The Schutzstaffel (S.S.) was a paramilitary organization in Nazi Germany. Founded in 1925, its initial purpose was to guard Adolf Hitler. It subsequently grew to become one of the most feared military organizations in the world.
Led by Heinrich Himmler, who became the Head of Schutzstaffel in 1929, the group quickly expanded in both size and role. Until the collapse of Nazi Germany at the end of the Second World War (1945), the S.S. was the foremost agency of surveillance, security and terror within Germany and its occupied territories.
In 1923, the Nazi Party created a small unit of volunteers to provide security during their Munich meetings. That same year, a smaller unit of personal guards was created to protect Hitler, which was separate from the main set of guards. These were called Stabswache (Staff Guards) and were modeled after the Erhardt Naval Brigade.
The group was summarily dissolved after the failed Beer Hall Putsch – which was a failed coup by Hitler, in an attempt to seize power in Munich, Bavaria.
Julius Schreck, the leader of the failed Stabswache and Hitler’s close confidante, was then ordered to create yet another protection unit for the leader of the Nazi Party. This new unit was known as Schutzkommando (Protection Command) and was initially to provide protection to Hitler at functions and outdoors. It was then renamed Sturmstaffel (Storm Squadron) before, finally, being converted to Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron).
Heinrich Himmler was a leading member of the Nazi Party and leader of the Schutzstaffel. One of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany, he was the main architect of the Holocaust. He was involved in the failed Beer Hall Putsch but was not charged due to lack of evidence. He joined the Nazi Party in 1923 and joined the Schutzstaffel two years later. He assumed responsibility as the leader of S.S. in 1929, and worked to steadily grow the force from 300 to 3000 men.
Hitler’s subsequent rise to power in 1934 provided Himmler and the Schutzstaffel to thrive. The numbers of the S.S. had by then swelled to nearly 52,000 men. Some of the laws Himmler introduced as leader of the S.S. included racial policies (which monitored the racial integrities of S.S. members) and special marriage orders (that required the members of the S.S to provide family trees proving that they and their intended spouses were of Aryan descent). He set up the first concentration camp in Dachau.
The S.S was made up of numerous ranks and units. It worked like a complete organization under the rule of Heinrich Himmler. The different units of the S.S. included the Einsatzgruppen, S.S. Cavalry, S.S. Medical Corps, Main Office, S.S. Frauenkorps, and the SS-Mannschaften.
German soldiers dressed in Polish uniforms undertook fake skirmishes across the border to spread lies about Poland aggression. The events were used to in propaganda justifying the invasion of Poland, which triggered the Second World War. The S.S. fought independently from the German Armed Forces. Some 200 civilians were massacred in Zloczew alone. After the invasion, the S.S. was entrusted with extermination orders to remove potential leaders that could rise up against German rule.
Einsatzgruppen were S.S paramilitary death squads entrusted with exterminating Hitler’s enemies. Their culture of violence came to a boil when they participated in mass killings of Jewish people in occupied Eastern Poland and the Soviet Union. There had initially been five million Jews residing in these areas, but by the end of the massacre, two million had been murdered.
After witnessing the shooting of 100 Jews, Himmler realized it was negatively affecting the health of the members of the S.S. This led to the introduction of gas vans. However, to spare his men the trauma, the ordeal of removing the dead bodies after they had been killed was left to the other prisoners.
In July 1942, anti-partisan operations were transferred to the police. Since Jews were regarded as partisans, the operations were used to kill both members of the Jewish community and actual elements of resistance. The S.S. was responsible for creating and spreading anti-Semitic propaganda, taking centralized control of the territories and forces. S.S. was also responsible for rounding up any and all Jews in the area and exterminating them.
An increasingly large number of Jews and other ethnicities deemed suspect were being held in concentration camps run by S.S. members. Stationary gassing facilities were built in 1941, replacing the use of guns for mass killings. The victims were killed with the use of carbon monoxide from automobile engines.
The S.S. continually expanded these camps on Himmler’s orders. Many prisoners were put to hard labor during the war. By 1944, the size of the camps was such that it became standard practice to rotate S.S members through different camps.
The first S.S. business venture was a publishing house established in 1934. It was responsible for printing and distributing propaganda material to the masses. Himmler later purchased Allach Porcelain and ran it with forced labor provided from the Dachau concentration camp.
In 1940, a single corporation was established under which the several different business interests of the S.S were taken in. These included production of synthetic rubber, mineral water, bakeries, farms and even clothing factories.
A separate section of S.S. was established in Austria. Never officially a recognized part of the Schutzstaffel, it comprised of regular S.S. personnel that usually acted independently concerning Austrian affairs.
The S.S ceased to exist after the collapse of Nazi Germany at the end of the Second World War. Himmler committed suicide after his arrest in a concentration camp near Lüneburg. S.S. members were subject to execution and torture at the hands of the freed prisoners and their military rescuers.
Several S.S. leaders were also made to face international criminal tribunals for their crimes against humanity. Aside from the courts of the United States of America, an estimated 70,000 members of the Schutzstaffel were also tried and convicted in the Soviet courts.