History of the Schutzstaffel

"Eicke viewed the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head unit) as an elite within the elite structure of the SS. This concept grew from the fact that the most dangerous political enemies of the state were incarcerated in the concentration camps and Hitler had given sole responsibility for guarding and running the camps to the SS- Totenkopfverbände. Eicke repeatedly pressed home his principles in orders, circulars and memoranda. The whole of the SS-Totenkopfverbände training was based on elitism, toughness and comradeship, together with a regime of ruthless discipline." Christopher Ailsby, from his book, Hell on the Eastern Front, the Waffen-SS War in Russia 1941 - 1945

Death's Head emblem worn by SS-Totenkopfverbände soldiers

Motto reads in English: My Honor's name is Loyalty

Most Americans had never heard of the SS, an abbreviation for Schutzstaffel, an elite unit of German soldiers, until May 1985 when President Ronald Reagan outraged the Jewish Community and created a huge controversy when he decided to bypass an invitation to tour the concentration camp at Dachau on a state visit to Germany and instead opted to visit a military cemetery in Bitberg, where German SS soldiers were buried. In defense of his visit, Reagan said, "There's nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazis also...They were victims, just as surely as the victims of the concentration camps." Reagan had gotten his start in politics when he worked with the Screen Actor's Guild to expose Communists in the movie industry in the McCarthy era. The Schutzstaffel (Protection Squad) was started in April 1925 as a unit of personal body guards for Adolf Hitler who needed protection from the Communist protesters who tried to disrupt his political speeches for his Fascist party, the National Socialist German Workers Party, better known to Americans as the Nazis.

The occasion for Reagan's visit was the 40ieth anniversary of the end of World War II and he wanted to forget the Holocaust and show that Germany was now our Ally and a member of NATO. His purpose in visiting the graves of these German SS soldiers was to "demonstrate reconciliation and friendship" with the country that had murdered 6 million Jews. However, the soldiers that he was honoring at Bitberg were not the guards at the concentration camps, the infamous Death's Head unit, which was only one part of the SS; Reagan was paying tribute to the soldiers of the Waffen-SS (Weapons SS), an elite fighting unit which included volunteers from many countries who fought the Communists in Hitler's war against the Soviet Union, something that Reagan could certainly relate to.

The SS Training Camp and Garrison at Dachau, called the SS-Übungslager, was like an American Army Post where both the SS camp guards and the fighting SS units were quartered. These were two distinct organizations which grew out of the original private army which was recruited to protect Hitler and his political party. After the war, General Patton got into serious trouble when he said something to the effect that the Nazis were a political party, no different from the Democrats and the Republicans in America. It is true that the Nazis started out as a political party in the democratic Weimar Republic, just like the Communists and Social Democrats, but the big difference was that the Nazis, the Communists and the Social Democrats in Germany each had a private army and they fought their political battles with hand-to-hand combat in the streets and the beer halls.

World War I had ended in November 1918 when the Social Democrats, a political party in Germany, took over the government through a "bloodless revolution," forcing the Kaiser to abdicate his throne. On November 7, 1918, two days before the Social Democrats declared that Germany was now a Republic, the Communists had overthrown the government of Bavaria by force. Then the Communists attempted another revolution to take over the government of Germany from the Social Democrats. To fight the Communists, the Social Democrats called out a militia group named the Freikorps (Free Corps) which consisted of former World War I soldiers. Many of the top members of the Nazi party came from the ranks of the Freikorps. It was the Freikorps that first used the swastika symbol on white arm bands to distinguish themselves from the Communists with their red arm bands. In the 1920ies when Nazi party members, such as Hitler and Rudolf Hess, tried to give speeches in the beer halls of Munich, they would frequently be physically attacked by the Communists. This was the motive for forming a private army to protect Hitler and the Nazis. The Communists already had their own private army, called the Red Army.

To insure safety and order at political meetings, Hitler's good friend, Ernst Röhm, organized the Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers) who were known as the SA. From the start, the SA acted under orders from Röhm, not Hitler. The SA members were ex-soldiers recruited from the Freikorps who were lower class street brawlers and heavy drinkers who frequented the beer halls. They soon gained such a bad reputation that Hitler decided that he needed his own private body guards who would be a better class of people and dedicated to his ideals.

In November 1923 when Hitler staged his Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt to take over the government from the Social Democrats by force, his body guards, called the Stosstruppe Adolf Hitler, were involved in the disastrous fight. The Putsch ended with Hitler being sent to Landsberg prison for treason, the Nazi party being banned and the Stosstruppe disbanded. But by April 1925 Hitler was out of prison and back in business. Realizing that he needed protection now more than ever, he instructed his personal body guard, Julius Schreck, to organize a new unit of 8 uniformed body guards which would be called the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squad). The Schutzstaffel, or SS, became a new unit of the larger Sturmabteilung, the SA, which was still commanded by Ernst Röhm.

