Ideology of the SS

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Soldiers of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler standing at attention, 1935

The ideology of the SS refers to the idealized values and motivations of the Schutzstaffel ("Protection Squadron"; SS), a huge and powerful paramilitary force of the Nazi Party. Racial purity, fitness, field exercises, and loyalty to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany played a large part. SS men were indoctrinated with the belief they were members of a master race and trained to be ruthless political warriors. Violence and anti-Semitism were heavily emphasized in the training program, internal literature, and lectures of the SS. The influence of SS teaching resulted in unprecedented atrocities before and during World War II.


The SS training program was rigid and intense, and focused on Nazi ideology.[1] All recruits were taught the basic ideological fundamentals of the Nazi Party, namely the belief in the superiority of the Nordic race, loyalty and absolute obedience to Adolf Hitler as the Führer of Germany, and hatred of inferior races, particularly the Jews.[2] Anti-Semitism was heavily emphasized in the training program, internal literature as well as lectures of the SS.[3][2] Students studied the most anti-Semitic passages of Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"), Hitler's autobiographical manifesto, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic document purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination. The SS educational leaders were also responsible for general anti-religious training and activities.[4] Educational training was clearly linked with "racial selection, at the end of which stood the 'weeding out' and selective breeding of human beings."[5]

Particular aspects of SS ideology were emphasized in training programs, such as sports as an intense conflict.[6] All SS men were required to obtain the sports badges of the Sturmabteilung ("Storm Detachment"; SA), thereby promoting a "natural selection" and guaranteeing the formation of an elite group.[6] The SS sports training had a large paramilitary component with an emphasis on total victory over the opponent.[6] The ultimate goal was not sports performance, which was considered too individualistic for the collective mentality of the SS, but molding the perfect warrior who exemplified willpower, hardness of temperament, and national purity.[7]

Beginning in 1938, the SS intensified the ideological indoctrination of the Hitler-Jugend Landdienst ("Hitler Youth Land Service"). It set out the ideal of the German "Wehrbauer" ("Soldier Peasant"). Special high schools were created under SS control to form a Nazi agrarian elite that was trained according to the principle of "blood and soil".[8] While SS leader Heinrich Himmler remained concerned about the racial elitism of his SS, it was Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's deputy and protégé, who focused his attention on their "political" training and the development of intellectual prowess through the creation of "racial detectives" who would become Hitler's "ideological Shock Troops", honoring the Führer‍ '​s ideals and providing domestic protection for the Nazi state.[9]


Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler outlawed atheism for SS membership; all SS men were required to belong to a religious institution or identify themselves as a "believer in God"

According to Himmler, the German gospel centered around the life and race of the German Volk ("people").[10] Meanwhile, in the struggle for total control over German minds and bodies, the SS developed an anti-clerical agenda. No chaplains were allowed in its units (although they were allowed in the regular army). The Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service; SD) department of the SS was used to identify and eliminate Catholic influence. The SS determined the German Catholic Church was a serious threat to its hegemony and, while it was too strong to be abolished, it had to be stripped of its influence; for example by closing its youth clubs and publications.[11]

Himmler used the Jesuits as the model for the SS, since he found they had the core elements of absolute obedience and the cult of the organisation.[12][11] Hitler is said to have called Himmler "my Ignatius of Loyola".[12] As an order, the SS needed a coherent doctrine that would set it apart.[13] Himmler attempted to construct such an ideology, and deduced a "pseudo-Germanic tradition" from history.[13] Himmler dismissed the image of Christ as a Jew and rejected Christianity's basic doctrine and its institutions.[14] In a 1936 memorandum, he set forth a list of approved holidays based on pagan and political precedents meant to wean SS members from their reliance on Christian festivities.[15] However, these attempts were not entirely successful. Historian Heinz Höhne observes that the "neo-pagan customs" Himmler introduced into the SS "remained primarily a paper exercise".[15] Most of Himmler's attempts to link "old Teutonic" traditions into the spiritual life of the SS and society at large were criticised by the Church as a form of "new heathenism."[16] Although the SS never endorsed Christian beliefs, the traditional rituals and practices of the Christian faith were generally tolerated and respected.[17]

