The soldiers of the Waffen-SS committed many atrocities during World War II, both on and off the battlefield. They were above all the racial warriors of the Third Reich, and they were contemptuous of all those that Nazi ideology classed as inferior races. As they held their own lives in low esteem, it was unlikely that they would accord the lives of their enemies greater value.
The military prowess of the élite panzer divisions of the Waffen-SS is rarely called into question. They were undoubtedly formidable fighting forces that acquitted themselves with great distinction on the battlefields of World War II. However, the participation of Waffen-SS men in massacres across Europe during the war has cast a shadow over their military victories. Apologists for the Waffen-SS have tried to portray it as a separate and distinct military branch of the large SS organization, which had no role in the genocidal campaigns of murder against Jews and other racial groups considered sub-humans by Hitler and his Nazi race-based ideology.
To try to draw a distinction between the "ordinary" soldiers of the Waffen-SS and SS "war criminals" is a mere semantic exercise. The Waffen-SS was an integral element of the SS, and even if its members were not specifically part of the Nazi murder machine that organized and conducted massacres and deportations, they certainly knew it was happening and helped ensure it did happen. A large number of Waffen-SS men and units, however, did undoubtedly participate in a series of massacres of civilians and prisoners of war across Europe between 1939 and 1945.
The collective guilt of the Waffen-SS stems first from the fact that the early leaders of the organization were the ringleaders and trigger-pullers during the infamous "Night of the Long Knives" in June 1934. "Old Guard" SS officers, such as "Sepp" Dietrich and Theodor Eicke, were the men who led the firing squads that killed off Hitler's enemies in the SA. Eicke even fired the first shots into the defenceless SA leader, Ernst Röhm. This was the first act of extra-judicial killing by Hitler, and effectively established his dictatorship.
It was the war in Russia that next showed up the Waffen-SS in its true light. It was the vanguard of Hitler's war of racial conquest. No mercy was shown to racial and political opponents of the Nazis by the Waffen-SS. According to Hitler and National Socialist ideology, the lives of Jews and Russians were totally worthless, except as forced labour to be exploited for the benefit of the German war effort. Russian civilians were treated with disdain, and their property, crops and houses were routinely looted or confiscated by Waffen-SS troops, even if this resulted in death or starvation in the country's harsh climate. Any Soviet commissar or political officer captured by the Waffen-SS was executed in accordance with Hitler's infamous "commissar order". The Geneva Convention was not applied to Soviet soldiers captured by the Waffen-SS, and they were routinely starved and denied medical treatment. Punishment killings of hundreds of Soviet prisoners were common occurrences in the Waffen-SS, with the Leibstandarte once killing 4000 prisoners in a four-day period. Revenge killings of thousands of civilians in response to partisan attacks were also a Waffen-SS speciality.
None of these actions in themselves were unique to the Waffen-SS. German police and army units, as well as locally recruited auxiliary forces, have also been implicated in atrocities on the Eastern Front. The SS, however, threw themselves into the war against the Soviet Union with a zeal that was unsurpassed in other branches of the German occupation forces. If there was a tough job that needed doing, the Waffen-SS would be there. The Waffen-SS clearly believed in its cause and did not flinch from carrying out its orders no matter how murderous. The point was that the war in Russia was above all a racial struggle between the Aryan Germans and the "inferior" Slav races. The Waffen-SS was the racial vanguard of the National Socialist movement, staffed with pure Aryan recruits. Prior to Operation Barbarossa, Waffen-SS commanders went to great lengths to indoctrinate their men with Hitler's racial ideology to prepare them for the coming struggle. It was not surprising that when they were unleashed into battle, the Waffen-SS carried out its orders to kill and murder Hitler's "race enemies" with ruthless efficiency.
After the war, several former Waffen-SS officers tried to distance themselves from the SS mass-murder campaigns in occupied Russia, saying that they were only "simple soldiers who just fought at the front". This defence does not really hold water, given that few Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS units did not participate in some sort of rear-area security duty (which inevitably involved the routine mistreatment of civilians) at some time during their service in the East. Even if they did not participate in the murders of civilians themselves, cross-posting of Waffen-SS men between the various divisions and units of the SS organization meant its members were all aware of the true nature of German rule in occupied Russia.
Atrocities in Russia
No Waffen-SS officer would ever contemplate refusing to serve in Russia out of moral scruples, and only one SS officer is documented as ever refusing to participate in a mass killing in the East. Several senior Waffen-SS officers and ordinary soldiers did suffer mental breakdowns as a result of their service in murder squads in the East, but that was after they had participated in the slaughter. It is hard to feel sorry for these butchers. Towards the end of the war, as defeat began to loom ominously over them, an increasing number of Waffen-SS officers and men tried to get out of serving in the East for fear of being captured by the Soviets. In the light of the brutal behaviour of the SS in Russia, captured Waffen-SS soldiers could expect little mercy. The attempts by senior Waffen-SS officers to escape Berlin in May 1945, after they had forced the city's citizens to endure its destruction at the barrel of the gun, were particularly distasteful.
Some Waffen-SS apologists try to lay the blame for the atrocities in the East at the door of rogue elements, such as locally recruited militia troops in the Baltic states and the Ukraine. Although it is true that these units at first were not part of the Waffen-SS, officers of the Waffen-SS did play a key role in recruiting these units because there were not enough SS men of German origin to man all the murder squads needed by the Einsatzgruppen. Then the Waffen-SS officially sanctioned many of these units by incorporating them into the organization from 1943 onwards. In any case, Waffen-SS units were committing atrocities almost from the start of Barbarossa, well before local units had been raised. For example, only two weeks after the start of the Russian campaign, the Wiking Division massacred 600 Galician Jews in "reprisal for Soviet cruelties".
The Waffen-SS and the Holocaust
It has also been claimed that the Waffen-SS played no part in the Holocaust and the industrialized killing of Jews. The concentration camp system was set up in the 1930s by Theodor Eicke of the SS-Totenkopfverbönde that was incorporated into the Waffen-SS in 1940. Thousands of Waffen-SS men were also drafted to help the Einsatzgruppen's murderous campaign to exterminate the Jews of Eastern Europe, participating in mass killings or guarding ghetto districts where Jews from the west were concentrated before being sent to death camps. Waffen-SS units played a major role in the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, which was little more than a exercise in mass murder.
Even the supposed Waffen-SS combat units participated in the mass killing and deportation of Jews as part of the infamous "Final Solution". Jews were routinely executed or maltreated in areas controlled by Waffen-SS units. The Totenkopf, Das Reich and Wiking Divisions were all documented joining in the mass killings of Jews in Poland and Russia. Albanian Waffen-SS troops were also involved in loading Jews onto rail cars bound for the death camps.
The Totenkopf Division
The Totenkopf Division was particularly implicated in the concentration camp system. Even though it became part of the Waffen-SS in 1940, when its official administrative link to the camps was broken, the division continued to draw personnel from the camp system and wounded personnel from the front spent time recuperating on "light duties" in the camps. The 36th Waffen-SS Division also spent many months guarding ghettos in Poland and Russia. This was the infamous Dirlewanger Brigade, which became a volunteer unit of the Waffen-SS in January 1942. Recruited from convicted criminals, by the beginning of 1943 its 700 men comprised 50 percent non-Germans. As the war dragged on the unit pressed members of the SD, court-martialled Waffen-SS soldiers, army prisoners and even political prisoners from concentration camps into its ranks. The brigade's most notorious episode was during the 1944 Warsaw uprising, when Dirlewanger's men went on an orgy of killing and looting.
SS "special duties"
It has been estimated that at the height of the war, some 10,000 Waffen-SS men were serving away from their combat divisions on "special duties", supporting SS murder campaigns in the occupied East. The Waffen-SS also benefited from the huge SS slave labour empire, with weapons, uniforms, supplies and other equipment being provided direct from SS-controlled factories and warehouses in the main concentration camps.
Senior Waffen-SS officers had a hard time trying to deny they knew anything about the Final Solution. The ultimate Waffen-SS combat soldier, Joachim Peiper, served as Himmler's adjutant for a time, organizing meetings between the SS chief and heads of the concentration camp system. At least six Waffen-SS generals also at one time or another in the war held command appointments in the concentration camps, overseeing the mass murder of Jews and the use of millions of other prisoners for slave labour. One Waffen-SS general, Karl Wolff, boasted, "special joy now that 5000 members of the Chosen People [the Jews] are going to Treblinka [a death camp] every day". After the war Wolff was sentenced to four years in prison by a de-Nazification court in Germany. He served one week of his sentence before being released.
War crimes in the Balkans
Waffen-SS crimes in the Balkans were of the same order as those in Russia, but had an added element because of the large number of local troops recruited into Waffen-SS ranks. Croat, Albanian and Bosnian Muslim units of the Waffen-SS treated the anti-partisan campaign in Yugoslavia as an extension of their age-old ethnic feuds, and were responsible for a series of horrendous massacres that the German High Command tried to pass off as battles. German Waffen-SS commanders let their acolytes do their worst because it suited their purposes of keeping the ethnic communities in Yugoslavia fighting each other, and reducing the number of German troops required for occupation duties. In one incident in Greece, the Waffen-SS Polizei Division achieved the dubious distinction of being condemned by the Red Cross, a very rare occurrence. The condemnation followed an anti-partisan sweep and an ambush in which Waffen-SS troops were killed. The Polizei Division troops then staged a reprisal in the nearby village of Distrimo, which involved mass rape, looting and the summary execution of partisan suspects. Some 300 civilians were killed, and this outraged even the pro-German puppet government in Athens and the Wehrmacht. They invited the Red Cross to visit the village and several days after the event found corpses hanging from trees. The Waffen-SS tried to wash its hands of the incident by convicting an Waffen-SS captain of falsifying a report, even though the reprisal was deemed "justified" for "military reasons".
In the West, the crimes of the Waffen-SS are generally better documented than in the East. The survivors were often able to make accounts of their experiences public, whereas in the East the Soviet Government and their satellite allies in the Warsaw Pact were less willing to allow independent scrutiny of wartime events, including Nazi war crimes. The Cold War stand-off that developed after 1945 also meant that some elements in Western governments did not want to give "visibility" to war crimes conducted by people who were now key allies against the Soviets. This was particularly so in the case of refugees from the Baltic states and the Ukraine, who were leading lights in anti-communist movements. The fact that many of these people had been wartime collaborators with the Nazis and members of the SS was swept under the carpet. This policy came back to haunt the British and US governments in the 1990s, when evidence emerged after the collapse of the Iron Curtain that they had given refuge to former SS members who had participated in war crimes in Eastern Europe, even through their crimes were known to Western intelligence agencies.
SS atrocties in the West
Waffen-SS war crimes in the West fall into two distinct categories: the cold-blooded murder of prisoners of war and the massacre of civilians in anti-resistance reprisals. The massacre of US Army prisoners at Malmédy, Belgium, by the Leibstandarte Division in December 1944 is perhaps the most famous, but it is one of several. In 1940, Leibstandarte and Totenkopf troops participated in the murder of captured British soldiers in two incidents. The Hitlerjugend Division was also implicated in the killing of captured Canadian soldiers in Normandy in the summer of 1944.
These have been portrayed by Waffen-SS apologists as "heat of battle" crimes by tired and stressed soldiers, with the Normandy killings being excused because "both sides were doing it". Survivors of the massacres, however, have recounted how their Waffen-SS guards calmly gathered them up and machine-gunned them in cold blood after they had surrendered. In all these cases senior Waffen-SS officers were aware of what had happened and chose not to punish those involved. Most participants were promoted afterwards.
Reprisals against civilians
Waffen-SS units rarely participated in anti-partisan operations in Western Europe, but when they did the results were very similar to those experienced in the East. In September 1943, after two Leibstandarte officers were captured by Italian partisans, Peiper ordered a town full of civilians to be shelled in reprisal, killing 34 people. The most famous Waffen-SS reprisal operation was in June 1944, when the Das Reich Division was attacked by French resistance fighters as it moved towards the Normandy battlefield. Some 99 French civilians were hung in reprisal in the town of Tulle; the following day, 642 civilians, including 207 children, were killed when the village of Oradour was razed to the ground in a further reprisal.
The Reichsführer-SS Waffen-SS division was involved in a series of three reprisal operations in northern Italy during August and September 1944, in which more than 1000 Italian civilians were killed. A Waffen-SS man from the division later commented, "personally I am of the opinion that the majority of partisans killed were women and children".
SS emergency courts
These reprisal operations cannot be whitewashed as battlefield incidents. They were all cold, calculated acts, carried out on the orders of senior Waffen-SS officers who knew what they were doing. Brutal reprisals for partisan attacks on German troops were the norm in the East, and the Waffen-SS was just bringing its tried and tested tactics to the West. The people of Western Europe must be thankful that Allied armies swept rapidly to the German border in the summer of 1944. The Waffen-SS divisions in France at this time were pre-occupied at the front, and had little time to turn their attention to dealing with the growing resistance problem behind their lines.
Ironically, when American, British and Soviet forces were inside Germany itself in early 1945, Waffen-SS soldiers turned on their own people. With his world crumbling around him, Hitler saw treachery and cowardice everywhere. He therefore ordered those still loyal to him to show no mercy to those who displayed "cowardice in the face of the enemy". Roving SS squads shot or hanged thousands of Germans for not fighting with fanatical determination. SS officers convened so-called emergency courts that dispensed instant justice to those brought before them, which usually meant death. Victims included an aged farmer who had disarmed a group of Hitler Youth who had planned to attack an American armoured column on bicycles. Even in Berlin during the last days of the war, fanatical Waffen-SS officers trawled the city searching for those guilty of cowardice, desertion or "resisting the war effort". German civilians suffered disproportionately as, when the Red Army approached, the citizens living in streets about to be attacked would hang white blankets from their windows as a sign of surrender (and in the hope that the Soviets would not blast their buildings with tank and artillery fire). However, German forces launched counterattacks and often recaptured said streets. The residents who had displayed the white blankets would then be hauled before the SS courts, to be either shot or hanged from lamp posts as a warning to others. Even after the fall of Berlin and the suicide of Hitler, SS officers still at large continued to shoot at Germans giving themselves up to the Red Army!
Despite the excuses of their apologists, the Waffen-SS was thoroughly tainted by its participation in Hitler's murderous policies of racial supremacy. Not only were Waffen-SS soldiers willing believers of this ideology, but they were also willing participants in the actual execution of Hitler's attempts to exterminate Jews and other people he considered untermenschen.
Individually, Waffen-SS officers and men were soon hardened to killing on behalf of their Führer and put a low value on human life, particularly on the lives of Germany's enemies. Civilians and enemy prisoners were regarded as a nuisance, and Waffen-SS officers had little compunction about ordering executions or reprisals. Although the Waffen-SS was embarrassed when some of its excesses were exposed during the war by the German Army High Command or the Red Cross, the perpetrators were invariably protected by Himmler. He had no time for such squeamishness.