Waffen SS foreign volunteers and conscripts

Ukrainian volunteers of the SS Galizien division marching in Sanok, May 1943

During World War II, the Waffen-SS recruited significant numbers of non-Germans, both as volunteers and conscripts. In total some 500,000 non-Germans and ethnic Germans from outside Germany, mostly from German-occupied Europe, were recruited between 1940 and 1945.[1] The units were under the control of the SS Führungshauptamt (SS Command Main Office) beneath Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Upon mobilization, the units' tactical control was given to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (High Command of the Armed Forces).[2]

History of the Waffen-SS[]

The Waffen-SS (Armed SS) was created as the militarized wing of the Schutzstaffel (SS; "Protective Squadron") of the Nazi Party. Its origins can be traced back to the selection of a group of 120 SS men in 1933 by Sepp Dietrich to form the Sonderkommando Berlin, which became the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH).[3] In 1934, the SS developed its own military branch, the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT), which together with the LSSAH, evolved into the Waffen-SS.[3] Nominally under the authority of Heinrich Himmler, the Waffen-SS developed a fully militarised structure of command and operations. It grew from three regiments to over 38 divisions during World War II, serving alongside the Heer (army), while never formally being a part of it.[4] It was Hitler's wish that the Waffen-SS should not be integrated into either the army or the state police, instead it would remain an independent force of military-trained men at the disposal of the Führer.[5][6]

Recruitment and conscription[]

In 1934, Himmler initially set stringent requirements for recruits. They were to be German nationals who could prove their Aryan ancestry back to 1800, unmarried, and without a criminal record. Recruits had to be between the ages of 17 and 23, at least 1.74 metres (5 ft 9 in) tall (1.78 metres (5 ft 10 in) for the Leibstandarte). Recruits were required to have perfect teeth and eyesight and provide a medical certificate.[7] By 1938, the height restrictions were relaxed, up to six dental fillings were permitted, and eyeglasses for astigmatism and mild vision correction were allowed.[8] Once World War II commenced in Europe, the physical requirements were no longer strictly enforced.[8] Following the campaign in the West in 1940, Hitler authorized the enlistment of "people perceived to be of related stock", as Himmler put it, to expand the ranks.[9] A number of Danes, Dutch, Norwegians, Swedes and Finns volunteered to serve in the Waffen-SS under the command of German officers.[10][11] Non-Germanic units were not considered to be part of the SS directly, which still maintained its strict racial criteria; instead they were considered to be foreign nationals serving under the command of the SS.[12]

Not all members of the SS-Germanischen Leitstelle (SS-GL) or the RHSA stressed the nationalistic tenets of the Nazi state with respect to the war and occupation, but instead looked to pan-Germanic ideas that included disempowering the political elites, while at the same time, integrating Germanic elements from other nations into the Reich on the basis of racial equality.[13] One of the leaders of the SS-GL, Dr. Franz Riedweg (an SS-Colonel), unambiguously emphasized:

"We must be clear about the fact that Germanic politics can only be resolved under the SS, not by the state, not by the bulk of the party!...We cannot build Europe as a police state under the protection of bayonets, but must shape the life of Europe according to greater Germanic viewpoints."[13][a]

Recruitment began in April 1940 with the creation of two regiments: Nordland (later SS Division Nordland) and Westland (later SS Division Wiking).[9] As they grew in numbers, the volunteers were grouped into Legions (with the size of battalion or brigade); their members included the so-called Germanic non-Germans as well as ethnic German officers originating from the occupied territories. Against the Führer's wishes—who forbade using military units of so-called "racially inferior" persons—the SS added foreign recruits and used them to flexibly overcome manpower shortages.[14] Some of these foreign Waffen-SS units were employed for security purposes, among other things.[14]

