The Notorious Schutzstaffel (SS): Protectors of Hitler

Hitler established the Schutzstaffel as his private protection squadron, which later grew into a fleet of powerful Nazi members who carried out the mass murders of the Holocaust.

Aug 23, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
Adolph Hitler (right) with Heinrich Himmler (center) watching Schutzstaffel troops march in a parade in Nuremberg courtesy of Estelle Bechoefer, 1938, via United States Holocaust Museum, Washington DC


The Schutzstaffel was a Nazi security squadron established by Adolf Hitler before the start of World War II. As Hitler gained more support and rose to power, the Schutzstaffel became a leading force in carrying out the plans of the Nazi regime. Schutzstaffel personnel had several responsibilities that involved gathering intelligence from political and racial enemies, protecting Hitler and other Nazi leaders, and committing mass murder.


Hitler Rises to Power & Creates the Schutzstaffel

Hitler standing in front of a crowd of Sturmabteilung SA paramilitary members during a rally by Heinrich Hoffmann, 1933, via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


The origins of the Schutzstaffel (SS) are rooted in the deep despair of Germany’s loss in World War I. The Treaty of Versailles, signed at the end of the war, ultimately demanded that Germany and other Central Powers take full responsibility for the war, pay major reparations, and accept territorial losses and military reductions. Many German youths and right-wing extremists who fought in WWI were enraged at the restrictions and punishments of the treaty.


Germany’s economy took a major blow with a $33 billion bill for war reparations. This amount of money today would equal approximately $557 billion. Unhappy with the Weimar Republic, right-wing extremists began to form organized groups. This resulted in the creation of the Organization Consul, a radical nationalist group that committed hundreds of political murders in the early 1920s. It would later combine with the National Socialist Party to create the Nazi Party.


Hitler became a popular leader among individuals who believed that the Weimar Republic’s structure was weak and lacked leadership. The Nazi Party wanted to create a powerful political system that didn’t involve any persons who were not considered to be pure German, often referred to as the Aryan race. By 1923, the party had grown substantially.


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A private army, called the Sturmabteilung (SA), was created for the Nazi Party. Hitler tried to use the SA to overthrow part of the Bavarian government, but failed. He ended up in the Landsberg Prison for a year. During this time, he wrote part of his famous autobiography, Mein Kampf. After he was released, Hitler established the Schutzstaffel in 1925.


The Schutzstaffel Before the Start of World War II

Schutzstaffel men in uniform waiting for inspection courtesy of Estelle Bechoefer, via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


When it was first established, the Schutzstaffel only consisted of a few hundred men. It was designed to be Hitler’s official bodyguard unit and had security-related responsibilities. This would quickly change, however, as the Nazi Party gained more power and support over the next few years. The SS would eventually play a major role in the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” which involved the murder of Jews on a massive scale.


Hitler appointed Heinrich Himmler as the leader of the SS in 1929. At this time, there were approximately 250 Schutzstaffel. Himmler quickly became one of the most notorious leaders involved in the Holocaust and who worked alongside Hitler. Himmler quickly got started on transforming the SS into a more elite group that aligned with Hitler’s goals for the Nazi regime.


As the Nazi Party grew, Himmler created more SS sub-units. In mid-1931, he created the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), or Security Service. Later that same year, he created the SS Race and Settlement Office to identify SS eligibility for those who wanted to join. Within just four years after its creation, the SS grew from a few hundred men to more than 50,000.


In the summer of 1934, the SS gained power as Hitler established it as an independent organization. SS men were given a new responsibility of overseeing concentration camp system operations. The Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) was created shortly after the start of WWII, which accomplished one of Himmler’s main goals of combining the Security Police and the SD. The Security Police consisted of the Gestapo and Kripo, which were the political and criminal police. Numerous SS officers also held police leadership positions.


Schutzstaffel (SS): The Main Nazi Protection Squadron

Schutzstaffel officers chatting at an SS retreat near Auschwitz, via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


The Schutzstaffel was the main security branch to protect Hitler and the structure of the Nazi regime. The SS took on several different responsibilities, especially before other SS sub-groups were established. Some of their duties included murdering individuals who were non-Aryan and considered racial enemies, controlling and carrying out the plans for the “Final Solution,” overseeing the concentration camp systems, leading the German police, and protecting Nazi leaders.


Himmler held his SS leadership position until 1945. Hitler stripped him of his duties after Himmler offered to surrender to the Allied forces. Throughout his leadership of the SS, Himmler focused on expanding its power and elite status. He created a higher-leveled SS status in 1937, known as the Higher SS and Police Leader (HSSPF). These officials were often SS men who had been a part of the organization since the beginning. They were considered an SS official and also held a police rank, representing the SS in military districts under Nazi control.


Sicherheitsdienst (SD): Nazi Security Intelligence Service

Reinhard Heydrich (right) at his inauguration as governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, 1941, via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


The Sicherheitsdienst was established by Himmler in 1931 as an SS intelligence service sub-group. Himmler appointed Reinhard Heydrich as the leader of the SD. There were only about 33 full-time employees one year after its creation; however, this number grew to 850 by the end of 1934. Many of the members consisted of young men who had studied law or were well-educated.


