Schutzstaffel (SS)

The first organized body of followers of Adolf Hitler came into existence in early 1920 and was called the Ordnertruppe (Steward Troop). Its task was to keep order at indoor political meetings. It later became known as the Saalschutz and became part of the larger Athletic and Sports Section of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). Over the next couple of years its role changed and it specialized in the role of guarding speakers.

Hitler decided he needed his own personal bodyguard and on 9th November, 1925 the Saalschutz became known as the Schutzstaffel (SS). The word Schutzstaffel means "defence echelon". As Louis L. Snyder has pointed out: "The name was universally abbreviated to SS, not in Roman or Gothic letters but written as a lightening flash in imitation of ancient runic characters. The SS was known as the Black Order." Julius Schreck became its first leader and he was told that the SS was an independent organization alongside, but subordinate to, the Sturm Abteilung (SA).

Andrew Mollo, the author of To The Death's Head: The Story of the SS (1982): "Although mostly unemployed, SS men were expected to provide their own uniforms which also differed from those of the SA. SS men wore the brown shirt but, unlike the SA, they had a black cap adorned with a silver death's head, a black tie and black breeches, and the swastika armband was withdrawn from SS men who had infringed minor regulations."

Julius Schreck resigned as Reichführer-SS in 1926. He was replaced by Joseph Berchtold. In September 1927 Berchtold issued SS Order No. 1. This instructed SS men not to become involved in discussion at party meetings, and that discussion evenings were for the purpose of political instruction only, during which SS men should not smoke, nor leave the room until the lecture was over. SS men were also told that they must at all times carry their NSDAP membership card, his SS card and the SS songbook. Since the SS was anxious to promote an impression of legality and order, members were forbidden to carry arms.

Berchtold resigned in 1927 and was replaced by his deputy Erhard Heiden. Under Heiden’s leadership the SS declined in membership from 1000 to 280. Heiden hired Heinrich Himmler to serve as his deputy. Heiden fell into disgrace after allegations surfaced that parts of his uniform were customized by a Jewish tailor. On 5th January 1929 he was dismissed by Adolf Hitler and succeeded by Himmler as Reichsführer-SS.

Wolf Sendele joined the Schutzstaffel in 1932. At the time most members were part-time. Sendele later argued that in the early 1930s there were only two possible solutions to the economic problems that faced the country - fascism or communism. Sendele decided to select the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) over the German Communist Party (KPD). As a member of the SS, Sendele claims that one of his main tasks was to break-up meetings of the KPD: "Sometimes it seemed as if we were on the go every day - after we'd finished work - we would go off to some meeting or another, often way out of town to the outlying villages near Heidelberg. There were also some Communist-dominated villages where it was pretty difficult to get the upper hand, and so obviously people had to go along who wouldn't turn and run as soon as the Communists told them to clear off. I remember one particular meeting held by a Communist Member of Parliament. We'd planned to break up this meeting, but we were the ones to get busted. We were just thrown out of the hall - our feet hardly touched the ground - and landed in the street, drummed out."

Heinrich Himmler was a devout follower of Adolf Hitler and believed that he was the Messiah that was destined to lead Germany to greatness. Hitler, who was always vulnerable to flattery, decided in January, 1929, that Himmler should become the new leader of the SS. At that time it consisted of 300 men. It has been claimed that his main claim to fame was that he carried the Reich War Flag at the Munich War Ministry during the 1923 Munich putsch.

An important figure in the SS was Theodore Eicke. Suspected of carrying out bomb attacks on political opponents, Heinrich Himmler advised Eicke to go and live in Italy. In March 1932 he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for preparing political bomb attacks. After Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 Eicke returned to Germany. Charles W. Sydnor, the author of Soldiers of Destruction (1977) has pointed out: "Ever-suspicious, quarrelsome, cruel, humorless, and afflicted with a cancerous ambition. Eicke was a genuinely fanatic Nazi who had embraced the movement's political and racial liturgy with the zeal of the late convert, advancing rapidly and unshakably into the power structure of the Third Reich. Moreover, Eicke had demonstrated that he possessed in abundance the basic qualities needed to get to the top in the SS-uncompromising ruthlessness in the service of obedience, a marked talent for organization, and a gift for inspiring and leading men."

Himmler was subordinate to the Sturm Abteilung (SA). This brought him into conflict with the Ernst Roehm. Himmler continued to build up his power base by establishing his own secret civilian security organization, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and placed Reinhard Heydrich at its head. Erich Fromm, in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), depicts Himmler as "an example of the sadistic authoritarian who developed a passion for unlimited control over others." Another leading figure in the SS, Sepp Dietrich admitted: "Human life matters little to the SS."

In 1933 Oswald Pohl wrote a letter to Adolf Hitler about rumours he had heard about Reinhard Heydrich. According to Pohl: "I wrote to Hitler that if all the things rumoured about Heydrich were true, I couldn't understand why he was permitted to wear an SS uniform. In May 1933, Heinrich Himmler went to see Pohl after his commanding officer, Wilhelm Canaris, had told him that Pohl was a loyal "National Socialist" and a "first rate man in every way". Himmler explained that the rumours were untrue and asked whether Pohl was interested in joining the Schutzstaffel (SS).