In January 1929, Heinrich Himmler was appointed by the Nazi party to be the Reichsführer (National Leader) of the SS. His army rank was SS-Oberführer and he was in command of 1,000 men. Himmler was obsessed with the idea that the Nordic ethnic group was superior to all others, although he and Hitler were both dark-haired Bavarians with round heads and were not themselves of the superior blond Nordic stock with elongated skulls. He wanted his SS troops to be a higher class of people than the SA. Already the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, was objecting to the strong-arm methods of the SA, which they regarded as a troublesome rival army that was ruining Germany's reputation. The Wehrmacht officers were traditionally from the aristocratic class in Germany and they looked down on the rough men of the SA. With his superior organizational skills, Himmler's plan was to build up the SS until it surpassed the SA in numbers. He wanted only men of Nordic blood, the "splendid blond beasts" who were members of the "Master Race." (Nietzsche's words.)

By June 1932, the SS had grown to 30,000 men, which was 10% of the SA. In the 1932 elections Hitler was a candidate for President of Germany on the Nazi party ticket. Both the Social Democrats and the Communists had their own militias and there was fighting in the streets between the members of the political parties. The Nazis secretly recruited more men for the SS during the election campaign and by the time that Hitler, who came in second in the presidential election, was appointed Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, the SS had grown to a private army of 82,000 men. During the war the SS grew to over a million soldiers and included men from many countries who fought on the side of the Nazis against Communism. Towards the end, as the Nazis fought desperately to save the Fatherland from Communism, even some of the German prisoners in the Dachau camp were offered the opportunity to join the Waffen-SS.

On June 30 1934, Ernst Röhm, the head of the SA, was arrested during the "Night of the Long Knives," the infamous purging of all the top officers of the SA. Röhm was taken to Stadelheim prison near Munich, where he was shot at high noon the next day by Theodor Eicke, an SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS, who was then the Commandant of the Dachau concentration camp. As his reward, Eicke was promoted to inspector of all the concentration camps and head of the SS Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head unit). It was the Death's Head unit which eventually made up the guards of all the concentration camps. On their caps, they wore a silver emblem of a skull. The death's head was supposed to signify that they were loyal to the death, not that they were murderers. The motto of the SS was "Loyalty is my honor."

According to noted historian John Toland, in his book entitled "Adolf Hitler," Himmler wanted his SS soldiers "to be hard but not hardened." Toland wrote, regarding Himmler's reason for establishing training centers, such as the one at Dachau, for his SS men:

He imbued the SS, therefore, not only with a sense of racial superiority but with the hard virtues of loyalty, comradeship, duty, truth, diligence, honesty and knighthood. His SS, as the elite of the party, was the elite of the German Volk, and therefore the elite of the entire world. By establishing castles of the order to indoctrinate SS members in his ideals, he hoped to breed a New Man, "far finer and more valuable than the world had yet seen."

The SS-Übungslager at Dachau was an Army garrison, as well as the place where members of the Totenkopf division were trained to be concentration camp administrators. The SS soldiers were held to higher standards and were subjected to the strictest discipline. Sentences handed down by SS courts were more severe than sentences passed by other courts for the same offense. The eastern section of the bunker (camp prison) at Dachau was reserved for SS soldiers who had committed a criminal act. At the Nuremberg trial, SS General Ernst Kaltenbrunner testified that there were 13 Stammlager (central concentration camps). One of these camps was Matzgau, located near Danzig; it was a camp where SS guards were imprisoned for offenses such as physical mistreatment of concentration camp prisoners, embezzlement, or theft.

A young Waffen-SS officer named Konrad Morgen, who was also an attorney, was authorized by Himmler to conduct investigations into corruption and brutality in the concentration camps. Eight hundred members of the SS were tried in his special court and 200 were convicted, including Amon Goeth, the Commandant who was featured in the film, Schindler's List, and Karl Koch, the infamous Commandant of Buchenwald. Even before Morgen started his investigations, two of the Commandants of Dachau, Hilmar Wäckerle and Alex Piorkowski were dismissed from their jobs by Himmler, after accusations of murder in the camp were brought to his attention. Not even a close personal friendship could save an SS officer from punishment. Dr. Sigmund Rascher, the Waffen-SS officer who conducted experiments for the German air force at Dachau, whose wife was an intimate friend of Himmler, was arrested for illegally adopting children and claiming them as his own. Just before the Dachau camp was liberated, Dr. Rascher, who was an inmate in the Dachau bunker, was executed, along with his wife, on orders from Himmler.

The most famous graduate of the Dachau Training Camp was Rudolf Höss who became the Commandant at the infamous Auschwitz death factory, where over a million Jews were murdered in the gas chambers. Adolf Eichmann was another infamous alumni of the Dachau SS Training camp, as was Josef Kramer, the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen, who was responsible for starving to death thousands of innocent prisoners.

Avenue of the SS

Gates into the Dachau complex

Preserved Railroad tracks

Back to SS Camp

Execution of German SS soldiers