While the Holocaust had many agents and participants, one group more than all others was responsible for its barbarism, the infamous Schutzstaffel or SS. Fanatically loyal to Hitler and Nazi racial theory, the SS oversaw the implementation of the regime’s ‘Final Solution to the Jewish problem’.
The SS was the Nazi Party’s elite paramilitary brigade. Bedecked in sleek black or grey uniforms with flashy silver insignia, SS officers were a strange mix of culture, sadism and self-indulgence.
Schutzstaffel troops were known for their discipline, whether swearing loyalty to Hitler, frog-marching in unison or fighting in battle. Entry into the SS was difficult and racial purity was a strict requirement.
In reality, the SS was nowhere near as disciplined or as well organised as outward appearances suggest. It was certainly brutal and fanatically loyal, however, qualities necessary for carrying out the grisly work of the Final Solution.
The Schutzstaffel was formed in 1925 as a bodyguard unit to protect Hitler and other NSDAP leaders. For almost a decade, the SS existed as a sub-unit of the larger Sturmabteilung (SA). By the late 1920s, its numbers had dwindled so much that many expected the SS to be dissolved or absorbed into the SA.
In 1929, command of the SS was handed to Heinrich Himmler, a little-known office clerk from Munich. Physically and professionally, Himmler appeared of little significance – but he proved to be a diligent worker and organiser, politically astute, obsessed with racial purity and utterly loyal to Hitler.
Himmler coveted a grand vision for the SS: he wanted it to become a political and racial vanguard, its ranks filled with Aryan ubermensch (‘supermen’) who were devoted and loyal to the fuhrer. Himmler’s transformation of the SS appealed to many Germans, particularly ex-soldiers who disliked the rowdiness and heavy drinking of the SA.
Growth and development
In 1934, Himmler and the SS played a critical role in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, an internal Nazi Party purge that saw several SA leaders arrested and executed. With the SA reduced in size and significance, Himmler set about expanding and reforming the SS. By the end of the 1930s, it contained around 800,000 men.
The SS was different from the Wehrmacht (regular army) in several respects. Perhaps the most obvious was its fanatical loyalty to Hitler and to Nazi racial and political values. SS officers and soldiers swore an oath of loyalty to Hitler, promising “absolute allegiance”. The SS motto was Unsere Ehre heist Treue (‘Our honour is loyalty’).
The men of the SS were imbued with Nazi ideology and propaganda, much more than the ranks of the regular military. This transformed it into a political army, a tool of both the Fuhrer and the party. The Wehrmacht, in contrast, generally remained above politics and ideology. The majority of its generals were not Nazis, and some were known to oppose Hitler, his policies and ambitions.
A ‘racial vanguard’
Another distinguishing feature of the SS was its racial composition. Himmler envisioned the SS not only as an elite military force but also the embodiment of ethnic purity. It was to be the “racial vanguard” of the new Nazi order.
Himmler ordered that all Schutzstaffel recruits be subject to strict physical requirements and “genealogical investigation” before acceptance. For instance, enlistees in the Leibstandarte (or ‘Life Guard’, Hitler’s own personal bodyguard regiment) had to be between 23 and 35 years of age, 5’11” (180 centimetres) in height, of Deutsche Blut (‘German blood’) and with no history of criminal behaviour or alcoholism.
The racial requirements for SS officers were even more stringent. During the 1930s, officer candidates had to provide certified evidence of Aryan heritage dating back to 1750. The presence of a Jewish ancestor – even just by marriage – was enough to have an application refused. Those already in the SS were subject to strict rules about mixing, fraternising or fornicating with persons of undesirable racial origins. Before marrying, an SS officer had to provide evidence of his wife’s Aryan status and good character.
As with many Nazi departments, the structure and organisation of the SS were complex and sometimes confusing. The SS was divided into two branches: the Allgemeine-SS (concerned with political or non-combat duties) and the Waffen-SS (the military branch).
The Waffen-SS (or ‘Armed SS’) was effectively a Nazi army, trained to fight as regular soldiers in the event of a war. Prior to 1939, the Waffen-SS contained just a few thousand men – but with the outbreak of war, it was hastily expanded.
At its wartime peak, the Waffen-SS was comprised of 38 divisions containing around one million men. The Waffen-SS fought alongside the regular Wehrmacht, though it was never part of it. Instead, control of the Waffen-SS ultimately remained with Hitler and Himmler.
Units of the Waffen-SS participated in several important campaigns during the war, including the invasions of Poland and France and operations in northern Africa. One of the Waffen-SS’s best known military functions was the operation of Panzer (tank) brigades.
The Allgemeine-SS (or ‘General SS’) had more politically motivated roles and functions. It was chiefly responsible for upholding security, maintaining a police state and enforcing the will of Hitler and the party.
These responsibilities were given to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RHSA, or Reich Main Security Office), an umbrella department that oversaw a jumble of investigative and police forces.
Among these security forces were the Sicherheitsdienst (SD, an intelligence-gathering division) the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo, or ‘criminal police’) and the Gestapo (a secret police force). The roles and jurisdictions of these different agencies were not well defined – though all were charged with identifying, investigating, arresting, interrogating and dealing with potential enemies of the Third Reich.
Role in the Holocaust
These enemies of the Third Reich included ‘race enemies’ like the Jews. The Allgemeine-SS, more than any other Nazi agency or organisation, was responsible for implementing the Final Solution.
The einsatzgruppen (mobile death squads) that raged through eastern Europe, killing more than a million Jews, formally belonged to the Allgemeine-SS. So too did the SS-Totenkopfverbände: specialist divisions formed to construct, manage and oversee Nazi concentration camps.
Both the SD and Gestapo worked to identify, locate and arrest Jews who had evaded resettlement and deportation and remained in German or occupied cities, living in concealment or with false identity papers. In their own way, these branches of the Allgemeine-SS all contributed to the mass murder of the Final Solution.
“Under Himmler, the SS was transformed into an elite social caste, separate from the rest of the nation, with its own esprit de corps, internal rules and dynamics. Himmler often compared the SS to medieval knights, and to enhance the elitist nature of his institution he made an effort, partially successful, to recruit members of the old German aristocracy… It was an organisation based on a hierarchy of rank and privilege which remained shrouded in secrecy and mystery. The uniforms and symbols of the SS were specifically designed to project the image of power, mystery and elitism.”
Joseph Bendersky, historian
1. The Schutzstaffel (SS) was the elite paramilitary branch of the Nazi Party, commanded by Heinrich Himmler.
2. The SS was known for its fanatical loyalty to Hitler and the party, as well as its adherence to discipline and its Aryan racial purity.
3. Strict racial, physical and disciplinary guidelines applied to all SS recruits, particularly officers, to ensure both its loyalty and effectiveness.
4. The SS had two main branches: the Waffen-SS (units tasked with combat in war) and Allgemeine-SS (non-combat and security units).
5. The Final Solution was, for the most part, carried out by members of the Allgemeine-SS, who staffed and led mobile killing squads and concentration camps, as well as locating Jews in hiding.