Early history; LSSAH, SS-VT
After humble beginnings as a protection unit for the NSDAP leadership, the Waffen-SS eventually grew into a huge force of thirty-eight combat divisions comprising over 950,000 men. In the Nuremberg Trials, the Waffen-SS was condemned as part of a criminal organisation, and therefore Waffen-SS veterans were denied many of the rights afforded other German combat veterans. However the Nuremberg Trials exempted conscripts from that comdemnation.
The original cadre of the Waffen-SS came from the Freikorps and the Reichswehr along with various right-wing paramilitary formations. Formed at the instigation of Heinrich Himmler, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler was the first formation of what was to become the Waffen-SS. When the SA was rendered powerless in the Night of the Long Knives, many ex-SA men requested transfer to the SS, swelling its ranks and resulting in the formation of several new units including the SS-Verfügungstruppe (to become the SS Division Das Reich) and the SS-Totenkopfverbände (to become the SS Division Totenkopf and also the concentration camp guard unit). Waffen-SS men were equipped with camouflage smocks and helmet covers, a new innovation which made them easily identifiable and provided them with an edge in combat. While they received the latest in uniforms, the majority of the Waffen-SS men received second rate weapons and equipment, many formations receiving Czech and Austrian weapons and equipment. This policy continued throughout the war. Contrary to popular belief, the Waffen-SS did not receive the best equipment, and in fact many units were equipped with outdated or captured weapons, vehicles and tanks, with the majority of the best equipment going to the Heer's elite divisions (Panzergrenadier-Division Großdeutschland and Panzer-Lehr-Division) and the Luftwaffe's Hermann Göring Division.
Concept and Training
SS combat training consisted primarily of several months of intensive basic training with three objectives; physical fitness, small-arms proficiency and political indoctrination. The training was so intensive that one in three potentials failed to pass the course. After this basic training, the recruits would be sent to either to specialist schools where they received further training in their chosen combat arm. As the war progressed and replacements were required more frequently, particularly after the expansion of the Waffen-SS following the success of the SS-Panzerkorps at Kharkov, the intensity of the training was relaxed somewhat.
For officers, the focus was on leadership and combat command, usually at the SS-Junkerschüle at Bad Tölz. The process tended to produce outstanding soldiers and officers, and many of the basic tenents of Waffen-SS training are still used by many armed forces today. A strong emphasis was placed on creating a bond between the officers and men, and officer candidates were made to pass through basic training alongside the enlisted candidates. This created a mutual trust and respect between the officers and men, and meant that the relationship between these groups was very relaxed, unlike the Heer (German Army), where strict discipline and a policy of seperation between the officers and enlisted men existed.
While it is difficult now to understand why anyone would volunteer for the Waffen-SS, during the war the organisation was presented as a multinational force protecting Europe from the evils of Communism. In addition, training emphasised unit cohesion and mutual respect between officers and men, rather than strict discipline. In the Waffen-SS, it was not a requirement to salute officers and a more casual salute was adopted (the right arm raised vertically from the elbow - a relaxed version of the Heil salute. This salute is portrayed in many war films). Added to this, the practice of addressing a superior as Herr ("Sir") was also forbidden, with everyone up to Himmler being addressed simply by their rank.
Waffen-SS Recruitment Poster
Trial by Fire
As the outbreak of war neared, Himmler ordered the formation of several combat formations from the SS-Standartes (units of regimental size). The resulting three formations (the LSSAH, SS-VT and SS-TV) took place in the Invasion of Poland as well as Fall Gelb. During the campaign in the West, both the Totenkopf and LSSAH were implicated in atrocities. The overall performance of the Waffen-SS had been mediocre during these campaigns.
The poor initial performance of the Waffen-SS units was mainly due to the emphasis on political indoctrination rather than proper military training before the war. This was largely due to the shortage of experienced NCOs, who preferred to stay with the regular army. Despite this, the experience gained from the Polish, French and Balkan campaigns and the peculiarly egalitarian form of training soon turned Waffen-SS units into elite formations.
