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Protecting the Führer, from the Stabswache to the Leibstandarte

In SS organisation on April 19, 2011 at 1:37 pm

SS organisation

This essay intends to outline historical development of various bodyguard formations protecting the NSDAP party leader and later Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler, ending up with the establishment of the SS-Leibstandarte in 1933.

The essay is dedicated to a certain important person in my life. Without her support and incentive this might not have been written. Thank you Tytti – or should I say ”Norrwyn” for being there.

Bugler of the early "Adolf Hitler Standarte"

Early banner of the "Adolf Hitler Standarte"

Introduction – Enter the Black Hussars

In 1740, the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm I died in Berlin at the age of 51. To honour the memory of the late regent, the recently formed Prussian elite cavalry units were dressed in black and donned the Totenkopf, the symbolic Death’s Head in their headgear for the first time in German military history. Ever since the black uniforms and death-defying imagery of these Leibhusaren were closely associated to soldierly virtues of unquestionable loyalty and willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the empire. Although the tactical importance of cavalry slowly faded away in favour of modern infantry and armored units, this spiritual concept of fearless military elite contemptuous of death resurfaced during the First World War with the appearance of trench-storming troops on the Western Front known as Sturmabteilungen. Contemporary nationalist authors such as Walter Flex and Ernst Jünger became renowned of sharing their experiences of continuous austerity and rare comradeship of trench warfare. In a sense, these storm troops of the First World War became spiritual predecessors of the later Waffen-SS and to a certain extent, both the SA and the SS. After the German defeat, period of internal unrest and territorial disputes brought the Freikorps, combat groupings of ex-servicemen led by their old unit commanders, to the limelight. Many of the numerous Freikorps emerging all over Germany adopted Imperial insignia as their emblems of identity, especially favouring such striking symbols as the Totenkopf. This added the associations of anti-communism and counter-revolution to already existing traits behind the grim symbol.

1923: from the Munich Stabswache to the Stosstrupp Hitler

Spring 1923 is the first date when it can be considered that a distinct bodyguard formation was set up to provide security for the party leader of the NSDAP, Adolf Hitler. Prior to that time, there was no specific organization within the party or its associated groupings solely assigned to that task, although ever since the famous Hofbräuhaus beer stain battle of 1921 certain individuals like Emil Maurice, Ulrich Graf, Christian Weber and Rudolf Hess had more or less assumed the role of a bodyguard.

After appointment of the former captain and fighter ace Hermann Göring as the commander of the SA, the paramilitary arm of the Nazi party, in March 1923 a separate bodyguard unit was set up to protect the ever-endangered person of the controversial party leader. Julius Schreck, aged 24 and a veteran of distinguished Freikorps von Epp, was given command over this ca. 20-men strong unit, titled in military fashion as the Stabswache, Staff Guard.

This first Stabswache was soon incorporated into another recent formation, the Stosstrupp Hitler (Hitler Shock Troop) which was formed in May 1923 as part of the Munich SA regiment. Stosstrupp Hitler was commanded by Schreck and Josef Berchtold, a reserve lieutenant and one-time cashier of the party. Initially the Stosstrupp had only some 20 members but grew to an almost company-sized unit of roughly 100 men by late Fall 1923. Members of the Stosstrupp assumed the Torbräu public house near Isartor in central Munich as their unofficial quarters.

The first and the only actual ”battle engagement” of the Stosstrupp took place during the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, November 1923. Wearing a mixture of old uniforms and grey windcheater jackets along with steel helmets, Stosstrupp troopers appeared as the spearhead of the coup attempt. Events of this ill-famed episode are thoroughly covered in literature and are thus passed to stay in the focus of the essay, however it must be said that the Stosstrupp suceeded in its assigned mission of safeguarding the life of their high leader, although this was more due to chance than anything else. When the Bavarian state police, grouped in battle formation in front of the Feldherrnhalle opened fire against the marching columns of the Nazi revolutionaries, Ulrich Graf saved Hitler’s life by throwing himself in front of him. Graf took six bullets and miraculously survived.

1925: the ”Protective Squadrons”, founding of the Schutzstaffel

As the aftermath of the Putsch, the already dispersed NSDAP was banned and the responsible leaders sentenced to prison terms. Upon his release from the Landsberg prison in December 1924, Hitler proceeded to recreate the party. The security issues were again topical and now it was decided that a permanent body within the SA should be tasked with that. Julius Schreck re-emerged as the commander and in November 1925 this new formation was named Schutzstaffel (initially in a plural form, Schutzstaffeln), a ”Protective Squadron” with its name taken from air warfare terminology, referring to fighters escorting bombers. To emphasize the standing nature of this new grouping, it was gradually given a specific identity by adopting black ski caps, the traditional Totenkopf emblem and black trousers with the traditional Nazi brownshirt in order to be distinguished from the rest of the SA. Initially local SS units were composed of a leader and 10 men each and were responsible of the security of the higher party leaders during their visits and campaigning. A single most remarkable turning point in the history of the SS was the appointment of Heinrich Himmler as the supreme commander, Reichsführer-SS in 1929. After that the SS began a rapid expansion and increasingly took shape as a conscious paramilitary elite with its own ideology and far more generic role than that of a pure bodyguard unit. This combined with the overall simultaneous growth of the Nazi movement called for a division of labor within the SS as well.