Many of the concepts promoted with the SS violated accepted Christian doctrine, but neither Himmler nor his deputy Heydrich expected the Christian church to support their stance on abortion, contraception or sterilization of the unfit – let alone their shared belief in polygamy for the sake of racial propagation.[18] This did not however represent disbelief in a higher power from either man nor did it deter them on their ideological quest. In fact, atheism was banned within the SS as Himmler believed it to be a form of egotism that placed the individual at the center of the universe, and thus constituted a rejection of the SS principle of valuing the collective over the individual.[19] All SS men were required to list themselves as Protestant, Catholic or Gottgläubig ("Believer in God").[20] Himmler preferred the neo-pagan "expression of spirituality". Still, by 1938 "only 21.9 percent of SS members described themselves as gottgläubig, whereas 54 percent remained Protestant and just under 24 percent Catholic."[21] Belief in God among the SS did not constitute adherence to traditional Christian doctrine nor were its members consummate theologians, as the SS outright banned certain Christian organizations like the International Bible Research Association, a group whose pacifism the SS rejected.[22] Dissenting religious organizations like the Jehovah's Witnesses were severely persecuted by the SS for their pacifism, failure to participate in elections, non-observance of the Hitler salute, not displaying the Nazi flag, and for their non-participation in Nazi organizations; many were sent to concentration camps where they perished.[23] Heydrich once quipped that any and all opposition to Nazism originated from either "Jews or politicized clergy."[24] Eventually, the SS developed their own "ersatz religion" replete with elaborate rituals, pagan symbology and a its own "castle of the holy grail" known as the Wewelsburg in the vicinity of Paderborn.[25]


In contrast to the German army's traditions, officer promotions in the SS were based on the individual's commitment and political reliability, not on Junker status or upper-class family background.[26] Consequently, the SS officer schools offered a military career option for those of modest social background, which was not usually possible in the Wehrmacht.[27][26] The Waffen-SS, the military branch of the SS, did not even require its officer candidates to have high school (Gymnasium) diplomas.[28]

The relationship between officers and soldiers were also less formal than in the regular armed forces.[26] SS officers were referred to as Führer ("leaders"), not Offiziere ("officers"), which was seen as having class connotations.[27][26] The military rank prefix Herr ("Sir") was forbidden, and all ranks were addressed simply by their title.[26] Off duty, junior ranks would address their seniors either as Kamerad ("Comrade") or Parteigenosse ("Party comrade"), depending on whether both were members of the Nazi Party.[27][26] Though SS membership was open to all who met Himmler's eugenic and genealogical standards, an inordinate number of SS men came from the aristocracy.[27][29]

The SS placed an intense emphasis upon elitism and portrayed themselves as part of an elite order which "explicitly modelled on an a historical version of religious orders, such as the Teutonic Knights or the Jesuits, whose dedication to a higher idea was admired in these otherwise anti-clerical circles".[27][30] Despite the elitism of the SS, their ideological maxims emphasized that the general good always came before private interests and the individual was nothing compared to the collective German Volk.[31]

Racial propagation[edit]

Consistent with the eugenic and racial policies of the Third Reich, Himmler advocated racial elitism for his SS members.[32] Throughout the existence of the SS, its members were regularly encouraged to procreate to maintain and increase the Aryan-Nordic bloodline; the SS member, along with his wife and children, were to become an exclusive racial community (Sippengemeinschaft) within the Nazi state. Along these lines, Himmler stated on 8 November 1937 at a Gruppenführer meeting in Munich in the officers' quarters:

The SS is a National Socialist order of soldiers of Nordic race and a community of their clans bound together by oath ... what we want for Germany is a ruling class destined to last for centuries and the product of repeated selection, a new aristocracy continuously renewed from the best of the sons and daughters of our nation, a nobility that never ages, stretching back into distant epochs in its traditions, where these are valuable, and representing eternal youth for our nation.[33]

Hitler certainly subscribed to these views and once remarked that the elite of the future Nazi state would stem from the SS since "only the SS practices racial selection."[34] Wives of SS members were scrutinized accordingly for their racial fitness, and even marriages had to be approved through official channels as part of the SS ideological mandate governing racial purity.[35] According to their ideology, SS men were believed to be the bearers of the very best of Nordic blood, and it was their ideological tenets and scholarly justifications that shaped numerous Nazi actions and policies, merging racial determinism, Nordicism, and anti-Semitism.[36]

Intellectuals within the SS took racial hygiene very seriously, as did leading members of the regime.[37] An SS Doctors' Leader School was established in the small village of Alt-Rehse which encouraged the practice of racial hygiene and focused on the future of "German genetic streams" (deutsche Erbströme).[38] Medical journal articles written by SS intellectuals stressed the importance of genetic heritage, arguing that "biology and genetics are the roots from which the National Socialist worldview has derived its knowledge, and from which it continues to derive new strength."[39]

Racial hygiene proponents within the SS were convinced that the superior Nordic-Germans were being gradually extinguished or degenerated through repeated contact with racial inferiors.[40] Not only was contact with racial "others" a concern, but attrition through bloodshed was an additional factor. Fear of losing a large percentage of Germanic racial stock once the Second World War began drove SS ideology, as victory in the field could not prevail without a corresponding biological legacy of children to carry on the mission.[41] Himmler stressed the ideological imperative to SS men that they were obliged to procreate to preserve Germany's genetic legacy so the "master race" could secure and sustain the "Thousand Year Reich" of the future.[42] The extensive proliferation of Germanic culture demanded racial purity and the proper environment if German imperialism (the achievement of Lebensraum) was to succeed according to SS ideology.[43]

The Waffen-SS attempted to recruit "Germanic" volunteers into its ranks. According to historian Mark P. Gingerich, of the one million Waffen-SS men who served during the war, over half were not even German citizens.[44] In Himmler's vision, the Waffen-SS would spearhead the unification of the European Germanic peoples into a "Greater Germanic Reich," and the international members would "serve as the vanguard of the assimilation process." [45] Volunteers often had strong feelings of cultural and racial commonality and feared "demographic and racial degradation."[46]

Animal welfare[edit]

When the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, they imposed several laws ensuring the safety and well-being of animals.[47] Himmler made an effort to ban the hunting of animals, and treating animals with care became a standard SS practice.[48] There was widespread support for animal welfare in Nazi Germany.[49] Several prominent Nazi leaders, including Hitler, Himmler, and Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring (who was described as a "fanatical animal lover") publicly showed themselves as supporters of animal welfare.[50] In 1933, the Nazi government passed a very strict Animal Protection Law which exhaustively stipulated how animals were to be treated in Germany.[51]


The SS was built on a culture of violence, which was exhibited in extreme form by the mass murder of civilians and prisoners on the Eastern Front after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.[2] Historian Hans Buchheim wrote that the mentality and ideal values of the SS men were to be "hard," with no emotions such as love or kindness; hatred for the "inferior" and contempt for anyone who was not in the SS; unthinking obedience; "camaraderie" with fellow members of the SS; and an intense militarism that saw the SS as part of an elite order fighting for a better Germany.[52] The principal "enemy" of the SS, represented as a force of uncompromising, utter evil and depravity, was "world Jewry".[53] Members of the SS were encouraged to fight against the "Jewish Bolshevik sub-humans". In the pamphlet The SS as an Anti-Bolshevist Fighting Organization, published in 1936, Himmler wrote:

