In 1934 the fledgling armed branch of the SS, the SS-VT, embarked on a campaign to recruit officers from a broader field than that monopolised by Germany's regular army. True to it's aristocratic Prussian heritage, the army sought officer candidates of good breeding who had graduated from at least a secondary school. The SS-VT, by contrast, offered advancement to promising candidates regardless of their education or social standing.

For an organisation that could not yet boast of a glorious history, this proletarian approach was a virtue born of necessity. Those charged with grooming the new SS elite, however set their sights high. They called their academies Junkerschulen, or schools for young nobles, and devised a curriculum to transform the sons of farmers and artisans into officers and gentlemen.

The prime mover behind this effort, retired Major General Paul Hauser, was the image of genteel authority. His approach was reflected in the sites chosen for the Junkerschulen. The gracious grounds of Bad Tölz, for example, impressed on the cadets that, whatever their origins, they had been elevated to a lofty estate and must perform accordingly. For some this required basic training in matters that were not exclusively military.

Incoming cadets were issued an etiquette manual that defined table manners ("Cutlery is held only with the fingers and not with the whole hand") and even contained instructions for closing a letter ("Heil Hitler! Yours sincerely, X"). Correct form was further encouraged through cultural activities and lectures on Nazi ideology. But the heart of the regime was a mixture of athletics and field exercises, meant to yield Junkers who were nobly conditioned to command.

The classroom challenges undertaken by SS officers-in-training ranged from playing war-games in a sandbox to unravelling the meaning of Hitler's Mein Kampf. Ideology excited the cadets less that military theory. Many had already been steeped in propaganda as members of the Hitler Youth. However, ideology was an important factor in the examinations that eliminated one candidate in three during the three month course. On one test the cadets were asked to expand on these words of Hitler: "The mixing of blood, and the sinking of the racial standard contingent upon this, is the sole cause for the demise of all cultures".

Stressing racial purity proved embarrassing during the war, when the Junkers schools accepted recruits from occupied countries. Most foreigners enlisted to fight the Soviet Union, so the SS lecturers shifted from the sanctity of Nordic blood to the evils of Bolshevism. A goal of the Junkers schools was to produce officers who were fit to fight on the run. Building on mobile tactics introduced late in World War One, General Hauser prepared his cadets for rapid assaults that would leave the enemy reeling. This approach, according to Hauser’s assistant, Colonel Felix Steiner, required " a supple, adaptable type of soldier, athletic of bearing, capable of more than average endurance".

To forge these soldier-athletes, the SS spared no expense. The facilities at Bad Tölz included a stadium for football and track-and-field events, separate halls for boxing, gymnastics, and indoor games, a heated swimming pool and sauna. The complex attracted outstanding talent. At one time, eight of twelve coaches at Bad Tölz were national champions in their events.

Most of the prospects who entered the Junkers schools were experienced men from the ranks of the SS, SA, or Gestapo who had been recommended by their commanding officers. Not all the cadets, however, had been trained to the highest standard, and instruction during their early weeks at the Junkers schools had to be devoted to handling weapons, clearing obstacle courses, and other fundamentals. After the basics, the candidates learned the advanced skills required of a small unit commander, including field communications, coordinating infantry and artillery fire, and landing assault craft on a hostile shore.

Always the aim was to produce leaders who were not cogs on a wheel, but versatile players in a mobile ensemble. The schools fostered a headlong combativeness that often paid big military dividends but sometimes led young officers to expose their units to unnecessary risks. And for all the Junkers' spirit as SS men they remained political soldiers who might be called upon to carry out orders that had no military justification.

As it's combat role expanded during the war, the SS established two additional Junkers schools, in Austria and Czechoslovakia, and a number of specialized training centres throughout occupied Europe. The demanding craft of mountain warfare was taught in a majestic arena, the Tyrollean Alps on the border of Austria and Italy.

To the school's first officer candidates, who arrived in 1942, the spectacular setting seemed a world away from the savage fighting in Russia and Africa. But the war was closing in on them. By 1943 the SS mountaineers had to interrupt their training to do battle with Italian partisans, who believed the time had come to send the Germans packing.


After the Italian armistice on September 3, 1943, around 100,000 Italians volunteered to help the Allied cause.

On October 13, 1943, Italy declared war on Germany.

About 600,000 disbanded Italian soldiers from the German occupied north of Italy were crammed into cattle cars and transported to Germany for forced slave labour.

The Italian soldiers transported to Germany after the armistice, were treated abominably and had to survive on starvation rations. Hundreds died of hunger and overwork, tuberculosis and pneumonia. Their living quarters were primitive, 250 men in barracks designed for 100. Those still loyal to the Fascist government of Mussolini were treated far better in the camps.

Volunteers were asked for to form an SS Division and thousands volunteered encouraged by the promise of better food and clothing. When the Italian SS Division finished its training it was sent to Italy to try and stem the Allied advance. Once in Italy, the volunteer soldiers deserted in their thousands and joined the partisans.

Waffen- SS

After humble beginnings as a protection unit for the NSDAP leadership, the Waffen-SS eventually grew into a force of thirty-eight combat divisions comprising over 950,000 men, and including a number of elite units. In the Nuremberg Trials, the Waffen-SS was condemned as part of a criminal organization due to overwhelming participation in atrocities, and Waffen-SS veterans were denied many of the rights afforded other German combat veterans. Conscripts, however, were exempted from that judgment, as many of them were forced to join the organization by German authorities.

Basic Background

The origins of the Waffen SS (Armed SS) can be traced back to the creation of a select group of 200 men who were to act as Hitler's body guard. This "body guard" was created by Hitler in reaction to his unease at the size and strength of the SA (Sturmabteilung or Storm Troopers). The SA had grown so large that Hitler felt he needed an armed escort that was totally dedicated to him. Thus the Schutzstaffel (SS) or protection squad was created. After Hitler's imprisonment (and subsequent release) in the wake of the failed Munich Putsch in 1923 Hitler saw even further need for a body guard and the place of the SS was solidified in the Nazi hierarchy.

Until 1929, the SA was still the dominant force in the Nazi Party, however, the SS was growing in strength and importance. In January, 1929 Hitler appointed Heinrich Himmler to lead the SS (his rank was Reichsführer) and it was Himmler's goal to create an elite corps of armed soldiers within the party. However, the SS was still a very small organization and Hitler wanted an effective force by 1933. Himmler set out to recruit men who represented the elite of German society, both in physical abilities and political beliefs. Through his active recruitment, Himmler was able to increase the size of the SS to about 52,000 by the end of 1933.

Although the SS was growing exponentially, the SA had mirrored the growth of Hitler's private army. The SA had over 2 million members at the end of 1933. Led by one of Hitler's old comrades, Ernst Röhm, the SA represented a threat to Hitler's attempts to win favour with the German army. As well, the SA threatened to sour Hitler's relations with the conservative elements of the country, whose support Hitler needed to solidify his position in the German government. Hitler decided to act against the SA and the SS was put charge of eliminating Röhm and several other high ranking officers in the SA. The "Night of the Long Knives" on June 30, 1934 also saw the execution of thousands of SA men and effectively ended the power of the SA.

uring the "Night of the Long Knives", the SS had performed precisely as Hitler had envisioned and from that point on Himmler and his SS would be only responsible to Hitler and would be the dominant force in the N.S.D.A.P. With his new-found independence, Himmler expanded the SS and created several new departments within the existing infrastructure. In particular, Himmler created the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) which was to act as the Reich's security service. The SS was expanded to include the German police service in 1936. Himmler then reorganized the Reich's police service to include the Ordnungspolizei (regular police), and the Sicherheitspolizei (security police). The Sicherheitspolizei was further divided into the Kriminalpolizei or Kripo (Criminal police) and the Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo (secret police). All of these various elements were headquartered at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Main office of Reich Security). The RSHA was under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich and later Ernst Kaltenbrunner.

In addition to controlling the German police force, the SS comprised a group of armed men that were used for security and ceremonial puroposes. This organization was called the SS Verfügungstruppe. Included in this group was Hitler's protection squad, known as the Stabwache. This protection squad had been created in March 1933 and would be the foundation for the 1st SS Panzer Division "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler". Leibstandarte was different from other SS formations in that they had sworn an oath directly to Hitler and thus effectively removed them from control of Himmler.

When Hitler reintroduced conscription in 1935, he also mandated that the SS Verfügungstruppen would be fully formed as a military unit. SS Verfügungstruppen would be the cornerstone of future Waffen SS divisions. Special schools at Bad Tölz and Braunschweig were created to train future SS men. Himmler selected former Lieut. General Paul Hausser to oversee the training and schooling of the SS. Hausser also created two new SS regiments. "Deutschland" and Germania" were formed from various battalions of the Verfügungstruppe and would be the foundation for 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" and 5th SS Panzer Division "Wiking". After the annexation of Austria another regiment composed of Austrian Nazis named "Der Führer" was created. Thus at the outbreak of hostilities there were four SS armed regiments (although "Der Führer" was not ready for combat).

After the conclusion of the campaign against Poland, the three regiments of the Verfügungstruppe were joined to form the Verfügungsdivision and Leibstandarte was transformed into a motorized regiment. Also two other divisions were created, the SS Totenkopfdivision and Polizeidivision. In March 1940, after an agreement between the Army and the SS, the title of Waffen SS was officially given. The Waffen SS took part in almost every major battle and were shifted from front to front, depending on the severity of the situation. In the end the Waffen SS would total 38 divisions (although some of these formations were divisions in name only). Their importance in the history of World War Two cannot be overlooked and their effectiveness as fighting units coupled with the atrocities that were committed by some of its members make the Waffen SS one of the most infamous military organizations in history.

Early history; LSSAH, SS-VT, SS-TV

The original cadre of the Waffen-SS came from the Freikorps and the Reichswehr along with various right-wing paramilitary formations. Formed at the instruction of Adolf Hitler in 1933, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler was the first formation of what was to become the Waffen-SS. When the SA was rendered powerless in the Night of the Long Knives, many ex-SA men requested transfer to the SS, swelling its ranks and resulting in the formation of several new units including the SS-Verfügungstruppe, SS-VT (to become the SS Division Das Reich) and the SS-Totenkopfverbände, SS-TV, the concentration camp guard unit (to become the SS Division Totenkopf).

The majority of the Waffen-SS men originally received second rate weapons and equipment with many formations receiving Czech and Austrian weapons and equipment. With the exception of a select few of the 'Germanic' SS Divisions, this policy was continued throughout the war. The majority of the best equipment went to the Heer's elite divisions (Panzergrenadier-Division Großdeutschland and Panzer-Lehr-Division).

The premier Waffen-SS divisions began to receive standard equipment once they proved themselves in the Eastern front and were upgraded to Panzergrenadier and later Panzer divisions. The remainder of the SS Divisions made do with either standard or second rate equipment.

Concept, training

SS combat training consisted primarily of several months of intensive basic training with three objectives; physical fitness, small-arms proficiency and political indoctrination. The training was so intensive that one in three potentials failed to pass the course, which becomes more significant when we consider the context of their "application;" they were selected individuals, not volunteers. After this basic training, the recruits would be sent to specialist schools (see Panzertruppenschule I) where they received further training in their chosen combat arm. As the war progressed and replacements were required more frequently, particularly after the expansion of the Waffen-SS following the success of the SS-Panzerkorps at Kharkov, the intensity of the training was relaxed somewhat.

For officers, the focus was on leadership and combat command, usually at the SS-Junkerschule at Bad Tölz. The principle of Auftragstaktik which underpinned Wehrmacht and SS training is standard in all armies today, although the concept was invented by Heer theorists rather than the SS. A strong emphasis was placed on creating a bond between the officers and men, and officer candidates were made to pass through basic training alongside the enlisted candidates. This created a mutual trust and respect between the officers and men, and meant that the relationship between these groups was very relaxed, unlike the Heer (German Army), where strict discipline and a policy of separation between the officers and enlisted men existed.

During the war the organization was presented as a multinational force protecting Europe from the evils of Communism (see Black Edelweiss). In addition, training emphasized unit cohesion and mutual respect between officers and men, rather than strict discipline. In the Waffen-SS, it was not a requirement to salute officers and a more casual salute was adopted (the right arm raised vertically from the elbow - a relaxed version of the Heil salute. This salute is portrayed in many war films). Added to this, the practice of addressing a superior as Herr ("Sir") was also forbidden, with everyone up to Himmler being addressed simply by their rank.

As the outbreak of war neared, Himmler ordered the formation of several combat formations from the SS-Standarten (units of regimental size). The resulting three formations (the LSSAH, SS-VT and SS-TV) took place in the Invasion of Poland as well as Fall Gelb. During the campaign in the West, both the Totenkopf and LSSAH were implicated in atrocities. The overall performance of the Waffen-SS had been mediocre during these campaigns.

The poor initial performance of the Waffen-SS units was mainly due to the emphasis on political indoctrination rather than proper military training before the war. This was largely due to the shortage of experienced NCOs, who preferred to stay with the regular army. Despite this, the experience gained from the Polish, French and Balkan campaigns and the peculiarly egalitarian form of training soon turned the best Waffen-SS units into elite formations.

On several occasions, the Waffen-SS was criticised by Heer commanders for their reckless disregard for casualties while taking or holding objectives (See Totenkopf's actions during the early months of the Russian Campaign). However, the Waffen-SS divisions eventually proved themselves to a skeptical Heer as capable soldiers, although there were exceptions such as Kampfgruppe Nord's rout from the town of Karelia;

The Waffen-SS truly proved their worth during the Third Battle of Kharkov, where the II.SS-Panzerkorps under SS-Brigadeführer Paul Hausser recaptured the city and blunted the Soviet offensive, saving the forces of Erich von Manstein's Army Group South from being cut off and destroyed.

In Mid 1943, the II.SS-Panzerkorps took part in Operation Citadel and the Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf (all now Panzergrenadier divisions) took part in the immense armour battles near Prokhorovka on the southern flank of the Kursk salient.

As the fronts began to crumble, the Waffen-SS divisions began increasingly to be used in a "fire-brigade" role. Held back behind the line, the divisions would be committed to counter enemy breakthroughs. As the success of the divisions increased, so too did the difficulty of the missions assigned them. In the closing months of the war, Waffen-SS formations were assigned impossible missions by Hitler, who saw them as not only exceptionally effective in combat, but also politically reliable. The Konrad operations to relieve Budapest and the Frühlingserwachen operation to recapture the Hungarian oilfields were doomed to defeat from the beginning. After the failure of Frühlingserwachen, Hitler proclaimed that the Waffen-SS had let him down, and ordered the removal of honorary cuff-titles "Adolf Hitler". The commander of VI.SS-Panzer-Armee and also the former divisional commander of SS-Division (mot.) "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler", SS-Oberstgruppenführer 'Sepp' Dietrich, was disgusted by the order and did not pass it on to his troops.

Mixed quality and imagined quality

Several divisions are seen by historians/hobbyists as being elite, notably those with higher proportions of ethnic Germans in them. These divisions were characterized by extremely high unit morale and combat ability, as well as commitment to the ideals of the self-styled Crusade against Bolshevism. In practical terms, they frequently benefited from the best available equipment and were also viewed by German commanders at the time as being a cut above either Heer formations or even other formations of the Waffen SS.

These "elite" divisions included the LSSAH, Das Reich, Totenkopf, the multi-national Wiking, the Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg, and the Hitlerjugend.

These "elite" formations, as was the case with the Grossdeutschland Division of the Army, were often called on to act as "fire brigades", or moved from hotspot to hotspot along the front, making counterattacks or local defensive actions where necessary to bolster other, less motivated and more poorly equipped, formations.

Tangible evidence of their "elite" status was the award of named cuff titles to units of the Waffen SS; while the use of cuff titles was common in many military and paramilitary organizations in the Third Reich, there were few combat units permitted to wear them as a means of identification. Their status was exemplified in April 1945 when Adolf Hitler personally ordered SS units he felt had failed in their duty to launch a counterattack to remove their titles from their uniform.

In spite of heavy casualties, many of the Waffen-SS units retained their reputations as crack formations until the end of the War, though the quality of formations raised late in the war was often execrable, and some of the Freiwillige troops were prone to mutiny (see, for instance, 13.Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS Handschar (kroatische Nr.1) ).

Himmler, wishing to expand the Waffen-SS, advocated the idea of SS controlled foreign legions. The Reichsführer, with his penchant for medieval lore, envisioned a united European 'crusade', fighting to save old Europe from the 'Godless Bolshevik hordes'. While volunteers from regions which had been declared Aryan were approved almost instantly, Himmler eagerly pressed for the creation of more and more foreign units.

In late 1940, the creation of a multinational SS division, the Wiking, was authorised. Command of the division was given to SS-Brigadeführer Felix Steiner. Steiner immersed himself in the organisation of the volunteer division, soon becoming a strong advocate for an increased number of foreign units. The Wiking was committed to combat several days after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, proving itself an impressive fighting unit.

Soon Danish, French, Azeri, Armenian, Flemish, Norwegian, Finnish and Dutch Freiwilligen (volunteer) formations were committed to combat, gradually proving their worth.

Among the more unusual units to exist in the Waffen SS was the American Free Corps or "George Washington Brigade". Its most famous member was Second Lieutenant Martin James Monti, who worked as a propaganda broadcaster as well. The "American Free Corps" consisted of no more than 5 members. Another unit, the Britisches Freikorps, a unit composed of citizens of the British Commonwealth, was led by John Amery and had a strength of no more than 60 men. Still another unit, the Indian National Army was composed of Indian troops, mostly prisoners of war recruited by the Germans.

Hitler however, was hesitant to allow foreign volunteers to be formed into formations based on their ethnicity, preferring that they be absorbed into multi-national divisions. Hitler feared that unless the foreign recruits were committed to the idea of a united Germania, then their reasons for fighting were suspect, and could damage the German cause.

Himmler was allowed to create his new formations, but they were to be commanded by German officers and NCOs. Beginning in 1942-43, several new formations were formed from Bosnians, Latvians, Estonians, and Ukrainians. The Reichsführer had sidestepped the race laws by ordering that Waffen-SS units formed with men from non-Aryan backgrounds were to be designated division der SS (or Division of the SS) rather than SS Division. The wearing of the SS runes on the collar was forbidden, with several of these formations wearing national insignia instead.

All non-Germanic officers and men in these units had their rank prefix changed from SS to Waffen (e.g. a Latvian Hauptscharführer would be referred to as a Waffen-Hauptscharführer rather than SS-Hauptscharführer). An example of a division der SS is the Estonian 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (estnische Nr.1). The combat ability of the divisions der SS varied greatly, with the Latvian, French and Estonian formations performing exceptionally whilst the Albanian units performing poorly.

While many adventurers and idealists joined the SS as part of the fight against Communism, many of the later recruits joined or were conscripted for different reasons. For example, Dutchmen who joined the 34.SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Division Landstorm Nederland were granted exemption from forced labour and provided with food, pay and accommodation. Recruits who joined for such reasons rarely proved good soldiers, and several units composed of such volunteers were involved in atrocities.

Towards the end of 1943, it became apparent that numbers of volunteer recruits were inadequate to meet the needs of the German military, so conscription was introduced. The Estonian 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (Estnische Nr.1) is an example of such a conscript formation, which proved to be outstanding soldiers with an unblemished record.

Waffen-SS Panzergrenadiers fire from the cover of an abandoned
King Tiger near
Jameppes, Belgium in October of 1944

Not satisfied with the growing number of volunteer formations, Himmler sought to gain control of all volunteer forces serving alongside Germany. This put the SS at odds with the Heer, as several volunteer units had been placed under Heer control (e.g. volunteers of the Spanish Blue Division). Despite this, Himmler constantly campaigned to have all foreign volunteers fall under the SS banner. In several cases, like the ROA and the 5.SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade Wallonien he was successful, and by the last year of the war, most foreign volunteers units did fall under SS command.

While several volunteer units performed poorly in combat, the majority acquitted themselves well. French and Spanish SS volunteers, along with remnants of the 11.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Division Nordland formed the final defence of the Reichstag in 1945.

After the surrender, many volunteers were tried and imprisoned by their countries. In several cases, volunteers were executed. Those volunteers from the Baltic States and Ukraine could at best look forward to years spent in the gulags. To avoid this, many ex-volunteers from these regions joined underground resistance groups which were engaged fighting the Soviets until the 1950s.

Many other Waffen-SS volunteers, including many Wiking veterans, avoided punishment by joining the French Foreign Legion, and many ex-SS men fought and died at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Helped by ODESSA network, Walloon volunteer leader Leon Degrelle escaped to Spain, where, despite being sentenced to death in absentia by the Belgian authorities, he lived in comfortable exile until his death in 1994. John Amery, the leader of the Britisches Freikorps, was tried and convicted of treason by the British government. He was executed in December 1945. Martin James Monti was charged with treason and sentenced to 25 years and was paroled in 1960.

In Estonia and Latvia, the majority of Waffen SS veterans were conscripts who were at least partly considered freedom fighters. In an April 13, 1950 message from the U.S. High Commission in Germany (HICOG), signed by General Frank McCloy to the Secretary of State, clarified the US position on the "Baltic Legions": they were not to be seen as "movements", "volunteer", or "SS". In short, they were not given the training, indoctrination, and induction normally given to SS members. Subsequently the US Displaced Persons Commission in September 1950 declared that the Baltic Waffen SS Units (Baltic Legions) are to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities, and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission holds them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States.

Still, much debate is continuing on this issue and because of general condemnation of Nazi regime across the globe, official statements of the position of Estonian and Latvian Waffen SS veterans remain ambiguous. The Latvian parliament Saeima declared "the day of the Legion" (16 March) as a national holiday, but under pressure from the European Union, reversed its decision in 2000.

Overall, around 60% of Waffen-SS members were non-German.

War crimes and atrocities

Many formations within the Waffen-SS were proven to have committed war crimes, most notoriously at Oradour-sur-Glane, Marzabotto and in the Malmedy massacre.

Perhaps the most infamous of all SS formations were the Dirlewanger and Kaminski Brigades (later to become the 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS and 29.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (Russische Nr.1) respectively. These formations, composed mostly of ex-Einsatzgruppen, released criminals and Russian Prisoners of War and commanded by the fanatical Nazis Oskar Dirlewanger and Bronislaw Kaminski, were engaged in numerous atrocities throughout their existence. After their actions in putting down the Warsaw Uprising, Heer complaints resulted in these units being dissolved and several members (including Kaminski) being tried and executed for their role in several incidents.

