Forerunner of the SS
By 1923, the Nazi Party (NSDAP) led by Adolf Hitler had created a small volunteer guard unit known as the Saal-Schutz (Hall Security) to provide security at their meetings in Munich. The same year, Hitler ordered the formation of a small bodyguard unit dedicated to his personal service. He wished it to be separate from the "suspect mass" of the party, including the paramilitary Sturmabteilung ("Storm Battalion"; SA), which he did not trust. The new formation was designated the Stabswache (Staff Guard). Originally the unit was composed of eight men, commanded by Julius Schreck and Joseph Berchtold, and was modeled after the Erhardt Naval Brigade, a Freikorps of the time. The unit was renamed Stoßtrupp (Shock Troops) in May 1923.
The Stoßtrupp was abolished after the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt by the NSDAP to seize power in Munich. In 1925, Hitler ordered Schreck to organize a new bodyguard unit, the Schutzkommando (Protection Command). It was tasked with providing personal protection for Hitler at NSDAP functions and events. That same year, the Schutzkommando was expanded to a national organization and renamed successively the Sturmstaffel (Storm Squadron), and finally the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squad; SS). Officially, the SS marked its foundation on 9 November 1925 (the second anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch). The new SS was to provide protection for NSDAP leaders throughout Germany. Hitler's personal SS protection unit was later enlarged to include combat units.
Schreck, a founding member of the SA and a close confidant of Hitler, became the first SS chief in March 1925. On 15 April 1926, Joseph Berchtold succeeded him as chief of the SS. Berchtold changed the title of the office to Reichsführer-SS (Reich Leader-SS). Berchtold was considered more dynamic than his predecessor, but became increasingly frustrated by the authority the SA had over the SS. This led to him transferring leadership of the SS to his deputy, Erhard Heiden, on 1 March 1927. Under Heiden's leadership, a stricter code of discipline was enforced than would have been tolerated in the SA.
Between 1925 and 1929, the SS was considered to be a small Gruppe (battalion) of the SA. Except in the Munich area, the SS was unable to maintain any momentum in its membership numbers, which declined from 1,000 to 280 as the SA continued its rapid growth. As Heiden attempted to keep the SS from dissolving, Heinrich Himmler became his deputy in September 1927. Himmler displayed good organizational abilities compared to Heiden. The SS established a number of Gaus (regions or provinces). The SS-Gaus consisted of SS-Gau Berlin, SS-Gau Berlin Brandenburg, SS-Gau Franken, SS-Gau Niederbayern, SS-Gau Rheinland-Süd, and SS-Gau Sachsen.
With Hitler's approval, Himmler assumed the position of Reichsführer-SS in January 1929. There are differing accounts of the reason for Heiden's dismissal from his position as head of the SS. The party announced that it was for "family reasons." Under Himmler, the SS expanded and gained a larger foothold. He considered the SS an elite, ideologically driven National Socialist organization, a "conflation of Teutonic knights, the Jesuits, and Japanese Samurai". His ultimate aim was to turn the SS into the most powerful organization in Germany and most influential branch of the party. He expanded the SS to 3,000 members in his first year as its leader.
In 1929, the SS-Hauptamt (main SS office) was expanded and reorganized into five main offices dealing with general administration, personnel, finance, security, and race matters. At the same time, the SS-Gaus were expanded into three SS-Oberführerbereiche areas, namely the SS-Oberführerbereich Ost, SS-Oberführerbereich West, and SS-Oberführerbereich Süd. The lower levels of the SS remained largely unchanged. Although officially still considered a sub-organization of the SA and answerable to the Stabschef (SA Chief of Staff), it was also during this time that Himmler began to establish the independence of the SS from the SA. The SS grew in size and power due to its exclusive loyalty to Hitler, as opposed to the SA, which was seen as semi-independent and a threat to Hitler's hegemony over the party, mainly because they demanded a "second revolution" beyond the one that brought the NSDAP to power. By the end of 1933, the membership of the SS reached 209,000. Under Himmler's leadership the SS continued to gather greater power as more and more state and party functions were assigned to its jurisdiction. Over time the SS became answerable only to Hitler, a development typical of the organizational structure of the entire Nazi regime, where legal norms were replaced by actions undertaken under the Führerprinzip (leader principle), where Hitler's will was considered to be above the law.
