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 in 1939 opened the first Waffen-SS Recruiting Office within the SS Head Office on Berlin’s Prinz Albrecht Street, 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 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 1944; and the SS Toten­kopf for mass execu­tions of Jewish com­mu­nity leaders and Polish civil­ians (“potential resis­tance leaders”) 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 onwards) denied pen­sions by the new West German government, unlike soldiers who had served in the Wehrmacht.

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Scenes of War Crimes Committed by Notorious Waffen‑SS Divisions

Farmhouse where Royal Norfolks survivors surrendered, May 1940Site of the 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, the 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 POWsBelgian bodies left by Germans

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 Peiper (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, 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.

Oradour-sur-Glane ChurchOradour-sur-Glane ruin

Left: The church in Oradour-sur-Glane, France, in which 245 women vil­lagers or visi­tors and 205 chil­dren were burnt to death or shot by men of the 2nd SS Panzer Divi­sion Das Reich as they tried to escape. One woman and six men sur­vived the mas­sacre. 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 cruelty of the Nazi occupation. Photo taken June 11, 2004.

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 were in court. On February 11, 1953, all but one was convicted of war crimes.

Waffen-SS: Hitler’s Ruthless Murdering Military Force

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