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The runes of the SS, seen on collar patches and the side of helmets.
A lunatic Chaplin imitator
and his greatest fans

Icon nazi.svg
First as tragedy
Then as farce
Err, Hans... Have you looked at our caps recently? They've got skulls on them. Have you noticed that our caps have actually got little pictures of skulls on them?
Hans... are we the baddies?
Mitchell and Webb Look[1]

The Schutzstaffel (German for "Protection Staff") or simply SS; also stylized as ᛋᛋ was an organization that originated in the 1920s as part of the Nazi Party and later became the primary security, intelligence, and law enforcement agency of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. It was commanded by a Nazi loyalist who was given the title of "Reichsführer-SS" ("National Leader-SS"); for most of the SS's existence this was Heinrich Himmler. The SS is also notable for being the organization most responsible for planning and carrying out the Holocaust.


When the Nazi Party formed in Munich, Germany in the aftermath of World War I, as was common in other populist right-wing/fascist parties of the time, it created its own private militia called the Sturmabteilung ("Assault Section"), also known as the SA or simply "Brownshirts" (due to their peculiar brown uniforms). The SA was originally largely World War I veterans and disaffected young men united in their hatred of the unstable Weimar Republic, the "November Criminals", and Jews. They would engage in public beatings and street battles with members of opposition parties, particularly the Communists.[2] With this in mind, the Nazi Party's leader, Adolf Hitler, came to believe that he needed his own personal bodyguards to protect against Communist assassins or even rogue Brownshirts, since he didn't fully trust the SA. In 1923 the Party created a Saal-Schutz ("Hall Security") to act as bouncers at party meetings, but Hitler demanded more.[3]

Later in 1923, the Stosstrupp-Hitler ("Shock Troop-Hitler") was formed; it was an eight-man squad of World War I veterans subordinate to the SA and sworn to protecting Hitler himself[4]. However, later in that same year the Nazis tried to overthrow the government of the state of Bavaria in the so-called Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt which failed miserably. Hitler wound up in prison, and the Party was forced to disband[note 1][5] In December 1923, on condition that the Nazis promise not to try another coup d'etat, Hitler was released from prison early and the Nazi Party re-formed.[6] The Stosstrupp was also rebuilt in early 1925 but it went through a series of reorganizations and name changes until they settled on the name Schutzstaffel.

As the 1920s rolled on, the SS leaders began to chafe at having to be subordinate to the SA. The SS considered the SA to be the lower class "rabble" and viewed itself as some sort of highly-disciplined order of holy knights, utterly loyal to Hitler and totally dedicated to Nazi ideology. So the SS didn't particularly like having "the rabble" bossing them around. In 1929, Heinrich Himmler became the Reichsführer-SS and under his leadership, the organization began to grow and gain power within the party as it took on more and more responsibilities, while the SA continued to simply act as a drunken street gang (although thanks to looser standards, the SA continued to grow rather large and by 1934 had over 2 million members). One such responsibility is that in 1931, Himmler created the Sicherheitsdienst ("Security Service") or SD, which initially spied on Nazi members for disloyalty but it also spied on other parties and government agencies;[7] Reinhard "The Young God of Death" Heydrich was its leader, a man so evil that even Hitler referred to him as "the man with the iron heart". Himmler also worked to split the SS off from the SA, making it more independent... and he began whispering in Hitler's ear about how the SA, and in particular its popular leader and Hitler's close personal friend Ernst Röhm, were a threat.

The Nazi Regime[edit]

After Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, the SS quickly began assuming overall control of Germany's law enforcement, security, and intelligence agencies, and began changing them to fit Nazi ideology, part of a larger process the Nazis called GleichschaltungWikipedia ("Synchronization"). The Geheime Staatspolizei ("Secret State Police") or Gestapo was formed as a national secret police force in April 1933 and was soon put under Himmler's control. The SS also began opening large prisons called concentration camps to house political prisoners; later "unwanted peoples" (such as Jews) would be added. The camps started with the Dachau campWikipedia near Munich in April 1933. At the end of June 1934, Himmler's dream of destroying Röhm finally came true.