Similarly, the Waffen-Sturm-Brigade RONA has a "combat" record riddled with atrocities as well as abysmal conduct when faced with front line service.

While divisions like the Nordland and Nord have virtually spotless records, most Waffen-SS divisions were involved in at least some questionable actions. The debate over the culpability of the organization is the center of much so-called 'revisionist' thinking.

On one end of the debate, in addition to documented atrocities, certain Waffen-SS units did assist in rounding up Eastern European Jewry for deportation, SS-Division Totenkopf personnel convalesced at concentration camps by serving routine guard duties, and utilized Scorched-earth tactics during anti-partisan operations.

On the other end, some assert that with over 900,000 men serving in its ranks from 15 nationalities, the Waffen-SS was a pan-European military formation embedded with a socio-political ideology, similar in composition to the 19th-century Napoleonic forces or even modern-day NATO military organization.

Regardless of the record of individual combat units within the Waffen-SS, the entire organization was declared a criminal organization by the International Military Tribunal during the Nuremberg Trials, except conscripts, who were exempted from that judgment due to being forcibly mobilized. The actions of Himmler and the Nazi hierarchy in attaching the SS combat divisions to the same overall command of as te Allgemeine SS, Concentration Camps and Einsatzgruppen meant that such a decision was inevitable.

The Waffen-SS was a group of superb fighting soldiers who were created and used for wholly evil ends by a desperate and despotic regime. Absolutely convinced of the justice of their cause they willingly gave their souls to the devil, marching wide-eyed and innocent into legend and infamy.

There is a well-known quotation by Heinrich Himmler, which reads:

One basic principle must be the absolute rule for the SS man. We must be decent, loyal and comradely to members of our own blood and to nobody else. What happens to a Russian, or to a Czech, doesn't interest me in the slightest.

This accurately set the tone for much of the behaviour of the SS as a whole, both of the Allgemeine-SS and of the Waffen-SS.

There are instances of the Waffen-SS in particular, behaving with considerable restraint and even courtesy towards enemy troops whom they considered to be worthy opponents, for example the surrendering British paratroopers at Arnhem in 1944. It is worth noting that Himmler personally followed his own advice, for at the end of things, with The Third Reich in collapse and his own arrest, he repeatedly enquired about the welfare of his two subordinates captured at the same time. The SS looked after its own and there are masses of evidence for this at all levels and in all circumstances.

The SS never, even under the most desperate situations turned their collective back on their members. In this they were considerably more admirable than say the Japanese armed forces in general (who regarded themselves as being the Knights of Bushido). There are instances of Japanese soldiers being denied aid because they were from a different unit to those they sought assistance from. A good example of this was during the battle for Okinawa. Towards the end, as the cohesiveness of the defence collapsed, desperate soldiers from destroyed units were turned away to go and fend for themselves by other more fortunate groups.

Following the German surrender in May 1945, the whole of the SS was declared an illegal organisation. This blanket condemnation was issued without any distinction between its various parts. Thus the Gestapo was judged as guilty as the SS-signals corps (and vice-versa). This arbitrary and universal condemnation gave rise to a somewhat unexpected and unintentional result. Which was that the German people as a whole took the opportunity to lay all the blame for the excesses of The Third Reich onto the SS and avoid any personal responsibility of their own. There is an early book about this phenomenon by Gerald Reitlinger, called, The SS Alibi of a Nation.

In effect the Allies created a convenient whipping boy out of the SS (both Waffen and Allgemeine), which allowed ordinary Germans to conveniently forget that they had earlier voted and cheered enthusiastically for Hitler and the Nazi party. It must be re-stated that the Nazis had been voted democratically into power on the promises laid down in a clearly stated set of proposals. On this basis, all Germans of voting age in 1933 have to accept that they share some measure of responsibility for what followed, to pass all the blame to the SS was (and still is) simply wrong.

To demonise individual members of the SS simply because they were members of the SS is a gross injustice and wholly contrary to the spirit of Christian belief. Yet an entire country (France) did just that after the war when they passed, "The Law of Collective Responsibility. This act said that all members of a unit that had carried out a war crime were to be regarded as equally suspect and indeed equally guilty, unless they could prove their non-involvement. Thus all members of the Third Company of the 1st Battalion of Der Führer Regiment of the Das Reich 2nd Armoured Division were to be regarded as being equally culpable for the events at Oradour.

The origins of the SS go right back to the early days of the Nazi party, when there was a real physical risk to Hitler and the other party leaders (mostly from the communists.) It must be remembered that SS is the abbreviation for Schutz Staffel (Protection Squad) and their earliest function was simply the protection of Hitler. It was not by chance that the honour title of the 1st Waffen-SS Division was the, Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, (the Life Guards of Adolf Hitler). Another facet of the SS was that they took their oath of allegiance direct to Hitler, not the Party or the State. They were thus (in Hitler's eyes) more reliable than the SA. In fact by 1933 with the Nazi party legally in power, the rough and rowdy SA were becoming an embarrassment and Ernst Röhm, their leader was increasingly being perceived as a threat. On June 30 1934 Hitler unleashed the, 'Night of the long Knives' and purged the SA, killing Röhm and other prominent leaders. The group, which carried out this purge, was the SS. In their first big test, they demonstrated their loyalty to their Führer in the most tangible manner, by arresting and killing their erstwhile comrades.

