SS and the Holocaust

During the prewar years, the SS competed with powerful rivals in both the Nazi Party and the state apparatus for authority to direct efforts towards a “solution” of the so-called Jewish question in Germany.

The SS established a special department in the SD to “research” the “Jewish question” in 1934. In 1938, SD “experts,” led by SS First Lieutenant Adolf Eichmann, demonstrated imaginative leadership in “Jewish matters” (Judenangelegenheiten) by creating a one-stop station in Vienna (Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung) to facilitate the forced emigration of Jews from Austria and by financing those operations with funds extorted from wealthier members of the community.

Later that year, the SS and police steered the violence of Kristallnacht (“Night of Crystal,” known more commonly as “Night of Broken Glass”) directly and exclusively at Jews. In the wake of the pogrom, police officials implemented the first roundup of Jews simply because they were Jewish. The incarceration of around 30,000 German, Austrian, and Sudeten Jews in concentration camps, where hundreds of them died, was intended to accelerate their will to emigrate and reduce their inhibitions about leaving their assets behind. Impressed with the initiative, imagination and dynamism of the SS approach, Hermann Göring, Hitler's recognized deputy in “Jewish affairs,” authorized Security Police and SD chief Reinhard Heydrich on January 24, 1939 to develop plans for a “solution to the Jewish Question” in the German Reich.

After Nazi Germany unleashed World War II in Europe with the invasion of Poland, the SS leadership continued to vie with rivals over the “solution” of a now European-wide “Jewish question.” With the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Germany embarked on a war against its arch-enemy in Europe: Soviet Communism. On July 17, 1941, Hitler entrusted responsibility for security behind the front lines in the USSR exclusively to Himmler's SS and police and extended SS authority for implementing settlement plans and population policy to the occupied Soviet Union.

Since the beginning of the invasion, the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) of the Security Police and SD, with support from German army units and locally recruited auxiliaries, had been shooting virtually all Jewish males of arms-bearing age in the areas of the USSR that they occupied. With the arrival in late July of Higher SS and Police Leaders to coordinate larger scale operations with more extensive SS and police units, the SS and police began to eliminate entire Jewish communities in the USSR.

On July 31, 1941, Göring authorized Heydrich, then chief of the RSHA, to coordinate the resources of the Reich “for a total solution of the Jewish Question in the area of German influence in Europe.” To this end, Heydrich was to submit a draft of the measures he proposed to undertake “to implement the desired final solution of the Jewish Question.” In the following six months, as regional Security Police and SD commanders coordinated the annihilation of the Soviet Jews, the first trainloads of German, Austrian, and Czech Jews rolled eastwards to killing sites in the so-called Reich Commissariat Ostland (a German civilian occupation region that included the Baltic States and most of Belarus).

Security Police and SD officials of RSHA department IV B 4, under Adolf Eichmann, arranged with local police agencies for the roundups inside Germany and with the Reich Ministry of Transportation and the Director of German State Railroads (Deutsche Reichsbahn) for transport by train. Regional Security Police and SD commanders in Reich Commissariat Ostland commanded the operations to shoot the German, Austrian, and Czech Jews after their arrival.

On January 20, 1942, Heydrich invited key officials from various Reich Ministries to a conference at a villa on the Wannsee, on the southwestern edge of Berlin. At this Wannsee Conference, he presented plans to coordinate a European-wide “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” He informed the participants that Hitler had authorized the operation and had designated the SS to coordinate “Final Solution policy.” He impressed upon them the need for active participation of their agencies to guarantee the ultimate success of the operation.

The SS played the leading role in all of the major operations of the “Final Solution.” Regional SS and police authorities were responsible for the murder of as many as one million Soviet Jews in shooting operations between 1941 and 1943, although Romanian gendarmes and military personnel killed a few hundred thousand Ukrainian and Romanian Jews—either directly by shooting or indirectly through deliberate neglect, cutting off food and medical supplies in Romanian-occupied Transnistria.

The staff of the SS and Police Leader in Lublin District of the Government General, SS General Odilo Globocnik, coordinated the murder of approximately 1,700,000 Jewish residents of the Government General and Bialystok District between March 1942 and November 1943. Dubbed Operation “Reinhard” in honor of Final Solution planner Heydrich, who died after an assassination attempt in the late spring of 1942, this mass murder operation was implemented primarily in the killing centers established for that purpose at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II.

Under the authority of the Higher SS and Police Leader for the District Wartheland (Seat Poznan), the SS Special Detachment (Sonderkommando) Lange, named for its commander, SS Captain Herbert Lange, murdered more that 150,000 Jewish residents of “Wartheland,” including most of the residents of the Lodz ghetto, in gas vans at the Chelmno killing center.

Finally, RSHA office IV B 4, under command of Adolf Eichmann, coordinated the deportation of nearly 1.5 million Jews from all over German-occupied and German-influenced Europe to the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, to transit camps in the Government General, and to killing sites in the Reich Commissariat Ostland. Those whom the SS deported to the Government General were killed during the course of Operation “Reinhard.” Regional German SS and police units, supported by auxiliaries and German military units, shot the overwhelming majority of Jews deported to the Reich Commissariat Ostland. SS camp authorities murdered around one million Jews in Auschwitz, about 865,000 in the gas chambers directly after they arrived.

To achieve the death toll of up to six million European Jews, the SS required the active participation of agencies and personnel of the German armed forces, the German state apparatus and civilian occupation authorities, non-German auxiliaries serving in the German police, military, and civilian occupation authorities, personnel in governments of Germany's Axis partners, and tens of thousands of civilian bystanders in Germany and the other Axis nations as well as in German occupied Europe. Nevertheless, the SS and police organizations under Himmler's command played the leading and coordinating role in the dreadful success of the Final Solution.

The SS and Other Victims

As the chief security agency of the Third Reich, the SS and police also took the leading role in operations against other real and perceived enemies of the Third Reich. Responsibility for the identification of Roma, Sinti, and Lallieri (Gypsies) in Germany, Austria, the Sudetenland, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia fell to the Criminal Police in Heydrich's RSHA. On December 8, 1938, Himmler issued a decree on “Combating the Gypsy Nuisance” (Bekämpfung der Zigeunerplage) that authorized persecution of Roma and Sinti on a “racial” basis. On Himmler's authorization of December 16, 1942, the German Criminal Police deported between 13,000 and 20,000 Roma and Sinti from the Greater German Reich to Auschwitz. Fewer than 2,000 survived. German SS and police units, supported by the German military authorities, murdered an unknown number of Roma in the Soviet Union and Serbia during the German occupation.

Although physicians and other medical personnel under the general direction of the chief of Hitler's Führer Chancellery implemented operations to kill people with disabilities in Germany, Austria, and the Protectorate, officials on loan from the RSHA's Criminal Police were instrumental in implementing the best known of these murder operations, Operation T-4, in which German officials killed approximately 70,000 people.

The mass murder of Soviet prisoners of war was primarily the responsibility of the Wehrmacht personnel administering the prisoner of war camps; but the Security Police and SD routinely selected those prisoners to be shot, according to RSHA guidelines.

Finally, SS and police units in occupied Poland were responsible for the slaughter of tens of thousands of members of the Polish cultural and political elites as well as for the deportations and population movements within Poland that led to tens of thousands more deaths.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • What non-SS institutions were critical to SS success in the murder of millions?
  • Investigate who joined the SS and their motivations.
  • Why is the existence of a paramilitary a warning sign for mass atrocity?