Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Criminals or Soldiers?

Waffen SS soldiers of the "Germania" regiment, 5th SS Panzer Division "Wiking".
In Hollywood films, they are nearly always depicted as wearing black uniforms, typically they are also portrayed as fanatical Nazis. They were the dreaded SS. But how much do you really know about these people?

Many members of the SS were convicted of war crimes, many paid the ultimate price for that.  The entire organization, along with the Nazi Party itself, was declared by the Nuremberg Tribunal to be a criminal organization. No different from the way modern law enforcement views the Mafia.

What were they? Who were they?

I'm not going to delve deeply into the history of the SS, many thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled on that topic, Wikipedia has a fair article on them, here. To begin with, the letters SS stand for Schutzstaffel a German word meaning "protection squad." Beginning as small units whose job was to protect Hitler and other Nazi party officials, they grew into a vast organization.

We are no doubt all familiar with the Massacre at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge, American prisoners of war murdered in cold blood by elements of the SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. A unit which began as the personal bodyguard of Hitler and became a full-fledged division in World War II.

Again, I'm not going to talk about the entire SS organization, only one part, the Waffen SS, the military arm of the SS, indeed of the Nazi Party itself. "Waffen" is the German word for  "weapon," or "arms." So Waffen SS can be translated as the "armed SS." These units were organized and equipped in similar fashion to regular German army units, but over time they received better (and more) equipment than the regular German army.

At no time was the Waffen SS a component of the German armed forces (die Wehrmacht) which consisted of the German Army (das Heer), the German Air Force (die Luftwaffe), and the German Navy (die Kriegsmarine). Though throughout the war Waffen SS units served side by side with the German army and fell under regular army commanders throughout the war.

But the SS were different from your average German soldier. A German could not be drafted into the SS, the overall leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler had a number of odd notions about racial purity. Early SS recruits could not wear spectacles and couldn't even have any fillings in their teeth (all of which had to be present). The "ideal" of the blond, blue-eyed Aryan was in Himmler's head, but as neither he nor Hitler met this so-called "ideal," it was simply that, an ideal.

The Waffen SS was noted for a number of things throughout the war: fanatical bravery, an absurd lack of tactical finesse (SS units tended to burn out quickly), and appalling cruelty to those they considered to be subhumans, Untermenschen. Which theoretically included all the Slavic peoples, Asians, Africans, etc, though Hitler did declare the Japanese to be "Honorary Aryans."

Some have argued that the Waffen SS were not the same people who guarded the concentration camps, the Totenkopfverbände, the Death's Head Units as that is often translated, called that for the skull and crossbones on their collar patches. However, one entire SS division, SS Panzer Division Totenkopf was created from those camp guards. In reality there was a great deal of cross feed between the camp staffs and the Waffen SS.

Another myth is that while the SS committed appalling crimes in Russia and Poland, the Western Front was more "civilized." As early as 1940, during the campaign in France, there were at least two instances of Waffen SS troops murdering British prisoners of war in cold blood. Le Paradis was one -

While the evacuation at Dunkirk was taking place, the Royal Norfolk Regiment, along with other British and French units, were fighting, and dying, to hold off the German floodtide.

War is brutality and cruelty, but there are certain conventions to be observed. When the fight is done, those who have been captured should be properly treated. This is something the Waffen SS never learned. For that they were branded as criminals.

Soldiers like other soldiers? I guess it depends on the soldiers they're being compared to.

You be the judge.

Schuldig im Sinne der Anklage! (Guilty as charged!)


