The Nazis’ dream of a world dominated by legions of Aryan ‘supermen’, forged in battle and absolutely loyal to Adolf Hitler, was epitomised by the Waffen-SS. Created as a supreme military elite, it grew to become Nazi Germany’s ‘second army’, an immense force totalling almost one million men by the end of the War. An astonishing fact about the SS is that thousands of its members were not German. Men stepped forward from almost every nation in Europe, for many sometimes complex reasons that included hatred of Bolshevism and nationalist sentiment or even straightforward anti-Semitism; foremost among them were Scandinavians from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and even Finland. Thousands were recruited from 1940 onwards and fought with distinction on the Russian Front. They served at first in national legions but were then brought together in the elite Wiking Panzer Division and the Nordland Panzer-grenadier Division. In Hitler’s Vikings, Jonathan Trigg details the battles these men fought and what inspired them to join the Waffen-SS, based in part on interviews with surviving veterans.
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The History of the Scandinavian Waffen-SS: The Legions, the SS-Wiking and the SS-Nordland
By Jonathan Trigg
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Jonathan Trigg
All rights reserved.
1940 – Occupation, the SS-Wiking and the Beginning of the Scandinavian Waffen-SS
A new man, the storm trooper, the élite of central Europe. A completely new race, cunning, strong, and packed with purpose ... battle proven, merciless to himself and others.
Ernst Jünger, winner of Imperial Germany's highest bravery award, the Pour le Mérite (the 'Blue Max') at the age of 23 in the First World War and author of Storm of Steel.
In the near-anarchy of Germany's Weimar Republic of the 1930s it was commonplace at political meetings for fights to break out and speakers to be physically attacked by thugs from opposing parties. This was especially true for Communist and Nazi events, and the parties organised their supporters into paramilitary groups to both protect themselves and attack opponents. The Nazis enshrined this activity in the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung (the SA – Storm Troop), but as the size of the SA ballooned it became harder to control. Under the increasingly strident leadership of the flamboyant ex-soldier Ernst Röhm, the SA began to demand revolutionary social change in Germany that was unacceptable both to Hitler and his backers in the German Army (the Reichswehr) and big business. Hitler needed a counter-balance to the SA and he found it in the concept of a small, élite, political police force answerable only to him – the SS.
Originally a tiny 20-man group of toughs recruited to protect Hitler personally as Nazi Party leader, the pre-war Schützstaffel (the SS – Protection Squad) was the brainchild of one of his subordinates, the bespectacled and unprepossessing Heinrich Himmler. Hitler bestowed upon him the rather grandiose title of Reichsführer-SS and encouraged a rivalry with the SA. Himmler was loyal but also possessed of vaulting ambition, and he used his talents as a ruthless political intriguer and administrator to take Hitler's original idea and, in less than a decade, create nothing less than a state within a state, and a multi-faceted organisation whose malign power and influence spread across Germany and all the occupied lands.
As the SS gradually became a byword for every aspect of Nazi activity, Himmler did not forget its original purpose; indeed it was central to his plans for the future. Sitting in his headquarters, in a former art school on the Prinz Albrecht Strasse in Berlin, or in the restored Gothic grandeur of the Schloss Wewelsburg in Westphalia, the strict vegetarian and one-time chicken farmer dreamed of an SS empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Urals. That empire was to be created and safeguarded by a new force, not the existing German Army, but by a 'second army of the state', utterly loyal and dedicated to the ideology of National Socialism – the 'Armed' or Waffen-SS.
For the new Waffen-SS, Himmler translated Hitler's vague concept into a fully-fledged programme encompassing everything from unbelievably strict entrance criteria, to exacting training standards, to views on religion and morality, even down to the minutiae of uniforms. As ever with Himmler the key was 'detail'. All nations' armed forces have entry standards, usually physical, educational and moral ones. Recruits must have the physical fitness and level of education that enables them to perform their duties, while being of good character and not a convicted felon. For the Waffen-SS these baseline requirements were taken to a hitherto unheard of extreme. Recruits had to be aged between 17 and 22, and a minimum of 5'9" tall (168cm – above the average for the time and also Himmler's height). They had to be physically fit and at least of secondary education standard, although university graduates were quite rare, unlike in the Army.
