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By Robert Beckhusen, War Is Boring
Spend enough time on military history forums or keep up with battlefield reenactors, and you will surely notice a lingering fascination with the Waffen S.S. This, suffice to say, is a controversial issue in these communities.
There’s a reoccurring complaint — history buffs want to get involved in World War II reenactments, but can’t find a group interested in roleplaying anything other than the Waffen S.S.
Not to litigate the ethical questions that arise from dressing up as a Nazi, but people who get involved in such reenactments do so for many different reasons, some of them more defensible than others.
Neo-Nazi groups have in fact infiltrated World War II and Waffen S.S. reenactment clubs. But then there were reenactors such as Rich Iott, who ran for an Ohio congressional seat in 2010. Photos of Iott dressed as a member of the 5th S.S. Panzer Division surfaced before the election, which he lost.
Iott defended his hobby as arising from an interest in military history. “It’s purely historical interest in World War II,” he said. Iott had roleplayed in other contexts as well, including the American side in the war, and as a Union soldier from the American Civil War.
There was no reason to disbelieve Iott or cast aspersions on him, except to say that the chummy, beer-drinking photographs were in pretty poor taste. What’s also very common is an expression of interest in roleplaying as a skilled, “elite” soldier.
“Portraying an elite group, such as the S.S.,” the website for one North Carolina reenactment club states, “is a study in military tactics, technological advancements, cutting edge training regiments, and an understanding of the mindset of a formidable opposition from WWII.”
To be sure, the Nazis considered the Waffen S.S. to be an elite group. It was the military extension of the Nazi Party and served as a counterweight to the regular armed forces, or Wehrmacht. As a result, members of the Waffen S.S. were heavily subjected to political and racial indoctrination, and received special privileges and better equipment.
The Waffen S.S., the Allgemeine S.S. and the Wehrmacht all participated extensively in the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity.
But was the Waffen S.S. really an “elite” fighting force? Curiously, it’s not what many Wehrmacht soldiers at the time said, and they often looked down on S.S. soldiers and considered them to be unprofessional, according to the 2012 book Soldaten by researchers Soenke Neitzel and Harald Welzer.
I recently read Soldaten, which was based on secretly recorded conversations between German prisoners of war while in British custody. It’s a fascinating and disturbing look at how those soldiers — in many different and individual ways — felt about the war.
For one, it seems that one trait that distinguished the Waffen S.S. from the regular army was not fighting skills, but willingness to take greater losses.
This shocked Wehrmacht soldiers, who viewed the Waffen S.S. a group which embraced suicidal attacks for often little — if any — military gain. Soldaten features a transcription of one account by an unnamed German general who witnessed an attack by a S.S. battalion:
UNKNOWN: I will just tell you about one scene which I myself witnessed with my own eyes — otherwise I shouldn’t speak about it. That was during the winter fighting, when four Russian divisions, a Guards cavalry division, two Guards infantry divisions and one other division, broke through the neighbouring division on my left wing. I now formed a defensive flank projected like this, it formed an acute angle — ridiculous. I was right in the centre at a distance of 4 km. with my battle headquarters, at a distance of 2 km. from both fronts.
In order to form the defensive flank, I got a second unit an S.S. battalion, that is, it wasn’t much more than a glorified company. The company consisted of about a hundred and seventy-five men, a few heavy machine guns and two mortars. There was one Hauptsturmfuehrer von Benden, a grand fellow who had also been in the World War. These fellows had been acting as a protective division in the rear and had engaged guerrillas. They were then withdrawn and sent up to the front. I gave them orders to take the village of Volchanka (?).
As they hadn’t any heavy weapons, I gave them two light machine guns and three anti-tank guns, which I also immediately withdrew. The attack was begun. I couldn’t believe my eyes, how quickly the attack proceeded, it developed splendidly, we advanced against the village and met with fire. Suddenly Benden stood up in his car and drove up to the head of his battalion and the battalion fell in and marched on in step against the village.
Buelowius: … complete madness.
UNKNOWN: They had nine officers. Out of these nine, seven were killed or wounded. Out of a hundred and seventy infantry-men, about eighty were lost. They took (?) the village … Afterwards they held the village with eighty men for a whole week, or rather they had to leave it once and got back again. In the end they had twenty-five men left.
Yes, it was an absolute scandal. I gave him a troop of quick-firing (?) guns, he didn’t fire a round. (I said), ‘You must fire, von Benden.’ — ‘Nonsense, we can take it this way too.’ Utter madness.
Seriously — marching in step toward a defended village is crazy.
But Neitzel and Welzer cautioned that Wehrmacht soldiers had their own biases, and mass casualties in operations gone terribly wrong were not unusual during World War II. The difference, the researchers wrote, is that Wehrmacht soldiers often blamed their own officers for failures, while they blamed the Waffen S.S. as an organization, reflecting an inter-service rivalry.
Regular army soldiers would also single out the Waffen S.S. for atrocities. But in some cases, the regular soldiers appeared to be trying to distance themselves — and the Wehrmacht — from war crimes which were pervasive on the Eastern Front and in which they were complicit.
However, there’s little doubt that the Waffen S.S. were more willing as a group to embrace extreme violence directed at civilians. Captured S.S. soldiers discussed it openly and sometimes boasted about it.
But regarding the question whether or not the Waffen S.S. was “elite” unit, at least in terms of fighting skills compared to the Wehrmacht, the answer was probably not. And that became increasingly the case as the war went on.
As soldiers died, were wounded or taken prisoner, the Waffen S.S. loosened recruitment standards from the much stricter requirements earlier in the war. There’s also no evidence the S.S., in general, took higher casualties than the Wehrmacht — perhaps reflecting the regular army’s bias. Although the Allies captured fewer S.S. prisoners.
Basically, these were big organizations and the level of professionalism varied a lot between individuals. Still, the evidence is pretty strong that Waffen S.S. soldiers were more racist, more fanatical and were indoctrinated more heavily into Nazi ideology than regular army soldiers, allowing for individual differences. After all, there were plenty of committed Nazis in the army.
It’s worth noting, too, that the Nazis promoted the Waffen S.S. as an elite fighting force for both recruitment and propaganda purposes.
“The Waffen S.S. fought in much the same way as other elite units,” Neitzel and Welzer wrote. “An occasionally greater willingness to follow orders to the letter and fight to the death is the lone, if significant, difference between S.S. men and regular soldiers.”
The authors expanded on that observation.
“Within the core units of Waffen S.S., we find a unique amalgamation of racism, callousness, obedience, willingness for personal sacrifice, and brutality,” the authors added. “Individually, all these elements can be identified within the Wehrmacht as well … But in the Wehrmacht, instances of radicalism never coalesced into a stable, coherent role.”
The mystique around the Waffen S.S., sustained in part by the reenactment groups, needs to be busted.
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