The elite security arm of the German Nazi Party grew to supersede the party as one of the most important organizations of the wartime Third Reich. The Security Squadron (SS) formed in 1925 from a combination of the guards of the party Stabswache with the Hitler Stosstruppe bodyguard in order to extend protection to the leadership and guard against internal and external threats to their rule. In 1929 this small battalion of 280 men began to take on the character of a Praetorian Guard under its new leader Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945), who began to use the title of “Reich Leader of the SS” personally and later raised it to a senior military rank. Raised to a 52,000-man corps by 1933 and wearing a distinctive black uniform, the SS served Hitler well in the suppression of the larger and more radical party militia, the SA (Sturmabteilung) Stormtroopers, which threatened his hegemony.
Actions required in the Nazi seizure of power in 1934, after taking nominal political leadership the previous year, promoted the destinies of both the SS and its leader. Himmler became the leader of German police and facilitated its infiltration by SS members in the police state and totalitarian regime that developed through the rest of the 1930s. The influence of the SS extended to economic and financial institutions as well as exercising direct authority in foreign lands occupied by Germany but not incorporated into the Reich. Spreading its influence, tentacle-like, through the Nazi hierarchy and the bureaucratic framework of the new Germany, the SS gathered strength as Germany prepared for war, even as the other branches of the Nazi Party began to wane in relative influence. Quasi-military functions within the ever growing SS devolved upon the enlarged bodyguard, first with the formation of a concentration camp guard service, and then the fully military Special-duty Troops (Verfügungstruppen), which formed four motorized infantry regiments by 1938. Rigorously screened for political and ideo logical malleability and correct racial characteristics, these troops performed routine ceremonial duties but had no clear military function. Their sole legal basis for existence stemmed from Hitler's decree of August 17, 1938, which designated them as a standing military unit obedient to his direction and independent of the armed forces (Wehrmacht) or the German police.
Armed, trained, and established as conventional military formations, the new SS troops received weapons, equipment, munitions, and tactical doctrine publications from the army. They were subject to mobilization, but until that time came the army could exercise inspection authority only in matters of weapons training, and then only with Himmler's permission. Furthermore, service in the SS regiments eventually was to count toward fulfillment of a German citizen's military service obligation. As Hitler's personal “army,” the Verfügungstruppen regiments fought in the early campaigns of the Blitzkrieg era, subordinated to Wehrmacht field commanders but administratively independent under Himmler's bureaucracy. This dichotomy was partially rectified when extended negotiations with the Armed Forces High Command (OKW) over the composition, formation, and role of the SS military force culminated in the order of March 2, 1940, which designated, for the first time, the camp guard regiments, newly formed divisions, and support units as the “Waffen [Armed]-SS.” This act was the closest that the Armed SS would come to being officially designated as a de jure service of the armed forces. Although the Waffen-SS continued to operate tactically under army and Wehrmacht command, and its recruitment, training, equipment, and doctrine remained in accordance with Wehrmacht standards, Himmler still controlled the actual administration and training of the force up to the point that individual units deployed to the front.
Scholars have long thought that the exclusion of the Waffen-SS from official military status frustrated Himmler's search for its recognition as the “fourth branch” of the Wehrmacht. We now know that Himmler's ambitions far exceeded this goal, and that he sought the replacement of conventional armed forces by a superior, ideologically prepared, and revolutionary order. Its major struggle centered upon recruiting and expansion. From the beginning of its effective field service in the Blitzkrieg era, the Waffen-SS sought a paramount role as an elite armed force and permanent installation as the party's shock troop. SS leaders envisioned the eventual replacement of the regular armed forces as a necessary development in the transformation of Germany into the “Thousand-Year Reich” of the New Order, which could only be policed by a politically indoctrinated military force. Such motives could scarcely be admitted in the early days, especially when Hitler had consistently promised each of the German military services the sole responsibility for the defense of the German state.
Obtaining manpower for the new Waffen SS divisions became the chief responsibility of SS Lieutenant General Gottlob Berger (1896–1975), a man of considerable organizational ability, who in late 1939 established a national recruiting office at SS headquarters in Berlin to coordinate the activities of the local offices of the various military districts. With Himmler's enthusiastic backing, Berger exploited loopholes left to the SS by the Armed Forces High Command. The latter had allocated recruits for 1940 among the army, navy, and air force in the ratio 66:9:25. Waffen-SS recruiting was not taken into consideration in this allocation. Rather, the SS received authority simply to fill specifically authorized divisions, regiments, and requisite support troops. Berger and his aides ruthlessly exploited this gentlemen's agreement, under which the OKW did not supervise the detailed execution of SS policy. The SS recruiters ignored any implicit limits and took in as many draft-age volunteers as their recruiting propaganda could attract.