  1. Hey Old AFSarge;

    I rate the Waffen SS along with the Japanese during WWII, they were both very cruel to soldiers that they captured because they viewed them as "SubHuman". The Waffen used the beliefs of the Nazi Party and the Japanese used their code of "Bushido". The Pacific war was known for its "no quarters" fighting, no mercy was expected from either side. The Japanese would bayonet the wounded and any captured soldiers for sport, the Chinese still have issues with this from WWII. The Americans knew this so they adapted their fighting style and equipment for this reason, we used napalm and the flamethrower a lot. I viewed them as soldiers but in a different category than the regular German Army "Das Heer". Very good article btw

  2. Thank you for bring these events to my/our attention. MrGarabaldi's comment states everything I could write and I congratulate him for both his well written comment and being first commenter.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

  3. After Malmedy, there were U.S. Army units that would rip open the shirts of Germans they took prisoner, and if they found a tattoo of the prisoner's blood type in his chest, an SS practice, they would execute him on the spot. I have no real problem with that. I don't know how widespread it was, but I know it happened.

    1. Actually the SS had their blood type tattooed on the underside of their left arm, typically up near the armpit.

      The SS wore fairly distinctive uniforms, easily distinguishing them from the army. Tearing off the collar patches would immediately identify them as SS because why would the army guys do that?

      This story has been floating around and is patently false. Didn't need to see a tattoo to kill a POW, after Malmedy many US units were "reluctant" to take any prisoners.

    2. I learned something a few months ago. The person that designed that black uniform was Hugo boss.

      Still in business today as a respected fashion designer.

    3. Actually this has been floating around for a while and isn't true. While the company founded by Hugo Boss (who died in 1948 and was a member of the Nazi Party) did produce uniforms for the SA, SS, and Wehrmacht, he did not design that black uniform. That was designed by SS-Oberführer Prof. Karl Diebitsch and Walter Heck , who were not affiliated with the company.

      The things one hears these days...

  4. Towards the end of the war they were drafting people into the Waffen SS.

    A friend of mine who owns a Mercedes shop, his father was one of them

    The SS were easily identified by a tattoo in their armpit. I think it was of their blood type.

    As the Russians were closing in, they would tend to shoot anyone who was in the SS or identifiable with this tattoo. And the way they treated them who can blame them?

    The only reason my friends father survived was that they did not have time to give him the tattoo.

    There are instances here and there of them being decent soldiers but as a group they were fanatical Nazis.

    1. On paper anyway, only men of German ancestry in foreign countries could be (and were) drafted into the Waffen SS. Before WWII there were European countries with sizable German minority populations (the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia being the most famous). The SS did recruit volunteers from those areas, by law the SS were prohibited from drafting German citizens, only the Wehrmacht could do that. The Wehrmacht was powerful enough to make this stick. As the war went on the Waffen SS began taking whatever they could get. There were also many non-German foreigners in the SS. Belgians, Dutch, Norwegians, Danes, Latvians, Estonians, even Bosnian Muslims.

      Your friend's father was probably Volksdeutsch, i.e. of German descent but not a German citizen. They could be drafted into the Waffen SS, and were. As many as they could get.

      Not having the tattoo definitely marks him as Volksdeutsch and a late in the war conscript.

    2. Here's a link in Wikipedia on SS foreign volunteers and conscripts:

      There were also some Americans (mostly of German descent) who joined the SS. One of the Americans who joined the SS was Martin James Monti:

      - Victor

    3. I've met at least one former SS man living in the U.S.

      I knew another guy in Colorado who was of German descent, two of his uncles, first generation immigrants to the U.S. who were visiting Germany when the war broke out. They wound up in the SS. Drafted as I recall. Volksdeutsche.

    4. I met the widow of an SS officer (I did not press her on who he was or units or anything), who was present on the ground during the Ploiești raids (Tidal Wave) and watched the bombers fly past. She remembers seeing their faces.

      Also, she did not have a fun time in a Soviet slave-labor coal mine after the war...

    5. No, I wouldn't think so.

      I would not have wanted to be German anywhere in Eastern Europe in 1945.

    6. My friend says towards the end of the war his father was in the SS. They even had Romanian units, Norwegian, and the dirty little secret, a French detachment. By 1945, they were desperate.

      Somewhat related, I read that as the Americans were rolling across Germany they had to kill a number of children with Panzerfausts - a German anti tank bazooka. The children were among the most fanatical of all, having known nothing but the Nazis.

    7. My father-in-law fought on the German side, first with the Hitler Youth (Hitler Jugend). Because they got food, and by 1944 the choice was pretty much between staying a civilian and starving to death or getting bombed, so why not die with a full belly? Even the kids could see they were losing the war and the promises from above were BS, but until a certain age kids aren't really critical thinkers.
      He told me during the defense of Berlin he and a few buddies discharged their panzerfausts and having no other weapons scurried to the front against the Americans, hoping to be captured and fed. He moved to America after the war, settling in a German-heavy area of Iowa, and joined the US Army as payback. Just in time for the Korean War. He always used laugh at the other guys in the VFW Hall on friday nights, when they'd ask if which war he was in. He'd respond, "Both of them, and a couple of sides too!" He was pure German, so to speak, but too young to be drafted into any unit. Given that, I suspect the SS had their share of political fanatics and a much larger cohort who simply wanted to live, eat, and survive. Which isn't far different than any draftee army.

    8. William - There was an entire SS division in Normandy made up of 18 and 19 year old troopers, led by veteran Leibstandarte-SS officers and NCOs, 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. They were kids brought up under Hitler as "Unknown" mentions above, very fanatic, due to their age the SS quartermaster even supplied them with a "sweets ration." Fanatic fighters, they took heavy casualties.

    9. Unknown - While I was still on active duty we had a Chief Master Sergeant who had been in the same boat. He was a Hitler Youth, he was handed a Panzerfaust and sent off to kill Soviet tanks. One shot, then bye-bye.

      I want to say he did 30+ years in our Air Force.

      The SS were known for having more than their fair share of fanatics in the early parts of the war. But yup, the Volksdeutsche who were drafted just wanted to survive the war.

      And if possible surrender to the British or the Americans. Not the Soviets and not the French!

  5. Well, they did make very good French Legionnaires. And they had formed units of racial and national makeup.

    But... yeah... They never really got over their unhumble beginnings, did they?

  6. Soldiers that happen to often be criminals.
    By standards of their own deranged ideology, they were paragons of bravery. No one can deny their fighting spirit, although this often led to unhealthy rate of casualties, as efficiency-obsessed Heer officers noted.
    Their wanton cruelty towards enemies, especially those they deemed racially inferior makes them abhorrent to any truly honorable soldier.
    Anyway allies were driven to no less cruel acts by the end of the total war, from carpet bombing cities to torpedoing ships full of civilian refugees, to (in case of Soviets) mass rape campaign.
    So as we judge them, remember that no one merged from that slaughterhouse with clean hands.

    1. All good points, Paweł. In truth, all wars are like that.

    2. It is a VERY thin line in War, and once crossed can not be uncrossed.

  7. This sketch comes to mind:

    1. Heh. Yup, they're the baddies!

    2. That sketch reminded me that Germans in black uniforms with totenkopf cap badges goes back a long ways: Brunswick Ducal Corps.

    3. Yes, the Totenkopf goes back quite a ways. German Army tank crews wore black uniforms with Totenkopf collar patches. Their version differed from the SS Totenkopf in that the army tank Totenkopf had no lower jaw on the skull. The SS version did.

      Still, I'll bet a lot of German tankers were shot because the they were thought to be SS troopers.


    As all of you likely know, our brothers and sisters in the Coast Guard are not being paid because they fall under Homeland Security rather than the DOD when they are not called up. If any of you have contacts who can be useful, please suggest to that person that the President call up the Coasties so that they will be under the DOD and thus get their paychecks. I have made several efforts, but don't think I have had any success.


    1. It's a rotten situation, don't know what could be done.

    2. I read where USAA has given several million $$ to help the Coast Guard via no interest loans - good on 'em!

    3. Tom: Yes, I saw that too, but that, as nice as it is, doesn't come close to being enough.



Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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