On several occasions, the Waffen-SS was criticised by Heer commanders for their reckless disregard for casualties while taking or holding objectives. However, the Waffen-SS divisions eventually proved themselves to a skeptical Heer as capable soldiers, although there were exceptions such as Kampfgruppe Nord's rout from the the town of Salla during its first engagement in Karelia.
The Waffen-SS truly proved their worth during the Third Battle of Kharkov, where the II.SS-Panzerkorps under SS-Brigadeführer Paul Hausser recaptured the city and blunted the Soviet offensive, saving the forces of Erich von Manstein's Army Group South from being cut off and destroyed.
In Mid 1943, the II.SS-Panzerkorps took part in Operation Citadel and the LSSAH, Das Reich and Totenkopf (all now Panzergrenadier divisions) took part in the immense armour battles near Prokhorovka on the southern flank of the Kursk salient.
As the fronts began to crumble, the Waffen-SS divisions began increasingly to be used in a "fire-brigade" role. Held back behind the line,the divisions would be committed to counter enemy breakthroughs. As the success of the divisions increased, so too did the difficulty of the missions assigned them. In the closing months of the war, Waffen-SS formations were assigned impossible missions by Hitler, who saw them as not only exceptionally effective in combat, but also politically reliable. The Konrad operations to relieve Budapest and the Frühlingserwachen operation to recapture the Hungarian oilfields were doomed to defeat from the beginning. After the failure of Frühlingserwachen, Hitler proclaimed that the Waffen-SS had let him down, and ordered the removal of all honorary cufftitles. The commander of VI.SS-Panzer-Armee, SS-Oberstgruppenführer 'Sepp' Dietrich, completely disgusted by the order, did not pass it on to his troops.
Classic SS Divisions
As the Waffen-SS Order of Battle expanded, several divisions were seen as being elite. These divisions were characterised by extremely high unit morale and combat ability, as well as commitment to the Crusade against Bolshevism and the defense of the Fatherland.
These divisions are referred to as the classic Waffen-SS divisions, and they include the LSSAH, Das Reich, Totenkopf, the multi-national Wiking, the Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg, and the Hitlerjugend. While several other formations (e.g. the Nordland and Nord divisions) could also be considered elite, they are generally not referred to as classic SS Divisions.
In spite of heavy casualties, many of the Waffen-SS units retained their reputations as crack formations until the end of the War, though the quality of formations raised late in the war was often execrable, and some of the Freiwillige troops were prone to mutiny.
Foreign Volunteers and Conscripts
Himmler, wishing to expand the Waffen-SS, advocated the idea of SS controlled foreign legions. The Reichsführer, with his penchant for medieval lore, envisioned a united european 'crusade', fighting to save old Europe from the 'Godless bolshevik hordes'. While volunteers from regions which and been declared Aryan were approved almost instantly, Himmler eagerly pressed for the creation of more and more foreign units.
In late 1940, the creation of a multinational SS division, the Wiking, was authorised. Command of the division was given to SS-Brigadeführer Felix Steiner. Steiner immersed himself in the organisation of the volunteer division, soon becoming a strong advocate for an increased number of foreign units. The Wiking was committed to combat several days after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, proving itself an impressive fighting unit.
Soon, Danish, Flemish, Norwegian and Dutch freiwilligen (volunteer) formations were committed to combat, gradually proving their worth. As the success of his experiment became apparent, the Reichsführer began to look for recruits from further afeild, planning the formation of legions from ethnic groups viewed as inferior to the Nordic races of Northern Europe.
Hitler however, was hesitant to allow foreign volunteers to be formed into formations based on their ethnicity, preferring that they be absorbed into multi-national divisions. Hitler feared that unless the foreign recruits were committed to the idea of a united Germania, then their reasons for fighting were suspect, and could damage the German cause.
Himmler was allowed to create his new formations, but they were to be commanded by German officers and NCOs. Beginning in 1942-43, several new formations were formed from Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians and even Bosnians. The Reichsführer had sidestepped the race laws by ordering that Waffen-SS units formed with men from non-Aryan backgrounds were to be designated division der SS (or Division of the SS) rather than SS Division. The wearing of the SS runes on the collar was forbidden, with several of these formations wearing a national insignia instead.
