Epic: The Story of the Waffen SS
by Leon Degrelle
BEFORE THE OUTBREAK of the Second World War, Leon Degrelle was already known as the leader of the anti-Establishment Rexist party in Belgium, and as Europe’s youngest and most dynamic political figure. During the war he became known across the continent for his charismatic leadership and courage in combat on the Eastern Front. Of him Hitler reportedly said: “If I were to have a son, I would want him to be like Degrelle.”
His life began in 1906 in Bouillon, a small town in the Belgian Ardennes. As a student at the University of Louvain, he earned a doctorate in law. His keen interests were wide-ranging, and included political science, art, archeology and Thomistic philosophy. In his student days he traveled in Latin America, the United States and Canada. He visited North Africa, the Middle East and, of course, much of Europe.
His natural gifts as a leader were apparent early on. Imbued with a strong Christian ethos, he sought to win support for his vision of a more just and noble social-political order dedicated to the best long-term interests of the people. While still in his twenties, he was reaching out to people in many articles and several books he wrote, through a weekly newspaper he ran, and in numerous speeches. Mussolini invited him to Rome, Churchill met with him in London, and Hitler received him in Berlin.
Although often provocative and controversial, people read what he wrote and listened to what he had to say because he expressed himself with clarity, passion and obvious sincerity, and because he dealt with real concerns and issues. In a few short years he won a large measure of popular backing. On May 24, 1936, his Rex movement scored a remarkable electoral breakthrough. In a startling rebuke of the Establishment parties, it won 11.5 percent of the national vote.
As tensions mounted in 1939, Degrelle sought to counter the drift into another cataclysmic conflict. In September Britain and France declared war on Germany. Events were to quickly prove that the leaders in London and Paris had badly miscalculated. Within a year the swastika flag flew from the North Pole to the shores of Greece and the border with Spain. As war continued between Britain and Germany, the Soviet leaders prepared to seize the opportunity and strike westwards. But Hitler beat them to it. On June 22, 1941, German and allied forces struck against the Soviet Union. It was soon clear to everyone that the titanic struggle could end only in victory for either Hitler or Stalin.
With an awareness that this great clash would determine the long-term future of their native countries and of the West, thousands of young men across Europe pledged their lives for a better future in a united Europe, and volunteered for combat against the Soviets.
They joined the ranks of the Waffen SS — the military and ideological shock troops of the new Europe. This first-ever truly European armed force would grow to nearly a million men. About 400,000, a minority of the total, were Germans from the Reich. Most of those who will fill the scores of Waffen SS divisions — including Degrelle and the other Légion Wallonie volunteers from Belgium’s French-speaking region — were Europeans from outside of Germany.
These hundreds of thousands of volunteers, and their leaders, understood that after the war this pan-European brotherhood in arms would be the social and political foundation of a new continental order that would transcend the petty national rivalries of the past. All SS men fought the same struggle. All became comrades in arms. And all shared the same vision of the future.
For understandable reasons, the military and political achievements of the Waffen SS are not well known today, and even less properly appreciated.
Leon Degrelle is one of its most famous soldiers. After joining as a private he quickly rose in rank due to his exceptional courage and proven leadership at the front. He engaged in dozens of hand-to-hand combat actions. He was wounded on numerous occasions. His many decorations for outstanding service and valor included the highest honors: the Knight’s Cross (Ritterkreuz) of the Iron Cross, the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross, and the Gold German Cross in Gold. He was among the last to fight on the Eastern Front. At the end of the war he escaped surrender and certain death in Allied captivity with a daring and perilous flight of some 1500 miles from Norway to Spain. He was critically wounded when his plane crash-landed on a Spanish beach. But once again, he survived. In the new life he built in Spanish exile, he dedicated his efforts, above all, to keeping faith with his wartime comrades, both living and dead, and in passing on to future generations the story of their epic struggle and vision.
— The Publisher
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I am asked to talk to you about the great unknown of World War Two: the Waffen SS. It is somewhat amazing that this organization, which was both political and military, and which united a million fighting volunteers during the war, should still be largely ignored.
Why? Why is it that the official record still distorts or virtually ignores this extraordinary army of volunteers? An army that was at the vortex of the most gigantic struggle, affecting the entire world. The answer may well be found in the fact that the most striking feature of the Waffen SS was that it was composed of volunteers from some thirty different countries.
What cause brought them together, and why did they volunteer their lives?
Was it a German phenomenon? At the beginning, yes. Initially, the Waffen SS amounted to fewer than two hundred members. It grew steadily until 1940 when it evolved into a second phase, the Germanic Waffen SS. In addition to men from the German Reich, northwestern Europeans and ethnic Germans from across Europe enlisted.
Then, in 1941 — during the great clash with the Soviet Union — arose the European Waffen SS. Young men from the most distant countries fought together on the Eastern Front. Few knew anything about the Waffen SS during the years preceding the war. The Germans themselves took some time to recognize its distinctive character.
Hitler rose to power democratically, winning at the ballot box. He ran electoral campaigns like any other politician. He addressed meetings and advertised on billboards, and his speeches attracted capacity audiences. More and more people liked what he had to say, and ever larger numbers elected members of his party to parliament. Hitler did not come to power by force, but was duly elected by the people and duly installed as Chancellor by the President of Germany, Field Marshal von Hindenburg. His government was legitimate and democratic. In fact, only two of his followers were included in his first Cabinet.
During these election campaigns Hitler faced formidable enemies. Those who held power had no qualms about tampering with the electoral process. He had to face the Weimar-regime Establishment and its well-financed left-wing and liberal parties, as well as the highly organized bloc of six million Communist Party members. Only through the most fearless and relentless struggle to convince people to vote for him, was Hitler able to obtain a democratic majority.
In those days the Waffen SS was not even a factor. There was, of course, the SA “Stormtroopers,” with some three million men. They were rank and file members of the National Socialist Party, but certainly not an army. Their main function was to protect party candidates from Communist violence. And the violence was murderous indeed. More than five hundred National Socialists were murdered by the Communists, and thousands were grievously injured. The SA was a volunteer, non-governmental organization, and as soon as Hitler rose to power he could no longer avail himself of its help.
Hitler had to work within the system through which he had come to office. He came to power with major disadvantages. He had to contend with an entrenched bureaucracy appointed by the old regime. In fact, when the war broke out in 1939, 70 percent of the German bureaucrats in place had been appointed by the old regime, and did not belong to Hitler’s party. He could not count on the support of the Church hierarchy. Both big business and the Communist Party were totally hostile to his program. On top of all this, extreme poverty existed, and six million workers were unemployed. Never before had so many people in a European country been out of work.
The three million SA party members are not in the government. They voted and helped win elections, but they could not supplant the entrenched bureaucracy in the government. The SA also was unable to exert influence on the army, because the top brass, fearful of competition, was hostile to it.
This hostility reached such a point that Hitler was faced with a wrenching dilemma. What to do with the millions of followers who helped him to power? He could not abandon them.
The army was a highly organized power structure. Although only numbering 100,000, as dictated by the Treaty of Versailles, it exerted great influence in the affairs of state. The President of Germany was Field Marshal von Hindenburg. The army was a privileged caste. Almost all the officers belonged to the upper classes of society.
It was impossible for Hitler to take on the powerful army frontally. Hitler had been elected democratically, and he could not do what Stalin did: to have firing squads execute the entire military establishment. Stalin killed thirty thousand high ranking officers. That was Stalin’s way to make room for his own trusted commissars. Such drastic methods could not happen in Germany, and unlike Stalin, Hitler was surrounded by international enemies.
His election had provoked international rage. He had gone to the voters directly without the intermediary of the Establishment parties. His party platform included an appeal for racial integrity in Germany, as well as a return of power to the people. Such tenets so infuriated world Jewry that in 1933 it officially declared war on Germany.
Contrary to what one is told, Hitler had limited power and was quite alone. How this man ever survived these early years defies comprehension. Only the fact that he was an exceptional genius explains his survival against all odds. Abroad and at home Hitler had to bend over backwards just to demonstrate his good will.
But despite all his efforts Hitler was gradually being driven into a corner. The feud between the SA and the army was coming to a head. His old comrade, Ernst Röhm, Chief of the SA, wanted to follow Stalin’s example and physically eliminate the army brass. The showdown resulted in the death of Röhm, either by suicide or summary killing, and of many of his assistants, with the army picking up the pieces and putting the SA back in its place.
At this time the only SS men in Germany were in Chancellor Hitler’s personal guard: one hundred eighty in all. They were young men of exceptional qualities, but without any political role. Their duties consisted of guarding the Chancellery and presenting arms to visiting dignitaries.
It was from this minuscule group that a few years later would spring an army of a million soldiers. An army of unprecedented valor extending its call throughout Europe.
After Hitler was compelled to acknowledge the superiority of the army, he realized that the brass would never support his revolutionary social programs. It was an army of aristocrats.
Hitler was a man of the people, a man who succeeded in wiping out unemployment, a feat unsurpassed to this day. Within two years he gave work to six million Germans and got rid of rampant poverty. In five years the German worker doubled his income without inflation. Hundreds of thousands of beautiful homes were built for workers at minimal cost. Each home had a garden to grow flowers and vegetables. All the factories were provided with sport fields, swimming pools, and decent and attractive work areas.
For the first time, German workers had paid vacations. The Communists and capitalists had never offered paid vacations; this was Hitler’s creation. He organized the famous “Strength Through Joy” programs, which meant that workers could, at affordable prices, board passenger ships and visit scenic foreign lands.
All these social improvements did not please the establishment. Big business tycoons and international bankers were worried. But Hitler stood up to them. Business could make profits, but only if people were paid decently and allowed to live and work in dignity. People, not profits, came first.
This was only one of Hitler’s reforms. He initiated hundreds of others. He literally rebuilt Germany. In a few years more than five thousand miles of freeways were built. For the worker the affordable Volkswagen was created. Any worker could get this car for payment over time of five marks a week. It was unprecedented. Thanks to the freeways, workers for the first time could visit any part of Germany whenever they liked. The same programs applied to the farmers and the middle class.
Hitler realized that if his social reforms were to go forward and take root, he needed a powerful lever, one that commanded respect.
Hitler still did not confront the army, but skillfully started to build up the SS. He needed the SS because above all Hitler was a political man; to him war was the last resort. His aim was to convince people, to obtain their loyalty, particularly the younger generation. He knew that the Establishment-minded brass would oppose him at every turn.
In order not to alert the army, Hitler enlarged the SS into a force responsible for law and order. There was of course a German police force, but in that case as well Hitler was unsure of their loyalty. The 150,000 policemen had been appointed by the Weimar regime. Hitler needed the SS not only to detect and quash plots, but mostly to protect his reforms. As his initial Leibstandarte unit of 180 grew, other regiments were organized, such as the Deutschland and the Germania.
The army brass did everything to prevent SS recruitment. Hitler bypassed the obstacles by having the interior ministry and not the war ministry handle the recruiting. The army countered by discouraging recruitment. Privates were required to serve four years, non-commissioned officers twelve, and officers twenty-five years. Such restrictions, it was thought, would greatly discourage SS recruitment. In spite of the lengthy service requirements, thousands of young men, in fact, rushed to apply — more than could be accepted.
The young felt the SS was the only armed force that represented their own ideas. The new SS formations captivated public imagination. Clad in smart black uniforms, the SS attracted more and more young men. It took two years — 1933 to 1935 — and a constant battle of wits with the army to raise a force of 8,000 SS men.
At the time they were called just SS. It was not until 1940, after the French campaign, that it would officially be named “Waffen SS.” And 8,000 SS men did not go far in a country of 80 million people. Hitler had to devise yet another way to get around the army. He created the Totenkopf guard corps. They were really SS in disguise, but their official function was to guard the concentration camps.
What were these concentration camps? They were just work centers where intractable Communists were put to work. They were well treated because it was thought that sooner or later they would be converted to patriotism. There were two concentration camps with a total of three thousand inmates. Three thousand out of a total of six million card-carrying members of the Communist Party. That represents one per two thousand. Right until the war there were fewer than ten thousand inmates.
The young men who joined the SS were trained like no other army in the world. Military and academic instruction was intensive, but it was the physical training that was the most rigorous. They practiced sports with excellence. Each of them would have performed with distinction at the Olympic Games. The extraordinary physical endurance of the SS on the Russian front, which so amazed the world, was due to this intensive training.
There was also rigorous ideological training. They were taught to understand why they were fighting, and what kind of Germany was being resurrected. They were shown how Germany was being morally united through class reconciliation, and physically united through the return of the lost German homelands. They were made aware of their kinship with all the other Germans living in foreign lands — in Poland, Russia, and, and other parts of Europe. They were taught that all Germans represented an ethnic unity.
Young SS were educated in two military academies, one in Bad Tölz the other in Braunschweig. These academies were totally different than the grim barracks of the past. Combining aesthetics with the latest technology, they were located in the middle of hundreds of acres of beautiful countryside.
Hitler was opposed to any war, particularly in western Europe. He did not even conceive that the SS could participate in such a war. Above all the SS was a political force. Hitler regarded Western countries as individual cultures that could be federated but certainly not conquered. He felt that a conflict within the West would be a no-win civil war.
Hitler’s conception of Europe was thus far ahead of the views held by those neighboring countries. The mentality of 1914-1918, when small countries fought other small countries over bits of real estate, still prevailed in the Europe of 1939. Not so in the case of the Soviet Union, where internationalism replaced nationalism. The Communists never aimed at serving the interests of Russia. Communism does not limit itself to acquire chunks of territories, but aims at total world domination.
This was a dramatically new factor. Alone among the world’s leaders, Hitler saw Soviet Communism as a threat to all nations.
Hitler recalled vividly the havoc the Communists unleashed in Germany at the end of World War One. Particularly in Berlin and Bavaria the Communists, acting on foreign orders, organized a state within a state and almost took over. For Hitler, everything pointed east. The threat was Communism. Apart from his lack of interest in subjugating western Europe, Hitler was well aware he could not successfully wage war on two fronts.
