A brief history of the SS

The period from 1923 to 1933

The SS (Schutzstaffel der NSDAP – the Protective Echelon of NSDAP) was formed on April 1, 1925, and its first and most important task was to protect Adolf Hitler. From 1926 the SS operated under the SA (Sturmabteilung – Storm Detachment) and after the Röhm-Putsch (also known as the Night of the Long Knives) it was an independent paramilitary organization. After this event the party and the state's security corps grew out of the SS. A wholly military branch (Waffen-SS or Armed-SS) became an additional unit for the SS (Allgemeine-SS or Universal SS). The additional branch's task was to protect the Reich from foreign enemies.

Those who want to understand the tasks and essence of the SS have to investigate its history and see how the organization gained more and more important tasks through completing smaller ones with hard work. The story of the SS, a subdivision of a bigger organization, is very much connected with the development of national socialism as the main mental attitude. To get a clear picture of the history of the SS we should turn back to the first days of national socialism. 1920s were critical for Germany. After the World War Germany had lost its external market, and inflation and unemployment grew in the whole country. According to the Treaty of Versailles Germany had 13.6% of its territory and 12.6% of its population. 8 million Germans decided to live outside the post-war state border.

The state still struggled to cope with the results of the World War I. Germany had to compensate for the damages done in the war to victors, but the only way it could do that was on the expense of its own resources. The country that was completely devastated thanks to the war, and its victors, failed to offer its people enough jobs and safety. People were desperate. They started to believe different parties that all promised to make the situation better. Like two hostile worlds, the communists and national socialists (left-wing and right-wing extremists) crashed.

February 24, 1920 Germany's National Socialist Labour Party (NSDAP) was formed in Munich, in short it was called the Nazi Party. At the beginning the party had about few hundred members but after Hitler gained power in Germany the membership expanded to several millions (in 1945 it had 8.5 million members). The party was confidently anti-communist and respected the Arian race.

In November 1920 the Gymnastic and Sports Division of NSDAP was formed (Turn- und Sportabteilung), but in its disguise the party started to form military units. Their first task was to maintain order in meetings and keep guard. In 1921 Hitler named this organization SA. By that time 300 men belonged to the organization. Letters SA derived from "Sturmabteilung" which meant "stormtroops". SA was paramilitary organization of NSDAP. Because of their brown uniforms they were called the Brownshirts. During the years many war and free corps (Freikorps) veterans had joined the organization. From 1931 to 1934 Ernst Röhm was its leader, he was Hitler's companion-in-arms and also his political rival.

The main task of the Brownshirts was to keep order at the meetings of NSDAP and to promote nationalism. They had angry street and bar fights with communists and other hostile parties.

During 1920s and 1930s the Brownshirts mainly dealt with fights and provoked people against the government. They had to find a place in German society.

The first traces of SS date back to the early stages of NSDAP. In 1923 when SA was growing, Hitler chose 100 best and most loyal men to be his bodyguards, the name of this new unit was Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler. Their symbol was a black hat with a skull sign on it.

A march for Feldherrnhalle took place in Munich on November 9, 1923, and this event ended with bloodshed. Five of Hitler's bodyguards were killed by the police, one of them was standing directly on the right from Hitler. After this event Hitler and several other NSDAP leaders were arrested. During his time of imprisonment in Landesberg prison Hitler wrote "Mein Kampf" with the help of Rudolf Hess. Strosstrupp was banned and automatically dismissed with its other party formations.

When the party was reestablished in 1925, SA as the protective institution of the movement remained banned. In addition, NSDAP was not allowed to have meetings or whatsoever conventions in Prussia and Bavaria. National socialists were only allowed to gather in completely red Saxony and Thuringia. On April 1 Julius Schreck received an order to form a unit out of Adolf Hitler's Leibstandarte (Bodygurad Regiment) and this later became the core of SS. Hermann Göring proposed to name the unit the Protective Echelon (Schutzstaffel) because this name was one of the few names that was not banned like many other free corps names.

