Schutzstaffel – the SS

The familiar Nazi eagle and Totenkopf on an SS cap. Image courtesy Friedrich Berthold.

The Schutzstaffel (SS) was formed on Hitler’s order in April 1925. It began as a small, specialised unit of the Sturmabteilung (SA) with a specific role: providing bodyguards for Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis (the name Schutzstaffel means ‘protective staff’). Two of Hitler’s closest associates, Julius Schreck and Emil Maurice, were instrumental in organising this new unit. Both had marched alongside Hitler during the Munich putsch and were close enough to be considered the fuhrer’s friends. Schreck would become the SS’s first leader, while Maurice was acknowledged as ‘member number two’, after Hitler. In 1926 Hitler ordered the SS to be reorganised on a national basis. Party officials in each major German city were to supply the SS with one leader and ten of their best men. SS officers and troops were hand-picked: they were between 25 and 35 years of age, of excellent health and sober habits. They were also required to swear an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler himself, rather than the NSDAP.

In its early years the SS was subjected to interference and bullying by the SA, its parent organisation. Many in the rank and file of the SA resented the elitism and fanatical loyalty of the SS. They maneuvered to isolate the SS: restricting its numbers, blocking transfers and discouraging recruitment. SS leaders during this period – Schreck, Joseph Berchtold and Erhard Heiden – fought to keep the branch alive and sustain its numbers. SS membership was as high as 1,000 in 1926, but fell to just 280 by 1928. Many SA figures expressed a view the SS was a redundant organisation that should be disbanded. The SA, they argued, could provide adequate protection for party leaders – while better reflecting the broader values of the NSDAP. By early 1929 the SS looked doomed, after Hitler was forced to sack SS commander Heiden for ‘inappropriate dealings’ with a Jewish businessman. Leadership of the unit passed to Heinrich Himmler, a small, bespectacled office worker, softly-spoken and with no military service. The hard men of the SA believed they could ride roughshod over this little man and finally consign the SS to the dustbin of history. This would prove a gross underestimation of Himmler, his organisational abilities and his fanaticism.

“The black knights of Himmler’s Schutzstaffel (SS), a special class of warriors defined by race and blood. They were hand-picked as the most racially Germanic of all Germans. In Himmler’s mind, they were the nation’s tangible link with the primordial warriors, who were both supermen and gods… They were ruthless true believers… Even today, the image of an SS trooper causes chills.”
Bill Yenne, writer

From the outset the new SS leader proved to be intensely hard-working and obsessed with organisational detail – unlike his predecessors, and indeed unlike Hitler himself. Himmler was also fascinated with theories of racial purity and Aryan supremacy. He began to imagine the SS as a modern order of Teutonic warrior-knights – an idea derived from the concept of ubermensch (‘supermen’), espoused by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Unlike membership of the SA, entry into the SS would be reserved for the racially pure and physically fit. At some point in 1929 Himmler lobbied Hitler with these ideas, seeking permission to implement a recruitment scheme based on racial purity. Hitler agreed, though at this point he was more interested in safeguarding his own political position than addressing matters of race.

Heinrich Himmler in the black dress uniform of the SS

With the fuhrer’s backing, Himmer began marketing the SS as the party’s elite paramilitary branch. Acceptance into the SS was both an honour and a sign of one’s racial purity and natural talent. Loyalty, order and military discipline were promoted as core values of the SS. Himmler authorised striking new uniforms and insignia, that would set the SS apart from the SA. The brown shirt was retained, but to it was added a black tunic with silver braid, the Totenkopf or ‘death’s head’ emblem, SS collar runes and other insignia. These changes had an immediate impact. Disgruntled former soldiers and Freikorps members had long admired the Nazi Party’s ideological platform – but they disliked the coarseness, lack of control and drunken thuggery which was evident in the ranks of the SA. The elitism, discipline and military efficiency of Himmler’s SS appealed to them. By the end of 1929, SS numbers were back in excess of 1,000. These increases continued in 1930 (3,000 members) 1932 (30,000) and 1933 (52,000). By the end of 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power, SS numbers had swelled to more than 200,000.

Members of the Waffen SS, the organisation’s combat wing

Though still nominally part of the SA, the SS was given greater autonomy and independence over time. In 1931 Hitler decreed SA commanders no longer had the authority to issue orders to SS units. The structure of the SS was altered to allow full military-style battalions rather than ten-man brigades. Himmler head-hunted individuals, particularly ex-military officers, who could fashion the SS into a professional and disciplined paramilitary force. Among those recruited during this period were ruthless men like former naval officer Reinhard Heydrich and Munich police chief Heinrich Muller, both of whom were given responsibility for internal security. During 1933-34 the ranks of the SS were studied, then purged of undesirables, like the lazy, the undisciplined and heavy drinkers. The SS was expanded and micro-managed by Himmler and his sub-ordinates, to ensure it was more loyal to fuhrer than party. This loyalty would be put to use in mid-1934, when Hitler decided to move against the dangerous SA.

1. The Schutzstaffel or SS was formed by Adolf Hitler in 1925, initially as a specialist security unit to provide protection and bodyguards for high ranking Nazi leaders.
2. The SS began as a sub-branch of the Sturmabteilung or SA. Initially its numbers were very small and by 1928 its membership had dwindled to less than 300 men.
3. The fortunes of the SS were changed with Hitler’s appointment of Heinrich Himmler as its leader. Despite his unremarkable appearance and demeanour, Himmler was a meticulous administrator who reorganised, revived and expanded the SS.
4. Under Himmler’s command the SS was transformed into both an elite paramilitary brigade and a racial vanguard. Only healthy, fit and ethnically pure Aryans were permitted to join the SS.
5. As the SS grew in size and prestige it was gradually given more autonomy from the SA. The military discipline and racial purity of the SS appealed to ex-soldiers, and by 1933 it boasted more than 50,000 members.

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