It was founded in Germany in 1939 after the SS was split into two units but the title of Waffen-SS only became official on 2 March, 1940. Although nominally under the leadership of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, a political and internal security appointee, the Waffen-SS saw action throughout the Second World War under de facto operational control of the Wehrmacht. During the war it grew to 39 divisions, which served as elite combat troops alongside the regular army.
After the war, at the Nuremberg Trials the Waffen-SS was condemned as a criminal organisation due to their political connections to the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), and involvement in war crimes and The Holocaust. As a result, Waffen-SS veterans were denied many of the rights afforded to other German combat veterans who had served in the Heer, Luftwaffe or Kriegsmarine, except conscripts sworn in after 1943, who were exempted from the judgment on the basis of involuntary servitude. Waffen-SS soldiers were held in separate, more rigorous confinement by the Western Allies and were punished severely by the Soviet Union. As well, many Waffen-SS men recruited from German-occupied countries in Europe were punished by their home countries.
The origins of the Waffen-SS can be traced back to the creation of a group of 322 men who were to act as Hitler's bodyguard. This bodyguard was created by Hitler in reaction to his unease at the size and strength of the Sturmabteilung (abbreviated 'SA'; English translation 'assault battalion'). While the SA was part of the party, the fact that it pre-dated Hitler's leadership and had ambitions of its own meant that its loyalty to Hitler was not assured. The SA had grown so large that Hitler felt he needed an armed escort that was totally dedicated to him, thus the Schutzstaffel (SS) was created. After Hitler's imprisonment and subsequent release in the wake of the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, he saw an even greater need for a bodyguard, and the place of the SS was solidified in the Nazi hierarchy.
Until 1929 the SA was still the dominant force in the Nazi Party, however the SS was growing in strength and importance. In January 1929, Hitler appointed Heinrich Himmler to lead the SS with the rank of Reichsführer, and it was Himmler's goal to create an elite corps of armed soldiers within the party. However, the SS was still a very small organisation, and Hitler wanted an effective force by 1933. Himmler set out to recruit men who represented the elite of German society, both in physical abilities and political beliefs. So a group of armed men that were used for security and ceremonial purposes was established called the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SSVT). Included in this group was Hitler's protection squad, known as the Stabwache. This protection squad had been created in March 1933. Through his active recruitment, Himmler was able to increase the size of the SS to about 52,000 by the end of 1933.
Although the SS was growing, the SA mirrored the growth of Hitler's private army. The SA had over 2 million members at the end of 1933. Led by one of Hitler's old comrades, (Ernst Röhm), the SA represented a threat to Hitler's attempts to win favour with the German army. The SA threatened to sour Hitler's relations with the conservative elements of the country as well, people whose support Hitler needed to solidify his position in the German government. Hitler decided to act against the SA, and the SS was put in charge of eliminating Röhm and the other high ranking officers of the SA. The Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934 saw the execution of 82 SA men, including almost the entire leadership, and effectively ended the power of the SA. This attack was largely carried out by two companies of the bodyguard and illustrates the criminal behaviours for which it was later condemned.
During the Night of the Long Knives, the SS performed precisely as Hitler had envisioned, and from that point on, Himmler and his SS would be responsible only to Hitler, becoming a major force in the NSDAP second only to the Politisch Organisation (PO), the party cadre organisation. With his new-found independence, Himmler expanded the SS and created several new departments within the existing infrastructure. In particular, Himmler created the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) which was to act as the Reich's security service. In 1936, Himmler was appointed Chief of the German police. Himmler then reorganized the Reich's police service to include the Ordnungspolizei, and the Sicherheitspolizei (security police - in effect, the detective force). The Sicherheitspolizei was further divided into the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) and the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), respectively the criminal police and the secret police. At this time the SSVT was established as an armed police unit for domestic deployment and not a combat unit. This was perhaps to calm the fears that the army had already had about the challenge posed by the SA to their role. In 1936 Himmler selected former Lieut. General Paul Hausser to be appointed Inspector of the SSVT and he seems to have downplayed the police aspects of the force whilst building a military force. However, 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.
In 1938 Hitler declared that the SSVT would have a role in domestic as well as foreign affairs, which transformed this growing armed force into the rival that the army had feared. Special schools at Bad Tölz and Braunschweig were created to train future SS officers. Hausser also created two new SS regiments. Deutschland and Germania were formed from various battalions of the Verfügungstruppe and would be the foundation for the Das Reich and Wiking divisions. After the annexation of Austria, another regiment, named Der Führer, composed of Austrians was created.
