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Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012

The History Behind an ‘Army of Evil’

Weale explores the truths behind Nazi Germany’s SS

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In the preface to his Army of Evil: A History of the SS (NAL Caliber), Adrian Weale points out that there seems “to be an increasing disconnection between what the organization was and how it is now portrayed.” Keep that statement in mind as you read this eminently readable book because, while it unearths nothing startling, it does the useful service of pulling back into focus what the SS was and did and who did it and why.

The SS (Schutzstaffel—protection squad) began in 1925 as a personal guard for Adolf Hitler and for many years remained part of the SA (Sturmabteilung—Storm Troopers, the paramilitary force that acted as a private army of the Nazi Party). In 1929 Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s trusted confederate, took it over. By the end of World War II, Himmler had become the second most powerful man in Germany and the SS had ballooned into a state within a state, a veritable army within an army.

Weale, a former British army officer, succeeds in his aim of refuting two related notions that have become the standard view of the SS. One is that the SS was a “gang of psychopathic sadists.” No, he says; that lets humanity off the hook. SS members were ordinary, usually middle-class Germans who turned their ideological fanaticism and the elite status of their organization into a machine of terror and genocide.

Second, the Waffen-SS (Weapons-SS, its military arm) was not a force of special soldiers whose reputation has been sullied by being lumped in with the criminal butchery perpetrated by ordinary soldiers of the regular army (the Wehrmacht). It was in fact the Waffen-SS that led in carrying out the SS policy of extermination of Jews and other “undesirables.”

The Waffen-SS set up and staffed the concentration camps and extermination camps and committed hideous mass killings. Their willingness to persist in this horror, even when they realized the war was lost, illustrates “the murderous ferocity of the ideology that Himmler instilled in his order.”

The author takes us through the many twisting steps that led down into this abyss. His research seems to be based primarily on secondary sources, and English-language ones at that, though that is not necessarily a failing in a work of synthesis such as this.

He even draws upon one of his own books, Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen, to examine the role of foreigners in the Waffen-SS. A few men from the United States and Britain and other Allied countries joined, as did a handful of Allied POWs, but they were a total bust, contributing nothing to the German war effort.

The Waffen-SS was far more successful in recruiting from countries it occupied; tens of thousands filled their ranks. There is a weird irony in this: The SS prided itself on being an elite outfit of carefully selected men of “Germanic blood,” but by war’s end its desperate need for replacements had swept up into those ranks a motley collection of mediocre troops often barely able to speak German and who would not have been allowed into even the regular army in peacetime.

This in turn illustrates one of the many rivalries that riddled Nazi Germany. The Wehrmacht severely restricted the number of German citizens the Waffen-SS was allowed to recruit; the Wehrmacht, whose brass despised the Waffen-SS, did not want it poaching its supply of racially pure manpower.

On the other hand, the Wehrmacht was perfectly willing to let the Waffen-SS take on the most dangerous, ideology-driven actions of the Holocaust, ones that led to a high casualty rate. Anything to undermine a military rival.

Weale takes up all the associated developments: the SS operation of Auschwitz and other camps; the campaign to provide “living space” for Germans by “cleansing” occupied areas of “inferior” races; the forced labor used to run its own industrial operations (and the hiring out of prisoners to private companies). And much more.

Whether any of this aided or hindered Germany’s war effort is not stated. We might seek our own answer in the realization that, as has been noted elsewhere, the Third Reich was a gangster state run on irrational lines whose chief efficiency was in the savage slaughter of innocents.