It is an indisputable fact that the Schutzstaffel was a highly complex organization (likely the most complex in human history). It is also a fact that the “professional” historians of the Third Reich (or any other historians for that matter) are not exactly proficient in systems analysis (to put it mildly).
Hence, it is no surprise at all that so far no one has provided a satisfactory answer to a fundamental question: “What Exactly Was the SS?”
Actually, it is not that difficult to produce the true and correct answer to this question – you just need to look at the SS (and its history) in the right way (i.e. from the right angle).
First of all, it is necessary to acknowledge a simple fundamental fact: the SS as we know it was the creation, the offspring, the brainchild of but one ruthlessly ambitious idealist – and one of the most brilliant and successful (not necessarily in the positive sense) “organizational architects” and “organizational engineers” of the XX century (if not the whole modern human history). Heinrich Luitpold Himmler. A genius, actually. A dark genius, sure – but still a very real genius.
From the day he took command of this organization in 1929 (when it was still a small paramilitary force of a not exactly powerful political party – yet), Himmler was the SS and the SS was Himmler.
It is also evident that the growth and development of the Schutzstaffel (in terms of size, structure, functions, etc.) not only became inseparably bound up with the career of its Reichsführer, but was actually driven by the latter.
Second, to understand what exactly SS was, we must look at the structure and the functions of this “Black Order” not forward – from the moment of its establishment in 1925 – when it was a very small (and even unpaid!) personal for a minor (and thus at the time insignificant) politician of a regional caliber mostly, but in the exactly opposite direction.
In other words, from mid-1944, when it became a mighty political, economic and paramilitary/security force that all but dominated the political, administrative (i.e. government), professional and even cultural spheres of the Third Reich. The most powerful empire mainland Europe has ever seen (although the leaders of its archenemy – the mighty Soviet Union would most likely disagree).
When you look at the Schutzstaffel from these two all-important perspectives, you will immediately see that the SS was… a tool. An extremely, enormously powerful tool that Heinrich Himmler essentially created (starting with a genuinely insignificant embryo) and highly skillfully used to achieve his incredibly ambitious (to put it mildly) political and ideological objectives (he was a diehard idealist, after all).
I will cover these objectives in the appropriate detail in the next section and now I will only acknowledge another irrefutable fact – that in addition to being Himmler’s tool, the SS had a number of “other faces” (a very common feature for any complex organization/system).
First, the SS became the “New Elite” of Germany (and the “egalitarian elite” to boot – something unheard of in human history before that). The elite that (1) was accepted as such by just about everyone in the Third Reich – from the very bottom to the very top of the “social ladder”; and (2) created almost single-handedly by one individual. Heinrich Himmler. Not a small feat, to put it mildly – and definitely the accomplishment of a genius, if you ask me.
In Nazi Germany, individuals in all walks of life, from farmers, clerks, workers and soldiers to academics and even members of the aristocracy (i.e. the “Old Elite”), flocked in droves to join the SS. And not only for “traditional” (and primitive) ends, such as money, power, career advancement, etc., but to become the members of the New Elite.
But the SS was much more than just the New Elite. It was a quasi-religious community (appropriately labeled by some historians as the “Black Order”) – with its own neo-pagan quasi-religion, rituals, traditions, etc.
Other historians call them “the Praetorian Guards” of the Nazi Regime (of the Führerstaat and of the whole Third Reich) and even the “Nazi Samurai” – both of which I find… acceptable, let’s say.
Himmler made sure that the SS became one big (enormous, mammoth, gargantuan) – and, actually, quite happy family. Unfortunately, not only in the benign German sense, but also in a very criminal sense.
Because the SS was, indeed, a very much criminal organization – a Mafia of sorts – as some of its objectives, principles, methods, decisions and actions were unquestionably criminal.
There was a very important (existential even) difference between the SS and the Mafia, of course – while the latter was a purely commercial enterprise (nothing personal – just business), the fundamental objectives of the SS (i.e. of its Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler) were political and ideological, not financial.
However, the SS ultimately became a gargantuan commercial and industrial empire – a vast network of (often monopolistic) business enterprises (literally hundreds of manufacturing facilities and other factories) with direct access to their own raw materials, labor (often of the slave/forced variety) and both internal and external markets.
The empire that – like the “traditional” Mafia – often made money (and a lot of it) using highly criminal methods – extortion, robbery, mass murder, slave labor, to name only a few. Which did not bother Himmler (or just about anyone else in the SS for that matter) because he quickly placed his creation and its members outside the German law. Any law, actually – with the exception of its own “SS laws”.
Now let’s talk a little bit about the political and ideological objectives of Heinrich Luitpold Himmler.