Schutzstaffel, abbreviated as SS, literally means "protective guard." The roots of the SS go back to 1923, when Hitler designated fifty men to serve as his personal bodyguards. After Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in January 1933, the tasks of the SS expanded, eventually resulting in the SS serving as instruments of murder, terror, repression, and intimidation under the direction of Heinrich Himmler, who held the office of Reichsführer-SS (Reich leader of the SS) through 1945.
After Hitler's failed attempt to overthrow the government of Weimar Germany in November 1923, the Nazi Party and all its organizations were temporarily declared illegal. When the Nazi Party was allowed to participate again in the political life of Germany in 1925, Hitler created the SS, a small force of some two hundred men, to provide protection for himself and other Party members.
In 1929, Hitler appointed the former Bavarian chicken farmer, Heinrich Himmler, to the post of Reichsführer-SS, and charged him with forming the SS into "an elite troop of the Party." In addition to protection for the Führer, it performed a number of different tasks, including carrying out functions previously reserved for the police. By this time, the SS had grown into a 52,000-man strong organization. As early as the spring of 1933, Himmler assigned members of the SS Death's Head Division (Totenkopf) to stand guard over the growing number of political opponents of the regime who were incarcerated in the first concentration camps in Nazi Germany. The SS also played a prominent role in cooperation with the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) in the June 1934 plot to murder Ernst Röhm and the leadership of the Brown Shirts (Sturmabteilung [SA]), which had begun to threaten the supremacy of the army.
As a reward for its role as assassins in the Röhm purge (also known as "The Night of the Long Knives"), Hitler established the SS as an independent organization within the Nazi Party. In 1936, Himmler, newly appointed Chief of Police in the Ministry of the Interior in addition to his title of Reichsführer-SS, consolidated the entire German police force, bringing the regular uniformed police (Orpo) and the Criminal Police (Kripo) together with the SS. This resulted in a single Party organ having jurisdiction over all of the police forces in Germany.
Once the Germans attacked Poland in September 1939 to start World War II, the infrastructure of the SS, now 240,000-strong, changed again. Himmler created the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) as both a departmental agency of government and the SS. He appointed Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst [SD]) of the SS to lead the RSHA. Under Heydrich, the RSHA developed plans for the destruction of enemies of the State. These included the implementation of Nazi racial policies against targeted groups such as Jews, gypsies (Roma and Sinti), and Red Army and civilian political commissars through the deployment of mobile killing units (the Einsatzgruppen) of the SS (SD) and Security Police, which followed the German Army into the Soviet Union beginning in the summer of 1941, as well as the work of the Gestapo (secret police) in arranging deportations of millions of Jews to extermination camps or execution sites in occupied territories of Europe from 1941 to 1945.
The SS was also involved in the administration of concentration camps and extermination camps. By 1942 the Economics and Administration Main Office (WVHA) of the SS, under the direction of Oswald Pohl, had a firm hold on the exploitation of slave labor throughout the camp system. At its peak, it controlled more than six million prisoners, serving the economic interests of the Reich to replace the shortage of labor due to mounting casualties on all fronts.
In addition, the SS played an active role in the German armed forces. Originally intended as an elite group of "political soldiers," the Waffen-SS expanded its recruitment outside the Reich, and had over 900,000 men under arms by 1942. Known to have taken part in numerous violations of the laws of land warfare throughout the war, including the massacre of American POWs at Malmédy during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, members of the Waffen-SS earned a notorious reputation for brutal behavior. However, units of the Waffen-SS were some of the most highly decorated soldiers in the German armed forces.
The tribunal at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials in 1946 declared that the SS as a whole, distinguished by their black uniforms (the Black Corps) with the signature markings of the SS written as twin lightning bolts in imitation runic script, was a criminal organization.
Breitman, Richard (1991). The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution. Hanover, N.H.: Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England.
Hoffmann, Peter (2000). Hitler's Personal Security: Protecting the Führer, 1921–1945. New York: Da Capo Press.
Höhne, Heinz (1969). The Order of the Death's Head: The Story of Hitler's SS. New York: Penguin Books.
Krausnick, Helmut, Hans Buchheim, Martin Broszat, and Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, eds. (1968). Anatomy of the SS State, trans. Elizabeth Wiskemann. New York: Walker and Company.
Stein, George H. (1966). The Waffen-SS: Hitler's Elite Guard at War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Robert B. Bernheim
SS1 • abbr. ∎ Saints: the Church of SS Peter and Paul. ∎ Baseball shortstop. ∎ social security. ∎ (in prescriptions) in the strict sense. ∎ steamship: the SS Canberra. ∎ Sunday School. SS 2 the Nazi special police force. Founded in 1925 by Hitler as a personal bodyguard, the SS provided security forces (including the Gestapo) and administered the concentration camps.