All non-germanic officers and men in these units had their rank prefix changed from SS to Waffen (e.g. a Latvian Hauptscharführer would be referred to as a Waffen-Hauptscharführer rather than SS-Hauptscharführer). An example of a division der SS is the Estonian 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (estnische Nr.1). The combat ability of the divisions der SS varied greatly, with the Latvian, French and Estonian formations perfoming exceptionally and the Croatian and Albanian units perfoming poorly.
While many adventurers and idealists joined the SS as part of the fight against communism, many of the later recruits joined or were conscripted for different reasons. For example, Dutchmen who joined the 34.SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Division Landstorm Nederland were granted exemption from forced labour and provided with food, pay and accomodation. Recruits who joined for such reasons rarely proved good soldiers, and several units composed of such volunteers were involved in atrocities.
Towards the end of 1943, it became apparent that numbers of volunteer recruits were inadequate to meet the needs of the German military, so conscription was introduced. The Estonian 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (estnische Nr.1) is an example of such a conscript formation, which proved to be outstanding soldiers with an unblemished record.
Not satisfied with the growing number of volunteer formations, Himmler sought to gain control of all volunteer forces serving alongside Germany. This put the SS at odds with the Heer, as several volunteer units had been placed under Heer control (e.g. all Spanish volunteers of the Spanish Blue Division fell under Heer control). Despite this, Himmler constantly campaigned to have all foreign volunteers fall under the SS banner. In several cases, like the ROA and the 5.SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade Wallonien he was successful, and by the last year of the war, most foreign volunteers units did fall under SS command.
While several volunteer units performed poorly in combat, the majority acquitted themselves well. French and Spanish SS volunteers, along with remnants of the 11.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Division Nordland formed the final defence of the Reichstag in 1945.
After the surrender, many volunteers were tried and imprisoned by their countries. In several cases, volunteers were executed. Those volunteers from the Baltic States and Ukraine could at best look forward to years spent in the gulags. To avoid this, many ex-volunteers from these regions joined underground resistance groups (see Forest Brothers) which were engaged fighting the Soviets until the 1950s.
Waffen-SS soldiers of the Kaminski Brigade during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Many other Waffen-SS volunteers, including many Wiking veterans, avoided punishment by joining the French Foreign Legion, and many ex-SS men fought and died at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Wallon volunteer leader Leon Degrelle escaped to Spain, where, despite being sentenced to death in absentia by the Belgian authorities, he lived in comfortable exile until his death in 1994. John Amery, the leader of the Britisches Freikorps, was tried and convicted of treason by the British government. He was executed in December 1945.
War Crimes and Atrocities
Several formations within the Waffen-SS were proven to have committed numerous war crimes, most notoriously at Oradour-sur-Glane, Marzabotto and in the Malmedy massacre. Some additional allegations have never been substantiated as many were intended to link the Waffen-SS to crimes committed by the Allgemeine-SS (political SS).
Perhaps the most infamous of all SS formations were the Dirlewanger and Kaminski Brigades (later to become the 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS and 29.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (russische Nr.1) respectively. These formations, composed mostly of ex-Einsatzgruppen, released criminals and Russian Prisoners of War and commanded by the fanatical Nazis Oskar Dirlewanger and Bronislaw Kaminski, were engaged in numerous atrocities throughout their existence. After their actions in putting down the Warsaw Uprising, Heer complaints resulted in these units being dissolved and several members (including Kaminski) being tried and executed for their role in several incidents.
Similarly, the Waffen-Sturm-Brigade RONA has a "combat" record riddled with atrocities as well as abysmal conduct when faced with front line service.
While divisions like the Nordland and Nord have virtually spotless records, most Waffen-SS divisions were involved in at least some questionable actions. The debate over the culpability of the organisation is the center of much revisionist thinking.
Regardless of the record of individual combat units within the Waffen-SS, the entire organisation was declared a criminal organization by the International Military Tribunal during the Nuremberg Trials, except conscripts, who were exempted from that judgement due to being forcibly mobilised. The actions of Himmler and the Nazi heirarchy in attaching the SS combat divisions to the same overall command of as the Allgemeine SS, Concentration Camps and Einsatzgruppen meant that such a decision was inevitable.