Himmler told Pohl he was looking for an officer to take over the administrative and financial side of the SS. At first he rejected the offer as he was happy in the navy and headed a staff of over 500 hundred men at Kiel. Pohl later wrote: "Himmler became very insistent and wrote me one letter after another urging that I take over the administrative organisation of the SS. In December 1933 and January 1934, he invited me to Berlin and Munich, and showed me the whole SS administrative set-up and the many complex problems that were involved. It was only in February 1934, after I saw what a big job was in store for me, that I finally accepted."

Oswald Pohl joined Himmler's personal staff as chief of the administrative section. "When I took over my office, the SS was a comparatively small organisation, like a union, with a group here and there in various towns and cities. I started by installing administrative commands in various key cities, and I selected personnel who would be fit for their jobs. I inaugurated schools that taught these administrative officials for a few weeks before they were dispatched to take over my branch offices all over Germany. I achieved a sound administration in the SS, with orderly bookkeeping and financial sections."

Adrian Weale, the author of The SS: A New History (2010): "Before January 1933, much of the SS's funding had come from membership dues, with occasional subsidies from party headquarters for special projects, but as it began to take over state functions, it increasingly became eligible for state funding. It was in this area that Pohl really made his mark. Despite the supposedly revolutionary nature of the National Socialist government, expenditure still had to be justified, budgets formulated and fiscal probity maintained to the satisfaction of both the civil service and the party. Pohl, drawing on his long experience in naval administration, succeeded in achieving all of this. In addition, he established relationships between his office and the various departments and ministries on whom the SS depended for its budget: the party treasury, the Finance Ministry, the Ministry of the Interior; the Army Ministry and so forth."

On 27th February, 1933, someone set fire to the Reichstag. Several people were arrested including a leading, Georgi Dimitrov, general secretary of the Comintern, the international communist organization. Dimitrov was eventually acquitted but a young man from the Netherlands, Marianus van der Lubbe, was eventually executed for the crime. As a teenager Lubbe had been a communist and Hermann Goering used this information to claim that the Reichstag Fire was part of a KPD plot to overthrow the government.

Adolf Hitler gave orders that all leaders of the German Communist Party (KPD) should "be hanged that very night." Paul von Hindenburg vetoed this decision but did agree that Hitler should take "dictatorial powers". KPD candidates in the election were arrested and Goering announced that the Nazi Party planned "to exterminate" German communists. Thousands of members of the Social Democrat Party and KPD were arrested and sent to Germany's first concentration camp at Dachau, a village a few miles from Munich. Himmler was placed in charge of the operation, whereas Theodor Eicke became commandant of the first camp and eventually took overall control of the system.

According to Andrew Mollo, the author of To The Death's Head: The Story of the SS (1982): "Theodor Eicke, a rough unstable character whose violent and unruly behaviour had already given Himmler many headaches. At last Himmler found an ideal backwater for his troublesome subordinate and sent him off to Dachau." Originally called re-education centres the Schutzstaffel (SS) soon began describing them as concentration camps. They were called this because they were "concentrating" the enemy into a restricted area. Hitler argued that the camps were modeled on those used by the British during the Boer War.

Theodor Eicke later recalled: "There were times when we has no coats, no boots, no socks. Without so much as a murmur, our men wore their own clothes on duty. We were generally regarded as a necessary evil that only cost money; little men of no consequence standing guard behind barbed wire. The pay of my officers and men, meagre though it was, I had to beg from the various State Finance Offices. As Oberführer I earned in Dachau 230 Reichmark per month and was fortunate because I enjoyed the confidence of my Reichsführer (Himmler). At the beginning there was not a single cartridge, not a single rifle, let alone machine guns. Only three of my men knew how to operate a machine gun. They slept in draughty factory halls. Everywhere there was poverty and want. At the time these men belonged to SS District South. They left it to me to take care of my men's troubles but, unasked, sent men they wanted to be rid of in Munich for some reason or another. These misfits polluted my unit and troubled its state of mind. I had to contend with disloyalty, embezzlement and corruption."

Rudolf Hoess, one of the guards at Dachau, later recalled: "I can clearly remember the first flogging that I witnessed. Eicke had issued orders that a minimum of one company from the guard unit must attend the infliction of these corporal punishments. Two prisoners who had stolen cigarettes from the canteen were sentenced to twenty-five lashes each with the whip. The troops under arms were formed up in an open square in the centre of which stood the Whipping block.Two prisoners were led forward by their block leaders. Then the commandant arrived. The commander of the protective custody compound and the senior company commander reported to him. The Rapportfiihrer read out the sentence and the first prisoner, a small impenitent malingerer, was made to lie along; the length of the block. Two soldiers held his head and hands and two block leaders carried out the punishment, delivering alternate strokes. The prisoner uttered no sound. The other prisoner, a professional politician of strong physique, behaved quite differently. He cried out at the very first stroke and tried to break free. He went on screaming to the end, although the commandant yelled at him to keep quiet. I was standing in the first rank and was compelled to watch the whole procedure. I say compelled, because if I had been in the rear I would not have looked. When the man began to scream I went hot and cold all over. In fact the whole thing, even the beating of the first prisoner made me shudder. Later on, at the beginning of the war, I attended my first execution, but it did not affect me nearly so much as witnessing that first corporal punishment."

"Will the audience kindly keep their seats." Sidney Strube, Daily Express (3rd July, 1934)
Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler in 1932.

With the agreement of Adolf Hitler, Himmler expanded the size of the SS. Himmler personally vetted all applicants to make sure that all were good "Aryan" types. By the time the Nazi Party gained power in 1933 Himmler's SS had grown to a strength of 52,000. He was also made head of all German political police outside Prussia, where Hermann Goering was the minister of the interior.

In May 1934 Theodor Eicke was given responsibility of reorganizing Germany's concentration camp system. One of his recommendations was that guards should be warned that they would be punished if they showed prisoners any signs of humanity. Charles W. Sydnor, the author of Soldiers of Destruction (1977) believed that "Eicke's personality, in particular his unremitting hatred for everything and everyone non-Nazi, influenced definitively the development, the structure, and the uniquely inhumane ethos of the concentration camps. Eicke was convinced that the camps were the most effective instrument available for destroying the enemies of National Socialism. He regarded all prisoners as subhuman adversaries of the State, marked for immediate destruction if they offered the slightest resistance. Eicke eventually succeeded in nurturing this same attitude among many SS guards in the camps.... Like many of the concentration camp commanders he trained, Eicke basically was pitiless and cruelly insensitive to human suffering, and regarded qualities such as mercy and charity as useless, outmoded absurdities that could not be tolerated in the SS."

Eicke's biographer, Louis L. Snyder, has argued: "Eicke's influence on the organization and spirit of the SS guard formations was second only to that of Himmler. his regulations included precise instructions on solitary confinement, corporal punishment, beatings, reprimands, and warnings. he informed his guards that any pity for enemies of the state was was unworthy of SS men. It is claimed that Eicke said that any man with a soft heart would do well to "retire quickly to a monastery."

By 1934 Adolf Hitler appeared to have complete control over Germany, but like most dictators, he constantly feared that he might be ousted by others who wanted his power. To protect himself from a possible coup, Hitler used the tactic of divide and rule and encouraged other leaders such as Himmler, Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, and Ernst Roehm to compete with each other for senior positions.

Albert Speer pointed out in his book, Inside the Third Reich (1970): "After 1933 there quickly formed various rival factions that held divergent views, spied on each other, and held each other in contempt. A mixture of scorn and dislike became the prevailing mood within the party. Each new dignitary rapidly gathered a circle of intimates around him. Thus Himmler associated almost exclusively with his SS following, from whom he could count on unqualified respect... As an intellectual Goebbels looked down on the crude philistines of the leading group in Munich, who for their part made fun of the conceited academic's literary ambitions. Goering considered neither the Munich philistines nor Goebbels sufficiently aristocratic for him and therefore avoided all social relations with them; whereas Himmler, filled with the elitist missionary zeal of the SS felt far superior to all the others. "

One of the consequences of this policy was that these men developed a dislike for each other. Roehm was particularly hated because as leader of the Sturm Abteilung (SA) he had tremendous power and had the potential to remove any one of his competitors. Himmler asked Reinhard Heydrich to assemble a dossier on Roehm. Heydrich, who also feared him, manufactured evidence that suggested that Roehm had been paid 12 million marks by the French to overthrow Hitler.

Hitler liked Ernst Roehm and initially refused to believe the dossier provided by Heydrich. Roehm had been one of his first supporters and, without his ability to obtain army funds in the early days of the movement, it is unlikely that the Nazis would have ever become established. The SA under Roehm's leadership had also played a vital role in destroying the opposition during the elections of 1932 and 1933. However, Hitler had his own reasons for wanting Roehm removed. Powerful supporters of Hitler had been complaining about Roehm for some time. Generals were afraid that the Sturm Abteilung (SA), a force of over 3 million men, would absorb the much smaller German Army into its ranks and Roehm would become its overall leader.

"Will the audience kindly keep their seats." Sidney Strube, Daily Express (3rd July, 1934)
Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Roehm at a SS rally in August 1933.

Industrialists such as Albert Voegler, Gustav Krupp, Alfried Krupp, Fritz Thyssen and Emile Kirdorf, who had provided the funds for the Nazi victory, were unhappy with Roehm's socialistic views on the economy and his claims that the real revolution had still to take place. Many people in the party also disapproved of the fact that Roehm and many other leaders of the SA were homosexuals.

Adolf Hitler was also aware that Roehm and the SA had the power to remove him. Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler played on this fear by constantly feeding him with new information on Roehm's proposed coup. Their masterstroke was to claim that Gregor Strasser, whom Hitler hated, was part of the planned conspiracy against him. With this news Hitler ordered all the SA leaders to attend a meeting in the Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiesse.

Heinrich Himmler along with his loyal assistants, Reinhard Heydrich, Kurt Daluege and Walter Schellenberg, drew up a list of people outside the SA that they wanted killed. The list included Gregor Strasser, Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler's predecessor as chancellor, and Gustav von Kahr, who crushed the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Louis L. Snyder argues: "Hitler later alleged that his trusted friend Roehm had entered a conspiracy to take over political power. The Führer was told, possibly by one of Roehm's jealous colleagues, that Roehm intended to use the SA to bring a socialist state into existence... On June, 1934... Hitler came to his final decision to eliminate the socialist element in the party. A list of hundreds of victims was prepared." This became known as the Night of the Long Knives.

On 29th June, 1934. Hitler, accompanied by the Schutzstaffel (SS), arrived at Bad Wiesse, where he personally arrested Ernst Roehm. During the next 24 hours 200 other senior SA officers were arrested on the way to the meeting. Erich Kempka, Hitler's chauffeur, witnessed what happened: "Hitler entered Roehm's bedroom alone with a whip in his hand. Behind him were two detectives with pistols at the ready. He spat out the words; Roehm, you are under arrest. Roehm's doctor comes out of a room and to our surprise he has his wife with him. I hear Lutze putting in a good word for him with Hitler. Then Hitler walks up to him, greets him, shakes hand with his wife and asks them to leave the hotel, it isn't a pleasant place for them to stay in, that day. Now the bus arrives. Quickly, the SA leaders are collected from the laundry room and walk past Roehm under police guard. Roehm looks up from his coffee sadly and waves to them in a melancholy way. At last Roehm too is led from the hotel. He walks past Hitler with his head bowed, completely apathetic."

Hitler decided to pardon Roehm because of his past services to the movement. However, after much pressure from Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, Hitler agreed that Roehm should die. Himmler ordered Theodore Eicke to carry out the task. Eicke and his adjutant, Michael Lipppert, travelled to Stadelheim Prison in Munich where Roehm was being held. Eicke placed a pistol on a table in Roehm's cell and told him that he had 10 minutes in which to use the weapon to kill himself. Roehm replied: "If Adolf wants to kill me, let him do the dirty work."

According to Paul R. Maracin, The author of The Night of the Long Knives: Forty-Eight Hours that Changed the History of the World (2004): "Ten minutes later, SS officers Michael Lippert and Theodor Eicke appeared, and as the embittered, scar-faced veteran of verdun defiantly stood in the middle of the cell stripped to the waist, the two SS officers riddled his body with revolver bullets." Eicke later claimed that Roehm fell to the floor moaning "Mein Führer". Three days after the purge Eicke was appointed Inspector of Concentration Camps and head of Death's Head Units. He was also promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General (SS-Gruppenfuehrer).

Three weeks after the Night of the Long Knives the Schutzstaffel (SS) was given independent status and no longer under the control of the SA. As a result of this purge the SS was now the principal instrument of internal rule in Germany. On 20th July 1934, Hitler decreed "In view of the great services rendered by the SS, particularly in connection with the events of 30th June 1934, I hereby promote the SS to the status of independent formation of the NSDAP."

Now that Himmler was leader of his own independent SS, he could expand the organization. By the end of 1934 it had 400,000 members. Eventually, Himmler came to the conclusion that the mass recruitment which had taken place was very damaging to the elite status of the SS and so in 1935 over 200,000 SS men were discharged on moral, racial and physical grounds. Himmler now introduced a complex five year enrolment procedure. Having been declared physically and racially suitable for SS membership, an eighteen-year-old youth became an applicant (bewerber). The following year he became a candidate (anwärter). At the end of his probationary period he swore the oath of alliance to Adolf Hitler. At twenty-one he became liable for military service which lasted two years. It was only on his return to civilian life that he became a full SS man.

As an SS man he would serve in SS1 until he was twenty-five, then SS2 until thirty-five, when he became a member of the SS Reserve. The typical part-time member of the SS gave up one evening a week for ideological work and training. One afternoon, usually Wednesday or Saturday, was set aside for physical training and sport. One weekend in each month an SS man had to spend Saturday afternoon and Sunday on military training, important elements of which were drill, crowd control and shooting.

This smart and disciplined para-military force enabled the Nazi Party to maintain a large auxiliary police force at nominal cost. The SS could be called out at short notice in case of a national emergency such as an anti-Nazi putsch, a demonstration or a trade union dispute. The SS were also used to help the police with crowd control and security arrangements for a visit by Hitler or any other prominent member of the Nazi Party. SS headquarters in Berlin would summon SS men to duty with a printed postcard. An SS man's employee was forbidden by law to prevent or hinder his employee from responding to such a summons.

Heinrich Himmler was in overall control of the concentration camps in Germany. Hermann Langbein, the author of Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps 1938-1945 (1992) has pointed out: "National Socialism replaced democratic institutions with a system of command and obedience, the so-called Fuhrer principle, and it was this system that the Nazis installed in their concentration camps. It goes without saying that any command by a member of the SS had to be unconditionally carried out by all prisoners. Refusal or hesitation was liable to lead to a cruel death. The camp administration not only saw to it that every command was carried out, but also held inmates assigned to certain jobs responsible for completing them. In this way it facilitated its own work and was also able to play one prisoner off against another.... Each unit housing prisoners, whether a barrack or a brick building, was called a block. The camp administration held a senior block inmate (Blockdltester) responsible for enforcing discipline, keeping order, and carrying out all commands. If a dwelling unit was divided into rooms, a senior block inmate was assisted by senior barracks inmates and their staff. A senior camp inmate (Lageraltester) was responsible for the operation of the entire camp, and it was he who proposed the appointment of senior block inmates to the officer-in-charge."

Langbein, who was an inmate in Dachau, explained that each work group was headed by a capo (trusty). "The capo himself was exempted from work, but he had to see to it that the required work was done by his underlings. Capos, senior block inmates, and senior camp inmates were identified by an armband with the appropriate inscription. These armband wearers, as they were generally called, were under the protection of the camp administration, often enjoyed extensive privileges, and as a rule had unlimited power over those under them. This is to be taken literally, for if an armband wearer killed an underling, he did not (with a few exceptions) have to answer to anyone, provided a timely report of the death was made and the roll call was corrected. An ordinary prisoner was completely at the mercy of his capo and senior block inmate."

Heinrich Himmler argued that: "These approximately 40,000 German political and professional criminals... are my 'noncommissioned officer corps' for this whole kit and caboodle. We have appointed so-called capos here; one of these is the supervisor responsible for thirty, forty, or a hundred other prisoners. The moment he is made a capo, he no longer sleeps where they do. He is responsible for getting the work done, for making sure that there is no sabotage, that people are clean and the beds are of good construction.... So he has to spur his men on. The minute we're dissatisfied with him, he is no longer a capo and bunks with his men again. He knows that they will then kill him during the first night."

