‘The Most Ruthless Force?’ Reassessing the role of the Waffen SS 1933-45. Part II

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II. Training and ethos.
The training that Waffen SS recruits received also ensured that the armed SS remained part of Himmler’s police empire. The Reichsführer was adamant that the Waffen SS, under the military inspectorate, would not drift towards a position where it was indistinguishable from the army. Accordingly, only those who were already well-versed in Nazi idealism were accepted as recruits: ‘Every pure-blooded German in good health [can] become a member. He must be of excellent character, have no criminal record, and be an ardent adherent to all National Socialist doctrines. Members of the Streifendienst and of the Hitler Youth will be given preference because their aptitudes and schooling are indicative that they have become acquainted with the ideology of the SS’.

Once accepted, the young Nazi idealist was subjected to further indoctrination from the SS troop commander and his counterpart at the RSHA. Himmler explained: ‘I ask you to guide them, and not let them go before they are saturated with our spirit and are fighting as the old guard fought. We have only one task, to stand firm and carry on the racial struggle without mercy’. A document from the 1st SS Cavalry Regiment declared: ‘ideological indoctrination cannot be achieved with one lecture a week. It must take place at all times and everywhere’. This meant that the recruit was subjected to the tenets of Nazism during maneuvers, roll calls and even during meal times. An indication of the power of the SS ideological instruction is demonstrated in the fact that by 1938 53.6 % of the SSVT had been persuaded to leave the church, while by May 1940 only four men in the entire Totenkopf division had not renounced Christianity. The Reichsführer saw the churches as culturally stabilizing institutions that preached the ‘un-German’ message of tolerance and peace.

Ideology would teach fanaticism and hate for Germany’s enemies. In November 1943 the commander of the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg demanded that ‘every man should be trained to be a fanatical hater. It does not matter on which front the division is engaged, the unyielding hate towards every opponent, Englishmen, Jew, Bolshevik, must make every one of our men capable of the highest deeds’. SS commanders realized that the basics of Nazi ideology, repeatedly drilled into the recruit, were vital in making their troops fight harder. The steadfastness of the Waffen SS during a critical phase of the war in 1943-45, strengthened this conviction.

Indoctrination in the principles of racial hatred was not enough. The members had to be ready and willing tools, prepared to carry out tasks of any nature, however distasteful. Absolute obedience was therefore the necessary foundation stone of the SS: ‘Obedience must be unconditional. It corresponds to the conviction that the National Socialist ideology must reign supreme. He who is possessed by it and fights for it passionately subjects himself voluntarily to the obligation to obey. Every SS man is prepared, therefore, to carry out blindly every order which is issued by the Führer’.

Individual citizens are normally able to interpret loyalty within the framework of legal norms, but the SS declaration of loyalty to Hitler meant a renunciation of any freedom of choice. The situations and actions in which the loyalty of the armed SS man was to be called upon was therefore relegated to Hitler’s orders. He demanded that the SS man place himself and his trust in the rightness of his decisions. This meant that murdering the regime’s opponents or fighting bravely at the front was justified as it was part of what has been called ‘working towards the Führer’, the attempt by various agencies, in this case the SS, to interpret what they supposed was Hitler’s will. The belief that Hitler was the incarnation of the German people and its values and the belief in the correctness of his mission, enabled all kinds of actions to occur in the name of loyalty. To refuse to carry out unsavoury acts like mass murder, which Himmler supposed were the Führer’s will, was to reject one’s position in the SS.

We can learn much from the instruction used by Eicke among his Death’s Head guards, the nucleus of the Totenkopf Division. Training began with the history of the NSDAP. Just as the party had fought to free Germany from the Jews, the armed SS were to be an extension of this activism to the front-line soldiery. The second area of training involved racial and historical beliefs, while the third required an analysis of the enemies of Nazism; the Jews, Bolsheviks, Freemasons and Churches. The essence of this indoctrination was threefold. In Eicke’s camps the recruit was drilled to obey orders without question. He learned to hate the ‘enemies behind the wire’ as subhumans. Finally, he acquired a sense of camaraderie built around the theme that the Totenkopfverbande, with the role of guarding the most dangerous enemies of the state, constituted an elite within the SS. When the camp guards became the core of a new division these themes went with them with two variations. The ‘enemy behind the wire’ became the racial foe beyond the frontier and the concept of Totenkopf elitism grew to incorporate the military virtues of self-sacrifice and contempt for cowardice. In Russia, the Totenkopf’s experience in the camps suited the savage nature of the war. The Soviet soldier was depicted as a Jewish-Bolshevik animal who personified the most dangerous enemies. The ethnic identity and vicious resistance of the Russians reinforced this image. With their own indifference to hardship and hatred of the enemy, the Totenkopf developed a lust for killing Russians and fought with a corresponding tenacity.

