The SS (short for Schutzstaffel, German for "Protective Squadron") was a major paramilitary branch of the Nazi Party, controlled for the majority of its existence by Heinrich Himmler who became its leader in January 1929. It was noted for its devotion to Adolf Hitler, for its hostility to Jews, for its fanaticism in combat; and especially for its control of the concentration camps and death camps during the Holocaust.
Although the Nazis came to national power in January 1933, the Nazi Party created the SS in 1925, as Adolf Hitler's personal bodyguard (Stabswache or Staff Guard). The SS was originally only a sub-branch of the SA. It was a small exclusive group who only had loyalty to Adolf Hitler, not the Nazi Party or the SA. Heinrich Himmler was the fourth leader of the SS, having obtained command in January 1929. He went on to become its longest and most influential leader. By the time he took over, it was made up of only 280 men. By 1933 Himmler had expanded its ranks to 52,000.
The Waffen-SS (Armed SS) began as Hitler's private army. It started as the SS-Stabswache Berlin, a small bodyguard unit under Josef "Sepp" Dietrich. It was renamed the Sonderkommando Berlin until Himmler renamed it again as the Leibstandarte (Bodyguard Regiment) Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). In September 1934, Adolf Hitler authorized the formation of the military wing of the Nazi Party in the SS; it was called the SS-Verfügungstruppe (Special Use Troops) or SS-VT. There were strict recruitment standards; both physically and racially. By September 1939, there were three SS-VT regiments, along with the Leibstandarte. During the 1939 fighting in Poland, it was reported that the SS-VT units fought bravely but recklessly. The SS-VT units also fought in combat during the invasions of the Low Countries (les Pays Bas) and France in 1940. The performance of the units was of marked improvement on the battlefield, however, off the battlefield several atrocities occurred.
In late 1940, Hitler allowed Himmler to greatly expand the forces and open the ranks to Germanic foreign recruits. Further, the branch was renamed the Waffen-SS (Armed SS). The Leibstandarte Division (LSSAH) and SS-VT units already in service were folded into, and became part of, the Waffen-SS. Within 6 months this new SS branch had over 150,000 soldiers. After the invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1941, the Germans were fighting a two-front war. The Waffen-SS became the elite infantry force of the fronts and given separate control over their communications and reports to Hitler's headquarters. By June 1944, the SS had over 800,000 men: Hitler's bodyguard 200,000, the Waffen-SS 594,000, and the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head units) or (SS-TV), 24,000. However, at the Nuremberg Trials, the entire Schutzstaffel organization was declared a criminal organization and many of its leaders were executed.
Soldiers in Waffen SS
The Waffen-SS eventually organized 38 divisions comprising (at one time or another) about 800,000 soldiers; 25% were killed in battle. They were never integrated into the Wehrmacht, and grew to become a de facto fourth branch of the German military. They had a reputation for fanatical loyalty, bravery, brutality, mistreatment and killing of prisoners and civilians, and war crimes. In December 1944 on the Western Front during the "Battle of the Bulge" elements of the Leibstandarte Division shot between 86 and 100 Americans prisoners near Malmedy.
Huffman (2005) examines Waffen-SS soldiers and their experiences, actions, and importance during World War II. He explores the Waffen-SS in terms of ideology and indoctrination, everyday life and combat experiences, comradeship, battle front and home front influences, and connections between the " Frontgemeinschaft " (front community) and the " Volksgemeinschaft " (people's community). Huffman focuses on the Waffen-SS junior officers, NCOs, and enlisted men. Waffen-SS soldiers experienced a "totality" of war as a concrete, lived, total experience, and thus the front experiences became normalized to a large extent. They were much better trained than regular army units, with dangerous simulated combat exercise; it was rigorous, realistic and often brutal. Strong comradeship among the troops was important, and helped account for their strong cohesiveness and fighting strength. The Volksgemeinschaft and Frontgemeinschaft and the strong attendant home front and battle front influences were not just words; there was a reality of overall solidarity, and the Volksgemeinschaft and Frontgemeinschaft served for millions of Germans as structures around which to cast their belief systems and actions. The German civilian populace was militarized during the war, and the German military formations, especially the Waffen-SS, were militarized even more so.
Ideology, indoctrination, and combat had significant influences on the mentalities and experiences, as well as the increased fanaticization and radicalization of the soldiers and their subsequent actions, which included a greater propensity to follow orders without question and commit war crimes. Ideology was absorbed and accepted by Waffen-SS soldiers far more readily because of the nature of World War II with all of its racism and savageness. Waffen-SS troops were the most radicalized and politicized troops in the German armed forces and the fanaticized military elite and political soldiers of Nazi Germany.
The Waffen SS recruited soldiers, whether of German background or not, from many different ethnic groups across Europe. About 6,000 Norwegians volunteered; most of them were assigned to divisions that included both Germans and volunteers from other countries, about 2,300 served under the Waffen-SS in a separate national unit, the Norwegian Legion; there were also Danish, Flemish and Dutch units. Some 10,000 Frenchmen served in units the Légion des Volontaires Français (LVF, French Volunteer Legion) and Charlemagne Division of the Waffen-SS. Most volunteered in 1944 and had been members of the Milice Française and other collaborationist groups; they left France with the Germans to avoid reprisals by the Resistance. Knowledge of their fate if they were captured and sent home made them more fanatic. 5500 men served in the Danish Frikorps (Danish Legion), on the Eastern Front.
Bowen (2001) describes volunteers in Waffen-SS units late in the war. Under Allied pressure, Francisco Franco withdrew his earlier support of Nazi Germany to a position of neutrality. He ordered the repatriation of the Blue Division to Spain, a unit that lost 22,000 of 47,000 men in the Stalingrad campaign. However, thousands of Spaniards committed to the Nazis' New World Order remained illegally in Germany, joining Norwegians, Danes, Dutch, and others who chose to fight alongside the Germans to the bitter end. Franco proved unable to persuade these Spaniards to quit a lost cause.
- Cook and Bender (1994) and McNab (2009)
- Wegner (1990); McNab (2009)
- After the war, Colonel Joachim Peiper and 65 other Waffen-SS soldiers were tried, convicted and imprisoned for war crimes; two were hung. James J. Weingartner, Crossroads of Death: The Story of the Malmédy Massacre and Trial (1979)
- Koethe (1994)
- Huffman (2005)
- Huffman (2005); Koethe (1994)
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