On the night of June 30, 1934, known as the "Night of the Long KnivesWikipedia", Hitler's loyalists in the SS and Gestapo went around Germany arresting old political rivals like Hitler's predecessor Kurt von SchleicherWikipedia; "leftist" Nazis known as StrasseristsWikipedia; people who happened to annoy Hitler[note 2][note 3]; and Ernst Röhm along with much of the SA leadership. These "threats" were summarily executed or were thrown into prison/concentration camps so they could eventually die. In the aftermath, the SA was reassigned to be under the SS's control; the SA ceased to be an important organization in the regime, although it notably played a major role in Kristallnacht ("The Night of Broken Glass") in November 1938, when Nazis and civilians went around destroying what remained of Jewish-owned businesses and synagogues in Germany.

Himmler and the Nazis got major boners from arbitrarily reorganizing things, and as you may have noticed, that happened quite a bit already. In that spirit, in September 1934, the SS was split into three main subordinate organizations, all still under the leadership of Himmler as Reichsführer-SS:

  1. SS-Verfügungstruppe ("SS-Disposition Troops") or SS-VT, a military force that wasn't connected to the police or regular military, and answerable to Hitler himself.[8]
  2. SS-Totenkopfverbände ("SS-Death's Head Units") or SS-TV, the special police who ran the concentration camps and related activities.[9]
  3. Allgemeine SS ("General SS"), which was everything else under the SS purview.

Later in 1939, Himmler did another major reorganization where he created the Reichssicherheitshauptamt ("High Office of the Nation's Security") or RSHA, another SS office that further streamlined command of Germany's police forces into two divisions under one big office. Heydrich was put in charge of the RSHA as well as the SD[note 4] until his assassination in Prague in 1942, at which point Himmler temporarily took over and eventually handed the reins to Ernst KaltenbrunnerWikipedia for the remainder of Nazi Germany's existence. Oh... and Himmler had thousands of Czechs slaughtered in retaliation for Heydrich's assassination, including completely eradicating a small townWikipedia that Hitler erroneously believed had sheltered the assassins.[10]

In September 1939, SS agents under Heydrich's command carried out a false flag attack on a German radio station near the Polish border, which Hitler used as a pretext to invade Poland and officially start World War II.[11] With Poland quickly defeated and occupied, the SS began the process of rounding up Jews and shipping them to live in ghettos in Poland. The original plan was for the Jews to then be shipped to a colony in MadagascarWikipedia, but when that proved to be too expensive for their tastes, Heydrich and Himmler had to come up with a new "final solution" to "the Jewish Question". The solution they came up with was what they called Operation ReinhardWikipedia, but what we commonly call... the Holocaust. This is where the Holocaust really gets underway, as concentration camps were built in Poland and other occupied countries with the express purpose of forcing Jews and other "unwanted people" to work to death, and when that took too long, to murder them by other means.[12]

Waffen-SS at Hitler's parade in Berlin, 1938.

In 1940, the SS-VT was reorganized as the Waffen-SS ("Armed-SS"), which over the course of World War II would gain a reputation for being a particularly dangerous and ruthless military arm of the Nazi regime, known for its barbaric acts such as the massacre of American POWs and Belgian civiliansWikipedia during the Battle of the BulgeWikipedia in late 1944. Additionally, special SS Einsatzgruppen ("Task Groups") (which fell under the umbrella of the RSHA) would follow the German military as it invaded and occupied countries like Poland and the Soviet Union; these Einsatzgruppen would then ruthlessly slaughter Jews, Communists, Roma, and anyone else the Nazis didn't like. The various SS organizations were responsible for numerous wartime atrocities, including torture,[13] human experimentation,[14][15] kidnapping of children,[16] mass rape,[17] child sexual abuse,[18] and, of course, mass murder.[19][20]

All bad things must come to an end[edit]

As World War II dragged on and Germany began really losing, things also started going badly for Himmler and the SS. In July 1944, disillusioned officers in the German army attempted to assassinate Hitler by detonating a bomb during one of his meetings with his military commanders ; the attempt failed and Hitler only suffered relatively minor injuries. In the aftermath, Hitler began increasingly relying on his personal secretary Martin BormannWikipedia to handle domestic affairs so that Hitler could manage foreign affairs and military strategy. Additionally, Bormann was the person who got to decide who could meet Hitler and when, which gave him enormous influence over the regime. Bormann was effectively the behind-the-scenes ruler of Germany, and Himmler had lost his powerful place at Hitler's side.[21]

Despite this, Himmler's SS continued carrying out the Holocaust. Himmler issued orders that concentration camp inmates were not allowed to be liberated by the Allied Powers, and guards began stepping up the slaughter. As the Allies advanced into Nazi-occupied Europe, the SS would evacuate the camps, forcing inmates into brutal death marches to other camps closer to the German heartland.[22] Inmates who could not travel were simply executed and left to rot. When Allied forces got too close to a camp too fast, the guards would gun down inmates until they ran out of bullets, lock the camp, and flee, leaving the surviving inmates to die of exposure or starvation. At the Wöbbelin camp, as American paratroopers shot the locks off the front gates, the SS guards fled out the back.[23]

Some high-ranking SS officers began trying to find a way to make peace with the increasingly victorious Allies behind Hitler's back, naively hoping they'd be granted clemency or even be allowed to join the Allies. Seeing that tensions were rising between the Western Allies and the Soviet, some even offered to surrender and join the British and Americans in a war against the Soviet Union.[24] The SS commander in northern Italy did actually surrender a few days before Germany surrendered.[25] At the end of April 1945, Himmler secretly offered for Germany to unconditionally surrender to Eisenhower, despite not being legally allowed to make such an offer. Eisenhower chose not to respond and instead broadcast news of the offer on the radio, which thoroughly enraged Hitler, who considered it treason.[26] Hitler fired Himmler, expelled him from the Nazi Party, and ordered his summary execution - and then committed suicide two days later. Himmler escaped and tried to disappear into the countryside after Germany surrendered on May 8; he was captured and wound up imprisoned by the British, where he committed suicide by taking poison.[27][28]

Other SS officers were more successful in their flight. Some were able to meld back into post-war German society under assumed identities. Others managed to flee to other countries, particularly in South America.[29] Some were captured by vengeful Soviets, and were never seen again. SS troops captured by the western Allies were immediately imprisoned with the expectation that they would eventually be put on trial for their crimes once the war was over. With Himmler dead, RSHA chief Kaltenbrunner, the highest ranking SS officer who was captured, became the new face of the SS and was put on trial at Nuremberg. Kaltenbrunner was found guilty of crimes against humanity and participation in war crimes, and on October 14, 1946, he was hanged. The SS, SD, and Gestapo were rightfully declared to be criminal organizations at the Nuremberg trials.[30]

The Waffen-SS[edit]

Burning homes in Warsaw.

By 1943 the Waffen-SS accounted for more than ten percent of total German military strength and 25 percent of their tank strength. They were the elite of the German war machine, armed with all the best tanks and equipment, and they were rushed from one crisis to another much like a bathtub plug. They were embroiled in war with the Soviets on the Eastern Front, and they fought in all the most decisive battles of the war.[31] Interestingly, Hitler's delaying of the deployment of an elite SS armored division (12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend) near Normandy probably contributed to the success of the Allied assault there in June 1944.

Probably the most interesting part of the Waffen-SS was that despite being the Nazi Party's elite and the most "Aryan" among them, the Waffen-SS recruited heavily from the "inferior" peoples.[32] By far the largest contingent in the SS were Slavic Ukrainians, with over 100,000 soldiers in the SS. The SS first tried to recruit from 'Germanic' non-Germans, like the Dutch, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Estonians, Flemish, and Swiss, but when that proved insufficient, they moved on to 'Non-Germanic' Aryans like the French, Waloons, Italians, Spanish, and Hungarians. Then, not even out of desperation, they formed SS divisions out of the aforementioned Ukrainians, Cossacks, Lithuanians, Latvians, Tatars, Bosniaks, Croats, and there were even Indians, Africans, and Arabs who served willingly in the SS in the hope that the Germans would free them from the British or the French.[33] The willingness of these groups to join is best explained by wanting the raw power of the Axis to settle local disputes in their favor—the Baltic groups and Ukrainians wanted independence from the Soviets (though given what we know about Generalplan OstWikipedia that would not have gone well) while Bosniaks and Croats had a grudge to settle with Serbs over ethic Serbian dominance in royal Yugoslavia.

Murdering prisoners in Western Poland.

The Waffen-SS is known for being one of the most brutal of the Nazi fighting organizations, and they certainly were; however the atrocities of the combat divisions are comparatively low to those of the SS Police, SS-Einsatzgruppen, and the SS-TV concentration camp guards. Nevertheless, the Waffen-SS still committed numerous atrocities, mainly massacres of POWs, and much of their reputation as "honorable" warriors concerned only with patriotic duty is a result of historical revisionism. Indeed, the Waffen-SS veterans group HIAGWikipedia campaigned vigorously for the rehabilitation of the SS's reputation, riding on the coattails of the Clean WehrmachtWikipedia myth. Many of the same war crimes that were leveled against the Waffen-SS can also be, to some extent, leveled against the Wehrmacht, and vice verse.


  1. Although it didn't actually disband, it simply renamed itself the "German Party" and quietly waited for Hitler to be released from prison.
  2. For example the writers of Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen's "Marburg speech"Wikipedia of May 1934 that had criticized Hitler's increasing authoritarianism. Papen lost his job and spent the rest of his time with the Nazi regime as an ambassador. The speechwriters were not so lucky...
  3. Another example being Otto Ballerstedt,Wikipedia a pro-monarchy rival of Hitler's in the early 1920s; at a speech in September 1921, Hitler physically assaulted Ballerstedt and was imprisoned for a month. Ballerstedt would be a victim of the Night of the Long Knives too.
  4. By this point, the SD had evolved into the primary "thought police" of the regime, dutifully spying on citizens for any signs of disloyalty or rebellion, and quickly "disappearing" any suspects.


  1. SS sketch
  2. SA, Britannica
  3. How a group of beer hall thugs became one of the most sinister paramilitary formations of WWII, MSN
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Stoßtrupp-Hitler.
  5. Beer Hall Putsch,
  6. Before He Rose to Power, Adolf Hitler Staged a Coup and Went to Prison, Smithsonian Magazine
  7. THE SICHERHEITSDIENST (SD), United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  8. The SS (Schutzstaffel): SS-Verfügungstruppe, Jewish Virtual Library
  9. The SS (Schutzstaffel): Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Head Formations), Jewish Virtual Library
  10. LIDICE: THE ANNIHILATION OF A CZECH TOWN, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  11. How a False Flag Sparked World War Two: The Gleiwitz Incident Explained, HistoryHit
  12. Anatomy of a Monster: Reinhard Heydrich, Bleecker Street
  13. Oskar Dirlewanger: The Nazi Who Even Other Nazis Thought Was Cruel And Depraved All That's Interesting
  14. Timeline of Dachau Jewish Virtual Library
  15. Did Nazis Study Insects for Use in Biological Warfare? LiveScience
  16. Stolen Children: Interview with Gitta Sereny Jewish Virtual Library
  17. Holocaust Women's Media Center
  18. Holocaust film reveals long-hushed child sex abuse Times of Israel
  19. The Einsatzgrϋppen Holocaust Research Project
  20. Operation Reinhard US Holocaust Memorial Museum]
  21. Martin Bormann, Jewish Virtual Library
  22. LIBERATION OF NAZI CAMPS, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  23. Remembering the liberation of Wöbbelin, U.S. Army Center of Military History
  24. SS: DECLINE, DISINTEGRATION, AND TRIALS, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  25. Karl Wolff, Holocaust Historical Society
  27. SS: DECLINE, DISINTEGRATION, AND TRIALS, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  28. Arrest and suicide of Heinrich Himmler, Anne Frank House
  29. How South America Became a Nazi Haven,
  30. The SS "Judgement : The Accused Organizations" Avalon Project.
  31. WAFFEN-SS, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  32. See the Wikipedia article on Waffen-SS foreign volunteers and conscripts.
  33. Christer Jorgensen. Hitler's Renegades. Spellmount Publishers, 2003.