbels out of his office and took over the premises of his newspaper, Der Angriff. The revolt spread throughout the whole of northern Germany. The SA Generals in Brandenburg, Hesse, Silesia, Pomerania and Mecklenburg supported Stennes, and Hitler’s fall was widely prophesied. However, the uprising lacked organisation and money and died as quickly as it had been born. Göring took a grip of the situation, purging the SA of Stennes’ supporters and reorganising the SA throughout the north. Hitler issued his public congratulations to the Berlin SS, which alone had remained loyal to Goebbels and him during the crisis. The devotion of the SS to their Führer had been demonstrated in deeds as well as words. In recognition, Hitler appointed Himmler security chief for the NSDAP headquarters, the Brown House in Munich, on 25 January 1932. In effect, he was now head of the party police.

The SS now grew steadily within the matrix of a rapidly expanding SA and NSDAP. Himmler kept busy, changing and rechanging his unit designations to keep up with the elaborate tables of organisation being constructed by Röhm and his staff. SS membership multiplied five times during 1932, from 10,000 to 50,000, and around 900 officers were commissioned. The SS Stürme had scarcely been numbered when their numbers had to be reassigned to new Standarten. Weak SS companies became even weaker SS regiments, and thirty small SS regiments became tiny SS brigades. The brigade system was then abandoned altogether and light, purely administrative, units known as Oberführer-Abschnitte were interposed between about forty Standarten and the Reichsführer-SS. By now, the political struggle in Germany had taken on the form of a civil war. The Communist Party and socialists set up armed militias and the SA and SS responded. The Brüning government ordered the disbanding of paramilitaries and the prohibition of political uniforms, but it then collapsed and the ‘Cabinet of Barons’ set up under Franz von Papen lifted the ban. Thirteen members of the SS were killed in 1932 and several hundreds wounded during street battles with the Red Front. The whole scenario was lapped up by the SS Old Guard, and their catch-phrase, ‘Die Kampfzeit war die beste Zeit’ (‘The fighting days were the best’) was frequently repeated as a form of boast to young SS men well into the Third Reich period. As the crucial 1933 elections approached, it suited the Nazis to create the impression that Germany was on the verge of anarchy and that they had the solutions. Order would be restored under Hitler. Deals were done with big business. Jobs would be guaranteed for all. Not surprisingly, the NSDAP won a significant electoral victory and on 30 January the old General-feldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg, Reich President and a sort of ‘Ersatz Kaiser’ since 1925, entrusted Hitler with the post of Chancellor and the responsibility of forming a government. On 28 February, less than a month after the assumption of power, the Reichstag building was razed to the ground by fire and the communists were blamed. The next day, Hitler issued a decree ‘For the Protection of People and State’, giving police powers to the SA and SS. Firearms were issued to 25,000 SA and 15,000 SS acting as Hilfspolizei or auxiliary policemen, and left-wing opponents began to be arrested and herded into makeshift prisons and camps. Soon, 27,000 people were being held in protective custody. In March, Himmler became Police President of Munich and opened the first concentration camp, or Konzentrationslager (KL), at Dachau, as a roughly organised labour camp in which to ‘concentrate’ persons who were deemed to be a danger to the state but had not been legally sentenced to prison by a court of law. Other camps were soon established at Sachsenhausen outside Berlin and at Buchenwald near Weimar. Mean-while, a number of company-sized SS detachments were being armed and put on a full-time paid footing, growing to become the Leibstandarte-SS ‘Adolf Hitler’, the Führer’s close bodyguard, and the SS-Verfügungstruppe or SS-VT, barracked troops at the special disposal of the new Nazi régime. Another new branch of SS volunteers, the Wachverbände, was recruited to guard the concentration camps and later became known as the Death’s Head Units, or Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), because of their distinctive collar insignia.


‘Sepp’ Dietrich in 1930, as Standartenführer and head of the SS in Upper Bavaria. He wears an impressive array of decorations, including the Bavarian Military Merit Cross with Crown and Swords, the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Classes, the Silesian Eagle and the Tank Battle Badge instituted on 13 July 1921. The latter was awarded to the 100 or so surviving combat veterans of the First World War German Panzer Corps, which in its entirety had comprised a total of only twenty A7V tanks and some captured British armoured vehicles. Dietrich served as an NCO on tank no. 560, codenamed ‘Alter Fritz’, which was blown up the day before the war ended. He wore the Tank Battle Badge with pride throughout his service in the SS.


Julius Schreck in his capacity as Hitler’s personal SS bodyguard and chauffeur, April 1932. Political uniforms were banned at the time, hence the civilian clothes.


Hitler on the election trail in the autumn of 1932, accompanied by, from left to right, Julius Schaub, ‘Sepp’ Dietrich and Kurt Daluege.

