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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. The SS had a unique double function in the National Socialist state: On the one hand, it served as an executive instrument to consolidate Nazi power. While at first only one of the paramilitary organizations of the Nazi Party, as a sub-section of the Sturmabteilung (SA), it developed deep ties with the police forces after Hitler took over power in Germany. On the other hand, the SS served as an "institution for the realization of racial and biological conceptions"[1] of the Nazi state. Both developments were mainly promoted by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, whose private world views were the main source for SS ideology.

Racial purity, fitness, field exercises, and loyalty to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany played a large part in the organization's ideological fundaments. SS men were indoctrinated with the belief they were members of a master race. The ideology of the SS was, even more so than in Nazism in general, built on the belief of the superiority of the "Aryan race." This, in union with a refined mentality of obedience and violent group dynamics, executed through hard physical training and emphasis on violence and antisemitism in the internal literature and lectures of the SS, led to the SS playing the main role in political violence and eventually crimes against humanity, including the Holocaust and Action T4.

Ideological foundations[edit]

The ideology of the SS was built upon and mainly congruent with Nazi ideology in general. At its center laid the conviction of the superiority of the Nordic race.[2] However, the SS also served as the central institution for the extension of Nazi ideology and its realisation.[1] For this purpose, several divisions and enterprises were established within the SS to conduct research and carry out the steps deemed necessary to bring forward Nazi ideology. Himmler himself was appointed Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of German Nationhood on 7 October 1939 to oversee the expansion and racial "integrity" of the German Volk.[3] Not only did the SS espouse and help shape Nazi racial ideology, the SS monitored how all forms of ideology were being received through the use of its intelligence organ, the Sicherheitsdienst which reported its findings back to the Nazi leadership.[4] Another component of the SS, the infamous Gestapo used their power to deal with ideological dissenters through the employment of what was known as Schutzhaft ("protective custody") to imprison people without judicial review, which no court could investigate or contest.[5] Nazi ideology trumped the German legal system in a manner of speaking as the Gestapo (an SS organization) became the central organ for state-sanctioned Nazi terror.[6]

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[7]
  • Miscegenation: The weakening of the German nation by the pollution of German blood with that of other "races"[7]
  • Jews: Fear/hate of Jews as a major threat to the German nation[7]
  • 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[7]
  • 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[7]
  • 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"[7]
  • 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[7]
  • Homosexuality: Fear/hate of homosexuality or homosexuals as corrupting, weakening influences[7] that "defied the command structure of government and military institutions"[8] (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)[9]
  • Moral Decay: Concern with other symptoms of "moral decadence" as threats to the strength of the German nation[7]
  • Capitalists: Hate/fear of economically powerful combinations or individuals as unjust, corrupting, undermining influences and forces in German society[7]
  • Old Guard: Hate/fear of traditionally powerful influences and institutions of the old society as unjust, retarding influences in German society[7]

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.[10] Himmler intended for the SS to be a hierarchical system of "ideological fighters" from the organization's inception.[11] 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.[12]

The SS as a Nazi elite[edit]

Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler attempted to form the SS as the elite group within National Socialism.

Adherence to Nazi doctrine was essentially a given among SS members as they were some of the most ideologically committed persons within the Third Reich. The members of the SS had distinguished themselves from their fellow National Socialists early on, wearing black ties and skull-bearing caps with their brown uniforms, presenting an elite self-image.[13] 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".[14][15] 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.[16] Admission requirements for the SS were stricter than for the NSDAP. While it was enough to give a sworn declaration of one's "Aryan" heritage and a small "ancestry passport" (Ahnenpass) when applying for NSDAP membership, the SS required interested men to provide a so-called "great certificate of ancestry" (Großer Abstammungsnachweis), which verified one's ancestry through church registers back to 1800.[17][18] Himmler even toyed with the idea of dating the certificates as far back as 1750 or even 1650.[19]

