History of the Schutzstaffel

"Eicke viewed the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head unit) as an elite within the elite structure of the SS. This concept grew from the fact that the most dangerous political enemies of the state were incarcerated in the concentration camps and Hitler had given sole responsibility for guarding and running the camps to the SS- Totenkopfverbände. Eicke repeatedly pressed home his principles in orders, circulars and memoranda. The whole of the SS-Totenkopfverbände training was based on elitism, toughness and comradeship, together with a regime of ruthless discipline." Christopher Ailsby, from his book, Hell on the Eastern Front, the Waffen-SS War in Russia 1941 - 1945

Death's Head emblem worn by SS-Totenkopfverbände soldiers

Motto reads in English: My Honor's name is Loyalty

The SS-Übungslager at Dachau was a training center where members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände were taught to be concentration camp administrators. Voluntary SS fighting units, called the Waffen-SS, were also quartered in the garrison at Dachau, along with the SS camp guards. The Waffen-SS and the SS camp guards were two distinct organizations which grew out of the original private army which was recruited to protect Hitler and other members of the Nazi party from the Social Democrats and the Communist Red Army during political campaigns.

In the 1920ies when Nazi party members, such as Hitler and Rudolf Hess, tried to give speeches in the beer halls of Munich, they would frequently be physically attacked by the Communists. This was the motive for forming a private army to protect Hitler and the Nazis. The Communists already had their own private army, called the Red Army.

In the fall of 1920, Hitler created a private army composed of former soldiers and some of his followers, called the Ordnertruppen; their purpose was to protect the members of the Nazi party when they gathered in beer halls, such as the Hofbräuhaus in Munich. In November 1921, this army became the Sturmabteilung (SA) under the command of Ernst Röhm. The SA was also known as the "brown shirts" and to Americans as the "Storm Troopers."

On November 9, 1923, when Hitler staged his Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt to take over the government from the Social Democrats by force, his private body guards, called the Stosstruppe Adolf Hitler, were involved in the disastrous fight. The Putsch ended with Hitler being sent to prison at Landsberg am Lech for treason, the Nazi party being banned and the Stosstruppe being forced to disband. By April 1925, Hitler was out of prison and back in business. Realizing that he needed protection now more than ever, Hitler instructed his personal body guard, Julius Schreck, to organize a new unit of 8 uniformed body guards which would be called the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squad). The Schutzstaffel, or SS, became a new unit of the larger Sturmabteilung (SA), the private army of the Nazi party which was commanded by Ernst Röhm.

World War I had ended on November 11, 1918 after the Social Democrats, a political party in Germany, took over the government on November 9, 1918 through a "bloodless revolution," forcing the Kaiser to abdicate his throne. On November 7, 1918, two days before the Social Democrats declared that Germany was now a Republic, the Communists had overthrown the government of Bavaria by force. Then the Communists attempted another revolution in January 1919 to take over the government of Germany from the Social Democrats.

To fight the Communists in 1919, the Social Democrats called out a militia group named the Freikorps (Free Corps) which consisted of former World War I soldiers. When the Nazi party was formed, many of the top members came from the ranks of the Freikorps. It was the Freikorps that first used the swastika symbol on white arm bands to distinguish themselves from the Communists with their red arm bands.

In January 1929, Heinrich Himmler was appointed by the Nazi party to be the Reichsführer (National Leader) of the SS. His army rank was SS-Oberführer and he was in command of 1,000 men. Himmler was obsessed with the idea that the Nordic ethnic group was superior to all others, although he and Hitler were both dark-haired Germans of the Bavarian tribe, with round heads, and were not themselves of the superior blond Nordic stock with elongated skulls. He wanted his SS troops to be a higher class of people than the SA. Already the regular German army was objecting to the strong-arm methods of the SA, which they regarded as a troublesome rival army that was ruining Germany's reputation.