Instead of letting Hitler fight Communism, the Allies at this point made the fateful decision to attack Hitler. The so-called Western Democracies also allied themselves with the Soviet Union for the purpose of encircling and destroying the new Germany.
The Treaty of Versailles had already amputated Germany on all sides. The imposed Treaty was also designed to keep the country in a state of permanent economic backwardness and military impotence. Adding to the pressure from all sides, the Allies ratified a string of treaties with Belgium, the newly created Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland and Rumania.
In the summer of 1939 the governments of Britain and France were secretly negotiating a full military alliance with the Soviet Union. The talks were held in Moscow, and the discussion minutes were signed by Marshal Zhukov.
I have these minutes in my possession. They are stupefying. In one report, the Soviets pledge to join with Britain and France in war against Germany. Upon ratification, the Soviet Union was to immediately provide Anglo-French forces with the support of 5500 combat planes, with a promise of back up support of the entire Soviet air force. Between 9,000 to 10,000 Soviet tanks would also be made available. In return, the Soviet Union demanded the Baltic States and free access to Poland. The plan called for an early joint attack.
At this stage Germany was still only minimally armed. The French negotiators realized that the 10,000 Soviet tanks would quickly destroy the 2,000 German tanks, but they did not foresee that the Soviets would be unlikely to stop at the French border. Likewise the British government was not prepared to halt a Soviet takeover of Europe.
Facing total encirclement Hitler decided once more to make his own peace with one or the other side of the Soviet-British partnership. He turned to the British and French governments and requested formal peace talks. His quest for peace was answered by an outpouring of insults and denunciations. The international press went on an unprecedented orgy of hate against Hitler. It is mind-boggling to re-read these newspapers today.
When Hitler made similar peace overtures to Moscow he was surprised to find the Soviets eager to sign a treaty with Germany. In fact, Stalin did not sign such a treaty for the purpose of peace. He signed to let Europe destroy itself in a war of attrition, while giving him the time he needed to build up his military strength.
Stalin’s real intent is revealed in the minutes of the Soviet High Command, also in my possession. Stalin states his intention to enter the war the moment Hitler and the Western powers have annihilated each other. Stalin had a great interest in marking time and letting others fight first. I have read his military plans, and I have seen how they were achieved. By 1941 Stalin’s ten thousand tanks had increased to 17,999, and the next year they would have been 32,000, ten times more than Germany’s. The Soviet air force would likewise have been ten to one in Stalin’s favor.
The very week Stalin signed the peace treaty with Hitler, he gave orders to build 96 air fields on the Western Soviet border, with 180 planned for the following year. His strategy was consistent: “The more the Western powers fight it out the weaker they will be. The longer I wait the stronger I get.” It was under these appalling circumstances that World War Two started — a war which was offered to the Soviets on a silver platter.
Aware of Stalin’s preparations, Hitler knew he would have to face Communism sooner rather than later. And to fight Communism he had to rely on totally loyal men, men who would fight for an ideology against another ideology. It had always been Hitler’s policy to oppose the ideology of class war with an ideology of class cooperation.
Hitler had observed that Marxist class war had not brought prosperity to the Russian people. Russian workers were poorly clothed, badly housed, and poorly fed. Goods are always in short supply, and even in Moscow housing was nightmarish. For Hitler the failure of class war clearly made class cooperation the only just alternative. To make it work Hitler saw to it that one class would not be allowed to abuse the other.
It is a fact that the newly rich classes emerging from the industrial revolution had enormously abused their privileges, and it was for this reason that the National Socialists were socialists.
National Socialism was a popular movement in the truest sense. The great majority of National Socialists were blue collar workers. Seventy percent of the Hitler Youth were children of blue collar workers. Hitler won elections because the great mass of workers was solidly behind him. Many wondered why the six million Communists who had voted against Hitler turned their back on Communism after he came to power in 1933. There is only one reason: they witnessed and experienced the benefits of class cooperation. Some say they were forced to change; it is not true. Like other loyal Germans they fought four years on the Russian front with distinction.
The workers never abandoned Hitler, but the upper classes did. Hitler spelled out his formula of class cooperation as the answer to Communism with these words: “Class cooperation means that capitalists will never again treat the workers as mere economic components. Money is but one part of our economic life. The workers are not just machines to whom one throws a pay packet every week. The real wealth of Germany is its workers.”
Hitler replaced gold with work as the foundation of the economy. National Socialism was the exact opposite of Communism. Extraordinary achievements followed Hitler’s election.
We always hear about Hitler and the camps, Hitler and the Jews, but we never hear about his immense social work. It was in large measure because of that social work that the international bankers and their servile press generated so much hatred against Hitler. It was obvious that a genuinely popular movement like National Socialism would collide with the selfish interests of high finance. Hitler made clear that the control of money did not convey the right of rapacious exploitation of an entire country, because there are also people living in the country, millions of them, and these people have the right to live with dignity and without want. What Hitler said and practiced won over the German youth. It was this social revolution that the SS felt compelled to secure throughout Germany, and, if need be, to defend with their lives.
The 1939 war in Western Europe defied all reason. It was a civil war among those who should have been united. It was a monstrous stupidity.
The young SS were trained to lead the new National Socialist revolution. In five or ten years they were to replace all those who had been put in office by the former regime.
But at the beginning of the war it was not possible for these young men to stay home. Along with other young fellow countrymen, they felt called to defend their country, and even to defend it better than others.
The war turned the SS from a home political force to a national army fighting abroad, and then to a supra-national army.
We are now at the beginning of the 1939 war in Poland, with its far reaching consequences. Could the war have been avoided? Emphatically yes!
The Danzig conflict was inconsequential. The Treaty of Versailles had separated the German city of Danzig from Germany and gave it to Poland against the wish of its citizens. This action was so outrageous that it had been condemned all over the world. A large section of Germany was sliced through the middle. To go from western Prussia to East Prussia one had to travel in a sealed train through Polish territory. The citizens of Danzig had voted 99 percent to have their city returned to Germany. Their right of self-determination had been consistently ignored.
However, the war in Poland started for reasons other than Danzig’s self-determination or even Poland’s.
Just a few months earlier, Poland had attacked Czechoslovakia at the same time Hitler had returned the Sudetenland to Germany. The Poles were ready to work with Hitler. Poland turned against Germany only because the British government did everything in its power to poison German-Polish relations.
Why? Much has to do with a longstanding inferiority complex British rulers have felt towards Europe. This complex has manifested itself in the British Establishment’s obsession in keeping Europe weak through wars and dissension.
At the time the British Empire controlled 500 million human beings outside of Europe, but somehow it was more preoccupied with its traditional hobby: sowing dissension in Europe. This policy of never allowing the emergence of a strong European country has been the British Establishment’s modus operandi for centuries.
Whether it was Charles the Fifth of Spain, Louis the Fourteenth or Napoleon of France, or William the Second of Germany, the British Establishment never tolerated any unifying power in Europe. Germany never wanted to meddle in British affairs. However, the British Establishment always made it a point to meddle in European affairs, particularly in Central Europe and the Balkans.
Hitler’s entry into Prague brought the British running to the fray. Prague and Bohemia had been part of Germany for centuries, and had always been within the German sphere of influence. British meddling in this area was totally unjustified.
For Germany the Prague regime represented a grave threat. Czech president Benes, Stalin’s servile satrap, had been ordered by his Kremlin masters to open his borders to the Communist armies at a moment’s notice. Prague was to be the Soviet springboard to Germany.
For Hitler, Prague was a watchtower to central Europe and an advance post to delay a Soviet invasion. There were also Prague’s historic economic ties with Germany. Germany has always had economic links with Central Europe. Rumania, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Hungary and Yugoslavia [Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia] have had long-standing, mutually complimentary economic relations with Germany, which have continued to this day.
Hitler’s European economic policy was based on common sense and realism. And it was his emerging central European common market, rather than concern for Czech freedom, that the British Establishment could not tolerate.
All the same, English people felt great admiration for Hitler. I remember when [former British prime minister] Lloyd George addressed the German press outside Hitler’s home, where he had just been a guest. He stated: “You can thank God you have such a wonderful man as your leader.” Lloyd George, the enemy of Germany during World War One, said that!
King Edward the Eighth of England, who had just abdicated and was now the Duke of Windsor, also came to visit Hitler at his Berchtesgaden home, accompanied by his wife. When they returned home, the Duke sent a wire to Hitler. It read: “What a wonderful day we have spent with your Excellency. Unforgettable!” And reflecting what many English people had already learned, the Duke remarked on how well off German workers were. The Duke was telling the truth. The German worker earned twice as much, without inflation, as he did before Hitler, and consequently his standard of living was high.
Even Churchill, the most fanatic German-hater of them all, had in 1938, a year before the war, wrote in the London Times: “I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations.”
Friend or foe, all acknowledged that Hitler was a man of exceptional genius. His achievements were the envy of the world. In five short years he rebuilt a bankrupt nation burdened with millions of unemployed into the strongest economic power in Europe. It was so strong that for six years his geographically small country was able to withstand a war against world powers.
Churchill acknowledged that no one in the world could match such a feat. Just before the outbreak of war he stated that no doubt a peace formula could be worked out with Hitler. But Churchill received other instructions. The Establishment, fearful that Hitler’s successes in Germany could spread to other countries, was determined to destroy him. It created hatred against Germany across Europe by stirring old grievances. It also exploited the envy some Europeans felt toward Germany.
The Germans’ high birth rate had made Germany the most populous country in western Europe. In science and technology Germany was ahead of both France and Britain. Hitler had built Germany into an economic powerhouse. That was Hitler’s crime, and the British Establishment opted to destroy Hitler and Germany by any means.
The British manipulated the Polish government against Germany. The Poles themselves were more than willing to live in peace with the Germans. Instead, the unfortunate Poles were railroaded into war by the British. One must not forget that one and a half million [ethnic] Germans lived in Poland at the time, at great benefit to the Polish economy.
In January 1939 Hitler had proposed to Beck, the Polish foreign minister, a compromise to solve the Danzig issue: The Danzigers’ wish to return to Germany would be honored, and Poland would continue to have free port access and facilities, guaranteed by treaty.
The prevailing notion of the day that every country must have a sea port really does not make sense. Switzerland, Hungary and other countries with no sea ports manage quite well. Hitler’s proposals were based on the principles of self-determination and reciprocity. Even Churchill admitted that such a solution could dispose of the Danzig problem. This admission, however, did not prevent Britain from sending an ultimatum to Germany: withdrawal from Poland, or war. (The world has seen what happened when Israel invaded Lebanon [in 1982]. Heavily populated cities like Tyre and Sidon were destroyed, and so was West Beirut. Everybody called for Israel’s withdrawal, but no one declared war on Israel when it refused to budge.)
With a little patience a peaceful solution regarding Danzig could certainly have been arranged. Instead, the international press unleashed a massive campaign of outright lies and distortions against Hitler. His proposals were willfully misrepresented by a relentless press onslaught.
Of all the crimes of World War Two, one never hears about the wholesale massacres that occurred in Poland just before the war. I have detailed reports in my files documenting the mass slaughter of defenseless Germans in Poland. Thousands of German men, women and children were massacred in the most horrendous fashion by media-enraged mobs. The photographs of these massacres are too sickening to look at. Hitler decided to halt the slaughter, and he rushed to the rescue.
The Polish campaign revealed another startling characteristic of this man: his rare military genius. All the successful military campaigns of the Third Reich were thought out and directed by Hitler personally, not the General Staff. He also inspired a number of generals who became his most able executives in later campaigns.
In regard to the Polish campaign the General Staff had planned an offensive along the Baltic coastline to take Danzig, a plan that would been doomed to failure. Instead, Hitler invented the Blitzkrieg or “lightning war” technique, and in no time captured Warsaw. SS soldiers appeared for the first time on the Polish front, and their performance amazed the world.
The brief campaign saw three SS regiments in action: The Leibstandarte, the Deutschland and the Germania. There was also an SS motorbike battalion, a corps of engineers, and a transmission unit. In all it was a comprehensive but small force of about 25,000 men. After bolting out of Silesia, Sepp Dietrich and his Leibstandarte alone split Poland in half within days. With fewer than 3,000 men he defeated a Polish force of 15,000, and took 10,000 prisoners. Such victories were not achieved without loss.
The second campaign in France was also swift. The British-French forces had rushed to Holland and Belgium to check the German advance, but they were outwitted and outflanked in Sedan. It was basically all over in a matter of days.
The story goes that Hitler had nothing to do with this operation; that it was all the work of General von Manstein. That is entirely false. Von Manstein had indeed conceived the idea, but when he submitted it to the General Staff, he was reprimanded, demoted and retired to Dresden. The general staff had not brought this particular incident to Hitler’s attention. On his own, Hitler organized a campaign along the same lines, and routed the British-French forces. It was not until March 1940 that von Manstein came into contact with Hitler.
Hitler also planned the Balkan and Russian campaigns. On the rare occasions where Hitler allowed the General Staff to have their way, such as in Kursk, the battle was lost.
In the 1939 Polish campaign Hitler did not rely on military textbook theories devised 50 years earlier, as advocated by the general staff, but on his own plan of swift, pincer-like encirclement. In eight days the Polish war was won, in spite of the fact that Poland is as large as France.
It is hard to imagine, but out of a total of some one million SS men, 352,000 were killed in action, with 50,000 more missing. It is a grim figure! Four hundred thousand of the finest young men in Europe! Without hesitation they sacrificed themselves for their beliefs. They knew they had to set an example. They were the first on the front line in defending their country and their ideals.
In victory or defeat the Waffen SS always sought to be the best representatives of their people. The SS was a democratic expression of power: people joining together of their own free will. The ballot box is not the only expression of such consent; there is also consent of the heart and the mind through action. The men of the Waffen SS made a plebiscite of deeds. And the German people, proud of them, gave them their respect and their love. Such high motivation made the volunteers of the Waffen SS the best fighters in the world.