Inmates had to wear a coloured symbol to indicate their category. This included political prisoners (red), convicts (greens), Jews (yellow), homosexuals (pink), Jehovah's Witnesses (violet) and what the Nazis described as anti-socials (black). The anti-social group included gypsies and prostitutes. The Schutzstaffel (SS) preferred those with a criminal record to be capos. As Hermann Langbein has pointed out: "As a rule the SS bestowed armbands on prisoners they could expect to be willing tools in return for their privileged status. As soon as German convicts arrived in the camps the SS preferred them to morally stable men

On 17th June, 1936, Hitler designated Heinrich Himmler as head of the unified police system of the Third Reich. He was also put in charge of the Gestapo. Himmler was also able to put SS men in all the key posts in Nazi Germany. Himmler was now in control of a vast machine of political oppression. In December, 1940 Himmler established the Waffen SS. This new army grew rapidly and within six months grew to over 150,000 men.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Schulze-Kossens argued that Himmler was not very popular with the men in the Schutzstaffel (SS). "There was always a gap between Himmler and his soldiers. He wasn't very popular with the men because of his concept of a State Protection Corps, or his ideological ideas about the ancient German tribes and their burial mounds, King Heinrich and all that stuff. We just laughed at it."

David Low, So you won't be protected. Eh? (1st October, 1941)
David Low, So you won't be protected. Eh? (1st October, 1941)

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Himmler was appointed as a Commissar for the Consolidation of German Nationhood. Himmler devised methods of mass murder based on a rationalized extermination process. His main task was to eliminate "racial degenerates" that Hitler believed stood in the way of German's regeneration. The SS also followed the German Army into the Soviet Union where they had the responsibility of murdering Jews, gypsies, communists and partisans.

After the war Lieutenant Colonel Richard Schulze-Kossens, who fought with the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler in Poland in 1939 defended his troops in this action: "Let me say as a soldier I condemn all crimes regardless of who committed them, whether by us or by others, and that includes the crimes committed against captured SS men after the capitulation. But I make no reproaches in that respect. I am not recriminating, I only want to say that in war, amongst the mass of soldiers, there are always elements who develop criminal tendencies, and I can only condemn them. I would not say that the Waffen-SS was typically criminal, but there are well-known incidents. I don't want to excuse anything, but I must say one thing which is, that it is natural in war, during hot and heavy fighting, for young officers to sometimes lose their nerve."

Andrew Mollo, the author of To The Death's Head: The Story of the SS (1982), has argued: "Rather than conceal their murderous activities police commanders fell over themselves in the race to run up the highest score, and they were not loath to exaggerate the number of their victims if they thought Himmler might be impressed by their zeal. It must be remembered that these terrible crimes were not committed by Nazi fanatics from the pre-war SS, but by ordinary, often elderly German policemen who had been brought up in an authoritarian society and had succumbed to that particularly German weakness of carrying out, without question, any order given to them by a superior."

The Federal German Senior Chief State Prosecutor Alfred Spiess, has made a detailed study of SS and police crimes in Poland. He has argued that very few SS men refused orders to kill civilians. However, he has recorded one case where a man did refuse to carry out this order: "One morning an SS and police unit which included reservists got the order to shoot women and children in a neighbouring village. In this unit was a clerk from Frankfurt who had been called up as a police reservist. When he heard this order he took one step forward and said I'm not putting my hand to this - it is a crime, and I'm not going to do it. He was bawled out and sent away, but nothing happened to him. He wasn't brought before an SS and police court and was left unharmed. Since we had come across other similar cases we discussed this question with former SS judges at the Treblinka trial. Why were these people not brought before an SS and police court? The explanation was very simple. If these people had been brought before an SS and police court, it would have to establish which order had been disobeyed... According to the Military Penal Code, paragraph 47, clause 3, which was still valid in those days, a soldier was not obliged to carry out a criminal order."

In February 1942, Oswald Pohl, chief of the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office (SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungs Hauptamt), took control of the administration of the concentration camps. Pohl clashed with Theodor Eicke over the way the camps should be run. According to Andrew Mollo: "Pohl insisted on better treatment for camp inmates, and SS men were forbidden to strike, kick or even touch a prisoner. Inmates were to be better housed and fed, and even encouraged to take an interest in their work. Those who did were to be trained and rewarded with their freedom. There was a small reduction in the number of cases of maltreatment, but food and accommodation were still appalling, and in return for these 'improvements' prisoners were still expected to work eleven hours per day, six or seven days a week."

Pohl came under pressure from Albert Speer to increase production at the camps. Pohl complained to Heinrich Himmler: "Reichsminister Speer appears not to know that we have 160,000 inmates at present and are fighting continually against epidemics and a high death-rate because of the billeting of the prisoners and the sanitary arrangements are totally inadequate." In a letter written on 15th December, 1942, Himmler suggested an improvement in the prisoner's diet: "Try to obtain for the nourishment of the prisoners in 1943 the greatest quantity of raw vegetables and onions. In the vegetable season issue carrots, kohlrabi, white turnips and whatever such vegetables there are in large quantity and store up sufficient for the prisoners in the winter so that they had a sufficient quantity every day. I believe we will raise the state of health substantially thereby."

As the war progressed Adolf Hitler became greatly concerned about the problems of production. Himmler informed Hitler that a growing number of prisoners were placed at the disposal of the armaments industry. According to Hermann Langbein, the author of Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps 1938-1945 (1992): Auschwitz's four rapidly erected crematories with built-in gas chambers made such killing possible with the smallest expenditure of guards and service personnel. But because the arms industry required ever more workers, those destined for extermination were subjected to a selection process, something that was not done in the extermination camps of eastern Poland."

Himmler instructed all camp commandants to lower the mortality rate substantially. On 20th January 1943, wrote: "I shall hold the camp commandant personally responsible for doing everything possible to preserve the manpower of the prisoners." Himmler told Oswald Pohl: "I believe that at the present time we must be out there in the factories personally in unprecedented measure in order to drive them on with the lash of our words and use our energy to assist on the spot. The Führer is counting heavily on our production and our help and our ability to overcome all difficulties, just hurl them overboard and simply produce. I ask you and Richard Glucks (head of concentration camp inspectorate) with all my heart to let no week pass by when one of you does not appear unexpectedly at this or that camp and goad, goad, goad."

The historian, Louis L. Snyder, has pointed out: "In this post he (Oswald Pohl) had charge of all concentration camps and was responsible for all works projects. He saw to it that valuables taken from Jewish inmates were returned to Germany and supervised the melting down of gold teeth taken from inmates... The railroad wagons which brought prisoners to the camps were cleaned out and used on the return journey to transfer anything of value taken from the inmates.... Gold fillings retrieved from human ashes were melted down and sent in the form of ingots to the Reichsbank for the special Max Heiliger deposit account."

Oswald Pohl formed a limited company called Eastern Industries or Osti to manage the ghetto and labour camp work shops. It has been argued that Pohl's policies prevented the deaths of thousands of concentration camp inmates. Rudolf W. Hess complained that "every new labour camp and every additional thousand workers increased the risk that one day they might be set free or somehow continue to remain alive". Reinhard Heydrich attempted to sabotage this enterprise by arranging for large numbers of Jews to be taken directly to extermination camps.

In a speech made on 4th October, 1943, to members of the Schutzstaffel (SS), Himmler argued: "One basic principle must be the absolute rule for the SS men - we must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood and to nobody else. What happens to a Russian or to a Czech does not interest me in the slightest. What the nations can offer in the way of good blood of our type we will take, if necessary by kidnapping their children and raising them here with us. Whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death interests me only so far as we need them as slaves for our culture; otherwise, it is of no interest to me. Whether ten thousand Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an antitank ditch interests me only so far as the antitank ditch for Germany is finished. We shall never be rough and heartless when it is not necessary, that is clear. We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude toward animals, will also assume a decent attitude toward these human animals."

Louis L. Snyder has pointed out: "Himmler expanded the SS from three to thirty-five divisions, until it rivaled the SS from three to thirty-five divisions, until it rivaled the Wehrmacht itself. Made Minister of the Interior on August 25, 1943, he strengthened his grip on the civil service and the courts. Meanwhile, he enlarged the concentration camps and the extermination camps, organized a supply of expendable labor, and the authorized pseudomedical experiments in the camps... On July 21, 1944, Hitler made him supreme commander of the Volkssturm defending the German capital and the chief of the Werwolf unit that was expected to carry on a last-ditch fight in the Bavarian mountains." By June 1944 the SS had over 800,000 members: Hitler's Body Guard (200,000) Waffen (594,000) and Death Head Units (24,000).

In April 1944 Oswald Pohl, chief of the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office, issued orders to camp commanders: "Work must be, in the true sense of the world, exhausting in order to obtain maximum output... The hours of work are not limited. The duration depends on the technical structure of the camp and the work to be done and is determined by the camp Kommandant alone." One inmate of Auschwitz complained that Pohl was guilty of "the systematic and implacable urge to use human beings as slaves and to kill them when they could work no more."

Heavy bombing of the camps further damaged production. Peter Padfield, the author of Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991) points out that Himmler suggested a possible solution to the problem: "Himmler urged Pohl to build factories for the production of war materials in natural caves and underground tunnels immune to enemy bombing, and instructed him to hollow out workshop and factory space in all SS stone quarries, suggesting that by the summer of 1944 they should have ... the greatest possible number of such 'uniquely bomb-proof work sites'... Pohl's Works' Department chief, Brigadeführer Hans Kammler, succeeded in creating underground workshops and living quarters from a cave system in the Harz mountains in central Germany."

Wolf Sendele was captured by the United States Army in May 1945 and as a member of the SS he was forced to clear up the recently liberated concentration camp at St Georgen, a subsidiary camp of Mauthausen. Sendele thought that these camps were only for political prisoners like Ernest Thalmann and other members of the German Communist Party (KPD): "We knew well enough that these camps existed, detention camps, or whatever they were called, and that political opponents were being incarcerated. We were never quite clear why. God knows, the crimes themselves were not serious enough to remove a man from his house and home. But you thought to yourself - it's just a temporary measure, they'll put them away in a camp for three or four weeks, and then let them go again, when they've established that they're just harmless fellows - not like Thalmann (leader of the German Communist Party - KPD) or people who were real agitators."

Sendele was shocked when he discovered that the camps had been used to kill Jews. "In this camp they had also locked up children, and I feel the Americans were right to make us see it, and this is still my point of view today when people doubt the figure of five or six million Jews dead or try and make a comparison with the number of German soldiers who died in the war; or who say that two million Germans died after the capitulation in May 1945, my only reply can be that if it was only the eight children that I saw there it was the greatest shame of all time".

