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The Schutzstaffel (SS) was subdivided into the Allgemeine (General or Political)-SS and Waffen (or Armed)-SS. The latter were distinguished by receiving military as well as political training, although many Allgemeine-SS men were also well-trained reservists. The prefix “Waffen” in a unit’s formal designation additionally referenced an initial plurality of foreign volunteers in that unit. All ethnic German units were at first designated “SS-Division.” However, the term “Waffen” came to be applied over time to all armed SS-divisions. It is used that way by most historians and in this work.

Originally designated “SS-Verfügunstruppen” (SS-combat troops, or “Special Use Troops,” or SS-VT), the armed wing of the SS was set up on a minor scale with the Adolf Hitler bodyguard unit Leibstandarte-SS (“Adolf Hitler”) founded by Heinrich Himmler and Josef Dietrich in March 1931. The SS-VT began small by joining veterans from scattered “police readiness detachments” (“Politische Bereitschaften”) with surplus officers drawn from ranks of the Freikorps or old Reichswehr. Hitler intended the new armed force to serve as his instrument of internal, Nazi Party discipline and control. It was Himmler who took the SS-VT in a new direction, beyond Party or national police functions to form an elite Nazi private army. He did so only slowly at first and over persistent objections from the Wehrmacht. Hitler was also cautious, not wishing to alienate the professional military. He only conceded and confirmed Himmler’s scheme in a Führer decree issued on August 17, 1938, formally recognizing the SS-VT as a separate force from the Wehrmacht and compelling the military to recognize SS ranks. The SS-VT was renamed “Waffen-SS” when the original SS-VT units and SS concentration camp guards units, or Totenkopfverbände, were fused. On September 1, 1939, there were only three armed or Waffen-SS regiments comprising fewer than 9,000 men. However, SS formations quickly expanded and new ones were added to form a Nazi private army run separately from the Wehrmacht both administratively and in terms of recruitment. It eventually grew to force of 38 divisions during World War II, including several elite armored or SS-Panzer divisions and corps. From the beginning, Waffen-SS units were subordinated to Wehrmacht commanders and armies in the field. That relationship did not change until the final year of the war, after the July Plot reinforced Hitler’s suspicions of the Wehrmacht. In 1945 a handful of Waffen-SS officers were elevated to command positions over Wehrmacht divisions, but most proved to have also risen above their skill levels. As a result, the Waffen-SS never supplanted the Wehrmacht as the main German fighting force.

The Waffen-SS evolved as ideological and battlefield shock troops, eventually becoming a somewhat pampered (better transport, weapons, men, and supplies) rival to the Wehrmacht for the best recruits. Reflecting an overall emphasis on ideological zeal and training, some Waffen-SS troops exhibited a marked “Einsatzfreude,” or love of combat. This was highly rewarded. All Waffen-SS units were initially viewed with deep suspicion by the officer corps of the Wehrmacht. That attitude shifted as field commanders realized the fighting power of SS-divisions. Still, Hitler remained wary of Himmler’s ambitions and remained highly sensitive to Wehrmacht objections to SS recruiting of the best men. He therefore limited Waffen-SS numbers until later in the war, when he grew to emphasize and rely more on the Nazi zeal of Waffen-SS units over professionalism of officers and even men of the Wehrmacht, whom he increasingly despised. Because of early limits on permitted recruiting of ethnic Germans, Waffen-SS enlistees were drawn from all over the Nazi empire. Initially, they were closely screened according to utterly specious criteria of “racial purity” imposed by Himmler and other SS crackpots: SS-men were expected to be “blood pure” to 1800, while officers had to “prove” racial purity dating to 1750. As casualties rose over the closing months of the war Himmler diluted SS “racial standards” in a scramble to recruit fresh cannon fodder. Thus, the concept of volksdeutsch was rather desperately extended to include Croatian and other non-German fascists.