The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), opposed as it was to any expansion of the SSVT, would not allow army draftees to join the SS, so Himmler was forced to draw on outside sources of manpower. These included the men of the Totenkopfverbände concentration camp guards and the Ordungspolizei who were already in Himmler's organisation. Himmler agreed to the drafting of the Totenkopfverbände because 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 SSVT 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 SSVT meant that the SSVT and Leibstandarte were now linked to the most notorious unit within the SS. In August 1939 Hitler placed the SSVT under the operational command of the OKW. Thus, at the outbreak of hostilities, there were four SS armed regiments (although Der Führer was not ready for combat).
Both the army and the SS command found the performance of the SSVT in Poland to be unsatisfactory. This was blamed by some on the piecemeal deployment of the SSVT, so on the conclusion of the campaign against Poland they reorganised the three regiments of the Verfügungstruppe to form the Verfügungsdivision, and Leibstandarte was transformed into a motorized regiment. Also, two other divisions were created, the Totenkopf and Polizeidivision. In March 1940, after an agreement between the Army and the SS, the title of Waffen-SS was officially given.
The original cadre of the Waffen-SS came from the Freikorps and the Reichswehr along with various fascist paramilitary formations. Formed at the instruction of Adolf Hitler in 1933, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler was the first formation of what was to become the Waffen-SS. When the SA was rendered powerless in the Night of the Long Knives, many ex-SA men requested transfer to the SS, swelling its ranks and resulting in the formation of several new units including the SS-Verfügungstruppe, SS-VT (to become the SS Division Das Reich) and the SS-Totenkopfverbände, SS-TV, the concentration camp guard unit (to become the SS Division Totenkopf).
The majority of the Waffen-SS men originally received second rate weapons and equipment with many formations receiving Czech and Austrian weapons and equipment. With the exception of a select few of the 'Germanic' SS Divisions, this policy was continued throughout the war. The majority of the best equipment went to the Heer's elite divisions (Panzergrenadier-Division Großdeutschland and Panzer-Lehr-Division)
The premier Waffen-SS divisions began to receive standard equipment once they proved themselves in the Eastern front and were upgraded to panzergrenadier and later panzer divisions. The remainder of the SS Divisions made do with either standard or second rate equipment.
Although it varied through divisions, in the early stages of the war, recruits had to be at least 5"11 tall, extremely fit, and also of Aryan appearance (though this policy would relax over the years). It was also generally required that they come from rural areas, as opposed to the cities -- the Wehrmacht were made up of men from urban backgrounds.
SS combat training consisted primarily of several months of intensive basic training with three objectives; physical fitness, small-arms proficiency and political indoctrination. The training was so challenging that two in three potentials failed to pass the course. After basic training, the recruits were sent to specialist schools (such as Panzertruppenschule I) where they received specific-to-trade training in their chosen combat arm. As the war progressed and replacements were required more frequently, the intensity of the training was relaxed somewhat. This was particularly true after the expansion of the Waffen-SS following the success of the SS-Panzerkorps at Kharkov.
For officers, the focus was on leadership and combat command, usually at the SS-Junkerschule at Bad Tölz. The principle of Auftragstaktik which underpinned Wehrmacht and SS training is standard in all armies today, although the concept was invented by the Heer General Staff (and its precursors) rather than the SS. A strong emphasis was placed on creating a bond between the officers and men, and officer candidates were made to pass through basic training alongside the enlisted candidates. This created a mutual trust and respect between the officers and men, and meant that the relationship between these groups was very relaxed, unlike the Heer (German Army), where strict discipline and a policy of separation between the officers and enlisted men existed. In the Waffen-SS, it was not a requirement to salute officers and a more casual salute was adopted (the right arm raised vertically from the elbow - a relaxed version of the Heil salute. This salute is portrayed in many war films. Added to this, the practice of addressing a superior as Herr ("Mr.") was also forbidden, with everyone up to Himmler being addressed simply by their rank.
During the war the Waffen-SS was presented as a multinational force protecting Europe from the terrible evils of Communism (see Black Edelweiss).
As the outbreak of war neared, Hitler ordered the formation of several combat formations from the SS-Standarten (units of regimental size). The resulting three formations (the LSSAH, SS-VT and SS-TV) took part in the Invasion of Poland as well as Fall Gelb. During this campaign, as for most of the war, Waffen SS units were operationally under the control of the OKW. This meant that they functioned completely as army units but their parent was not the army. During the campaign in the west, both the Totenkopf and LSSAH were implicated in atrocities. The overall performance of the Waffen-SS had been mediocre during these campaigns.
