SS-TV officers standing in front of prisoners at KZ Gusen in October 1941.
|Dissolved||8 May 1945|
|Jurisdiction|| Nazi Germany
|Headquarters||Oranienburg, near Berlin
|Employees||22,033 (SS-TV 1939 and
SS Division Totenkopf c.1942)
SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), rendered in English as Death's Head Units, was the SS organization responsible for administering the Nazi concentration camps for the Third Reich, among similar duties. While the Totenkopf (skull) was the universal cap badge of the SS, the SS-TV also wore the Death's Head insignia on the right collar to distinguish itself from other Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) formations.
The SS-TV created originally in 1933 was an independent unit within the SS with its own ranks and command structure. It ran the camps throughout Germany and later, the Nazi-occupied Europe. Camps in Germany included Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald; camps elsewhere in Europe included Auschwitz in German occupied Poland and Mauthausen in Austria among the numerous other concentration camps and death camps. The extermination camps' primary function was genocide and included Treblinka, Bełżec and Sobibór built for Aktion Reinhard. They were responsible for facilitating what the Nazis called the Final Solution, known since the war as HaShoah or the Holocaust. It was perpetrated by the SS in collaboration with the Reich Main Security Office, and the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office or WVHA.
At the outbreak of World War II one of the first combat units of the Waffen-SS, the SS Division Totenkopf, was formed from SS-TV personnel. It soon developed a reputation for ferocity and fanaticism, participating in war crimes such as the Le Paradis massacre in 1940 during the Fall of France. On the Eastern Front the mass shootings of Polish and Soviet civilians in Operation Barbarossa was the work of special task forces known as SS-Einsatzgruppen, which were organized by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.
After taking national power in 1933, the Nazi state needed a system for incarcerating enemies of the state. Originally there was only a loose mixture of prisons and camps for detention. The SA ran the detention camps. However, following the fall of that party branch from power with the purge known as the Night of the Long Knives (30 June to 2 July 1934), the SS took control of the "fledgling system". On 26 June 1933, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler appointed SS-Oberführer Theodor Eicke the Kommandant of the first Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Eicke requested a permanent unit that would be subordinate only to him and Himmler granted the request; the SS-Wachverband (Guard Unit) was formed. Promoted on 30 January 1934 to SS-Brigadeführer (equivalent to Major-general in the army), Eicke as commander of Dachau began new reforms. He reorganized the SS camp, establishing new guarding provisions, which included blind obedience to orders, and tightening disciplinary and punishment regulations for detainees, which were adopted by all concentration camps of Nazi Germany on 1 January 1934. Following the Night of the Long Knives, Eicke, who had played a role in the affair, was again promoted to the rank of SS-Gruppenführer and officially appointed Inspector of Concentration Camps and Commander of SS guard formations. Thereafter, the remaining SA-run camps were taken over by the SS. In his role as the Concentration Camps Inspector, Eicke began a large reorganisation of the camps in 1935. The smaller camps were dismantled. Dachau concentration camp remained, then personnel from Dachau went on to work at Sachsenhausen and Oranienburg, where Eicke established his central office.
In 1935 Dachau became the training center for the concentration camps service. Many of the early recruits came from the ranks of the SA and Allgemeine SS. Senior roles were filled by personnel from the German police service. On 29 March 1936, concentration camp guards and administration units were officially designated as the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV). In the summer of 1937, Buchenwald became operational, followed by Ravensbrück (near Lichtenburg) in May 1939. There were other new camps in Austria, such as Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp which opened in 1938. All SS camps' regulations, both for guards and prisoners, followed the Dachau camp model.
In 1935, as the concentration camp system within Germany expanded, groups of camps were organized into Wachsturmbanne (battalions) under the office of the Inspector of Concentration Camps who answered directly to the SS headquarters office and Heinrich Himmler. When the SS-Totenkopfverbände was formally established in March 1936, the group was organized into six Wachtruppen situated at each of Germany's major concentration camps. In 1937, the Wachsturmbanne were in turn organized into three main SS-Totenkopfstandarten (regiments).