While the SS was consolidating its position and controlling its membership and recruitment by a constant purging process, the brown-shirted SA began to throw its weight about noisily. Denied a position in the state to which it felt entitled, the SA talked of a ‘Second Revolution’ which would sweep away the bourgeois in the party and the reactionaries in the Reichswehr. Among the SS, the SA leaders became known as ‘Fleischschnitten’ or ‘beef steaks’, because they were brown on the outside but red on the inside. Röhm, who now commanded a force over forty times the size of the regular army and which included SA cavalry regiments, SA naval battalions and SA air squadrons, demanded the formation of a people’s army in which the SA would simply replace the Reichswehr. Röhm, of course, would be Commander-in-Chief. The army Generals called upon Hitler to intervene and the Führer could not refuse their request. Ever since November 1918, the Reichswehr had been the very incarnation of continuity in the state, which had been maintained despite defeat, revolution and civil war. Hitler knew he would never achieve supreme power without the backing of the military, and so decided that the SA would have to be cut down to size. The danger it posed was just too great – not simply the threat of a putsch but the ever-present disorder created by the very men who should have been setting an example of good order. Their incessant brawling, drinking, violence and irresponsible conversation, to say nothing of Röhm’s homosexual antics, provoked profound discontent in public opinion. The confidence ordinary Germans had in the new régime was in danger of collapsing altogether. On 28 June 1934, Hitler took the final decision to eliminate the SA leadership. Two days later he personally directed operations at Munich and Bad Wiessee, where Röhm and his subordinates had peacefully gathered at their Führer’s request. Following a carefully co-ordinated plan, men of the new armed SS formations arrested and executed Röhm and sixteen senior SA commanders. The SS also seized the opportunity to settle its scores with old enemies, such as the former Bavarian Prime Minister von Kahr, Hitler’s adversary during the Munich putsch, who was now found dead in a peat bog with his head smashed in. At least 300 victims paid with their lives for their opposition to the SS in this bloody purge, which came to be known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. The SA suffered a loss of power and influence from which it never fully recovered. The new head of the SA, Viktor Lutze, Police President of Hannover, had an ability to get on with the army and SS which was surpassed only by his obsequious loyalty to Hitler. The rank and file of SA members was reduced from 4 million to just over 1 million of the better elements, and they were stripped of their arms.


SS men prepare to set fire to a collection of placards and flags seized from Berlin communists, March 1933.


SS-Gruppenführer ‘Sepp’ Dietrich in conversation with Wilhelm Brückner, Hitler’s chief adjutant, at the end of 1933. Dietrich has removed the SS armband from his black service uniform, which was a short-term expedient adopted during this period to set the personnel of the infant Leibstandarte apart from the mass of the Allgemeine-SS.









Edmund Behnke



Fritz Schulz



Adolf Höh



Josef Lass



Heinz Gutsche



August Assmann



Edgar Steinbach



Johann Cyranka



Heinrich Grobe



August Pfaff



Karl Vobis



Leopold Paffrath



Erich Garthe



Friedrich Schreiber



Karl Radke



Paul Berk



Martin Martens



Franz Müller



Arnold Guse



Kurt von der Ahe



Fritz Beubler



Josef Bleser



Henry Kobert



Eduard Felsen



Ludwig Frisch



Siegfried Güthling



Kurt Hilmer



Fritz Kratz



Friedrich Borawski



Gerhard Landmann



Herbert Zimmermann



Albert Mader



Friedrich Karpinski



It is noteworthy that eleven (i.e. 33 per cent) of these men were killed after the Nazis had actually come to power. On 30 May 1938, they all received posthumous awards of the Blood Order, the highest decoration of the NSDAP.

On 20 July 1934, in thanks for its actions during the Röhm putsch, Hitler declared the 200,000-strong SS an independent formation of the NSDAP and removed it completely from SA control. Its position of ascendancy was now assured and it entered a period of consolidation in which it developed a new command structure under Himmler, whose rank as Reichsführer-SS for the first time actually meant what it implied and made him directly subordinate to Hitler. He immediately shed some 60,000 SS men who had been recruited at a time when the SS was competing for members with the SA, but who did not now conform to the SS image of élitism. The Leibstandarte, SS-VT and SS-TV developed their status as separate military branches, eventually amalgamating and expanding during the Second World War under the all-embracing title of Waffen-SS. From the middle of 1934, the traditional nonmilitary SS, the backbone of the organisation, began to be known as the Allgemeine-SS, or General SS, to distinguish it from the armed branches.

During these early years, thirty-three SS men were killed in street fighting with Hitler’s political opponents, and were duly recorded on the SS Ehrentafel, or Roll of Honour. In effect, they became SS martyrs. Their names, units and dates of death are shown in the table above.

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