Waffen SS: War Criminals Or Great Soldiers?

 "The Waffen SS was not unlike the mystique of being a SEAL, Green Beret, Ranger, or Marine Recon"

"For the powerful, crimes are those that  others commit."
----- Noam Chomsky

Waffen SS brave soldiers criminals
Waffen SS

To characterize therefore each and every member of the Waffen-SS to be “wrong” and criminal is not correct. In order to reach such condemnation every individual should be judged to achieve an objective and honest conclusion. Neither can we state that every allied soldier or resistance fighter was a hero, nor can it be said that every Waffen-SS member was a ruthless murderer and war criminal.
Waffen SS action

The Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal labeled the Waffen SS as a criminal body. The Russians used to torture and kill any Waffen SS prisoner they could lay their hands on. The American soldiers hated the Waffen SS and preferred to kill them rather than take them prisoner.

What were the men of the Waffen SS? Mad fanatical criminals or some of the best fighting soldiers human history has ever seen?

While divisions like the Nordland and Nord have virtually spotless records, most Waffen-SS divisions were involved in at least some questionable actions. The debate over the culpability of the organisation is the center of much revisionist thinking.


relaxing smoking

The story of my mum’s father Helmut Barkowsky is a little more colourful. He was born in Koenigsberg (now Kalinigrad) / East Prussia in 1926 and was drafted into the Waffen SS in 1942. I was quite shocked when he told me that he had been a member of the most infamous branch of the German terror machine, but he made it quite clear that he did not want to be associated with Hitler’s SS in any way. Although guilty of many crimes the Waffen SS in the West had little to do with the black uniformed, skull-and-crossbones toting maniacs, they were more like a better equipped branch of the Wehrmacht fighting alongside regular army units.

hated allies

It is hated because it resisted the Allies more strongly and effectively than other German organizations, such as by fighting to the death. 

Every side committed atrocities in that terrible war. But few seem to hate the American Air Force, which murdered hundreds of thousands, if not millions of innocent civilians and non-combatants, including the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, history is written by the victors.

The American marines who fought the Japanese held the "Yellow " bastards" in contempt and considered them as sub-human.....
massacres justified

SS General Paul Hausser reacting to charges of massacres

HAUSSER: Yes. These incidents are not the result of training, but rather the failure of individuals, perhaps the giving way of nerves when in difficult situations deep in enemy territory. But these accusations should not be generalised. Even if there had been 10 instead of only two cases, the ratio as applied to the entire membership of the Waffen-SS of one million men would mean there would be one case to every 100,000 men. Such incidents are the results of the intensification of combat on the ground and in a long war; incidents which have occurred on both sides and will always continue to occur. You cannot hold the bulk of the Waffen-SS responsible. 
(The International Military Tribunal, 1946: Vol 20:367)
What is interesting is their effectiveness as soldiers. The thing that makes them an "Elite" unit and differentiates them from other nations' troops, is that they were not just warriors, but warrior-thinkers. 

If you read the book "Sun Tzu and The Art of Modern Warfare" by Mark Mcneilly, he says that the German soldier, during WWII was 3 times as effective as a Soviet soldier & 1.4 times more effective than a British or American soldier. Quite a sobering thought for those who always considered Hitler's army to be nothing but a bunch of murdering lunatics. it is also interesting to note that by German law, the Wehrmacht's soldiers were not allowed to have affiliation with any political party. Not in the case with the Waffen SS, but the armed SS did remain neutral towards the extreme parts of the Nazi philosophy that their superiors had.

The SS troopers who survived the post-war vengeance at the hands of the Allies & soviets ended up fighting for the French in Indochina. Their performance was exemplary, as they were able to do a lot more damage than they took from the Viet Minh, were actually able to figure the enemy out, and actually hurt it, unlike the French generals & Gen. Westmoreland. All due to their great resourcefulness & the ability to think like the enemy did. 

elite fighting machine

SS combat training consisted primarily of several months of intensive basic training with three objectives; physical fitness, small-arms proficiency and political indoctrination. The training was so intensive that one in three potentials failed to pass the course. After this basic training, the recruits would be sent to either to specialist schools where they received further training in their chosen combat arm.

For officers, the focus was on leadership and combat command, usually at the SS-Junkerschüle at Bad Tölz. The process tended to produce outstanding soldiers and officers, and many of the basic tenents of Waffen-SS training are still used by many armed forces today. A strong emphasis was placed on creating a bond between the officers and men, and officer candidates were made to pass through basic training alongside the enlisted candidates. This created a mutual trust and respect between the officers and men, and meant that the relationship between these groups was very relaxed, unlike the Heer (German Army), where strict discipline and a policy of seperation between the officers and enlisted men existed.

Training emphasised unit cohesion and mutual respect between officers and men, rather than strict discipline. In the Waffen-SS, it was not a requirement to salute officers and a more casual salute was adopted (the right arm raised vertically from the elbow - a relaxed version of the Heil salute.

 These divisions were characterised by extremely high unit morale and combat ability, as well as commitment to the Crusade against Bolshevism and the defense of the Fatherland.

Some of the Waffen SS divisions are referred to as the classic Waffen-SS divisions, and they include the LSSAH, Das Reich, Totenkopf, the multi-national Wiking, the Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg, and the Hitlerjugend. While several other formations (e.g. the Nordland and Nord divisions) could also be considered elite, they are generally not referred to as classic SS Divisions.


highly indoctrinated soldiers
This claim of training being conducted without any racial or ideological indoctrination was also put forward by SS-Oberstgruppenführer Hausser, who was initially in charge of the Waffen-SS training program. 

HERR PELCKMANN: The Prosecution is particularly accusing the Verfügungstruppe for inciting racial hatred and for the persecution of the Jews as one of its special tasks. Was the troop trained for these purposes? 

HAUSSER: The political and ideological training could only be achieved by schooling. I, personally, as director of the school and as an inspector, have closely watched this training, for I was a new man myself and had first to acquaint myself with these ways of thinking. I can testify that race hatred and the extermination of Jewry or of the Eastern peoples was never taught and was never demanded. 

(The International Military Tribunal, 1946: Vol 20:359)

HERR PELCKMANN: Do you consider that the Waffen-SS, in its majority, participated in the crimes which indubitably were committed?

HAUSSER: No. The Prosecution chains the Waffen-SS to the fate of Heinrich Himmler and a small circle of criminals around him. The Waffen-SS is taking this quite bitterly for it believes that in its majority it fought decently and fairly. It is far removed from these crimes and from the man who is responsible for them. I should like to ask the High Tribunal to please listen to the accounts and the judgments of the front soldiers on your side. I believe that they will not fail to show us respect. Wherever specific incidents occurred they were exceptions. The WaffenSS considers it quite unjust that it is being treated differently from the mass of the German Armed Forces and it does not deserve to be outlawed as a criminal organisation.

(The International Military Tribunal, 1946: Vol 20:370)

tough soldiers
The SS was TOUGH in battle. They were always dedicated and usually had better and more equipment than their Army brothers. Their casualty rate  was always extremely high as compared to other units and they were given the hardest task. The allies knew they were in for a serious fight when they were up against the SS troops.
Remember that the SS did not exist in a vacuum, it was supported, fed and clothed by the rest of German society, if the SS was truly evil, what does that make the German nation of 1933-45? Were all Germans who voted for the Nazis in 1933 wicked, did they all wish the Jews to die in appalling circumstances?

The primary reason for the Waffen SS being condemned as part of a criminal organisation was the issue of the Nuremberg court being unable to distinguish between those "Waffen SS" units that could be called combat units and those others, that had links to the death camps and extermination squads.

It would appear that at the time it was easier to issue a blanket ban on all than to attempt to tease out those members/units that had NOT committed any war crimes or might be deemed to be "only" a combat unit.

Ultimately the Allies could decide what they liked as the victorious party, but it did make it very difficult for Waffen SS veterans to support their families after the war.


This viciousness of the fighting between the Waffen-SS and Russian army units is highlighted by the fate of the 9th Waffen-SS Mountain Corps during its defence of Budapest in early 1945. Among other units the Corps contained the 8th SS Calvary Division Florian Geyer and the 22nd SS Calvary Division Maria Theresa 

. Some 24,000 German soldiers (the majority of which were Waffen-SS attempted to break out of the city through Russian lines on the 11th of February 1945. For many of the Waffen-SS soldiers this attempt to escape was to result in their slaughter. Members of the 22nd Division were ambushed by Russian troops as they tried to break out of the encirclement, the Russians “… slaughtered the Germans but spared the Hungarians” . Of 24,000 who attempted to break out only some 170 WaffenSS soldiers were successful in reaching the German lines. 

For those Waffen-SS soldiers who were captured an ominous end awaited them. “The Waffen-SS and wounded were most at risk. The former were killed for political reasons … in the sports ground in Budakezi, SS soldiers were forced to dig their own graves before being shot.”



By the same token, this paper does question the wholesale classification of Waffen-SS members 
as criminals who were ideologically seduced or mentally ill, or volunteer members of a physical, 
racial and ideological elite … A careful and comprehensive analysis of the war-time Waffen-SS 
organisation, its character and activities, indicates that the picture of the criminal organisation 
presented by the prosecution at Nuremberg and post-war critics was overblown, a result of 
heightened post-war emotion, and a victim of a failed legal innovation concerning collective 

Members of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler came across murdered German soldiers early in the conflict on the 3rd of July 1941: Kurt Meyer came across the gruesome scene of murdered German soldiers for the first time. Their hands had been tied and they were all naked. The officers who were nearby had also been trampled on and dismembered. The LAH’s official history stated that Dietrich strictly forbade any reprisals.

Page 353


In their brief but extraordinary existence the Waffen-SS won a unique reputation for daring elan and esprit de corps and unfailing professionalism in combat. Their courage was unquestioned and they achieved worldwide fame and notoriety. Waffen-SS played a conspicuous role in most of the important German triumphs, one far disproportionate to their numbers. Despite repeatedly sustaining horrendous casualties, their discipline remained unbroken, their fighting ardour unimpaired. 

After WWII, the Allies declared that the whole of the SS, including the Waffen-SS, was a criminal organization. Regardless of the military professionalism and the record of individual combat units, the entire organization was declared criminal. At a stroke, the imprisoned European volunteers were stripped of the protection of the Geneva Convention. All Soldiers of the Waffen-SS were automatically considered war criminals by virtue of being volunteers in the Waffen-SS; and for all their matchless undoubted bravery, the Waffen-SS now bears a reputation which will remain forever stained with infamy. 

Sir Norman Birkett, British alternate judge at the Nuremberg Tribunal, explained in April 1946 that: the trial is only in form a judicial process and its main importance is political.

Although there are numerous facts that demonstrate that the Waffen-SS was guilty of various crimes, it would not be correct to state that every Waffen-SS member was a criminal. The Waffen-SS was a very heterogeneous organization in which in 1945 some 800,000 men were active. Certainly not every unit or individual was guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity. Every unit and every individual therefore ought to be studied to arrive at an objective judgment. In order to judge the question whether a soldier in the Waffen-SS was either “correct” or “wrong” it is of great importance to put oneself in the time and place and the motivation of men to join that political army.

 In most cases the expansion of the Third Reich and the spreading of the national socialistic doctrine was not the motivation for the larger part of the foreign volunteers to join the Waffen-SS. Frequently the fear for the “advancing Bolshevism” or a national struggle for independence was the most important motivation to fight on the side of the Nazis. Also the coercion of their surroundings (for example the parents or propaganda) and the passion for adventure may have been reasons for someone to join the Waffen-SS.

It may be clear however that each and every member of the Waffen-SS has contributed to the horrors that have been brought upon Europe by Nazi-Germany. With today’s knowledge it is easy to condemn the national socialistic regime. We will have to realize however, that in those days not every Waffen-SS soldier was aware of the criminal character of the regime he supported.

Summarizing it may be stated that the Waffen-SS was a crucial participant of the Nazi-regime and that the organization has played an important part in the terror this system has caused. Just like the whole of the SS, the Waffen-SS was therefore a criminal organization To characterize therefore each and every member of the Waffen-SS to be “wrong” and criminal is not correct. In order to reach such condemnation every individual should be judged to achieve an objective and honest conclusion. Neither can we state that every allied soldier or resistance fighter was a hero, nor can it be said that every Waffen-SS member was a ruthless murderer and war criminal.


WAFFEN SS: Training Made Them The Best: Personal Narrative Of A Recruit
(Buy the book in the USA, UK)

Blandford in his book says that 'SS soldier imbued with hatred was a rarity even during the war', and that the Waffen SS 'were not fanatical Nazis committing unsoldierly acts, but ordinary young men', the majority of whom 'were not political at all' 

In fact, the entire last chapter of the book is no less than a lengthy apologia for the SS combat veterans, noting their differences from the Death's Head Division that was recruited en masse from concentration camp guards. Blandford believes that Waffen SS were soldiers, not murderers.

Blandford writes a very objective view of an elite fighting force. The Waffen SS was a mechanized infantry combat unit, not the SS (non-military) of the infamous concentration camps. The book contains anecdotes from actual combat veterans: stories of men fearing death, what it felt to be in combat, to be wounded, and the comradary of the SS. The Waffen SS was not unlike the mystique of being a SEAL, Green Beret, Ranger, or Marine Recon.

Suggested Reading

1. Into the Abyss: The Last Years of the Waffen SS 1943-45: A Photographic History By IAN BAXTER

2. Steel Storm: Waffen-SS Panzer Battles on the Eastern Front 1943-1945 By TIM RIPLEY

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