The poor initial performance of the Waffen-SS units was mainly due to the emphasis on political indoctrination rather than the long and effective military training achieved by the army before the war. This was largely due to the shortage of experienced NCOs, who preferred to stay with the regular army. Despite this, the experience gained from the Polish, French and Balkan campaigns and the peculiarly egalitarian form of training soon turned the best Waffen-SS units into elite formations.
On several occasions, the Waffen-SS was criticised by Heer commanders for their reckless disregard for casualties while taking or holding objectives (See Totenkopf's actions during the early months of the Russian Campaign). However, the Waffen-SS divisions eventually proved themselves to a skeptical Heer as capable soldiers, although there were exceptions such as Kampfgruppe Nord's rout from the town of Salla during its first engagement in Lapland.
The Waffen-SS demonstrated their mature combat ability during the Third Battle of Kharkov, where the II.SS-Panzerkorps under SS-Brigadeführer Paul Hausser recaptured the city and blunted the Soviet offensive, saving the forces of Erich von Manstein's Army Group South from being cut off and destroyed.
In mid 1943, the II.SS-Panzerkorps took part in Operation Citadel and the Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf (all now Panzergrenadier divisions) took part in the immense armour battles near Prokhorovka on the southern flank of the Kursk salient.
In the wake of the defeat at Kursk, the divisions of the Waffen-SS, particularly those considered 'elite' such as the Leibstandarte and the Wiking were increasingly deployed as armoured 'fire brigades', hurried to the most crucial sectors of the German theatres of operation. Hitler's increasing reliance on the men of the Waffen-SS during the final years of the war is well-exemplified by their prominence in the final major German operations, such as the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Spring Awakening.
The Waffen-SS was not directly involved in the Holocaust, as the separately organised Allgemeine-SS was responsible for the death camps (although many members of the later organisation subsequently became members of the Waffen-SS when formed the initial core of the 3rd SS, or Totenkopf Division). Many Waffen-SS members were responsible for war crimes, and the Schutzstaffel organisation as a whole was held a criminal organization after the war by the post-war German government because there was undeniable evidence that many of its members perpetrated serious war crimes. Although some argue that the evidence in the cases of many Waffen-SS divisions is of individual rather than organisational culpability, this is unacceptable as a defence in a military unit. While formations such as Dirlewanger and Kaminski Brigades, though many others were involved - either in large-scale massacres or smaller scale atrocities such as the Houtman affair.
The linking of the SS-VT with the Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) in 1938 posed important questions about Waffen SS criminality, since the latter were already responsible for the torture and murder of Jews and other 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 troops 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 Włocławek 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. 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.
Several formations within the Waffen-SS were found guilty of a war crime especially in the opening and closing phases of the war What is not clear is whether the rate of actual war crimes was higher than in non-Waffen-SS units. In the West the most infamous incidents included the following:
In the east, massacres and atrocities were far more widespread than in the west, due to fact that population in those territories was considered to be subhuman.
That the Waffen-SS had been held to be part of a criminal organisation (the SS) may have encouraged greater intensity of search for, or attribution of, war crimes to these units. For example, the Waffen SS murdered over 150 Canadian soldiers taken prisoner in the Battle of Normandy (see the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend article for details). In the ten or so years after the war it became possible to re-examine the facts in a 'cooler' environment and in some cases reverse the imposed penalties. For example, Major-General Kurt Meyer's death sentence was commuted following a review by Canadian military officials, although his conviction for inciting his men to 'give no quarter' remained intact. In the east, many of the premier combat divisions within the Waffen SS were tainted by numerous battlefield and civilian atrocities.
The Dirlewanger and Kaminski Brigades (later to become the 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS and 29.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (russische Nr.1) respectively) were notorious for their reputation in the east. These formations, composed mostly of ex-Einsatzgruppen, pardoned poachers, released criminals, dishonorably discharged Wehrmacht officers and Russian Prisoners of War and commanded by the fanatical Nazis Oskar Dirlewanger, Nicolaus Uhl and Bronislaw Kaminski, were engaged in numerous atrocities throughout their existence. After their actions in putting down the Warsaw Uprising, complaints from the Wehrmacht resulted in these units being dissolved and several members being tried and executed for their role in several incidents.
Similarly, the Waffen-Sturm-Brigade RONA had a combat record riddled with atrocities as well as abysmal conduct when faced with front line service.
While some Waffen-SS divisions such as Nordland and Nord are not associated with battlefield atrocities, the debate over the culpability of the organisation as a whole is the center of much revisionism.
