What role did the SS, or Schutzstaffel play for Germany?
The SS, or Schutzstaffel, played a variety of roles before and during World War II, showing a twisted versatility between loyalty to Hitler and patriotism. From their beginning as personal bodyguards, through their emergence as an elite fighting force, to their establishment of a vast business of concentration camps, these "men in black" used power as a stepping stone to an elite status. Carefully weeded out through strict and rigorous standards, members of the SS were given an elitist dogma to follow. The standards by which the SS were trained and carried out their orders actually began during the First World War.
The SS was the brainchild of Captain Rohr of the Imperial German Army long before Adolf Hitler or Heinrich Himmler were known. During the trench warfare of World War I, the German General Staff realized that a more highly mobile unit was needed. Early experiments did not produce much promise, until Captain Rohr perfected the idea of using highly trained and superbly fit men. These men received special treatment, were distinguished by a different uniform, and did not suffer the hardship in the trenches except when absolutely needed for a job. The leaders of these men were young officers in "prime physical condition," fiercely loyal, and believing that the war had been lost because of a lack of support from the homeland. After World War I, these men were used to maintain order in the Republic, which led way to the Freikorps. The SS evolved further in 1923, when they were known as Hitler's Shock Troops and became a "defined elite" within the National Socialist movement.
In 1929, Heinrich Himmler took control of the SS as Reichsfuehrer. Himmler had been deeply influenced by Richard Walther Darre, who had spent much of his life studying the European peasant class, with great interest in the racial background and history of the German peasantry. Darre would later become head of the Race and Settlement office in the mid thirties while continuing his work in the study of racial selection.
Himmler, having befriended Darre in the twenties, was also of the belief that the men in his SS were the rightful heirs of the Teutonic Knights, and he was the Grand Master. His one gloating moment of triumph was after the purge of the Sturmabteilung (SA) leadership, which was nothing more than a bloodbath. Many of Hitler's and Himmler's earliest friends were ordered killed, yet Himmler could only look at the political and personal advantages afforded him as a result. Himmler eagerly used the SS every opportunity he received, and would often accompany them, making notes and determining which of them were "weaklings" or were not proving themselves worthy of being an SS soldier. He nurtured the growing SS, molded them into what he wanted, and used them in attempts to gain ground on his stolen idea of Blud und Boden, (Blood and Soil).
The elite soldiers of the SS undertook their tasks readily, almost unerringly. This has been a topic of discussion for many years because of the moral issue. For many, it was easy to say that the members of the SS came from society's "most depraved elements." The fact is, though, that most of the men in the SS were quite normal, which makes their crimes even more atrocious. What is even harder to grasp is the passive behavior of the victims of the SS, especially the Jews.
In the latter years of the war, as Germany was overrunning large portions of eastern Europe, the SS enlisted the help of Jews in order to round up other Jews for extermination. Jewish councils were set up for the express purpose of providing the Germans with statistical information and background information on future prisoners. After this was complete, designated Jews were to show up at a central location for deportment to a concentration camp for labor or death. Those that did not show up passively were rounded up by members of these Jewish councils. Except for a resistance attempt in Warsaw in 1943, it is still unclear why no resistance was put up during these processes. What is clear is that the Jewish police, those chosen to do the rounding up, often treated prisoners worse than the SS did. This was also true within the concentration camps, as prisoners were encouraged to copy the actions of the SS guards. The end result of this all, was the dehumanization of both the aggressor and the victim.
The SS was not only used against the population of Jews, criminals, or political dissidents. Hitler often used the SS to carry out executions of those in leadership positions within his own military. Often, these executions were unwarranted and the crimes supposedly committed by the victims totally unsubstantiated. Many of those that incurred Hitler's wrath were members of the SA, a group which Hitler was largely responsible for creating. Often, these executions were not carried out correctly, or at least not with the results Hitler intended. In one instance, a well known Munich music critic, Dr. Wilhelm Eduard Schmid, was executed because the person the SS was looking for could not be found, and Dr. Schmid happened to share the same last name. Hitler's actions were applauded by both the defense minister, General Werner von Blomberg, and President von Hindenberg, who said," You have saved the German people from grave danger."
For the most part, though, Hitler's SS soldiers were used in a personal security manner. The SS was quite diverse and was not confined to one area of service. Indeed, there were SS firefighting brigades, as well as police forces, air forces, resettlement offices, planning departments, and education establishments. The complete list is more thorough, for the SS was a very structured organization which encompassed all aspects of life in the Reich. Surprisingly, the funding for much of the SS activity, particularly in the concentration camps, came from German businesses and corporations.
The SS had been involved in business ventures since about 1933, but it took a few years of running concentration camps for the police officials to realize that a profit could be made using prisoner labor. After all, thousands of people in concentration camps weigh heavy on the finances of the public. With the development of the SS as a "big-business corporation," concentration camps made a shift from being centers which brutalized social and political prisoners. The prisoners were now a labor force, which posed a further problem for the SS. It had been common practice, even strongly encouraged, to brutalize prisoners in the concentration camps, yet now that the prisoners were a labor forces, the economists of the SS were saying that it was bad for business. Eventually the productive output of concentration camps was placed in the control of the camp commandant, with small incentives offered on a monthly basis.
While the basic idea was to make concentration camps self-financing and profitable, the money was not nearly enough to cover such a diverse organization as the SS. Over the years, the SS was financed by a number of companies and banks. Initially, financing came from small, private companies in which Himmler was often a shareholder. Later, large bank loans had to be negotiated with the help of the Dresdner Bank, where several directors were members of the Friends of the Reichsfuehrer-SS. From this one source, no less than $7 million was loaned, but the SS was looking for cheaper sources of money. In 1939, the Reichsbank loaned money at an absurdly low interest rate of 3 percent, which later was dropped to 2.5 percent. The SS later planted the SS-Gruppenfuehrer in the Reichsbank and was able to obtain $7.5 million at an interest rate of 2 percent, unsecured. With negligible labor costs and low interest borrowing, it would be expected that the SS ran quite a successful business, yet the records they kept show only minor profit. Much of their later profit went toward paying off earlier losses, and none of the money was ever distributed to "shareholders."
Another major domain of the SS was the Race and Settlement Office which began in 1931. The chief duty of this office was to insure that the goal of keeping the leadership corps of the SS pure and biologically superior. Candidates for the SS were carefully scrutinized; their racial characteristics and marriage to women of acceptable racial value was to be insured. The office also looked toward finding rural ties for SS families and did agricultural research so that eventually the "elite" would return to "its roots in the land, there to grow healthy and strong, free from the corrupting atomism of urban life." The office also had an education section which was tasked with instilling an inner commitment to "blood and soil" among SS members. While it is true that by doing so a very elite and loyal organization was kept, the office fell apart as a result of different ideology between the leadership from the office and that of Himmler. The SS Race and Settlement Office was placed under the SS Main Office shortly after 1937.
It is easy to understand the attitude of elitism when the process of selection is studied. The SS soldiers received their elitist demeanor from their predecessors, and the strict selection process of the Race and Settlement Office. The nurturing of the SS by Himmler, and the way they were generally set apart from the rest of the military also fostered this attitude. Because the typical SS soldier came from peasantry, it was not difficult for these elitist feeling to be nurtured and used against both the German people and its enemies. The suffering of many was a direct result of the intense indoctrination of a relative few. While the SS was a multi-faceted organization devoutly loyal to the Reich, the end result of their operations was the unnecessary brutalization and death of millions of people, both German and foreign.
James J. Weingartner, "The SS Race and Settlement Main Office: Towards an Orden of Blood and Soil," The Historian: A Journal of History 34 (November 1971) 64.
Graber, G.S. History of the SS (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1978) 26.
Frischauer, Willi, Himmler: The Evil Genius of the Third Reich (London: Odhams Press Limited, 1953) 41.
Mason, Herbert, To Kill the Devil: The Attempts on the Life of Adolf Hitler (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978) 7.
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I. Hitler's SS: Murder and Loyalty
1. Thesis: The SS, or Schutzstaffel, played a variety of roles before and during World War II, showing a twisted versatility between loyally to Hitler and Patriotism.
2. Basic Ideas of the Paper
(a) Beginnings as personal bodyguards and elite fighting forces
(b) Role as political and ethnic cleanser of Germany
(c) The overuse of power in the "busineSS" of the SS
1. The Pre-SS years, leading up to
(a) Influence of Richard Walther Darre
(b) Himmler and his ideology
(c) Peasantry and the original Nordic race
2. The use of the SS as an ethnic and political cleanser of Germany
(a) Use of SS against civilians
(b) Use of SS against military personnel
3. The concentration camp enterprise
(a) Using concentration camps to make a profit
(b) The SS Race and Settlement Office
(c) Financing of camps by banks
1. The SS received its elitism from its predeceSSors
2. The SS turned against all those who were not "elite"
3. The SS thrived on a busineSS which saw the suffering of many