Already since the late 1920s a certain man had occupied the post of Hitler’s chief bodyguard. Josef ”Sepp” Dietrich, born in 1892 in Hawangen in Swabia, had been an artillery sergeant and a member of one of the first armored units of the Imperial Army, earning the rare tank battle badge in 1918. After the First World War he had joined the Bavarian state police and served for 7 years in an armored car platoon near Munich. A short, sturdy Bavarian of solid Freikorps background and a reliable yet rough character, he had become acquainted with Hitler in the 1920s. Due to his position as the commander of the SS in Upper Bavaria since 1929 he by and by assumed an unofficial bodyguard role. Apparently also men from his SS unit served in this capacity rather frequently, mostly due to the fact that the Nazi party was still centered in Munich. From now on, Dietrich would have a hand in all security procedures around Hitler and this special role of his began to diminish only in the mid-1930s when he and his Leibstandarte were firmly set on military footing rather than that of the security unit.

In the early 1930s, due to increased dangers presented by the heated political climate – both from the opposing parties and also within the own ranks of the Nazis – the personal security of the party leadership began to require considerably more attention than before.

1932: emerging of the SS-Begleitkommando

In the beginning of 1932 it was decided that security precautions around the NSDAP leader needed to be tightened and a full-time guard detail was formed to provide close protection wherever Hitler went during the hasty campaigning days, either by car or by plane. This unit was known as the Escort Command, SS-Begleitkommando (SSBK) and Hitler himself together with Himmler and Sepp Dietrich picked 8 men from 12 candidates in a meeting held in Hitler’s then Berlin headquarters in hotel Kaiserhof. Although Dietrich as the number one bodyguard had the overall command, Sturmführer Bodo Gelzenleuchter, was initially appointed to head the detail. Such later famous figures as Erich Kempka, Bruno Gesche, Kurt Gildisch and Franz Schädle were among these first permanent bodyguards. It should be noted that the men of the Begleitkommando – still in 1932 civilians in the eyes of the authorities – had private gun permits and always appeared armed, wearing either civilian clothes, SS uniforms or motorcycle coveralls depending of circumstances. Even though some of the Begleitkommando members were former professional policemen, they were generally regarded as amateurs by their later detective colleagues of the Reich Security Service. Nevertheless, Hitler who favoured loyalty over merit held them in high esteem and they enjoyed a priviledged position right until the end of the Third Reich. In 1933, the Begleitkommando was expanded and attached to the Leibstandarte. All private valets, drivers, orderlies and even telephone operators such as Rochus Misch serving in vicinity of the later Chancellor Hitler officially belonged to the Begleitkommando.

Early 1933: the ”Chancellory Guard” is formed

The earliest incarnation of officially recognized armed SS units were those detailed as auxiliary police in Prussia in February 1933 under the new Minister of the Interior, Göring. These units were set up subsequently in other German states as well as the Nazis assumed control of state governments. This 50 000 strong auxiliary force recruited from the SA, SS and Stahlhelm was officially intended to strengthen the regular police forces in the tumultuous atmosphere of expected revolt and civil war. However, the reality on the street level saw Hilfspolizei units mainly furthering the Nazi cause by means of intimidation and pressure in light of the upcoming parlamentary elections in March. Most of the police auxiliaries were non-paid part-timers from regional SA units and far from being in control of the local authorities as was intended but from the beginning also more specialized and disciplined full-time units were established. The very first of these was Hilfspolizei der (SA) Gruppe Berlin-Brandenburg, the nucleus of the later SA-Feldjägerkorps which came into being in early March.

Soon thereafter another specialist formation was set up in Berlin. On March 17th, Gruppenführer Sepp Dietrich was given a new assignment to assume command of a unit called Stabswache Berlin with initial reported strength of 117, all ranks. According to Rudolf Lehmann who was among the Leibstandarte recruits of 1933, most of these men were not members of units previously under Dietrich’s command nor even Bavarians as is often claimed but recruited from all SS districts during February and early March. Apparently Dietrich himself made the final choices from the prepared lists. Of these guardsmen of the first hour, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, three eventually ended up commanding Waffen-SS divisions. From the listing reproduced here, one can spot such names as Martin Kohlroser, Heinz Linge, Wilhlem Mohnke, Albin von Reitzenstein, Otto Reich, Theodor Wisch and Fritz Witt, all of later fame and some of notoriety as well.