On one end of the debate, in addition to documented atrocities, Waffen-SS units did assist in rounding up Eastern European Jews for deportation and utilised Scorched-earth tactics during anti-partisan operations Also, some SS-Division Totenkopf personnel convalesced at concentration camps, from which they were drawn, by serving guard duties. Other members of the Waffen-SS were more directly involved in genocide.
The entire Waffen-SS was declared a criminal organisation by the International Military Tribunal during the Nuremberg Trials, except conscripts, who were exempted from that judgment as they were forced to join.
In 2003, the British government reported that over 1,400 former members of the Waffen-SS were living in the UK.
Several divisions are seen by historians as being elite in terms of dedication, notably those with higher proportions of ethnic Germans in them. It is stated by various German military sources (Guderian and Manstein) that when first deployed some of these units were not as combat effective as regular army units. These divisions were characterized by extremely high unit morale and combat ability, as well as commitment to the ideals of Nazism. The SS troops are described by some Allied soldiers who fought them as having extreme dedication to its cause and unfriendly when captured compared with the regular German army. Also it was stated that the regular German army was afraid of the SS based on circumstance. The regular German army was also described as like any other army and some of them are glad to be captured alive instead of being killed, but not the SS.
Himmler's recruitment specialist Gottlob Berger, wishing to expand the Waffen-SS without competing with the Wehrmacht for manpower, hit upon the idea of raising SS foreign legions of 'Germanic' blood. This appealed to Himmler, with his penchant for medieval lore, envisioning a united Aryan 'crusade' against what Nazis saw as the subhuman (Jews, Slavs, Gypsies) races and "Bolshevik hordes". While native German-speaking volunteers who met the high physical standards demanded of SS recruits were approved relatively quickly, the numbers were disappointing. Undeterred, Berger pressed for the creation of more and more foreign units as the available pool of German manpower decreased.
In late 1940, the creation of a multinational SS division, the Wiking, was authorised. Command of the division was given to SS-Brigadeführer Felix Steiner. Steiner immersed himself in the organisation of the volunteer division, soon becoming a strong advocate for an increased number of foreign units. The Wiking was committed to combat several days after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, proving itself an impressive fighting unit. It became bothe one of the established elite divisions and a model for what might be achieved through careful recruitment and training. It's ranks, however, never exceeded 40% 'foreign' troops, relying heavily on German officers, NCOs and technical specialists to provide the major part of its strength.
Soon Danish, Belgian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Dutch Freiwilligen (volunteer) formations were committed to combat, generally proving their worth despite their limited numbers. Hitler, however, was hesitant to allow foreign volunteers to be formed into formations based on their ethnicity, preferring that they be absorbed into multi-national divisions. Hitler feared that unless the foreign recruits were committed to the idea of a united Germania, then their reasons for fighting were suspect, and could damage the German cause.
Himmler was allowed to create his new formations, but they were to be commanded by German officers and NCOs. Beginning in 1942–43, several new formations were formed from Bosnians, Latvians, Estonians, and Ukrainians. There were plans for a Greek division, but the plan was abandoned after the Greek partisan resistance blew up the organizing party's headquarters. Many Greeks from Southern Russia, however, entered the divisions as Ukrainians. Himmler ordered that new Waffen-SS units formed with men of non-Germanic ethnicity were to be designated Division der SS (or Division of the SS) rather than SS Division. In some of these cases, the wearing of the SS runes on the collar was forbidden, with several of these formations wearing national insignia instead.
All soldiers of non-German citizenship in these units had their rank prefix changed from SS to Waffen (e.g. a Latvian Hauptscharführer would be referred to as a Waffen-Hauptscharführer rather than SS-Hauptscharführer). An example of a Division der SS is the Estonian 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (estnische Nr.1). The combat ability of the divisions der SS varied greatly. For example, the Latvian, Croatian, Spanish and Estonian formations performed exceptionally, while the Albanian and French units performed poorly.
While many adventurers and idealists joined the SS due to their dedication to Nazi ideology, many of the later recruits joined or were conscripted for different reasons. For example, Dutchmen who joined the 34.SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Division Landstorm Nederland were granted exemption from forced labour and provided with food, pay and accommodation. Recruits who joined for such reasons rarely proved good soldiers, and several units composed of such volunteers were involved in atrocities.