The SS proved themselves in action. They were not empty talking politicians, but men who pledged their lives, and, in an extraordinary expression of comradeship, were the first to fight. This comradeship was one of the most distinctive characteristics of the SS: the SS leader was the comrade of the others.
It was on the front lines that the results of the SS physical training were really apparent. SS officers had the same rigorous training as the regular soldiers. Officers and privates competed in the same sports events, and only the best man won, regardless of rank. This created a real brotherhood that energized the entire Waffen SS. Only the teamwork of free men, bonded by a higher ideal, could unite Europe. Look at the Common Market of today [and its successor, the European Union]. It is a failure. There is no unifying ideal. Everything is based on haggling over the price of tomatoes, steel, coal or booze. Fruitful unions are based on something higher than that.
A relationship of equality and mutual respect between soldiers and officers was always in place. Half of all division commanders were killed in action. Half! There is not another army in the world where that happened. The SS officer always led his troops to battle. I was engaged in 75 hand-to-hand combat operations, because as an SS officer I had to be the first to meet the enemy. SS soldiers were not sent to the slaughter by behind-the-line commanders; they followed their officers with passionate loyalty. Every SS commander knew and taught all his men, and often received unexpected answers.
After breaking out of the Cherkassy siege, I talked with all my soldiers one-by-one; there were thousands at the time. For two weeks, every day from dawn to dusk, I asked them questions, and heard their replies. Sometimes it happens that soldiers who brag a little receive medals, while heroic men who keep quiet miss out. I talked to all of them because I wanted to know first-hand what had happened, and what they had done. To be just, I had to know the truth.
It was on that occasion that two of my soldiers suddenly pulled out their identity cards of the Belgian resistance movement. They told me that they had been sent to kill me. At the front line, it is very simple to shoot someone in the back. But the extraordinary SS team spirit had won them over. By setting an example, SS officers could expect the loyalty of their men.
The life expectancy of an SS officer at the front was three months. On one Monday while in Estonia I received ten new young officers from the Bad Tölz academy; by Thursday only one was still alive, and he was wounded.
In conventional armies, officers talked at the men as a superior to an inferior, and seldom as brothers in combat or as brothers in ideology.
By 1939 the SS had earned general admiration and respect. This gave Hitler the opportunity to call for an increase in their numbers. Instead of regiments, there would be three divisions.
Again, the army brass laid down draconian recruiting conditions: young men could join the SS only for a minimum of four years of combat duty. The brass felt that no one would take such a risk. Again, they guessed wrong. In the month of February 1940 alone, 49,000 joined the SS. From 25,000 in September 1939, there would be 150,000 in May 1940. Thus, from 180 to 8,000 to 25,000 to 150,000, and eventually nearly one million men — all this against all odds.
Hitler had no interest whatsoever in getting involved in a conflict with France. It was a war that was forced on him.
The 150,000 SS had to serve under the Army, and they were given the most dangerous and difficult missions, despite the fact that they were supplied with inferior weapons and equipment. In 1940 the Leibstandarte was only provided with a few scouting tanks. The SS were given wheels, and that’s all. But with trucks, motorbikes, and various other means they were able to perform amazing feats.
The Leibstandarte and Der Führer regiments were sent to Holland under the leadership of Sepp Dietrich. They had to cross Dutch waterways. The Luftwaffe had dropped paratroopers to hold the bridges 120 miles deep in Dutch territory, and it was vital for the SS to reach these bridges with the greatest speed. The Leibstandarte achieved an unprecedented feat: advancing 75 kilometers in a single day, and advancing 215 kilometers in just four days. It was unheard of at the time, and the world was staggered. In one day the SS crossed all the Dutch canals on flimsy rubber rafts. Here again, SS losses were heavy. But thanks to their heroism and speed, the German forces reached Rotterdam in three days. The paratroopers risked being wiped out if the SS had not accomplished their lightning-thrust.
In Belgium, the SS regiment Der Führer faced the French army head on, which after falling in the Sedan trap, had rushed toward Breda, Holland. There, one would see for the first time a small motivated military force route a large national army. It took one SS regiment and a number of German troops to throw the whole French Army off balance and drive it back from Breda to Antwerp, Belgium, and northern France.
The Leibstandarte and Der Führer regiments jointly advanced on the large Zeeland islands, between the Scheldt and Rhine rivers. In a few days they were brought under control.
In no time the Leibstandarte then crossed Belgium and northern France. The second major combat engagement of SS regiments was in concert with the regular army tank division. These units were under the command of General Rommel and General Guderian. They spearheaded a thrust toward the North Sea.
Sepp Dietrich and his troops then crossed the French canals, but were pinned down by the enemy in a mud field, just managing to avoid extermination. But despite the loss of many soldiers, officers and one battalion commander, all killed in action, the Germans reached Dunkirk.
Hitler was very proud of them.
The following week, Hitler deployed them along the Somme river, from where they poured out across France. Here again, the SS would prove itself to be the best fighting force in the world. Sepp Dietrich and the Second Division of the SS, Totenkopf, advanced so far so fast that for three days they lost contact with the rest of the army. They found themselves in Lyon, a French city they were later obliged to vacate after the signing of the French-German armistice. Sepp Dietrich and a handful of SS men on trucks had achieved the impossible.
The SS regiment Der Führer spearheaded the Maginot Line breakthrough. Everyone had said that the Line was impenetrable. The war in France was over. Hitler had the three SS divisions march through Paris. Berlin also honored these heroes. But the regular Army was so jealous that it would not cite a single SS man for valor or bravery. It was Hitler himself who, in addressing the German Reichstag, solemnly paid tribute to the heroism of the SS. It was on this occasion that he officially recognized the Waffen SS name.
This was more than a mere change of name. The Waffen SS became “Germanic,” as volunteers were accepted from all Germanic countries. This was based on an awareness that the peoples of northwestern Europe were closely related to them, and that the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, and the Flemish all belonged to the same Germanic family. These Germanic people were themselves very much impressed by the SS, and so, by the way, were the French.
The people of western Europe had marveled at this extraordinary German force with a style unlike any other: if two SS scouts reached a town on motorbike ahead of everybody else, they would — before presenting themselves to the local authorities — first clean themselves up so they would be of impeccable appearance. People could not help but be impressed.
The admiration felt by young Europeans of Germanic stock for the SS was very natural. Thousands of young men from Norway, Denmark, Flanders, and Holland were awed with admiration. They felt irresistibly drawn to the SS. It was not Europe, but solidarity with their own Germanic race that so deeply stirred their souls. They identified with the victorious Germans. To them, Hitler was the most exceptional man ever seen. Hitler understood them, and had the remarkable idea to open the doors of the SS to them. It was quite risky. No one had ever thought of this before. Prior to Hitler, German imperialism consisted only of peddling goods to other countries, without any thought of creating a “community” ideology — a common ideal with its neighbors.
