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Read Excerpts from Waffen-SS Encyclopedia
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The First World War was the decisive event in the lives of millions of Germans, not least for those who would influence and shape the Waffen-SS. By early 1919, Adolf Hitler was convinced that Germany had been betrayed from within. He was determined that if he had a say during a future war, Germany would obtain the resources it needed from eastern Europe, negating any British blockade. An armed force loyal to the government would preserve order at home.
Heinrich Himmler, born in 1900, missed seeing combat by a few months, but retained dreams of military glory. He would seek to live those out vicariously for the rest of his life.
Paul Hausser had attained a coveted posting to the General Staff before the war, and as a trained staff officer served in elite units with royal connections. He would later seek the reestablishment of a military elite after the homogeneity of the Reichswehr years.
Felix Steiner was a participant in the 1917 fighting against the Russians, during which Stosstrupp (“shock troop”) tactics were mastered. The next spring, he helped put those methods to use against the Allies in the “Kaiserschlacht” offensives. Steiner was convinced that the future of warfare lay with small groups of highly-trained, elite soldiers.
Hausser and Steiner both fought in the east during 1919, defending German territory against the Poles and Bolsheviks. Steiner, in particular, was able to get a feel for the political climate in the eastern Baltic, which featured Russians and Baltic Germans attempting to maintain political power in the face of Communism and local nationalist aspirations. As highly competent professional officers, Hausser and Steiner were both able to find a place in the 100,000-man Reichswehr, the limited army allowed to Germany under the Treaty of Versailles.
Hundreds of thousands of other soldiers were unable to continue their military careers. While most drifted into various civilian occupations, several thousand of the more promising soldiers were taken into the police forces, and these semi-militarized groups (collected in 1934 as the Ordnungspolizei, or “Order Police”) became a means for Germany to circumvent the Versailles limitations.
Paramilitary organizations called Freikorps allowed some men to continue military activity for a few years after the war. Tens of thousands of former soldiers, and other men too young to fight by 1918, saw action in these unofficial units during the early 1920s. Some Freikorps men enlisted in the Reichswehr or the Ordnungspolizei in the following years, but the best most could manage was to maintain their old contacts with each other by joining the Sturmabteilungen (Storm Units, or SA) of the Nazi Party. The SA leadership came to hope that their men, numbering over 100,000 by 1931, could form the new army of Germany.
It was little noticed during 1929 that Himmler was appointed as Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffeln (“Protection Detachments,” or SS), those carefully-selected Nazi adherents who served as bodyguards for Nazi speakers at political rallies. The SS was still only a small force at this time, but Himmler had big plans, and retained his hopes to be involved in a military endeavor.
Hausser and Steiner were able to advance in the Reichswehr, but neither was happy with their experience. They considered the Reichswehr leadership too old fashioned, and found little audience for their ideas on creating a new guard corps or special attack force.
Hitler came to power in Germany on 30 January 1933. This provided an opportunity for the longtime head of his protection detail, a former Reichswehr senior noncommissioned officer (NCO), Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, to resume a military career. Dietrich was a veteran of tank combat during the Great War, and had then drifted from the Freikorps to the police and into the SS. On 17 March 1933, Dietrich was instructed to collect 117 reliable young SS men into a militarized SS bodyguard for Hitler. It was the origin of what became the Leibstandarte (“Body Guard Regiment”) Adolf Hitler (SS-LAH). Eight of these 117 men went on to become regimental commanders in the Waffen-SS, and three (Wilhelm Mohnke, Theodor Wisch, and Fritz Witt) attained division command.
The SS now began to grow rapidly. Politisches Bereitschaften (“Political Readiness Detachments”) were set up in major cities to act in the event of a Communist strike. These consisted of both dedicated party members and men who could not find semi-military service elsewhere. German Army and discharged Reichswehr veterans provided the leadership.
On 1 October 1934, the term SS-Verfügungstruppen (“Special Use Troops,” or SS-V) replaced the former “Political Readiness” label. Service in the SS-V was recognized by law as a fulfillment of a man’s military obligation, because the SS-V received military—rather than exclusively political—training. Organized by battalions during 1935, the next year the loose regimental structures became formalized into the SS-V Regiments Deutschland and Germania. The SS-LAH was considered “related” to the SS-V, but retained separate status.
Hausser had reached the rank of Generalmajor during 1931, and retired a year later with the pension status of a Generalleutnant. He met Himmler, and was persuaded to join the SS in late 1934, to help reinforce the soldierly nature of the SS-V.
The SA had grown remarkably since early 1933. By the following spring, it numbered approximately three million men, and its leaders sought to exercise some sort of power. Hitler perceived a threat, as did the leaders of the Reichswehr. The latter turned a blind eye when Hitler used SS men to murderously purge the SA leadership on 20 June 1934 in the “Night of the Long Knives.” Hitler had made a gesture to the Reichswehr, demonstrating that it was the armed force for Germany’s future instead of the SA. In return, the Reichswehr, soon to become the openly-conscripted Wehrmacht in violation of the Versailles provisions, agreed to not interfere with the small, highly-select SS-V units. It was even provided that the SS-V units could come together into a division in the event of war.
The SA declined, and in the following years, most of its manpower joined the German Army (Heer) and the Luftwaffe. A number of SA military instructors, including Felix Steiner, instead joined the SS-V.
Most of the junior enlisted men of the SS-V continued to be drawn from young volunteers, but as SS-Deutschland, SS-Germania, and the SS-LAH grew to full regimental size, they met their need for officers and NCOs by taking on veterans from the police, from the SA, and from the political SS (known as the Allgemeine-SS). The SS-V addressed the creation of an organic officer corps by creating two officer candidate schools, with Hausser founding one and setting the curriculum. The SS system differed from that of the Heer in not requiring an Abitur (certificate generally gained upon matriculation from a Gymnasium, or academic high school, around age 19), and also in insisting that any man lacking military experience had to first serve time in the ranks. In the Heer, a well-educated man could join immediately as an officer candidate.
These SS stipulations turned away some potential recruits, who wished to become officers quickly. It also brought in hundreds of young men with lower-class backgrounds, however, who lacked education but desired professional military careers. Hausser’s school system was designed to provide the necessary education to men who demonstrated potential.
By 1936, the SS-V was highly selective. For recruits, it only accepted young men who were healthy, in good physical shape, and who had clean police records. Additionally, recruits had to show proof of pure “Aryan” ancestry back to 1800, while those who became officers had to further demonstrate this to 1750. Politics was not specifically an issue—though obviously few sought to join who were in outright opposition to the Nazi party—and party membership was not required for joining the SS-V. Surveys revealed that many potential enlistees were attracted by the chance to serve in a new sort of guard force, and by the opportunity to become an officer.
Only the best applicants were accepted into the SS-V (others were claimed by the Wehrmacht and not allowed to join). Of those, only the most promising were selected for officer training, and only 60 percent of these passed their courses. Afterwards, especially during peacetime, it was the best officers who received promotion. Those men who became battalion and higher-level commanders in the SS-V and Waffen-SS after beginning their careers as simple enlisted men were in many ways the “best of the best,” and in that light, it is not surprising that so many were highly considered.
Hausser’s curriculum emphasized tactical training and leadership principles, with political education forming only a small portion of the whole. The same was true in the SS-V units where, thanks to Steiner, a new initiative had taken hold. Steiner had assumed command of the 3d Battalion of SS-Deutschland during 1935, and implemented his ideas on creating modern “shock troops.” He replaced most parade drill with strenuous exercise to create an athlete-soldier, and emphasized initiative over blind obedience, and infiltration over direct attack. Officers and men exercised and trained together, breaking down social barriers and creating comrades, with each man prepared to take the place of his superior, should the latter become a casualty.
Steiner took command of SS-Deutschland the next year, and spread his methods to the entire regiment. Due to their obvious validity, Hausser, as Inspector of the SS-V from the autumn of 1936, instigated Steiner’s reforms throughout the SS-V. Hausser imparted to the SS-V the notion that its men were soldiers, and not political activists, and sought to combine the traditional Prussian notion of professionalism with the modern training reforms of Steiner.
Heer observers and training advisors were impressed by the SS-V and the Wehrmacht actively included the SS units (which were expanding through the creation of those supporting elements necessary for a division) in its plans. The Heer allowed the SS-V to be equipped with scarce motor vehicles, in place of the initial horse-drawn ones. Motorized units were perceived as vital to offensive operations, and thus SS-V units participated in the occupation of that part of Czechoslovakia known to the Germans as the Sudetenland, the annexation of Austria, and the seizure of the rump of the Czech lands.
If the SS-V had earned the respect of the Heer, that wasn’t the case for LAH, which possessed superb human material but hadn’t undergone the same high level of training. Dietrich was a proud man, and it was well into 1938 before he agreed to an exchange of officers between LAH and the SS-V. He also acknowledged that Hausser’s authority as inspector extended to the LAH, which previously acted as a law unto itself. During 1939, the military character of LAH gradually improved, though discipline problems such as looting and poor fire control still arose during the Polish and Western campaigns.
Himmler continued to seek ways to have armed men under his control, and another means developed with the cooperation of Theodor Eicke, who had become Inspector of the concentration camp system (run by the SS) during 1936. Eicke possessed tremendous energy, and he devoted much of his attention to recruiting men to be camp guards. The pre-war camps required only a few thousand guards, but Eicke enlisted 3,500, and then many thousands more into the SS-Totenkopfverbände (“Death’s Head Organizations,” a name based on their insignia, and abbreviated SS-TV). The standards were somewhat lower than those for the SS-V and SS-LAH, with men not needing to meet the same stringent height and health requirements.
The excess men were recruited with an eye toward commitment in a military role. Eicke had emerged from the First World War with a hatred of aristocratic professional officers, and he rejected the traditional German notion of “Prussian discipline.” He instead sought to instill political fanaticism, teaching his men that it was their duty to destroy Germany’s enemies. While the SS-TV gained some measure of military proficiency, it lagged behind the standard necessary for service during wartime.
Austrian Nazis had first come to Germany during 1933, when the SS and SA were banned in their country. Those desiring military service were collected into a battalion, which became the 2d Battalion of SS-Deutschland. After the Anschluss, this unit was detached to serve as the cadre of a new regiment of the SS-V, raised in Austria. This unit kept the same high recruiting standards as Deutschland and Germania, and received the honor title “Der Führer” to symbolize Austrian loyalty to the new regime.
When the Second World War began on 1 September 1939, the future Waffen-SS consisted of the regiments SS-LAH, SS-Deutschland, SS-Germania, and SS-Der Führer, along with an artillery regiment and supporting battalions (anti-tank, combat engineer, signal, and so on). SS-LAH was intended to operate as a reinforced motorized infantry regiment, while the rest of the SS-V would be collected into a motorized infantry division, the SS-V Division. Himmler, as head of the SS and Chief of German Police, had a say in the formation of two additional divisions.
The Wehrmacht had no control over the growth of the SS-TV during peacetime, but wanted its excess trained men to serve in the Heer during the war. The Ordnungspolizei had also grown considerably during the preceding years, and possessed many men capable of military service. Both of these branches were committed to providing the manpower for a division each, respectively, and Himmler asserted his authority to have those divisions belong to the SS. During October 1939, Hitler decided that the SS-TV men could form the core of an SS-Totenkopf Division, while the police would become the SS-Polizei Division.
Tens of thousands of Allegemeine-SS men were Wehrmacht reservists, and they served during the war in the same manner as non-SS men. Thousands of others belonged to an older category (over the age of 25) and these men were added to a base of 6,500 SS-TV men and cadres from the SS-V to form the SS-Totenkopf Division. This had a strength of 18,000 men, a minority of whom were former concentration camp guards. The SS-V officers, in particular, helped oversee a tough training program to bring the division’s training up to military standards.
The SS-Polizei Division was able to fill its command positions with military veterans, and it soon attained a level of efficiency comparable to Heer infantry divisions. In common with the latter, only individual officers and men were SS or Nazi party members, and its association with the SS was largely on paper. During the war, hundreds of men from the SS-Polizei Division would go on to serve with other Waffen-SS units, though the division itself only became fully a part of the Waffen-SS during early 1942. After that, its members held Waffen-SS rank instead of their police rank, or as an additional commission, in the case of officers.
The term Waffen-SS became official during the spring of 1940, and it indicated those units concerned with frontline military duty. The SS-TV organizations remained extant, and aside from camp guards, included units used for rear area security and occupation duties. Himmler and Hitler still foresaw the SS-LAH and SS-V forming a force for maintaining postwar state security, but considered their wartime duty as doubly advantageous. It would provide necessary practical experience in fighting, and would lend legitimacy to postwar duty.
The men of the SS-LAH and SS-V had considered themselves as elite soldiers since well before the war. This was because of the teachings of their officers, inspired by Hausser and Steiner, and as a logical consequence of their rigorous military training. The SS-Totenkopf Division maintained a higher degree of political awareness because of its many SS-TV and Allegemeine-SS members. In the SS-Polizei Division, the officers and men saw themselves as simply fulfilling the military role which had always been their intention, no matter that they had served with the police out of clandestine necessity.
Himmler had the Wehrmacht’s approval to raise 100,000 “Police Reinforcements” in the event of war. In fact, the men he enlisted were young wartime volunteers for the Waffen-SS, who were collected into over a dozen new Totenkopf regiments. These reorganized gradually, many dissolving and amalgamating before fully forming, with the surviving units becoming SS-Totenkopf infantry regiments, an indication of their intended use as military formations. Initially, many were used for occupation and pacification duties, but by the time the Soviet Union was invaded on 22 June 1941, the final title of “SS-Infantry Regiment” was in place, and most of the regiments were used as military, rather than police units. The Totenkopf infantry units were at times used in anti-partisan operations, which often involved the killing of innocent civilians.
The officer corps for these new Waffen-SS infantry regiments came from SS-V transfers, from the Ordnungspolizei, and from Allegemeine-SS reservists. The overall quality of leadership was far below that of the SS-V, and there wasn’t sufficient time to train the newly inducted men well, much less to prewar standards. For these reasons, the regiments usually did not fight well, and suffered heavy casualties in their initial battles. Some regiments were broken up to reinforce more established units, while others became more dependable as they gained experience. In the latter category was a unit organized out of the pre-war SS equestrian branch. The SS-Cavalry Brigade grew out of a Death’s Head Riding Regiment to become a police force, and finally a military one by early 1942. Its officers and men were of a much lower standard than the pre-war SS-V, but from early 1942, as it became a full Waffen-SS division, it received the same replacements as other Waffen-SS units.
During 1940 and 1941, Himmler remained officially limited in the number of men he could recruit for his armed forces. Foreigners were not subject to Wehrmacht service, however, so Himmler turned to non-Germans as a reservoir of manpower. Initially, this involved recruiting “Germanic” Western Europeans, primarily from the countries occupied during 1940. Some Swiss had already joined before the war, as had Baltic Germans, and individual men of German or Germanic ancestry from around the world (694 non-Germans were counted in the Waffen-SS as of 1 May 1940). As the following section demonstrates, tens of thousands of Europeans would follow the initial volunteers. The first Danes, Dutch, Flemings, and Norwegians were concentrated, along with Finns, into the new SS-Wiking (“Viking”) Division, which, unlike the Totenkopf Infantry Regiments, did receive first-class officers and training before it went into action during late June 1941. The base of the division was SS-Germania, which gradually came to include many foreigners in its ranks.
Himmler, and his recruiting chief Gottlob Berger, cultivated ties before the war with leaders in the Volksdeutsche, or ethnic German communities of Eastern Europe. Individual ethnic Germans moved to Germany and joined the Waffen-SS through 1940, and the “1,000-man action” (in which the ethnic Germans were to be trained as instructors for the Romanian Army, but instead remained in Germany) brought hundreds of Romanian ethnic Germans into the Waffen-SS. It was the conquests of the next year that opened the gates to recruiting these men en masse. Several thousand came to Germany with the support units of the SS-V Division (renamed “Reich” and then “Das Reich,” or “The Empire”), which had passed through the Banat region during the Yugoslavian campaign.
The Banat was the area around the city of Temesvar (Timisoara in Romanian) settled by Germans at the behest of the Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation during the eighteenth century. These German settlers were to form a wall of Christians between the Empire and the Muslim Ottoman Turks, who had only recently been driven back from what is today Austria. After April 1941, this region came to be split between the German occupation government in Serbia, Romania, and, in the largest part, Hungary. Aside from the men who came to Germany with SS-Das Reich, the Waffen-SS initially only had access to those ethnic Germans in the Serbian zone. The others were liable for Hungarian or Romanian Army service. The same was true for ethnic Germans in Hungarian-controlled Batschka-Vojvodina, and Romanian-controlled Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) and Bessarabia, while Croatian ethnic Germans were left to the new Croatian Army.
A partisan war developed in the former Yugoslavia by the end of 1941, so Himmler decided to raise a mountain division of ethnic Germans from the Serbian Banat. When only a few thousand volunteered, conscription was introduced. For the first time, the Waffen-SS included draftees. These men were usually not up to the pre-war SS-V standard, and the leaders were primarily demobilized ethnic German officers and NCOs from the former Yugoslavian Army. Together, they formed the Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen, the first element of the Waffen-SS to carry the designation “Volunteer,” despite few of its men actually fitting that description. The title was designed to indicate that the division was not formed from German citizens (the vast majority of men in Wiking were German nationals), and recalled the pivotal role played by Prince Eugene of Savoy during the defense of Vienna and expulsion of the Turks from Croatia, Hungary, Transylvania, and Slovenia in the early eighteenth century. The Prinz Eugen Division was at first ridiculed by the rest of the Waffen-SS, but it eventually developed into an effective unit.
During 1943, the SS High Command worked out arrangements with the Croatian and Romanian governments for ethnic Germans in their military establishments to be allowed to transfer into the Waffen-SS. These men, veteran soldiers, brought with them an altogether higher level of competency than those who were conscripted before or after. The Croatians primarily served with Prinz Eugen, or its sister division Handschar (“Scimitar”), organized from Bosnian Muslims and ethnic Croatian Catholics. The Romanians were used to flesh out III (Germanic) SS-Panzer Corps, which collected the majority of Western European volunteers in the Volunteer Panzer-Grenadier Division Nordland and Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Brigade Nederland. SS-Prinz Eugen, SS-Handschar, SS-Nordland, and SS-Nederland all contained sizable cadres of German nationals from the pre-war SS-V or early-war formations such as SS-Wiking.
The next year, new agreements required ethnic Germans in Hungary and Romania to perform German military service, and most of these men went into the Waffen-SS. While individuals volunteered, conscription was widely applied in the Banat and Siebenbürgen, with these men assigned to every element of the Waffen-SS. The Batschka/ Vojvodina area became the last ethnic German region to experience extensive conscription, with its men suffering often brutal press-ganging during the summer of 1944. These draftees were primarily used to form the Volunteer Cavalry Division Maria Theresia and the 31st SS-Volunteer Grenadier Division (which never received an honor title). They also filled out the Volunteer Panzer-Grenadier Division Horst Wessel, which had its origins in a brigade formed from two SS-Totenkopf Infantry Regiments.
The so-called “classic” SS Divisions—SS-LAH (raised to a division 1941), SS-Das Reich, SS-Totenkopf, and SS-Wiking—began receiving small quantities of ethnic German replacements by the spring of 1942, and as a rule, considered them inferior, since they were not the fine physical specimens of the pre-war era. The majority of their replacements consisted of young wartime volunteers from Germany. While these men lacked the extensive training seen before the war, almost all were veterans of the Hitler Youth, and had received training in such military skills as marksmanship, route marching, map reading, and military courtesy and drill. This eased their transition to military life, and made them far more prepared for its rigors than were their comrades from other countries.
The supply of volunteers was largely exhausted during 1942, and the Waffen-SS, including its elite German divisions (which received armored vehicles from the summer of 1942), then had to rely heavily on conscripts from ordinary German draft pools, just as did the Heer. It also became common for excess Luftwaffe and Navy personnel to be assigned to the Waffen-SS, without any say in the matter. The Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg Panzer Divisions, raised during 1943, were supposed to attain the same elite level as the “classic” divisions, yet included a majority of young German conscripts. The Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”) Panzer Division was forming at the same time, using volunteers from the Hitler Youth who were otherwise considered a year too young for military service, being 16 to 17 years old at the time of induction.
It should be noted that SS-Totenkopf suffered heavy losses during 1941, and was almost completely destroyed the next year at Demyansk. As the original complement of camp guards and Allegemeine-SS reservists bled to death in the Valdai Hills, a new SS-Totenkopf Division gradually formed around small cadres from the original during the summer and autumn of 1942. The new men were primarily young wartime volunteers, and afterwards, the division received replacements in the same manner as the other “classic” divisions. Eicke was killed in action on 26 February 1943, and even before his death, the command of the division came to be primarily in the hands of officers from the pre-war SS-V. The TV influence declined for the remainder of the war. (It should be noted here that exchanges of personnel between concentration camps and field units were not limited to SS-Totenkopf, but included most Waffen-SS units, as well as Wehrmacht and Polizei veterans who were assigned as camp guards when no longer fit for frontline service due to wounds and illness.)
The “classic” divisions were able to maintain a degree of quality, and the three new armored divisions reached a comparable level, because their experienced cadre carried on the traditions established in the pre-war SS-V. The young Germans, whether volunteers or draftees, and the Luftwaffe and Navy levies, were taught that they were an elite, and part of a new type guard force. As much as time allowed, instruction focused on the training methods developed by Steiner, with modifications based on wartime experience.
This was also true in the other units raised by the Waffen-SS, though the later “German” divisions usually contained large numbers of ethnic German conscripts and men transferred from other branches of service, with smaller cadres possessing SS-V experience. The training times were often short, and the men themselves were not always as enthusiastic as young German draftees, who tended to become caught up in the SS-V spirit in the “classic” divisions. The Germanic Waffen-SS also caught this spirit, and by 1944 its men were interchangeable with experienced German Waffen-SS soldiers.
The divisions raised from Ukrainians and Balts (14th, 15th, 19th & 20th Waffen-Grenadier Divisions) fought as well as veteran German infantry divisions, but were in the Waffen-SS only by organizational association, and had no relation to the pre-war elite. The other foreign units were usually, at best, comparable to Heer divisions hastily thrown together from German conscripts and stragglers. At worst, units such as the Free India Legion were Nazi Party propaganda fronts that wasted valuable weapons and German cadre.
By 1945, the pre-war SS-V members who weren’t dead or disabled had been spread remarkably thinly by Himmler’s desire to create new military units under his nominal control. The Waffen-SS listed 38 divisions in its order of battle, though several never got beyond the organizational stage, and numerous separate regiments and battalions. The roster included divisions of Italians, Hungarians, Albanians, and even Russians. It was a far cry from both Himmler’s conception of a state security police force and the Hausser/Steiner plan for the new elite guards.
For more information about the non-combat units added by Himmler to the Waffen-SS, see page 259.
by Marc Rikmenspoel
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