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Waffen SS was a military arm of the Nazi SS.

Waffen-SS recruitment poster.
Waffen-SS recruitment poster: "Volunteer for the Waffen-SS"

The Waffen SS ("Armed SS") was the combat arm of the Schutzstaffel. Headed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the Waffen-SS saw action throughout the Second World War. A small percentage of its nearly 1 million men were charged with war crimes at Nuremberg.

After beginning as a protection unit for the NSDAP leadership, the Waffen-SS eventually grew into a force of thirty-eight combat divisions comprising over 950,000 men, including a number of elite army units. In the testimony given at the Nuremberg Trials, the Waffen-SS was condemned as a criminal organisation due to their involvement with the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), and Waffen-SS veterans were denied many of the rights afforded other German combat veterans who had served in the Heer, Luftwaffe or Kriegsmarine. Conscripts were exempted from the judgment on the basis of involuntary servitude.

Basic Background

Dress Uniforms of the SS.
Dress Uniforms of the SS-Verfügungstruppen (pre-war Waffen-SS)

The origins of the Waffen-SS (Armed SS) can be traced back to the creation of a group of 200 men who were to act as Hitler's body guard. This body guard was created by Hitler in reaction to his unease at the size and strength of the SA (Sturmabteilung, or "Storm Detachment"). The SA had grown so large that Hitler felt he needed an armed escort that was totally dedicated to him. Thus the Schutzstaffel (SS) or "protection squad" was created. After Hitler's imprisonment (and subsequent release) in the wake of the failed Munich Putsch in 1923, he saw an even greater need for a body guard, 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 (his rank was 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 organization, 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. 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 exponentially, 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. As well, the SA threatened to sour Hitler's relations with the conservative elements of the country, whose support Hitler needed to solidfy 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 (officially) 82 SA men (today's estimates are that about 200 people were eliminated), including almost the entire leadership, and effectively ended the power of the SA.

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 only responsible to Hitler becoming a major force in the N.S.D.A.P second only to the PO (POLTISCH ORGANISATION-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. It is often mistakenly understood that this appointment gave him command authority over the police. In fact, he was merely granted most, though not all, of the supervisory powers over the police hitherto exercised by the Ministry of the Interior. Himmler was never able to gain command authority over the uniformed police orpo in areas where a civilian administration existed, both within and without the Reich proper. Himmler then reorganized the Reich's police service to include the Ordnungspolizei (uniformed police), and the Sicherheitspolizei (security police-in affect, the detective force). The Sicherheitspolizei was further divided into the Kriminalpolizei or Kripo ("Criminal police") and the Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo ("Secret Police"), only the Gestapo was under Himmler and the SS' operational control in the Reich proper (including Austria, the sudetans and the "Polish" gaue), elsewhere however, the fusion of Kripo and Gestapo into the Sichernheispolizei was mostly successful . By September 1939, Kripo, Gestapo and SD were headquartered at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Main office of Reich Security (RSHA). The RSHA was under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich and later Ernst Kaltenbrunner.

In addition to its police powers, the SS comprised a group of armed men that were used for security and ceremonial purposes. This organization was called the SS-Verfügungstruppe. Included in this group was Hitler's protection squad, known as the Stabwache. This protection squad had been created in March 1933 and would be the foundation for the 1st SS Panzer Division "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler". Leibstandarte was different from other SS formations in that they had sworn an oath directly to Hitler and thus effectively removed them from control of Himmler. Later, Hitler would form the RSD (Reich Security Service) to provide him and other senior officials with personal security, whereupon the Leibenstandarte would merge back completely into the SS. The RSD, though recruited from SS and police (mostly Gestapo) personnel, and though it used the SS table of ranks, was an entirely separate agency.

When Hitler reintroduced conscription in 1935, he also mandated that the SS-Verfügungstruppen would be fully formed as a military unit. SS-Verfügungstruppen along with the Totenkopf formations would be the cornerstone of future Waffen-SS divisions. Special schools at Bad Tölz and Braunschweig were created to train future SS officers. Himmler selected former Lieut. General Paul Hausser to oversee the training and schooling of the SS. 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 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" and 5th SS Panzer Division "SS Division Wiking". After the annexation of Austria, another regiment composed of Austrian Nazis named "Der Führer" was created. Thus, at the outbreak of hostilities, there were four SS armed regiments (although "Der Führer" was not ready for combat).

After the conclusion of the campaign against Poland, the three regiments of the Verfügungstruppe were joined to form the Verfügungsdivision and Leibstandarte was transformed into a motorized regiment. Also, two other divisions were created, the SS "Totenkopfdivision" and "Polizeidivision". In March 1940, after an agreement between the Army and the SS, the title of Waffen-SS was officially given. The Waffen-SS took part in almost every major battle and were shifted from front to front, depending on the severity of the situation. In the end, the Waffen-SS would total 38 divisions (although some of these formations were divisions in name only). Their importance in the history of the Second World War cannot be overlooked. Their effectiveness as fighting units coupled with the atrocities that were committed make the Waffen-SS one of the most feared military organizations in history.

Waffen-SS early history; LSSAH, SS-VT, SS-TV

The original cadre of the Waffen-SS came from the Freikorps and the Reichswehr along with various right-wing 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.

Concept and training of the Nazi Waffen-SS.

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 (see Mission-type tactics) 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 organization was presented as a multinational force protecting Europe from the terrible evils of Communism (see Black Edelweiss).

Waffen-SS - Trial by fire.

As the outbreak of war neared, Himmler 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 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 proper military training 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.

Waffen-SS Panzergrenadiers.
Waffen-SS Panzergrenadiers of SS-Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf during the Battle of Kursk.

The Waffen-SS truly proved their worth 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.

Mixed quality and imagined quality

Several divisions are seen by historians as being elite, notably those with higher proportions of ethnic Germans in them. These divisions were characterised by extremely high unit morale and combat ability, as well as commitment to the ideals of the Crusade against Bolshevism.

These divisions included the LSSAH, Das Reich, Totenkopf, the multi-national Wiking, the Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg, and the Hitlerjugend.

In spite of heavy casualties, some of the Waffen-SS units retained their reputations as crack formations until the end of the War, though the quality of formations raised late in the war was often execrable, and some of the Freiwillige troops were prone to mutiny (see, for instance, 13.Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS Handschar (kroatische Nr.1) ).

Foreign volunteers and conscripts of the Waffen-SS.

Waffen SS Propaganda poster.
"Be a worthy dutchman, Up against Bolshevism!". Propaganda poster urging Dutchmen to volunteer in the Waffen-SS at the Eastern Front.

Himmler, wishing to expand the Waffen-SS, advocated the idea of SS controlled Foreign Legions. The Reichsführer, with his penchant for medieval lore, envisioned a united European 'crusade', fighting to save old Europe from the 'Godless bolshevik hordes'. While native Germanic-speaking volunteers were approved almost instantly, Himmler eagerly pressed for the creation of more and more foreign units.

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.

Soon Danish, French, Azeri, Armenian, Belgian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Dutch Freiwilligen (volunteer) formations were committed to combat, gradually proving their worth. 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, enlarged 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, French and Estonian formations performed exceptionally, while the Albanian units performed poorly.

While many adventurers and idealists joined the SS as part of the fight against Communism, 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.

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 proved to be outstanding soldiers with an unblemished record.

Not satisfied with the growing number of volunteer formations, Himmler sought to gain control of all volunteer forces serving alongside Germany. 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). Despite this, Himmler constantly campaigned to have all foreign volunteers fall under the SS banner. 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 southeast 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 30 men at any given time. The American Free Corps or "George Washington Brigade" was also a tiny unit of English speaking SS men raised for propaganda purposes that consisted of no more than 5 members. An attempt to use IRA agents to recruit an Irish unit from among British Army POWs was a similar failure.

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.

Helped by ODESSA network, Walloon volunteer leader Leon Degrelle escaped to Spain, where, despite being sentenced to death in absentia by the Belgian authorities, he lived in comfortable exile until his death in 1994. John Amery, the leader of the Britisches Freikorps, was tried and convicted of treason by the British government. He was executed in December 1945. 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

The Baltic Waffen SS Units (Baltic Legions) are to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities, and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission holds them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States.