While these standards weren't unduly strict in themselves, they were overlaid with a 'racial and political' element that was exacting to say the least. From 1935 onwards Himmler instituted the requirement for every would-be SS recruit to prove their 'pure' Aryan genealogy, dating back to 1800 for enlisted men and 1750 for officer candidates – great-grandparents and beyond. Having to produce a family tree to enlist was unheard of in the rest of the Wehrmacht, and in any other army in the world for that matter. It was then, and remains still, a peculiarity of the Waffen-SS. But it wasn't even enough to be Aryan; you had to look Aryan. The Reichsführer himself used to boast of examining the photo of every prospective Waffen-SS officer to ensure they exhibited the required level of 'Nordic features', with blond hair and blue eyes being top of the list. But it didn't stop there; as the Waffen-SS was as much about the mind as the body, so applicants also had to demonstrate the requisite level of ideological commitment as outlined in 'The Soldiers' Friend' (Der Soldatenfreund – a handbook issued to every member of the armed forces):
Every pure-blooded German in good health [can] become a member. He must be of excellent character, have no criminal record, and be an ardent adherent to all National Socialist doctrines. Members of the Hitler Youth will be given preference because their aptitudes and schooling are indicative that they have become acquainted with the ideology of the SS.
Even in supposedly 'Aryan' Germany these phenomenally high standards meant the rejection of a staggering 85 per cent of all applicants, and the rate was even higher for Hitler's personal bodyguard regiment, the SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH – the SS Bodyguard Adolf Hitler), where a single dental filling was grounds for rejection. For those lucky few who passed selection, the terms of service were a minimum of four years for rankers, 12 years for NCOs (corporals and sergeants) and 25 years for officers. In contrast, soldiers of all ranks in the modern British Army sign up for a maximum of three years.
The Leibstandarte Verfügungstruppen and the Totenkopfverbände
Once signed up, a recruit joined one of the three original premier Waffen-SS formations: a minority went into the Leibstandarte, commanded by Josef 'Sepp' Dietrich, based at the old Prussian Cadet School in the Lichterfelde Barracks in Berlin. There they were a law unto themselves, even amongst the Waffen-SS, with much more emphasis on ceremonial and parade ground duties than was good for their future military effectiveness. While this military neglect was true for the semi-independent Leibstandarte, it was most definitely not true for the men who joined the real cradle of Waffen-SS military excellence, the Verfügungstruppen (SS-VT – 'Special Purpose Troops'). Later famous as the Das Reich Division, the SS-VT was initially composed of two regiments, the Deutschland and Germania, who were then joined by a third, the Austrian-manned Der Führer, after the annexation of Austria in 1938 (the Anschluss). Unlike its sister formation the Leibstandarte, the SS-VT focused exclusively on becoming a first-rate military unit, and men from these three pre-war regiments would come to dominate the short-lived history of the Waffen-SS. If a recruit did not join Dietrich's men or the SS-VT, he ended up in the aptly named Totenkopfverbände ('Death's Head Units'), under the brutal leadership of Theodor Eicke. Organised on a regional basis with regiments (Standarten) in each major city in Germany their duties revolved around guarding Nazi Germany's concentration camps. While professional military training was not their forte, the Totenkopf regiments in effect became a major reserve pool for the Waffen-SS as it grew after the outbreak of war.
A new type of training
Initially military training in the Waffen-SS was pretty basic, but this changed dramatically after Himmler managed to persuade a number of professional ex-Army officers to join the new force. Lured with promises of rapid promotion and a blank page on which to make their mark, two men in particular joined up who would forge the Waffen-SS into the élite it would become – Paul Hausser and Felix Steiner. Both were decorated veterans from the First World War, had gone on to serve in the post-war fighting in eastern Germany against local Communists, Poles and Balts, and were also that rarest of beasts in any nation's military – original thinkers.