Racial exclusivity was not only supposed to be secured through documents, but by medical examinations as well. By Himmler's decree from 24 January 1932, SS-doctors were present for muster procedures, evaluating the applicants on scales in the fields of body composition, soldierly attitude (soldatische Haltung) and racial quality.[20] Starting in 1928, the minimal height for SS-members was set at 1.70 meters (5.6 ft), slightly above average at the time.[21] When speaking in front of a group of SS-Gruppenführer in November 1937, Himmler stated that he desired the SS selection process to be so strict that only 10% of applicants would be taken. This objective proved impossible to reach. In practice, the physicians had little motivation and even less knowledge of the crude racial requirements, leading to examinations lasting "barely thirty seconds", as one rejected applicant lamented. Overseeing the "purity of the blood" of all applicants proved equally difficult. By spring 1937, 20,000 ancestry certificates remained unchecked by the SS.[22] In December 1938, Himmler further softened the admission criteria, now accepting applicants at a minimal height of 1.65 meters (5.4 ft) and upwards and those with an eyesight deficiency of up to four dioptre. As a consequence, in 1938 only 30% of applicants were rejected.[23] Himmler additionally tried to use the SS as a tool to promote a strong, Aryan race by constantly asking its members to procreate. On 31 December 1931, he issued a decree urging all SS-men to marry women of "good blood". At the same time, marriages became subject to approval by the SS, with the necessity to provide ancestry records of the potential spouse.[24][25] After the beginning of World War II, Himmler went even further, urging German women to "become the mothers of children from soldiers marching into battle, even beyond the boundaries of otherwise necessary civil laws and conventions", a decree he had to retract after protest from the Wehrmacht, who feared that it might be understood as an invitation to adultery.[26]

The SS had problems upholding its elitist image in some cases. Even though Himmler and the other SS leaders repeatedly demanded sobriety within their ranks, alcoholism was a frequent problem with SS-men. Similarly, listlessness and laziness proved problematic, with 700 members excluded from the SS for those reasons in 1937/38 alone. A further 12,000 left the SS in the same period for unknown reasons, calling into question the institution's claims of "loyalty for life".[27]


Very early on, the SS established itself as the most loyal institution to Adolf Hitler's personal reign. Originally a sub-division of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the SS first clashed with the SA in August 1930, when it remained loyal to the movement's Führer during a local SA uprising in Berlin, leading to street fights between both Nazi organizations on the night of 30–31 August 1930. Shortly thereafter, Hitler rewarded the SS by giving them a new motto, "My honour is loyalty" (Meine Ehre heißt Treue).[28] The SS eventually proved instrumental in the downfall and marginalization of the SA during the Night of Long Knives.[29] Incoming SS-men were required to swear an oath to Hitler and the Nazi cause.[30] Part of that sworn commitment included the obedience and enforcement of National Socialist ideological tenets as the vanguards of the regime.[31]

The SS was characterized by a strong inner loyalty system, that could also turn against fellow, non-SS, National Socialists. Following an altercation between Joseph Goebbels and Erich Hilgenfeldt, Goebbels' state secretary Werner Naumann had openly critizised his minister out of loyalty to his fellow SS-member Hilgenfeldt. In his journal, Goebbels commented on 15 September 1944: "The SS forms a sort of Freemasonry inside the party. They hold together for good or for evil, which is an advantage in most cases, but can be a hindrance in others."[32] Goebbel's observations about the SS proved true in many ways for the SS was the only organization to develop itself independently as the avante-garde of the National Socialist empire, one always loyal to Hitler to the very end.[33]

Oath of the SS[edit]

The full Eidformel der Schutzstaffel ("Oath of the Schutzstaffel") consisted of three questions and answers.[34]

German English
Wie lautet Dein Eid?
– Ich schwöre Dir, Adolf Hitler, als Führer und Kanzler des Deutschen Reiches, Treue und Tapferkeit. Wir geloben Dir und den von Dir bestimmten Vorgesetzten Gehorsam bis in den Tod. So wahr mir Gott helfe!

Also glaubst Du an einen Gott?
– Ja, ich glaube an einen Herrgott.

Was hältst Du von einem Menschen, der nicht an einen Gott glaubt?
Ich halte ihn für überheblich, größenwahnsinnig und dumm; er ist nicht für uns geeignet.

What is your oath?
– I vow to you, Adolf Hitler, as Führer and chancellor of the German Reich, loyalty and bravery. I vow to you and to the leaders that you set for me, absolute allegiance until death. So help me God!

So you believe in a God?
– Yes, I believe in a Lord God.

What do you think about a man who does not believe in a God?
– I think he is overbearing, megalomaniacal, and foolish; he is not suitable for us.


The inner-SS loyalty was further promoted by an egalitarian approach towards its member, following the Nazi principle of Volksgemeinschaft.[35] 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.[36] Consequently, the SS officer schools offered a military career option for those of modest social background, which was not usually possible in the Wehrmacht.[14][36] The Waffen-SS, the military branch of the SS, did not even require its officer candidates to have high school (Gymnasium) diplomas.[37]

The relationship between officers and soldiers were also less formal than in the regular armed forces.[36] SS officers were referred to as Führer ("leaders"), not Offiziere ("officers"), which was seen as having class connotations.[14][36] The military rank prefix Herr ("Sir") was forbidden, and all ranks were addressed simply by their title.[36] 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.[14][36] 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.[14][38] In addition, academics were twofold over-represented in the SS in comparison to the general population.[35]

Training and indoctrination[edit]

Cover of a 1937 issue of Das Schwarze Korps

The SS training program was rigid and intense, and focused on Nazi ideology.[39] 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] Antisemitism was heavily emphasized in the training program, internal literature as well as lectures of the SS.[40][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.[41] Educational training was clearly linked with "racial selection, at the end of which stood the 'weeding out' and selective breeding of human beings."[42] Following the Machtergreifung in 1933, membership in the SS grew considerably, making an increase in ideological instruction necessary. A school leader complained in 1935 that most new SS recruits knew neither Mein Kampf nor the 25-point National Socialist Program. The SS-Schulungsamt ("education office") took over the task of heading the educational matters of the SS, led by Karl Motz, an "old fighter" of the party.[43] The office published the SS-Leithefte on a monthly basis, which were used in classes and featured descriptive depictions of ancestral studies, "racially conscious choice of partners" and other ideological content. Furthermore, SS classes often featured relatively modern tools such as reversal film shows and movies. The SS published two additional magazines for ideological propaganda: the monthly FM-Zeitschrift, funded by 350,000 Fördernde Mitglieder of the SS, and the weekly Das Schwarze Korps, the second biggest weekly paper in Nazi Germany.[44]

Particular aspects of SS ideology were emphasized in training programs, such as sports as an intense conflict.[45] Sports were deemed the "most important tool of education" by the SS, beginning with paramilitary training as part of the SA before the Nazis obtained national power in January 1933. When Hitler introduced general conscription in 1935, the emphasis of the SS exercises moved away from military training towards athletics, gymnastics and swimming.[46] All SS men under the age of 50 were expected to obtain the sports badges of the Sturmabteilung ("Storm Detachment"; SA), thereby promoting a "natural selection" and guaranteeing the formation of an elite group.[45] Himmler considered it desirable that all members also obtained the more physical Reichssportabzeichen and set a good example, achieving both feats by 1936. His troops however, failed to meet his demands: by the end of 1938, only 34% of the members had achieved the SA sport badge, and a mere 10% wore a Reichssportabzeichen.[46] The SS sports training retained a large paramilitary component with an emphasis on total victory over the opponent.[45] 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.[47]

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".[48] 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.[49]

The SS practiced a wide variety of disciplinary measures, with punishments composed of reprimands, prohibition to wear the uniform, detention, demotion, suspension, and expulsion. Contrary to claims made by many SS-members after 1945, no one had to fear being incarcerated in a concentration camp for delinquencies. Starting in June 1933, the SS had its own courts to deal with crimes and misdemeanors within its ranks. On 17 October 1939, Himmler succeeded in having the SS put under its own special jurisdiction. Once this change occurred, SS-members could no longer be tried in civil courts.[50][51]

Racial propagation and preservation[edit]

Consistent with the eugenic and racial policies of the Third Reich, Himmler advocated racial elitism for his SS members.[52] Throughout the existence of the SS, its members were regularly encouraged to procreate to maintain and increase the Aryan-Nordic bloodline; the SS members, along with their wives 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.[53]

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."[54] 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.[55] 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 antisemitism.[56]

