SS (Schutzstaffel)

views updated



The SS was founded in 1925 as a security organization for Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and the Nazi Party. Its early years converge with those of the SA (Sturmabteilung); however, in 1929 its history was fundamentally altered when Heinrich Himmler was named its third SS Reichsführer (chief for the Reich). Once nominated to the post, Himmler launched a systematic expansion policy that entailed intense yet still highly elite recruiting. By 1932 the SS was a powerful, fifty-two thousand-man-strong organization whose numbers would quadruple in the next year alone. After the Nazis assumed power, its rise was unstoppable, becoming consolidated solely under Himmler's direction and assuming authority for itself to intervene in ever larger domains. As the regime's elite ideological corps it furnished an officer reserve, was a laboratory for ideas, and assumed responsibility for the fundamental axes of Nazi thinking and planning.

The SS was first and foremost a tool used to accomplish the acquisition of power in Germany and of empire in Europe. Secondarily it was one of the primary mechanisms for implementing policies of administering and exploiting occupied territories. Finally it was the almost sole agent responsible for carrying out the policies of repression and extermination that constituted the heart of Nazi praxis.


From 1929 to 1932, the SS was primarily an underground SA appendage group. The SA was a mass movement dedicated as much to winning the battle with Communists and other opponents for the streets as to winning at the ballot box. When the SA did so, they organized torch-lit marches in Berlin on 30 January 1933, the day Hitler was named chancellor of Germany. The SS, on the other hand, at that time seemed to be relegated to playing a more subordinate role. Himmler had been appointed Munich chief of police, and had little else in his portfolio. However he used his post to heavily influence virtually all the other police forces in Germany and began to compete with the SA, which was brutally eliminated on 30 June 1934 in the "Night of the Long Knives." Hitler and Himmler then moved into a period of relative calm following the "revolutionary phase" that occurred during the first year of Nazi rule.

The SS was the primary agent for carrying out the SA's dismantlement: it assumed direct responsibility for the execution of its officers, as well as the murder of other figures targeted because they were likely to support it. To facilitate this purge, the SS was given official status as an organism independent of the party, and Himmler, now appointed chief of the Prussian political police, was at last able to assume overt control of all German police forces. After the SA's elimination Himmler reorganized the SS by splitting it into paramilitary units called the Emergency Troops (Verfuegungstruppen, or SSVT), and the Death's Head Formations (Totenkopfverbände), charged with running the concentration camps. Now the shape of SS power emerged. It rested on elite militarized units, soon to grow in number, and on a monopoly on police and intelligence services.

In 1936 when Himmler was finally certain of his control over all the police forces in Germany, he appointed Paul Hausser as chief inspector of the Emergency Troops, charging him with militarizing its units. After undergoing intensive military training, the SSVT's three regiments would take part in the invasions of Austria, the Sudetenland, and Bohemia and Moravia. Finally in 1939 the Waffen SS (Armed SS) were created and deployed in the Polish September Campaign, marking an even more unexpected expansion in the SS's armed forces. By erecting these two pillars, Himmler had built between 1929 and 1939 what was destined to become the most powerful organization in the Third Reich. However in the eyes of Hitler, as in those of his SS Reichsführer, external conquest inaugurated a new era, destined to be followed by the Germanization and exploitation of occupied territories.


In the fall of 1939 the SS spawned new institutions that reflected its ongoing evolution. On 1 October the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, or SD) was established along with the Reich Central Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA), the central SS department designed to coordinate the political and criminal police forcesHimmler and his chief deputy Reinhard Heydrich had just acquired a highly adaptable police force that would eventually assume responsibility for all repressive actions that took place in Europe, while continuing to maintain its function as a brain trust and authority for Nazi ideology. On 6 October Hitler announced he had decided to reorganize "interethnic" relations in Europe. The following day Himmler set up a Reich Commission for the Strengthening of Germandom (Reichskommissariat für die Festigung deutschen Volkstums, or RKFdV), charged with coordinating Germanization programs in the occupied territories.

The RKFdV brought together several already seasoned SS institutions under one umbrella organization, including the Race and Resettlement Main Office (Rasseund Siedlungshauptamt, or RuSHA), which was especially responsible for racial matters, and the Ethnic German Aid Office (Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle, or VoMi), an organism that both provided material assistance to ethnic German communities and engaged in clandestine political activities. These preexisting institutions coincided with new ones created in response to needs generated by further conquests. For example a Central Office for Racial Germans (Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle) was created, responsible for making the necessary arrangements to relocate the Volksdeutsche, or racially pure Germans, in newly acquired lands, as well as for the expulsion of "racially undesirable" communities, primarily Jews and Poles. The result was a thorough policy of Germanization, designed to subject the Slavic communities to a "process of depopulation." This department was responsible for the starvation policies in occupied countries developed to meet the economic needs of the Wehrmacht (German army), in addition to the predatory forced labor practices the SS operated in concert with the civilian administrations in areas of the occupied Soviet Union. The last of these plans, laid out in January 1943, envisioned the deaths of more than thirteen million Slavs in total, and the deportation of another thirty-five million to the "Asiatic Section" of the conquered Soviet Union.