From small beginnings, the SS grew and divided into its two main parts of the Allgemeine-SS and the Waffen-SS before the war began. The main driving force behind this expansion was Heinrich Himmler after he became Reichsführer-SS in January 1929 and by 1944 the total manpower of the whole organisation was close to a million. The bulk of this number were in the Waffen-SS and this in its turn became the largest multi-national force in the history of warfare ever to fight under the one banner.

At the start of the war the majority of the Waffen-SS was comprised of German and Austrian volunteers. After 1939 - 40 other Nordic type Europeans, such as Dutch, Danes, Norwegians, French, Belgians and men from the conquered eastern territories found their way into its ranks. In fact whole SS-Divisions were created specifically to cater for foreign nationals and given honour titles to match. One such was the 33rd Waffen - Grenadier Division der SS Charlemagne, which was specifically aimed at attracting Frenchmen.

In the early days of the war, the Waffen-SS was still a wholly volunteer organisation and many attempts were made to attract additional suitable personnel. The usual recruiting slogans and posters used throughout the German sphere of influence at this time were those espousing a war against communism. It must be remembered that in the 1930-40's many people in Europe truly hated Bolshevism and the prospect of a crusade against it had a strong appeal to many men. Just in passing, it can be mentioned that in 1944 the Waffen-SS had in its ranks, British, American, and even Japanese personnel. Admittedly these nationalities had only a minimal, symbolic presence; but they were there.

When Himmler initially obtained Hitler's permission to expand the Waffen-SS beyond its embryonic beginnings, he set very strict guidelines as to who could be admitted into what was intended to be an elite unit. It has often been mentioned that in the early days just one tooth filling was enough to bar entry to the Leibstandarte. Applicants had to be physically fit, racially pure, politically irreproachable and financially sound. There were to be no rough edges to the Waffen-SS, they were to be a very smart and well-disciplined outfit, in stark contrast to the SA and its, 'street fighter' image. In their early days (prior to the war), the embryonic Leibstandarte were known somewhat contemptuously as, "The Asphalt Soldiers", because of the amount of time they spent on parade and ceremonial guard duties dressed in their smart uniforms, rather than on manoeuvres.

The SS was conceived as an elitist force, in fact as the political soldiers of the Third Reich. In order to re-enforce this image it was allowed to develop in its own way, with its own rituals and insignia. The most obvious visible differences in the early days were the very distinctive SS runes on the right collar tab and the Death's Head symbol on the cap. The rank titles were completely different to the rest of the Wehrmacht and were to some extent carried over and modified from those of the SA. The SS even developed its own special typewriter keyboards with the Sig runes (SS) on one key (by using the "shift" key with the "3").

Other differences between the SS and their non-SS colleagues in the army were of a more subtle nature to establish their sense of being special. Two well-known features were firstly; the instruction not to keep personal lockers locked shut in the barracks. Secondly, that any SS man could address any other, no matter what his rank without saying, "Sir". The logic to the first was that since the SS were a band of brothers, locking up ones belongings implied a distrust of ones brother and what brother would steal from another? The second point again came from the idea of the band of brothers; all that was necessary when addressing a higher rank was to quote the rank, "Sir" was superfluous. A private soldier, an SS-Mann could address Himmler, the Reichsführer-SS himself, simply as, "Reichsführer!" (in written communications it was normal to place an exclamation mark after the rank title in order to give it a sense of emphasis).

To reinforce this sense of being special and in addition, to give his ideas an historical foundation, Himmler set up a research department, the Ahnenerbe Forschungs und Lehrgemeinschaft (Society for Research and Teaching of Ancestral Heritage). This group were to enquire into Germany's ancient past and to search out racial and mythological facts for use within the SS. It was from the research work done at this time that the various SS runic symbols came into use, for example the Wolfsangel (Wolf Hook) used as the tactical symbol by Das Reich.

SS officers were encouraged to take a great interest in their men and to lead from the front. They were always to set an example and partake in sports, especially team events. There are many examples of officers helping their men carry heavy equipment when on the march, of returning to their units before being properly recovered after injury and of having a deep concern for their men's welfare. Being regarded as a good comrade was highly important and this aspect of behaviour was commented on in many personnel assessments.

The SS taught its recruits Himmler's racial nonsense as if it were established and scientifically backed fact. It must be remembered, that this view was believed by the majority, probably because it was part and parcel of the obviously successful, political, economic, diplomatic and military revival of Germany. The only choice that Hitler gave was that one had to believe in all of National Socialism, if not then be cast into the shadows. You could not elect to accept bits of it; all or nothing was the rule. It is interesting to speculate how long the unscientific, almost mythological Third Reich with all its contradictions could have lasted before the accumulating weight of scientific evidence (and economic reality) sank it. However this was not to be and war was the way in which the German people learned that believing in the unholy trinity of political, economic and racial fantasy, would always end in tears.

It is perhaps difficult looking back from the twenty-first century, to appreciate just how much hope and wish-fulfilment that Hitler offered the dispirited and demoralised Germans of the 1920-30's. He said 'follow me and all will be well' and for a time it was. He blamed the failures of the past, especially the loss of the First World War on both 'International Jewry' and the communists operating within Germany, the so called, 'Stab in the back' that led to the armistice of 1918. The hope for the future was National Socialism and population growth (with racial purity) into the unoccupied spaces of the east.

The date that the Second World War began does to some extent depend on nationality. To the Poles it began on 1st September 1939, to the British and French, 3rd September 1939, to the Russians, 22nd June 1941 and to the Americans, on 7th December 1941. However as far as the Waffen-SS was concerned the fighting started in earnest with the invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939.

The early campaigns against the Poles saw the SS units allocated on a piecemeal basis amongst the regular army divisions; they did not fight together as one group. The Wehrmacht commanders were only partly impressed by what they saw. They said that the SS took great risks, had high casualties and would have been more effective with a little less dash and verve. They were however undoubtedly brave and resourceful soldiers. The relatively high causality rate was to be a feature of the SS, after all, they were taught to be aggressive in attack and contemptuous of risk. The effect of this training was that by 1944, their battlefield losses, had so strained the Waffen-SS, that not only had they to resort to conscription to make up the numbers, but many suitable foreign volunteers were also admitted to the ranks of the organisation. Toward the end of the war, even Muslims wearing turbans were allowed in, something that the volunteers of the 1920's and early 30'swould surely have found quite incomprehensible.

Hitler was impressed with the Waffen-SS. He came to regard them as his trusty sword that could be rapidly sent where the need was greatest and whose performance would never disappoint him. They quickly gained a reputation for being harsh with surrendering enemy troops and others that did not fit their racial stereotypes. The first such incidents took place in Poland, naturally enough as this was their first major battlefield test of the war.

It was as the political soldiers of The Third Reich that the SS established themselves as a fanatical fighting force, especially in adversity. It is perfectly true that armies of every country and every age have had their elite units of highly trained and motivated troops. What made the SS different however was the level of political and racial belief that they carried.

It has often been claimed that the Waffen-SS should be regarded as something different from the Allgemeine-SS and thus not held responsible for the concentration and extermination camp system. Otto Weidinger does quite specifically mention (in Comrades to the End) that Himmler had proposed in both September 1940 and again in 1942-43 that the Waffen-SS be removed from the SS proper and: "incorporated as the fourth branch of the armed forces. It was a proposal which, in spite of its correctness and advisability, was unfortunately not accepted. Had it been, untold misfortune and much trouble could well have been avoided."

Unfortunately, as history records, there was a continual interchange between the field units and the concentration camps and Weidinger himself began his career in the SS as a concentration camp guard at Dachau in 1934. Officers found unfit to command, recovering wounded, or disabled soldiers and some discipline cases from the Waffen-SS spent time staffing the camps. The main significance of mentioning this is not to show that the two branches were equally responsible, but that there must have been widespread knowledge of the camp system throughout the whole of the SS. It is undoubtedly true that some members of the German armed forces really did not know about the camps, but most Germans did know (or at least had a very good idea) and chose to close their eyes and ears to reality. This willing blindness was part of the Hitler magic, of his almost religious fervour that he managed to convey to the German nation right up to the end in May 1945.

The SS as a whole were duped just as much as other members of The Third Reich and in their way they behaved in an almost naive and innocent manner. They quite genuinely believed in the message. For the most part they did not act as they did out of a sense of wickedness, but rather in the firm belief of the essential rightness of their actions and the justice of their cause. This blindness to the inhumanity of ones actions has not been uniquely confined to the SS alone, more recent examples being the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot in Cambodia, and the actions of Al Quaida under Osama bin Laden in New York.

Unfortunately for mankind it is possible for a political 'snake charmer' to hijack a nation's moral code and twist it for his (or her) own purposes. These extreme events always burn themselves out, but usually not before much damage and distress has been caused. Examples from opposite sides of the political spectrum are to be found in the McCarthy 'witch-hunt' for communist sympathisers in America during the 1950's and the Red Guards of Mao's China during the 1960-70's.

The instigators of these movements are always responding to previously existing events, they do not manufacture them. Hitler did not start either the First World War nor did he cause the hyper-inflation in Germany during the 1920's which was its consequence, but without them, it is difficult to see how he could have succeeded as he did. An extremist always requires a perceived injustice or threat to act as his cause, without a good cause to make the majority feel wronged and endangered, then there is no chance for a radical to be taken seriously.

It has often been said that Stalin's Russia was just as evil an empire as was the Third Reich and it is true that the Russians were guilty of many atrocities perpetrated against different groups, especially their own citizens. For example, Stalin personally persecuted many of his own military personnel ("with an Asiatic sense of cruelty" as a result of suspicions about their political reliability and this led to him sending tens of thousands of Soviet citizens to the Gulags. In addition he was also responsible for crimes against other nationalities which were motivated by political expediency, such as the murder of the Polish Officers in Katyn Wood during early 1940 (which the Russians tried to blame on the Germans).

Some Waffen-SS units do consider that their actions during the war were wholly correct and proper and indeed perhaps they were. Many units however took part in actions of studied brutality, for example in 1940 part of the Leibstandarte murdered surrendered members of the British army at Wormhoudt in France and of course in June 1944, elements belonging to Das Reich killed civilians at Oradour. It is wrong to demonise all members of the SS because of the actions of some of them. But it must be appreciated that the number of atrocities laid at the door of the SS is large and that as a group they acted both more harshly and with less restraint than other units of the Wehrmacht.

For the record it must be stated that non-SS soldiers of the Wehrmacht were also guilty of some atrocious behaviour, especially in the east. Many of the senior commanders of the army, whilst not being either members of the NSDAP, or of the SS believed in the racial theories of the day and acted just as harshly as did their SS counterparts.

However, the Germans, mainly but not exclusively members of the Allgemeine-SS, also killed people, mostly civilians simply because they were of the wrong race or religion or were not sufficiently well developed mentally. There was no argument, no pleading, no appeal, if you were in the wrong group you were to be killed. It did not matter that a person could speak six languages, or had a long record of public service, or was an artist of repute, if for example that person was a Jew, then after January 1942 they were to be killed. Killed because they were of the wrong kind, there was no trial, no chance to state their case (simply because they had none), just death. It was at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin that the broad outline for the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem was worked out and agreed. This meeting was attended by members of both the SSas well as civilian Party members of the Third Reich, it was chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's deputy. In this meeting can be seen yet again the integral part the SS played in German (Nazi) society during the years of the Third Reich.