Not content with such bureaucratic subterfuge, Berger also searched for manpower sources not directly controlled by the OKW, including men who were not citizens of the German Reich. Ethnic Germans, or Volksdeutsche, from annexed or occupied territories showed promise as a recruiting pool, especially when the war brought parts of eastern Europe under German control. Finally, the so-called “Nordic” peoples of northern Europe — Finns, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, and Dutch — could meet the racial requirements of SS recruiters and, if induced to volunteer, would not count toward any OKW recruiting statistics. A hundred of these Nordics had entered SS service by 1940. After April of that year, Berger's recruiting offices pursued them in earnest.
Without combat laurels, however, the Waffen-SS could not have grown in manpower and material strength as it did. The creditable actions of the Verfügungsdivision and several of the motorized regiments fielded (along with two less creditable SS divisions) in the Battle for France as part of the mechanized spearhead established their worth in Hitler's view, an all-important factor. Justification for further expansion was found in the pending campaign against Russia, such that SS field strength doubled between the fall of France and the beginning of the Barbarossa offensive, as the invasion of the Soviet Union was known. With the beginning of the Russo-German War in the summer of 1941, the Waffen-SS boasted four first-line divisions of infantry and mechanized infantry, with two second-line infantry brigades. By the end of 1943 a large de facto SS army had emerged, with armored, mechanized, and infantry divisions, supporting units of all kinds and the first of several corps and army headquarters. Approximately seven of the divisions rated as elite units, although later claims that they received priority issue of equipment and matériel over similar army units had little veracity. Overall, the Waffen-SS achieved a maximum size of 594,000 men under arms, of which up to a third may have been foreign recruits.
Given such expansion, the megalomaniac plans of Himmler and his recruiting chief appeared somewhat feasible. By late 1942 the Waffen-SS had emerged as a second army, and, thanks to its ideological training, constituted an uncompromising National Socialist alternative to the traditional military establishment. As long as it pursued an active role in fulfilling Hitler's “historic mission” as a reliable, personal instrument of that destiny, the Waffen-SS could feel secure. The image cultivated by the SS as a unique ideological corps, separate from the army and more closely tied to the party and political authority, would further secure its position after the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt upon Hitler, in which several German army officers participated. This attempt tarnished the army in Hitler's eyes and made Himmler's notion of elevating the SS to the status of sole arms-bearer of the nation feasible at last, despite the fact that the war was then reaching its final, fatal turn toward German defeat. Within a very short period of time, Himmler took command of intelligence services, the formation of the new Volksgrenadier Divisions, the Reserve Army, prisoners of war, and the army's armaments and administrative branches. He even took command of operational units in the field, without relinquishing any of his other responsibilities: successively these were Army Groups Upper Rhine and Vistula during November 1944 to March 1945.
By the end of the war the Waffen-SS had formed 38 divisions of combat troops for service, plus independent formations at the brigade or smaller level. Serious reductions in recruiting, training, and ideological standards by that point had all but negated the purist SS notions of racial and ideological superiority in the German state. The police organizations serving in combat included the notorious Special Commando units that exterminated captured partisans and Jewish populations alike, aided by various police and paramilitary formations administered by the non-military General SS. Although the commission of atrocities in the war cannot be laid exclusively to the various organizations of the SS, its military, police, and paramilitary branches contributed enough acts of brutality and criminality to warrant the condemnation of the SS as a war criminal organization by the Nuremberg Tribunals. Accordingly, for many years after the war, German veterans of the SS were not accorded disability pensions from the post-war West German state in the same manner for injured civilian war victims and military veterans of the Wehrmacht.
Other wartime expansions took place with the remaining non-military segment of the General SS. Thanks to Himmler's continuing rise within Hitler's inner circle, the organization achieved control of colonization and development of most occupied territories, and from that came the key responsibilities for the Jewish Question and the eventual establishment of industrialized extermination as the Final Solution.
With regard to the Final Solution, the notorious Reinhard Heydrich (1904–1942) emerged as a key figure. Placed in charge of SS counterintelligence (SD or Sicherheitsdienst) in the 1930s, he supervised a reign of terror in the Third Reich and annexed territories. Raised to lieutenant general rank and placed in charge of the Reich Main Security Office in 1939, he also governed directly the “protectorates” of Bohemia and Moravia. On January 20, 1942, Heydrich chaired the Wannsee Conference, which began the coordinated effort of the Third Reich to transport European Jews to extermination camps in the East.
The supervision of ethnic groups in Germany extended to the slave labor system that led to SS takeover of factories and whole sectors of the economy. As German fortunes in World War II inclined toward the disastrous, Himmler and his appointees advanced the SS as the key mobilization element of the Nazi state and its society, making the notion of an SS state as the successor to the Nazi regime a conceivable outcome, cut short only by the crushing defeat of Germany in 1945.
SEE ALSO: Hitler, Adolf (1889–1945); Nuremberg War Crimes Trials; World War II: Eastern Front; World War II: The defeat and occupation of France.
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