Felix Martin Julius Steiner, born in 1896 in East Prussia, served as an infantryman during the First World War, fighting at the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in the east, and Flanders and Cambrai in the west. Appalled by the mass slaughter of huge conscript armies in the trenches, he became a strong advocate of using small, highly motivated, highly trained and well-equipped assault units. Much of the training programme the Waffen-SS came to use was written by this fairly short, slightly overweight figure, who seemed to have a smile and cheery word for everyone who served under him.
Paul 'Papa' Hausser was 16 years older than Felix Steiner, and also an eastern German, hailing from Brandenburg. Every inch the military patrician, Hausser was of slim build, with grey-white hair and a prominent, aquiline nose. Having retired from the army in 1932 as a Lieutenant-General after a distinguished career, he was personally invited to join the Waffen-SS in 1934 by Himmler himself. Made responsible for 'professionalising' the Waffen-SS, and ensuring it was a modern military force in every sense, he started his transformation at the two SS officer schools at Bad Tölz in Bavaria and Braunschweig in Lower Saxony. After turning them into premier military academies, he went on to become the overall inspector of the SS-VT.
Between them these two quite extraordinary men created something entirely new in the German armed forces. Training in the German Army was very effective but also very formal, with an emphasis on building teamwork through parade ground discipline and a strict adherence to the hierarchy of rank. Hausser and Steiner swept this approach away, with their priorities being threefold: firstly, supreme physical fitness and comradeship built particularly through sport; secondly excellent combat skills including the repeated use of exercises with live ammunition, and lastly, skill-at-arms focusing on superior marksmanship. SS recruits were taught how best to operate in small groups, the eight-man section and the 30-man platoon (Gruppe and Zug – see Appendix B for further description), the value of aggression and attack in defeating an enemy and keeping down casualties, and the benefits of a close and easy relationship between men, NCOs and officers. All officer candidates had to serve time in the ranks, they trained and ate with their men, and promotion was seen to be on merit rather than class and education. Off-duty Waffen-SS men even addressed each other as 'Comrade' (Kamerad) rather than by their formal ranks. Such things were unheard of in any European army of the time. The Waffen-SS wore different uniforms as well, in the field they were the first force to wear camouflage combat clothing, and in barracks they often wore an all-black uniform, giving rise to their nickname, 'the black guards'. Their entire theory of battle, their 'doctrine', was also different, insisting enthusiastically on an all-arms battle relying heavily on firepower and movement with tanks, artillery, aircraft and infantry all working together. These things are now standard practice in modern armies across the globe, but at the time they were ridiculed by the far more conservative German Army.
First Blood – the Night of the Long Knives
Despite its growing professionalism, the Waffen-SS was still viewed in 1934 as a political police force 'playing at soldiers'. The SA was by far the dominant force in Nazi politics with its three-million-strong membership swaggering across Germany loudly shouting for a 'brown revolution' that would sweep away the old conservative institutions like the army, and remove power from the big industrialists to usher in a new 'socialist' state (Reich). Needless to say Hitler was horrified by these ideas and decided to destroy the monster he had created, and the instrument of that destruction was to be none other than the armed soldiers of the SS.
On 30 June 1934, SS formations left their barracks to break the power of the SA once and for all in the infamous 'Night of the Long Knives'. The Leibstandarte was in the vanguard, and drove all the way south to the Bavarian spa resort town of Bad Wiessee, where Röhm had gathered many of his fellow SA leaders for a conference. The SS were given clear orders – round up the SA men and shoot them immediately. Röhm himself was arrested, put in a cell in Munich's nearby Stahlhelm prison, and offered the opportunity to blow his own brains out. In total shock at the situation he refused, and was instead shot dead by his erstwhile comrade and Totenkopf leader, Theodor Eicke. Most of the senior SA leadership nationwide were murdered, many of them shouting 'Heil Hitler' as they faced the firing squads, believing they were actually victims of an SS plot to overthrow their beloved Führer. At a stroke the SA was decapitated and removed as a threat. Hitler was jubilant. His faith in the soldiers of the SS was vindicated, and as a direct result a grateful Führer elevated them into an independent arm of the Nazi Party, no longer subject to the control of the SA as they had been up until then.
