- Weimar Germany & the Nazi Rise to Power
- The Nazi State & German Society
- The Nazi Racial State
- Nazi Germany at War
- Writing the History of Nazi Germany
The Waffen SS saw its first major military engagements in Operation Barbarossa. Four SS Divisions: Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Reich, Totenkopf, and Wiking were all showing great progress in the Eastern Front and achieved success after success. However, one of the newer SS Divisions: Nord, had suffered a major defeat in Finland. However, this defeat was kept ‘secret’ from the German public and this debacle was only one of very few major SS defeats. Stein will explain how during operation Barbarossa, the Waffen SS took a much higher proportion of the casualties compared to the Wehrmacht but explains that this was part of the reason that the German forces were able to advance so decisively all the way to Moscow. The Waffen SS also was the ‘tip of the spear’ in that they were the motorized and panzer divisions that would advance ahead of most of the army, engaging in combat first. Even during the first major Russian counter-offensive when most Wehrmacht divisions and army groups panicked, the SS stood strong and held off the Russians for as long as they could.
Fighting in the East was extremely brutal and this was in part because of the fanaticism of both the Waffen SS and also the fanaticism of certain Soviet units and their political commissars. However the Waffen SS carried out specific orders to make the Eastern Front not just a war for terriotry, but a war of genocide and ideology. The Waffen SS was ordered to execute all Soviet Commissars. This went hand in hand with their indoctrination "material" and Himmler's own directives and views. They would make room for the new German settlement by exterminating the current residents as well as re-germanizing the "lost" Germans in the East. This resulted in the fierce guerilla warfare that ensued in the Eastern Front and played a role in why the Waffen SS had to endure such high losses on the Eastern Front.
Throughout the war in the East, the Waffen SS were noted to fight much longer and harder than most of the Wehrmacht and finally brought the Russian counter-offensive to a halt by the summer of 1942. The Waffen SS led the summer counteroffensive and broke the Red Army’s back once again until the second Russian counter-offensive finally forced the German Army into full retreat after the defeat at Stalingrad. The SS led multiple small scale offensives to slow the Russians, which bought time for the rest of the Wehrmacht to fall back and to also retake vital defensive locations to make the Russians pay for every inch they took. The Waffen SS again blunted the Russian offensive until the allies defeated Italy, wherein Hitler took multiple SS divisions and reassigned them to the southern and later western fronts. This led to the various fronts being pushed back and the SS essentially becoming Hitler’s “fire brigade”. Stein states, “Wherever they were committed they attacked; sometimes with great success, at other times with little or none. But whatever the outcome of the individual action, the end result was to delay the enemy advance. That, in final analysis, was the value of the Waffen SS in the last two years of the war”.
In some of the offensives by the Russian, Waffen SS divisions were cut off and encircled with large detachments of the Wehrmacht. In most cases, the SS divisions were tasked with leading the breakout and many times were successful but they incurred heavy losses, like in the case of Wiking and the suffering of 50% casualties. On the Western Front, Stein tells us that the SS were suffering many more defeats than they were accustomed to, for their numbers were too few and their supplies, weapons, and vehicles being replenished far too slowly against the “heavy naval fire, unending streams of tanks, full motorized infantry, superior artillery, and above all crippling attacks from the air.” The SS was trying to stem the tide on all fronts and just did not have the manpower or industrial backing to do so effectively. However, even in the face of defeat, the SS fought till the end on almost every front. The SS fought until they could not fight any longer, as a transmission from SS Division Deutschland to Das Reich confirms, “The Regiment ‘Deutschland’ - now completely cut off, without supplies, with losses of 70 per cent in personnel and equipment, at the end of its strength-must capitulate. Tomorrow the regiment will march into captivity with all heads held high. The regiment which had the honor of bearing the name ‘Deutschland’ is now signing off.”