Still, much debate is continuing on this issue and because of general condemnation of Nazi regime across the globe, official statements of the position of Estonian and Latvian Waffen SS veterans remain ambiguous. The Latvian parliament Saeima declared 16 March Latvian Soldiers' Remembrance Day. However, under pressure from the European Union, the members of the cabinet and personnel of National Armed Forces withheld their participation in commemorative events next year, and the parliament eventually reversed its decision in 2000.

By the end of the war, around 60% of Waffen-SS members were non-German.

War crimes and atrocities

Many formations within the Waffen-SS were found guilty of war crimes in all theatres they served; in the west the most famous incidents included Oradour-sur-Glane, Marzabotto, against Canadian soldiers in the Battle of Normandy (see the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend article for details) and Americans in the Malmedy massacre.

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, released criminals and Russian prisoners of war and commanded by the fanatical Nazis Oskar Dirlewanger and Bronislaw Kaminski, were engaged in numerous atrocities throughout their existence. After their actions in putting down the Warsaw Uprising, Heer (the regular Army) complaints resulted in these units being dissolved and several members (including Kaminski) 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, others were involved to some degree in systemic criminal acts. The debate over the culpability of the organisation as a whole is the center of much so-called 'revisionism' (see Holocaust denial).

On one end of the debate, in addition to documented atrocities, certain Waffen-SS units did assist in rounding up Eastern European Jewry for deportation. Also, some SS-Division Totenkopf personnel convalesced at concentration camps by serving routine guard duties, and utilised Scorched-earth tactics during anti-partisan operations.

On the other end, some assert that with over 900,000 men serving in its ranks from 15 nationalities, the Waffen-SS was a pan-European military formation embedded with a socio-political ideology, similar in composition to the 19th-century Napoleonic forces or even modern-day NATO military organization.

Regardless of the record of individual combat units within the Waffen-SS, the entire organisation was declared a criminal organization by the International Military Tribunal during the Nuremberg Trials, except conscripts, who were exempted from that judgment as they were forced to join.

Uniforms of the Nazi Waffen-SS.

Waffen-SS Unit Insignia.

Tangible evidence of the "elite" 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 organizations in the Third Reich, there were few combat units permitted to wear them as a means of identification.

Waffen-SS Camouflage.

Varied from place to place but standard issue for the most part was "German fleck" a type of green digital looking camouflage that proved itself very useful.

Waffen-SS Rank insignia.

Like most Army commemorations rank was displayed on the left lapel and for the most part were medals. Most were represented by different ranking of the medal by pattern and color of the ribbon. The highest medal awarded was the Knight's Cross.

Why not also search for...

  • List of German divisions in WWII (with links to articles on individual units)
  • Comparative military ranks of World War II
  • Günter Grass, Nobel Prize-winning German author and Waffen-SS member


  • Davies, W.J.K. (1981). German Army Handbook 1939-1945, 2nd U.S. Edition, New York: Arco Publishing. ISBN 0-668-04291-5.
  • Munoz, Antonio J. (1991). Forgotten Legions: Obscure Combat Formations of the Waffen-SS. Axis Europa, Inc.. ISBN 0-7394-0817-8.
  • Quarrie, Bruce (1983). Hitler's Samurai: The Waffen-SS in Action. Arco Pub. 161 pp.. ISBN 0-668-05805-6.
  • Reitlinger, Gerald (1989). The SS: Alibi of a Nation, 1922-1945. Da Capo Press 502 pp.. ISBN 978-0306803512.
  • Rikmanspoel, Marc J. (2004). Waffen-SS Encyclopedia. Aberjona Press. 307 pp.. ISBN 978-0971765085.
  • Stein, George H. (1966). The Waffen-SS: Hitler's Elite Guard at War 1939-1945. Cornell University Press. 330 pp.. ISBN 0-8014-9275-0.
  • Wegner, Bernd (1990). The Waffen-SS: Organization, Ideology and Function. Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-14073-5.
  • Williamson, Gordon (1995). Loyalty is my Honor. Motorbooks International. 192 pp.. ISBN 0-7603-0012-7.

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