Two months later in a state decree, Hitler outlined the main task of the newly-independent force. Trained on military lines, it was to stand ready to battle internal opponents of the Nazi regime should the need arise. Only 'in the event of general war' would it be employed outside Germany's borders for military operations, in which case only Hitler could decide how and when it would be used. The Army was not happy with the situation, but the Defence Minister, Field Marshal Blomberg, foolishly let himself be convinced by Hitler that the intention was to create an armed police force and not another army. This reassurance, like so many of Hitler's, proved entirely false.
Recruitment of 'foreigners' into the Waffen-SS before the war
Both Hitler and Himmler originally conceived the Waffen-SS as a purely German force. The belief was in a small, 'racially and ideologically pure' élite. However even from the very beginning a tiny number of recruits joined up who began to stretch the definition of 'German', and over time established a direction for the Waffen-SS that would lead to the multi-national army of 1945.
Back in 1919, the Versailles Treaty had not only emasculated Germany militarily, but had also annexed territory with ethnically German populations and handed it over to neighbouring states. The mixed Franco-German region of Alsace-Lorraine was given back to France (the future SS-Wiking panzer regiment commander Johannes-Rudolf 'Hans' Mühlenkamp was actually born a German in Lorraine, but 'became' French when he was nine), the 65,000 ethnic Germans in the Eupen area were handed over to Belgium, and Denmark got the 25,000 Germans living in agriculturally-rich north Schleswig-Holstein (called South Jutland by the Danes). Over in the east the creation of the Polish Corridor to the Baltic Sea had split Germany from its East Prussian province and left thousands of native Germans in newly-created Poland, where eventually of course they would become the casus belli for the Second World War.
As far as Hitler was concerned, all of these people were actually 'Germans' no matter what their passports said, and so from the start they were allowed to join the Waffen-SS. When they enlisted they were not officially recorded as Danish, Polish or whatever, but as native Germans and so their number is impossible to calculate accurately, but it was in the hundreds. Two such volunteers were Johann Thorius and Georg Erichsen, both ethnic Germans from Danish north Schleswig-Holstein. Thorius volunteered for the SS-VT in 1939 and served in the Germania Regiment. Recommended for a commission, he passed out from Bad Tölz and went on to command the 12th Company of SS-Panzer Grenadier Regiment 24 Danmark as an SS-Obersturmführer. Never classed as a Dane by the Waffen-SS, Thorius's war ended in 1944 when he lost an arm in combat in Estonia. Erichsen was another 'non-Dane' in SS eyes. Like Thorius he was recommended for a commission, and actually passed out as top student of Tölz's 9th Shortened Wartime Course, beating the Finnish volunteer Tauno Manni to the prize. Erichsen's reward was an instant promotion to SS-Untersturmführer, and appointment as Rudolf Saalbach's adjutant in the famed SS-Armoured Reconnaisance Battalion 11 (SS-Aufklärungs Abteilung 11). Retreating into Courland with his battalion in late 1944, he took part in vicious defensive fighting and was recommended for the prestigious Honour Roll Clasp bravery award during the Fourth Battle of Courland. He was killed in action in late January 1945 before the award was confirmed.
Excerpted from Hitler's Vikings by Jonathan Trigg. Copyright © 2012 Jonathan Trigg. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Notes on the Text,
I 1940 – Occupation, the SS-Wiking and the beginning of the Scandinavian Waffen-SS,
II 1941: First Blood – the Den Norske Legion, the Frikorps Danmark and the Wiking in Barbarossa,
III 1942: Nazi Germany's High Water Mark – Leningrad, Demyansk and the Caucasus,
IV 1943: The End of the Legions, the SS-Nordland is Born,
V 1944: Bled White in the East – the Wiking at Cherkassy and the Nordland at Narva,
VI 1945: The End of the Scandinavian Waffen-SS – the Wiking in Hungary and the Nordland in Berlin,
VII Homecoming – Retribution and Legacy,
Appendix A Wehrmacht Bravery Awards,
Appendix B Waffen-SS Formation Organisation,
Appendix C Waffen-SS Ranks,