The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 12 No 5 - June 2003

'Soldiers, just like the others'?
Part 1

By Dr M J Thomas (c)

In March 1942 a secret report by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) commented on the German public's perception of the Waffen SS - 'By its achievements the Waffen SS has won its place in the popular esteem. Particular reference is made to the good comradeship between officers, NCOs and men'. However, 'voices are heard saying that SS men are ruthlessly sacrificed. The Waffen SS is said to rush on regardless because it thinks it must get ahead of the Wehrmacht'. Worse still, 'critical voices are heard to be saying that the Waffen SS is a sort of military watchdog. SS men are trained to be brutal and ruthless, apparently so that they can be used against other German formations if necessary'. The general impression given in the memorandum from Streckenback to Himmler, 9 March 1942, RFSS Microfilm 140, was that 'the Waffen SS is the most ruthless force, it takes no prisoners, but annihilates its enemy' (cited in Hohne, 1969, p 436). This popular picture is an accurate one and demonstrates that the German people regarded the Waffen SS as a unique force, distinct from the army that it fought beside.

For the victorious allies, the Waffen SS was indeed different from the army. However, this was because it was declared to be an integral part of Himmler's SS empire. At Nuremberg the armed SS was indicted as a criminal organisation alongside the Gestapo and camp guards. Since the war, however, Waffen SS veterans, through the Association of Soldiers of the former Waffen SS, have argued that the formations they served in were purely military bodies. They maintain that it is only through a misunderstanding of the structure of the SS that the Waffen SS can be shown to have had links with the rest of the SS organisation. (A number of sources deal with this issue. For the post-war record of the Association of Soldiers of the former Waffen SS, see the article by D C Large in the Journal of Modern History, Vol 59, No 1, 1987, pp 79-113. Veterans' attempts to de-stigmatise the reputation of the armed SS are dealt with by Hausser, Steiner, Meyer, Weidinger, and Grupp & Oehmsen. Full publication details are provided in the bibliography).

The Waffen SS, the veterans claim, knew nothing of the camps and murder squads, and those few Waffen SS men who did take part in atrocities, were not true SS soldiers, but criminals who should not have been in the Waffen SS, and untrustworthy ethnic recruits. They even claim that the Waffen SS, with its foreign volunteer units, was an anti-Soviet forerunner of NATO (Reitlinger, 1981, p 77; Oegrelle, 1983, pp 30-6). The veterans were not alone in the belief that the Waffen SS was a purely military organisation. In the Deutsche Soldatenzeitung of August 1956, Konrad Adenauer is reported to have said that 'the men of the Waffen SS were soldiers, just like the others' (cited in Grabner, 1980, p 224).

Of more interest than the attempts of the veterans and of German politicians to rehabilitate the record of the Waffen SS, is the growth of revisionist historical work. Several authors have gone as far as claiming that the 'SS soldier imbued with hatred was a rarity even during the war', and that the Waffen SS 'were not fanatical Nazis committing unsoldierly acts, but ordinary young men', the majority of whom 'were not political at all' (Blandford, 1995, pp 132, 136; Theile, 1999, P 30). Other revisionist works that overtly focus on the military sphere and neglect the whole issue of criminality include Whiting (1999), Lucas (1999) and Yerger (1989).

Was the Waffen SS really a fine military body, whose reputation was spoiled by a few individuals, or was it an integral part of the SS and, as such, equally guilty? The apologists maintain that the Waffen SS was called upon to bear the heaviest burdens in the most testing crises in the war. Moreover, they claim that it fought consistently harder and longer than equivalent army units. We will therefore seek to assess the organisation's combat role. Although the reputation of the Waffen SS as fighting units is second to none, we shall see that not all of its units were of the highest quality. Nevertheless, there were occasions in which the intervention of the armed SS did affect the outcome of important battles. The elite units were characterised by their ability to retain their fighting spirit and combat effectiveness in defeat as well as in victory.