By 1936, Eicke had also begun to establish military formations of concentration camp personnel which eventually became the Totenkopf Division and other units of the Waffen-SS. In the early days of the military camp service formation, the group's exact chain of command was contested since Eicke as Führer der Totenkopfverbände exercised personal control of the group but also, being a military SS formation, authority over the armed units was claimed by the SS-Verfügungstruppe which had been first formed in 1934 as combat troops for the Nazi Party. But at this time Eicke and Himmler envisioned the armed SS-TV not as combat soldiers, but as troops for carrying out what were euphemistically described as "police and security operations" behind the front lines. Thus Eicke's men were trained by a cadre of camp personnel without outside intervention; the first major training exercise in 1935 resulted in the clearing of the entire Dachau camp for several weeks while the Totenkopf military formation was organized.
By April 1938, the SS-TV had four regiments of three storm battalions with three infantry companies, one machine gun company and medical, communication and transportation units. On 17 August 1938 Hitler decreed, at Himmler's request, the SS-TV to be the reserve for the SS-Verfügungstruppe; this would over the course of the war lead to a constant flux of men between the Waffen-SS and the concentration camps. Himmler's intention was simply to expand his private army by using the SS-TV (as well as the police, which he also controlled) as a manpower pool. Himmler sought and obtained a further decree, issued on 18 May 1939, which authorized the expansion of the SS-TV to 50,000 men, and directed the army to provide it with military equipment, something the army had resisted.
Invasion of Poland
By the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939, Eicke's SS-TV field forces numbered four infantry regiments and a cavalry regiment, plus two battalions clandestinely placed in independent Danzig. Their role in the invasion of Poland was not military; unlike the Leibstandarte and the SS-VT they were not under Army High Command (OKH) control, but Himmler's. "Their military capabilities were employed instead in terrorizing the civilian population through acts that included hunting down straggling Polish soldiers, confiscating agricultural produce and livestock, and torturing and murdering large numbers of Polish political leaders, aristocrats, businessmen, priests, intellectuals, and Jews." The behavior of these Standarten in Poland elicited disgust and protests from officers of the army, including 8th Army commander Johannes Blaskowitz who wrote a lengthy memorandum to von Brauchitsch detailing SS-TV atrocities; to no avail.
In the wake of the Polish conquest the three senior Totenkopf-Standarten were combined with the SS Heimwehr Danzig and some support units transferred from the Army to create the Totenkopf-Division, with Eicke in command. From fall 1939 to spring 1940 a massive recruitment effort raised no fewer than twelve new TK-Standarten (four times the size of the SS-VT) in anticipation of the coming attack on France. By now, Eicke's ambition had aroused Himmler's suspicion, and Hausser's and Dietrich's resentment, especially his designation of TK-Standarten as reserves for his Totenkopf-Division alone, and his appropriation of Verfügungstruppe military supplies which were stored at Eicke's concentration camps. After the TK-Division, and Eicke personally, performed poorly during Fall Gelb Himmler resolved to curb his subordinate. Cynically using as justification several well-publicized atrocities committed by the Division in France, on 15 August 1940 he dissolved Eicke's Inspectorate of SS-Totenkopfstandarten and transferred the Totenkopf-Division, the independent TK-Standarten, and their reserve and replacement system to the newly formed Waffen-SS high command. In February 1941 the Totenkopf designation was removed from the names of all units other than the TK-Division and the camp Totenkopfwachsturmbanne, and their personnel exchanged the Death's-Head collar insignia for the Waffen-SS Sig-runes. The camp system expanded greatly after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, when large numbers of Soviet soldiers were captured. Some were transferred to the camps, where their inhumane treatment became normal.
The Totenkopf Division still had close ties to the camp service and its members continued to wear the Death's-Head as their unit insignia. They were known for brutal tactics, a result of the original doctrine of "no pity" which Eicke had instilled in his camp personnel as far back as 1934, together with the fact that the original Totenkopfstandarte had "trained" themselves. The Division's ineffectiveness in France, as well as its war crimes, can in part be explained by its personnel who were more thugs than soldiers. However, over the course of the savage fighting in the East (during which the Division was twice effectively destroyed and recreated), the Totenkopf became one of the crack combat units of the German military. Very few of the men who were part of the 1939 Standarten in Poland were still in the Division by 1945.