Many Latvian "volunteers" were actually conscripted after February 1943, even though Nazi propaganda claimed that they had consented to join the Waffen-SS (Latvian Legion 15th and 19th Divisions). The Nazis called these Latvian conscripts volunteers in order to avoid the 1907 Hague Convention Rules (which stated that citizens from occupied countries could not be conscripted by occupying forces). However, prior to February 10, 1943 some Latvians actually did join these divisions as volunteers but the vast majority did so not for Nazi ideals but because they wanted arms and financing to liberate their country from the Soviet occupation that began in 1940. Therefore, amongst themselves they referred to their divisions as the "Latvian Legion" (in a fight for national self-determination) rather than as Waffen-SS fighting for Hitler.
Towards the end of 1943, it became apparent that numbers of volunteer recruits were inadequate to meet the needs of the German military, so conscription was introduced. The Estonian 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (estnische Nr.1) is an example of such a conscript formation, which produced outstanding soldiers with an unblemished record.
Berger sought to gain control of all foreign volunteer forces serving alongside Germany's Wehrmacht. This put the SS at odds with the Heer, as several volunteer units had been placed under Heer control (e.g. volunteers of the Spanish Blue Division). In several cases, like the ROA and the 5.SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade Wallonien he was successful, and by the last year of the war, most foreign volunteers units did fall under SS command.
Still another unit, the Indian Legion was composed of Indian troops, mostly prisoners of war recruited by the Germans with help from a marginal Indian anti-colonial leader named Mohammed Shedai. The unit became a part of the political plans of another, more famous, Indian nationalist: Subhas Chandra Bose, who ousted Shedai from his position of favor with the German military authorities, and who wanted the Legion to participate in a German invasion of British India. After Bose left Germany for Japanese-controlled south-east Asia in 1943 to take charge of the Indian National Army (similar to the Indian Legion, but much larger), the Indian Legion was diverted from its original goal of fighting the British in India and absorbed into the German attempt to hold on to occupied Europe. Morale dropped sharply in consequence. The unit was deployed in France, where it earned a reputation for atrocities, although some individual members deserted to the French resistance. The Indian Legion disintegrated in the aftermath of D-Day.
While several volunteer units performed poorly in combat, the majority acquitted themselves well. French and Spanish SS volunteers, along with remnants of the 11.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Division Nordland formed the final defence of the Reichstag in 1945.
Among the more unusual units to exist in the Waffen SS was the British Free Corps, a unit composed of citizens of the British Commonwealth, was led by John Amery but never had a strength of more than 27 men at any given time. An attempt to use IRA agents to recruit an Irish unit from among British Army POWs was a similar failure. However two Irishmen are known to have served in the Waffen SS, they were James Brady (SS) and Frank Stringer.
After the surrender, many volunteers were tried and imprisoned by their countries. In several cases, volunteers were executed. Those volunteers from the Baltic states and Ukraine could at best look forward to years spent in the gulags. To avoid this, many ex-volunteers from these regions joined underground resistance groups (see Forest Brothers) which were engaged fighting the Soviets until the 1950s.
Walloon volunteer leader Leon Degrelle, who fought at the Battle of Cherkassy and was decorated by Hitler with the Knights Cross, escaped to Spain, where, despite being sentenced to death in absentia by the Belgian authorities, he lived in exile until his death in 1994, publishing many self-promoting memoirs. John Amery, the leader of the British Free Corps, was tried and convicted of treason by the British government. He was executed in December 1945. US airman Martin James Monti was charged with treason and sentenced to 25 years and was paroled in 1960. In Estonia and Latvia, the majority of Waffen SS veterans were conscripts who were at least partly considered freedom fighters. In an April 13, 1950 message from the U.S. High Commission in Germany (HICOG), signed by General Frank McCloy to the Secretary of State, clarified the US position on the "Baltic Legions": they were not to be seen as "movements", "volunteer", or "SS". In short, they were not given the training, indoctrination, and induction normally given to SS members. Subsequently the US Displaced Persons Commission in September 1950 declared that
By the end of the war, around 60% of Waffen-SS members were non-German.
Tangible evidence of the élité status of Waffen-SS units was the award of named cuff titles; while the use of cuff titles was common in many military and paramilitary organisations in the Third Reich, there were few combat units permitted to wear them as a means of identification.
The Waffen-SS used different camouflage patterns to that of the German Army and used a variety of patterns. These varied from place to place but standard issue for the most part was "Oakleaf" a type of green/orange military camouflage which represented the leaves of an oak tree in either summer or autumn. Other famous patterns included Dot 44 peas pattern, planetree & Italian camouflage (the most conventional by modern standards).
Rank was displayed on the left lapel of the uniform (the right lapel holding the SS runes badge) and followed the same pattern of ranks as the German Army but with different names that usually ended with "führer" (e.g., "Gruppenführer").