They were also defined by their ruthless behaviour towards both enemy soldiers and civilians. The 'enduring presence of these qualities, especially in the Russian conflict, raises one of the most basic questions, namely, what influences were decisive in producing such qualities and in moulding the Waffen SS into the political and military instrument that performed and behaved as it did' (Sydnor, 1

989)/ p 314). This paper will seek to answer this question through an analysis of the organisation, its origins, ethos and behaviour.

Totenkopf recruits practice on a Czech ZB vz 37 machine gun.
In the pre-war period and opening months of the war the
Waffen SS
often unsuccessfully competed against the Wehrmacht for German manufactured
armaments. With the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Himmler and his staff
were able to find sufficient arms for the
Waffen SS. Although the Czech
arms industry was quite sophisticated, the equipment was often considered
to be sub-standard to its German equivalents. (Photo: (c) Angelray Books).


If we are to understand the wartime actions of the Waffen SS, we have to study its origins and question the motives behind its formation and growth. We will look at the three formations that were to make up the original core of the Waffen SS. These were the SS Verfugungstruppe (SSVT), the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and the Totenkopfverbande concentration camp guards. The SSVT originally developed from the armed bands of SS men who were terrorising the opposition in the months after Hitler's appointment as chancellor in January 1933. One such political alarm squad or Politische Bereitschaft was the SS police unit, Standarte Deutschland, in Bavaria, later the core of the Das Reich Division. Such armed units of political warriors from the Allgemeine (General) SS covered the country and practised terror in preparation for a civil war that many believed possible on 30 June 1934. Standarte Deutschland and other Politische Bereitschaften took part in the 'Night of the Long Knives' and murdered party and SA leaders throughout Germany (Hohne, 1969, p 440). Such actions by the future SSVT were important in sowing the idea of an armed force in Himmler's mind.

Waffen SS men round up Jews for deportation during the destruction of the Ghetto in Warsaw during April and May 1943 (Photo: (c) Author's Collection).

Hitler rewarded Himmler for his work during the purge by allowing him to raise the SS to an independent arm of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), no longer subject to the control of the Sturmabteilung (SA). Also, in conjunction with General Blomberg, the defence minister, he allowed Himmler to set up the SSVT from the various Politische Bereitschaften then in existence. In a decree of September 1934, Hitler outlined the main task of the new force. Trained on military lines, it was to be ready for a fanatical war of ideology that would occur within Germany should the opponents of the regime rebel. The force was to remain as part of the SS and therefore of the NSDAP. Only in the event of war would it be employed for military purposes, in which case only Hitler could decide how and when it would be used. It was stressed that 25 000 Allgemeine SS men could be mobilised into this political police force to allow the army to concentrate on any external foe (Padfield, 1991, P 161).

The high command intended to confine the SS units to internal tasks, but if Hitler decided to give them a role outside the Reich, their military deployment was unavoidable. This meant that, in wartime, the army would have to aspire to their integration into the army, giving credence to Paul Hausser's claim that the Waffen SS was always seen as part of the army. However, at this time, the SSVT was clearly intended to be an armed state police, not a crack combat unit. Blomberg would never have agreed to the establishment of the SSVT had he thought it would become a new army that would rival the Wehrmacht. He saw the SSVT, as did Hitler, as a police force. After all, he would not have supported the removal of the SA threat to the army if he thought that the SS would replace them. The decree was an early attempt to limit the military ambitions of the SS and served to mollify the army. At the same time, however, it showed that the existence of armed SS units had,been accepted by the army high command.

One of the units involved in the purge of June 1934 was the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, a squad of SS men that formed Hitler's bodyguard under the leadership of Sepp Dietrich. Like its counterpart, the SSVT, the Leibstandarte was not envisaged as a military unit, but as a political force which, in addition to guarding the Fuhrer and carrying out ceremonial duties, could be used against internal enemies. As Hitler's personal guard, the Leibstandarte was answerable to him alone. It was the most elite formation of the most elite order of the Reich. Hitler had created a unit under his sole command; one day he could use it as a military force, the next as an instrument of terror. The Leibstandarte demonstrated this use of terror on 30 June 1934. Two companies of the bodyguard arrested and shot the SA leaders at Bad Wiessee. The purge had the effect of making the bodyguard a criminal organisation from the very outset.

In December 1934, Himmler issued a directive re-organising the Bereitschaften and amalgamating them with the bodyguard, which became part of the SSVT. However, the Reichsfuhrer realised that his new force would require arms and military training if it was going to carry out the tasks that the Fuhrer demanded. The arms question was solved when, on 17 June 1936, Himmler was appointed as head of all police units in Germany. With this development, the SSVT was amalgamated into the SS police empire. Himmler was therefore able to plead his case with the army to arm the SSVT, claiming that it was indeed a police unit and not an attempt to replace the Wehrmacht.

The military training of the Reichsfuhrer's new force would require men with army experience. Soldiers, however, were unlikely to join an organisation that was in effect indistinguishable from the police. Himmler was therefore forced again to conceal the true purpose of the SSVT. His deceptive picture of a new imperial guard did succeed in attracting ex-officers to the SSVT. There 'can be no other explanation for the fact that even today Waffen SS commanders seriously believe that from the outset they were serving in a normal military force' (Hahne, 1969, p 441). Ex-officers like Hausser and Felix Steiner began training the SSVT as a military organisation. Hausser became inspector of the SSVT in 1936.

Whatever Steiner and Hausser may have believed, the SSVT was to remain part of Himmler's state protection corps. The Reichsfuhrer was determined that the armed SS, under Hausser's military inspectorate, would not become independent from the rest of the SS. The inspectorate was therefore subordinated to the SS central bureau and Hausser's military emphasis was kept in check through the indoctrination of the SS Race and Settlement Office (RSHA). The men of the SSVT were accordingly told that they must be ready at all times to act ruthlessly against any enemy within Germany. The type of function that the SS head office thought suitable for the SSVT before the war was evident during the 'Kristallnacht' of 9 November 1938, when the SSVT in Vienna helped burn down the synagogues (Eichman, Record of Interrogation, Vol II, col 1683, cited in Hohne, 1969, p 451)

. On 17 August 1938, prior to the 'Kristallnacht', Hitler decreed that the role of the SSVT was not purely that of a police force, nor of an army unit, but as a party political unit at his personal disposal. In the field, the army would control the unit, but it remained part of the NSDAP. Hausser later claimed that this was kept secret from his men, suggesting that Himmler's deception that they were serving in a normal military force was well planned (Hausser's evidence at the IMT, Vol XX, P 300, cited in Reitlinger, 1981, P 83). The Reichsfuhrer, however, envisaged the SSVT as a new form of political soldiery, combining the internal police role with military training. This would allow it to take part in what he saw as the ultimate mission of Nazism, to fight the enemies of the Reich in the east. After all, why would Himmler have recruited men like Hausser if he did not intend his force to be used outside Germany? The true purpose of the SSVT was revealed in September 1939.

Felix Steiner, first inspector of the SSVT and
later commander of the 5th SS Panzer Division Viking.
Here he is shown at Grafenwohr in 1943. (Photo: (c) Angelray Books).

Given that the SSVT had been officially designated as having both an internal and external role by Hitler's decree, it had become the rival that the army had always feared. Accordingly, on 19 August 1939, the high command of the German forces sent the SSVT an order from Hitler - 'The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), SSVT is placed under the commander-in-chief of the army. He will lay down their employment in accordance with my directives' (Hohne, 1969, p 451). For one campaign at least, Hausser and Steiner could nurse the view that they were indeed normal soldiers. However, both the army and the SS command found the performance of the SSVT in Poland to be unsatisfactory. The SS leadership believed that they could not count on obtaining adequate equipment from the army.

Himmler subsequently persuaded Hitler that the effectiveness of the SS would have been improved if its units had been allowed to operate as a single division with its own equipment instead of being distributed among army formations and dependent on the latter for supplies. Hitler agreed that in the forthcoming campaign in the west, with the exception of the Leibstandarte, which would remain an independent formation, the SSVT and their support units would be grouped together as a single division, the SS Verfugungsdivision (later renamed 2nd SS Division Das Reich). Hitler also authorised the formation of two new divisions, the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf and the 4th SS Polizei Division.

Given that OKW, opposed as it was to any expansion of the Waffen SS, would not allow army draftees to join the SS, Himmler was forced to draw on outside sources of manpower. These were the men of the Totenkopfverbande concentration camp guards and the Ordungspolizei. Himmler agreed to the drafting of the Totenkopfverbande as he feared that the army would soon begin recruiting them since service with the organisation did not count as national military service. Rather than let the army poach the Totenkopfverbande guards, Himmler used them to expand the Waffen SS. In any case, the Reichsfuhrer viewed the Waffen SS as an integral part of his SS order. He saw nothing wrong in linking the two. Hitler's acceptance of the expansion of the Waffen SS meant that the SSVT and Leibstandarte (also given divisional status in the reforms) were linked to the most notorious unit within the SS. The Waffen SS veterans who later claimed that they were 'normal soldiers' never protested, however; they silently accepted Himmler's decree.

The linking of the SSVT with the Totenkopfverbande poses important questions about Waffen SS criminality, since the former were responsible for the torture and murder of Jews and the regime's political opponents. Their leader was Theodore Eicke, commandant of Dachau, inspector of the camps, murderer of Ernst Rohm and later general of the Totenkopf Division. With the invasion of Poland the Totenkopfverbande were called on to carry out 'police and security measures'. What these measures involved is demonstrated by the record of SS Totenkopf Standarte Brandenburg. It arrived in Wloclawek on 22 September 1939 and embarked on a fourday 'Jewish action' that included the burning of synagogues and executing en masse the leaders of the Jewish community. On 29 September the Standarte travelled to Bydgoszcz to conduct an 'intelligentsia action'. Approximately 800 Polish civilians, and what the SO termed 'potential resistance leaders', were killed (Sydnor, 1989, P 39). The Totenkopfverbande was to become one of the elite SS divisions, but from the start they were among the first executors of a policy of systematic extermination.

Waffen SS apologists have focussed on the atrocities of the Totenkopf, pointing to their concentration camp origins and crimes during the Polish campaign, while maintaining that the SSVT and Leibstandarte were free from such dishonour. Our analysis of the origins of the formations that were to become three of the best SS divisions demonstrates that the Totenkopf certainly did have unsavoury origins, but then so did the Leibstandarte and the SSVT, participating as they did in the 'Blood Purge' and the 'Kristallnacht'. Nor were they restricted to a purely military role in Poland. For example, members of the Leibstandarte massacred fifty Jews after they had been made to repair a damaged bridge (In response to the atrocity, the Wehrmacht put the perpetrators on trial. One of the accused, later freed by an amnesty in October 1939, pointed out that 'as an SS man he was particularly sensitive to the sight of Jews. He had therefore acted thoughtlessly in a spirit of adventure', cited in Gilbert, 1987, p 87).

Such atrocities demonstrate that the core of what was to become the Waffen SS was a repressive organisation from the outset. The armed SS was also closely integrated into the rest of the SS structure, particularly after November 1935, when the SS Central Bureau became responsible for the leadership functions, organisation and training of the General SS and Waffen SS (Wegner, 1990, p 85). On 17 April 1940 this integration was complete when Himmler issued a directive outlining the units which he intended to regard as part of the Waffen SS. As well as the combat units and their replacements, it, was to include the concentration camp guards, who were to wear the same uniform. At the same time, the Waffen SS Central Bureau became responsible for the equipping and training of the combat and guard units. The decree also stated that all transfers between the camps had now to pass via Waffen SS headquarters. From this period onwards, transfers between the camps and armed SS were to become common practice.

The April 1940 decree also stated that the SS Legal Main Office was to control the administration of court-martials and discipline within the Waffen SS. The Hitler order of 17 August 1938 had, it is true, provided that, in the event of mobilisation, the armed SS should come under military laws and regulations.

That provision was modified by the April 1940 decree and the earlier declaration of 17 October 1939 relating to jurisdiction in penal matters. These two decrees established a special jurisdiction for SS men, including members of the SS militarized units, in cases which would ordinarily fall under the jurisdiction of the Wehrmacht, and created special SS courts to handle such cases under the direction of the SS Legal Main Office. Thus, in the question of discipline and criminality, as well as in recruiting, administration, and supply, the Waffen SS was subject to the SS Supreme Command, not the army (Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, 1946, pp 173-237, document reference 2946-PS and 2947-PS).

Waffen SS troops in a fox-hole. They are armed with a belt-fed MG34 light machine gun. (Photo: (c) Author's Collection).]

Training and ethos

The training that Waffen SS recruits received also ensured that the armed SS remained part of Himmler's police empire. The ReichsfOhrer was adamant that the Waffen SS, under the military inspectorate, would not drift towards a position where it was indistinguishable from the army. Accordingly, only those who were already well-versed in Nazi idealism were accepted as recruits: 'Every pure-blooded German in good health [can] become a member. He must be of excellent character, have no criminal record, and be an ardent adherent to all National Socialist doctrines. Members of the 5treifendienst and of the Hitler Youth will be given preference because their aptitudes and schooling are indicative that they have become acquainted with the ideology of the SS' (Der Soldatenfreund cited in Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, 1946, pp 237-248, document reference 3429-PS).

Once accepted, the young Nazi idealist was subjected to further indoctrination from the SS troop commander and his counterpart at the RSHA. Himmler explained, 'I ask you to guide them, and not let them go before they are saturated with our spirit and are fighting as the old guard fought. We have only one task, to stand firm and carryon the racial struggle without mercy' (Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, 1946, pp 173-237, document reference 1919-PS). A document from the 1st SS Cavalry Regiment, 'Dienstanweisung Fur Weltanschauliche Erziehung (MA: 54/859), declared that 'ideological indoctrination cannot be achieved with one lecture a week. It must take place at all times and everywhere' (cited in Wegner, 1990, p 205). This meant that the recruit was subjected to the tenets of Nazism during manoeuvres, roll calls and even during meal times. An indication of the power of the SS ideological instruction is demonstrated in the fact that, by 1938, 53,6% of the SSVT had been persuaded to leave the church and by May 1940 only four men in the entire Totenkopf division had not renounced Christianity (Hohne, 1969, p 449; Sydnor, 1989, p 85). The Reichsfuhrer saw the churches as culturally stabilising institutions that preached the 'un-German' message of tolerance and peace.

Ideology would teach fanaticism and hate for Germany's enemies. In November 1943, the commander of the 10th SS Panzer Division, Frundsberg, demanded that 'every man should be trained to be a fanatical hater. It does not matter on which front the division is engaged, the unyielding hate towards every opponent, Englishmen, Jew, Bolshevik, must make everyone of our men capable of the highest deeds' (Militararchiv des Bundesarchiv RS3-1 0/-1, cited in Wegner, 1990, p 207). SS commanders realised that the basics of Nazi ideology, repeatedly drilled into the recruit, were vital in making their troops fight harder. The steadfastness of the Waffen SS during a critical phase of the war in 1943-5, strengthened this conviction.