The SS Totenkopfverbände was one of the main branches of the SS which – by the beginning of war – grew into an army of 250,000 soldiers and officers spread out in multiple divisions, with transferable ranks and service records from police regiments and the army. By 1941, the concentration camps run by SS-TV, both in Germany and across occupied territories, grew into a massive system of institutionalized forced labour for the SS. Special death camps of Aktion Reinhard had also come into existence. In early 1942, the entire concentration camp system was placed under the authority of the SS Economic and Administrative Department (WVHA) with the Inspector of Concentration Camps now a subordinate to the Chief of the WVHA. The camps were separated into divisions of forced labor, concentration, and extermination camps, all linked by record-high profit margins propped up by the theft of cash and assets from the Holocaust victims. Gigantic camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek were built with the expectation of Soviet prisoners of war entering the camp labour after 1941.
Another main branch of the SS known as the SS Verfügungstruppen (SS-VT) was soon reorganized and expanded by Himmler into the Waffen-SS (or the Armed-SS) with some 150,000 members. Almost half of the concentration camp officers served with the Waffen-SS combat divisions, including the Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Wiking, the Nord Division, and Totenkopf which was directly linked to the camp system. Some concentration camp officers served as division commanders in the Waffen-SS. In 1941, prior to the "Final Solution", the SS concentration camp personnel began to arrive from the front-line SS formations upon medical discharge. Attack dogs were introduced to compensate for the personnel shortage. Meanwhile, by October 1944 the Waffen-SS membership reached 800,000 and up to 910,000 men.
Within the camps themselves, there existed a hierarchy of camp titles and positions which were unique only to the camp service. Each camp was commanded by a Kommandant, sometimes referred to as Lagerkommandant, who was assisted by a camp adjutant and command staff. The prison barracks within the camp were supervised by a Rapportführer who was responsible for daily roll call and the camp daily schedule. The individual prisoner barracks were overseen by junior SS-NCOs called Blockführer who, in turn had one to two squads of SS soldiers responsible for overseeing the prisoners. Within the extermination camps, the Blockführer was in charge of the prisoner Sonderkommando and was also the person who would physically gas victims in the camp's gas chambers. The Jewish Sonderkommando workers in turn, were terrorised by up to a 100 Trawniki men called Wachmannschaften.
The camp perimeter and watch towers were overseen by a separate formation called the Guard Battalion, or the Wachbattalion. The guard battalion commander was responsible for providing watch bills to man guard towers and oversaw security patrols outside the camp. The battalion was organized on typical military lines with companies, platoons, and squads. The battalion commander was subordinate directly to the camp commander.
Concentration camps also had supply and medical personnel, attached to the headquarters office under the camp commander, as well as a security office with Gestapo and Sicherheitsdienst (SD) personnel attached temporarily to the camp. These security personnel, while answering to the camp commander, were also under direct command of Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo) and RSHA commanders independent of the camps. As a result, SD and Gestapo personnel within the concentration camps were seen as "outsiders" by the full-time camp personnel and frequently looked down upon with distrust by the regular SS-TV members.
In addition to the regular SS personnel assigned to the Concentration Camp, there also existed a prisoner system of trustees known as Kapos who performed a wide variety of duties from administration to overseeing other groups of prisoners. The Sonderkommando were special groups of Jewish prisoner who assisted in the extermination camps with the disposal of bodies and other tasks. The duty of actually gassing prisoners was, however, always carried out by the SS.
Eicke in his role as the commander of the SS-TV, continued to reorganize the camp system by dismantling smaller camps. By August 1937 only Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Ravensbrück remained in Germany. In 1938 Eicke oversaw the building of new camps in Austria following the Anschluss, such as Mauthausen.
Eicke's reorganization and the introduction of forced labor made the camps one of the SS's most powerful tools, but it earned him the enmity of RSHA chief, Reinhard Heydrich, who wanted to take over control of Dachau. Himmler wanted to keep a separation of power so Eicke remained in command of the SS-TV and camp operations. This kept control of the camps out of the hands of the Gestapo or the SD.
In September 1939, Eicke became the commander of the SS Totenkopf Division. In 1940, the Concentration Camps Inspectorate became part of the Amt D of the Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt under SS-Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl. Eicke was replaced by his Chief of Staff, SS-Gruppenführer Richard Glücks who continued to manage the camp administration until the end of the war.
In 1942 Glücks was increasingly involved in the administration of the Endlösung, supplying personnel to assist in Aktion Reinhardt (although the death camps of Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor were administered by SS-und Polizei-führer Odilo Globocnik of the General Government). In July 1942, Glücks met Himmler to discuss medical experiments on concentration camp inmates. All extermination orders were issued from Glücks' office to SS-TV commands throughout Nazi Germany and occupied Europe. He specifically authorized the purchase of Zyklon B for use at Auschwitz.
In 1945 SS-TV units began to receive orders to conceal as much of the evidence of The Holocaust as possible. Camps were destroyed, sick prisoners were shot and others were marched on death marches away from the advancing Allies. The SS-TV were also instrumental in the execution of hundreds of political prisoners to prevent their liberation.
By April 1945 many SS-TV had left their posts. Due to their notoriety, some removed their death head insignia to hide their identities. Camp duties were increasingly turned over to so-called "Auxiliary-SS", soldiers and civilians conscripted as camp guards so that the Totenkopf men could escape. However, many were arrested by the Allies and stood trial for war crimes at Nuremberg between 1946 and 1949.
SS KZ personnel
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From its inception, Eicke fostered an attitude of "inflexible harshness" in the SS-TV. This core belief continued to influence guards in all concentration camps even after Eicke had taken over command of the SS Totenkopf Division. Recruits were taught to hate their enemies through tough training regimes and Nazi indoctrination.
SS-TV personnel lost any compassion for camp inmates. Within camps, guards created an atmosphere of controlled, disciplined cruelty that subjugated prisoners. This brutal ethos influenced some of the SS-TV's most infamous members including Rudolf Höß, Franz Ziereis, Karl Otto Koch, Max Kögel and Amon Goeth.
In the last days of World War II, a special group called the "Auxiliary-SS" (SS-Mannschaft) was formed as a last-ditch effort to keep concentration camps running and allow regular SS personnel to escape. Auxiliary-SS members were not considered regular SS personnel, but were conscripted members from other branches of the German military, the Nazi Party, and the Volkssturm. Such personnel wore a distinctive twin swastika collar patch and served as camp guard and administrative personnel until the surrender of Germany.
- 1st TK-Standarte 'Oberbayern'. Formed 1937 at Dachau. During the Polish invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines. Redesignated 1. SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment, and assigned to the Totenkopf Division 10/39.
- 2nd TK-Standarte 'Brandenburg'. Formed 1937 at Oranienburg. During the Polish invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines. Redesignated 2. SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment, and assigned to the Totenkopf Division 10/39.
- 3rd TK-Standarte 'Thüringen'. Formed 1937 at Buchenwald. During the Polish invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines. Redesignated 3. SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment and assigned to the Totenkopf Division, with some men forming the cadre of the 10. TK-Standarte, 11/39.
- 4th TK-Standarte 'Ostmark'. Formed 1938 at Vienna and Berlin. III Sturmbann Götze detached to form the core of SS Heimwehr Danzig 7/39. Garrison duty at Prague 10/39 and in the Netherlands 6/40. Designated 4. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to 2. SS-Infanterie-Brigade 5/41.
- SS-Wachsturmbann 'Eimann'. Formed 1939 at Danzig. During the Polish invasion conducted "security operations" behind the lines. Dissolved 1940.
- TK-Reiter-Standarte. Formed 9/39 in Poland to conduct "security operations" behind the lines. Expanded and divided into 1. and 2. TK-Reiter-Standarten 5/40. Redesignated 1. and 2. SS-Kavallerie-Regimenter 2/41, combined into SS-Kavallerie-Brigade (later SS-Kavallerie-Division 'Florian Geyer') 9/41.
- 5th TK-Standarte 'Dietrich Eckart'. Formed 1939 at Berlin and Oranienburg. Designated 5. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to 2. SS-Infanterie-Brigade 5/41.
- 6th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Prague. Garrison duty in Norway 5/40. Designated 6. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to Kampfgruppe Nord (later 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division Nord) spring 41.
- 7th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Brno. Garrison duty in Norway 5/40. Designated 7. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to Kampfgruppe Nord (later 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division Nord) spring 41.
- 8th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Crakow. Designated 8. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to 1. SS-Infanterie-Brigade 4/41.
- 9th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Danzig. Reorganized (with elements of St. 12) into Standarte "K" (Kirkenes, Norway) 8-11/40, redesignated 9. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to Kampfgruppe Nord spring 41. Incorporated into SS-Regiment Thule 8/42.