At the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial the Schutzstaffel (SS) was declared a criminal organization and a large number of its leaders were executed.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (1970)

After 1933 there quickly formed various rival factions that held divergent views, spied on each other, and held each other in contempt. A mixture of scorn and dislike became the prevailing mood within the party. Each new dignitary rapidly gathered a circle of intimates around him. Thus Himmler associated almost exclusively with his SS following, from whom he could count on unqualified respect. Goering also had his band of uncritical admirers, consisting partly of members of his family, partly of his closest associates and adjutants. Goebbels felt at ease in the company of literary and movie people. Hess occupied himself with problems of homeopathic medicine, loved chamber music, and had screwy but interesting acquaintances.

As an intellectual Goebbels looked down on the crude philistines of the leading group in Munich, who for their part made fun of the conceited academic's literary ambitions. Goering considered neither the Munich philistines nor Goebbels sufficiently aristocratic for him and therefore avoided all social relations with them; whereas Himmler, filled with the elitist missionary zeal of the SS felt far superior to all the others. Hitler, too, had his retinue, which went everywhere with him. Its membership, consisting of chauffeurs, the photographer, his pilot, and secretaries, remained always the same.

(2) The Manchester Guardian (16th January 1937)

Two thousand 'S.S.' (Blackshirts) have been assembled at Munich and are about to leave for Spain. The assembled 'military division' of the SS are a fully trained and equipped military formation, 30,000 or 60,000 strong, and have the value of a Regular Army. Their function in case of war is chiefly the maintenance of order at home - this, as the German authorities conceive it, is a military task, for the menace of rebellion at home is reckoned with as the accompaniment of war abroad.

The reason why SS and not Regulars (Reichswehr) are being sent to Spain would seem to be, partly at least, that they are to gain experience in street fighting. The 2,000 men have been withdrawn from various 'divisions' of the SS and tanks have been assigned to them. They are to go via Austria to Italy, and will embark for Spain at an Italian port.

There is some discontent in the SS because their men are being sent to Spain as 'volunteers'. A good deal of grumbling is heard, and some SS men have been saying that the Regulars ought to go to Spain because 'that is what they are there for'.

The fact that German troops are fighting on the side of the Spanish rebels is becoming more and more widely known in Germany, in spite of the recent official German denial that there is a single German soldier in Spain. Reports of German casualties are spreading and have, no doubt, influenced the attitude of the SS.

(3) A truck driver witnessed the killing of Jews by the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) at Babi Yar in the Soviet Union in September 1941.

One day I was instructed to drive my truck outside the town. I was accompanied by a Ukrainian. It must have been about ten o'clock. On the way there we overtook Jews carrying luggage marching on foot in the same direction that we were traveling. There were whole families. The farther we got out of town the denser the columns became. Piles of clothing lay in a large open field. These piles of clothing were my destination. The Ukrainian showed me how to get in there.

After we had stopped in the area near the piles of clothes the truck was immediately loaded up with clothing. This was carried out by Ukrainians. I watched what happened when the Jews - men, women and children - arrived. The Ukrainians led them past a number of different places where one after the other they had to remove their luggage, then their coats, shoes and overgarments and also underwear. They also had to leave their valuables in a designated place. There was a special pile for each article of clothing. It all happened very quickly and anyone who hesitated was kicked or pushed by the Ukrainians to keep them moving. I don't think it was even a minute from the time each Jew took off his coat before he was standing there completely naked. No distinction was made between men, women and children. One would have thought that the Jews that came later would have had a chance to turn back when they saw the others in front of them having to undress. It still surprises me today that this did not happen.

Once undressed, the Jews were led into a ravine which was about 150 meters long, 30 meters wide and a good 15 meters deep. Two or three narrow entrances led to this ravine through which the Jews were channeled. When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzpolizei and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot. This all happened very quickly The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun at the spot where he was lying. When the Jews reached the ravine they were so shocked by the horrifying scene that they completely lost their will. It may even have been that the Jews themselves lay down in rows to wait to be shot.

There were only two marksmen carrying out the executions. One of them was working at one end of the ravine, the other at the other end. I saw these marksmen stand on the layers of corpses and shoot one after the other. The moment one Jew had been killed, the marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew, who had meanwhile lain down, and shoot him. It went on in this way uninterruptedly, with no distinction being made between men, women and children. The children were kept with their mothers and shot with them.

(4) Heinrich Himmler, speech to Schutzstaffel (SS) officers at Poznan (4th October, 1943)

In the months that have gone by since we met in June 1942 many of our comrades were killed, giving their lives for Germany and the Fuhrer. In the first rank - and I ask you to rise in his honor and in honor of all our dead SS men, soldiers, men, and women - in the first rank our old comrade and friend from our ranks, SS Lieutenant General Eicke. [The SS Gruppenfiihrers have risen from their seats.] Please be seated.

One basic principle must be the absolute rule for the SS men - we must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood and to nobody else. What happens to a Russian or to a Czech does not interest me in the slightest. What the nations can offer in the way of good blood of our type we will take, if necessary by kidnapping their children and raising them here with us. Whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death interests me only so far as we need them as slaves for our culture; otherwise, it is of no interest to me. Whether ten thousand Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an antitank ditch interests me only so far as the antitank ditch for Germany is finished. We shall never be rough and heartless when it is not necessary, that is clear. We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude toward animals, will also assume a decent attitude toward these human animals.