Intellectuals within the SS took racial hygiene very seriously, as did leading members of the regime.[57] 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).[58] 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."[59] In order to promote its role as a preserver of the Germanic heritage, the SS founded the Ahnenerbe institute in 1935. It conducted anthropological, historic, and archeologic studies to provide scientific backing to Himmler's ideological ideas. In the years until 1939, the institute worked in a hybrid state between important findings such as the Viking village Hedeby and erratic studies into the Welteislehre and medieval witch-hunts, which Himmler thought to have been murders committed by the Roman Catholic church against Germanic women of "good blood". After World War II started, the Ahnenerbe was heavily involved in experiments conducted in concentration camps, costing the lives of thousands of inmates.[60]

A Lebensborn facility in 1936

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.[61] 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.[62] 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.[63] However, the SS-men did not fulfill the expectations: at the end of 1938, 57% of the members were still unmarried, only 26% had fathered a child and just 8% had reached Himmler's desired goal of at least four children.[64] 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.[65] Also in 1935, the SS initiated Lebensborn, an association created to provide unmarried, pregnant women of "good blood" with opportunities to deliver their children, who were then given up for adoption into families deemed racially suited. The Lebensborn facilities were situated in remote locations, guaranteeing the anonymity of the women. Lebensborn was only moderately successful, producing only an estimated 8,000 - 11,000 births in the ten years of its existence.[66]

After the beginning of World War II, the SS was faced with the necessity of allowing more and more "foreign elements" (Fremdvölkische) into their ranks in order to be numerically capable of carrying out its tasks. This development inevitably softened up the role of the SS as a strict "keeper of the Grail" of racial purity within the National Socialist state.[1] To justify these measures, Himmler began to stress a European identity more strongly in the early 1940s, promising that "all those who are of good blood will be given the possibility to grow into the German Volk".[67] Correspondingly, the Waffen-SS recruited "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.[68] 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."[69] Volunteers often had strong feelings of cultural and racial commonality and feared "demographic and racial degradation."[70]


According to Himmler biographer Peter Longerich, Himmler saw a main task of the SS to be that of "acting as the vanguard in overcoming Christianity and restoring a Germanic way of living" as part of preparations for the coming conflict between "humans and subhumans".[71] Longerich wrote that, while the Nazi movement as a whole launched itself against Jews and Communists, "by linking de-Christianisation with re-Germanization, Himmler had provided the SS with a goal and purpose all of its own."[71] Himmler was vehemently opposed to Christian sexual morality and the "principle of Christian mercy", both of which he saw as a dangerous obstacle to his planned battle with "subhumans".[71] In 1937, he said that the movement was in era of the "ultimate conflict with Christianity" and that "It is part of the mission of the SS to give the German people in the next half century the non-Christian ideological foundations on which to lead and shape their lives."[72]

According to Himmler, the German gospel centered around the life and race of the German Volk ("people").[73] 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.[74]

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.[75][74] Hitler is said to have called Himmler "my Ignatius of Loyola".[75] As an order, the SS needed a coherent doctrine that would set it apart.[76] Himmler attempted to construct such an ideology, and deduced a "pseudo-Germanic tradition" from history.[76] Himmler dismissed the image of Christ as a Jew and rejected Christianity's basic doctrine and its institutions.[77] 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.[78] Starting in 1934, the SS hosted "solstice ceremonies" (Sonnenwendfeiern) to increase team spirit within their ranks.[79] In an attempt to replace Christianity within the SS with the new doctrine, SS-men were able to choose special Lebenslauffeste, substituting common Christian ceremonies such as baptisms, weddings and burials. Since the ceremonies were held in small private circles, it is unknown how many SS-members opted for these kind of celebrations.[80]

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.[81] 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.[82] All SS men were required to list themselves as Protestant, Catholic or Gottgläubig ("Believer in God").[83] 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."[84] 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.[85] 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.[86] Heydrich once quipped that any and all opposition to Nazism originated from either "Jews or politicized clergy."[87]

The Wewelsburg was the most important site in Himmler's pseudo-Germanic religious doctrine.