The Waffen SS troops were taught a distorted view of the past, one based on racial struggle and ‘Lebensraum’. The past provided a sense of continuity and showed the recruit that the Jews and Slavs had always been the enemies of Germany. This meant that the need for living space and a solution to the ‘Jewish question’ was deemed to be inevitable, the culmination of an ancient and mortal struggle. This SS ‘world-view’ allowed crimes to be committed and partly explains Waffen SS atrocities since men who felt right was on their side were prepared to use their military instruments with fewer scruples than those who felt obliged to uphold Christian or Prussian codes of honour. At the same time ideological training was responsible for making the SS soldier fight with great tenacity. Men who had been taught to regard racial struggle as the most vital part of life appointed ‘a more fundamental meaning to the basics of tactics and to the demands of combat or weapons training than those who viewed this as necessary skills for the soldier’s task’.

This indoctrination was the same for all SS men and allowed Himmler to ideologically unite all the branches of his empire. For the Reichsführer, an armed SS man was the same as an SD man or camp guard, the only difference was that they fought the racial enemy in different spheres. The SS stressed from the very beginning of the war that duty in the camps was no less soldierly than service at the front. Both were vital if the physical survival of the German race was to be guaranteed. This ideological outlook explains why Waffen SS men could be transferred to different branches. Paul Werner-Hope of the Totenkopf commanded an infantry battalion in Russia, but after being wounded in July 1942 he was transferred to the guard detachment at Auschwitz. For Himmler this is how it should have been, the ideal SS man, trained ideologically to serve in all spheres. Hausser and Steiner may have seen a distinction between their military role and the racial-political tasks of the rest of the SS, but there was no such distinction in the minds of the SS leadership.

At the centre of the Waffen SS training process was the Junker Cadet School. These training establishments produced the officer cadre of many of the elite SS divisions. The key role of the schools is demonstrated by the fact that the majority of Knight’s Crosses awarded to Waffen SS officers were those made to graduates of the schools. The ideological position that we have outlined above was combined at Bad Tölz and Brunswick schools with a sense of superiority, leadership instinct, aggressiveness, willingness to obey and a preparedness to take responsibility. However, despite the training and ideologically radical methods used to produce political soldiers, the schools failed to produce anything better than the old soldier Hausser. The pupils were not strategic thinkers and few graduates rose to the highest rank of officer. Indeed, before 1938 some 40% of entrants had received no more than elementary education. Their importance was as leaders who saw themselves as embodying a particular concept of political soldiery in everyday troop matters, such as performance and espirit de corps.

At the battalion and company level the Junker graduates were formidable, but brutal, leaders. Kurt Meyer, holder of the Knight’s Cross and commander of the Leibstandarte’s reconnaissance battalion, is a good example. During the invasion of Greece, a detachment of the Leibstandarte attempted to take the Klissura Pass on 12 May 1941. As the Leibstandarte attacked they were pinned down and forced to take cover. Meyer ordered his men forward, but the fire was so heavy that they refused. Shouting to his men to ensure they were watching, he pulled the pin out of a grenade and rolled it behind the rearmost man. The spell was broken and the SS dashed forward away from the grenade. Ignoring the Greek fire, they soon took the pass. Meyer demonstrated the vigour and brutality of the schools’ pupils when he told a comrade that ‘my regiment takes no prisoners’. Clearly, studying examinations with titles like ‘The ideological opponents of the concept of the Reich and the measures needed to counter them’ or ‘Why our struggle in the East is the fulfillment of a historical task’ had made their mark on Meyer. By July 1944 every third regiment or battalion commander with the rank of Sturmbann or Obersturmbanführer was a Junker graduate.

The schools clearly demonstrated the integration of the armed SS with the SS structure. Bad Tölz trained men for units outside the Waffen SS. Of the 1138 graduates in 1939, 54% were sent to front line units, the rest to reserve units, General SS and SD units. As we have seen, the ideology learnt at the schools was the same for all SS men and they could be sent for duties with any part of the organization. However, as the war progressed and casualty rates increased, this link with the pre-war SS did decline to some extent. The graduates that emerged in the latter part of the war had less ideological training. With the outbreak of war one can detect a shift towards combat subjects in the Bad Tölz curriculum. To what extent these men were less ‘ideologically complete’ is unclear. It is certainly true that as the war progressed Himmler believed that the Waffen SS leadership was becoming more militaristic in attitude.

The heterogeneous composition of the Waffen SS in the early years meant that there was an uneven level of military performance. For example, the officer cadre of SS Standarte Deutschland in 1938 contained retired policemen, veterans from the Great War, officers from the General SS and Junker graduates. As a result a high level of military training was required for SS troops. There accordingly emerged a new form of military tactics under men like Steiner. From the outset the system promoted combat training and maneuvers at the expense of traditional drill. The focus was on battlefield tactics and independently thinking officers and NCOs. An SS recruit might be told to dig himself into the ground knowing that within a prescribed time tanks would drive over his head, whether the hole was completed or not. A new form of soldiery emerged. Steiner’s troops could cover three kilometres in full kit in twenty minutes; such a thing was unheard of in the army. Rigid formality and class structure between officers and other ranks were frowned upon. An officer held down his position only because he had proven himself a better soldier than his men, not because of any rank in society or superior education. In sports and exercise, one of the vital cogs in the Waffen SS training programme, officers and men competed as equals in an atmosphere that sponsored team work and mutual respect.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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