The SS plans for deportation reflected the murderous drives at the heart of its institutional structure. However the same plans were also carried out through the short-term planning arm of the RSHA, its Amt IV B4 (office 4, subsection B4) led by Karl Adolf Eichmann, a specialist on Jewry and other "cults." Beginning in 1939 Eichmann's agencies operated a policy of population displacement that carried with it Poles, Jews trapped in the ghettos and nearly starved by devastating rationing policies, and Volksdeutsche repatriated in that same year. The economic chaos that ensued caused the death by starvation of tens of thousands of Jews. Then the field of action grew enormously after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

The various phases of the Reich's aggrandizement had been accompanied by seizing control over policing duties, henceforth carried out by the mobile commandos of the Gestapo and the SD, designated together by the name Einsatzgruppen, or rear guard action groups. It was in Poland that these groups committed mass murder when they eliminated ten thousand people, mostly members of the Polish elites. However it was in the Soviet Union that they progressively slid into a violent war whose aim was the complete annihilation of its Jewish communities. From June to August 1941 these four groups limited themselves to executing men (mostly Jews) old enough to bear arms. However they soon began to add women to their target population, and, probably under Himmler's Heydrich's [sic] orders, began to kill children starting in mid-August 1941. By September and October the Einsatzgruppens' aim of completely eliminating Soviet Jewish communities was at last put into full practice, leaving practically no Jewish survivors in its wake.

During this same period the SS officials charged with carrying out programs for the persecution and deportation of the Jews were examining the means available to them for resolving the difficulties engendered by population displacement. The solution envisioned during the fall of 1941 entailed the indirect elimination of Eastern Europe's Jewish communities via deportation above the Arctic Circle. However by the summer of 1941 local occupation authorities were asking for the direct elimination of those contingents of Jews in their ghettos who were unfit for work. The Reichschancellery, which had implemented the initial programs for gassing the mentally and chronically ill in the fall of 1939, sent specialists in these techniques to the Warthegau, a part of Poland congruent to Lodz, which was to be incorporated into the Reich, as well as to the Lublin District.

In this way two extermination programs were implemented based on regional initiatives. The first, which was based on the techniques used in the mobile gas units, was erected in a manor house in Chelmno known as the Castle. The second, at the initiative of the Lublin SS commander Odilo Globocnik, culminated in the construction of the death camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. At the same time Eichmann, the official responsible for the RSHA's anti-Jewish and deportation policies, began to search for a location to accommodate permanent death camp installations. He ended up choosing Auschwitz because it was a central rail crossroads and because it already had a vastconcentration camp, intended for Soviet prisoners of war. Here was a site amenable to further enlargement. Eichmann and Rudolf Höss, the camp's commander, agreed to proceed with gassing tests using Zyklon B, already in widespread use in the camps to kill lice on Soviet prisoners of war.

Thus by the fall of 1941 the three primary modes of direct extermination—firing squads, carbon monoxide, and Zyklon B—were fully operational. However only the firing squads had been utilized in the process of mass killings, in particular for the massacre of Kiev's 33,371 Jews in the Babi Yar Ravine. Although a few incidents of gassings had taken place in the fall of 1941, the truly murderous drive emerged only after the United States entered the war, and most likely after Hitler took the decision to exterminate all of Europe's Jews. At the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942 this decision was transformed into a Europe-wide plan, which Himmler set in motion during the summer of 1942, issuing an order stipulating that the lion's share of extermination would be completed before the year's end.

Beginning in the spring of 1942 the exterminations proceeded at an almost frenetic pace, culminating in the gassing of some 275,000 Hungarian Jews in the massive gas chambers at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944. By that date those who were "unfit to work" were gassed upon their arrival at camp, whereas the SS Main Economic and Administration Office (Hauptamt Verwaltung und Wirtschaft, or WVHA), in charge of the immense network of camps that by then covered the entire eastern portion of Europe, had innovated a form of extermination-by-work as a tool for economically useful murder. Indeed extermination-by-work condemned the majority of the detainees who peopled the vast concentration camp universe to a slow but certain death, situating it at the crux of the Nazi policies of economic predatory behavior and repression in Europe, henceforth carried out in all directions.

The extermination of the Hungarian Jews took place in 1944 even though the Reich's fortunes had taken a definitive turn for the worse: by the fall of 1944 the Soviets had annihilated the German Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Center) in a massive encirclement maneuver around Minsk, liberating nearly all of central Europe. With the SS at the forefront, the Germans mounted their final defense, as desperate as it was fierce. The SS therefore was the final holdout in the Battle of Berlin, but was not composed of the Nordic avant-garde, since from 1942 it had begun to integrate Ukrainian, Baltic, and western European contingents, and it was the French SS that defended the chancellor's bunker until the morning of 2 May 1945.

Himmler was captured by the British in the Flensburg region and committed suicide several days later. The top rung of SS officials, including the RSHA and WVHA in particular, were condemned to death and executed, with the notable exception of the authorities responsible for the population displacement policies. The organization itself was outlawed during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

The SS was an elite organization entrusted with safeguarding the monstrous dystopian dimension of Nazism, not only because it represented the ideals of Nordic racial purification and the policies of Germanizing the occupied territories, but also because it spearheaded programs for exterminating undesirable populations. Mass murder constituted, from the Nazi viewpoint, the condition sine qua non for the realization of their utopia. In this sense the SS was not merely the executor of the Nazi Party's murderous plans, it was the quintessence of Nazism itself.

See alsoBabi Yar; Concentration Camps; Einsatzgruppen; Heydrich, Reinhard; Himmler, Heinrich; Holocaust; Nazism.


Kohel, Robert Lewis. The Black Corps: The Structure and Power Struggles of the Nazi SS. Madison, Wis., 1983.

Wegner, Bernd. Hilter Politische Soldaten: Die Waffen SS 1933–1945. Paderborn, Germany, 1982.

Christian Ingrao