The SS (German: Schutzstaffel, German pronunciation: [ˈʃʊtsˌʃtafəl], "protection squadron" or "defence corps"; also Runic "ᛋᛋ" with stylized "Armanen" sig runes) was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (NSDAP).
It began in 1923 as a small, permanent guard unit known as the "Saal-Schutz" (Hall-Protection) made up of NSDAP volunteers to provide security for Nazi Party meetings in Munich. Later, in 1925, Heinrich Himmler joined the unit, which had by then been reformed and renamed the "Schutz-Staffel". Under Himmler's leadership (1929–45), it grew from a small paramilitary formation to one of the largest and most powerful organizations in the Third Reich. Built upon the Nazi ideology, the SS under Himmler's command was responsible for many crimes against humanity during World War II (1939–45). The SS, along with the Nazi Party, was declared a criminal organization by the International Military Tribunal, and banned in Germany after 1945.
The SS expanded from a small paramilitary unit to a powerful force that served as the Führer's bodyguard, the Nazi Party's "Protection Squadron" and a force that, fielding almost a million men (both on the front lines and as political police), managed to exert as much political influence in the Third Reich as the Wehrmacht, Germany's regular armed forces. According to the Nuremberg trials, as well as many war crimes investigations and trials conducted since then, the SS was responsible for the majority of Nazi war crimes. In particular, it was the primary organisation which carried out the Holocaust. As a part of its race-centric functions, the SS oversaw the isolation and displacement of Jews from the populations of the conquered territories, seizing their assets and transporting them to concentration camps and ghettos where they would be used as slave labour (pending extermination) or immediately killed.
Initially a small branch of the Sturmabteilung ("Brownshirts" or stormtroopers, abbreviated as "SA"), the SS grew in size and power due to its exclusive loyalty to Adolf Hitler, as opposed to the SA, which was seen as semi-independent and a threat to Adolf Hitler's hegemony over the party, namely since they demanded a second revolution beyond the one that brought the Nazis to power. Under Himmler, the SS selected its members according to the Nazi ideology. Heinrich Himmler considered the SS an elite, ideologically driven National Socialist organization that was a "conflation of Teutonic knights, the Jesuits, and Japanese Samurai." Himmler’s exclusive order, the SS, formed a new aristocracy of sorts within the confines of German society and appealed to men who were nationalist in mindset, politically active and who wished to transform the world by forming something new and dynamic. Creating elite police and military units such as the Waffen-SS, Adolf Hitler used the SS to form an order of men claimed to be superior in racial purity and ability to other Germans and national groups, a model for the Nazi vision of a master race.
During the Second World War, SS units operated alongside the regular Heer (German Army). However, by the final stages of the war, the SS came to dominate the Wehrmacht in order to eliminate perceived threats to Adolf Hitler's power while implementing his strategies, despite the increasingly futile German war effort. When the Wehrmacht was crumbling towards the end of the war, the military police units and the SS patrolled behind them in order to catch possible cases of desertion, punishing those found guilty by summary execution.
Chosen to implement the Nazi "Final Solution" for the Jews and other groups deemed inferior (and/or enemies of the state), the SS led the killing, torture and enslavement of approximately 12 million people. Most victims were Jews or of Polish or other Slavic extraction. However, other racial/ethnic groups such as the Roma made up a significant number of victims, as well. Furthermore, the SS purge was extended to those viewed as threats to "race hygiene" or Nazi ideology—including the mentally or physically handicapped, homosexuals and political dissidents. Members of trade unions and those perceived to be affiliated with groups (religious, political, social and otherwise) that opposed the regime, or were seen to have views contradictory to the goals of the Nazi government, were rounded up in large numbers; these included clergy of all faiths, Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons, Communists and Rotary Club members.