The SS, a Personal View

 

    This section records my own personal view of the SS organisation, especially that of the Waffen-SS. It has come about as a result of feedback and questions raised since this site was opened in March 2000.

    People writing to me as webmaster of this site tend to fall into three groups, the first and (thankfully) largest, are those who are appreciative of its content. The second and third are from those groups who criticise me for either praising (or at least excusing) the SS and those who accuse me of denigrating them. Running a site like this I have found that it is impossible to please everyone and so I have followed the old advice of trying at least to please myself.

    It is impossible to give a comprehensive view of the SS in a word or two because it is impossible to discuss it in isolation without discussing the Third Reich in general and Hitler's political beliefs in particular. Please note that in what follows I am commenting on the SS as an organisation, not specific individuals or units within it.

    Hitler had an almost messianic belief in his mission to unite Germany and Austria, to provide 'living space' for the peoples of the Reich in the east and to remove what he believed to be the poison of Jewish - Marxism from Germany's world. This basically is what he stood for in the early days of the Nazi Party's struggle for power. At this time he did not seem bent on world conquest, he just wanted to secure his peoples future, see Chapter 1 of In a Ruined State for more detail.

    First he had to become leader of Germany and following the failure of the Putsch (Revolt) in 1923, he decided that only by legal means would he become Chancellor. Towards this end Hitler gathered around him a group of men who under other circumstances would have seemed a laughable bunch of eccentrics and cranks.

    In the context of the SS the man most involved was Heinrich Himmler. Himmler, after he became Reichsführer-SS, worked and schemed tirelessly to grow his personal empire (Reichsführer means, Empire Leader) into the main support for the extension of Nazi policy throughout the Reich. That is, he became the chief enforcer for the Third Reich, the enforcer of what he perceived to be Hitler's wishes.

    The SS was originally conceived as being a praetorian guard for the Führer and as time passed it became the guardian of his wishes and policy. They were thus truly, political soldiers, loyal to Hitler and no one else. Remember that after the Nazis came to power in 1933, there were no further elections, they were there to stay. Many Germans at first did not realise the implications of this, they did not realise that there was now no democratic way of getting rid of the Nazi party, that they would stay in power for as long as they wished. In fact one of the catch phrases of the party was to talk of the, "Thousand year Reich". How would you like the prospect of living in a country with no possibility of democratic change for 40 generations? Of having in fact a government over whose policies you had no influence whatsoever? The SS were the main guardians of the Reich, they thus bore the responsibility for its continuation and its excesses. Anyone, or any group wishing to remove Hitler and / or the Nazi party had to first get past the SS.

    Up to now I have referred to the SS as just that, one identity, the SS. However it must be realised that in practice the SS was divided into several sections. The two main parts were, the Allgemeine-SS (General-SS) and the Waffen-SS (Armed-SS) and both were parts of the whole. They were not two distinct organisations, a good twin and a bad twin, they were all part of the same genus, see Notes for further details.

    In a similar manner to many in the post-war German population, who tried to pass the blame for the horrors of Nazism onto the SS, many within the Waffen-SS have tried to distance themselves and their units from the Allgemeine-SS. In effect they have said, 'we were just soldiers, not murderers, don't judge us along with those concentration camp people'.

    In the early days of the SS, the Waffen-SS was quite a small unit and it was only after the war began that it grew, to eventually become numerically the largest part. As the war progressed, due to the high casualty rate, a change came over the Waffen-SS, more so than the Allgemeine-SS. It was no longer possible to fill all the vacancies with pure Germanic - Austrian volunteers and eventually, from 1943-4 onwards, conscripts and even Muslims were admitted to the ranks. The Waffen-SS of the war's end was a somewhat different organisation in its composition from that of 1939, but its guiding principles and senior leaders were exactly the same.

    It has often been commented that Himmler really and truly believed in racial superiority and the concept of the Aryan race. Thus in his eyes, what he asked the SS to do was not wrong. Some of it was distasteful, (killing Jewish children, for example) but not evil or wicked. It was a matter of necessity.

    In 1998 I was in conversation with a Polish ex-serviceman (Aleksander Aksan, a naturalised British citizen and fluent in six languages, who had worked since the end of the war in MI6) and asked him who, in his opinion had been the greatest cause of human misery in the 20th Century. I expected him to say, Hitler, but to my surprise he named Stalin. When asked to explain this choice he said, "Hitler simply had a religious idea which he followed to the end, but Stalin persecuted people with an Asiatic sense of cruelty" We continued the discussion for some time, but to Alex, Hitler had been a man with a mission, whereas Stalin was the personification of evil. Alex's thoughts are worth bearing in mind, as his family, home and country had been destroyed by those two men, yet whilst he was no fan of Hitler, it was Stalin and the Communist Party that he hated for their oppression of freedom of thought.

    The point of the above paragraphs has not been to say that the Nazis were right to start the war and commit genocide, far from it, but that in their eyes, what they did was not consciously evil, it was a matter of necessity, unpleasant perhaps, but for the greater good in the end. Perhaps you find this point difficult to believe, but and this is true, if you cannot at least understand it, then you or your uncomprehending descendants will inevitably repeat the same mistakes at some stage in the future.

    Currently the outlook for mankind is not a bright one, witness, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Cambodia, none of these countries were throwing off the yoke of a hated invader, all the killings were of an internal nature. Look at Slobadan Milosovic currently on trial for war crimes, he does not recognise that he is responsible for anything wrong at all and in his own eyes he is truly innocent of any wrongdoing. He is not a hypocrite, deluded certainly, possibly insane, but not consciously wicked.

