The SS: a New History

This history of the “engine room” of Hitler’s attempt to conquer the world is a good general introdu

We still know far too little about the SS. Astonishingly, the most detailed and reliable history, by the German journalist Heinz Höhne, was published over 40 years ago. Since then, there have been detailed scholarly studies of aspects of the organisation's history, but nobody has pulled all this work together into a fully satisfactory synthesis, and much research still needs to be done. Some of what we do know is competently recounted in this readable new book by Adrian Weale, a freelance writer and former officer in the British army who remains active in the reserve and recently, as he tells us in his preface, did a six-month tour of duty in Iraq. "I cannot believe", he writes, "that I, or indeed any soldier with whom I served, would willingly participate in the mass murder of men, women and children, or take part in a continental war of conquest." How was it possible, he asks, for one group of men to do exactly that, in the middle of Europe, a little over 60 years ago?

The answer, he suggests, lies in the organi­sation's unique combination of elite status and ideological fanaticism. The SS was formed as
a bodyguard troop for Adolf Hitler in the 1920s, but it was not until it was taken over by the young Heinrich Himmler early in 1929, following the dismissal of a lacklustre predecessor, that it began to become the vehicle for more far-reaching ambitions. From the moment he fell under Hitler's spell until almost the very end of the Third Reich, Himmler (born in 1900) was unconditionally loyal to the Nazi leader. Well-educated, from a solidly middle-class background (his father was tutor to the Bavarian royal family), hard-working and extremely ambitious, Himmler quickly turned the SS into the ideological vanguard of Nazism. In Himmler's vision, the SS - soon made into an autonomous organisation, reorganised in a military-style hierarchy and equipped with smart new black uniforms to distinguish it from the chaotic mass movement of the Brownshirts - was to be a racial as well as an ideological elite. Weale quotes Himmler's directive of 31 December 1931 which stated that his aim was "to create a hereditarily healthy clan of a strictly Nordic German sort"; SS men had to prove their physical fitness and racial purity and were not allowed to marry without providing evidence of their suitability.

It was clear enough that Himmler's boast that no man with even a single dental filling was going to be allowed to join the organisation was never going to be fulfilled in practice, and, as Weale points out, other physical requirements were soon relaxed as the SS expanded in numbers, especially during the war. However, even racial purity was diluted from the very beginning. Out of 106,304 SS men who applied for a marriage certificate between 1932 and 1940, only 7,518 fulfilled all the racial and physical requirements; however, fewer than a thousand applications were turned down.

Weale also fails to pay sufficient attention to the wilder side of Himmler's ideology, which went far beyond the core beliefs of Nazism. The pseudo-Germanic religious cult that he introduced into the SS, with sun-worship and the mystical invocation of Wotan and Thor at SS wedding ceremonies, for example, was ridiculed by Hitler, who devoted a speech in 1938 to emphasising the supposedly secular, scientific basis of Nazism ("we do not have cult sites, but sports arenas"). When the Brownshirts threatened to revolt against Hitler in June 1934, Himmler saw his chance. After proving its loyalty by serving as the instrument of Hitler's brutal curbing of the Brownshirts in the "Night of the Long Knives", the SS began
to expand rapidly, taking over the police (including the Gestapo) in 1936 and, when war came, building up a military wing, the Waffen-SS, in which, eventually, more than 900,000 men served.

eale correctly dismisses the myth that the Waffen-SS were ordinary soldiers, and deals briskly with the counter-myth that they were the only part of the German armed forces that committed atrocities against defenceless civilians and prisoners of war. Yet he fails to convey the extent to which the ideological fanaticism of the Waffen-SS drove its units into repeated acts of useless self-sacrifice. Its men were often criticised by more cautious regular army officers, some of whom, however, as Himmler complained, were only too ready to give them the most dangerous positions in battle in order to preserve their own troops and undermine the strength of this threatening rival. More than a third of all Waffen-SS men were killed in battle, a considerably higher death rate than that of the professional military forces. Weale devotes far too much space to the foreign legions recruited by the SS, especially the insignificant "British Free Corps", while neglecting the growth of the SS in other fields of activity.

A good deal has been written recently about the burgeoning economic empire of the SS during the war, for instance. Not only did it supply forced labour from the camps it ran, making money from the hundreds of thousands of prisoners it supplied to major manufacturing firms, it also owned and ran housing corporations, cement works, textile factories, munitions producers and much more besides. In pursuit of his crusade against alcoholism in the SS, Himmler even acquired the Apollinaris mineral water company after it had been expropriated from its British owners. Yet some have pointed out that this motley collection of haphazardly acquired businesses was too incoherent to pose a serious threat to the existing management of the Nazi economy.

This is yet another area that requires further investigation. The economic enterprises of the SS were only one of a range of activities, in­cluding education, publishing, propaganda and military action, that some historians have portrayed as expanding remorselessly to encompass an increasing proportion of the functions of the established German state and potentially threatening to swallow it up altogether. As a military historian, Weale focuses too much on the Waffen-SS to the detriment of other branches of the organisation, and even here, he breaks no new ground. Pressing questions remain unanswered: we know far too little, for example, about the social composition of the Waffen-SS, about its training and indoctrination, and about its internal dynamics.

Weale is apparently unable to read German, and so misses out on a great deal of recently published research on the SS; on the other hand,
he has made good use of documents in the National Archives at Kew, including interrogation records of former SS officers and files on British volunteers for the SS, the subject of a previous book by the same author. He gives a good summary of some of the central aspects of the organisation's history, and his book is remarkably free from error (I spotted only one obvious mistake, the misdating of the introduction of conscription to 1936 instead of 1935). But it tells us no more about the SS than we already knew; in some respects, indeed, a good deal less. In the end, the question he poses at the beginning of the book still needs a convincing answer.

The SS: a New History
Adrian Weale
Little, Brown, 480pp, £25

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge. His book "The Third Reich at War" is published by Penguin (£12.99 paperback)

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide