Berlin, Germany December 1, 1939

On this date, December 1, 1939, SS-Ober­gruppen­fuehrer (senior group leader) Gott­lob Berger opened the first Waffen‑SS Recruiting Office with­in the SS Main Office, which he had headed since 1938. The SS (short for Schutz­staffel, meaning pro­tec­tion squad) was the Nazi Party’s private para­mili­tary organi­za­tion, orig­i­nally a small squad of political thugs who pro­vided secur­ity at Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party meetings and rallies but grew into the nation’s fore­most agency of secur­ity, surveil­lance, and terror within Germany and German-occupied Europe.

The remark­able growth of the Waffen‑SS (Armed SS) must be attri­buted to Berger rather than to his master, Reichs­fuehrer‑SS Hein­rich Himm­ler. The Waffen‑SS became the largest and most power­ful of the three branches that com­prised the SS. (The other branches were (1) the All­ge­meine SS, or General SS, which over­saw the Party’s admin­is­tra­tive and policing func­tions (noto­ri­ous child agen­cies included the Gestapo, or secret state police, and the Sicher­heits­dienst, or intel­li­gence agency) and (2) the SS‑Toten­kopf­verbaende, or Death’s Head Units, which oper­ated con­cen­tra­tion and exter­mi­nat­ion camps.) By 1944 the Waffen‑SS had more than 800,000 men in 38 divi­sions serving in the field, rivaling even Germany’s regular armed forces, the Wehrmacht.

Initially Waffen‑SS recruits were drawn from within the Greater German Reich, which included Austria (1938) and Czecho­slo­va­kia (1939). Citi­zens of those incor­po­rated areas were viewed as em­bodying Nazi con­cepts of blood and race purity and thus suit­able enlistees. With the out­break of war on Septem­ber 1, 1939, and par­tic­u­larly after the German con­quest of Den­mark, Norway, the Bene­lux coun­tries, and France (1940), Berger uti­lized the changed cir­cum­stan­ces to draw new recruits to the Waffen‑SS. Recruiting offices were opened in Copen­hagen, Oslo, Antwerp, and The Hague. Because Sweden and Swit­zer­land were offi­cially neu­tral, German embas­sies in those coun­tries worked quietly with right-wing groups to add to the pool of potential recruits.

Recruitment increased in many areas in the wake of Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa, the German inva­sion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Recruits could be drawn from the conquered Baltic states, Ukraine, and Belarus who wanted to eradi­cate Soviet hege­mony from their homelands. There were 30 million Volks­deutsche (ethnic Germans born or living out­side the Reich) from which to draw; e.g., in Hungary, Romania, and Slovenia, all of them Axis allies. Another pool consisted of men who were not com­mitted Nazis but instead were staunchly anti­com­munist and hoped to erad­i­cate the threat that Bol­shevism posed to Western Europe. Finally, especially toward the end of the war, recruits could be, and were in fact, drawn from groups that in no way reflected Nazi ideas of blood and race; for instance, Turks, Muslims, and even juvenile delinquents and former or current criminals. In 21 of the 38 Waffen‑SS divisions foreign nationals were in the majority.

The end of the war saw a number of war crime trials, the most famous being the Nurem­berg Trials (Novem­ber 20, 1945, to Octo­ber 1, 1946). In the first trial the Inter­national Mili­tary Tri­bu­nal declared the SS and all the agen­cies that com­prised it, including the Waffen‑SS, crimi­nal orga­ni­za­tions for their heavy involve­ment in war crimes and crimes against human­ity. Exempted were Waffen‑SS con­scripts who were not given a choice in joining the ranks (about a third of the member­ship) and had not committed “such crimes.”

Foreign Waffen-SS Troops Assume Role in German War Machine

Waffen-SS: Himmler reviews Ukrainian SS Division GaliciaWaffen-SS: 5th SS Viking Division

Left: As early as 1938, Reichfuerher-SS Heinrich Himm­ler con­ceived of recruiting a pan-Euro­pean army for the Third Reich on con­di­tion it was of suf­fi­ciently Germanic herit­age and blood. In this photo the second-most power­ful man in the Reich reviews mem­bers of the 14th Waffen-SS Gren­a­dier Divi­sion Gali­cia (German, 14. SS‑Frei­willigen Divi­sion “Gali­zien”; after March 1945 it was known as the 1st Ukrai­nian Divi­sion of the Ukrai­nian National Army). In 1943 and 1944 a deter­mined group of mili­tary volun­teers from the area of Gali­cia (in today’s Ukraine), chiefly ethnic Ukrai­nians but with some Slovaks and Czechs (15,000–18,000 in all), were inducted into a com­bat divi­sion destined to fight on Germany’s Eastern Front. Their goal was to engage and destroy the Soviet hordes menacing their home­land and to counter Germany’s sub­ju­ga­tion of their coun­try. Although initi­ally Gali­cia’s volun­teers would serve under German offi­cers in an SS‑spon­sored mili­tary for­ma­tion, in actu­ality the men of the Gali­cia divi­sion wanted to con­front every hos­tile ideo­logy—Eastern or Western—so as to secure a free and inde­pen­dent Ukraine. Although the post­war Nurem­berg Trials declared the Waffen‑SS as a whole to be a crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tion, the Gali­cia Divi­sion was not spe­cif­i­cally found guil­ty of any war crimes by any Allied or national war tribunal or commission.