Prior to and at the start of the war, the responsibilities of the SD were not very clear. They were not a major force in the Nazi Party until the mid-1930s. By 1935, Heydrich was chief of the SD and the Security Police. Some of the duties of the SD and Security Police overlapped, but they also worked together. The SD was in charge of identifying threats and the Security Police made the arrests.


As the war continued on into the early 1940’s, SD numbers grew to about 6,400 and two offices dedicated to the organization were created. This included the SD Domestic Intelligence and the SD Foreign Intelligence. The Domestic Intelligence office gathered information on German citizens, such as their reactions and feelings of the Nazi regime and Hitler. The Foreign Intelligence was responsible for building networks outside of Germany.


Einsatzgruppen: Schutzstaffel Task Force

Einsatzgruppen shooting into a mass grave in the beginning of the Final Solution, via Yad Vashem, Jerusalem


The Einsatzgruppen was an infamous task force a part of the SD and Security Police. They were responsible for securing newly-occupied territory on the entire Eastern Front. The Einsatzgruppen had four battalions that covered certain regions.


Einsatzgruppen A was responsible for the northern portion of the Eastern Front, which included Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Meanwhile, Einsatzgruppen B operated in Belarus and portions of German-occupied Poland, including Warsaw. Einsatzgruppen C took over Kraków and western Ukraine. The southernmost battalion, Einsatzgruppen D, were deployed in southern Ukraine, Nikolayev, Simferopol, Sevastopol, Crimea, and Romania.


This task force played a major role in the mass murders of Jews and those seen as a threat to the Nazi regime and so-called “Aryan race.” This included members of the Communist Party, Roma (gypsies), and Soviet officials. Einsatzgruppen were the perpetrators of many mass shootings. They were also responsible for transferring victims to mass graves, which involved carbon monoxide gas vans that suffocated passengers.


Waffen-SS: Armed Schutzstaffel Warfare Unit

Waffen-SS men standing around SS chief Heinrich Himmler (center), via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


The Waffen-SS was an armed SS unit. Waffen, in English, translates to weapons or armaments. This SS branch acted as a military unit responsible for a number of war crimes throughout WWII. It was established by Himmler in 1939, and originally consisted of four divisions. The group would later grow to be five times larger, with 20 divisions and about 500,000 personnel.


The main responsibilities of the Waffen-SS included warfare, employing guards in concentration camps, and helping the Einsatzgruppen and other SS branches in committing mass murder. The Waffen-SS were involved in Operation Barbarossa, a Blitzkrieg-style attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 that ended in failure for Hitler and his forces.


SS Members Meet Their Demise in the Nuremberg Trials

Defendants of the Nuremberg Trials rising for the judge entering the courtroom, via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


The SS, Gestapo, SA, and SD were all involved in the Nuremberg Trials, among a few other organizations. Hitler committed suicide in April 1945, and Himmler did the same a month later. Several other Nazi officials followed suit before the trials began. Heydrich was assassinated in 1942; therefore, high-ranking SS official Ernst Kaltenbrunner was selected to represent the SS in the trial.


The Nuremberg Trials lasted almost an entire year, from November 1945 to October 1946. There were 24 defendants selected for trial, which included the most prominent military and political Nazi leaders in the Holocaust. Half of the defendants were sentenced to death, three were acquitted, and the others were given 20 years to life in prison. Individuals given the death sentence were hanged on October 16, 1946. Kaltenbrunner was sentenced to death.


Defendants (two back rows) sitting through the Einsatzgruppen Trial of the Nuremberg Trials courtesy of John W. Mosenthal, via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


Additional trials, known as the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings, were held in the United States from December 1946 to April 1949. There were 12 trials that involved other Nazi figures, including SS officials. The Einsatzgruppen was the ninth case in the proceedings. There were 24 Einsatzgruppen leaders who were charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and involvement in a criminal organization. This also took into account the mass murders committed by the Einsatzgruppen, which included up to one million victims.


All Einsatzgruppen battalion leaders were charged. Otto Rasch, leader of Einsatzgruppen C, was unable to stand trial due to severe illness, and another committed suicide. In total, 22 defendants were tried, all of which pleaded not guilty. Two of the defendants were only found guilty on the third count of involvement in a criminal organization, but the rest were convicted on all three counts. Overall, most of the SS members either hid under false identities, committed suicide, or were convicted of crimes committed during the Holocaust upon the end of the war. Most of the SS officials who were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison were released sometime in the 1950s.


The Dissolution of the Schutzstaffel

Schutzstaffel officers (from left to right) Richard Baer, Dr. Josef Mengele, and Rudolf Höss at an SS retreat near the Auschwitz death camp by Karl Höcker, via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


At the height of Hitler’s reign, the Schutzstaffel grew to be a fleet of several hundred thousand to over one million men. Despite its size, the SS lacked some structural stability because there were several departments and branches that had overlapping responsibilities. Nazi and SS leaders also had a tendency to be in competition with one another. Nazi officials who hailed Hitler wanted to reach the top of the hierarchy.


Some of the most notorious Nazi leaders were SS chief officers, or were members of one of the SS branches. The Schutzstaffel and its sub-units killed millions of Jews and other individuals who did not align with Hitler’s “ideal race.” As WWII came to an end, the Schutzstaffel quickly dissolved. Many SS members hid under a new identity, or committed suicide to avoid being convicted at trial. Numerous prominent SS officials were charged and found guilty in the lengthy Nuremberg trials.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.