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Loyal to the Death's Head
By Robin Lumsden
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Robin Lumsden
All rights reserved.
Origins and Early Development
The origins of the SS are linked inextricably with the events and aftermath of the First World War. This epic conflict had a profound effect upon Adolf Hitler, who, after years of aimless drifting in Vienna and Munich, suddenly found his true vocation fighting on the western front. From the very beginning the German army, unlike that of Great Britain, actively encouraged initiative on the part of its NCOs and private soldiers, so Gefreiter Hitler was more than accustomed to making front-line decisions in his 'deputy officer' capacity. As a trench messenger, he constantly ran the gauntlet of British and French machine guns, receiving the Bavarian Military Cross of Merit 3rd Class and a Regimental Citation for Bravery in the Face of the Enemy. He was wounded twice, gassed, temporarily blinded and emerged with the Iron Cross 1st Class, an unusually high decoration for an enlisted man and one which he wore proudly until the day of his death.
Once the stalemate of trench warfare had set in, Germany was quick to realise the potential of developing élite units of hand-picked infantrymen to act as assault parties and trench raiders. Early in 1915 Major Eugen Kaslow, a pioneer officer, was tasked with evaluating experimental steel helmets, body armour and a new light cannon. To do so, he formed a small assault detachment which came to be known as Sturmabteilung Kaslow. Under his leadership and that of his successor, Hauptmann Willi Rohr, the Sturmabteilung evolved new tactics to break into an enemy trench system. Combat operations in the Vosges mountains that autumn suggested that these ideas were sound and, in January 1916, Sturmabteilung Rohr was duly transferred to Verdun. At that time, the detachment comprised three-man teams called Stosstruppe, or shock troops, whose method of attack involved storming a trench in flank. The first of the trio was armed with a sharpened entrenching tool and a shield made from a machine gun mounting. He was followed by the second man carrying haversacks full of short-fused stick grenades, and the third soldier armed with a knife, bayonet or club. The Stosstruppe technique proved so successful that a number of Sturmkompanie, or assault companies, were soon formed and attached to divisions on a permanent basis. By 1918, most German armies on the western front had expanded units known as Sturmbataillone or assault battalions, each comprising an HQ company, four assault companies, an infantry artillery company armed with the 37 mm Sturmkanone, a machine gun company, a light trench mortar detachment and a flamethrower detachment.
The storm troops, as they became known to their British adversaries, were accorded the status of romantic heroes by the German popular press. Unlike ordinary infantrymen, they spent little time skulking in filthy trenches. Instead, they attacked suddenly then returned to base with the inevitable cache of prisoners. Raids were reported not only at home but also in the front-line newspapers, one of which was even called Der Stosstrupp and carried a regular section headed 'Stosstruppgeist', or Shock Troop Spirit. These select soldiers employed a variety of emotive titles, including Sturmtruppe (assault troops), Jagdkommando (hunting groups) and Patrouillentruppe (raiding parties), all of which were tolerated by the High Command. Officially, special insignia for the storm troops was frowned upon, but many varieties of locally adopted badges were worn. These typically featured bayonets, hand grenades and steel helmets. The most popular badge taken up by the Stosstruppe, however, was the Totenkopf or death's head, a skull over crossed bones, which was initially worn by personnel of the 3rd Guard Reserve Pioneer Regiment, an all-volunteer unit created to operate the new flamethrowers. The Totenkopf became representative of a devil-may-care attitude in the face of constant danger and high casualties.
Just as the storm troops were the best the army could offer, so the new élite formations of the emerging German Air Arm were the flights of fast fighters which escorted and protected unwieldy bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. The fighters were sometimes grouped together as aerial shock troops for the purpose of attacking ground targets, but because of their primary role they were given the title of protection squadrons or Schutzstaffeln, Schustas for short. Prominent Schusta members included Hermann Göring and Eduard Ritter von Schleich, the so-called Black Knight, who later commanded the SS-Fliegersturmbann.
Hitler drew on his valuable First World War experiences long after the end of hostilities. In the early days of the Nazi movement, he considered that a front-line combat posting during 1914–18 was an essential prerequisite for any position of leadership in his National Socialist Party, and the regimented organisation and military terminology later used by the NSDAP was directly carried over from its members' army service. The terms Stosstrupp, Sturmabteilung and Schutzstaffel, devised to describe the crack German forces of land and air, were soon adopted by the Nazis for their own paramilitaries and were to take on an entirely new significance in the postwar era.
In November 1918, Germany faced disaster. The war had been lost, the Kaiser had abdicated and the government had collapsed. The armed forces were, in effect, disbanded, and groups of demobilised left-wing soldiers with no prospects roamed the streets calling for a Bolshevik uprising like that which had just taken hold in Russia. The country was also under extreme pressure from the civilian Spartacist revolutionaries, and Polish insurgents threatened to invade Silesia and the eastern Baltic territories of the Reich.
