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.

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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