In 1933 a portion of the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS) was armed and trained along military lines and served as an armed force. These troops were originally known as the SS-Verfügungstruppen, the name indicating that they served at the Führer’s pleasure. By 1939, four regiments (Standarten) had been organized.
The Verfügungstruppen took part in the occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia side by side with the Army (Heer). During the months preceding the outbreak of the war, they were given intensive military training and were formed into units that took part in the Polish campaign. In addition, elements of Death’s Head formations (Totenkopfverbände), which served as concentration camp guards, also took to the field as combat units.
During the following winter and spring, regiments that had fought in Poland were expanded into brigades and later divisions. This purely military branch of the SS was known at first as the Bewaffnete SS (Armed SS) and later as the Waffen-SS. The regiment Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler eventually became a division of the same name; the Standarte Deutschland together with the Austrian Standarte Der Führer formed the Verfügungs Division, to which a third regiment, Langemarck, was later added, creating the division Das Reich; and the Totenkopf units were formed into the Totenkopf Division. These three divisions were to be the nucleus of the Waffen-SS in its subsequent rapid expansion.
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The Evolving Waffen-SS
The Waffen-SS was based on a policy of strict racial selection and emphasis on political indoctrination. The reasons for its formation were as much political as they were an opportunity to acquire the officer material that was to prove valuable to the SS later.
As the war intensified, the Waffen-SS began recruiting “Nordic” peoples. In 1940, the Standarten Nordland and Westland were created to incorporate such “Germanic” volunteers into the organization. They were combined with the existing Standarte Germania to form the Wiking Division.
Subsequently, the Waffen-SS formed native “Legions” in many of the occupied territories. These were eventually converted into brigades and divisions.
A relaxation of the principles of racial selection occurred as the war turned against Germany. During 1943-1944 the SS turned more and more to recruiting all available manpower in occupied areas. While its main efforts were directed toward the incorporation of the “racial” Germans (Volksdeutsche), a scheme was devised that permitted the recruiting of foreigners of all nationalities while retaining at least some semblance of the original principles of “Nordic” superiority. Spreading foreigners thinly throughout trustworthy units soon proved insufficient to digest the mass of recruits. Consequently, divisions of foreigners were formed that received a sprinkling of regular Waffen-SS cadres. Finally, it became necessary to complement the Waffen-SS officer corps with foreigners.
Concerned with the racial aspects of their units, Waffen-SS leaders developed a naming system that dubbed a unit as foreign with an addition to its designation. Units with a high percentage of racial Germans and “Germanic” volunteers—Scandinavians, Dutch, Flemings, Walloons, and Frenchmen—such as the 11th SS-Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier Division Nordland, carried the designation “Freiwilligen.” Units containing a preponderance of non-Germanic personnel, especially Slavic and Baltic peoples, such as the 15th Waffen-Grenadier Division-SS, carried the designation “Waffen-” as part of the unit name.
This organizational expansion modified the character of the Waffen-SS as an elite political formation. Nevertheless, these divisions were expected to fight to the bitter end, especially since the individual soldiers had been made to feel personally involved in war crimes, and propaganda convinced most that their treatment, either in captivity or after Germany’s defeat, would compare unfavorably with that accorded other members of the armed forces.
SS Panzer Divisions
Over time, the Waffen-SS created some 42 divisions and three brigades as well as a number of small, independent units. Of the divisions, seven were panzer divisions. The balance included 12 panzergrenadier divisions, six mountain divisions, 11 grenadier divisions, four cavalry divisions, and a police division. Many of the divisions, organized late in the war, were divisions in name only and never exceeded regimental strength.
The SS panzer divisions were the purest in terms of German members, as well as being the best equipped and supported of all German combat units. They formed the strongest and politically most reliable portion of the Waffen-SS.
The creation of an SS panzer division was sometimes evolutionary. Formed from Hitler’s bodyguard unit, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler became a full infantry regiment with three battalions, an artillery battalion, and antitank, reconnaissance, and engineer attachments in 1939. After it was involved in the annexation of Bohemia and Moravia, it was redesignated the Infanterie-Regiment Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (motorized). In mid-1939 Hitler ordered it organized as an SS division, but the Polish crisis put these plans on hold. The regiment proved itself an effective fighting unit during the campaign, though several Army generals had reservations about the high casualties it had sustained in combat.