To meet these challenges, new ad hoc Freikorps units were hastily formed by right-wing troops who found themselves anxious to defend their Fatherland and its traditional values, but were without a proper army in which to do so. Such groups traced their ancestry to the Freiwilligenkorps, or volunteer corps, which had been mustered in times of crisis in Germany since the Middle Ages. Still in possession of their wartime uniforms, weapons and transport, they banded together to follow local heroes or well-known military personalities. The usual method of recruitment was simply for an ex-officer to circulate literature or display posters inviting former soldiers to attend at a specified location on a given date and join his Freikorps. In many cases thousands turned up, eager to enlist whether for payment or not. As well as the promise of action, a big attraction was the fact that discipline in the Freikorps was very lax in comparison to that of the imperial army. Officers were commonly referred to by their forenames and enlisted men saluted only those officers whom they personally respected or admired. The troops paid little attention to formal instructions issued by the weak provisional government and gave their loyalty totally to their Freikorps commander, whom they referred to as their Führer, or leader. To these destitute soldiers, units and comrades became homes and families.
The state was in desperate need of trained military men to assert control and these Freikorps freebooters provided the experienced manpower at just the right time. Dedicated above all to preventing Germany becoming a Bolshevik regime, they smashed riots, kept order in the streets, protected public buildings and became a mainstay of the law until they were dissolved in 1919, at least on paper, by the Treaty of Versailles, which laid down the conditions for the setting up of the Reichswehr, the reconstituted and much-reduced army of the Weimar Republic. Those Freikorps men who were not accepted back into the new army tended to drift into right-wing paramilitary groups such as the Stahlhelm and Reichskriegsflagge of the nationalists, the Jungdeutscher Orden and the Organisation Rossbach. Such men included Himmler himself, and the future SS Generals Kurt Daluege, 'Sepp' Dietrich, Reinhard Heydrich, Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, Karl Wolff and Udo von Woyrsch, among many others.
In all, during the period 1919–20, there were some 250 individual Freikorps units in existence, comprising more than 70,000 men. They created their own range of medals, badges and insignia, and prominent among these were the swastika of the Ehrhardt Brigade and the death's head, borrowed from the imperial storm troops. The following Freikorps are known to have used the Totenkopf on their helmets and vehicles:
(a) Freikorps Brüssow
Commanded by Leutnant Hans Brüssow between January and April 1919, this unit had a strength of 1,200 men and later became Reichswehr Infantry Regiment 4.
(b) Eiserne Division
One of the most famous of all the Freikorps, this brigade-strength unit under Major Bischoff carried out extensive raids in the Baltic area between November 1918 and February 1920. The following month it was disbanded, together with the Erhhardt Brigade, for its participation in the rightist Kapp Putsch in Berlin. Its veterans were welcomed into the SS a few years later.
(c) Sub-Units of the Eiserne Division, in particular:
Beuthener Selbstschutz-Kompanie Freiwilligen Batterie Zenetti Freiwilligen Jägerkorps Goldingen Kurländisches Infanterie-Regiment Ostpreussisches Jägerkorps Selbstschutz Bataillon Begerhoff Selbstschutz Bataillon Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg Selbstschutz Oberschlesien Freikorps Tilsit
(d) Freikorps Erlangen
This battalion-size unit existed from April to June 1919, and was commanded by Generalmajor Engelhardt. It was incorporated into Reichswehr Infantry Regiment 47 and Artillery Regiment 42.
(e) Freikorps Gerth
Commanded by Leutnant Gerth between April and June 1919, this formation numbered 625 men and was absorbed into Reichswehr Infantry Regiment 40.
(f) Minenwerfer Detachment Heuschkel
A veteran storm troop trench mortar unit, unusually led by an NCO, Feldwebel Heuschkel.
(g) Freiwilligen Detachment von Schauroth
A small number of ex-storm troops who banded together under their former commanding officer, Major von Schauroth.
Because of its association with these units, the death's head, already a wartime badge of daring and self-sacrifice, now became a symbol of traditionalism, anti-liberalism and anti-Bolshevism, an ideal totem for the embryonic Nazi élite.
In December 1918, Adolf Hitler was discharged from the military hospital at Pasewalk near Stettin where he had been recovering from a gassing. He volunteered for guard duty at a prisoner-of-war camp at Traunstein, but by January 1919 its last inmate had left. At a loose end, and still in uniform, Hitler made his way to Munich and joined the Bavarian Freikorps which had been formed by the war hero Franz Ritter von Epp to liberate the city from its new Marxist government. This it did with much bloodshed.
Nationalist groups were springing up all over Germany, with the objective of ridding the country of the 'November Traitors' who had brought the disgrace of the dictated peace, and of the communists, whose first loyalty was to Russia. Nationalists came from every level of society, and at the lower end of the Munich social scale was Anton Drexler's tiny German Workers' Party, one of whose meetings Hitler attended as a military observer on 12 September 1919. It was a grouping which brought together racist intellectuals to fight, by means of argument, Marxist influence and 'Jewish infiltration' into the working class. They found the Jews principally responsible for popular Red revolution, citing the fact that all the leaders of the leftist movement, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Kurt Eisner and the rest, were Jewish. Hitler found that Drexler's ideas paralleled his own. He joined the party and, through his forceful personality and powers of oratory, virtually took it over from the outset, changing its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter-partei or NSDAP) and giving it a nationalistic, anti-Semitic, anti-capitalistic programme where, hitherto, it had possessed only a vague set of ideals.
Hitler's speeches soon found a loud echo in the ranks of the Freikorps, and their units provided the new Nazi Führer with his first large followings. Hauptmann Ernst Röhm, von Epp's adjutant, who also headed his own Reichskriegsflagge Freikorps, sent Hitler an incessant flood of officers, NCOs and men. Taking a leaf from the communists' book, Hitler began to hire lorries and had them filled with party members, who drove noisily through the streets to meetings. The difference was that while the communists wore a curious assortment of dress, the Nazis, most of them ex-soldiers, sat bolt upright, wore smart Freikorps uniforms and seemed the very epitome of law and order reinstated. They were invariably cheered as they passed.
Hitler's main aim at this stage was to replace the party's small discussion groups with mass meetings, and the first of these, at the Festsaal of the Munich Hofbräuhaus on 24 February 1920, attracted nearly 2,000 people. The stewards on this auspicious occasion, when the NSDAP programme was laid down, were a squad of Zeitfreiwilligen or temporary volunteers, armed with pistols and clad in the field-grey of the Munich Reichswehr to which they were attached. Such supporters might well have been sympathetic, but they certainly had no undying loyalty to the new movement. So, towards the end of 1920, a permanent and regular Nazi formation called the Saalschutz, or Hall Guard, was set up to protect speakers at NSDAP gatherings. The Saalschutz was short-lived, however, for it was expanded and consolidated into a fresh body, the Sturmabteilung, or SA, during 1921. This was the work of Röhm and an ex-naval Leutnant, Hans-Ulrich Klintzsch, who created the SA as a new Freikorps to hammer the Reds and fend off opponents at political meetings. Whereas the Saalschutz had been designed to defend, the SA was to attack. Yet while the SA was affiliated to the party, it did not initially come under Hitler's personal authority, for its members had little respect for the finesse of politics. It took its orders from its own Führer, the self-appointed Commander-in-Chief Oberstleutnant Hermann Kriebel, who thought that, 'the best thing political blokes could do would be to belt up'. Originally confined to Munich, the SA made its first important foray outside the city when, on 14–15 October 1922, it took part in a 'German Day' at Coburg which resulted in a pitched battle with the communists who controlled the town. The 800 SA men present, almost the entire membership of the Sturmabteilung, succeeded in breaking the hold of the Red Front on Coburg, and press coverage of the incident served to make Hitler's name known to a wider public.
The first national rally of the NSDAP was held on 28 January 1923, when some 6,000 newly recruited SA men paraded before Hitler, who presented standards to the first four full SA regiments, entitled 'München', 'München II', 'Nürnberg' and 'Landshut'. There were sufficient volunteers during the next month alone to form a fifth regiment, and, in an effort to control better the rapidly growing organisation, Hitler appointed a new man of politics, the former air ace Hauptmann Hermann Göring, to lead it. Göring brought with him the prestige of a great wartime hero, the last commander of the von Richthofen squadron, victor of twenty-two aerial dog-fights and holder of Germany's highest gallantry decoration, the Order 'Pour le Mérite'. However, he was by nature lazy and self-indulgent. The true driving force behind the SA remained Röhm, who continued to use his army and Freikorps connections to supply the SA with arms. So, in spite of Göring's appointment, the SA in 1923 was far from being submissive. Its independence, upheld by the former leaders of the Freikorps, compelled Hitler to set up a small troop of men, from outside the SA, which would be entirely devoted to him. It was in this atmosphere that the SS was born.
In March 1923, Hitler ordered the formation of a Munich-based bodyguard known as the Stabswache, comprising twelve old comrades who swore an oath of loyalty to him personally and owed no allegiance to the leaders of the Freikorps or SA. Two months later, using the Stabswache as cadre, the 100-man Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler was created and fully kitted out with military-style uniforms and two trucks. The Stosstrupp quickly adopted the death's head as its distinctive emblem, and was led by Hauptmann Julius Schreck and Leutnant Josef Berchtold, both veterans of the Ehrhardt Brigade. Its headquarters were located in the Torbräu public house, and there met the first members of Hitler's bodyguard, who were destined to remain faithful to him at all times and follow his way up the political ladder. They included 'Sepp' Dietrich, Ulrich Graf, Rudolf Hess, Emil Maurice, Julius Schaub and Christian Weber.
Excerpted from Himmler's by Robin Lumsden. Copyright © 2013 Robin Lumsden. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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