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.