Key point: The SS was terrifying and committed many crimes against humanity.
In 1933 a portion of the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS) was armed and trained along military lines and served as an armed force. These troops were originally known as the SS-Verfügungstruppen, the name indicating that they served at the Führer’s pleasure. By 1939, four regiments (Standarten) had been organized.
The Verfügungstruppen took part in the occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia side by side with the Army (Heer). During the months preceding the outbreak of the war, they were given intensive military training and were formed into units that took part in the Polish campaign. In addition, elements of Death’s Head formations (Totenkopfverbände), which served as concentration camp guards, also took to the field as combat units.
During the following winter and spring, regiments that had fought in Poland were expanded into brigades and later divisions. This purely military branch of the SS was known at first as the Bewaffnete SS (Armed SS) and later as the Waffen-SS. The regiment Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler eventually became a division of the same name; the Standarte Deutschland together with the Austrian Standarte Der Führer formed the Verfügungs Division, to which a third regiment, Langemarck, was later added, creating the division Das Reich; and the Totenkopf units were formed into the Totenkopf Division. These three divisions were to be the nucleus of the Waffen-SS in its subsequent rapid expansion.
The Evolving Waffen-SS
The Waffen-SS was based on a policy of strict racial selection and emphasis on political indoctrination. The reasons for its formation were as much political as they were an opportunity to acquire the officer material that was to prove valuable to the SS later.