The Wehrmacht officers were traditionally from the aristocratic class in Germany and they looked down on the rough men of the SA, which Röhm called "the people's army." With his superior organizational skills, Himmler's plan was to build up the SS until it surpassed the SA in numbers. He wanted only men of Nordic blood, the "splendid blond beasts" who were members of the "Master Race." (Nietzsche's words.)

By June 1932, the SS had grown to 30,000 men, which was 10% of the SA. In the 1932 elections, Hitler was a candidate for President of Germany on the National Socialists (Nazi) party ticket. Both the Social Democrats and the Communists had their own militias and there was fighting in the streets between the members of the political parties.

The Nazis secretly recruited more men for the SS during the election campaign and by the time that Hitler, who came in second in the presidential election, was appointed Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, the SS had grown to a private army of 82,000 men. During the war, the SS grew to over a million soldiers and included volunteer divisions from many countries which fought on the side of Germany against Communism. Towards the end, as the Germans fought desperately to save the Fatherland from Communism, even some of the German criminals in the concentration camps were offered the opportunity to join the Waffen-SS.

On June 30 1934, Ernst Röhm, the head of the SA, was arrested during the "Night of the Long Knives," the infamous purging of all the top officers of the SA. Röhm was taken to Stadelheim prison near Munich, where he was shot at high noon the next day by Theodor Eicke, an SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS, who was then the Commandant of the Dachau concentration camp. As his reward, Eicke was promoted to Inspector of all the concentration camps and head of the SS Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head unit). It was the Death's Head unit which eventually made up the guards of all the concentration camps. On their caps, they wore a silver emblem of a skull, the same emblem that was worn by the Waffen-SS. The death's head was supposed to signify that they were loyal to the death, not that they were murderers. The motto of the SS was "Loyalty is my honor."

The Waffen-SS was the combat part of the SS or Schutzstaffel. The term Waffen-SS literally means "Weapons SS." The Waffen-SS was founded in Germany in 1939 after the SS was split into two units. The title of Waffen-SS became official on 2 March, 1940. Although nominally under the leadership of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the Waffen-SS saw action during World War II under the de facto operational control of the Wehrmacht. By the end of the war, the Waffen-SS had grown to 39 Divisions, which served as elite combat troops alongside the regular army.

The SS had many Divisions from other countries, including 20,000 Frenchmen in the Charlemagne Division from France, and a Flemish Division from Flanders. In 1944, there were 910,000 soldiers fighting for Germany in the Waffen-SS, but less than half had been born in Germany; there were 310,000 ethnic Germans from other countries such as Rumania, Yugoslavia and Hungary who were fighting with the Waffen-SS.

Altogether, there were 200,000 volunteers from other countries including Great Britain. British and French SS soldiers fought in the Battle of Berlin. There were 40,000 Spanish volunteers in the Waffen-SS, and another 40,000 volunteers from Belgium. The Dutch volunteers numbered 50,000.

The Waffen-SS included three Divisions from Finland, and volunteers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Denmark. There were also Waffen-SS units from the Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Armenia.

At the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, the SS was convicted of being a criminal organization due to its involvement in alleged war crimes and the Holocaust.

According to noted historian John Toland, in his book entitled "Adolf Hitler," Himmler wanted his SS soldiers "to be hard but not hardened." Toland wrote, regarding Himmler's reason for establishing training centers, such as the one at Dachau, for his SS men:

He imbued the SS, therefore, not only with a sense of racial superiority but with the hard virtues of loyalty, comradeship, duty, truth, diligence, honesty and knighthood. His SS, as the elite of the party, was the elite of the German Volk, and therefore the elite of the entire world. By establishing castles of the order to indoctrinate SS members in his ideals, he hoped to breed a New Man, "far finer and more valuable than the world had yet seen."

The "castle of the order" referred to in the paragraph above was located at Wewelsburg, Germany.

The SS soldiers were held to higher standards and were subjected to the strictest discipline. Sentences handed down by SS courts were more severe than sentences passed by other courts for the same offense. A separate wing on the east side of the bunker (camp prison) at Dachau was reserved for SS soldiers who had committed a criminal act. This section was torn down after the war and can no longer be seen at the Dachau Memorial Site. When Dachau was liberated on April 29, 1945, there were 128 SS men incarcerated in the Dachau bunker. They were released and given the job of guarding the prisoners until the American liberators arrived.

