The Schutzstaffel (SS) was a Nazi paramilitary group, formed on the orders of Adolf Hitler in April 1925. Initially small in size, the SS grew under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler to become the NSDAP’s elite paramilitary organisation and the vanguard of Nazi beliefs about racial purity.
Origins of the SS
The SS began as a small, specialised unit of the Sturmabteilung (SA) with a specific role: 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 leading organisers of this new unit. Both had marched alongside Hitler during the Munich putsch and were close enough to be considered the Fuhrer’s friends. Schreck became the SS’s first leader while Maurice was acknowledged as ‘member number two’, after Hitler himself.
In 1926, Hitler ordered the SS to be reorganised on a national basis. Party officials in major cities 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 also swore an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler himself, rather than Germany or the Nazi Party (NSDAP).
In its early years, the SS was subjected to interference and bullying by its parent organisation, the Sturmabteilung. Many in the SA resented the elitism and fanatical loyalty of the SS. Some attempted to isolate the SS by 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 within two years had fallen to just 280.
Many SA figures argued the SS was a redundant organisation that should be disbanded. They believed the SA could provide adequate protection for party leaders, while better reflecting the broader values of the NSDAP.
Growth under Himmler
By early 1929, the SS looked doomed after Hitler was forced to dismiss Heiden for ‘inappropriate dealings’ with a Jewish businessman. The command of the SS passed to Heinrich Himmler, a small, bespectacled office worker, softly-spoken and with no military service.
Himmler’s appointment raised eyebrows in the Nazi Party. The hard men of the SA believed they could ride roughshod over Himmler and consign the SS to the dustbin of history. This was a gross underestimation of Himmler, his organisational abilities and his fanaticism.
From the outset, the new SS leader was intensely hard-working and obsessed with organisational detail. This was in stark contrast to his predecessors and, indeed, unlike Hitler himself.
Himmler was also fascinated with theories of racial purity and Aryan supremacy. He imagined 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.
Himmler lobbied Hitler with these ideas in 1929, seeking permission to implement a recruitment scheme based on racial purity. Hitler agreed, though at this point he was more concerned with safeguarding his own political position.
With the Fuhrer’s backing, Himmler began marketing the SS as the party’s elite paramilitary branch. Acceptance into the SS became both an honour and a sign of one’s racial purity and natural talent. Loyalty, order and military discipline bordering on fanaticism were promoted as core values in the SS.
New look and discipline
Himmler authorised striking new uniforms and insignia to set the SS apart from other Nazi paramilitary groups. The brown shirt was retained but complemented with a black tunic. These tunics were adorned with striking regalia, including silver braid, the Totenkopf or ‘death’s head’ emblem, SS collar runes and other emblems.
These changes had an immediate impact. Disgruntled ex-soldiers and Freikorps members had long admired the Nazi Party’s ideological platform – but they disliked the coarseness, lack of control and drunken thuggery 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.
Though still nominally part of the SA, the SS was given greater autonomy and independence. In 1931, Hitler decreed that SA commanders no longer had operational authority over SS units. The structure of the SS was also altered to allow full military-style battalions, rather than the ten-man brigades common in the SA.
Himmler head-hunted individuals to fashion the SS into a professional and disciplined paramilitary force. They included ruthless figures like former naval officer Reinhard Heydrich and Munich police chief Heinrich Muller; both were given responsibility for internal security. During 1933-34, the ranks of the SS were examined and then purged of undesirables, such as the lazy and undisciplined and heavy drinkers.
The SS was constructed, micro-managed and purged by Himmler and his subordinates to ensure it was more loyal to Fuhrer than party. This loyalty was to use in mid-1934 when Hitler decided to move against the SA.
A historian’s view:
“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.”
1. The Schutzstaffel or SS was formed by Adolf Hitler in 1925, initially as a special 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.