Suddenly, instead of peddling and haggling, here was a man who offered a glorious ideal: an enthralling social justice, for which they all had yearned for years. A broad New Order, instead of the formless cosmopolitanism of the pre-war so-called “democracies.” The response to Hitler’s appeal was overwhelming. Legions from Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Flanders were formed. Thousands of young men now wore the SS uniform. For them Hitler specifically created the famous Viking division, one that was destined to become one of the most formidable of the Waffen SS.
The regular army was still doing everything it could to discourage men in Germany from joining the SS. It acted as though the SS did not exist. Against this background of obstructionism at home, it was all the more understandable that the SS would welcome men from outside Germany.
The ethnic Germans living abroad provided a rich source of volunteers. There were millions of these Germans in Hungary, Rumania and across Europe. The victories of the Third Reich made them proud of belonging to the German family. Hitler welcomed them home. He saw them as a source of elite SS men as well as an important factor in unifying all Germans ideologically.
Here again, the enthusiastic response was amazing. From across Europe some 300,000 volunteers of German ancestry would join, including 54,000 from Rumania alone. In the context of that era, those were remarkable figures. There were numerous problems to overcome. For instance, most Germanic volunteers did not speak German. Their ancestors had settled in foreign lands many years earlier, so many of these men spoke different languages, and had different manners and needs.
How to find officers who could speak all these languages? How to coordinate such a disparate lot? Mastering these problems was a miracle of the Waffen SS assimilation program. This homecoming of the separated “tribes” was regarded by the Waffen SS as a foundation for real European unity. The 300,000 Germanic volunteers were welcomed by the SS as brothers, and they reciprocated by being as dedicated, loyal and heroic as the Reich German SS men.
Within the year, everything had changed for the Waffen SS. The barracks were full, the academies were full. The strictest admission standards and requirements equally applied for the Germanic volunteers as well. They had to be the best in every way, both physically and mentally. They had to be the best of the Germanic race.
Third Reich racialism has been deliberately distorted. It was never an anti-“other” racialism. It was a pro-German racialism. It was concerned with making the German race strong and healthy in every way. Hitler was not interested in having millions of degenerates. Today one finds rampant alcohol and drug addiction everywhere. Hitler cared that German families be healthy, and cared that they raise healthy children for the renewal of a healthy nation. German racialism meant re-discovering the creative values of their own race, re-discovering their culture. It was a striving for excellence, a noble idea. National Socialist racialism was not against other races, it was for its own race. It aimed at defending and improving its own race, and wished that all other races would do the same for themselves.
That was demonstrated when the Waffen SS enlarged its ranks to include 60,000 Muslims. The Waffen SS respected their way of life, their customs, and their religious beliefs. Each Muslim SS battalion had an imam, and each company had a mullah. It was our common wish that their qualities found their highest expression. That was our racialism. I was present when each of my Muslim comrades received a New Year’s gift from Hitler. It was a pendant with a small Koran. Hitler was honoring them with this small symbolic gift, one that honored an important aspect of their lives and traditions. National Socialist racialism was loyal to the German race and totally respected all other races.
At this point, one hears: “What about the anti-Jewish racism?” One can answer: “What about Jewish anti-Gentilism?”
It has been the misfortune of the Jewish race that it could never get along with any other race. It is an unusual historical fact and phenomenon. I say this without passion: When one studies the history of the Jewish people and their behavior across the centuries, one observes that always — at all times, and at all places — they have been hated. They were hated in ancient Egypt. They were hated in ancient Greece. They were hated in Roman times to such a degree that 3,000 of them were deported to Sardinia. (That was the first forced deportation of Jews.) They were hated in Spain, in France, in England (where they were banned for centuries), and in Germany. The conscientious Jewish author Bernard Lazare wrote a very interesting book on Anti-Semitism, in which he wrote: “We Jews should ask ourselves a question: Why are we always hated everywhere? It is not because of our persecutors, all of different times and places. It is because there is something within us that is very unlikeable.” What is unlikeable is that the Jews have always wanted to live as a privileged class, divinely-chosen and beyond scrutiny. This attitude has made them unlikeable everywhere.
The Jewish race is therefore a unique case. Hitler had no intention of destroying it. He wanted the Jews to find their own identity in their own environment, but not to the detriment of others. The fight — if we can call it that — of National Socialism against the Jews was purely limited to one objective: that the Jews leave Germany in peace. It was planned to give them a country of their own, outside Germany. Madagascar was contemplated, but the plans were dropped when the United States entered the war. In the meanwhile, Hitler thought of letting the Jews live in their own traditional ghettos. They would have their own administration, they would run their own affairs, and would live as they wanted. They had their own police, their own tramways, their own flag, and their own businesses. With regard to other races, they were all welcome in Germany as guests, but not as privileged occupants.
In one year the Waffen SS had gathered a large number of Germanic men from northern Europe, and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans or Volksdeutsche from outside Germany, to make the Germanic SS. It was then that the conflict between Communism and National Socialism burst into the open. The conflict had always existed. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had clearly laid out his objective: “to eliminate the world threat of Communism,” and, incidentally, to claim some land in Eastern Europe.
This eastward expansionism created much outrage: How could the Germans claim land in Russia? To this one can answer: How could the Americans claim native Indian lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific? How could France claim southern Flanders, and Roussillon from Spain? And what of Britain? And what of so many other countries that have claimed, conquered and settled in other territories? Somehow it was all right for all those countries to settle foreign lands, but not for Germany. Personally, I have always vigorously defended the Russians, and I finally did succeed in convincing Hitler that Germans had to live with Russians as partners, and not as conquerors. Before achieving this partnership, there was first the matter of wiping out Communism. During the [21 months of the] Soviet-German non-aggression treaty, Hitler was trying to gain time, but the Soviets were intensifying their acts of aggression from Estonia to Bukovina.
In this regard, extracts from Soviet documents are most revealing. Marshal Voroshilov himself said: “We now have the time to prepare ourselves to be the executioner of the capitalist world while it is agonizing. We must, however, be cautious. The Germans must not have any inkling that we are preparing to stab them in the back while they are busy fighting the French. Otherwise, they could change their general plan, and attack us.”
In the same record, Marshal Shaposhnikov [?] wrote: “The coexistence between Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union is only temporary. We will not make it last very long.” Marshal Timoshenko, for his part, did not want to be so hasty: “Let us not forget that our war material from our Siberian factories will not be delivered until the fall.” This was written at the beginning of 1941, and the material was only to be delivered in the fall. A Soviet war industry Commissariat report stated: We will not be in full production until 1942. Marshal Zhukov made this extraordinary admission: “Hitler is in a hurry to invade us; he has good reasons for it.”
Indeed, Hitler had good reason to quickly attack Russia — he realized that he would be wiped out if he did not. Zhukov added: “We need a few more months to rectify many of our defects before the end of 1941. We need 18 months to complete the modernization of our forces.”
The orders are quite precise. At the fourth session of the Supreme Soviet in 1939, it was decreed that Army officers would serve three years, regular soldiers would serve four years, and Navy personnel, five years. All these decisions were made less than a month after the Soviets signed the non-aggression treaty with Germany.
Thus the Soviets, pledged to peace, were frantically preparing for war. More than 2,500 new concrete fortifications were built between 1939 and 1940; 160 divisions were made combat-ready; 60 tank divisions were on full alert. The Germans only had ten panzer tank divisions. In 1941, the Soviets had 17,000 tanks, and by 1942 they had 32,000. They had 92,578 artillery pieces. And their 17,545 combat planes in 1940 greatly outnumbered the German air force.
With such war preparations underway, it is easy to understand that Hitler was left with only one option: invade the Soviet Union immediately, or face annihilation.
Hitler’s Russian campaign was the “last chance” campaign. Hitler did not go into Russia with any great optimism. He later told me: “When I entered Russia, I was like a man facing a shut door. I knew I had to crash through it, but without knowing what was behind it.” Hitler was right. He knew the Soviets were strong, but above all he knew they were going to be a lot stronger. The only time Hitler had a respite was in 1941. The British had not yet succeeded in expanding the war. Hitler, who never wanted war with Britain, still tried for peace. He invited me to spend a week at his home. He wanted to discuss the whole situation and hear what I had to say about it. He spoke very simply and clearly. The atmosphere was informal and relaxed. He made you feel at home, because he really enjoyed being hospitable. He buttered pieces of toast in a leisurely fashion, and passed them around, and although he did not drink, after each meal he went to get a bottle of champagne because he knew that I enjoyed finishing with a glass of it. All without fuss and with genuine friendliness. It was part of his genius that he was also a man of simple ways, without the slightest affection, and a man of great humility. We talked about England. I asked him bluntly: “Why on earth didn’t you finish off the British at Dunkirk? Everyone knew you could have wiped them out.” He answered: “Yes, I withheld my troops and let the British escape back to England. The humiliation of such a defeat would have made it difficult to try for peace with them afterwards.”
At the same time, Hitler told me he did not want to dispel the Soviet belief that he was going to invade England. He mentioned that he even had small Anglo-German dictionaries distributed to his troops in Poland. The Soviet spies there duly reported to the Kremlin that Germany’s presence in Poland was a bluff, and that the soldiers were about to be sent for action against Britain.
On June 22, 1941, it was Russia and not England that Germany invaded. The initial victories were swift but costly. I lived the epic struggle of the Russian front. It was a tragic epic; it was also martyrdom. The endless thousands of miles of the Russian steppes were overwhelming. We had to reach the Caucasus by foot, always under extreme conditions. In the summer we often walked knee-deep in mud, and in winter there were freezing below-zero temperatures. But for a matter of a few days, Hitler would have won the war in Russia in 1941. Before the Battle of Moscow, he had largely succeeded in defeating the Soviet Army, and had taken enormous numbers of prisoners.
General Guderian’s panzer group, which had encircled nearly a million Soviet troops near Kiev, had reached Moscow right up to the city’s tramway lines. It was then that suddenly an unbelievable freeze struck: 40, 42, 50 degrees Celsius below zero! This meant not only that men were freezing, but also that equipment froze on the spot. No tanks could move. Yesterday’s mud had frozen to a solid block of ice, half a meter high, icing up the tank treads.
In 24 hours all of our tactical options had been reversed. It was then that masses of Siberian troops brought back from the Russian Far East were thrown against the Germans. Those few fateful days of ice, which made the difference between victory and defeat, were due to the delay caused by the Italian campaign in Greece in the fall of 1940.
Mussolini was envious of Hitler’s successes. It was a deep and silent jealousy. I was a friend of Mussolini. I knew him well. He was a remarkable man, but Europe was not of great concern to him. He did not like to be a spectator, watching Hitler winning everywhere. He felt compelled to do something himself, and quickly. Impulsively, he launched a senseless offensive against Greece.
His troops were immediately halted. But it gave the British an excuse to invade Greece, which until then had not been involved in the war. From Greece the British could bomb the Rumanian oil wells, which were vital to Germany’s war effort. Greece could also be used to cut off German troops on their way to Russia. Hitler was forced to quash the threat preemptively. He had to waste five weeks in the Balkans. His victories there were an incredible logistical achievement, but they delayed the start of the Russian campaign by five critical weeks.
If Hitler had been able to start the campaign on time, as planned, he would have entered Moscow five weeks earlier, in the fall when the ground was still dry. The war would have been over, and the Soviet Union would have been a thing of the past. The combination of the sudden freeze and the arrival of fresh Siberian troops spread panic among some of the old army generals. They wanted to retreat 200 miles back from Moscow. It is hard to imagine such an insane plan! The freeze affected Russia equally, from West to East, and to retreat 200 miles in the open steppe would only have made things worse. At the time I was commanding my troops in the Ukraine, where it was 42 degrees Celsius below zero.
Such a retreat would have meant abandoning all the heavy artillery, as well as assault guns and tanks, which were stuck in the ice. It would also have meant exposing half a million men to heavy Soviet sniping. In fact, it would have meant condemning them to certain death. One need only recall Napoleon’s retreat in October 1812. He reached the Berezina River in November, and by mid-December all the French troops had left Russia. It was cold enough, but it was not a winter campaign.
Can one imagine in 1941 half a million Germans fighting howling snowstorms, cut off from supplies, attacked from all sides by tens of thousands of Cossacks? I have faced charging Cossacks, and I know that only the utmost, superior firepower will stop them. In order to counter such an insane retreat, Hitler had to fire more than 30 generals within a few days.
It was then that he called on the Waffen SS to fill in the gap and boost morale. Immediately the SS held fast on the Moscow front. Right through the war the Waffen SS never retreated. They would rather die than retreat. One cannot forget the figures. During the 1941 winter, the Waffen SS lost 43,000 men in front of Moscow. The regiment Der Führer fought almost literally to the last man. Only 35 men survived out of the entire regiment. The Der Führer men stood fast, and no Soviet troops got through. They tried to bypass the SS in the snow. (That is how the famous Russian General Vlasov was captured by the Totenkopf SS division.) Without their heroism, Germany would have been annihilated by December 1941.
Hitler would never forget it: he gauged the willpower that the Waffen SS had displayed in front of Moscow. They had shown character and guts. And that is what Hitler admired most of all: guts. For him, it was not enough to have intelligent or clever associates. Such people can often fall to pieces, as happened with General Paulus during the following winter at the battle of Stalingrad.
Hitler knew that only sheer energy and guts, the refusal to surrender, and the will to hang tough against all odds would win the war.
The blizzards of the Russian steppes had shown how the best army in the world, the German army, with thousands of highly trained officers and millions of highly disciplined men, was just not enough. Hitler realized that they could be beaten, that something else was needed, and that only unshakable faith in a high ideal could overcome the situation. The Waffen SS had this ideal, and from then on Hitler used them at full capacity.
