The Waffen-SS (German pronunciation: [ˈvafən.ɛs.ɛs], Armed SS) was the armed wing of the Nazi Party’s SS organisation. Its formations included men from Nazi Germany, along with volunteers and conscripts from both occupied and un-occupied lands.
The Waffen-SS grew from three regiments to over 38 divisions during World War II, and served alongside the Heer (regular army), Ordnungspolizei (uniformed police) and other security units. Prior to the war, it was under the control of the SS Führungshauptamt (SS operational command office) beneath Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. With the start of World War II, tactical control was exercised by the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW), with some units being subordinated to Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS (Command Staff Reichsführer-SS) directly under Himmler’s control.
Initially, in keeping with the racial policy of Nazi Germany, membership was only open to people of Germanic origin (so-called Aryan ancestry). The rules were partially relaxed in 1940, and later the formation of units composed largely or solely of foreign volunteers and conscripts was authorised. These SS units were made up of men mainly from among the nationals of Nazi-occupied Europe. Despite relaxation of the rules, the Waffen-SS was still based on the racist ideology of Nazism, and ethnic Poles (who were viewed as subhumans) were barred specifically from the formations.
At the post-war Nuremberg trials the Waffen-SS was judged to be a criminal organisation due to its connection to the Nazi Party and involvement in numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity. Former Waffen-SS members were denied many of the rights afforded to the military veterans. An exception was made for Waffen-SS conscripts, who were exempted because they were not volunteers. About a third of the total membership were conscripts.
The origins of the Waffen-SS can be traced back to the selection of a group of 120 SS men in March 1933 by Sepp Dietrich to form the Sonderkommando Berlin. By November 1933 the formation had 800 men, and at a commemorative ceremony in Munich for the tenth anniversary of the failed Munich Putsch the regiment swore allegiance to Adolf Hitler. The oaths pledged were “Pledging loyalty to him alone” and “Obedience unto death”. The formation was given the title Leibstandarte (Bodyguard Regiment) Adolf Hitler (LAH). On 13 April 1934, by order of Himmler, the regiment became known as the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH).
The Leibstandarte demonstrated their loyalty to Hitler in 1934 during the Night of the Long Knives, when the Nazi regime carried out a series of political killings and the purge of the Sturmabteilung (SA). Led by one of Hitler’s oldest comrades, Ernst Röhm, the SA was seen as a threat by Hitler to his newly gained political power. Hitler also wanted to conciliate leaders of the Reichswehr and conservatives of the country, people whose support Hitler needed to solidify his position. When Hitler decided to act against the SA, the SS was put in charge of eliminating Röhm and the other high-ranking SA officers. The Night of the Long Knives occurred between 30 June and 2 July 1934 and saw the killing of up to 200 people. This included almost the entire SA leadership, effectively ending its power. This action was largely carried out by SS personnel (including the Leibstandarte), and the Gestapo.
In September 1934, Hitler authorized the formation of the military wing of the Nazi Party and approved the formation of the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT), a special service troop under Hitler’s overall command. The SS-VT had to depend on the German Army for its supply of weapons and military training, and they had control of the recruiting system through local draft boards responsible for assigning conscripts to the different branches of the Wehrmacht to meet quotas set by the German High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW in German). The SS was given the lowest priority for recruits.
Even with the difficulties presented by the quota system, Heinrich Himmler formed two new SS regiments, the SS Germania and SS Deutschland, which together with the Leibstandarte and a communications unit made up the SS-VT. At the same time Himmler established the SS-Junkerschule Bad Tölz and SS-Junkerschule Braunschweig for military training of SS officers. Both schools used regular army training methods and mainly used former army officers as instructors.
Himmler initially in 1934 set stringent requirements for recruits. They were to be German nationals who could prove their Aryan ancestry back to 1800, unmarried, and without a criminal record. A four-year commitment was required for the SS-VT and LSSAH. Recruits had to be between the ages of 17 and 23, at least 1.74 metres (5 ft 9 in) tall (1.78 metres (5 ft 10 in) for the LSSAH). Concentration camp guards had to make a one-year commitment, be between the ages of 16 and 23, and at least 1.72 metres (5 ft 8 in) tall. All recruits were required to have no dental fillings, 20/20 eyesight and provide a medical certificate. By 1938 the height restrictions were relaxed, up to six dental fillings were permitted, and eyeglasses for astigmatism and mild vision correction were allowed. Once the war commenced, the physical requirements were no longer strictly enforced, and essentially any recruit who could pass a basic medical exam was considered for service. Members of the SS could be of any religion except Judaism (Jewish), but atheists were not allowed according to Himmler in 1937.
The officers of the SS were almost all of lower middle-class or working-class origin, who would have not been considered for commissioning in the old German Army. In the SS they could take part in the gentlemanly rituals of the mess. Fritz Langanke was the son of a miner. Major Heinrich Wulf, commander of the Das Reich reconnaissance battalion, was the son of a North German worker who died as a conscript in Flanders in 1917. Major Gunther-Eberhardt Wisliceny the commander of the Deutschland Panzergrenadier regiment was described as looking like a tall, stiff Prussian Junker, but had been a miner in Silesia for three years. Major Otto Weidinger was the son of a post office worker, and he was rejected by both the army and the police before acceptance into the SS. But some were from the old elite, like Otto Pohl (commander of a tank unit); his father, an officer in the navy, joined Hitler in the 1920s and became a SS General.
In 1936, Himmler selected former Lieutenant General Paul Hausser to be Inspector of the SS-VT with the rank of Brigadefuhrer. Hausser worked to transform the SS-VT into a credible military force that was a match for the regular army.
On 17 August 1938, Hitler declared that the SS-VT would have a role in domestic as well as foreign affairs, which transformed this growing armed force into the rival that the army had feared. He decreed that service in the SS-VT qualified to fulfill military service obligations, although service in the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) would not. Some units of the SS-TV would, in the case of war, be used as reserves for the SS-VT, which did not have its own reserves. For all its training, the SS-VT was untested in combat. In 1938, a battalion of the Leibstandarte was chosen to accompany the army troops in occupying Austria during the Anschluss, and the three regiments of the SS-VT participated in the occupation of the Sudetenland that October. In both actions no resistance was met.
Recruiting of ethnic Germans from other countries began in April 1940, and units consisting of non-Germanic recruits were formed beginning in 1942. Non-Germanic units were not considered to be part of the SS, which still maintained its racial criteria, but rather were considered to be foreign nationals serving under the command of the SS.