‘The Most Ruthless Force?’ Reassessing the role of the Waffen SS 1933-45.


Matthew Thomas

National Maritime Museum, London


In March 1942 a secret report by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) commented on the German public’s perception of the Waffen SS: ‘by its achievements the Waffen SS has won its place in the popular esteem. Particular reference is made to the good comradeship between officers, NCOs and men’. However, ‘voices are heard saying that SS men are ruthlessly sacrificed. The Waffen SS is said to rush on regardless because it thinks it must get ahead of the Wehrmacht’. Worse still, ‘critical voices are heard to be saying that the Waffen SS is a sort of military watchdog. SS men are trained to be brutal and ruthless, apparently so that they can be used against other German formations if necessary’. The general impression: ‘the Waffen SS is the most ruthless force, it takes no prisoners, but annihilates its enemy’.[1] This popular picture is an accurate one and demonstrates that the German people regarded the Waffen SS as a unique force, distinct from the army that it fought beside.

For the victorious Allies the Waffen SS was indeed different from the army. However, this was because it was declared to be an integral part of Himmler’s SS empire. At Nuremberg the armed SS was indicted as a criminal organisation alongside the Gestapo and camp guards. Since the war however, Waffen SS veterans, through the Association of Soldiers of the former Waffen SS, have argued that the formations that they served in were purely military bodies. They maintain that it is only through a misunderstanding of the structure of the SS that the Waffen SS can be shown to have had links with the rest of the organisation.[2] The Waffen SS, they claim, knew nothing of the camps and murder squads, and those few Waffen SS men who did take part in atrocities, were not true SS soldiers, but criminals, who should not have been in the Waffen SS, and untrustworthy ethnic recruits. They even claim that the Waffen SS, with its foreign volunteer units, was an anti-Soviet forerunner of NATO.[3] The veterans were not alone in the belief that the Waffen SS was a purely military organisation. In the Deutsche Soldatenzeitung of August 1956, Konrad Adenauer is reported to have said that ‘the men of the Waffen SS were soldiers, just like the others’.[4]

Of more interest than the attempts of the veterans and of German politicians to rehabilitate the record of the Waffen SS, is the growth of revisionist historical work. Several authors have gone as far as claiming that the ‘SS soldier imbued with hatred was a rarity even during the war’, and that the Waffen SS ‘were not fanatical nazis committing unsoldierly acts, but ordinary young men’. The majority of these men, ‘were not political at all’.[5] Was the Waffen SS really a fine military body, whose reputation was spoiled by a few individuals, or an integral part of the SS and as such equally guilty?

The apologists also maintain that the Waffen SS was called upon to bear the heaviest burdens in the most testing crises in the war. Moreover, they claim that it fought consistently harder and longer than equivalent army units. We will therefore seek to assess the organisation's combat role. Although the reputation of the Waffen SS as fighting units is second to none, we shall see that not all of its units were of the highest quality. Nevertheless, there were occasions in which the intervention of the armed SS did effect the outcome of important battles. The elite units were characterised by their ability to retain their fighting spirit and combat effectiveness in defeat as well as in victory.

They were also defined by their ruthless behaviour towards both enemy soldiers and civilians. The ‘enduring presence of these qualities, especially in the Russian conflict, raises one of the most basic questions namely what influences were decisive in producing such qualities and in moulding the Waffen SS into the political and military instrument that performed and behaved as it did’.[6] This paper will seek to answer this question through an analysis of the organisation, its origins, ethos and behaviour.


I.         Origins.

If we are to understand the war-time actions of the Waffen SS, we have to study its origins and question the motives behind its formation and growth. We will look at the three formations that were to make up the original core of the Waffen SS. These were the SS Verfügungstruppe (SSVT), the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and the Totenkopfverbände concentration camp guards. The SSVT originally developed from the armed bands of SS men who were terrorising the opposition in the months after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in January 1933. One such political alarm squad or Politische Bereitschaft was the SS police unit Standarte Deutschland in Bavaria, later the core of the Das Reich division. Such armed units of political warriors from the Allgemeine (General) SS covered the country and practised terror in preparation for a civil war that many believed possible on 30 June 1934. Standarte Deutschland and other Politische Bereitschaften took part in the Night of the Long Knives and murdered party and SA leaders throughout Germany.[7] Such actions by the future SSVT were important in sowing the idea of an armed force in Himmler’s mind.

Hitler rewarded Himmler for his work during the purge by allowing him to raise the SS to an independent arm of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), no longer subject to the control of the Sturmabteilung (SA). Also, in conjunction with General Blomberg, the defence minister, he allowed Himmler to set up the SSVT from the various Politische Bereitschaften then in existence. In a decree of September 1934 Hitler outlined the main task of the new force. Trained on military lines, it was to be ready for a fanatical war of ideology that would occur within Germany should the regime's opponents rebel. The force was to remain as part of the SS and therefore of the NSDAP. Only in the event of war would it be employed for military purposes, in which case only Hitler could decide how and when it would be used. It was stressed that 25,000 Allgemeine SS men could be mobilized into this political police force to allow the army to concentrate on any external foe.[8] The high command intended to confine the SS units to internal tasks, but if Hitler decided to give them a role outside the Reich, their military deployment was unavoidable. This meant that in wartime the army would have to aspire to their integration into the army, giving credence to Paul Hausser’s claim that the Waffen SS was always seen as part of the army.

However, at this time, the SSVT was clearly intended to be an armed state police, not a crack combat unit. Blomberg would never have agreed to the establishment of the SSVT had he thought it would become a new army that would rival the Wehrmacht. He saw the SSVT, as did Hitler, as a police force. After all, he would not have supported the removal of the SA threat to the army if he thought that the SS would replace them. The decree was an early attempt to limit the military ambitions of the SS and served to mollify the army. At the same time however, it showed that the existence of armed SS units had been accepted by the army high command.

One of the units involved in the purge of June 1934 was the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, a squad of SS men that formed Hitler’s bodyguard under the leadership of Sepp Dietrich. Like its counterpart, the SSVT, the Leibstandarte was not envisaged as a military unit, but as a political force which in addition to guarding the Führer and carrying out ceremonial duties, could be used against internal enemies. As Hitler’s personal guard, the Leibstandarte was answerable to him alone. It was the most elite formation of the most elite order of the Reich. Hitler had created a unit under his sole command, one day he could use it as a military force, the next as an instrument of terror. The Leibstandarte demonstrated this use of terror on 30 June 1934. Two companies of the bodyguard arrested and shot the SA leaders at Bad Wiessee. The purge had the effect of making the bodyguard a criminal organisation from the very outset.

In December 1934 Himmler issued a directive re-organising the Bereitschaften and amalgamating them with the bodyguard, which became part of the SSVT. However, the Reichsführer realised that his new force would require arms and military training if it was going to carry out the tasks that the Führer demanded. The arms question was solved when, on 17 June 1936, Himmler was appointed head of all police units in Germany. With this development the SSVT was amalgamated into the SS police empire. Himmler was therefore able to plead his case with the army to arm the SSVT, claiming that it was indeed a police unit and not an attempt to replace the Wehrmacht.

The military training of the Reichsführer’s new force would require men with army experience. Soldiers, however, were unlikely to join an organisation that was in effect indistinguishable from the police. Himmler was therefore forced again to conceal the true purpose of the SSVT. His deceptive picture of a new imperial guard succeeded in attracting ex-officers to the SSVT. There ‘can be no other explanation for the fact that even today Waffen SS commanders seriously believe that from the outset they were serving in a normal military force’.[9] Ex-officers like Hausser and Felix Steiner began training the SSVT as a military organisation. Hausser became Inspector of the SSVT in 1936.