After Germany invaded the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa, recruits from France, Spain, Belgium (including Walloons), the territory of occupied Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the Balkans were signed on.[15] By February 1942, Waffen-SS recruitment in south-east Europe turned into compulsory conscription for all German minorities of military age.[16] From 1942 onwards, further units of non-Germanic recruits were formed.[11] Legions were formed of men from Estonia, Latvia as well as men from Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Ukraine, Russia and Cossacks.[17] However, by 1943 the Waffen-SS could not longer claim overall to be an "elite" fighting force. Recruitment and conscription based on "numerical over qualitative expansion" took place, with many of the "foreign" units being good for only rear-guard duty.[18]

A system of nomenclature developed to formally distinguish personnel based on their place of origin. Germanic units would have the "SS" prefix, while non-Germanic units were designated with the "Waffen" prefix to their names.[19] The formations with volunteers of Germanic background were officially named Freiwilligen (volunteer) (Scandinavians, Dutch, and Flemish), including ethnic Germans born outside the Reich known as Volksdeutsche, and their members were from satellite countries. These were organized into independent legions and had the designation Waffen attached to their names for formal identification.[20] In addition, the German SS Division Wiking included recruits from Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia throughout its history.[21] Despite manpower shortages, the Waffen-SS was still based on the racist ideology of Nazism, thereby ethnic Poles were specifically regarded as "second-class people" and the Poles were the only ethnic group from whom neither voluntary SS units nor uniformed auxiliary police were ever created.[22] Early in 1943, the Waffen-SS accepted 12,643 of the 53,000 recruits it garnered in western Ukraine and by 1944 the number reached as high as 22,000.[23]

Recruitment efforts in 1943 in Estonia yielded about 5,000 soldier for the 20th Estonian Waffen-SS division.[24] In Latvia, however, the Nazis were more successful, as by 1944, there were upwards of 100,000 soldiers serving in the Latvian Waffen-SS divisions.[24] Before the war's end, the foreigners who served in the Waffen-SS numbered "some 500,000", including those who were pressured into service or conscripted.[1] Historian Martin Gutmann adds that some of the additional forces came from "Eastern and Southeastern Europe, including Muslim soldiers from the Balkans."[25]


Former Baltic Waffen Grenadier conscripts, wearing black uniforms with blue helmets and white belts, guarding Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and other top Nazis during the Nuremberg Trials.

During the Nuremberg Trials, the Waffen-SS was declared a criminal organization for its major involvement in war crimes and for being an "integral part" of the SS.[26][27] Conscripts who were not given a choice as to joining the ranks and had not committed "such crimes" were determined to be exempt from this declaration.[28][b]

Belgian collaborator Léon Degrelle escaped to Spain, despite being sentenced to death in absentia by the Belgian authorities.[29] About 150 Baltic soldiers from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia who fought against Soviets and escaped to Sweden were extradited to the Soviet Union in 1946.[30]

The men of the XV SS Cossack Corps found themselves in Austria at the end of the war and surrendered to British troops. Though they were given assurances that they would not be repatriated, the Cossack prisoners of war were nonetheless returned to the Soviet Union. Many were executed for treason.[31]

After the war, members of Baltic Waffen-Grenadier Units were considered separate and distinct in purpose, ideology and activities from the German SS by the Western Allies.[32][c] During the 1946 Nuremberg trials, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians who were drafted into the Waffen-SS, were determined not to be criminals for having been "wedged between, and subject to, the dictates of two authoritarian regimes."[33]

Amid the 11,000 Ukrainian members of the former SS Galizien, who had fled westwards to surrender—replete in their German SS uniforms—to the British in Italy, only 3,000 of them were repatriated to the Soviet Union. The rest remained temporarily lodged at Rimini as displaced persons, many of whom became British or Canadian citizens as a result of Cold War expediency.[34]

Foreign Waffen-SS units recruited by Nazi Germany[]


Total: 6,500 to 7,000[35]


Total: 18,000 (about "evenly divided between Flemings and Walloons")[37]


Bohemia and Moravia[]

Total: 77. Created after half of March 1945, never saw combat.