Indoctrination in the principles of racial hatred was not enough. The members had to be ready and willing tools, prepared to carry out tasks of any nature, however distasteful. Absolute obedience was therefore the necessary foundation stone of the SS - 'Obedience must be unconditional. It corresponds to the conviction that the National Socialist ideology must reign supreme. He who is possessed by it and fights for it passionately subjects himself voluntarily to the obligation to obey. Every SS man is prepared, therefore, to carry out blindly every order which is issued by the Fuhrer' (The Organization Book of the NSDAP for 1943 cited in Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, pp 173-237, document reference 2640-PS).

Individual citizens are normally able to interpret loyalty within the framework of legal norms, but the SS declaration of loyalty to Hitler meant a renunciation of any freedom of choice. The situations and actions in which the loyalty of the armed SS man was to be called upon was therefore relegated to Hitler's orders. He demanded that the SS man place himself and his trust in the rightness of his decisions. This meant that murdering the regime's opponents or fighting bravely at the front was justified as it was part of what has been called 'working towards the Fuhrer', the attempt by various agencies, in this case the SS, to interpret what they supposed was Hitler's will. The belief that Hitler was the incarnation of the German people and its values, and the belief in the correctness of his mission, enabled all kinds of actions to occur in the name of loyalty. To refuse to carry out unsavoury acts like mass murder, which Himmler supposed were the Fuhrer's will, was to reject one's position in the SS.

We can learn much from the instruction used by Eicke among his Death's Head guards, the nucleus of the Totenkopf Division. Training began with the history of the NSDAP. just as the party had fought to free Germany from the Jews, the armed SS were to be an extension of this activism to the front-line soldiery. The second area of training involved racial and historical beliefs, while the third required an analysis of the enemies of Nazism-the Jews, Bolsheviks, Freemasons and Churches (Sydnor, 1989, p 28). The essence of this indoctrination was threefold. In Eicke's camps, the recruit was drilled to obey orders without question. He learned to hate the 'enemies behind the wire' as subhumans. Finally, he acquired a sense of camaraderie built around the theme that the Totenkopfverbande, with the role of guarding the most dangerous enemies of the state, constituted an elite within the SS (Sydnor, 1989, p 324). When the camp guards became the core of a new division, these themes went with them with two variations. The 'enemy behind the wire' became the racial foe beyond the frontier and the concept of Totenkopf elitism grew to incorporate the military virtues of self-sacrifice and contempt for cowardice. In Russia, the Totenkopf's experience in the camps suited the savage nature of the war. The Soviet soldier was depicted as a Jewish-Bolshevik animal that personified the most dangerous enemies. The ethnic identity and vicious resistance of the Russians reinforced this image. With their own indifference to hardship and hatred of the enemy, the Totenkopf developed a lust for killing Russians and fought with a corresponding tenacity.

The Waffen SS troops were taught a distorted view of the past, one based on racial struggle and 'Lebensraum'. The past provided a sense of continuity and showed the recruit that the Jews and Slavs had always been the enemies of Germany. This meant that the need for living space and a solution to the 'Jewish question' was deemed to be inevitable, the culmination of an ancient and mortal struggle. (Himmler summed up the importance of history when he spoke to Kampfgruppe Nord in July 1941, during the opening phase of the attack on the Soviet Union: 'When you, my men, fight over there in the east, then you are conducting the same struggle which our fathers and forefathers conducted again and again many centuries ago'. Neue Politische Literatur T-175/ 109/2683, cited in Wegner, 1990, p 14). This SS 'world-view' allowed crimes to be committed and partly explains Waffen SS atrocities, since men who felt right was on their side were prepared to use their military instruments with fewer scruples than those who felt obliged to uphold Christian or Prussian codes of honour.

At the same time ideological training was responsible for making the SS soldier fight with great tenacity. Men who had been taught to regard racial struggle as the most vital part of life appointed 'a more fundamental meaning to the basics of tactics, and to the demands of combat or weapons training than those who viewed this as necessary skills for the soldier's task' (Reitlinger, 1981, P 160).

This indoctrination was the same for all SS men and allowed Himmler to unite all the branches of his empire ideologically. For the Reichsfuhrer, an armed SS man was the same as an SO man or camp guard, the only difference being that he fought the racial enemy in different spheres. The SS stressed from the very beginning of the war that duty in the camps was no less soldierly than service at the front. Both were vital if the physical survival of the German race was to be guaranteed. This ideological outlook explains why Waffen SS men could be transferred to different branches. Paul Werner-Hope of the Totenkopf commanded an infantry battalion in Russia, but after being wounded in July 1942 he was transferred to the guard detachment at Auschwitz (Hahne, 1969, p 328). For Himmler, this is how it should have been, the ideal SS man, trained ideologically to serve in all spheres. Hausser and Steiner may have seen a distinction between their military role and the racial-political tasks of the rest of the SS, but there was no such distinction in the minds of the SS leadership.

At the centre of the Waffen SS training process was the Junker Cadet School. These training establishments produced the officer cadre of many of the elite SS divisions. The key role of the schools is demonstrated by the fact that the majority of Knight's Crosses awarded to Waffen SS officers were those made to graduates of the schools (Wegner, 1990, pp 309,314-15). The ideological position that we have outlined above was combined at Bad Talz and Brunswick schools with a sense of superiority, leadership instinct, aggressiveness, willingness to obey and a preparedness to take responsibility. However, despite the training and ideologically radical methods used to produce political soldiers, the schools failed to produce anything better than the old soldier Hausser. The pupils were not strategic thinkers, and few graduates rose to the highest rank of officer. Indeed, before 1938, some 40% of entrants had received no more than elementary education (Keegan, 1970, p 53). Their importance was as leaders who saw themselves as embodying a particular concept of political soldiery in everyday troop matters, such as performance and esprit de corps.

At the battalion and company level, the Junker graduates were formidable but brutal leaders. Kurt Meyer, holder of the Knight's Cross and commander of the Leibstandarte's reconnaissance battalion, is a good example. During the invasion of Greece, a detachment of the Leibstandarte attempted to take the Klissura Pass on 12 May 1941. As the Leibstandarte attacked, they were pinned down and forced to take cover. Meyer ordered his men forward, but the fire was so heavy that they refused. Shouting to his men to ensure they were watching, he pulled the pin out of a grenade and rolled it behind the rearmost man. The spell was broken and the SS dashed forward away from the grenade. Ignoring the Greek fire, they soon took the pass (Quarrie, 1986, p 37). Meyer demonstrated the vigour and brutality of the schools' pupils when he told a comrade that 'my regiment takes no prisoners' (Sayer & Bothing, 1989, p 1SS). Clearly, studying examinations with titles like 'The ideological opponents of the concept of the Reich and the measures needed to counter them' or 'Why our struggle in the East is the fulfilment of a historical task' had made their mark on Meyer (Wegner, 1990, p 171). By July 1944, every third regiment or battalion commander with the rank of Sturmbann or Obersturmbanfuhrer was a Junker graduate.

The schools clearly demonstrated the integration of the armed SS with the SS structure. Bad Tolz trained men for units outside the Waffen SS. Of the 1 138 graduates in 1939, 54% were sent to front-line units, the rest to reserve units, general SS and SO units. As we have seen, the ideology learnt at the schools was the same for all SS men, and they could be sent for duties with any part of the organisation. However, as the war progressed and casualty rates increased, this link with the pre-war SS did decline to some extent. The graduates that emerged in the latter part of the war had less ideological training. With the outbreak of war, one can detect a shift towards combat subjects in the Bad Tolz curriculum (Wegner, 1990, pp 166-7). To what extent these men were less 'ideologically complete' is unclear. It is certainly true that, as the war progressed, Himmler believed that the Waffen SS leadership was becoming more militaristic in attitude.