Right: The 5th SS Viking Division (German, 5. SS‑Panzer­division “Wiking”) was recruited from foreign volun­teers in Den­mark, Norway, Sweden, Fin­land, Esto­nia, the Nether­lands, and Bel­gium. The divi­sion, under the com­mand of German offi­cers, took part in Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa, advancing through Ukraine, where it com­mitted war crimes against Jews and Ukrai­nian civil­ians. In an August 1941 inci­dent recounted by one of the divi­sion’s Norwe­gian sol­diers in 2013, “between 200 and 300 humans were burned inside [a church] . . . no one came out.” In the summer of 1942, the Viking divi­sion took part in Army Group South’s Case Blue offen­sive, which aimed at cap­turing Stalin­grad and the Baku oil­fields. It saw heavy fighting during Germany’s 1943–1945 with­drawal on the Eastern Front. In March and April 1945 the divi­sion com­mitted more docu­mented war crimes before it sur­ren­dered to U.S. forces in Austria on May 9, 1945.

Waffen-SS: 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division "Prinz Eugen"Waffen-SS: 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS "Handschar"

Left: The 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division “Prince Eugene” (German, 7. SS‑Frei­wil­ligen Gebirgs-Division “Prinz Eugen”) was a German moun­tain infan­try divi­sion of the Waffen‑SS. It served only in German-occupied Yugo­sla­via. The core of its recruits were Serbs, but like most foreign-based Waffen‑SS divi­sions it used coer­cion to com­plete filling its ranks with Hungarians, Romanians, Volks­deutsche, and Cro­a­tians from the puppet Independent State of Croa­tia led by the fascist Ustaša (Ustashe) terrorist organization, thus giving the lie that the Waffen‑SS was an all-volun­teer mili­tia. The “Prinz Eugen” divi­sion was heavily involved in trying to sup­press Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s Yugo­slav Parti­san resis­tance forces as shown in this photo­graph taken in Croa­tia. At the post­war Nurem­berg Trials, in an August 6, 1946, morning ses­sion, it was stated that “The 7th SS Divi­sion, Prinz Eugen, is famed for its cruelty” and that “Wher­ever it passed—through Serbia, through Bosnia and Herze­go­vina, . . . or through Dalma­tia—every­where it left behind scenes of con­fla­gra­tion and devas­ta­tion and the bodies of inno­cent men, women, and chil­dren who had been burned in the houses.” Of the divi­sion’s four com­man­ders, one was shot to death in Roma­nia, two were extra­dited to Yugo­slavia, where they were con­victed of war crimes and hanged, and one escaped from an intern­ment camp before he too could be extra­dited to Yugoslavia to stand trial for his criminal behavior.

Right: Fugitive Palestinian nationalist and Grand Mufti of Jeru­salem Haj Amin al-Hus­seini and Waffen‑SS General­major Karl-Gustav Sauber­zweig (to al-Hus­seini’s rear in fez) greet Bos­nian SS volun­teers of the 13th Waffen Moun­tain Divi­sion of the SS “Hand­schar” (1st Croa­tian) (German, 13. Waffen-Gebirgs­divi­sion der SS “Hand­schar” (kroat. Nr. 1)) on an over­cast Novem­ber day in Europe in 1943. In Febru­ary the men returned to their sep­a­ratist Inde­pen­dent State of Croa­tia. The fascist puppet state encom­passed almost all of modern-day Croa­tia, all of modern-day Bosnia and Herze­go­vina, as well as parts of Serbia. The 13th SS Divi­sion was the first non-Germanic Waffen‑SS divi­sion, and its for­ma­tion marked the expan­sion of the Waffen‑SS into a multi-ethnic mili­tary force. Com­posed of Bos­nian Muslims (ethnic Bos­niaks) with some Catho­lic Croat and (briefly) Alba­nian Muslim sol­diers and led mostly by German and Volks­deutsche offi­cers and non­com­mis­sioned offi­cers, the divi­sion of 17,000 fighters (at its height) earned a repu­ta­tion for bru­tality and sav­agery, not only during counter­insur­gency oper­a­tions against Tito’s Yugo­slav Parti­sans, but also through unspeak­able atro­ci­ties com­mitted against 5,000 mostly Serb and Jewish civil­ians during a reign of terror. In 1945, in full retreat ahead of the Red Army, divi­sion mem­bers who had sur­vived their encoun­ters with death or had not deserted and joined the Yugo­slav Parti­sans became pri­soners of the British Army in Austria. Sub­se­quently, 38 offi­cers were extra­dited to Yugo­sla­via to face crimi­nal charges, some com­mitted sui­cide (including Sauberzweig), and 10 were executed.

Waffen-SS: Militarized Standard Bearers for Nazi True Believers