    The SS was in a similar mould to the above cases, deluded, not evil, more in need of enlightenment and treatment than censure. Remember that the SS did not exist in a vacuum, it was supported, fed and clothed by the rest of German society, if the SS was truly evil, what does that make the German nation of 1933-45? Were all Germans who voted for the Nazis in 1933 wicked, did they all wish the Jews to die in appalling circumstances?

    My answer to the above questions is that Germany was guilty of wanting to be a great nation, a prosperous country that could hold its head up on the international stage, of wanting self-respect and of wanting to be respected by others. The simple result was that they followed the man that seemed to be offering the fulfilment of their wishes, this was not being criminal. It was however, being blind and unthinking of the consequences. But if you had been a poor and dispirited person in 1930's Germany could you honestly say that you would not have been tempted in 1933 to lend the Nazis your support?

    I repeat a point made earlier that for the most part, I have not distinguished between the various parts of the SS and that is for the simple reason that there is no need, there is no point, the organisation must be judged as a whole, not in pieces. There were undoubtedly good and honest soldiers in the Waffen-SS who never did anything whatsoever about which they, or their relatives, friends and countrymen need feel ashamed. Equally there were psychopaths in the Allgemeine-SS whose very presence at liberty within the SS was an insult to to humanity. And vice versa.

    A question that needs answering is, did the nature of the SS change over time? And the answer is, I think not. What did change as the war ground on, was the depths of cruelty that were practised on the victims of the Nazi state. For example it was not policy to kill all Jews until after the 1942 Wannsee Conference. The first book that I ever read on the concentration camp system was written by a German Jew who had been in Dachau, he was released and expelled from Germany in 1937 and settled in England.

    There was no major change in attitude, rather there was an accelerating degree of harshness as time passed, especially following the invasion of Russia when the numbers of undesirables grew at such an rate that a better system had to be developed for handling them. The Final Solution in fact.

    It must be remembered that it was the Jews (of all nationalities) and Russian political commissars that were to be exterminated as a matter of policy. Millions of Russian prisoners of war died in German captivity, but this was mainly through cruel neglect, not deliberate killing. In fact many Russian soldiers survived as prisoners of war, only to be maltreated by their own countrymen after they had been liberated.

    It must also be remembered that much of the killing of civilians and the destruction of towns and villages in Russia was carried out by ordinary non-SS, Wehrmacht units. By no means should the SS have to carry the responsibility for all the barbarity of the eastern campaign, but they did carry out the systematic slaughter, they did man the Einsatzgruppen (killing squads).

    Otto Weidinger repeatedly claims that the Waffen-SS was a pure military unit and that it should have been separated from the rest of the SS and incorporated into the Wehrmacht. This would, he claims have saved them from much later trouble, i.e. they would have escaped all the opprobrium heaped on the SS as a whole due to the activities of the Allgemeine-SS in the death camps. This is true to a degree, but remember the interchange between the camps and the field, of which he himself was a part. However they would still have been responsible for Oradour, no one held a gun to Adolf Diekmann's head and said, 'go and wipe out that village'; he did it of his own free will.

    A question which is often raised is, which was worse, the Waffen-SS or the Allgemeine-SS? As I have stated above they were two sides of the same coin. Over the years since the ending of the war, there have been many attempts to try and sanitise the reputation of the Waffen-SS by blaming all the excesses of the death camps and the Gestapo onto the Allgemeine-SS. However there is clear evidence that there was a constant interchange between the guards of the concentration camps (Allgemeine-SS) and the Waffen-SS. In addition the Waffen-SS itself carried out numerous well documented killings on their own account (Oradour-sur-Glane for example).

    It is probably true that more people were killed in the death camps by people who served only in the Allgemeine-SS than were killed by those 'on loan' from the Waffen-SS, but does this really make any difference?

    It is quite true that the Waffen-SS did at times behave with courtesy to enemy troops that they regarded as being worthy opponents, but they also behaved abominably towards those that they despised.

    Some members of the Allgemeine-SS never fired a gun in anger, or personally oppressed anyone, being concerned for example with such matters as runic research or liaison with manufacturing industry.

    As in any large military organisation there were people whose only fault was to belong to it and it is a pity that all members of the SS should be condemned, simply for having been members. This is especially so for those men who were conscripted into the Waffen-SS, without having had any choice in the matter (remember that 13 of those accused in the 1953 trial in Bordeaux were conscripted Alsatians).

Summary

    1) My personal opinion of the SS is that as a whole they were a deluded group, who by and large, did not appreciate the depths that they were to reach when they began their descent into the abyss and for the most part stayed innocent right up to the end.

    2) There were people in all branches of the SS who never did anything bad to anyone, but nevertheless by their presence assisted the main body in its work, thus everyone in the SS had a measure of responsibility for its actions.

    3) In cases like the circumstances leading up to the attack on Oradour, I do have some sympathy for the SS. It would be entirely unreasonable to expect them (or any other armed forces) to put up with the attacks that they were subject to, without making some response. However, the response made was grossly in excess of what could be expected from a civilised army and this was entirely due to their political beliefs, training and leadership.

    4) The SS was the main support of Nazism and you could not have had one without the other, so if you really think that the National Socialism of Hitler's Germany was a good thing, then you know what you should think of the SS and vice versa.

    5) As an object of historical study, the story of the SS in all its forms makes a truly fascinating subject.

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© Michael Williams: minor revision August 2004