- 10th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Buchenwald. Garrison duties in Poland 1940. Designated 10. SS-Infanterie-Regiment 2/41, assigned to 1. SS-Infanterie-Brigade 4/41.
- 11th TK-Standarte. Formed 1939 at Radom. Garrison duty in the Netherlands 5/40. Assigned to SS-Infanterie-Division (mot) Reich to replace the 2. SS-Infanterie-Regiment Germania 12/40 and redesignated 11. SS-Infanterie-Regiment.
- TK-Standarten 12-16 were raised in the winter of 1939-40, but disbanded the following summer, their personnel used to fill out other units.
- Sydnor, Charles W. Soldiers of Destruction: the SS Death's Head Division, 1933-1945. p. 34.
- McNab 2009, p. 137.
- Office of the United States Chief of Counsel for Prosecution of Asis C (June 1997), Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression. Volume II: The Schutzstaffeln (SS). Part 3 of 16 (digitized by nizkor.org). ISBN 1575882027.
- Friedländer, Saul (2007). The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. HarperCollins. pp. 346–347. ISBN 0-06-019043-4 – via Amazon Kindle Book, look inside: WVHA.
- McNab 2009, pp. 41, 134-144.
- Richard Rhodes (2007). Himmler, Heydrich, and the Einsatzgruppen. Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group). Notes. ISBN 0307426807. Also in: Donald L. Niewyk, Francis R. Nicosia (2012). USSR and the Einsatzgruppen. The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust (Columbia University Press). pp. 24–. ISBN 0231528787. Retrieved 12 October 2015.
- McNab 2009, p. 136.
- Padfield 2001, p. 129.
- Kershaw 2008, pp. 308–314.
- Evans 2005, pp. 31–35, 39.
- McNab 2009, pp. 136, 137.
- Stein, George H. (1984). The Waffen SS: Hitler's Elite Guard at War, 1939-1945. SS-Totenkopfverbände (Cornell University Press). pp. 9, 20–33. ISBN 0801492750. Retrieved 7 October 2015.
- Evans 2005, p. 84.
- by 1940 these military SS units had become the nucleus of the Waffen-SS
- Stein, George H. (1984). The Waffen SS. p. 24.
- Stein, George H. (1984), p. 33.
- Sydnor, Charles W., Soldiers of Destruction: the SS Death's Head Division, 1933-1945., p. 37.
- Sydnor (1990), p. 134.
- History.com Feature (2009), The SS. World War II and the Waffen-SS. A+E Networks. Retrieved 7 October 2015 via Internet Archive.
- Carmelo Lisciotto & H.E.A.R.T (2010), "WVHA", The SS Economic & Administrative Department and the Nazi Concentration camps (Holocaust Research Project.org)
- S. J. & H.E.A.R.T (2007), "Aktion Reinhard Balance Sheet", Assets delivered (Holocaust Research Project.org): 744–770 – via US Chief of Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality (1947), Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression. Supplement A.
- French L. MacLean, The Camp Men: The SS Officers Who Ran the Nazi Concentration Camp System Schiffer Publishing, Pennsylvania. ISBN 0764306367.
- Yisrael Gutman, Michael Berenbaum (1998), SS Personnel. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Indiana University Press, pp. 280-284. ISBN 025320884X.
- David Bankier, ed (2006). "Police Auxiliaries for Operation Reinhard by Peter R. Black". Secret Intelligence and the Holocaust. Enigma Books. pp. 331–348. ISBN 192963160X – via Google Books.
- David Crowe (2009-08-25). Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story about The List.
- The title Totenkopf was retained by these three regiments to distinguish them from the three regiments of the SS-VT
- Evans, Richard J. (2005). The Third Reich in Power. New York: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-303790-3.
- Kershaw, Ian (2008). Hitler: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-06757-6.
- McNab, Chris (2009). The SS: 1923–1945. Amber Books Ltd. ISBN 978-1-906626-49-5.
- Padfield, Peter (2001) . Himmler: Reichsführer-SS. London: Cassel & Co. ISBN 0-304-35839-8.
- Stein, George H. (1984). The Waffen SS: Hitler's Elite Guard at War, 1939-1945. Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-9275-0.
- Sydnor, Jr., Charles W. (1990). Soldiers of Destruction: the SS Death's Head Division, 1933-1945. Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-00853-1.