The Waffen-SS (German for "Armed SS", literally "Weapons SS". More correctly written as: Waffen-ϟϟ) was the military combat arm of the Schutzstaffel. In early 1944 the Waffen-SS made up less than 5 percent of the Wehrmacht, but it accounted for nearly one-fourth of Germany’s panzer divisions and roughly one-third of the Wehrmacht’s panzer grenadier (mechanized infantry) divisions.
The Waffen-SS was founded in Germany in 1939 after the SS was split into two organizations: Allgemeine-SS and the Waffen-SS (since October 1939 first known as SS-Verfügungsdivision). The title of Waffen-SS became official on 2 March 1940. Headed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the Waffen-SS saw action throughout the Second World War. It had three sub-organizations:
- Leibstandarte, Adolf Hitler's bodyguard regiment.
- SS-Totenkopfverbände, that administered the work camps.
- SS-Verfügungstruppe, up to 39 divisions in World War II that served as elite combat troops alongside the regular Army, the Wehrmacht Heer.
In the testimony given at the Nuremberg Trials, the Waffen-SS was condemned as a criminal organization due to their involvement with the National-Socialistic German Workers Party (NSDAP), except conscripts sworn in after 1943, who were exempted from the judgment on the basis of involuntary servitude. Therefore Waffen-SS veterans were denied many of the rights afforded to other German military veterans who had served in the Heer (Army), Luftwaffe (Air Force) or Kriegsmarine (Navy). Waffen-SS soldiers were held in separate, more rigorous confinement by the Western Allies and were punished severely by the USSR☭, which held some Waffen-SS prisoners until 1956. As well, many Waffen-SS men recruited from German-occupied countries in Europe were punished by their home countries.
In the 1950s and 1960s Waffen-SS veteran groups fought legal battles in the newly founded West Germany to overturn the Nuremberg ruling and won pension rights for their members. The judgment of Nuremberg could not be overturned, but many of the former enemies of the Waffen-SS appeared to question the black-and-white assessment of the German elite troops during World War II. High ranking German politicians such as West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Franz Josef Strauss and Kurt Schumacher courted former Waffen-SS members and their veteran organisation.
- "I have come to know that there was a real difference between the German soldier and Hitler and his criminal group.... For my part, I do not believe that the German soldier as such has lost his honor." – Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower on 23 January 1951
In the same context, on 3 December 1952, Konrad Adenauer also made a declaration of honor (Ehrenerklärung) for the soldiers of the Wehrmacht before the German Bundestag. On 17 December 1952, this declaration, in an open letter to Paul Hausser, was extended to include members of the Waffen SS.
The origins of the Waffen-SS can be traced back to the creation of a group of 322 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 Sturmabteilung (SA). Whilst the SA was part of the party, the fact that it pre-dated Hitler's leadership and had ambitions of its own meant that its loyalty to Hitler was not assured. The Sturmabteilung (SA) had grown so large that Hitler felt he needed an armed escort that was totally dedicated to him, thus the Schutzstaffel (SS) was created. After Hitler's imprisonment and subsequent release in the wake of the failed Munich Putsch in 1923, he saw an even greater need for a body guard, and the place of the SS was solidified in the NSDAP hierarchy.
Until 1929 (the SA was still the dominant force in the NSDAP, however) the SS was growing in strength and importance. In January 1929, Hitler appointed Heinrich Himmler to lead the SS (his rank was Reichsführer SS), 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 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. The SA threatened to sour Hitler's relations with the conservative elements of the country as well, people whose support Hitler needed to solidify his position in the German government. Hitler decided to act against the SA, and the SS was put in charge of eliminating Röhm and the other high ranking officers of the SA. The Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934 saw the execution of officially 82 SA men, including almost the entire leadership, and effectively ended the power of the SA.
During the Night of the Long Knives, the SS performed precisely as Hitler had envisioned, and from that point on, Himmler and his SS would be only responsible to Hitler becoming a major force in the NSDAP second only to the Politische Organization (PO), the party cadre organization. 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. In 1936, Himmler was appointed Chief of the German police. It is often mistakenly understood that this appointment gave him command authority over the police. In fact, he was merely granted most, though not all, of the supervisory powers over the police hitherto exercised by the Ministry of the Interior. Himmler was never able to gain command authority over the uniformed Ordnungspolizei in areas where a civilian administration existed, both within and without the Reich proper. Himmler then reorganized the Reich's police service to include the Ordnungspolizei, and the Sicherheitspolizei (security police - in effect, the detective force). The Sicherheitspolizei was further divided into the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) and the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), respectively the criminal police and the secret police. Only the Gestapo was under Himmler and the SS operational control in the Reich proper (including Austria, the sudetans and the "Polish" gaue), elsewhere however, the fusion of Kripo and Gestapo into the Sicherheitspolizei was mostly successful. By September 1939, Kripo, Gestapo and the SD were headquartered at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), Reich Security Main Office. The RSHA was under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich and later Ernst Kaltenbrunner.
In addition to its police powers, the SS comprised a group of armed men that were used for security and ceremonial purposes. 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 Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). 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. Later, Hitler would form the Reichssicherheitsdienst (RSD) to provide him and other senior officials with personal security, whereupon the Leibstandarte would merge back completely into the SS. The RSD, though recruited from SS and police (mostly Gestapo) personnel, and though it used the SS table of ranks, was an entirely separate agency.