Briefly, it can be summarised by saying that whilst the Germans regarded themselves as fighting a racial war for living space in the east, the Soviets were fighting a political war against the west and very often against their own citizens.


Hitler’s Foreign Legion: Waffen SS
Non German Units in the Waffen SS During World War Two

Nearly 350,000 non-German volunteers from no less than 16 occupied countries served willingly in Adolf Hitler's Waffen SS combat units from 1940-1945.

The Waffen-SS - which translates as "Weapon-SS" or "Armed-SS", was the military wing of the Schutzstaffel (SS) founded in 1940. The Waffen-SS was expected to be a military organization absolutely and perfectly obedient and loyal to its masters, Henrich Himmler and Adolf Hitler. During the course of WWII, the Waffen-SS grew from an elite force of 4 divisions of ethnic Germans to a multinational polyglot force of 900,000 men in 41 divisions and other units, with over half of its troop’s either foreign volunteers or conscripts. These troops were seperate from the other SS units such as the Concentration camp guards and Hitler's bodyguard units. It gained a fearsome combat reputation and committed many war crimes. Waffen-SS strength even at its peak represented only 10% of that of the regular German Army. Records are conflicting but an estimated 253,000 Waffen-SS members were killed in action, an additional 400,000 wounded and no less than 70,000 listed as missing. Many SS units were completely annihilated, along with a majority of their paperwork, making accurate historical facts sometimes very sketchy.

In July 1940, the SS began an active program to gain Western European recruits from newly conquered countries for several new Waffen-SS volunteer legions. This effort intensified after June 1941, as the SS exhorted volunteers to join the "anti-Bolshevik" campaign in the Soviet Union. Enlistment rolls show that more than 125,000 West Europeans volunteered of their own free will to join the Waffen SS. Eastern Europeans, numbering another 220,000-primarily from the Baltic States and the Ukraine also joined the Waffen SS. Despite the SS belief in the superiority of the German race, the decline in German military fortunes caused the SS to quietly shelve their racist beliefs about ‘Untermenschen’ in favor of the more practical policy of recruiting these essentially Slavic peoples to fight against the Soviets.

These units were often armed from stores of captured or substandard equipment. Their training tended to be more haphazard. Basic training lasted as short as two or three weeks. Unlike most armies no ‘parade ground training’ was conducted being replaced with aggressive live fire exercises with very real bullets. The recruits were also exposed to multiple combined arms training such as artillerymen would learn how to use radios; signals troops would learn how to fire heavy machine guns, etc.

These foreign fighters were treated differently from the German troops in the SS. They took a slightly different oath of service upon enlisting and often wore unique insignia or ethnic uniforms. Language differences were always a barrier, with most units being led by regular German SS officers who often treated their men as something like 2nd class citizens. They were exposed to less Nazi indoctrination, and the Nazi propaganda was tailored to their nationality. The were often partly motivated by their own political or nationalistic agendas such as in the Balkan areas. Himmler ordered that new Waffen-SS units formed with men of non-Germanic ethnicity were to be designated Division der SS (or Division of the SS) rather than SS Division. The wearing of the SS runes on the collar was typically not done, with several of these formations wearing a unique national insignia instead. Some units even wore nonstandard uniforms, for example the 13th SS Hanshar Division had its Bosnian moslem soldiers wear a Fez hat. Soldiers of non-German citizenship in these units had their rank prefix changed from SS to Waffen (e.g. a Serbian Hauptscharführer would be referred to as a Waffen-Hauptscharführer rather than SS-Hauptscharführer). The combat ability of the divisions der SS varied greatly. For example, the Norwegian, French and Estonian formations performed exceptionally, while the Albanian and Ukrainian units performed poorly. Some of these units were formed for propaganda purposes only, such as the British Freecorps which was raised from British prisoners of War and was generally kept from combat operations.

They were often the most disciplined and fanatic of SS troopers.. With combat reputations ranging from excellent to fair. Unit such as Nordland, Leon Degrelle's Wallonien Legion, and Langemarck contained Europeans that volunteered for service in the "anti-Bolshevik" crusade against the Soviet Union. Waffen-SS troops as a whole earned a distinguished combat reputation during WWII, renowned for both stunning offensive victories and tenacious defensive operations. Without question, many SS troops exhibited incredible feats of bravery, courage and tactical brilliance, throughout the duration of the conflict. While many infantry units fought on the front lines, more were often relegated to security duty and anti-partisan sweeps. This type of service against guerilla bands who themselves took no prisoners lead to many atrocities. The combat record of several of these units such as the 29th Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (russische Nr. 1) on such Sühnemassnahmen = "atonement operations" was often too grisly even for military journalists to cover and stains the Waffen SS to this day in a portrait of horror.

Late in the war as Germany's hope of victory waned, these volunteers fought harder and more recklessly. Considered traitors by their countrymen they had no home to return to. These men with nothing left to lose became the worst sort of man you wanted to encounter on the battlefield. Typically these units fought into extinction, refusing to surrender for fears they would be repatriated to their home countries. Thousands of Russian Cossacks serving in the SS Kosaken-Kavallerie-Korps were executed when turned over to Soviet troops as were members of the Serbian Volunteer Corps when turned over to Tito’s Partisans. More moderate countries such as Norway, Denmark and Britain jailed their wayward SS volunteers for as many as fifteen years. The purpose of the Waffen-SS was to impose Hitler's world view on the greater European continent and those non-German Europeans that served him often found them living out the rest of their lives in exile, their service to him voiding their pre-war life.

We pledge to you, Adolf Hitler, loyalty and bravery. We swear obedience to you and the Superiors appointed by you, even unto death, as God is our witness.

~ SS Oath