From all parts of Europe volunteers rushed to help their German brothers. It was then that the third great Waffen SS was born. First there was the German, then the Germanic, and finally the European Waffen SS. To defend Western culture and civilization, hundreds of thousands of young men would volunteer. They joined with full knowledge that the SS incurred the highest death tolls. More than 250,000 out of one million would die in action. For them, the Waffen SS was, despite all the individual deaths, the birth of a new Europe.
The young European volunteers observed two things: first, that Hitler was the only leader who was capable of building Europe, and secondly that Hitler, and Hitler alone, could defeat the world threat of Communism.
For the men of this SS, the Europe of petty jealousies, jingoism, border disputes, and economic rivalries was of no interest. It was petty and demeaning. That Europe was no longer valid for them. At the same time, the men of the European SS, as much as they admired Hitler and the German people, did not want to become Germans. They were men of their own people, and Europe was the gathering of the various peoples of the continent. European unity was to be achieved through harmony, not domination of one over the others.
I discussed these issues at length with both Hitler and Himmler. Like all men of genius, Hitler had grown beyond the national stage. Napoleon was first a Corsican, then a Frenchman, then a European, and then a singularly universal man. Likewise Hitler had been an Austrian, then a German, then a greater German, then Germanic, and then he had seen and grasped the magnitude of building Europe.
The Waffen SS had a solemn duty, after the defeat of Communism, to focus all their efforts and strength to build a united Europe.
Before being joined to the Waffen SS, our Wallonian unit had known very difficult ordeals. We had gone to the Eastern front first as adjunct units to the German army, but during the Battle of Stalingrad we had seen that Europe was critically endangered. Great common effort was imperative. One night I had an eight-hour-long debate with Hitler and Himmler on the status of non-German Europeans within the new Europe.
We now expected to be treated as equals fighting for a common cause. Hitler understood fully, and from then on we [of the Légion Wallonie] had our own flag, our own officers, our own language, and our own religion. We had a totally equal status.
I was the first one to have Catholic chaplains in the Waffen SS. Later chaplains of all denominations were available to all those who wanted them. The Muslim SS division had its own mullahs, and the French even had a bishop. We were confident that, with Hitler, Europeans would be federated as equals. We felt that, in this critical hour, the best way to be deserving of our place as equals was to defend Europe just as well as our German comrades.
For Hitler what mattered above all was courage. He created a new chivalry. Those who earned the order of the Knight’s Cross, the Ritterkreuz, were indeed the new knights. They earned this nobility of courage. And after the end of the war, each of our units returning home would be the force that would protect the people’s rights in our respective countries. All the SS understood that European unity meant the whole of Europe, even Russia.
There had been a great lack of knowledge among many Germans regarding the Russians. Many believed that the Russians were all Communists, while in fact Russian representation in the Communist hierarchy was unimportant. They also believed that the Russians were diametrically different than the Europeans. Yet, they have similar familial structures, an ancient civilization, deep religious faith, and traditions which are not unlike those of other European countries.
The SS saw the new Europe formed of three great components: central Europe as the power house of Europe, western Europe as the cultural heart of Europe, and eastern Europe as the potential of Europe. Thus the Europe envisioned by the SS was alive and real. Its six hundred million inhabitants would live from the North Sea to Vladivostok. It was in this span of 8,000 miles that Europe could achieve its destiny. It would be a space for young people to start new lives. This Europe would be the beacon of the world. It would be a remarkable racial ensemble. An ancient civilization, a spiritual force, and the most advanced technological and scientific complex. The SS prepared for the high destiny of Europe.
Compare these aims, these ideals, with those of the “Allies.” The Roosevelts and the Churchills sold Europe out at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam. They cravenly capitulated to the Soviets. They delivered half of the European continent to Communist slavery. They let the rest of Europe disintegrate morally, without any ideal to sustain it. The SS knew what they wanted: the Europe of ideals would be the salvation for all.
This faith in higher ideals inspired four hundred thousand German SS men, three hundred thousand Volksdeutsche or Germanic SS, and three hundred thousand other European SS. Volunteers all, one million builders of Europe.
The ranks of the SS grew proportionately with the expansion of the war in Russia. The nearer Germany was to defeat the more volunteers arrived at the front. This was phenomenal; eight days before the final defeat I saw hundreds of young men join the SS on the front. Right to the end they knew they had to do the impossible to stop the enemy.
So from the 180-strong Leibstandarte in 1933 to the SS regiments before 1939, to the three regiments in Poland, to the three divisions in France, to the six divisions at the beginning of the Russian war, to the 38 divisions in 1944, the Waffen SS reached 50 divisions in 1945. The more SS men fell, the more others rushed to replace them. They had faith and stood firm to the extreme limit. The exact opposite happened in January 1943 at Stalingrad. The defeat there was decided by a man without courage. He was not capable of facing danger with determination, of saying unequivocally: I will not surrender; I will stand fast until I win. He was morally and physically gutless, and he lost.
A year later the SS Viking and Wallonia divisions were encircled in the same way at Cherkassy. With the disaster of Stalingrad fresh in the minds of our soldiers, they could easily have been prone to demoralization. On top of it, I was down with a deep side wound and a 102 degree F temperature. As commander of the SS Wallonia forces, I knew that all this was not conducive to high morale. I got up, and for 17 days I led charge after charge to break the blockade, engaged in numerous hand-to-hand combats, and was wounded four times — but I never stopped fighting. All my men did just as much, and more. The siege was broken by sheer SS guts and spirit.
After Stalingrad, when many thought that all was lost, and when the Soviet forces poured across the Ukraine, the Waffen SS stopped them dead in their tracks. They re-took Kharkov and inflicted a severe defeat on the Soviet army. This was a pattern: again and again the SS would turn reverses into victories.
The same fearless energy was also present in Normandy. General Patton called them “the proud SS divisions.” The SS was the backbone of resistance in Normandy. As Eisenhower observed, “the SS fought as usual to the last man.”
If the Waffen SS had not existed, Europe would have been overrun entirely by the Soviets by 1944. They would have reached Paris long before the Americans. The Waffen SS heroism stopped the Soviet juggernaut at Moscow, Kharkov, Cherkassy, and Tarnopol. The Soviets lost more than twelve months. Without SS resistance the Soviets would have been in Normandy before Eisenhower. The people showed deep gratitude to the young men who sacrificed their lives. Not since the great religious orders of the Middle Ages had there been such selfless idealism and heroism. In this century of materialism, the SS stands out as a shining beacon of spirituality.
I have no doubt whatsoever that the sacrifices and incredible feats of the Waffen SS will one day have their own epic poets like Schiller. Greatness in adversity is the distinction of the SS.
After the war a curtain of silence fell on the Waffen SS. But now more and more young people somehow know of its existence and of its achievements. The fame is growing, and the young demand to know more. In one hundred years almost everything will be forgotten, but the greatness and the heroism of the Waffen SS will be remembered. It is the reward of an epic.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1982-83 (Vol. 3, No. 4). This essay by Leon Degrelle (1906-1994) was first presented at the Fourth IHR Conference in Chicago (Sept. 1982). In October 2015 the introduction text was revised, and the main text was edited for clarity and to eliminate typos and errors.
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Source: Institute for Historical Review
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