At the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, SS General Ernst Kaltenbrunner testified that there were 13 Stammlager (central concentration camps). One of these camps was Matzgau, located near Danzig; it was a camp where SS guards were imprisoned for offenses such as physical mistreatment of concentration camp prisoners, embezzlement, or theft.

A young Waffen-SS officer named Georg Konrad Morgen, who was also an attorney, was authorized by Himmler to conduct investigations into corruption and brutality in the concentration camps. Eight hundred investigations of the SS were conducted, which resulted in 200 indictments. Among those who were indicted by Morgen was Amon Goeth, the Commandant who was featured in the film, Schindler's List. Goeth was arrested and was awaiting trial when the war ended; he was sent to Bad Tölz because he was suffering from diabetes and was not fit to stand trial.

Even before Morgen started his investigations, two of the Commandants of Dachau, Hilmar Wäckerle and Alex Piorkowski, had been dismissed from their jobs by Himmler, after accusations of murder in the camp were brought to his attention.

Not even a close personal friendship could save an SS officer from punishment. Dr. Sigmund Rascher, the Waffen-SS officer who conducted experiments for the German air force at Dachau, whose wife was an intimate friend of Himmler, was arrested for illegally adopting children and claiming them as his own. Just before the Dachau camp was liberated, Dr. Rascher was allegedly executed inside his cell in the Dachau bunker; his wife, who was imprisoned at Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, was also executed.

The most famous graduate of the Dachau Training Camp was Rudolf Hoess who became the Commandant at the infamous Auschwitz death factory, where Jews were murdered in the gas chambers. Adolf Eichmann was another infamous alumni of the Dachau SS Training camp, as was Josef Kramer, the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent prisoners.

Most Americans had never heard of the SS, an abbreviation for Schutzstaffel, an elite unit of German soldiers, until May 1985 when President Ronald Reagan outraged the Jewish Community and created a huge controversy when he decided to bypass an invitation to tour the concentration camp at Dachau on a state visit to Germany and opted instead to visit a military cemetery in Bitberg, where Waffen-SS soldiers were buried.

In defense of his visit, Reagan said, "There's nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazis also...They were victims, just as surely as the victims of the concentration camps." Reagan had gotten his start in politics when he worked with the Screen Actor's Guild to expose Communists in the movie industry in the McCarthy era. The Schutzstaffel (Protection Squad) was started in April 1925 as a unit of personal body guards for Adolf Hitler who needed protection from the Communist protesters who tried to disrupt his political speeches for his Fascist party, the National Socialist German Workers Party, better known to Americans as the Nazis.

The occasion for Reagan's visit was the 40ieth anniversary of the end of World War II and he wanted to forget the Holocaust and show that Germany was now our Ally and a member of NATO. His purpose in visiting the graves of these German SS soldiers was to "demonstrate reconciliation and friendship" with the country that had murdered 6 million Jews. However, the soldiers that he was honoring at Bitberg were not the guards at the concentration camps, the infamous Death's Head unit, which was only one part of the SS; Reagan was paying tribute to the soldiers of the Waffen-SS (Weapons SS), an elite fighting unit which included volunteers from many countries who fought the Communists in Hitler's war against the Soviet Union, something that Reagan could certainly relate to.

After the war, General Patton got into serious trouble when he said something to the effect that the Nazis were a political party, no different from the Democrats and the Republicans in America. It is true that the Nazis started out as a political party in the democratic Weimar Republic, just like the Communists and Social Democrats, but the big difference was that the Nazis, the Communists and the Social Democrats in Germany each had a private army and they fought their political battles with hand-to-hand combat in the streets and the beer halls.

Avenue of the SS

Gates into Dachau complex

Preserved railroad tracks

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This page was last updated on June 10, 2011