January 15, 2003

What is the SS? (part 1)

What is the SS? The SS was primarily the instrument through which the Nazi racial doctrine was implemented and enforced. Led by the empire-building Himmler, it took on other select tasks (such as fighting the war). However, it is best understood as a reflection of the Nazi party's desires and views of itself.

Here's what I've been able to find so far.


As I've mentioned before, the SS started as Hitler's personal bodyguard. At the time of the abortive Nov 1923 Beer-Hall Putch, the `Stosstropp Hitler' had some 50 members. At that time, they were a special division of the Rohm's Sturmabteilungen (the SA, or the storm-troopers), the Nazi Party's private army of 3000 men. After Hitler was released from prison in December 1924, he reformed them into the Schutzstaffeln. Himmler joined at this point and received membership number 168. At the 1925 Party jamboree (forerunner to the massive Rallies at Nuremburg) the SS received the `bloodflag' (flag stained with the gore from the Putch) from Hitler himself in recognition of their efforts on that day.

In 1929, Himmler was appointed to Reichfuher-SS, head of the SS. At that point, the SS numbered only 300 men, and was still a sub-section of Rohm's SA. Himmler, however, had a genius for acquiring power (if not exercising it), and the SS had a reputation as the elite corps of the SA, like the Roman Emperor's Ptaetorian Guard. They wore all black, as opposed to the SA's `brown shirts', and came to be known as the `Order of the Death's Head' after the insignia on their caps.

In 1931, SS membership reached five figures, and the SS Race and Resettlement Office was established to do two things: research the ancestry of SS members (and their brides) and to research the ancestry of foreign races to see which might be "Germanized." This is characteristic of purpose that the SS chose for itself: implementation and enforcement of the Nazi racial doctrine. The main force behind this purpose was not Himmler (who was more a bureaucrat that anything else) but his second in command, Reinhard Heydrich. More about him later.

By April, 1932, the SS had 30,000 men and the SA had ten times that. This is before the Hitler was chancellor, remember, and the Nazis were just one party among many. (The best armed, probably.) Then in 1933, the membership exploded. In March, the Nazi party closed membership because it was growing too rapidly. People then joined the still-open auxiliaries (the SA and the SS) so as to get an advantage for when membership opened again.

In June, 1933, Himmler, as Police President of Munich, created the Dachau KZ (concentration camp). This camp became the model for all other KZs of the Reich, though at this point it was reserved for anti-Nazis, professional criminals, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, beggars, prostitutes, and so on. The guards of the camp were from the lowest stratum of the SS, often uneducated, and brutal. They harbored a special hatred for intellectuals, often Jews and people who wore glasses. They rotated between three weeks of harsh military training and one of guard duty in which the watched the executions and whippings along with the prisoners. By autumn 1934, there were eight KZs.

In June 1934, the Night of the Long Knives, a territorial dispute between the SS and the SA erupted into open warfare. Himmler and Goring, threatened by Rohm's ambitions, liquidated all of their SA rivals. The elimination was widespread: regional SS directors were asked for a "death list" of their rivals, too. The killing went on for days. Heydrich (remember him?) expanded the bloodshed from SA rivals to all influential anti-Nazi persons, as well as rivals to Hitler in the Nazi party. And when I say warfare, I mean it. Armored squads drove through the streets of Berlin, and SA fugitives were hunted in the forests for days. After that, Hitler raised the SS to an independent organization and allowed to set up armored units of their own. After that, the SA withered away and was eventually absorbed into the German army.

After that, the SS grew so large that it can only be talked about in pieces. The overall strength of the SS, from what I can glean:

Year SS strength Waffen-SS strength
1929 300
1931 Over 10,000
1932 30,000
1940   100,000-150,00
1941 230,000
June, 1944 800,000+ 594,000
Oct., 1944   910,000

Major Divisions

  • The RUSHA, mentioned above, were the enforcers of racial purity. They cleared newly-conquered areas for resettling ethnic Germans, and punished non-Aryans for intimacy with German women. They also researched the members of the SS for non-Aryan blood.
  • The Volkduetsche Mittelstelle (VOMI) was the special SS division for ethnic Germans living outside the Reich (many of whom did not want its help). Together with RUSHA, they kidnaped ethnic German children (usually from German/Polish or German/Czech mixed marriages) from outside the Reich that were suitable for "Germanization" and sent them to foster families inside Germany.
  • The Wirtschafts und Verwaltungs Hauptamp (WVHA, or Economic Administration Main Office) was in charge of SS enterprises founded on concentration camp labor. These included arms production, textile and leather manufacture, food processing, distillation, and so on. By the middle of the war, this little empire had grown to 50 million Reichmark per year.