We shall take care that never again in Germany, the heart of Europe, will the Jewish-Bolshevistic revolution of subhumans be able to be kindled either from within or through emissaries from without.[54]

The SS value of "fighting for fighting's sake" could be traced back to the values of the front-line German soldiers in World War I and the post-war Freikorps, and in turn led SS members to see violence as the highest possible value, and conventional morality as a hindrance to achieving victory.[55] They were taught to have a "ruthless disregard" of showing humanity towards the enemy.[56] For many in the SS, what really mattered was a mentality that fostered violence and "hardness".[57] The ideal SS man was supposed to be in a state of permanent readiness for a fight against all enemies with all his fury.[58] For members of the SS their mentality was such that for them, nothing was impossible no matter how arduous or cruel.[59] SS men who attempted to live by that principle of violence had an unusually high suicide rate.[27] The "soldierly" values of the SS were specific to the German post-World War I concept of the "political soldier" who was to be indoctrinated to be a "fighter" who would devote his life to struggling for the nation.[60]

Troops of the 1st SS Panzer Division at a Nazi procession, 1939

Although not an SS document, the 1930 book Krieg und Krieger ("War and Warriors"), edited by Ernst Jünger, with contributions by Friedrich Georg Jünger, Friedrich Hielscher, Werner Best and Ernst von Salomon, served as an excellent introduction to the intellectual traditions from which the SS ideal arose.[58] The essays in Krieg und Krieger called for a revolutionary reorganization of German society, which was to be led by a new elite of "heroic" leaders who would create a "new moral code" based upon the idea that life was a never-ending, Social Darwinian "struggle" that could only be settled with violence.[61] The book claimed that Germany had only been defeated in the First World War because the country had been insufficiently "spiritually mobilized", and what was required to win the next war was the proper sort of "heroic" leaders, unhindered by conventional morality, who would do what was necessary to win.[62] The values of the "heroic realism" literature gloried the principle and practice of fighting to the death regardless of the military situation.[27]

Out of the intellectual heritage of the "heroic realism" literature came a rejection of the traditional values of Christianity and the enlightenment (principles which were considered too sentimental); what emerged in its place was a cold indifference to the value of human life.[27] Marriage of the image of the "fighter" from "heroic realism" literature and the practical need of the SS to serve as political cadres for the National Socialist state, led to the elevation of the concept of "duty" as the highest obligation of the SS man.[63] The SS ethos called for "achievement for achievement's sake", where achievement ranked as the highest measurement of success.[64] As such, winning at all costs regardless the sacrifice became a supreme SS virtue.[27] The SS principle of loyalty above all, as reflected in the official slogan "My honour is loyalty", was severed from traditional moral considerations and instead focused entirely upon Hitler.[27] As part of the process, creating an elite order led to emphasis upon an idealized and distorted version of German history which was intended to instill pride in SS men.[65]

Himmler admonished the SS against pity, neighborly love, and humility, instead celebrating hardness and self-discipline.[66][67] Indoctrinating the SS to perceive racial "others" and state enemies as undeserving of their pity, helped create an environment and a mental framework where the men saw acts of wanton violence against those same enemies, not as a crime, but part of their patriotic obligation to the Nazi state.[68] As historian Claudia Koonz points out, "the cerebral racism of the SS provided the mental armor for mass murderers."[69] When Himmler visited Minsk and witnessed a mass killing of 100 people, he made a speech to the executioners emphasizing the need to put orders over conscience, saying that "soldiers ... had to carry out every order unconditionally".[70] According to historian George Stein, unquestioning obedience and "submission to authority" on the part of the SS represented one of the ideological "foundation stones" to combat the party's enemies.[71] As the Waffen-SS fought their way through the eastern European territories and into the Soviet Union, the men wrote of their "great service in saving western civilization from being overrun by Asiatic Communism."[72] One Waffen-SS recruiting pamphlet told potential members that answering the call meant being "especially bound to the National Socialist ideology," a doctrine which implied both an ideological battle and a racial struggle against subhumans (Untermenschen) accompanied by an unprecedented brutalization of warfare.[73]