The heterogeneous composition of the Waffen SS in the early years meant that there was an uneven level of military performance. For example, the officer cadre of SS Standarte Deutschland in 1938 contained retired policemen, veterans from the First World War, officers from the general SS, and Junker graduates. As a result, a high level of military training was required for SS troops. There, accordingly, emerged a new form of military tactics under men like Steiner. From the outset, the system promoted combat training and manoeuvres at the expense of traditional drill. The focus was on battlefield tactics and independently thinking officers and NCOs. An SS recruit might be told to dig himself into the ground knowing that within a prescribed time tanks would drive over his head, whether the hole had been completed or not. A new form of soldiery emerged. Steiner's troops could cover 3km in full kit in twenty minutes. Such a thing was unheard of in the army (Reitlinger, 1981, P 178). Rigid formality and class structure between officers and other ranks were frowned upon. An officer held down his position only because he had proved himself a better soldier than his men, not because of any rank in society or superior education. In sports and exercise, one of the vital cogs in the Waffen SS training programme, officers and men competed as equals in an atmosphere that developed teamwork and mutual respect.


Degrelle, L, Epic - The Story of the Waffen SS (Institute for Historical Review, Torrance, California, 1983).
Gilbert, M, The Holocaust (Fontanna, London, 1987).
Grabner, G S, History of the SS (Granada Publishing, St Albans, 1980).
Blandford, E L, Hitler's Second Army - The Waffen SS (Motorbooks, Osceola Wis, 1995).
Grupp, R L, and Oehmsen, H, The Tracks of God - The Story of Henry Oehmsen, Waffen SS Soldier and Prisoner of the Soviets (J J Fedorowicz, Winnipeg, 2000).
Hausser, P, Waffen SS im Einsatz (Oldendorf, Schutz, 1977).
Hahne, H, The Order of the Death's Head (Secker and Warburg, London, 1969).
Keegan, J, The Waffen SS - The Asphalt Soldiers (Macdonald, London, 1970).
Large, D C, 'Reckoning without the Past - The HIAG of the Waffen SS and the Politics of Rehabilitation in the Bonn Republic 1950-61', published in the Journal of Modern History, Vol 59, No 1, 1987, pp 79-113.
Lucas, J, The Military Role of the 2nd SS Division (Cassell Military Books, London, 1999).
Meyer, K, Grenadiers (J J Fedorowicz, Winnipeg, 2001).
Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Vol II (USGPO, Washington, 1946).
Padfield, P, Himmler - Reichsfuhrer SS (Macmillan, London, 1991).
Quarrie, B, Hitler's Teutonic Knights - SS Panzers in Action (Patrick Stephens Ltd, London, 1986).
Reitlinger, G, The SS - Alibi of a Nation 1922-1945 (Arms and Armour Press, London, 1981).
Sayer, I and Bothing, D, Hitler's Last General - The case against Wilhelm Mohnke (Batam Press, London, 1989).
Steiner, F, Die Freiwilligen der Waffen SS, Idea und Opfergang (Oldendorf, Schutz, 1973).
Sydnor, C W, Soldiers of Destruction - The SS Death's Head Division 1933-1945 (Guild Publishing, London, 1989).
Theile, K H, Beyond Monster and Clowns - The Combat SS, Demythologizing five decades of German elite formations (University Press of America, London, 1999).
Wegner, B, The Waffen SS - Organization, Ideology and Function (Blackwell, Oxford, 1990).
Weidinger, O, Comrades to the End - The 4th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment Der Fuhrer 1939-45, (Schiffer Military History, 1998).
Whiting, C, Joachim Peiper - Battle Commander SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (Leo Cooper, London, 1999).
Yerger, M, Knights of Steel- The Structure, Development and Personalities of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, Vols 1-2 (M J Horestky, Hershey PA, 1989).

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /