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Understanding the SS Imperium
by Michael H. Kater
Robert Lewis Koehl. The Black Corps: The Structure and Power Struggles of the Nazi SS. Madison and London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. xxxi, 437 pages.
Kogon's study, Der SS-Staat: Das System der Konzentrationslager (the English translation bears the inadequate but marketable title The Theory and Practice of Hell), published in 1946 and many times re-issued, was such a masterpiece of analysis and erudition that even if some of his information has been superseded today, I still regard it as the best book on the SS ever written in any language. In it, Kogon presented the picture of a state within the Nazi state, practically selfcontained and ruled with bureaucratic efficiency by Heinrich Himmler and his minions. If the SS system lent itself to historical analysis, SS Chief Himmler, in many ways an enigma in his lifetime, became a worthwhile subject of biography. In this latter area, historians have been less successful than Kogon and some of his followers in trying to write good history. Himmler's first biographer was Willi Frischauer, a Jew who had lost members of his family in the Holocaust. Frischauer's book on the man he termed "the evil genius of the Third Reich," published in 1953, was succeeded by even less satisfactory accounts, such as that by Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel in the early 1960s. A dependable scholarly biography of Himmler has yet to be written.
In the area of organizational SS history, Kogon's book was to be followed by several others as soon as a postwar generation of historians had developed. This holds true in particular for Germany, where the established historians who had themselves witnessed the Third Reich simply could not bring themselves to deal with a problem like the SS. This occurred not because the records would not have been available (they were, if difficult to obtain), but because the socalled Black Corps was viewed by them as not typically German and hence, because of the negative national value attached to it, regarded as beyond the purview normally extended to "proper" German objects of study. It was easier to continue in the historicist tradition of the primacy of foreign policy, of abstract theories of state in which the ideological place of Germany was no better or no worse than that of other "world powers."
One younger German historian who tried to come to grips with the phenomenon of the SS (if not of its leader Heinrich Himmler) was the then member of the Munich Institut fur Zeitgeschichte, Hans Buchheim, originally trained as a classicist. Buchheim was asked to compose an expert's testimony for the momentous German Auschwitz trials which were held in Frankfurt in the early to mid-1960s. Significantly, the jurists had found the workings of the SS machinery, as documented by the huge trial evidence and complicated by myriads of witnesses, too overwhelming to make sense of and to use for gaining an understanding of Auschwitz. Buchheim embarked on a detached, almost clinical analysis of the SS system from a structural and legal point of view, which to date, in its published form, constitutes another apex in the historiography of the Black Corps. For the first time, it now became possible for those outside the SS order to comprehend the SS-specific norms and the quasi-moral pressures resulting from them that daily had their effect on the average SS man.
Beyond Kogon, this was probably the first successful attempt to wrest analysis of the Schutzstaffel from the realm of the demonological, a realm in which the personality of its leader has essentially remained. By persuading his readers to accept, for the sake of argument, the reverse value system of the SS, Buchheirn succeeded in explaining to them why the common SS man acted as he did. This no more amounted to an exculpation than did Hannah Arendt's much celebrated (and much reviled) effort to place in detached perspective the "banality" of the evil for which the SS stood an interpretation remarkably close to Buchheinys, if "banality" is considered equivalent to "everyday," and "evil" to Buchheim's concept of normative perversion.
With all of this, the actual history of the SS the development of its vast sub-empires, the careers of its major lieutenants, its connections with other agencies of the Third Reich was being neglected. But many mundane operations of the Black Corps were also worth some investigation, and, in spite of Kogon's suggestive pioneering study, the SS could not simply be detached from the rest of Nazi Germany other Germans or from other apparatuses. (Today Kogon's theory of a self-contained SS empire has largely been dismantled through the works of younger West German scholars such as Christian Streit, who has demonstrated the complicity of the Wehrmacht in the mass killing of Russian prisoners-of-war, a job otherwise incumbent on the Black Corps; there is additional proof that the army acquiesced and even aided in the shooting of Russian Jews.)
It was a superb West German journalist, Heinz Hohne of the news magazine Der Spiegel, who wrote the first comprehensive organizational history of the SS, a work that has also been translated into English (Der Orden unter dem Totenkopf, 1966 English edition: The Order of the Deathhead, 1967). Hohne's readable account traced the history of the Schutzstaffel from its early years before Himmler appeared on the scene. It began as an organization conceived initially as Hitler's bodyguard; it then grew into an intelligence clearinghouse for the Nazi movement and was ultimately charged with systematic oppression, economic exploitation, and racial liquidation. The documentation of Hohne's book was adequate, if not striking; he had obtained access to the SS files, many of which had been used during the Nuremberg Trials and which had, via the Berlin Document Center, been deposited in Virginia for microfilming by the National Archives and the American Historical Association. (Today the originals have all been returned to the West German Federal Archive in Koblenz, where they are freely available to researchers, while the films are available in the National Archives in Washington.)
In more recent years, historiographical work on the SS has, with the notable exception of three excellent monographs on the armed SS (Waffen-SS) by George Stein, Charles Sydnor, and most recently Bernd Wegner, concentrated more on mass-psychological, sociological, and social- historical aspects of its development, the institutional details of which have been assumed to be known. Koehl's new book now proves this to be a somewhat if not totally erroneous assumption. One might say that Koehl has rewritten Hohne's book from the perspective of organizational and sometimes structural history (by a structural treatment I mean analysis, in somewhat phenomenological fashion, of the main trends and specific aspects that typified the SS, beyond a mere recounting of the chain of events).
The author tells of the early years of the SS from 1919 to 1924, when the corps existed only in a germinal state as Hitler's intimate protection squad. He moves on to its checkered history in the formative years up to 1929, when it went through uneven developments under several vagabond leaders as an adjunct to the brown-shirted SA, until it acquired in the person of Heinrich Himmler a pedantic if enthusiastic chief with a penchant for hard work and a clear vision for its future: It was to be an elite cadre imbued with ideological tenets of the Nazi movement and increasingly endowed with special functions, including racially homogeneous German resettlement in Eastern Europe. Since Himmler was as tantalized by images of the "evil Jew" as Hitler, there is no question that the Schutzstaffel's future obsession with antisernitism was solely his doing. The Schutzstaffel's original mandate as a "protection squad" for the physical safety of the Fuhrer was supercharged, under Himmler, to mean, above all else, "protection against Jews."
The two years before the seizure of power, writes Koehl, were for the SS a period of internal consolidation and definition of its jurisdictional limits vis-A- vis the much larger SA. Koehl also points correctly to the circumstance that the SS too suffered from the ill effects of the Great Depression, as did SA members and other Nazis at that time, and even if it never approached the rags-and-tatters state of the rival SA, its adherents, too, were often just struggling along. This is important, for it contravenes the impression given in later years by Himmler and his cronies that even the "pre-historic" SS had always been omniscient, omnipotent, and blessed with social stability.
In the months after Hitler's coming to power, the SS was waiting in the wings finally to rid itself of the hated SA under Captain Ernst Rohm, who was, incidentally, still the superior of Himmler. In a special chapter on the Rohm Purge and its prelude, Koehl once more reminds us of the crucial role the Black Shirts played in these sordid goings-on. And indeed, the end of the purge in early July 1934 spelled years of growth for the SS, which could now flourish and undermine every agency of the regime, whether state- or party-based. The years of war finally brought what the author calls "fulfillment" to the SS: consummate involvement in military front action after the creation of the Waffen-SS and, more tragic, the practical implementation of Jewhatred with the erection of Auschwitz and the other liquidation camps.
In this competently delivered chronicle, I found little in the overall presentation that was startlingly new; the inevitable comparison of this book with Hohne's shows that Koehl is able to fill in organizational and institutional details that were missed by Hohne's and other earlier histories. Hence I learned a lot from Koehl regarding the branching-out of the SS network within Germany's borders before and after the seizure of power, more about the personality and function of kingpins such as Kurt Daluege and Sepp Dietrich, who, prior to Koehl's work, were pallid figures in the history books. Koehl must also be commended for showing, more clearly than ever before, the similarities (rather than, as has most often been stressed, the differences) between the SS and the SA; likewise, the continuity between the peacetime SS phenomenon and the SS in war, in fact the SS and war.
One of the best lessons in the book is the one about the SS's greed during its involvement in Judenpolitik; quite apart from killing the Jews, the SS robbed them of billions. That this has not been seen as clearly by Koehl's forerunners is due to the persistence of a myth: the image the SS presented of itself as a corps of ideological warriors who were not contaminated by an ordinary lust for worldly possessions. Himmler's constant harping on this theme in his speeches, letters, and daily conversations (as with his masseur Felix Kersten) and his own facade of frugality (which, incidentally, can be punctured) have deceived post-1945 historians into accepting the reflections of this "honorable" image at face value. Koehl demonstrates convincingly, beyond the shadow of a doubt: Fanatical SS men were, ideologically, terribly twisted and depraved, but they were also corrupt in a down-to-earth and practical sense, and they stole a good deal more than an occasional egg (for which crime, a former SS officer once told me, Himmler could have had them shot if he went by the book).
Thus, in a sense, Koehl resecularizes the SS; he exposes the quasispirituality, the crypto-religious quality of the "order" as a sham, as a cover for mundane indulgences. The SS fanatic is stripped of his "idealism," and, as I might wish to phrase it, the culprit of "higher conviction" (Gesinnungstater) is reduced to a common thug. In Nazi Germany there never was a "war" criminal. The people who killed at Lidice and Auschwitz were criminals in peace as well as war.
The book has obvious shortcomings. It was begun more than twenty years ago, and at that time it must have been conceived as a current, up-to-date alternative to Hohne's monograph. But Hohne's book, which is hardly cited at all, has already dated Koehl's. Koehl, in the main relegated to the same National Archives microfilms on the SS that informed Hohne's research, and beholden, like the West German journalist, to a fairly conventional methodology, has produced a tome that crosses the t's and dots the i's but offers nothing stunningly original in theme or method. Its undisputed value is its completeness: it is probably the most comprehensive and detailed history of the SS ever written, a book with the characteristics of a reference volume. The narrative is fluid and precise, yet never exciting (as was Hohne's the documentation is conscientious and meticulous. Koehl is a seasoned scholar who works well by the rules of his craft.
While the primary source material is rich, the literature is only adequate. As may not be surprising with a book that has been so long in coming, the list of secondary works is not properly up to date. Koehl has a marked tendency to rely on extremely old-fashioned accounts, such as the works by Ermenhild Neussuss-Hunkel , Heinrich Orb, Gorlitz and Quint, John Wheeler Bennett, Konrad Heiden, Heinrich Bennecke, Georges Castellan, and the often untrustworthy Hans Bernd Gisevius. He also avoids discussing earlier interpretations of the SS and fails to place his views within the perspective of established historiography.
For all his emphasis on institutional history, Koehl neglects intellectual and socio-historical aspects and forgoes any mention of the appropriate literature in that area of inquiry. To mention only one example: Himmler had a far greater personal ideological impact on the development of the SS than Koehl surmises; instead, he gives too much credit to Richard Walther Darr,6, the founder of the SS Race Office and, like Himmler, a schooled agronomist. Like DarrCs, Himmler's roots in "blood-and-soil" philosophy were strong, and his early experiences as a chicken farmer and later, in the volkisch Artamanen movement came to have a profound influence on his subsequent direction of the SS. There is a not inconsiderable body of literature on this, including books by Josef Ackermann and Klaus Bergmann and an article by myself (on the Artamanen), the last two of which do not appear in the author's bibliography. Neither can the highly seminal study by Peter Loewenberg on Himmler's adolescence be found there, nor a host of other important pieces: Hans Mommsen's suggestive and lengthy review of Hohne's book in Der Spiegel, Lothar Gruchmann's more recent article on SS "justice" in one of Broszat's and Frohlich's Bavarian volumes, the studies of concentration camps by Falk Pingel, Ino Arndt and Lawrence Stokes, or the volume by Krausnick and Wilhelm on the SS-Einsatzgruppen, and on the Wehrmacht by Christian Streit. On Austria and SS developments there, several important studies are plainly missing, those by Jagschitz, Botz, and Pauley.
In summary, Koehl's book provides no great surprises for its readers but is a good, solid history, well researched and ably written. Because of its handbook character, it may become useful in further studies on the Third Reich. On this strength alone it will assume its place alongside the noted treatises on the SS, and in the university seminars it will be a boon for teachers and students alike. But it also signals a compelling need to divert the scholar's attention from some of the best-researched subjects of Nazi Germany so far to some of the leasttreated. Moreover, since conventional methodologies have obvious limitations in providing us with answers, this book once more highlights the need to become more inventive in the handling of the available source materials, and also in the creation and manipulation of new ones, such as films and statistics, lest we remain wedded to the same old, tired, conventional history.