The organization known by the sinister initials “SS” began as the “bodyguard” of Adolf Hitler and expanded rapidly into the equivalent of a “special police force” in the early period of Hitler’s reign. SS stands for “Schutzstaffel”, literally “defense echelon.” The SS was constructed to advance the cause of Nazism and to “defend” the German Reich from its perceived enemies. Frequently, this amounted to persecution and extermination of minorities such as the Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and others.
The SS grew very rapidly as Hitler’s Third Reich solidified its control of Germany. Three notorious components of the SS were the SD Sicherheitsdienst, intelligence and counterespionage), Gestapo (literally secret state police) and the Totenkopfverbande, “Death’s Head unit”, responsible for the concentration camps.
The Waffen-SS, literally “armed SS”, was the arm of the SS organization assigned to the battlefields. Many of these divisions were involved in some of the most intense combat during World War II, particularly against the Russians on the Eastern Front. In the post-war period, Waffen-SS veterans have argued that the “fighting SS” should be distinguished from those other organizations accountable for the death camps and the Jewish Holocaust. Admitting that some “war crimes” (murdering civilians, killing POWs, etc.) were committed by Waffen-SS units, they argue that such atrocities took place on both sides and that Waffen-SS units were never involved in the death camps or any extermination “actions.”
This position remains very controversial and is contradicted by much historical evidence. Hitler and his SS leadership intentionally clouded the distinction by ensuring that reinforcements for one SS division (the 3rd, “Totenkopf” division) were to be drawn directly from the ranks of concentration camp guards. The Waffen-SS was considered an integral part of the SS during the Nuremberg war crimes trial and the entire organization was condemned as criminal. Waffen-SS veteran’s organizations are banned within Germany to this day. Combat decorations could not be worn legally until recent years; even now the swastika must be removed from the Iron Cross and other medals awarded to soldiers by the Wehrmacht under Nazi rule.
Some Waffen-SS soldiers saw themselves as “Teutonic knights” defending the Western world from the barbarism of the East. As the War advanced and Germany’s fortunes declined, “racial purity” became less important than weight of numbers and the ranks of the Waffen-SS were opened to non-German and even non-Germanic peoples. The 4th SS (Wiking) division mentioned in these pages was originally formed from Norwegian and Danish volunteers wrapped around cadres of German and Germanic (“Volksdeutsche”) soldiers. Other SS divisions wore raised from Dutch, Belgian, French, Baltic and even Russian “volunteers”. Many such men were coerced into joining; others enlisted to escape forced labor in factories or starvation at home; a few may have even succumbed to SS propaganda: “Defend Europe from Bolshevism!” There were even a couple of Muslim formations, not to mention a tiny group of British traitors who joined the infamous British Freecorps.“ The cosmopolitan character of these units have led some SS apologists in the post-War period to argue that the Waffen-SS was really an incipient NATO, defending Western culture from the barbarism of Asiatic Communism. Most responsible, objective historians dispute this notion vehemently.
Nations join NATO as voluntary partners; any country sending its men into the Waffen-SS did so because of undisguised Nazi threats. The famous “Blue Division” was sent to fight on the Eastern Front by Franco, the Fascist ruler of neutral Spain. one of the few “independent” European nations not actually occupied by Germany during World War II. But even this “contribution” was made in response to intense Nazi pressure on Spain to enter the War in full force. Any notion that the Waffen-SS truly represented the forces of a “United Europe” is fatuous.
At the close of World War II members of the 33rd SS division were involved in the last-ditch defense of Berlin against the Red Army. This “Charlemagne” division included hundreds of Frenchmen; records show it that they fought desperately in those final doomed days. Ironically, soldiers of French heritage helped defend the area around Hitler’s bunker as Berlin fell to the Russians. These soldiers were experienced anti-tank experts and many Soviet tanks were destroyed. This exemplifies the ultimate irony of the Waffen-SS: many members of this organization were skilled, brave and valorous soldiers; this has been recognized by their enemies. Unfortunately they fought to advance criminal interests. Their soldierly merits will be forever tainted by the battlefield atrocities committed by some of them as well as by the horrible crimes committed by the SS organization as part of Nazi state policy: most infamously, the murder of millions of Jews in a coldly calculated program of extermination.