To destroy unwanted elements in the Nazi regime's push eastwards, special SS death squads known as Einsatzgruppen were used for large-scale extermination and genocide of "undesirables" such as Jews, gypsies, Asians, and communists.[74][75] On 17 June 1941, Heydrich briefed the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen and their subordinate units on the general policy of killing Jews in the Soviet lands. SD member Walter Blume later testified that Heydrich called Eastern Jews the "reservoir of intellectuals for Bolshevism," and said that the "state leadership held the view that [they] must be destroyed." [76] When the task of killing became too much for the SS Einsatzgruppen, they enlisted the aid of specially created Order Police (drawn from Germany and/or the local populations) who they indoctrinated for this purpose.[77] One Order Police participant named Kurt Möbius testified during a postwar trial, that he believed the SS propaganda about the Jews being "criminals and sub-humans" who had caused "Germany's decline after the First World War." He went on to state that evading "the order to participate in the extermination of the Jews" never entered his mind.[78] One SS officer, Karl Kretschmer, "saw himself as a representative of a cultured people fighting a primitive, barbaric enemy," and wrote to his family of the need to desensitize himself from the mass killings.[79] Burleigh says: "Members of the SS administered, tortured, and murdered people with a cold, steely precision, and without moral scruples."[80]

Obedience to criminality[edit]

SS soldiers making enquiries about partisan operations, 1943
Main article: The Holocaust

Historian Hans Buchheim argues there was no coercion to murder Jews and others, and all who committed such actions did so out of free will.[81] He wrote that chances to avoid executing criminal orders "were both more numerous and more real than those concerned are generally prepared to admit".[82] Buchheim commented that until the middle of 1942, the SS had been a strictly volunteer organization, and that anyone who joined the SS after the Nazis had taken over the German government either knew or came to know that he was joining an organization that would be involved in atrocities of one sort or another.[83]

Historians generally agree that there is no evidence that SS men who refused to carry out criminal orders were punished with execution or sent to a concentration camp.[84][83] On the other hand, there is no known record of an SS officer refusing to commit an atrocity; they willingly did so, and then cherished the awards they received for doing it.[85] SS wartime rules, though calling for harsh and murderous treatment of Jews, prohibited acts of gratuitous sadism, as Himmler wished for his men to remain "decent" and that such acts of gratuitous cruelty were taken on the individual initiative of those who were either especially cruel or wished to prove themselves ardent National Socialists.[86] Finally, Buchheim argues that those of a non-criminal bent who committed crimes did so because they wished to conform to the values of the group they had joined and were fearful of being branded "weak" by their colleagues if they refused.[87]

One of the mental tools and alternate justifications employed by intellectuals within the SS to exonerate themselves for their crimes of genocide, particularly when participating in the cruelty epitomized by the Genickschuß (bullet to the back of the neck) was their insistence of being differentiated from the Russians. They believed the barbarous Russians enjoyed such cruelty, whereas the noble SS member found it distasteful and absolved themselves through the scientific justification that they were merely acting as instruments (men of action) on behalf of the German people as part of the quest for racial hygiene.[88] Similar strategies of negation and dismissal of responsibility were displayed by SS men during their post-war trials, either by way of legitimizing their actions as a result of unconditional obedience to their superiors (intimating responsibility onto them) or through the use of innocuous sounding bureaucratic language.[89]