Whatever Steiner and Hausser may have believed, the SSVT was to remain part of Himmler’s state protection corps. The Reichsführer was determined that the armed SS, under Hausser’s military inspectorate, would not become independent from the rest of the SS. The inspectorate was therefore subordinated to the SS central bureau and Hausser’s military emphasis was kept in check through the indoctrination of the SS Race and Settlement Office (RSHA). The men of the SSVT were accordingly told that they must be ready at all times to act ruthlessly against any enemy within Germany. The type of function that the SS head office thought suitable for the SSVT before the war was evident during the ‘Kristallnacht’ of 9 November 1938, when the SSVT in Vienna helped burn down the synagogues.[10]

Prior to the ‘Kristallnacht’, on 17 August 1938, Hitler decreed that the role of the SSVT was not purely as a police force or as an army unit, but as a party political unit at his personal disposal. In the field the army would control it, but it remained part of the NSDAP. Hausser later claimed that this was kept secret from his men, suggesting that Himmler’s deception that they were serving in a normal military force was well planned.[11] The Reichsführer however, envisaged the SSVT as a new form of political soldiery, combining the internal police role with military training. This would allow it to take part in what he saw as the ultimate mission of Nazism, to fight the enemies of the Reich in the east. After all, why would Himmler have recruited men like Hausser if he did not intend his force to be used outside Germany? The true purpose of the SSVT was revealed in September 1939.

Given that the SSVT had been officially designated as having both an internal and external rule by Hitler’s decree, it had become the rival that the army had always feared. Accordingly, on 19 August 1939 the high command of the German forces, Oberkommamdo der Wehrmacht (OKW), sent the SSVT an order from Hitler: ‘The SSVT is placed under the commander in chief of the army. He will lay down their employment in accordance with my directives’.[12] For one campaign at least, Hausser and Steiner could nurse the view that they were indeed normal soldiers. However, both the army and the SS command found the performance of the SSVT in Poland to be unsatisfactory. The SS leadership believed that they could not count on adequate equipment from the army. Himmler subsequently persuaded Hitler that the effectiveness of the SS would have been improved if its units had been allowed to operate as a single division with its own equipment instead of being distributed among army formations and dependent on the latter for supplies. Hitler agreed that in the forthcoming campaign in the west, the SSVT (with the exception of the Leibstandarte, which would remain an independent formation) and their support units would be grouped together as a single division, the SS Verfügungsdivision (later re-named 2nd SS Division Das Reich). Hitler also authorised the formation of two new divisions, the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf and the 4th SS Polizei Division.

Given that OKW, opposed as it was to any expansion of the Waffen SS, would not allow army draftees to join the SS, Himmler was forced to draw on outside sources of manpower. These were the men of the Totenkopfverbände concentration camp guards and the Ordungspolizei. Himmler agreed to the drafting of the Totenkopfverbände as he feared that the army would soon begin recruiting them since service with the organisation did not count as national military service. Rather than let the army poach the Totenkopfverbände guards, Himmler used them to expand the Waffen SS. In any case, the Reichsführer viewed the Waffen SS as an integral part of his SS order, so he saw nothing wrong in linking the two. Hitler’s acceptance of the expansion of the Waffen SS meant that the SSVT and Leibstandarte (also given divisional status in the reforms) were linked to the most notorious unit within the SS. The Waffen SS veterans who later claimed that they were ‘normal soldiers’ never protested however; they silently accepted Himmler’s decree.

The linking of the SSVT with the Totenkopfverbände poses important questions about Waffen SS criminality, since the former were responsible for the torture and murder of Jews and the regime’s political opponents. Their leader was Theodore Eicke, commandant of Dachau, inspector of the camps, murderer of Ernst Röhm and later General of the Totenkopf Division. With the invasion of Poland the Totenkopfverbände were called on to carry out ‘police and security measures’. What these measures involved is demonstrated by the record of SS Totenkopf Standarte Brandenburg. It arrived in Wloclawek on 22 September 1939 and embarked on a four day ‘Jewish action’ that included the burning of synagogues and executing en masse the leaders of the Jewish community. On 29 September the Standarte travelled to Bydgoszcz to conduct an ‘intelligentsia action’. Approximately 800 Polish civilians and what the SD termed ‘potential resistance leaders’ were killed.[13] The Totenkopfverbände was to become one of the elite SS divisions, but from the start they were among the first executors of a policy of systematic extermination.

Waffen SS apologists have focused on the atrocities of the Totenkopf, pointing to their concentration camp origins and crimes during the Polish campaign, while maintaining that the SSVT and Leibstandarte were free from such dishonour. Our analysis of the origins of the formations that were to become three of the best SS divisions demonstrates that the Totenkopf certainly did have unsavoury origins, but then so did the Leibstandarte and the SSVT, participating as they did in the ‘Blood Purge’ and the ‘Kristallnacht’. Nor were they restricted to a purely military role in Poland. Members of the Leibstandarte, for example, massacred 50 Jews after they had been made to repair a damaged bridge.[14]

Such atrocities demonstrate that the core of what was to become the Waffen SS was a repressive organisation from the outset. The armed SS was also closely integrated into the rest of the SS structure, particularly after November 1935, when the SS Central Bureau became responsible for the leadership functions, organisation and training of the General SS and Waffen SS.[15] On 17 April 1940 this integration was complete when Himmler issued a directive outlining the units which he intended to regard as part of the Waffen SS. As well as the combat units and their replacements, it was to include the concentration camp guards, who were to wear the same uniform. At the same time, the Waffen SS Central Bureau became responsible for the equipping and training of the combat and guard units. The decree also stated that all transfers between the camps had to now pass via Waffen SS headquarters. From this period onwards, transfers between the camps and armed SS were to become common practice.

The April 1940 decree also stated that the SS Legal Main Office was to control the administration of court-martials and discipline within the Waffen SS. The Hitler order of 17 August 1938 had, it is true, provided that in the event of mobilization the armed SS should come under military laws and regulations. That provision was modified by the April 1940 decree and the earlier declaration of 17 October 1939 relating to jurisdiction in penal matters. These two decrees established a special jurisdiction for SS men, including members of the SS militarized units, in cases which would ordinarily fall under the jurisdiction of the Wehrmacht; and created special SS courts to handle such cases under the direction of the SS Legal Main Office. Thus, in the question of discipline and criminality, as well as in recruiting, administration, and supply, the Waffen SS was subject to the SS Supreme Command, not the army.[16]


II.        Training and ethos.

The training that Waffen SS recruits received also ensured that the armed SS remained part of Himmler’s police empire. The Reichsführer was adamant that the Waffen SS, under the military inspectorate, would not drift towards a position where it was indistinguishable from the army. Accordingly, only those who were already well-versed in Nazi idealism were accepted as recruits: ‘Every pure-blooded German in good health [can] become a member. He must be of excellent character, have no criminal record, and be an ardent adherent to all National Socialist doctrines. Members of the Streifendienst and of the Hitler Youth will be given preference because their aptitudes and schooling are indicative that they have become acquainted with the ideology of the SS’.[17]

Once accepted, the young Nazi idealist was subjected to further indoctrination from the SS troop commander and his counterpart at the RSHA. Himmler explained: ‘I ask you to guide them, and not let them go before they are saturated with our spirit and are fighting as the old guard fought. We have only one task, to stand firm and carry on the racial struggle without mercy’.[18] A document from the 1st SS Cavalry Regiment declared: ‘ideological indoctrination cannot be achieved with one lecture a week. It must take place at all times and everywhere’.[19] This meant that the recruit was subjected to the tenets of Nazism during manoeuvres, roll calls and even during meal times. An indication of the power of the SS ideological instruction is demonstrated in the fact that by 1938 53.6 % of the SSVT had been persuaded to leave the church, while by May 1940 only four men in the entire Totenkopf division had not renounced Christianity.[20] The Reichsführer saw the churches as culturally stabilizing institutions that preached the ‘un-German’ message of tolerance and peace.

Ideology would teach fanaticism and hate for Germany’s enemies. In November 1943 the commander of the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg demanded that ‘every man should be trained to be a fanatical hater. It does not matter on which front the division is engaged, the unyielding hate towards every opponent, Englishmen, Jew, Bolshevik, must make every one of our men capable of the highest deeds’.[21] SS commanders realized that the basics of Nazi ideology, repeatedly drilled into the recruit, were vital in making their troops fight harder. The steadfastness of the Waffen SS during a critical phase of the war in 1943-45, strengthened this conviction.

Indoctrination in the principles of racial hatred was not enough. The members had to be ready and willing tools, prepared to carry out tasks of any nature, however distasteful. Absolute obedience was therefore the necessary foundation stone of the SS: ‘Obedience must be unconditional. It corresponds to the conviction that the National Socialist ideology must reign supreme. He who is possessed by it and fights for it passionately subjects himself voluntarily to the obligation to obey. Every SS man is prepared, therefore, to carry out blindly every order which is issued by the Führer’.[22]

Individual citizens are normally able to interpret loyalty within the framework of legal norms, but the SS declaration of loyalty to Hitler meant a renunciation of any freedom of choice. The situations and actions in which the loyalty of the armed SS man was to be called upon was therefore relegated to Hitler’s orders. He demanded that the SS man place himself and his trust in the rightness of his decisions. This meant that murdering the regime's opponents or fighting bravely at the front was justified as it was part of what has been called ‘working towards the Führer’, the attempt by various agencies, in this case the SS, to interpret what they supposed was Hitler’s will. The belief that Hitler was the incarnation of the German people and its values and the belief in the correctness of his mission, enabled all kinds of actions to occur in the name of loyalty. To refuse to carry out unsavoury acts like mass murder, which Himmler supposed were the Führer’s will, was to reject one’s position in the SS.

We can learn much from the instruction used by Eicke among his Death’s Head guards, the nucleus of the Totenkopf Division. Training began with the history of the NSDAP. Just as the party had fought to free Germany from the Jews, the armed SS were to be an extension of this activism to the front-line soldiery. The second area of training involved racial and historical beliefs, while the third required an analysis of the enemies of Nazism; the Jews, Bolsheviks, Freemasons and Churches.[23] The essence of this indoctrination was threefold. In Eicke’s camps the recruit was drilled to obey orders without question. He learned to hate the ‘enemies behind the wire’ as subhumans. Finally, he acquired a sense of camaraderie built around the theme that the Totenkopfverbande, with the role of guarding the most dangerous enemies of the state, constituted an elite within the SS.[24] When the camp guards became the core of a new division these themes went with them with two variations. The ‘enemy behind the wire’ became the racial foe beyond the frontier and the concept of Totenkopf elitism grew to incorporate the military virtues of self-sacrifice and contempt for cowardice. In Russia, the Totenkopf’s experience in the camps suited the savage nature of the war. The Soviet soldier was depicted as a Jewish-Bolshevik animal who personified the most dangerous enemies. The ethnic identity and vicious resistance of the Russians reinforced this image. With their own indifference to hardship and hatred of the enemy, the Totenkopf developed a lust for killing Russians and fought with a corresponding tenacity.

The Waffen SS troops were taught a distorted view of the past, one based on racial struggle and ‘Lebensraum’. The past provided a sense of continuity and showed the recruit that the Jews and Slavs had always been the enemies of Germany. This meant that the need for living space and a solution to the ‘Jewish question’ was deemed to be inevitable, the culmination of an ancient and mortal struggle.[25]  This SS ‘world-view’ allowed crimes to be committed and partly explains Waffen SS atrocities since men who felt right was on their side were prepared to use their military instruments with fewer scruples than those who felt obliged to uphold Christian or Prussian codes of honour. At the same time ideological training was responsible for making the SS soldier fight with great tenacity. Men who had been taught to regard racial struggle as the most vital part of life appointed ‘a more fundamental meaning to the basics of tactics and to the demands of combat or weapons training than those who viewed this as necessary skills for the soldier's task’.[26] 

This indoctrination was the same for all SS men and allowed Himmler to ideologically unite all the branches of his empire. For the Reichsführer, an armed SS man was the same as an SD man or camp guard, the only difference was that they fought the racial enemy in different spheres. The SS stressed from the very beginning of the war that duty in the camps was no less soldierly than service at the front. Both were vital if the physical survival of the German race was to be guaranteed. This ideological outlook explains why Waffen SS men could be transferred to different branches. Paul Werner-Hope of the Totenkopf commanded an infantry battalion in Russia, but after being wounded in July 1942 he was transferred to the guard detachment at Auschwitz.[27] For Himmler this is how it should have been, the ideal SS man, trained ideologically to serve in all spheres. Hausser and Steiner may have seen a distinction between their military role and the racial-political tasks of the rest of the SS, but there was no such distinction in the minds of the SS leadership.

At the centre of the Waffen SS training process was the Junker Cadet School. These training establishments produced the officer cadre of many of the elite SS divisions. The key role of the schools is demonstrated by the fact that the majority of Knight’s Crosses awarded to Waffen SS officers were those made to graduates of the schools.[28] The ideological position that we have outlined above was combined at Bad Tölz and Brunswick schools with a sense of superiority, leadership instinct, aggressiveness, willingness to obey and a preparedness to take responsibility. However, despite the training and ideologically radical methods used to produce political soldiers, the schools failed to produce anything better than the old soldier Hausser. The pupils were not strategic thinkers and few graduates rose to the highest rank of officer. Indeed, before 1938 some 40% of entrants had received no more than elementary education.[29] Their importance was as leaders who saw themselves as embodying a particular concept of political soldiery in everyday troop matters, such as performance and espirit de corps.

At the battalion and company level the Junker graduates were formidable, but brutal, leaders. Kurt Meyer, holder of the Knight’s Cross and commander of the Leibstandarte’s reconnaissance battalion, is a good example. During the invasion of Greece, a detachment of the Leibstandarte attempted to take the Klissura Pass on 12 May 1941. As the Leibstandarte attacked they were pinned down and forced to take cover. Meyer ordered his men forward, but the fire was so heavy that they refused. Shouting to his men to ensure they were watching, he pulled the pin out of a grenade and rolled it behind the rearmost man. The spell was broken and the SS dashed forward away from the grenade. Ignoring the Greek fire, they soon took the pass.[30] Meyer demonstrated the vigour and brutality of the schools’ pupils when he told a comrade that ‘my regiment takes no prisoners’.[31] Clearly, studying examinations with titles like ‘The ideological opponents of the concept of the Reich and the measures needed to counter them’ or ‘Why our struggle in the East is the fulfilment of a historical task’ had made their mark on Meyer.[32] By July 1944 every third regiment or battalion commander with the rank of Sturmbann or Obersturmbanführer was a Junker graduate.

The schools clearly demonstrated the integration of the armed SS with the SS structure. Bad Tölz trained men for units outside the Waffen SS. Of the 1138 graduates in 1939, 54% were sent to front line units, the rest to reserve units, General SS and SD units. As we have seen, the ideology learnt at the schools was the same for all SS men and they could be sent for duties with any part of the organization. However, as the war progressed and casualty rates increased, this link with the pre-war SS did decline to some extent. The graduates that emerged in the latter part of the war had less ideological training. With the outbreak of war one can detect a shift towards combat subjects in the Bad Tölz curriculum.[33] To what extent these men were less ‘ideologically complete’ is unclear. It is certainly true that as the war progressed Himmler believed that the Waffen SS leadership was becoming more militaristic in attitude.

The heterogeneous composition of the Waffen SS in the early years meant that there was an uneven level of military performance. For example, the officer cadre of SS Standarte Deutschland in 1938 contained retired policemen, veterans from the Great War, officers from the General SS and Junker graduates. As a result a high level of military training was required for SS troops. There accordingly emerged a new form of military tactics under men like Steiner. From the outset the system promoted combat training and manoeuvres at the expense of traditional drill. The focus was on battlefield tactics and independently thinking officers and NCOs. An SS recruit might be told to dig himself into the ground knowing that within a prescribed time tanks would drive over his head, whether the hole was completed or not. A new form of soldiery emerged. Steiner’s troops could cover three kilometres in full kit in twenty minutes; such a thing was unheard of in the army.[34] Rigid formality and class structure between officers and other ranks were frowned upon. An officer held down his position only because he had proven himself a better soldier than his men, not because of any rank in society or superior education. In sports and exercise, one of the vital cogs in the Waffen SS training programme, officers and men competed as equals in an atmosphere that sponsored team work and mutual respect.


III.       Combat Effectiveness.

In our previous discussion we documented how a potent mixture of politics and military training produced a highly effective force which was ready to carry out the Führer’s aims. A new quality emerged called ‘Härte’. It meant many things. Toughness in battle, fearlessness, ruthlessness in the execution of orders and dedication to victory at all costs. It also meant contempt for the enemy, callousness to prisoners and brutality to all who stood in their way. The SS proved to be not just soldiers, but fighters who fought as often as not for the sake of fighting. An American officer, who came up against the Leibstandarte in the Ardennes in 1944 reported: ‘These men revealed a form of fighting that is new to me. They are obviously soldiers, but they fight as if military ways were of no consequence. They actually seem to enjoy combat’. An SS Haupsturmführer recalling the ‘sheer beauty’ of the fighting in Russia in 1942, stated ‘it was well worth the dreadful suffering, after a time we got to the point where we were concerned not for ourselves, or even Germany, but lived entirely for the next clash’.[35] The fighting spirit of the Waffen SS can be put down to ideology, comradeship and in the case of the foreign volunteers, the fact that they could not surrender. Surrender normally meant the firing squad.[36]

The Waffen SS was clearly a formidable opponent. Its successes in the field were frequent. The Leibstandarte seized the first bridgehead over the Dnieper, broke through the Soviet defences at the Crimea at Perekop and stormed Taganrog and Rostov. The 5th SS Viking Division pursued the Russians to the Sea of Azov. Das Reich captured Belgrade in 1941 and later broke through the Moscow defences and came within 50 kilometers of the Kremlin. In defence the SS was equally solid. When the Soviets cut off the Totenkopf and five army divisions at Demyansk in February 1942, Eicke’s division led the defence for several months before spearheading the breakthrough to freedom.[37] In December 1943 the Red Army broke through the German lines in the Ukraine and surrounded 75,000 troops at Cherkassy. Despite being surrounded by two Soviet Army groups, Viking led the break out to the west. The division however, had practically ceased to exist, losing nearly 20,000 men. On these occasions, at Demyansk and Cherkassy, the Waffen SS had prevented another potential Stalingrad. In Normandy in 1944, 19 German divisions were trapped in the Falaise Pocket. They escaped thanks to the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, which kept open a corridor until most of the units had escaped. The cost was enormous, only 300 men surviving from a strength of 21,000.[38] Wherever the enemy breached the lines, orders went out for the Waffen SS. They became the Führer’s fire brigade, always being sent to the areas of the front that were in crisis or where a breakthrough was required. The 1st SS Panzer Corps was rushed to Kharkov in early 1943 to stem the Soviet advance. They succeeded in doing so and by the end of March had actually retaken the city. Hitler was so impressed that he declared the Corps to be ‘worth 20 Italian Divisions’.[39]

Both friend and foe agreed that the armed SS possessed fighting qualities equalled by few. General von Mackensen of 3rd Panzer Corps extolled the Leibstandarte in a letter to Himmler for its ‘discipline, refreshing energy and unshakeable steadfastness, a real elite unit’. The Russians held a similar view. Major General Artemko of the 27th Army Corps, when captured in 1941, stated to his interrogators that ‘his men breathed a sigh of relief when the Viking Division was withdrawn from the line and replaced by a regular army unit’.[40] Impressive as these achievements were, the Waffen SS never succeeded in altering the outcome of the major battles of the war like Stalingrad, Kursk or Normandy. Their successes were at a local level.

Was the Waffen SS a more formidable force than the Wehrmacht that it fought beside? It is certainly true that there were only a handful of army divisions, such as Panzer Lehr and the Grossdeutschland, who could boast a combat record that equalled or surpassed Leibstandarte, Das Reich or Viking. It has often been stressed that the elite Waffen SS Panzer divisions fought so well partly due to the fact that they received better, and on occasion more, equipment than their army counterparts.[41] This ignores the fact that the Wehrmacht had fully fledged Panzer divisions before the SS. Only the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th SS Divisions were made up to Panzer divisions by the end of 1943. The ‘elite’ SS Panzer divisions were, however, substantially larger than those from the Wehrmacht towards the end of the war. By 1944, all Panzer divisions contained an armoured regiment of two battalions - one equipped with Mark IV tanks, the other with Panthers. Army Panzer divisions also contained two infantry regiments of two battalions, but SS divisions mustered six infantry battalions. The average Panzer division went into the Battle of Normandy, for example, with almost 15,000 men at full strength, while SS divisions had up to 20,000 troops.[42] To what extent this extra fire-power accounted for the SS divisions’ fighting prowess is unclear. The allegation that the SS units received better equipment is not convincing. When the Leibstandarte received the new Panzer Mark IVs with 75mm guns and a number of self-propelled guns in 1942, Panzer Lehr and Grossdeutschland received similar amounts of identical equipment.[43]

The Waffen SS divisions that received the best equipment were however a minority, perhaps seven from a force of thirty. Only the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 9th, 10th and 12th SS Divisions were fully fledged Panzer divisions by 1945. The next best equipped were the Panzer Grenadier divisions, consisting of a combination of tanks and infantry. These were the 4th, 11th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 25th, 28th and 38th. By no means were all of these units well-equipped and at full strength throughout the war. The majority of those Panzer Grenadier units that did grow to divisional size were never fully mechanized and many did not always receive their full allocation of personnel. There were also three cavalry divisions and six mountain divisions. The rest were regular infantry units of varying quality. The majority of these never reached full divisional status, ranging in strength from battalion to regiment size. Less than 30% of SS divisions were equipped for modern mobile warfare, which tends to erode the popular perception of the Waffen SS as a well-equipped and fully motorised Panzer force. This only applied to a handful of units.[44]

The exploits of these ‘elite’ SS Panzer divisions have formed the reputation of the Waffen SS as a whole. The reality is rather different. Wegner’s analysis of SS men who won the Knight’s Cross reveals that the classical units like the Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Totenkopf and Viking received the most. These four divisions received 55% of all Knight’s Crosses awarded to the Waffen SS. If one adds eight other divisions, all of which were German, West European or Scandinavian, the figure rises to 84%, demonstrating that less than a third of SS units earned nearly 90% of all crosses.[45] It is evident that the ‘Volksdeutsche’ and Eastern divisions were of little value. The majority performed badly from the outset. The 13th SS Bosnian Handschar Division operated at a satisfactory level fighting against partisans when it first entered the field in early 1943, but losses and declining morale eroded the unit by the Autumn of that year. When the division was first exposed to the Russians in 1944 it disintegrated.[46] It was not unusual for the ‘Volksdeutsche’ and Eastern divisions to fail completely in battle. In January 1945 Himmler informed a subordinate that a regiment from the ethnic German 17th SS Götz von Berlichingen Division had ‘run away on contact with the enemy’.[47] Cases such as this have been overshadowed by the heroic reputation of a minority of SS divisions, most of which could trace their origins back to the pre-war SS, again emphasising the importance of the men who were trained before 1939 and who made up the leadership cadres of the early divisions.

The elite Waffen SS units suffered from high casualty rates. There were repeated complaints from Army commanders who accused SS officers of wasting men. By mid-November 1941, five months into the invasion of Russia, Das Reich had lost 60% of its combat strength, including 40% of its officers.[48] By the end of 1943 150,000 Waffen SS troops were dead, wounded or missing. Such losses helped establish the reputation of the Waffen SS as a force that fought to the last, but had a serious effect on the long-term future of many units. The shortage of leaders often damaged operational efficiency. By 1944 the 12th SS Panzer Division did not have enough experienced officers to lead it. As a result a core of 500 officers were trained from scratch in four months, whereas the early SS units had been led by highly trained personnel from Bad Tölz. Although the new officers were brave and fanatical, their lack of training is reflected in the fact that the division was almost wiped out on its first mission in Normandy.[49]

It is also worth stressing that the stringent selection process that was maintained in the elite divisions during the early part of the war meant that men who could have served as NCOs and junior officers in other units, served as Privates in the best SS units. Germany, facing so many enemies, could not afford wasteful misuse of men and material. It might have been better to utlize such men in regular army formations, thus insuring that they received proper replacements and qualified leaders, rather than concentrating these resources in a handful of formations to the disadvantage of the army in general.

The expansion of the Waffen SS led it to introduce conscription. Thus in one way at least, the armed SS was indeed like the army. It appears that about a third of the total number of men joining the Waffen SS were conscripts or compulsory transferees and that the proportion of such individuals was higher at the end of the war than at the beginning. By the final months of the conflict some 40,000 Luftwaffe and 5,000 Navy personnel were transferred to the Waffen SS.[50] The high losses sustained in Russia also led to a decline in volunteers, put off as they were by high casualty rates. Conscription and compulsory transfers undermined the ideological core of the Waffen SS and may have effected its combat effectiveness. The volunteer in the vanguard of Nazism was a key pillar in Himmler’s concept of political soldiery. The achievements of Das Reich and the Leibstandarte were largely down to their highly motivated volunteers. Reluctant draftees would not fight as hard as the true believers. There were several cases of young party members refusing to join the Waffen SS, expressing a wish to fulfil their military service in the army. Many were threatened with expulsion from the NSDAP, hardly the calibre of recruits required for a Nazi vanguard.

War-time losses and Himmler’s desire to field a larger force also led to the inclusion of foreign peoples into the Waffen SS as the use of German recruits was blocked by OKH. At first these were ‘Aryan’ Scandinavians and Dutchmen. Recruitment was initially slow and by June 1941 only 3000 volunteers had come forward.[51] With the invasion of the Soviet Union, however, the numbers grew rapidly as men were attracted to the anti-Bolshevik crusade in the east. As war progressed and Germany was pushed back on all fronts, Himmler could stretch his principles far enough to include the formerly ‘sub-human’ peoples of the Baltic, Ukraine, Russia and the Balkans. The irony of slavic volunteers fighting for nordic racial supremacy was quietly ignored by the Reichsführer. Many of these units performed poorly and contributed little to the combat reputation of the armed SS.


IV.        ‘Normal Soldiers’?

It has been suggested that as it expanded in the latter years of the war the Waffen SS grew to become more like the army that it fought beside. During the second half of the war, every third SS General and every fifth Colonel had come to the Waffen SS straight from the Wehrmacht. The Waffen SS was beginning to lose its specific SS cohesion as many of these men had had little contact with the dogma that was drilled into the early Waffen SS. The military tasks that the Waffen SS was asked to perform induced its commanders to conform to codes of conduct prevailing in the army. Much to Himmler’s annoyance, there was a tendency to use army rather than SS ranks. Likewise, the colour of uniforms and equipment was often assimilated with those of the army.

Differences between the armed SS and the army declined with the experience of front line combat, while the estrangement from the non-military SS grew. In October 1941 for example, it was reported that Sturmbannführer Loh, the Waffen SS garrison commander at Nuremberg, refused on principle all contacts with General SS and SD officers.[52] Among the officers around Steiner in the Deutschland Regiment, opinions could be heard that ran counter to those of the party, according to Himmler. There were demeaning remarks about the General SS, as well as a willingness to criticise the decisions of superior SS agencies. In November 1942 Himmler complained to Hausser that ‘everything and everyone’ was being criticised from ‘military measures which originate with the Reichsführer, to political measures taken in the police sector’.[53] There is certainly plenty of evidence that Waffen SS commanders were suspicious of their fellow SS officers, the Senior SS and Police Chiefs (HSSPF). In March 1942 Himmler asserted that the HSSPF were ‘allowed to help the Waffen SS, but otherwise these bothersome outsiders are not to be heeded’.[54] It is worth stressing however, that although the SS commanders of elite units may have let their men criticize the regime and its agencies, in Steiner’s Viking Division, the most rebellious unit, criticism of Hitler himself was out of the question.[55] It was only the policies of the regime that were questioned, the correctness of Hitler’s vision was accepted. The question was how to implement the Führer’s ideals.

Nevertheless, Himmler certainly believed that there was a danger that the armed SS would lead its own existence and withdraw into its own world, pleading exigency of war. On 23 November 1942, Max von Herff, head of the SS Personnel Office told the Reichsführer that there was ‘a circle around [Hans] Jüttner [of the Waffen SS Head Office] which must be watched. Neither their thoughts or desires are those of the SS. They simply wish to be an imperial guard, anything else is a side issue in their eyes’.[56] To what extent the ideological chains linking Jüttner’s army to the SS parted as the war progressed is unclear. Certainly leading Waffen SS officers began to despair of final victory and felt handicapped by second rate replacements. The most interesting manifestation of this estrangement can be seen in the contacts between SS Generals and the resistance. If we are to believe those involved, it appears that both Sepp Dietrich and General Willi Bittrich, commander of II SS Panzer Corps, expressed dislike for the regime to Rommel, while Hausser stated the same to Colonel von Gersdorff. Their comments awakened hopes among the plotters that at least some of the SS units would remain neutral should the regime be overthrown. Fritz von der Schulenburg, a key resistance figure, attempted to establish contacts with Steiner and Hausser in 1943. Steiner was certainly involved in a conversation with him, even if there were no concrete results.[57]

It is highly doubtful that leading SS Generals were involved in planning a revolt. A minority, though, were distancing themselves from the regime when the war took a turn for the worse. The majority however, remained loyal to the bitter end. Indeed, the notion that the Waffen SS was becoming like the army needs to be qualified. As late as 1944 two thirds of senior Waffen SS officers had been members of the General SS before joining the armed SS. Every second higher Waffen SS officer had been a party member before joining.[58] Equally revealing was the fact that 25% of Waffen SS Generals in 1944 had been from the ‘old guard’ and joined the SS during ‘the time of struggle’ prior to 1933.[59] It is doubtful that such men changed their views much as the war progressed. Many of the officers from the army without an SS background were ex-Freikorps men, so a consensus on Nazism would have remained. This kept the militarized formations under the same ideological roof as the rest of the SS. In the final years of the war many places in the Waffen SS were filled by the fanatics of the Hitler Youth.[60] The vast majority of Waffen SS men had thus been exposed to Nazism in one way or another. Therefore, joining the Waffen SS for these men was likely to have been more than a question of military ambition. The armed SS would have served to strengthen Nazi convictions due to its status as the Führer’s ‘imperial guard’. Men like Hausser may not have been revolutionary racists like Eicke, but they held a set of beliefs that made a career in the SS possible. Although their views were similar to those held by most Wehrmacht generals, they joined the Waffen SS as they saw it as a distinctive force with its own characteristics.

As we have seen, these characteristics included its political status as an arm of the party and its fighting spirit in adversity. However, it also differed from the Wehrmacht in the extent of its barbarity. Our analysis of SS ideology has demonstrated how atrocities could be justified in what was defined as a war of annihilation, one where the existence of Germany was at stake. At the same time, the close organisational links with the rest of Himmler’s empire meant that the Waffen SS was to be called upon to perform tasks that the army was rarely involved in.

The scope and intensity of the Wehrmacht's involvement in the Holocaust are of course contentious issues. For example, in a number of cases, front-line units of the army killed Jews in Byelorussia. However, these were more or less spontaneous outrages, not organized and systematic massacres.[61] In the army rear area in Byelorussia, a division of labour developed between the SS on the one hand and the army on the other. While the 707th Infantry Division carried out mass murders of Jews in small towns and rural areas, SS and Order Police cleared the major cities. Overall, the relationship between Wehrmacht units and the Einsatzgruppen seems to have ranged from amicable to tense.[62]

What is clear, however, is that while the Wehrmacht’s crimes were spontaneous, the Waffen SS had to provide men for the Einsatzgruppen squads from the outset. Einsatzgruppen A’s personnel consisted of 9% Gestapo, 3.5% SD, 8.8% auxiliary police and 34 % from the Waffen SS, with the rest consisting of technical personnel.[63] The Totenkopf in particular had close links with the Einsaztkommando. In October 1941, when the division’s losses became grave, the company from the battalion then serving with Einsatzgruppen A were transferred back to the division. A secret SD document of September 1941 documented the reliance of the Einsatzgruppen upon the Waffen SS men to do the actual shooting of Jews.[64]

As the invasion of the Soviet Union continued, the first wave of Einsatzgruppen were followed by the SS and Police Leaders (HSSPF) who were engaged in ‘anti-partisan’ actions, a euphemism for killing anyone that the Einsatzgruppen had missed. Here too the Waffen SS helped out. SS Sturmbannführer Magill reported that the 2nd SS Cavalry Regiment had assisted the HSSPF in killing 6526 ‘Jewish looters, Communists and secret members of the Red Army’, during an action in the Pripet Marshes from 27 July to 11 August 1941. This officer complained however, that ‘the driving of women and children into the marshes did not have the expected success, because the marshes were not so deep that one could sink’.[65] Another example of Waffen SS participation in extermination is the report by SS Brigadeführer and Major General of the Police, Jürgen Stroop, of the destruction of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw during April and May 1943. Among the units involved were two Waffen SS battalions that came in for high praise from Stroop: ‘Considering that…..the men of the Waffen SS had been trained for only three or four weeks before being assigned to this action, high credit should be given for the pluck, courage and devotion to duty’.[66] The selection methods and ideological education of Waffen SS men furnished such good grounding that a few weeks of practice was all that was required to turn them into excellent exterminators. This was not the only occasion on which the armed SS was engaged in a savage act of reprisal in Warsaw. On 1 August 1944 the Polish resistance rose up in revolt in an attempt to liberate their capital before the Russians arrived. The revolt was put down by Waffen SS Obergruppenführer and General of the Police Erich von dem Bach-Zalewski, a former Einsatzgruppen commander, who was ordered by Himmler to raise the capital and exterminate its population. Over 200,000 civilians died in what was the largest single atrocity of the war.[67]

Hausser and Steiner had to accept in their ranks men like Bach-Zalewski, Stroop and Haupstürmführer Bothman, an equally unsavoury character who had served at the Chelmno death camp where he helped operate the gas vans.[68] They had to serve alongside Oskar Dirlwanger, a convicted child molester. His brigade was eventually designated as the 36th Waffen SS Grenadier Division and consisted of convicted criminals. When Dirlwanger’s unit was involved in the reduction of the Russian ‘Partisan Republic of Pelik’ some 15,000 ‘partisans’ were wiped out. The unit reported, however, that only 1100 weapons were found. A horrified civilian propaganda officer complained that some of the partisans had been burnt alive and their half roasted bodies eaten by pigs.[69] The Eastern Waffen SS was equally brutal. In the Balkans, the racial Germans behaved with such barbarity that Sturmbannführer Reinholz of Einsatzkommando 2 protested against their inhuman methods which had begun ‘to have an injurious effect upon German interests’.[70] On 28 March 1943, for example, a battalion from the Prinz Eugen Division murdered 834 civilians at the villages of Dorfu Otok, Cornj and Dola Delriji in Dalmatia. During their retreat from an area near Poporaca in Bosnia, the division’s 1st Mountain Brigade shot every civilian they came across, maintaining that it was impossible to distinguish the local people from partisans.[71]

The SS military commanders may have believed that they were separate from murderers like Dirlwanger and the Eastern SS, but the elite units themselves were often responsible for atrocities. In 1941 a detachment from the Viking Division shot 600 Jews in Galicia as a reprisal for ‘Soviet crimes’.[72] In October 1941 the Waffen SS were engaged during a civilian state of emergency in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. They took part in shootings and supervised the hanging of 191 individuals in Prague and Bruenn. In July 1944 Das Reich, searching for an SS officer captured by the Maquis, destroyed the village of Oradour-sur-Glane near Limoges in France and murdered 642 civilians.[73]

Waffen SS personnel were even involved in medical experiments on concentration camp inmates. Oberführer Joachim Mrugowsky, Chief of the Hygienic Institute of the Waffen SS, took part in high-altitude experiments at Dachau for the benefit of the Luftwaffe. The experiments were carried out in a low-pressure chamber in which atmospheric conditions prevailing at high altitude could be duplicated. He also took part in tests to investigate ways of treating persons who had been severely chilled. In one series of experiments the subjects were forced to remain in a tank of ice water for three hours. Sturmbannführer Viktor Brack of the Waffen SS was engaged in sterilization experiments conducted by means of drugs, X-ray and surgery at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück.[74]

It is not surprising that units of the Waffen SS, which had thus been employed for medical experiments, extermination actions and the execution of civilians, also violated the laws of warfare. Political fanaticism, combined with the fury of battle led to repeated breaches of the established codes of warfare. There occurred in Normandy, for example, between 7 and 17 June 1944, seven cases involving the shooting of 64 prisoners. The 25th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 12th SS Panzer Division were given orders stating that prisoners were to be executed after having been interrogated. Similar orders were given to the 3rd Battalion of the 26th SS Panzer Grenadiers and to the 12th SS Engineering and Reconnaissance Battalions.[75]

However, it must be said that there were numerous cases of Allied soldiers shooting SS prisoners during the Normandy fighting. In the heat of battle, in the wake of seeing friends die, many men found it intolerable to send prisoners to the rear knowing that they would thus survive the war, while they themselves seemed to have little prospect of doing so.[76] The difference however, was that the cases of Allied troops shooting prisoners were random and spontaneous, while the Waffen SS often held to a definite policy of liquidating prisoners. During the Ardennes offensive elements of the Leibstandarte murdered American prisoners at Malmédy after they had surrendered. Even earlier in 1940, the man responsible for this atrocity, Wilhelm Mohnke, had led the massacre of British prisoners at Wormhoudt in France. The killing of allied prisoners in the West destroyed the myth that the Waffen SS only reserved its excesses for the Eastern front, where the murder of Soviet POWs was a regular feature of the fighting.


VI.      Conclusion.

It is more than likely that had a long war of attrition not intervened, the Waffen SS would never have become such a famous military machine. Instead, it would have remained a brutal paramilitary police force, as the Nazis originally intended. Our brief look at the origins of the Waffen SS demonstrates that it developed from the General SS and was not a separate organisation. Conversely, there is evidence in the military training and organisation of the armed SS before the war that it was planned as a combat formation from the outset as well. Himmler wanted his political soldiers to serve in the east as well as within the Reich. The transformation of a small emergency force into a vast army did not however result in any separation of the armed branch from the rest of the SS. Although tactically under the command of the Wehrmacht while in the field, it remained as much a part of the SS as any other branch of that organization. Throughout the war it was recruited, trained and administered by the main offices of the SS Supreme Command. Ideologically and racially its members were selected in conformity with SS standards.

The notion that the Waffen SS was almost out of SS control is incorrect. Despite disobeying orders, personality clashes and disputes, the armed SS fought on to the end for their Reichsführer. From the outset the armed SS was imbued with Nazi zeal, the only disputes were how to use the Waffen SS to further this ideology. All of Himmler’s principles may not have always been reflected in the Waffen SS, but the core belief in the ideal remained in the elite units, even if they did start to develop their own, at times rebellious, identities. At the same time, Hitler’s interest and thus his authority over the Waffen SS remained constant until the end, whether this was in decrees concerning its role or the posting of elite divisions to areas in crisis.

This discussion has documented the characteristics and beliefs of the men who organised, built, and served in the armed SS, and the various purposes for which they were used.  The Waffen SS it seems, consisted of ‘heroes’ and ‘murderers’. Men like Steiner and Hausser were soldiers whose war-time record was unblemished. However, individuals such as Eicke, Stroop and Dirlewanger can only be described as murderers. The majority of Waffen SS men fell somewhere in between. It would be wrong to attempt to excuse the armed SS of its crimes as the post-war apologists have done, or to totally condemn all those who served in an organisation whose creation and development they did not control. Many soldiers served in the Waffen SS because they were conscripted or transferred. To ‘suggest that all these men were sadists, criminals and fanatics would be as ludicrous as the attempts by apologists for the Waffen SS to prove that the armed SS was not really part of the SS’.[77]

Years of indoctrination and SS training had worked well and produced some of the most destructive forces in history. The combat records of many of the Waffen SS divisions was indeed remarkable. However, it was only the elite units that created this legend; the majority of the Waffen SS was moderate at best. Despite any admiration historians may have for the elite divisions’ fighting qualities, it does not justify the disregard of the Waffen SS for moral and humane codes of conduct. It is not that the Waffen SS exchanged personnel with the more sinister aspects of Himmler’s empire, nor that it included in its ranks organisations like the Dirlewanger Brigade, nor that Waffen SS units took part in acts like the repression of the Warsaw ghetto. It is rather the case that, willingly and in the normal course of action, the elite divisions, having adopted a different philosophy of war, were too often themselves the perpetrators of atrocity.



[1]Memorandum from Streckenbach to Himmler, 9 March 1942, RFSS Microfilm 140, cited in H. Höhne, The Order of the Death’s Head, (Secker and Warburg, London, 1969), p. 436.

[2]For the post-war record of the Association of Soldiers of the former Waffen SS see D. C. Large, ‘Reckoning without the Past: The HIAG of the Waffen SS and the Politics of Rehabilitation in the Bonn Republic 1950-61’, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 59, No. 1, 1987, pp. 79-113. For veterans’ attempts to de-stigmatize the reputation of the armed SS see P. Hausser, Waffen SS im Einsatz, (Oldendorf, Schütz, 1977), F. Steiner, Die Freiwilligen der Waffen SS, Idea und Opfergang, (Oldendorf, Schütz, 1973), K. Meyer, Grenadiers, (J. J.  Fedorowicz, Winnipeg, 2001), O. Weidinger, Comrades to the End: The 4th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment Der Fuhrer 1939-45, (Schiffer Military History, 1998), R. L. Grupp and H. Oehmsen, The Tracks of God: The Story of Henry Oehmsen, Waffen SS Soldier and Prisoner of the Soviets, (J. J. Fedorowicz, Winnipeg, 2000).

[3]G. Reitlinger, The SS: Alibi of a Nation 1922-1945, (Arms and Armour Press, London, 1981), p. 77, and L. Degrelle, Epic: The Story of the Waffen SS, (Institute for Historical Review, Torrance, California, 1983), pp. 30-36.

[4]Deutsche Soldatenzeitung, August, 1956, cited in G. S. Grabner, History of the SS, (Granada Publishing, St. Albans, 1980), p. 224.

[5]E. L. Blandford, Hitler’s Second Army: The Waffen SS, (Motorbooks, Osceola Wis., 1995), pps. 132, 136, and K. H. Theile, Beyond Monster and Clowns: The Combat SS, De-mythologizing five decades of German elite formations, (University Press of America, London, 1999), p. 30. Other revisionist works that overtly focus on the military sphere and neglect the whole issue of criminality include C. Whiting, Joachim Peiper: Battle Commander SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, (Leo Cooper, London, 1999), J. Lucas, The Military Role of the 2nd SS Division, (Cassell Military Books, London, 1999) and M. Yerger, Knights of Steel: The Structure, Development and Personalities of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, Vols. 1-2, (M. J. Horestky, Hershey PA, 1989).

[6]C. W. Sydnor, Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death’s Head Division 1933-1945, (Guild Publishing, London, 1989), p. 314.

[7]Höhne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 440.

[8]P. Padfield, Himmler: Reichsfuhrer SS, (Macmillan, London, 1991), p. 161.

[9]Höhne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 441.

[10]Eichman: Record of Interrogation, Vol. II, col. 1683, cited in Hohne, Order of the Death’s Head, p.  451.

[11]Hausser’s evidence at the IMT, Vol. XX, p. 300, cited in Reitlinger, The SS: Alibi of a Nation, p. 83.

[12]Hohne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 451.

[13]Sydnor, Soldiers of Destruction, p. 39.

[14]In response to the atrocity the Wehrmacht put the perpetrators on trial. One of the accused, later freed by an amnesty in October 1939, pointed out that ‘as an SS man he was particularly sensitive to the sight of Jews. He had therefore acted thoughtlessly in a spirit of adventure’. M. Gilbert, The Holocaust, (Fontanna, London, 1987), p. 87.

[15]B. Wegner, The Waffen SS: Organization, Ideology and Function, (Blackwell, Oxford, 1990), p. 85.

[16]Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Vol. II, (USGPO, Washington, 1946), pp. 173-237, document reference 2946-PS and 2947-PS.

[17]Der Soldatenfreund cited in Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Vol. II, pp. 237-248, document reference 3429-PS.

[18]Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Vol. II, pp. 173-237, document reference 1919-PS.

[19]1st SS Cavalry Regiment, ‘Diestantueisung Für Weltanschauliche Erziehung (MA: 54/859), cited in Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 205.

[20]Hohne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 449 and Sydnor, Soldiers of Destruction, p. 85.

[21]Militararchiv des Bundesarchiv RS3-10/-1, cited in Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 207.

[22]’The Organization Book of the NSDAP for 1943’ cited in Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Vol. II, pp. 173-237, document reference 2640-PS.

[23]Sydnor, Soldiers of Destruction, p. 28.

[24]Sydnor, Soldiers of Destruction, p. 324.

[25]Himmler summed up the importance of history when he spoke to Kampfgruppe Nord in July 1941, during the opening phase of the attack on the Soviet Union: ‘When you, my men, fight over there in the east, then you are conducting the same struggle which our fathers and forefathers conducted again and again many centuries ago’. Neue Politische Literatur T-175/109/2683, cited in Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 14.

[26]Reitlinger, The SS: Alibi of a Nation, p. 160.

[27]Höhne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 328.

[28]Wegner, The Waffen SS, pp. 309, 314-315.

[29]J. Keegan, The Waffen SS: The Asphalt Soldiers, (Macdonald, London, 1970), p. 53.

[30]B. Quarrie, Hitler’s Teutonic Knights: SS Panzers in Action, (Patrick Stephens Limited, London, 1986), p. 37.

[31]I. Sayer and D. Bothing, Hitler’s Last General: The case against Wilhelm Mohnke, (Batam Press, London, 1989), p. 155.

[32]Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 171.

[33]Wegner, The Waffen SS, pp. 166-167.

[34]Reitlinger, The SS: Alibi of a Nation, p. 178.

[35]Sayer and D. Bothing, Hitler’s Last General, p. 18.

[36]The French 33rd SS Division Charlemagne fought to the last in the defence of Berlin, where it was almost wiped out. See R. Landwehr, Charlemagne's legionnaires: French volunteers of the Waffen-SS, 1943-1945, (Bibliophile Legion Books, Silver Spring, 1989), pp. 167-73.

[37]Sydnor, Soldiers of Destruction, pp. 214-225.

[38]C. W. Luther, The 12th SS Panzer Division 'Hitler Youth': Its Origins, Training and Destruction, 1943-1944,  (Ph.D. diss. 1987), pp. 220-231.

[39]Hitler’s Table Talk, 5 April 1942, pp. 402-403, cited in Reitlinger, The SS: Alibi of a Nation, p. 156.

[40]Mackensen to Himmler, 20 December 1941 and Heydrich to Himmler, 6 November 1941, RFSS Microfilm 108, cited in Hohne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 467.

[41]See for example Keegan, Waffen SS, p. 144.

[42]M. Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, (Book Club Associates, London, 1984), p. 349.

[43]Theile, Beyond Monster and Clowns, p. 224.

[44]Theile, Beyond Monster and Clowns, p. 39.

[45]Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 312.

[46]G. Lepre, Himmler’s Bosnian Division: The Waffen SS Handschar Division 1943-45, (J. J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Winnipeg, Canada, 1999), pps. 89, 145.

[47]Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 312.

[48]R. Butler, The Black Angels: The Story of the Waffen SS, (Arrow Books, London, 1989), p. 131.

[49]Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 322.

[50]Theile, Beyond Monsters and Clowns, p. 38.

[51]M. P. Gingerich, ‘Waffen SS Recruitment in the “Germanic Lands” 1940-41, Historian, Vol. 59, No. 4, 1997, pp. 815-830.

[52]Höhne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 447.

[53]Himmler to Hausser, 7 November 1942, cited in Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 193.

[54]Himmler to H. Juttner, 5 March 1942, cited in Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 195.

[55]Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 194.

[56]Hohne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 479.

[57]Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 196.

[58]They were men like Kurt Meyer, commander of 12th SS Panzer Division. Even as a prisoner in 1945, he told his interrogator: ‘You will hear a lot against Adolf Hitler in this camp, but you will never hear it from me. As far as I am concerned he was and still is the greatest thing that ever happened to Germany’. Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, p. 124.

[59]Wegner, The Waffen SS, p. 268.

[60]Their commitment was evident in the fact that the division they formed was entirely destroyed at Normandy in 1944, the handful of survivors only surrendering when they had run out of ammunition. When the division was reformed with a new intake of Hitler Youth, it proved its fanaticism once again when sent to defend Budapest. In the spring of 1945 only 455 men survived by the time the city finally fell to the Russians. Quarrie, Hitler’s Teutonic Knights, pp. 133-137.

[61]C. Gerlach, ‘Deutsche Wirtschaftsinteressen, Besatzungspolitik und der Mord an den Juden in Weissrussland, 1941-1943’, in U. Herbert (ed), Nationalsozialistische Vernichtungspolitik 1939-1945: Neue Forschungen und Kontroversen, (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1998), p. 284.

[62]J. Föerster, ‘Wehrmacht, Krieg und Holocaust’, in R. Dieter Müeller and H. E. Volkmann (eds), Die Wehrmacht: Mythos und Realitäet, (Munich, R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1999), pp. 948-963. The Army and Waffen SS were both guilty of more general crimes. An OKW report on offences in the Ukraine dated 2 August 1943 stated: ‘In the period covered 151 cases came to notice. In 19 cases the culprits were from the army, in 53 cases from the Waffen SS. The number of rape cases is high, 18 have so far been proven, in 12 cases the culprits were from the Waffen SS’. Höhne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 470.

[63]Höhne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 358.

[64]Sydnor, Soldiers of Destruction, p. 323.

[65]Report on the action by 2nd SS Cavalry Regiment in the Pripet Marshes from 27 July to 11 August 1941, Kriegstagebuch des Kommandostabes Reichsführer SS, Vienna, 10/965, pp. 20-21, cited in Y. Arad, Y. Gutman, A. Margaliot (eds), Documents on the Holocaust, (Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1987), p. 414.

[66]Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Vol. II, pp. 173-237, document reference 1061-PS.

[67]R. Overy, Russia’s War, (Penguin Books, London, 1997), p. 246.

[68]Höhne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 465.

[69]Reitlinger, The SS: Alibi of a Nation, p. 174.

[70]Often the mere presence of Waffen SS men was enough to erode what little sympathy there was for the Germans among the people of the occupied lands. The inhabitants of one Ukrainian town, an OKW report of 2 August 1943 noted, ‘are in a state of permanent indignation over thefts of livestock, assaults on inhabitants and rape of women’. The report concluded ‘prior to the arrival of the armed SS the population was most favourably disposed towards the troops’. See Höhne, Order of the Death’s Head, pp. 469-470.

[71]Butler, Black Angels, p. 231.

[72]Hohne, Order of the Death’s Head, p. 469.

[73]Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Vol. II, pp. 237-248, document reference 1972-PS.

[74]Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10. Nuremberg, October 1946–April 1949, (US G.P.O, Washington, D.C, 1949–1953), p. 12.

[75]Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Vol. II, pp. 237-248, document reference 2997-PS.

[76]Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, p. 211.

[77]Sydnor, Soldiers of Destruction, p. 343.