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Waffen-SS foreign volunteers and conscripts

Wallonien Brigade
Active 1940–45
Allegiance Nazi Germany
Branch Schutzstaffel
Size 39 divisions

The Waffen-SS (German for "Armed SS", literally "Weapon SS") was the combat arm of the Schutzstaffel ("Protective Squadron") or SS, an organ of the German Nazi Party. The Waffen-SS saw action throughout World War II and grew from three regiments to a force of over 39 divisions, which served alongside the regular army. It is not to be confused with units of the Allgemeine SS subordinate to the Wehrmacht. Waffen-SS was never formally part of the regular army. Although operational control of the Waffen-SS units on the front line was given to the Army's High Command, in all other respects they remained under the auspices of Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler's SS, and behind the lines these units were an instrument of political policy enforcement. It was Adolf Hitler's will that the Waffen-SS never be integrated into the Army. In 1940, Hitler gave permission for the first non-German Waffen-SS formation and by the end of the war, twenty five of the thirty eight Waffen-SS divisions were formed from foreign volunteers or conscripts, or around 60% of Waffen-SS members were non-German.

After the war, in the Nuremberg Trials, the Waffen-SS was condemned as a criminal organisation owing to its essential connection to the Party and its involvement in war crimes and the Holocaust, however Waffen-SS conscripts sworn in after 1943 were exempted from the judgement owing to their involuntary servitude.

SS Wiking

In late 1940, the creation of a multinational SS division, the SS Division Wiking, was authorised and command of the division was given to Brigadeführer Felix Steiner. Steiner organized the volunteer division, and soon advocated for an increased number of foreign units. The 5th SS Wiking was committed to combat several days after the launch of the invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), proving itself an impressive fighting unit. It became both one of the established elite divisions and a model for what might be achieved through careful recruitment and training. Its ranks, however, never exceeded 40% "foreign" troops, relying heavily on German officers, non-commissioned officers and technical specialists to provide the major part of its strength.[1]

Further volunteers

Soon Danish, Belgian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Dutch volunteer formations were committed to combat, generally proving their worth despite their limited numbers. Himmler was allowed to create his new formations, but they were to be commanded by German officers and NCOs. Beginning in 1942-43, several new formations were built up from Croats, Latvians, Estonians and Ukrainians. Himmler ordered that new Waffen-SS units formed with men of non-Germanic ethnicity were to be designated Division der SS or Division of the SS rather than SS Division. In some of these cases, the wearing of the SS runes on the collar was forbidden, with several of these formations wearing national insignia instead.[2]

Gottlob Berger sought to gain control of all foreign volunteer forces serving alongside Germany's Wehrmacht. This put the Waffen-SS at odds with the Army, as several volunteer units had been placed under Army control, for instance volunteers of the Spanish Blue Division. In several cases, such as the ROA and the 5.SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade Wallonien, he was successful, and by the last year of the war most foreign volunteers units did fall under SS command.

While several volunteer units performed poorly in combat, the majority acquitted themselves well. French and Spanish SS volunteers, along with remnants of the 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland formed the final defense of the Reichstag in 1945.

Among the more unusual units to exist in the Waffen-SS was the British Free Corps, a unit composed of former British prisoners of war. It numbered around 60 soldiers,[3] with special insigina, and considerable propaganda potential. Initial efforts at organizing the BFC were made by John Amery in the spring of 1944,[3] and then taken over by the Waffen-SS. Amery was tried and convicted of treason by the British government after the war, and was executed in December 1945.[3][4]

Additionally, there were SS units and entire SS 'Foreign Legions' consisting primarily of Indian, Arabs, Tartars/Cossacks amongst others. A special case was the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger that unofficially accepted common criminals on probation, Gypsies (Roma) and political prisoners willing to repent. Ultimately, a significant majority (approximately 60%) of men who volunteered and fought with the Waffen-SS over the course of the war were not ethnic Germans. The Waffen-SS even made allowances for religious traditions and beliefs with specialised uniforms and insignias, as well as providing spiritual guidance and service in non-Christian religions.

Conscript divisions

Soldiers from Estonia and Latvia were not volunteers[5] but conscripts which the German authorities had denied their wish to form national military units allied to Germany. Under such circumstances, these had either volunteered to the Wehrmacht and had later been forced into the Waffen-SS or were illegally conscripted by general mobilisations.[6] In an April 13, 1950 message from the U.S. High Commission in Germany (HICOG), signed by General Frank McCloy to the Secretary of State, clarified the US position on the "Baltic Legions": they were not to be seen as "movements", "volunteer", or "SS". In short, they were not given the training, indoctrination, and induction normally given to SS members. Subsequently the US Displaced Persons Commission in September 1950 declared that
The Baltic Waffen-SS Units (Baltic Legions) are to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities, and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission holds them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States.
The governments of the Baltic states and the people of Germany consider these men to have been freedom fighters against communism.[6]

List by nation and unit

An estimated 325,000 to 500,000[7] non-ethnic German volunteers and conscripts served in the Waffen-SS:

Post war

After the surrender, many volunteers were tried and imprisoned by their countries. In several cases, volunteers were executed. Henri Joseph Fenet, one of the last recipients of the Knight's Cross was sentenced to 20 years of forced labour and released from prison in 1959.[26] Some were far less lucky and were shot upon capture by the French authorities. General Leclerc was famously presented with a defiant group of 11 or 12 captured 33rd SS Charlemagne men. The Free French General immediately asked them why they wore a German uniform, to which one of them replied by asking the General why he wore an American one; the Free French wore modified US Army uniforms. The group of French Waffen-SS men was then promptly executed without any form of military tribunal procedure.[27]

Walloon renowned leader Leon Degrelle escaped to Spain, where, despite being sentenced to death in absentia by the Belgian authorities, he lived in exile until his death in 1994.[28]

The men of the XV SS Cossack Corps found themselves in Austria at the end of the war and surrendered to British troops. Even though they were given assurances that they would not be turned over to the Soviets, they nevertheless were forcibly removed from the compound and transferred to the USSR. This event became known as the Betrayal of the Cossacks. Most of the Cossacks were executed for treason.[29][30]

After the war members of Baltic Waffen-SS Units were considered separate and distinct in purpose, ideology and activities from the German SS by the Western Allies. Subsequently in the spring of 1946, out of the ranks of Baltic conscripts who had surrendered to the Western allies in the previous year, a total of nine companies were formed with a mission to guard the external perimeter of the Nuremberg International Tribunal courthouse and the various depots and residences of US officers and prosecutors connected with the trial. The men were also entrusted with guarding the accused Nazi war criminals held in prison during the trial up until the day of execution.[31][32]

See also

Further reading

  • Kenneth W. Estes. A European Anabasis — Western European Volunteers in the German Army and SS, 1940–1945
  • Christopher Bishop: SS Hitler's Foreign Divisions: Foreign Volunteers in the Waffen SS 1940–1945, 2005, ISBN 978-1904687375
  • Jonathan Trigg: Hitler's Jihadis: Muslim Volunteers of the Waffen-SS (Hitler's Legions), 2012, ISBN 978-0752465869
  • Robert Forbes: For Europe: The French Volunteers of the Waffen-SS, 2010, ISBN 978-0811735810
  • Thorolf Hillblad: Twilight of the Gods: A Swedish Waffen-SS Volunteer's Experiences with the 11th SS-Panzergrenadier Division 'Nordland', Eastern Front 1944-45, Helion (2004)
  • Marko Jelusić: "Das „British Free Corps“ in der SS-Schule „Haus Germanien“ in Hildesheim." In: H. Kemmerer (Hrsg.), St. Michaelis zu Hildesheim. Geschichte und Geschichten aus 1000 Jahren, Veröffentlichungen der Hildesheimer Volkshochschule zur Stadtgeschichte Hildesheims 15 (Hildesheim 2010) 197-206. Online in
  • Hendrick C. Verton: In the Fire of the Eastern Front: The Experiences of a Dutch Waffen-SS Volunteer, 1941-45, 2010, ISBN 978-0811735896
  • Lars Larsson: Hitler's Swedes: A History of the Swedish Volunteers in the Waffen-SS, 2013, ISBN 978-1909384118

External links

  • Uniforms of the SS
  • SS veterans in Britain hold secret reunions
  • Adolf Hitler and the Army of Mankind
  • How Britain tortured German WWII Prisoners
  • Frontkjemper, World Heritage Encyclopedia in Danish
  • Frontkjemper, World Heritage Encyclopedia in Norwegian


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