Berlin, Germany • December 1, 1939
From a small cadre of fanatical thugs assigned to protect Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler at political meetings in the 1920s, the Schutzstaffel (“Protection Squad”), or SS, grew into one of the most notorious organizations in history, with many responsibilities. Under SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich, it ran the Reich Security Head (or Main) Office (Reichsicherheitshauptamt) with ruthless and murderous efficiency; it was a crucial part of the Reich’s intelligence services (Sicherheitsdienst, or SD) and the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, or Secret State Police); it was deeply involved in slavishly carrying out Hitler’s “Final Solution”—the extermination of Europe’s Jews in death camps; and it developed its own elite combat units, the Waffen‑SS, the military wing of the Nazi Party.
It was one Gottlob Berger who on this date, December 1, 1939, opened the first Waffen‑SS Recruiting Office within the SS Head Office on Berlin’s Prinz Albrecht Street (today’s Niederkirchnerstrasse), which he headed. The remarkable growth of the Waffen‑SS (Armed SS) must be attributed to Berger rather than to his master, Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Berger’s nationwide recruiting network geographically paralleled that of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht). From three regiments it grew to over 38 divisions of varying quality during the war (by 1944 it fielded more than 800,000 men), and served alongside (and rivaled) the German Heer (regular army), even adopting army service ranks while never formally part of it.
Three of the most highly motivated and famously feared Waffen‑SS divisions were the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, born out of Hitler’s elite bodyguard unit; the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich; and the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf. All three armored divisions earned notoriety for their involvement in war crimes in their areas of operations: the SS Leibstandarte for the murder of 80 British and French POWs at Wormhoudt during the Battle of France in May 1940; the SS Das Reich for the Oradour-sur-Glane and Tulle massacres (762 civilians) in France in July 1944; and the SS Totenkopf for mass executions of Jewish community leaders and Polish civilians (“potential resistance leaders” as the Germans labeled them) in September 1939 in Poland. At the postwar Nuremberg Trials (1945–1946) the Waffen‑SS was declared a criminal organization and its servicemembers (excepting conscripts from 1943 onward) denied pensions by the new West German government, unlike soldiers who had served in the Wehrmacht.
Scenes of War Crimes Committed by Notorious Waffen‑SS Divisions
Above: The Le Paradis massacre was a war crime committed by members of 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf, under the command of Hauptsturmfuehrer Fritz Knoechlein, during the Battle of France. On May 27, 1940, British soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment, had become isolated from their regiment. They occupied and defended a farmhouse against an attack by Waffen‑SS forces in the village of Le Paradis (left photo). After running out of ammunition, the defenders surrendered to the German troops. The Germans led the POWs across the road to a wall and machine-gunned them, killing 97 (right photo), in breach of the Geneva Convention, which Germany had signed. Two soldiers survived with injuries, hiding until captured several days later. After the war Knoechlein was located, tried, and convicted by a war crimes court, with the two survivors acting as witnesses against him. Knoechlein was executed in 1949 for his part in the massacre.
Above: The end of the war saw a number of war crime trials, including the Malmedy Massacre trial. The defendants were 75 former members of Kampfgruppe (battle group) Peiper, a unit of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. The indictments related to the illegal deaths of more than 300 American prisoners at the Baugnez crossroads in the vicinity of Malmedy (left photo) and nearby Belgian towns between December 16, 1944, and January 13, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes Offensive), as well as the massacre of about 100 Belgian civilians mainly in the vicinity of Stavelot (right photo), alleged by Peiper’s men to have fired on them. Convictions handed down by the court ranged from death by hanging (43 men), to life imprisonment (22), to as little as 10 years (5). In succeeding years all the men were released, one after another, the last in 1956 being Col. Joachim Peiper, commander of the men who committed the callous murders near Malmedy and at Stavelot.
Left: The church in Oradour-sur-Glane, France, in which 245 women villagers or visitors and 205 children were burned alive or machine-gunned to death by men of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich on July 11, 1944, as the captives tried to escape. Their husbands and older sons were led to six barns and sheds, after which the SS stormtroopers began shooting, aiming at their hostages’ legs to shatter and crippled them. When victims were unable to move, the Germans covered them with fuel and set the buildings on fire. One woman and six men survived the massacre. (About 20 villagers managed to escape with their lives as the SS men made their lethal appearance.) That night the Germans looted and partially razed the village. After the war a new village was built on a nearby site. On the orders of French president Charles de Gaulle the original village has been maintained as a museum and permanent memorial to the merciless violence and barbaric cruelty of the Nazi occupation. Photo taken in June 2004, exactly 60 years after the village’s destruction and that of its residents.
Right: Wrecked hardware (bicycles, sewing machine, etc.) in Oradour-sur-Glane are reminders of the monstrous cruelties suffered by innocent civilians six decades earlier. In January 1953 a military tribunal in Bordeaux, France, heard the case against the surviving 65 of the approximately 200 German soldiers who had been involved in the massacre. Only 21 defendants who resided in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) were in court. Absent were the accused who lived in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). On February 11, 1953, all but one was convicted of war crimes.
Waffen-SS: Hitler’s Ruthless Murdering Military Force