Leibstandarte-SS was supplemented by two new divisions from October 1939: “Das Reich” (“Empire”) and “Totenkopf” (“Death’s Head”). The original three Waffen-SS motorized divisions were given tanks and half-tracks during 1940- 1941, and thus were converted into SS-Panzer divisions for the coming fight in the east. Four more elite Panzer divisions were formed later: “Frundsberg” (originally, “Karl der Grosse,” but renamed for a 16th-century Landsknechte leader); “Hitlerjungend” (“Hitler Youth”); “Hohenstaufen” (named for the ancient dynasty); and the Nordic volunteer division “Wiking” (“Viking”). SS-Totenkopf division was formed by concentration camp guards. It and other Waffen-SS divisions were implicated in numerous atrocities against military prisoners and civilians. The record included atrocities in France in May 1940, in which hundreds of black prisoners were butchered by men of SS-Totenkopf and Leibstandarte-SS. Later in the war Waffen-SS men distinguished themselves with more atrocities in the West, including massacres of French civilians at Oradour-sur-Glane, Canadian prisoners in Normandy, and American prisoners at Malmédy in Belgium. But the worst offenses occurred on the Eastern Front, starting in Poland in 1939 and continuing into western Russia from 1941. In those benighted lands the Waffen-SS murdered on a scale that dwarfed SS atrocities in France or Italy. Waffen-SS strength reached 100,000 men by June 1940, 230,000 in January 1942, 594,000 men in June 1944, and a peak of 910,000 men in 38 divisions in October 1944. Many Waffen-SS units were shattered by then, badly undermanned and underequipped and reeling in defeat. Another 97 sundry regiments were created; some were real, others partially formed, a few existed solely on paper. Most of these regiments were of cavalry, grenadiers, or Panzergrenadiers. Not all late-war SS-men were volunteers, though all recruits still had to meet superior height and other physical requirements.

Four SS-divisions were organized as Panzergrenadiers. Thereafter, new SSdivisions were all infantry formations. Notable SS-divisions took “honor titles” that reflected their initial deployment or base of recruitment. These included: “Nord” (“North”) and “Norland” (“Northland”), reflecting mainly Scandinavian volunteers and early combat deployment; “Reichsführer-SS,” recruited initially from Himmler’s bodyguard; and “Handschar” (“Scimitar”), referencing that division’s Bosnian-Croatian Muslim cohort. A second Bosnian division, “Kama,” and a discrete Albanian Muslim division, “Skanderbeg,” were established in 1944. Other Muslim troops in the SS came from the Caucasus and Central Asia. The plenitude of Muslims testified to SS indifference to religious belief as long as it was not Jewish, but even more too growing manpower needs as the war deepened. The three Muslim divisions saw some combat but were mostly used as garrison troops in the areas in which they were raised. Seeing far more fighting were two Ukrainian SS divisions. Also thrown into hard fighting were SS-divisions of Walloons (“Wallonian”), Flemings, (“Langemarck” and “Westland”), Dutch (“Nederland”), Italians (“Italia” and “Legione SS-Italiana”), Hungarians (“Hunyadi” and “Hungaria”), one French division (“Charlemagne”), along with mixed Russian and Belorussian divisions, diverse Baltic divisions, and a German police division (“35th SS-Polizei”). Alongside former police, there was also a brigade of criminals that was later elevated to a division: 36th Waffen-SS Division or “Dirlewanger.” It was predictably murderous and savage in antipartisan sweeps and during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

In addition to whole units organized by ethnic origin, Germans or “Germanics” of “pure Nordic blood,” ideological or opportunistic recruits, served in many Waffen-SS outfits. They came from the smaller Axis states of Croatia, Slovakia, as well as the Czech lands, but also from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belorussia, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Rumania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, “Turkestan,” and Ukraine. Waffen-SS volunteers thus came from all over Europe, a fact used in propaganda to portray the Waffen-SS as an army defending European civilization against “Jewish-Bolshevism.” An effort was even made to recruit British prisoners of war to fight on the Eastern Front in January 1944. Only 57 agreed to do so. Organized as the “St. Georgs-Legion” (Legion of St. George) or “Britisches Freikorps” (“British Free Corps”), this merely platoon-sized unit served a propaganda function only. While often reported as having fought in Berlin in April 1945, there is no evidence the tiny band of deluded Englishmen ever saw combat. Indian troops were absorbed into the Waffen-SS in 1944, forming the “Indische Freiwilligen Legion.” At the start of 1945 the international Waffen-SS was a hodgepodge of units of varying nationality, competence, and loyalty. It hardly resembled Heinrich Himmler’s original vision of new elite guard of the “Aryan Volk.” In a further compromise of SS principles, while no ethnic German Waffen-SS unit was allowed military chaplains foreign SS units were permitted clerics: Muslim SS-divisions had imams, Baltic divisions were served by Lutheran pastors, and Catholic priests traveled with Flanders divisions.

Unit-for-unit, Waffen-SS divisions saw less combat than comparable Heer divisions. Some fought only partisans, which was often a euphemism for killing Jews or starving peasants, while others served solely in backwater garrison duty. No Waffen-SS unit was used in defending fixed fortifications or trapped in mid-war mass surrenders at Stalingrad or El Alamein. Two SS-Panzerarmee and 18 SS-Panzer Korps were formed at different times from various Waffen-SS divisions and regiments. At its peak the Waffen-SS was a major force of 910,000 men, of whom 60 percent were non-Germans. All SS-units were badly ravaged by the end of March 1945. Some SS- divisions were destroyed and wholly reformed, several more than once. All others were reduced to their last men and tanks, and bereft of transport by the end. Waffen-SS units were scattered across central Europe during the last months of the war, from the Austrian border through Hungary, from the Elbe to the Rhine. Many of the foreign volunteers were killed during the conquest of Germany, fighting to the last in and around Berlin. Upon the failure of 6th SS-Panzerarmee to hold Vienna in April 1945, Hitler turned on Himmler and the Waffen-SS, stripping whole divisions of cuff insignia and other battle honors after they were already decimated fighting for his cause. By the end of the war at least 253,000 Waffen-SS were dead or missing in action. Hundreds of thousands more were wounded.

DIETRICH, SEPP (1892-1966) Schutzstaffel (SS) general. German Schutzstaffel (SS) general and commander of Leibstandarte, a bodyguard unit responsible for Adolf Hitler’s personal safety. Born on 28 May 1892 in Hawangen, Bavaria, Josef Dietrich volunteered for the army in 1914 and became a crewman in one of Germany’s first tanks. After the war, Dietrich was active in the Freikorps before joining the National Socialist Party and the SS in 1928. He was selected as one of Hitler’s bodyguards and was in charge of the buildup of the Leibstandarte. In the Blood Purge of July 1934, Dietrich led an execution squad in the elimination of the leadership of the Sturmabteilung (SA, Storm Troopers).

In early 1940, Dietrich received command of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), which became a panzergrenadier division in 1942. With it he took part in the invasions of France, Greece, and the Soviet Union. When the western Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944, Dietrich commanded the 1st SS Panzer Corps, and in September Hitler gave him command of the Sixth SS Panzer Army. Dietrich was awarded the Reich’s highest decoration, the Diamonds to the Iron Cross, and in August 1944 he was promoted to the rank of Oberstgruppenführer. His army played an important part in the December 1944 Ardennes Offensive, but it was unable to realize Hitler’s far-reaching expectations.

Dietrich then fought on the Eastern Front. His last offensive, which was in Hungary during March 1945, failed. Dietrich, to that point the prototype of the National Socialist soldier, lost Hitler’s confidence because he questioned Hitler’s directives and ordered the retreat of his exhausted troops.

After the war, Dietrich was found guilty of being responsible for the execution of U. S. prisoners of war (the Malmédy trial) and was sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment. Dietrich served only 10 years, but he was later arrested again and charged for murders committed in 1934. He was sentenced to only 18 months in prison. Dietrich died at Ludwigsburg on 21 April 1966.

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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