In order to promote his religious ideas and link them to an alleged Germanic tradition, Himmler began to establish cult sites. The most important of these was the Wewelsburg, close to Paderborn.[88] The SS leased the castle in 1934, after Himmler had first seen it in November 1933 while campaigning with Hitler. Originally planned as a school for high ranking SS-men, the castle soon became the object of far reaching construction plans, with an aim at establishing the Wewelsburg as the "ideological center" of the SS and its pseudo-Germanic doctrine.[89][90] In accordance with the other efforts of Himmler to replace Christian rituals and establish the SS as the Nazi elite, the Wewelsburg received special rooms, such as crypts, a General's hall with a sun wheel embedded in the floor and a crest hall.[91] As a second location, Himmler ordered for a memorial of 4,500 giant foundlings to be placed near Verden an der Aller, the scene of the infamous Massacre of Verden in 782, calling the place Sachsenhain. At the sight of the Externsteine, which at the time was believed to be close to the scene of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, Himmler ordered excavations to take place there in order to prove that Christian monks had destroyed a Germanic cult site known as Irminsul during the Middle Ages. As a last site of Himmler's cult, the SS took over and remodelled Quedlinburg Abbey, burial place of Henry the Fowler, who was celebrated by Himmler for his refusal to be anointed by a Roman bishop.[92]

Himmler also instituted these rites and rituals to try and foster a greater sense of belonging to a fraternal order. For example, each year on the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, the SS men duty-bound for the military units were sworn in at 10:00 pm in front of Hitler. There by torchlight they swore "obedience unto death".[93] Himmler also rewarded SS men who were found worthy with honour rings and swords. All honor rings were to be returned to Himmler upon the bearer's death, to be kept at Wewelsburg.[94]

However, these attempts to establish a new, neo-pagan religion were not successful. Historian Heinz Höhne observes that the "neo-pagan customs" Himmler introduced into the SS "remained primarily a paper exercise".[78] 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."[95] Although the SS never endorsed Christian beliefs, the traditional rituals and practices of the Christian faith were generally tolerated and respected.[96] According to Bastian Hein, two reasons contributed to Himmler's Ersatz religion never catching on: On the one hand, Himmler himself was in a constant search for religious certainty, leaving his doctrine vague and unclear. On the other hand, Hitler personally intervened after the churches lamented the "neo-heathenish" tendencies within the SS, telling Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg to "cut out the cultic nonsense".[97]


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.[98] The principal "enemy" of the SS, represented as a force of uncompromising, utter evil and depravity, was "world Jewry".[99] 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.[100]

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.[101] They were taught to have a "ruthless disregard" of showing humanity towards the enemy.[102] For many in the SS, what really mattered was a mentality that fostered violence and "hardness".[103] The ideal SS man was supposed to be in a state of permanent readiness for a fight against all enemies with all his fury.[104] For members of the SS their mentality was such that for them, nothing was impossible no matter how arduous or cruel.[105] SS men who attempted to live by that principle of violence had an unusually high suicide rate.[14] 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.[106]

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.[104] 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.[107] 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.[108] The values of the "heroic realism" literature gloried the principle and practice of fighting to the death regardless of the military situation.[14]

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.[14] 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.[109] The SS ethos called for "achievement for achievement's sake", where achievement ranked as the highest measurement of success.[110] As such, winning at all costs regardless the sacrifice became a supreme SS virtue.[14] 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.[14] 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.[111]

Himmler admonished the SS against pity, neighborly love, and humility, instead celebrating hardness and self-discipline.[112][113] 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.[114] As historian Claudia Koonz points out, "the cerebral racism of the SS provided the mental armor for mass murderers."[115] 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".[116] 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.[117] 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."[118] 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.[119] Participation in the "repellant task" of becoming psychologically involved in the killings was a rite of initiation of sorts and showed just how "internalized" the Nazi beliefs were for members of the SS. It was also part of the rhetoric of legitimation that gave meaning to their acts of extermination and habituated the SS to an ideology of genocide.[120]

Special SS death squads known as Einsatzgruppen were used for large-scale extermination and genocide of Jews, gypsies, Asians, and communists.[121][122] 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." [123] 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.[124] 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.[125] 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.[126] Burleigh and Wippermann write: "Members of the SS administered, tortured, and murdered people with a cold, steely precision, and without moral scruples."[127]

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.[128] He wrote that chances to avoid executing criminal orders "were both more numerous and more real than those concerned are generally prepared to admit".[129] 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.[130]

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.[131][130] 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.[132] 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.[133] 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.[134]


Initially the victims were killed with gas vans or firing squad by SS Einsatzgruppen units, but these methods proved impracticable for an operation of the scale carried out by the Nazi state.[135] In August 1941, SS leader Himmler attended the shooting of 100 Jews at Minsk. Nauseated and shaken by the experience,[136] 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.[137][138] 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.[139] By the end of the war, at least eleven million people, including 5.5 to 6 million Jews[140][141] and between 200,000 and 1,500,000 Romani people[142][141] had been killed by the Nazi state with assistance by collaborationist governments and recruits from occupied countries.[143][144] Himmler was a main architect of the Holocaust[145][146] and the SS was the main branch of the Nazi Party that implemented it.[147]

Post-war and legacy[edit]

On May 23, 1945, Himmler, who had been responsible for so much of the SS doctrine and that of the Nazi state, committed suicide after he was captured by the Allies.[148] Other senior members of the SS fled.[149] Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, SS-Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who was the ranking member of the SS upon Himmler's suicide, was captured in the Bavarian Alps and tried at the Nuremberg Tribunal along with other leading Nazis like Hermann Göring, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, among others. Kaltenbrunner was convicted of crimes against humanity and executed on 16 October 1946.[150] Other SS intellectuals and physicians were also brought to trial and convicted, including the SS Ahnenerbe doctors who killed the enfeebled and/or disabled persons deemed "unworthy to live" or who performed medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners.[151]

One of the 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 claim of being different from the Russians. They insisted that the 'barbarous Russians' enjoyed such cruelty, whereas the 'noble SS-man' found it distasteful. The SS members absolved themselves through the pseudo-scientific justification that they were merely acting as instruments (men of action) on behalf of the German people in pursuit of "racial hygiene."[152] 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.[153]

Given the impact that the Nazi ideology had on the European continent in causing a catastrophic war and unparalleled crimes, the Allied powers determined to demilitarize Germany and divide the country into four occupation zones.[154] They also began the process of denazification (Entnazifizierung). This was essentially an effort to "purge" the German people of the Nazi ideology that had pushed them to war and resulted in the Holocaust.[155] Remarkably, most members of the SS, including some from the upper echelons, faced little more than a stint in a POW camp, a short denazification hearing and were treated with "remarkable leniency".[156]

The SS and its accompanying principles represented the realization of Nazi ideology and played a crucial role in the pan-European genocide that followed the Nazis' rise to power. As historian Gerald Reitlinger states, while the idealism and machinery of the SS as a state within a state will all be forgotten, their acts of "...racial transplantations, the concentration camps, the interrogation cells of the Gestapo, the medical experiments of the living, the mass reprisals, the manhunts for slave labor and the racial exterminations will be remembered forever."[157]



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  6. ^ Dams & Stolle 2014, pp. 17–20.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Browder 1996, p. 275.
  8. ^ Boden 2011, p. 1.
  9. ^ Giles 2002, p. 269.
  10. ^ Browder 1996, pp. 77–84, 175–196.
  11. ^ Mineau 2011, p. 23.
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  141. ^ a b Holocaust Memorial Museum.
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  143. ^ Rummel 1994, p. 112.
  144. ^ Snyder 2010, p. 416.
  145. ^ Shirer 1960, p. 236.
  146. ^ Longerich 2012, p. 3.
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  148. ^ Evans 2008, p. 729.
  149. ^ Weale 2012, p. 410.
  150. ^ Wistrich 2001, p. 136.
  151. ^ Pringle 2006, pp. 295–296.
  152. ^ Ingrao 2013, pp. 258–259.
  153. ^ Ingrao 2013, pp. 228–248.
  154. ^ Bessel 2010, pp. 169–210.
  155. ^ MacDonogh 2009, pp. 348–362.
  156. ^ Höhne 2001, p. 581.
  157. ^ Reitlinger 1989, p. 454.


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