Background

The origins of the Waffen SS (Armed SS) can be traced back to the creation of a select 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 Troopers). 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 Hitler saw even further 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 had 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 threated 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 charge of eliminating Röhm and several other high ranking officers in the SA. The “Night of the Long Knives” on June 30, 1934 also saw the execution of thousands of SA men and effectively ended the power of the SA.

During the “Night of the Long Knives”, the SS had performed precisely as Hitler had envisioned and from that point on Himmler and his SS would be only responsible to Hitler and would be the dominant force in the N.S.D.A.P. 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. The SS was expanded to include the German police service in 1936. Himmler then reorganized the Reich’s police service to include the Ordnungspolizei (regular police), and the Sicherheitspolizei (security police). The Sicherheitspolizei was further divided into the Kriminalpolizei or Kripo (Criminal police) and the Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo (secret police). All of these various elements were headquartered at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Main office of Reich Security). The RSHA was under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich and later Ernst Kaltenbrunner.

In addition to contolling the German police force, the SS comprised a group of armed men that were used for security and ceremonial puroposes. 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.

When Hitler reintroduced conscription in 1935, he also mandated that the SS Verfügungstruppen would be fully formed as a military unit. SS Verfügungstruppen would be the cornerstone of future Waffen SS divisions. Special schools at Bad Tölz and Braunschweig were created to train future SS men. 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 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” and 5th SS Panzer 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 World War Two can not be overlooked and their effectiveness as fighting units coupled with the atrocities that were committed by some of its members make the Waffen SS one of the most infamous military organizations in history.