The Protective Echelons

In 1935 Hitler gave a command to form a flexible organization to protect the gatherings of NSDAP: the Protective Echelons (Schutz-Staffeln). These were rather small groups, mostly with one leader and ten men. For example, there was only one echelon in Berlin. With the help of these new units the party managed to organize its meetings in Saxony and Thuringia on 1925 and 1926. In 1926 SA was allowed to operate again and during the next years the Protecive Echelons withdrew to the background. In 1925 the leader gave an order to put up SS and on January 6, 1929, Heinrich Himmler became the Reichsführer-SS and he got the command to reorganize SS. This organization consisted of 280 especially selected and loyal men. As a comparison it can be said that SA had 250,000 men.

Reichsführer-SS said the following about the essence of SS in one of his speeches: "We have stepped on the arena and we march according to unchangeable laws now, like one proper, national socialist, soldierly Northern men order and its tribal sworn union; we march on the path to our distant future and we hope and we wish: we do not want to be simply grandchildren who fought better, but we want to be the forefathers of latter Germanic nations' races who will live forever."

Becoming a member of SS

Being accepted to SS was a rather difficult and long process, because it was an elite organization based on race and conception of the world. The SS member candidate (SS-Bewerber) had to be 172 cm tall and his appearance had to be Arian-Northern. His family tree had to date back to 1750 and it could not contain people of non-Arian race (these restraints were eased during the war). Himmler has said: "Our first guideline has been and will be understanding the blood value and selection. This qualification was valid in 1929 and is valid as long as the Protective Echalon exists. … The selection concentrates on selecting those men who physically resemble Northern men. External traits like height and race were and still are extremely important."

When a suitable Hitler Youth SS member candidate turned 18, he became officially SS candidate (Bewerber). The same year he received a SS certificate on the party day as an SS post-graduate (Anwärter) and on November 9 he gave his vow to the Führer. As a SS-Anwärter he received his first defence sports badge (Wehrsportabzeichen) during his first year in the echalon and he also received his first state sports badge (Reichssportabzeichen). When he turned 19 or 19 and a half, depending on when the annual volume was entered into service, he moved on to the Reich Labour Service (Arbeitsdienst) and then to the defence force (Wehrmacht). After serving two years in the defence forces he is free to leave if he does not wish to stay there longer. Those who decided to return to SS were still named SS-Anwärters. They were taught ideology, SS principles, order to marry and SS law of honour until their official acceptance. After a SS-Anwärter returned from the defence forces and fulfilled all requirements, he was accepted as a SS-man on the next 9th November to the Protective Echalon. The same day he received the right to wear SS-dagger and swore that he and his family will remain faithful to SS principles through times. He received the right and obligation, like the law of the echalon stated, to protect his honour according to the law of honour of the Black Corps. He remained active in the Main-SS until the age of 35. After this he was transferred to SS-Reserve if he wished and when he reached 45 he was transferred to SS-Stammabteilung.

The structure and organization of SS

After Himmler was appointed to the RFSS position the SS started to expand rapidly: in 1930 it had 2,000 men, in 1931 already 10,000. In 1931 SS department SD (Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers-SS) was formed according to the principles of SS, its first aim was to be the security service of SS and of the party, and later serve the whole Reich. At the same time the forerunner of the Race and Settlement Main Office was established, which dealt with marriage applications and SS members' ancestry.

The SS can unofficially be divided into three: Allgemeine-SS, SS-Totenkopfstandarten, SS-Verfügungstruppe. Later two last subdivisions formed the Waffen-SS.

It has to be said that the structure and organization of SS are both quite complex. From 1929 to 1945 the echalon went through a lot of changes. Main-SS was divided into 14 upper divisions (Oberabschnitt), 38 divisions, 104 infantry regiments, 19 mounted troops regiments, 14 logistics battalions, 9 pioneer battalions, and there were truck and sanitary units. Upper divisions that were leaded by one SS-Obergruppenführer or simply Gruppenführer were divided into divisions (Abschnitte), regiments (Standarten), battalions (Sturmbane) and units (Stürme). These territorial units in Germany, like SS-Brigade Bayern or SS-Gruppe Süd, should not be mistaken with latter Waffen-SS divisions.

In addition to the Main-SS other important units were the SS Dispositional Troops (SS-VT) and SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), less important units were the security service and the Race and Settlement Agency (Rasse- und Siedlungswesen).

