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.
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.
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.
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.
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.