I also want to talk to you, quite frankly, on a very grave matter. Among ourselves it should be mentioned quite frankly, and we will never speak of it publicly. Just as we did not hesitate on 30 June 1934 to do the duty we were bidden and stand comrades who had lapsed up against the wall and shoot them, so we have never spoken about it and will never speak of it. It was that tact which is a matter of course and which I am glad to say, inherent in us, that made us never discuss it among ourselves, nor speak of it. It appalled everyone, and yet everyone was certain that he would do it the next time if such orders are issued and if it is necessary.

I mean the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish race. It's one of those things it is easy to talk about, "The Jewish race is being exterminated," says one party member, "that's quite clear, it's in our program-elimination of the Jews and we're doing it, exterminating them" And then they come to me, eighty million worthy Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. Of course the others are vermin, but this one is an A-1 Jew. Not one of all those who talk this way has watched it, not one of them has gone through it. Most of you must know what it means when one hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred, or one thousand. To have stuck it out and at the same time - apart from exceptions caused by human weakness - to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written, for we know how difficult we should have made it for ourselves, if with the bombing raids, the burdens and the deprivations of war we still had Jews today in every town as secret saboteurs, agitators, and troublemakers. We would now probably have reached the 1916-1917 stage when the Jews were still in the German national body.

(5) Lieutenant Colonel Richard Schulze-Kossens, who fought with the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler in Poland in 1939, was interviewed by Andrew Mollo in 1981.

Let me say as a soldier I condemn all crimes regardless of who committed them, whether by us or by others, and that includes the crimes committed against captured SS men after the capitulation. But I make no reproaches in that respect. I am not recriminating, I only want to say that in war, amongst the mass of soldiers, there are always elements who develop criminal tendencies, and I can only condemn them. I would not say that the Waffen-SS was typically criminal, but there are well-known incidents. I don't want to excuse anything, but I must say one thing which is, that it is natural in war, during hot and heavy fighting, for young officers to sometimes lose their nerve. I want to mention one example of this, Tulle in France, where a company found the bodies of sixty German soldiers who had not been killed in action but murdered. There they lie wounded and mutilated, and then in an instant there is a desire for revenge and they lose their nerve. But if I have to mention other crimes - war crimes, then let me mention Oradour. The Division in question had seventy companies and, because of partisans, one company often found itself fighting civilians and got into a situation which would have led to the commander being court-martialled, had he not been killed in action. I am not excusing this at all, and anyway nothing can be done about it, only war does generate inhuman impulses which might overwhelm someone who carries too great a responsibility at too young an age...

I was then sent to thirteen different camps where in all honesty I must say the prisoners were badly treated. I was beaten. I was handcuffed, put into a jeep and taken twice to Nuremberg as a defence witness. During our first year of imprisonment the treatment was so bad that it didn't conform to the Geneva Convention. Bearing in mind that we had been taken prisoner in Germany it was only after five months that we were allowed to write to our families. Half the camp was undernourished and I had to start a hunger strike. I think we were subjected to special treatment, because the Americans thought we were the hard cases, but in 1946-1947 things began to get better.

(6) Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz (1951)

This mass extermination, with all its attendant circumstances, did not, as I know, fail to affect those who took part in it. With very few exceptions, nearly all those detailed to do this monstrous "work," and who, like myself, have given sufficient thought to the matter, have been deeply marked by these events.

Many of the men involved approached me as I went my rounds through the extermination buildings, and poured out their anxieties and impressions to me, in the hope that I could allay them.

Again and again during these confidential conversations I was asked; is it necessary that we do this? Is it necessary that hundreds of thousands of women and children be destroyed? And I, who in my innermost being had on countless occasions asked myself exactly this question, could only fob them off and attempt to console them by repeating that it was done on Hitler's order. I had to tell them that this extermination of Jews had to be, so that Germany and our posterity might be freed for ever from their relentless adversaries.

There was no doubt in the mind of any of us that Hitler's order had to be obeyed regardless, and that it was the duty of the SS to carry it out. Nevertheless we were all tormented by secret doubts.

(7) Studs Terkel interviewed the photographer Walter Rosenblum about his experiences during the Second World War for his book, The Good War (1985)

Photographers were very privileged. We had a pass signed by General Elsenhower, which said we could go anywhere we wanted and do anything we felt like. If an MP said you can't go into a restricted area, we'd just flash this pass.

We came to Munich with Patton. There was a firefight between Americans and SS troops in a square. It looked as though it were a Wild West movie scenario. Only it was real. I was, somehow, with the Forty-second Division. The Americans were taking a tremendous beating. But they were battle-hardened, had lost a lot of guys, and were not to be trifled with. The SS troops surrendered.

It was - in the back of a courtyard. I sat down on a long bench against the wall. It was like a stage set. They put the Germans against the wall. I was sitting with a single-lens Eimo up near my eye. There were about three or four Americans with tommy submachine guns. They killed all the Germans. Shot 'em all. I filmed the whole sequence. I still wasn't that battle-hardened, and I thought they did the wrong thing. The Germans were quite brave. They sensed what was happening and they just stood there.

I said. Now what do I do with this film? Do I throw it away? It upset me somehow. It may not have upset me later on after I'd seen what happened. I sent it back to the army and got back my regular critique: This film could not be screened due to laboratory difficulties.