Schutzstaffel - Background

Background

The SS grew from a small paramilitary unit to a powerful force that served as the Führer's "Praetorian Guard", the Nazi Party's "Protection Squadron" and a force that, fielding almost a million men (both on the front lines and as political police), managed to exert as much political influence in the Third Reich as the Wehrmacht (Germany's regular armed forces).

According to the Nuremberg Trials, as well as many war crimes investigations and trials conducted since then, the SS was responsible for the vast majority of war crimes perpetrated under the Nazi regime. In particular, it was the primary organization which carried out the Holocaust. As a part of its race-centric functions, the SS oversaw the isolation and displacement of Jews from the populations of the conquered territories, seizing their assets and transporting them to concentration camps and ghettos where they would be used as slave labor (pending extermination) or immediately killed.

Initially a small branch of the Sturmabteilung (the "Brownshirts" or Stormtroopers, abbreviated in German as SA), the SS grew in size and power due to its exclusive loyalty to Adolf Hitler, as opposed to the SA, which was seen as semi-independent and a threat to Adolf Hitler's hegemony over the party. Under Himmler, the SS selected its members according to the Nazi ideology. Creating elite police and military units such as the Waffen-SS, Adolf Hitler used the SS to form an order of men claimed to be superior in racial purity and ability to other Germans and national groups, a model for the Nazi vision of a master race. During World War II, SS units operated alongside the regular Heer (German Army). However, by the final stages of the war, the SS came to dominate the Wehrmacht in order to eliminate perceived threats to Adolf Hitler's power while implementing his strategies, despite the increasingly futile German war effort.

Chosen to implement the Nazi "Final Solution" for the Jews and other groups deemed inferior (and/or enemies of the state), the SS was the lead branch in carrying out the killing, torture, and enslavement of approximately twelve million people. Most victims were Jews or of Polish or other Slavic extraction. However, other racial/ethnic groups such as the Roma made up a significant number of victims, as well. Furthermore, the SS purge was extended to those viewed as threats to "race hygiene" or Nazi ideology—including the mentally or physically handicapped, homosexuals, and political dissidents. Members of labor organizations and those perceived to be affiliated with groups (religious, political, social and otherwise) that opposed the regime, or were seen to have views contradictory to the goals of the Nazi government, were rounded up in large numbers; these included clergy of all faiths, Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons, Communists, and Rotary Club members.

Foreseeing Nazi defeat in the war, a significant number of SS personnel organized their escape to South American nations. These escapes are said to have been assisted by an organization known as ODESSA, an acronym of the German phrase Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, which translates as the Organization of Former Members of the SS. Many others were captured and prosecuted by Allied authorities at the Nuremberg Trials for war crimes, and absconding SS criminals were the targets of police forces in various Allied nations, post-war West and East Germany, Austria, and Israel.

The Nazis regarded the SS as an elite unit, the party's "Praetorian Guard", with all SS personnel (originally) selected on the principles of racial purity and loyalty to the Nazi Party. In the early days of the SS, officer candidates had to prove German ancestry to 1750. They also were required to prove that they had no Jewish ancestors. Later, when the requirements of the war made it impossible to confirm the ancestry of officer candidates, the proof of ancestry regulation was dropped.

In contrast to the black-uniformed Allgemeine SS (the political wing of the SS), the Waffen-SS (the military wing) evolved into a second German army aside the Wehrmacht (the regular national armed forces) and operating in tandem with them; especially with the Heer (German Army).

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