Initially the victims were killed with gas vans or firing squad by the SS Einsatzgruppen units, but these methods proved impracticable for an operation of the scale carried out by the Nazi state.[90] In August 1941, SS leader Himmler attended the shooting of 100 Jews at Minsk. Nauseated and shaken by the experience,[91] he was concerned about the impact such actions would have on the mental health of his SS men. He decided that alternate methods of killing should be found.[92][93] On his orders, by spring 1942 the camp at Auschwitz had been greatly expanded, including the addition of gas chambers, where victims were killed using the pesticide Zyklon B.[94] By the end of the war, at least eleven million people, including 5.5 to 6 million Jews[95][96] and between 200,000 and 1,500,000 Romani people[97][96] had been killed by the Nazi state with assistance by collaborationist governments and recruits from occupied countries.[98][99] Himmler was a main architect of the Holocaust[100][101] and the SS was the main branch of the Nazi Party in relation to implementation.[102]

Ideological enforcement[edit]

Adherence to Nazi doctrine was essentially a given among SS members as they represented some of the most ideologically committed persons within the Third Reich. Not only had they been selected for their physical exemplification of Nazi racial ideals, but they had also sworn an oath to Hitler and the Nazi cause.[103] Part of that sworn commitment included the obedience and enforcement of National Socialist ideological tenets as the vanguards of the regime.[104] Two organizations under the SS umbrella, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and Gestapo, were used as Hitler's ideological enforcement mechanism. Representing the ideological opponents of the regime in one form or fashion, historian George C. Browder identified the Nazi state's list of enemies as follows:

  • Enemy States: Other nations' efforts to keep Germany down, to persecute or treat her unfairly or disrespectfully; any xenophobic statements[105]
  • Miscegenation: The weakening of the German nation by the pollution of German blood with that of other "races"[105]
  • Jews: Fear/hate of Jews as a major threat to the German nation[105]
  • Catholicism: Conflicts with or hostility toward Catholic clergy; belief that Catholic Christianity is an internationalist, pacifist, alien ideology detrimental to the strength of the German spirit; belief that the Catholic Church is an international, conspiratorial power working against the German nation[105]
  • Freemasonry: Belief that the Masonic order is a society of internationalist, liberal conspirators through which Germany's enemies operate to undermine natural German culture and society[105]
  • Communism: Fear/hate of the KPD, Communist (Marxist) ideology, or an international Communist conspiracy SPD: Fear/hate of the Social Democratic Party, its labor organizations, and its influence in the Weimar "system"[105]
  • The Republic: Hostility directed at the liberal republican constitution or form of government, politicians of the ("non-Marxist") pro-Republic parties, partisan politics in general, and the corruptions of the "system," and any expressed desire or act to overthrow the Republic[105]
  • Homosexuality: Fear/hate of homosexuality or homosexuals as corrupting, weakening influences[105] that "defied the command structure of government and military institutions"[106] (Himmler wrote a 1942 memo urging "ruthless severity" to eliminate the "dangerous and infectious plague," and the death penalty was instituted for homosexuality in the SS)[107]
  • Moral Decay: Concern with other symptoms of "moral decadence" as threats to the strength of the German nation[105]
  • Capitalists: Hate/fear of economically powerful combinations or individuals as unjust, corrupting, undermining influences and forces in German society[105]
  • Old Guard: Hate/fear of traditionally powerful influences and institutions of the old society as unjust, retarding influences in German society[105]

It was these enemies that the SS and its subordinate organizations comprehensively sought to delegitimize or destroy as they attempted to define and shape their ongoing ideological, albeit political mission.[108] Himmler intended for the SS to be a hierarchical system of "ideological fighters" from the organization's inception.[109] The SS proved to be that and more, essentially becoming the instrument most responsible for the actualization of Nazi beliefs. SS ideology comprised perhaps the single most significant philosophical dimension of Nazism, employing in the process, ontological, anthropological, and ethical elements to their methods under the guise of science, shaping the Nazi state's doctrine and crystallizing ideals (no matter how callous) into dogmatic truths. It was SS principles and thinking which provided the scientific impetus for the devaluation of humanity and their actions as ideological enforcers that propelled the Nazis forward into an ultimate paroxysm of destruction and genocide.[110]


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  2. ^ a b c The Waffen-SS 2008.
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