When Hitler reintroduced conscription in 1935, he also mandated that the SS-Verfügungstruppen would be fully formed as a military unit. SS-Verfügungstruppe along with the Totenkopf formations would be the cornerstone of future Waffen-SS divisions. Special schools (Führerschulen, later SS-Junker-Schulen) at Bad Tölz and Braunschweig were created to train future SS officers. 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 the Das Reich and Wiking divisions. After the annexation of Austria, another regiment composed of mostly Austrian 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 Totenkopf 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).
- Leibstandarte-SS „Adolf Hitler“ Berlin-Lichterfelde (Ergänzungsstelle I)
- 1. SS-Standarte „Deutschland“/VT München (Ergänzungsstelle III)
- 2. SS-Standarte „Germania“/VT Hamburg-Veddel (Ergänzungsstelle II)
- 3. SS-Standarte „Der Führer“/VT Wien (Ergänzungsstelle IV)
- SS-VT-Standarte „Nordland“ (30 April 1940)
- SS-VT-Standarte „Westland“ (15 June 1940)
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 work camp guard unit (to become the 3rd 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.
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 challenging that two in three potentials failed to pass the course. After basic training, the recruits were sent to specialist schools (such as Panzertruppenschule I) where they received specific-to-trade training in their chosen combat arm. As the war progressed and replacements were required more frequently, the intensity of the training was relaxed somewhat. This was particularly true after the expansion of the Waffen-SS following the success of the SS-Panzerkorps at Kharkov.
For officers (SS-Führer), 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 the Heer General Staff (and its precursors) 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. 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 ("Mr.") 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 part in the Poland campaign (1939) as well as Fall Gelb (Case Yello, also known as Operation Sichelschnitt, was the war plan of the German armed forces during the Battle of France in 1940). During the Battle of France, as for most of the war, Waffen-SS units were operationally under the control of the OKW. This meant that they functioned completely as Army units but their parent was not the Army. The overall performance of the inexperienced Waffen-SS had been mediocre during these campaigns, while Heer (with it's Brandenburgers) and Luftwaffe (with it's Fallschirmjäger) were stunningly successful.
The poor initial performance of the Waffen-SS units was mainly due to the emphasis on political indoctrination, rather than the long and effective military training achieved by the Army 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. 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 Salla during its first engagement in Lapland.
The Waffen-SS demonstrated their mature combat ability 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.
Foreign Volunteers and Conscripts
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 Bolshevik hordes. While native Germanic-speaking volunteers 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 authorized. Command of the division was given to SS-Brigadeführer Felix Steiner. Steiner immersed himself in the organization 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, Belgian, Norwegian, Arab, Swedish, Finnish and Dutch Freiwilligen (volunteer) formations were committed to combat, gradually proving their worth. 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. There were plans for a Greek division, but the plan was abandoned after the Greek partisan resistance blew up the organizing party's headquarters. Many Greeks from Southern Russia, however, enlarged the divisions as Ukrainians. 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. In some of these cases, the wearing of the SS runes on the collar was forbidden, with several of these formations wearing national insignia instead.
All soldiers of non-German citizenship 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. For example, the Latvian, French and Estonian formations performed exceptionally, while the Albanian units performed 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.
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.
Still another unit, the Indian Legion was composed of Indian troops, mostly prisoners of war recruited by the Germans with help from a marginal Indian anti-colonial leader named Mohammed Shedai. The unit became a part of the political plans of another, more famous, Indian nationalist: Subhas Chandra Bose, who ousted Shedai from his position of favor with the German military authorities, and who wanted the Legion to participate in a German invasion of British India. After Bose left Germany for Japanese-controlled southeast Asia in 1943 to take charge of the Indian National Army (similar to the Indian Legion, but much larger), the Indian Legion was diverted from its original goal of fighting the British in India and absorbed into the German attempt to hold on to occupied Europe. Morale dropped sharply in consequence. The unit was deployed in France, where it earned a reputation for atrocities, although some individual members deserted to the French resistance. The Indian Legion disintegrated in the aftermath of D-Day.
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 during the Battle of Berlin in 1945.
Post war period
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 (see Forest Brothers) which were engaged fighting the Soviets until the 1950s.
Helped by friend network, Walloon volunteer leader Leon Degrelle, who fought in Berlin 1945 and was decorated by Hitler with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, 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.
The countries from which volunteers were recruited for the Germanic/Teutonic, but non-German, divisions of the Waffen-SS were: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland (as an "honorary Nordic" nation), Holland, Flanders-Belgium, Switzerland and England .
Picture gallery (uniforms)
- Stille Hilfe
- Otto Skorzeny
- Waffen-SS foreign volunteers and conscripts
- Foreign volunteers in the German Army (WWII)
- Original text in German:
- „Sehr geehrter Herr Generaloberst!
- Einer Anregung nachkommend, teile ich mit, daß die von mir in meiner Rede vom 3. Dezember 1952 vor dem Deutschen Bundestag abgegebene Erklärung für die Soldaten der früheren deutschen Wehrmacht auch die Angehörigen der Waffen-SS umfaßt, soweit sie ausschließlich als Soldaten ehrenvoll für Deutschland gekämpft haben.
- Mit dem Ausdruck vorzüglicher Hochachtung bin ich
- gez. Adenauer“
- Perry Pierik (2006) Van Leningrad tot Berlijn - Nederlandse vrijwilligers in dienst van de Duitse Waffen-SS 1941-1945. Fourth Edition, Uitgeverij Aspect, 359 pp. Page 42.