The SS: A Warning from History by Guido Knopp

Review by Mick Manise


This book is an in depth look at Hitler's SS from its inception to the various post war organisations both actual and mythological.


The Author, Dr Guido Knopp, was born post war in 1948 and was editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. At the time of publication Knopp was running Germany's second biggest television network and was responsible for a number of series about Hitler's Germany including 'The Nazis - a Warning from History' of which the contents of this book formed one programme. He has written a number of books about Hitler´s Germany and I personally find him an honest and unafraid reporter of history.


The SS was formed in May 1923, in the bowling alley of a Munich beer house called the Torbrau, under the name 'Strosstrupp Hitler' (Hitler Shockforce). The job of the the 22 founding members was to protect Hitler who at the time was merely an agitator with designs on leadership. They wore black caps and adopted a cap badge in the form of a skull. This deaths head symbol was cribbed from the 1st pioneer regiment of the Wehrmacht, who in the first war operated with flame throwers forward of the front line.


Following Hitler's attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government in 1923, he was imprisoned but released early in 1925. On release he immediately resumed his political activity and for personal protection formed a new guard he called 'Schutzstaffel, or SS for short. The SS saw itself as a Praetorian guard, the elite of the Nazi party. Applicants were required to be between 23 and 35 years old, to give the names of 2 personal guarantors, to be healthy and powerfully built at least 1.7 metres (5'7") tall and of 'Aryan' extraction.


Prior to 1933 the SS were very much a hidden force. The strong arm or the Nazi party was the SA or Brown shirts under the leadership of Ernst Röhm. Röhm saw his SA as a force to eventually replace Germany's armed forces and he wished to share power. He and his SA were seen as a threat by both Hitler and the army. In order to consolidate his own power and to achieve harmony with the army, in 1934 Hitler dissolved the leadership and power of the SA in a series of arrests and executions known as 'The night of the long knives'. All the dirty work was undertaken by the SS who as a result consolidated their power.


The Totenkopf brigade of the SS also took over the running of labour camps, the first being Dachau. Dachau opened its gates on 22 March 1933 and its first inmates, called "pests of the nation" by the SS. The camps started life as a place for the miscreants of society, drunks, work shy, petty criminals and perpetrators of domestic violence. Their purpose was expanded to cover enemies of the state ( political opponents ) who were placed in 'protective custody' and further expanded to encompass the genocide which followed.


In the book, both Himmler and Heydrich are examined in detail. They have the common factor of a frustrated military career. Himmler joined the German army in 1918 as an officer but did not see front line action before the cessation of hostilities. Heydrich was a naval officer under Admiral Canaris but was dishonourably discharged for his conduct when he married a different woman from the one he was engaged to. Both subsequently wandered the employment desert of post war Germany before finding their place within National Socialism. They paint a frightening picture between them with their obsession for power and a hatred of all things ethnically non Aryan. In particular their shared hatred of Judaism and a determination to create a master race by eliminating all beings that in their wisdom they defined as not being worthy of life. It was this thinking that formed the basis of the Holocaust when they decided to use the medical profession to determine whether the disabled lived or died. Hospitals catering for the disabled, assessed children and sentenced to be killed those they determined unfit. This murder was conducted by an organisation which later was used to commence the mass murder of people in the camps, due to their experience.


Himmler as leader of the SS expanded his force and formed the Waffen SS, which was the fighting wing of the SS. This force was under the command of individual army groups and due to its fanatical fighting ability and lack of fear of death, became a sort of fire brigade filling gaps and blocking attacks where ever they occurred. Members of the Waffen SS have always disclaimed knowledge and responsibility of the mass murders committed both in the camps and behind the front lines of the east and the author uses arguments to disprove these claims.


The work of the various Einsatzgruppen, or behind the lines killing squads, is explained and this mass murder by shooting led to the traumatising of those doing the killing and the search for a more humane method of execution, not for those being killed, but for those doing the killing! This search led to the use of gas vans which had been used to exterminate the disabled, and the subsequent experiment with a gas designed for use to eliminate rats, Zyklon B. The experiment was on 5 September 1941 on 600 Russian prisoners of war and 300 sick civilian detainees in Auschwitz concentration camp. It was seen as such a success due to its lack of effect on the killers, the relative low cost and the potential for quantity that the producer of the gas I G Farben became a partner of the killing machine. This company used slave labour to build a plant near to Auschwitz in exchange for materials to expand the camp.


There have been many myths and legends about post war organisations run by former SS members and sympathisers, which assisted wanted criminals to escape justice and which supported imprisoned criminals and their families. Simon Wiesenthal perpetuated this myth when he provided much of the information for Frederick Forsyth to write his book entitled ´The Odessa File´. Dr Knopp dispels the myth of one organisation with tentacles and agents all over the world working in harmony. He chooses to believe that there was a number of separate organisations conducting this work independently, one of which was the Roman Catholic church and in particular members of the Vatican who had a sympathy to anyone who was anti-communist. Until such time as the Vatican opens its archives we will not know how much of this work was conducted with the knowledge and approval of the Pope. Another frightening aspect of this story is the manner in which some of these groups have been actively engaged in Holocaust denial and the perpetuation of racist doctrines and the support of modern day right wing groups.


The willingness with which an educated and cultured society allowed itself to be led into the abyss of the Second World War never ceases to amaze me and if it can happen once it can happen again elsewhere. To quote Simon Wiesenthal when he said, "Forget nothing! That way we help to prevent crimes against humanity from being repeated", and to quote a right wing web site, "Every Jew is a walking advertisement for the next holocaust". This book is truly a 'Warning from history'.