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 (Armed) SS, the military wing of the Nazi Party. Because of its affil­i­ation with the Nazi Party, the men of the Waffen‑SS swore an oath of loyalty to Hitler rather than to Germany or the German armed forces (Wehrmacht).

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 must be attri­buted to Berger rather than to his master, Reichs­fuehrer-SS Hein­rich Himm­ler. Berger’s nation­wide recruiting net­work geo­graphically paral­leled that of the 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

Farmhouse where Royal Norfolks survivors surrendered to Waffen-SS, May 1940Site of Waffen-SS Le Paradis massacre, May 1940

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.

Malmedy Massacre of 84 American POWs by Waffen-SSBelgian bodies left by Waffen-SS

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). By March 1948, the U.S. Senate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee had voted to com­mute 31 death sen­tences, and a month later the head of the U.S. Euro­pean Com­mand reduced six more death sen­tences to prison terms. 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.

Oradour-sur-Glane Church, site of Waffen-SS crimeOradour-sur-Glane ruin, site of Waffen-SS crime

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