It can be safely assumed that this private palace guard was founded on orders of the new Reich Chancellor who could not and would not trust his personal security in the hands of the existing organs, the Prussian police and the ”army of 100 000”, the Reichswehr, which he regarded as remnants of the Republic. The appearance of such a unit – an officially sanctioned and recognized Pretorian Guard staffed by a political paramilitary organization marked a clear watershed in the Prussian tradition of guarding the head of state which up to that moment had been a duty exclusively reserved to the state bodies alone.

In the beginning the Stabswache Berlin was technically part of the Polizeiabteilung Wecke, a barracked police battalion set up by Göring in February, as one of the preparing moves against the anticipated communist uprising. It was named after its commander, then police major Walter Wecke who had directed the purge of Prussian police of politically unreliable elements. All members of this unit, mainly recruited from the politically active in ranks of the Berlin police were considered exceptionally loyal to the new regime. Both Abteilung Wecke and the SS-Stabswache were initially quartered in the so called ”Friesenkaserne” on Friesenstrasse in Kreuzberg district of Berlin, opposite the Tempelhof airport. This barracks area still exists and is even today in use of the Berlin police.

In terms of authority, SS men of the Stabswache had auxiliary police status and the unit was seen as a full-time police formation being trained and later assigned to guard and security duties of the new Chancellor but especially during Spring 1933 it also participated in regular police operations such as raids and searches in and around Berlin, mainly directed against the communist activity. This association with the police rather than the army was deliberate and can also be seen in the fact that the first military instructors of the unit came from the Schutzpolizei.

Leibstandarte taking shape

The Prussian cadet institute, Hauptkadettenanstalt, in southwestern Lichterfelde suburb of Berlin was opened in 1878 and provided military education to select group of youths aged 14 to 17. After the First World War in accordance with the Versailles Treaty, the militarized education programme had to be turned down and the old cadet academy was converted to a civilian boarding school. In the late 1920s, some of the buildings stood empty since the number of pupils had steadily dropped. During Spring 1933, Hermann Göring – who himself had once attended this same Kadettenanstalt – arranged that military traditions would again enter the silent parade grounds of Lichterfelde. In April, both the Wecke police unit and the SS-Stabswache, in the meantime renamed Sonderkommando Berlin, moved in. Abteilung Wecke occupied the western part of the barracks compound while the SS took the eastern part along Theklastrasse. With the new quarters available and financing secured, Sepp Dietrich now proceeded to expand his unit at considerable pace. The Wecke police unit was enlarged as well, renamed Landespolizeigruppe General Göring and acquired a character of an army regiment rather than a police unit. It ended up becoming part of the new Luftwaffe in 1935.

Soon new recruit training units titled Sonderkommandos, Special Commands, were set up in army training depots at Zossen and Jüterbog near Berlin to strengthen the embryonic guard unit. By late Summer 1933, the once company-sized auxiliary police unit had turned to an independent fully armed infantry battalion with its own band and motor troops. It stood guard in front of the Reich Chancellery and Hitler’s Alpine resort, Berghof. Later also aiports of the capital and certain ministries and government buildings were added to the list of its guard posts.

In August 1933, the troublesome auxiliary police units were disbanded on Göring’s orders. SS Sonderkommandos in and outside Berlin were nevertheless allowed to remain with their funding soon turned over to the Reich Government, enabling their continuous growth. With these decisions, the seeds of the upcoming Waffen-SS were firmly sown. Against Hitler’s declarations to conservatives and representatives of foreign powers, armed SA and SS had become a third entity besides the army and the police as bearer of arms in Germany.

In the annual Nazi party rally in September 1933 the three Berlin-based Sonderkommandos had their first public parade display which was immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl on her lesser known documentary film ”Sieg des Glaubens”. This diligently drilled performance with the marching band and endless goose-stepping rows of remarkably tall ”asphalt soldiers” wearing black from boots to helmets became a regular and much-awaited highlight of the event. During the party rally the Berlin Sonderkommandos grouped together were renamed Adolf-Hitler-Standarte and received the first unit banner, which bore Hitler’s name. The unit’s first year ended with yet another renaming, this time receiving its final designation, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH), during the rememberance ceremony of the failed Munich putsch. At midnight on November 9th 1933, 835 men of the Sepp Dietrich’s Leibstandarte stood in formation on the Odeonsplatz and swore their oath of loyalty to Hitler in the light of burning torches – only 21 had used the given opportunity to refuse and were discharged on honourable terms. This promise of ”obedience unto death” was to bind some of them right until the end of the 12-year realm.