At the mention of the letters “SS,” an image springs to mind of ruthless German troops, the epitome of the Nazi/Aryan ideal: tall, strong, blond-haired, and blue-eyed, enthusiastically ready to fight and die for Germany and their beloved Führer, Adolf Hitler.
The typical SS man has also been portrayed as a hardened criminal, someone without moral scruples—someone happy to murder defenseless civilians simply because he was told that it was his patriotic duty to wipe out whole populations due to their ethnicity or religion that were deemed a threat to Germany and the “Aryan race.”
This image has been created by hundreds of books, films, and television documentaries, but what is truth and what is fiction? And how did a small unit originally created to serve as Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard become a much feared combat force? Perhaps these questions can be answered by briefly examining how the SS came into existence and looking at the men most responsible for its creation and deployment in combat.
As one of Hitler’s most faithful sycophants, Heinrich Himmler was rewarded for his loyalty when his Führer gave him the command of the SS (Schutzstaffel, or Protection Detail) in 1929—Hitler’s personal bodyguard. Almost immediately, the meek looking former chicken farmer began turning the small unit into an instrument of terror and military power.
The bespectacled Bavarian was born into a Catholic family in Munich on October 7, 1900. As he matured, Himmler became attracted to nationalist causes and racial theories that posited that Germans and other Nordic or Aryan types were the “master race” and destined to rule the world. In 1923, he joined the tiny Nazi Party and began rising in its inner circle. On January 6, 1929, Hitler appointed Himmler Reichsführer-SS, or National Leader, of the 280-man SS detachment.
Himmler used this appointment as an opportunity to develop the SS into what would become the elite corps of the Nazi Party. By the time Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, the SS numbered more than 52,000. As the nation slowly marched toward war, the SS was transformed from a small detachment whose original function was to protect Hitler at meetings, rallies, and public appearances into a full-blown army of fanatical soldiers wholly dedicated to the racial and political ideals of National Socialism.
Three men ultimately aided Himmler in this transformation of the SS: Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, Theodor Eicke, and Paul Hausser. Who were these men and other prominent SS leaders, and how did it happen that there were armed SS formations fighting at all in Poland in 1939—despite Hitler’s public pledge in 1934 that the regular German Army (Wehrmacht) was and remained the “sole bearers of arms” of the state?
In September 1934, the official announcement of the formation of the armed SS Verfuhrüngstruppe (SS Special Purpose Troops, or SS-VT) was made, and two units were established, one in Hamburg and the other in Munich.
Simultaneously, with the establishment of concentration camps to hold political prisoners, Heinrich Himmler reorganized all the camps’ SS guards into the SS Totenkopfverbande (SS Death’s Head Units), under Theodor Eicke, one of a trio of SS men who had executed Ernst Röhm, chief of staff of the Sturmabteilung (SA, also known as the “Brownshirts” or Storm Troopers) in his cell during the Nazi “Blood Purge” of June 30-July 2, 1934.
Also taking part in the overall “national murder weekend” or “Night of the Long Knives” was Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, commander of Hitler’s own security unit, the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH, or SS Adolf Hitler Bodyguard).
In reward for getting rid of the leadership of the SA, whose growing size and influence threatened his rise to power and legitimacy, Hitler made all SS units independent from Storm Troop command for the first time, as units reported directly to Himmler. The LSSAH was a sole exception, however, as Sepp Dietrich reported to Hitler alone, thus bypassing a miffed Reichsführer-SS Himmler.
The weapons for the newly formed Armed SS troops (Waffen-SS) were provided by the German Defense Minister, Army Col. Gen. Werner von Blomberg, thus irking the nettlesome, aristocratic, prickly, monocled commander in chief of the German Army, Col. Gen. Werner von Fritsch.
Brought in to administer the new SS-VT were three men who, alongside Dietrich, would later write the combat historical record of the vaunted Waffen-SS across the length and breadth of conquered Europe: Paul Hausser, Felix Steiner, and Willi Bittrich. All three men would become high-ranking SS generals during the wartime years, as would both Dietrich and Eicke.
During the years 1934-1939, the old line, conservative “reactionary” generals of the regular German Army derided Hitler’s showboating, elite troopers in black—and later in field gray—as mere “asphalt soldiers,” good for effect but not for actual fighting. They were in for a surprise.
At the head of almost 1,600 men (including a motorcycle detachment), Dietrich led the way in 1935 into the delirious, formerly French-occupied Saarland and paraded his Leibstandarte there for the next five days. Hitler granted his beloved LSSAH several distinctions at this time: only it was allowed to wear white accoutrements with its black uniforms and bear the SS runes on its collar tabs without a unit number. According to his eldest son, Dietrich designed the new SSLAH uniforms himself.
As the showpiece unit of the Nazi regime, the Leibstandarte was gaining worldwide fame as an elite unit on par with the French Foreign Legion, the English Coldstream Guards, the Italian Bersaglieri, and the United States Marine Corps.
By the end of 1936, the LSSAH possessed both trench mortars and armored cars. Relations between the Army, the LSSAH, and the SS-VT remained good. Continuing his buildup of close ties with the Army, Dietrich developed a harmonious relationship with panzer leader General Heinz Guderian, who told him that the LSSAH would take part in the peaceful invasion of Austria—within 48 hours!
Beginning on March 12, 1938, it was an entirely pacific occupation with the vehicles even bedecked with flowers and greenery. By May 1938, SS Generals Dietrich and Hausser were feuding over the formation of a fourth SS-VT Standarte unit in newly Nazi-occupied Vienna named Der Führer (The Leader).
At the end of September 1938, the LSSAH took part in military training exercises at the Grafenwöhr training facility in southeast Germany. For his next “peaceful” occupation—that of Prague and the rest of Bohemia and Moravia on March 15, 1939—Hitler again teamed Guderian with Dietrich for the operation.
Parade ground troops, SA murderers, and occupiers of peaceful countries though they might be, how would the LSSAH and the SS-VT units, military analysts wondered, fare in actual combat? The answer was not long in coming. In Poland, as in the previous operations, Dietrich’s men were placed under Army command. Now the former NCO of World War I began World War II as a commanding general in the field.
Born at Hawangen in Upper Bavaria in 1892, Dietrich was a butcher’s apprentice who joined the Bavarian Army in 1911 and served in the Great War as a sergeant. A policeman following the war, he joined the SA in 1923, held a series of odd jobs, and then joined the Nazi Party in 1928.