The Waffen-SS was the armed branch of the SS (Schutzstaffel), which was a paramilitary organization of the Nazi Party created to protect Adolf Hitler. The Waffen-SS fought alongside the regular army in World War II on both the Russian Front and the Western Front. It grew from three regiments to a force of over 38 divisions, but was never formally part of the Wehrmacht. It was Adolf Hitler’s will that the Waffen-SS were to remain the armed wing of the Party.
The origins of the Waffen-SS go back to the selection of a group of 120 SS men in March 1933, by Josef "Sepp" Dietrich to form the Sonderkommando Berlin. Within months of its creation it was renamed SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. By November 1933, the Leibstandarte had grown to become an 800-men-strong regiment, and at a remembrance ceremony in Munich for the tenth anniversary of the failed Munich Putsch, this SS regiment swore allegiance to Hitler. The Leibstandarte showed their loyalty to their Führer on June 30, 1934, during the political purge known as the Night of the Long Knives when the leaders of the SA were executed by squads from the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler.
In September 1934, Adolf Hitler authorized the formation of the military wing of the Schutzstaffel; the SS-Verfügungstruppe or SS-VT, which would be a force of special service troops under Hitler’s command to fight revolutionary movements against Hitler’s government. By 1939, the size of the SS-VT expanded to four regiments (Standarten), since it was useful to have combat units outside the control of the German Army. These soldiers were carefully selected, as the requirements to join this new force were very strict.
The role of the SS-VT was eventually expanded. Heinrich Himmler wanted to have a military force that rivaled that of the German Army, and equipped these troops with the most modern weapons and vehicles. The training was tougher than that of the Wehrmacht’s, since Waffen-SS training involved the use of live ammunition. Hitler declared, on August 17, 1938, that the SS-VT (Waffen-SS) would have a role in domestic as well as foreign affairs, which transformed this growing armed force into the rival that the army had feared. When the Germans annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, there were Waffen-SS troops along side German Army’s units. Before the invasion of Poland, the Waffen-SS was given extensive military training in the tactics of warfare as it was organized into units similar to those of the Army.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, there were four SS armed regiments: Leibstandarte, Deutschland, Germania and the new regiment from Austria Der Führer. Events during the Invasion of Poland raised doubts over the combat effectiveness of the SS-VT. Their willingness to fight was never in any doubt, but sometimes they were almost too eager to fight and became reckless, unnecessarily risking their lives. The military branch of the SS (the SS-Verfügungstruppe) was known, by 1939, as the Bewaffnete SS, and later Waffen-SS. The unit SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler became the SS Division of the same name, while the unit SS-Deutschland and SS-Der Führer became the Verfüngungs Division; with this addition of the Langemarck unit, they were renamed the SS Das Reich Division. Units of the Totenkopf were reorganized into the SS Totenkopf Division. These were the Waffen-SS’s first three divisions, and would ferociously fight fierce battles throughout World War II.
As the war raged on, the Waffen-SS began to recruit outside of Germany. In 1940, the Standarte Nordland and Standarte Westland were formed for these foreign recruits within the SS military structure. Later, these two units were combined with the Standarte Germanic to comprise the Wiking Division. Based on this practice of forming units from foreign recruits, the Waffen-SS organized native "Legions" in occupied countries. Eventually, these units were enlarged into brigades and divisions. Units containing a high percentage of "racial" Germans and "Germanic" volunteers were designated as "Freiwilligen" within their names, such as the 11th SS-Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier Division "Nordland".