The highest power of the SS Reichsführer for the Main-SS is the SS Head Office (SS-Hauptamt) in Berlin. The highest power for the security service was the SS Security Head Office (Sicherheitshauptamt) in Berlin. The highest power for the race and settlement organs was the Race and Settlement Head Office in Berlin. Besides these head offices there were the following service units that also operated under the SS Reichsführer's command and had the essence of a head office: SS Reichsführer's Personal Head Quarters (Persönlicher Stab des reichsführers-SS), the SS Head of Administration (Verwaltungschef), SS Head of Personnel (Personalchef) – these three were situated in Berlin; there also were the SS Head of Courts (Chef des SS-Gerichts) in Munich, and the Head of the Police Force (Chef des Ordnungspolizei), SS-Obergruppenführer and Police General Daulege, with the ranking of the head office leader.

The period from 1934 to 1937

SS played an important role during the Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934, when the coup of Röhm was being suppressed. Röhm was a longtime rival of Hitler and he was the representative of left side forces (the socialists) in NSDAP. There were rumors that Röhm had said the following: "National revolution already took place, socialist revolution is waiting ahead." Thanks to the fast reaction of SS the coup was suppressed quickly (besides SS Gestapo's units and the army also helped). Röhm and other important leaders of SA were arrested. Furious Hitler penalized the putsch organisers with death penalty. According to Röhm's follower Viktor Lutze 82 members of SA were eliminated during this action.

After suppressing the coup on July 20, 1934, Hitler announced: "Looking at the great favors of SS during the events on June 30, 1934, I declare this organization independent from NSDAP." The role of the SA, on the other hand, decreased. On June 30, 1934, SS also began to manage the concentration camps, which so far had been under the supervision of the SA.

Originally two more units were under the SS. First, the SS Dispositional Troops (SS-VT) that consisted of volunteers who did not have to go through compulsory military service thanks to their four-year service under the organization. This unit consisted of three battalions of men with very good training. They were well armed and kept ready for battle to suppress possible revolts.

Another unit was SS-Wachverbände or SS-Totenkopfverbände (on March 29, 1936, it was renamed to Totenkopfverbände) – the so-called skull unit, which was meant to supervise the concentration camps. In 1936 this unit had 3,500 men.

During the years of 1934 to 1939 SS was widely expanding and it governed the political police and increased its power in the government. On June 17, 1936 Himmler became the highest leader of police and step by step started to govern Gestapo and other state's police formations (Kripo, Sipo, Schupo). On September 27, 1939 a seven department Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) was formed, and it was the most important one of the twelve head offices of SS. In 1942 concentration camps were subordinated to SS-Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl's Main SS Economic and Administrative Department (WVHA).

Himmler, who now had an enormous power in his hands, wished to own the army too. In case of a war the best SS members would have left the organization and joined the army (Wehrmacht). Nevertheless, by September 1, 1939, 60% of SS members had been called to the army. German Wehrmacht of 1930s still remained a typical European army. Himmler understood that if a new war would break out only those units will be successful, which are very well equipped. The same had already happened in World War I. These were exactly the type of units Himmler planned to establish.

On October 1, 1936 SS-Gruppenführer Paul Hausser was appointed on the position of SS-Verfügunstruppe or the SS-forces inspector. Hausser started to form new units and from this year on we can talk about the forerunner of the Waffen-SS. SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) and SS-Verfügunstruppe (SS-VT) were under the command of the SS Head Office (SS-Hauptamt) in Berlin. Until the beginning of World War II SS-Obergruppenführer Heissmeyer was the head of this office, later SS-Gruppenführer Hans Jüttner took this job, followed by SS-Obergruppenführer Gottleb Berger.

In 1937 the SS schools for officers (SS-Junkerschule) Bad Tölz (established 1934) and Braunschweig (established 1935) were renamed to Junkerschule.

November 13, 1937 first regional Höhere SS and Polizeiführers (HSSPF) were appointed.

SS was more and more becoming to be a state within a state and Himmler had become the second important man in the Reich. Some examples: SS publications were no longer censored by the Propaganda Ministry, SS established own manufacturing enterprises, organization had its own laws and codes of honour, Kaitsemaleval had its own army (Waffen-SS), etc. This type of developments would have continued even after the war, there were planned SS colonies and the state wanted to expand to Eastern areas.