Key point: The SS was terrifying and committed many crimes against humanity.
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.
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.
In early 1940, the regiment was expanded to an independent motorized infantry regiment, and an assault gun battery was added. After the Western campaign, it was expanded to brigade size. Despite this, it retained the designation as a regiment. Following an outstanding performance in Greece, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler ordered it upgraded to division status. However, there was no time to refit the unit before launching Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, and so it remained the size of a reinforced brigade.
In late July 1942, severely understrength and completely exhausted from operations in Russia, the unit was pulled out of the line and sent to France to rebuild and join the newly formed SS Panzer Corps, where it was reformed as a panzergrenadier division.
Thanks to Himmler and Obergruppenführer (General) Paul Hausser, the SS Panzer Corps commander, the four SS panzergrenadier divisions—Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, Wiking, Das Reich, and Totenkopf—were organized to include a full panzer regiment rather than only a battalion as found in Army units. This meant that the SS panzergrenadier divisions were full-strength panzer divisions in terms of their complement of tanks.
Following the capitulation of Italy, the Leibstandarte engaged in several major counterinsurgency operations against Italian partisans. During its time in Italy, the Leibstandarte was reformed as a full panzer division and designated the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler.
SS Panzergrenadiers From Abroad
Waffen-SS grenadier or infantry divisions were mainly recruited outside Germany. One was formed from French recruits, two in Latvia, one in Estonia, one with Ukrainians, another from Soviet prisoners, and one of Italian Fascists. The latter two each held the designation as the 29th SS Grenadier Division at different times, the former Soviet prisoners in 1944 and the Italian Fascists in 1945. All of these divisions were created from 1943 to 1945.
Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians, and Russian turncoats who joined the SS were executed if taken prisoner by the Soviets. Those found in the hands of the Western Allies after the war were returned to the Soviets to suffer the same fate. Waffen-SS prisoners taken by the Red Army seldom survived their initial capture or lengthy imprisonment in the Soviet Union.
Six SS mountain divisions were formed from Volksdeutsche. Three were short-lived units made up of Balkan Muslims, and one, which never exceeded regimental strength, was formed from Italian Fascists.
Eleven of the 12 SS panzergrenadier divisions were created or their designations were assigned from 1943 to 1945. Nine of the divisions were formed from Volksdeutsche and non-Germans, which included Dutch, Walloons, Belgians, and Hungarians, but many were never stronger than regimental strength.
Two SS Armies
Command formations during the war included two SS armies, the Sixth SS Panzer Army and the Eleventh SS Army. Of the 13 SS corps, four were panzer corps, two were mountain corps, and seven were infantry corps. Seven of these corps were not created until 1944.
The Sixth SS Panzer Army was created in the autumn of 1944 in northwestern Germany as the Sixth Panzer Army to oversee the refit of panzer divisions shattered during operations in France. It played a key role in the 1944 Ardennes offensive, then in Hungary in 1945, and finally in the fight for the Austrian capital of Vienna. The Eleventh SS Army was formed in February 1945. It operated in northern Germany until the end of the war.
One Waffen-SS division was designated the SS-Panzer Grenadier-Polizei Division. This was the only unit made up of members of the police that had been incorporated into the Waffen-SS. In addition, the 35th SS Police Grenadier Division was organized from German policemen in early 1945, although it only reached regimental strength.
Raising the Waffen-SS
In principle, the SS was to accept no new members after 1933, except from selected graduates of the Hitler Youth. However, the creation of the Waffen-SS and its rapid growth caused the partial suspension of this rule. However, service in the Waffen-SS did not necessarily include membership in the SS proper.
Prior to the war, suitable SS candidates were singled out while still in the Hitler Youth (HJ). Boys who had proved themselves, often under SS leadership, in the HJ patrol service were often tabbed for later SS service. If the candidate satisfied SS requirements in political reliability, racial purity, and physique, he was accepted as a candidate at the age of 18. At the annual Nazi Party Congress in September, candidates were accepted, received SS certificates, and were enrolled in the SS.