August 18, 2014

Origins of the Waffen-SS

In July 1921 Hitler became the first president of the NSDAP. With the assistance of Ernst Röhm the party established its paramilitary branch. Initially former members of No. 19 Trench Mortar Company under Captain Streck were employed to guard the party’s meetings. These men formed the base of what later became the Sturmabteilung-SA.
Stabswache, 1925
1. Stabwache, 1925. From left to right: Julius Scaub, Julius Schreck,
Adolf Hitler, Hans Georg Maurer and Edmund Schneider.

While the SA expanded Hitler was becoming uneasy of their loyalty. In March 1923 appeared a hard core of SA men who had sworn to protect Hitler from all enemies even from inside the party. The new unit was called the Stabswache – Headquarters Guard. Its members wore field-grey overcoats, black ski-caps with a silver death’s head button and black-bordered swastika armbands. The Stabswache didn’t live long, but created a pattern.

After his release from prison Hitler asked his companion and chauffer Julius Schreck to create a new bodyguard. It would be called Schutzstaffel-SS. Later on it was decided that every local party organization should set up an SS unit of few selected men. An SS premier of the time declared: “We carry the death’s head on our black cap as a warning to our enemies and an indication to our Führer that we will sacrifice our lives for his concept.” On January 6, 1929 Hitler selected Heinrich Himmler as the new SS commander. Under his leadership the Schutzstaffel became a state within a state, affecting almost every aspect of life in the Third Reich.

Hitler inspecting his Leibstandarte at its barracks
2. Hitler inspecting his Leibstandarte at its barracks (Lichterfelde-Berlin). December 17, 1935.

On 30 January 1933 Hitler became chancellor. At his orders Josef “Sepp” Dietrich formed the Führer’s new bodyguard; a 117 men strong unit named “SS Headquarters Guard Berlin”. The new unit grew into regimental size and on 3 September 1933 it was named Adolf Hitler Standarte.” On April 13, 1934 the title was changed to Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. “ The Leibstandarte played a prominent role in the “Night of the Long Knives” which brought the downfall of the SA.

With Röhm gone Himmler initiated his plans for a party armed force, independent of the Wehrmacht. Of course this new political army would belong to his own SS empire. As he put it in a later degree: “Neither a part of the armed forces, nor the police, but a standing unit at the disposal of Adolf Hitler.”  This new formation came from the amalgamation of existing SS Political Readiness Units (Politische Bereitschaften) and was named SS-Verfügungstruppe (Special Purpose Units) or SS-VT. The expansion of the SS-VT was slow, mainly because the army saw in them a competitor in sources and personnel. SS-Regiment “Deutschland” was established in September 1935, SS-Regiment “Germania” in 1936 and SS-Regiment “Der Führer” in 1938, in Austria. Signal, pioneer, reconnaissance and artillery units followed later. The military training of the SS-VT was improved significantly under the direction of ex-General Paul Hausser, who joined the SS in 1934.

Another group of paramilitary units were the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV); the notorious concentration camp guards. In mid-1939 the SS-TV was a sizeable force of 22,033 men. After the Polish campaign Himmler, wishing to expand the SS army, decided to form a new unit from personnel and reservists of the SS-TV. Theodor Eicke, the SS-TV long time commander and organizer of the concentration camp system, assumed command of this new unit, which was named: SS-Totenkopf-Division. In February 1940 the term Waffen-SS was officially adopted to designate the new military entity.

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Butler, Rupert. SS-Leibstandarte, The History of the First SS Division 1933-1945. St. Paul, MN: MBI, 2001.
Höhne, Heinz. The Order of the Death’s Head. London: Secker & Warburg, 1969.
Quassowski, Hans. Twelve Years with Hitler, A History of 1. Kompanie Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler 1933 - 1945. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1999.
Sydnor, Jr., Charles W. Soldiers of Destruction, The SS Death’s Head Division, 1933-1945. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Ullrich, Karl. Like a Cliff in the Ocean, The History of the 3. SS-Panzer-Division “Totenkopf.” Winnipeg: J.J. Fedorowicz, 2002.
Weidinger, Otto. Das Reich I 1934 - 1939. Winnipeg: J.J. Fedorowicz, 1990.

Photos attribution
1. Erhard Heiden, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-17311/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons