I am posting today in answer to a comment made by “tampalam” on my post about the scene in Shutter Island where SS soldiers are killed by the American liberators of Dachau.
“Tampalam” wrote: “I have no pity for any member of the SS. They knew what they were doing and they knew about the holocaust. There is no distinction between regular and Waffen SS. However, the summary execution of any person who has surrendered is wrong.”
This opinion of the SS seems to be shared by many people who believe Allied propaganda about the SS, which is totally wrong with regard to the true nature of the SS.
First of all, there was a distinction between “regular” and Waffen-SS. I assume that “tampalam” was referring to the Totenkopfverbände as the “regular” SS. Totenkopfverbände means Death’s Head unit; these were the SS soldiers who guarded the camps. However, “tampalam” is right that the guards and the Waffen-SS sodliers were interchangeable: the Death’s Head SS soldiers could be sent to the battle front at any time, and Waffen-SS soldiers could be sent to the camps for guard duty when they were wounded in battle and could no longer fight.
The letters SS stand for Schutzstaffel, which means protection squad. The SS started in 1925 with 8 men who were Hitler’s personal body guards. The Waffen-SS was the combat unit of the SS; the term Waffen-SS literally means “Weapons SS.”
The Waffen-SS was founded in 1939 after the SS was split into two units. The title of Waffen-SS became official on 2 March, 1940. Although nominally under the leadership of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the Waffen-SS saw action during World War II under the de facto operational control of the Wehrmacht, which was the regular German army. By the end of World War II, the Waffen-SS had grown to 39 Divisions, which served as elite combat troops alongside the Wehrmacht.
In American terms, the Waffen-SS was comparable to the US Marines, but unlike the Marines, the Waffen-SS had volunteer divisions from many other countries. In 1944, there were 910,000 soldiers fighting on the side of Germany in the Waffen-SS, but less than half of these SS men had been born in Germany; there were 310,000 ethnic Germans from other countries such as Rumania, Yugoslavia and Hungary who were fighting with the Waffen-SS.
The photo above shows a Polish prisoner at Dachau who was given a rifle by the American liberators and allowed to confront a Hungarian SS soldier, who was sent from the battlefield to surrender the Dachau camp. Notice the cap that the Hungarian soldier is wearing. This same Polish prisoner, who was a member of the Polish Resistance, is shown in the center of the photo below, celebrating the killing of Waffen-SS soldiers at Dachau. Notice that he has a cigarette hanging out of his mouth in both photos.
Altogether, there were 200,000 volunteers in the SS from other countries including Great Britain. There were 40,000 Spanish volunteers in the Waffen-SS, and another 40,000 volunteers from Belgium. The Dutch volunteers numbered 50,000. There were 20,000 Frenchmen in the Charlemagne Division from France, and there was a Flemish Division from Flanders.
The Waffen-SS included three Divisions from Finland, and volunteers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Denmark. There were also Waffen-SS units from the Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Armenia.
So why were soldiers from other countries fighting on the side of Germany? Because the Germans were fighting the Communists, and these soldiers did not want Europe to be taken over by the Communists. America fought on the side of Communism and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave half of Europe to the Communists at the Yalta Conference. It was not until 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, that Europe was freed from Communism.
John Toland wrote in his book entitled “Adolf Hitler,” that Himmler wanted his SS soldiers “to be hard but not hardened.” Regarding Himmler’s reason for establishing SS training centers, such as the one at Dachau, Toland wrote the following:
He imbued the SS, therefore, not only with a sense of racial superiority but with the hard virtues of loyalty, comradeship, duty, truth, diligence, honesty and knighthood. His SS, as the elite of the party, was the elite of the German Volk, and therefore the elite of the entire world. By establishing castles of the order to indoctrinate SS members in his ideals, he hoped to breed a New Man, “far finer and more valuable than the world had yet seen.”
The “castle of the order” referred to in the paragraph above was located at Wewelsburg, Germany. You can read all about the Wewelsburg castle here.
The words on the SS emblem, translated into English, are “My Honor is named Loyalty.”
The SS soldiers were held to higher standards than regular Wehrmacht soldiers in the German Army and the SS was subjected to the strictest discipline. Sentences handed down by SS courts were more severe than sentences passed by other courts for the same offense. A separate wing on the east side of the bunker (camp prison) at Dachau was reserved for SS soldiers who had committed a criminal act. This section has been torn down and can no longer be seen at the Dachau Memorial Site. When Dachau was liberated on April 29, 1945, there were 128 SS men incarcerated in the Dachau bunker. They were released and given the job of guarding the prisoners until the American liberators arrived. Most of the regular guards at Dachau had fled the night before the camp was liberated.
At the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, SS Lt. General Ernst Kaltenbrunner testified that there were 13 Stammlager (main concentration camps) in the Nazi camp system. One of these camps was Matzgau, located near Danzig; it was a camp where SS guards were imprisoned for offenses such as physical mistreatment of concentration camp prisoners, embezzlement, or theft. Yet tour guides at Dachau routinely tell visitors that the guards could do anything they wanted to with regard to abusing or killing the prisoners.
In 1943, a Waffen-SS officer named Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen, who was also an attorney, was authorized by Himmler to conduct investigations into corruption and brutality in the concentration camps. Around 800 investigations of the SS were conducted, which resulted in around 200 indictments. Among those who were indicted by Morgen was Amon Goeth, the Commandant who was featured in the film, Schindler’s List. Goeth was arrested and was awaiting trial when World War II ended. Dr. Morgen spent two months at Dachau doing an investigation of the camp but found no crimes that had been committed by the SS men at Dachau. The Dachau commandant, Martin Gottfried Weiss, was given a good report. Yet he was prosecuted by an American Military Tribunal and hanged after he was convicted. His crime was that he was the Commandant of a Nazi concentration camp and as such, he was a war criminal.
Even before Morgen started his investigations, two of the Commandants of Dachau, Hilmar Wäckerle and Alex Piorkowski, had been dismissed from their jobs by Himmler, after accusations of murder in the camp were brought to his attention. The common belief that the SS guards at Dachau and other camps were allowed to abuse or kill the prisoners is completely unfounded. In spite of this, tour guides at Dachau tell visitors that the SS men were trained in a “school of terror” at Dachau, when they were actually trained to be concentration camp administrators.
You can read more about the history of the SS on my web site here.
Update, May 26, 2010: A former German SS soldier, who is now an American citizen, wrote a book entitled “SS Panzergrenadier: A True Story of World War II,” about his army service when he was a teen-aged volunteer in the 1st SS Leibstandarte Division of the Waffen-SS. In his book, Schmidt defends the SS and describes the life of an SS soldier in World War II. He also writes about his days as a member of the Hitler Youth.
The photo below is from the cover of his book.