    Just to put this in perspective, the exchange rate back then was roughly 2.5RM = $1. This means that the WVHA was in charge of an industry grossing $20M per year, in -1940- dollars, which is roughly $244M of today's dollars. And the relative sizes and importance of these industries would have been even larger than that figure would indicate, since the size of the German economy was (probably) smaller than America's. (It's hard to get economic data on the Third Reich. All the tables I can find on the web have this big empty spot between 1938 and 1946.)

    All concentration camps ended up under the control of the WVHA. This is undoubtedly the division that Klaus deal with. I'm currently doing research into this division.

  • The Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA, or Reich Security Office) was an umbrella organization that contained the SD, the Gestapo, and the Kriminalpolizei. It was headed by Heindrich (him again!).
  • The Sicherheitdienst (SD) was the SS's espionage service, created by Heydrich (him again). In 1936, it signed a `treaty' with the Abwehr (military intelligence). The SD was given all political intelligence, while the Abwehr retained military espionage. (The primary reason for this is Admiral Canares hated and despised the Nazis and the SS with it, and didn't want to rely on them for his intelligence.) The SD was divided into DS-Autland (foreign intellegence) and SD-Inland (domestic).
  • The Geheime Staatpolizei, the state secret police or `Gestapo', was just that: a secret police force. As opposed to the SD, which was primarily espionage, the Gestapo was a repression force, created by Goring. It was quickly absorbed by the SS in 1934, who by that time had taken control of -all- political police forces. In 1936, the legal status of the Gestapo was made clear: No appeals were possible against Gestapo directives. If the word `Gestapo' fills you with dread, there's a good reason. The Gestapo used torture on suspects, ranging from the modern (electricity) to the primtive (flaying with whips). Their point of pride is that they only used torture to learn the names of accomplices; confessions under torture were not used to incriminate the victim.
    To be honest, I'm not sure of the difference between the SD and the Gestapo. They are distinct organizations, but I can't quite figure out the difference in their purposes. But these are the guys that would be looking for you.
  • The Waffen SS were the SS's combat divisions, introduced in 1940 to deflect resentment of the cushy lives led by SS members. They remained under the control of the Werhmacht throughout the war. They quickly gained a reputation as either butchers or valiant warriors, depending on what uniform you wore. On the one hand, there was the Waffen SS regiment that was ordered to hold a line on the Volga in temperatures well below zero. Four weeks later, the Obersturmbannfuher of that regiment was able to report success. Of his 2,000 men, only 35 had survived. On the other hand, there was the Waffen-SS regiment that butchered over 100 British soldiers after their capture.
    The Waffen-SS were mostly around to for prestige. I consider the them to be tangential to the real purpose and character of the SS.

Smaller Notables

  • Lebensborn was a hospital/adoption agency in which Aryan women could give birth to children conceived out of wedlock. This was part of Himmler's Gubuttenschlacht (battle of births) in which he encouraged the population of ethnic Germans to swell by any means possible.
  • The Einsatzgruppe were killing squads the operated behind the German lines on the Eastern front. Their mission was to find and exterminate all Jews found in newly-conquered land. Many of these Jews had been kept ignorant of what awaited them under the Reich, since the Russian newspapers had downplayed the atrocities of the Germans while the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact held. It is estimated that thes groups killed 1,300,000 Jews, a ratio of 1:430 killers to victims.
  • The term "Sonderkommando" was applied to any small group of SS members with a particular task. These ranged from carrying out exterminations, to disposing of the bodies and erasing the traces of murder, to putting down the Warsaw uprising, to finding and killing partisans. They were also sub-units of the Einsatzgruppe.
  • The Schwarze Korps was the official SS newspaper. It offered adoration of Hitler, attacks on Jews, exhortations to increase the birthrate of `true' Germans (which involved campaigning for nappy services and publications of `visual aphrodisiacs'), exposes of the corruption of the Catholic Church, names and addresses of those who broke the boycott against Jewish businesses, and marriage and birth announcements from Dachau.
  • The Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage Foundation) was a pet project of Himmler's, devoted to documenting the origins and superiority of the Germanic race. This organization sponsored archeological digs in German, and expedition to Tibet of all places, and research into weather `animal heat' was better at reviving the near-frozen than `dry heat'. (This last bit of research involved a number of test subjects from concentration camps.)


I don't think I can do justice to this bizarre organization right now. I'll send out another letter soon on this.


The Order of the Death's Head, Heinz Hohne, 1966
Hitler's SS, Richard Grunberger, 1970

Posted by jon at January 15, 2003 10:13 AM

Jon writes: "The Waffen SS were the SS's combat divisions, introduced in 1940 to deflect resentment of the cushy lives led by SS members."

At least three combat regiments existed in 1937. They just weren't officially called the "Waffen SS" until 1940. (Not sure what they were called then -- references don't say.)

Posted by: colin on January 17, 2003 08:59 AM

I think the word 'Aryan' should be in quotation marks. What's 'Aryan?'

Posted by: Abel. R on September 30, 2003 10:56 AM
Post a comment