In the latter half of 1934, Himmler oversaw the creation of SS-Junkerschule, institutions where SS officer candidates received leadership training, political and ideological indoctrination, and military instruction. The training stressed ruthlessness and toughness as part of the SS value system, which helped foster a sense of superiority among the men and taught them self-confidence. The first schools were established at Bad Tölz and Braunschweig, with additional schools opening at Klagenfurt and Prague during the war.
The SS was regarded as the NSDAP's elite unit. In keeping with the racial policy of Nazi Germany, in the early days all SS officer candidates had to provide proof of Aryan ancestry back to 1750 and for other ranks to 1800. Once the war started and it became more difficult to confirm ancestry, the regulation was amended to just proving the candidate's grandparents were Aryan, as spelled out in the Nuremberg Laws. Other requirements were complete obedience to the Führer and a commitment to the German people and nation. Himmler also tried to institute physical criteria based on appearance and height, but these requirements were only loosely enforced, and over half the SS men did not meet the criteria. Inducements such as higher salaries and larger homes were provided to members of the SS, since they were expected to produce more children than the average German family as part of their commitment to NSDAP doctrine.
The crypt at Wewelsburg
was repurposed by Himmler as a place to memorialize dead SS members. Artwork commemorating the Holocaust hangs on the walls.
Commitment to SS ideology was emphasized throughout the recruitment, membership process, and training. Members of the SS were indoctrinated in the racial policy of Nazi Germany, and were taught that it was necessary to remove from Germany people deemed by that policy as inferior. Esoteric rituals and the awarding of regalia and insignia for milestones in the SS man's career suffused SS members even further with Nazi ideology. Members were expected to renounce their Christian faith, and Christmas was replaced with a solstice celebration. Church weddings were replaced with SS Ehewein, a pagan ceremony invented by Himmler. These pseudo-religious rites and ceremonies often took place near SS-dedicated monuments or in special SS-designated places. In 1933, Himmler bought Wewelsburg, a castle in Westphalia. He initially intended it to be used as an SS training centre, but its role came to include hosting SS dinners and neo-pagan rituals.
The SS ideology included the application of brutality and terror as a solution to military and political problems. The SS stressed total loyalty and obedience to orders unto death. Hitler used this as a powerful tool to further his aims and those of the NSDAP. The SS was entrusted with the commission of atrocities, illegal activities, and war crimes. Himmler once wrote that an SS man "hesitates not for a single instant, but executes unquestioningly ..." any Führer-Befehl (Führer order). Their official motto was "Meine Ehre heißt Treue" (My Honour is Loyalty).
As part of its race-centric functions during World War II, the SS oversaw the isolation and displacement of Jews from the populations of the conquered territories, seizing their assets and deporting them to concentration camps and ghettos, where they were used as slave labor or immediately killed. Chosen to implement the Final Solution ordered by Hitler, the SS were the main group responsible for the institutional killing and democide of more than 20 million people during the Holocaust, including approximately 5.2 million to 6 million Jews and 10.5 million Slavs. A significant number of victims were members of other racial or ethnic groups such as the 258,000 Romani. The SS was involved in killing people viewed as threats to race hygiene or Nazi ideology, including the mentally or physically handicapped, homosexuals, and political dissidents. Members of trade unions and those perceived to be affiliated with groups that opposed the regime (religious, political, social, and otherwise), or those whose views were contradictory to the goals of the NSDAP government, were rounded up in large numbers; these included clergy of all faiths, Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons, Communists, and Rotary Club members. According to the judgments rendered at the Nuremberg trials as well as many war crimes investigations and trials conducted since then, the SS was responsible for the majority of Nazi war crimes. In particular, it was the primary organization which carried out the Holocaust.