Total: 6,000[41]


Total: 20,000[43]


Total: 1,180[44] to 3,000[35]


Total: 20,000[37]


Total: 20,000[35]


Total: 4,500[46]


Total: 15,000[35]


Total: 80,000[35][d]

The Netherlands[]

Total: 20,000[e]


Total: 6,000[49]


Total: 50,000[35]


Soviet Union[]



In total, approximately thirteen-hundred Swiss volunteers joined the SS.[55][g]


Total: 27,886

United Kingdom[]

Total: 54[56]

See also[]



  1. ^ The original German reads: "Wir müssen uns darüber im klaren sein, daß die germanische Politik nur unter der SS gelöst werden kann, nicht vom Staat, nicht vom Gros der Partei!...Wir können Europa nicht als Polizeistaat aufbauen unter dem Schutz von Bajonetten, sondern müssen das Leben Europas nach großgermanischen Gesichtspunkten gestalten"[13]
  2. ^ A number of volunteers were executed, while others were tried and imprisoned by their countries. Still others either lived in exile or returned to their homeland.
  3. ^ Also see: Richard Rashke, Useful Enemies: America's Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals, Open Road Media (2013)
  4. ^ Historian Andrejs Plakans puts this figure at 100,000.[24]
  5. ^ See: http://publications.niod.knaw.nl/publications/Veld_SSenNederland_01.pdf
  6. ^ See: Bosse Schön, "Svenskarna som stred för Hitler" ("The Swedes who fought for Hitler"), (2000) [1999], ISBN 978-9-1765-7208-5, p. 119 + 4 unnumbered pages (a photo of Christmas greetings for named men of the "Swedish" Waffen-SS unit Sveaborg in the Swedish pro-Nazi paper/magazine "Den Svenske" Swedes and Estonian-Swedish Waffen-SS volunteers fought in various SS units. Bosse Schön identifies various units. Many of them were from Norrland, Stockholm, Göteborg and had fought for Finland. A significant number of them were members of NSAP/SSS with about 60% between 17 to 25 years of age. Also see: https://www.svd.se/aventyret-lockade-svenskar-till-ss
  7. ^ Of particular note was Swiss-born SS Colonel Hans Riedweg, the de facto leader of the Germanische Leitstelle's Germanic recruits. Riedweg gave a speech in 1943, criticizing the manner in which the SS handled the escape of 7,000 Danish Jews from Nazi-held territory. He and fellow Germanic volunteers from neutral Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland were stripped of leadership roles and sent to the Eastern Front, where most perished. See: Richard Byers, "Byers on Gutmann, 'Building a Nazi Europe: The SS's Germanic Volunteers'", H-War (August 2018) at: https://networks.h-net.org/node/12840/reviews/2140807/byers-gutmann-building-nazi-europe-sss-germanic-volunteers


  1. ^ a b Stein 1984, p. 133.
  2. ^ Stein 1984, p. 23.
  3. ^ a b Flaherty 2004, p. 144.
  4. ^ McNab 2009, pp. 56, 57, 66.
  5. ^ Reitlinger 1989, p. 84.
  6. ^ McNab 2009, pp. 56–66.
  7. ^ Weale 2010, pp. 201–204.
  8. ^ a b Weale 2010, p. 204.
  9. ^ a b Stein 1984, pp. 150, 153.
  10. ^ Koehl 2004, pp. 213–214.
  11. ^ a b Longerich 2012, pp. 500, 674.
  12. ^ Longerich 2012, p. 769.
  13. ^ a b c Wegner 2010, p. 298.
  14. ^ a b Kott, Bubnys & Kraft 2017, p. 162.
  15. ^ Stein 1984, pp. 172, 179.
  16. ^ Longerich 2012, pp. 611, 612.
  17. ^ Stein 1984, pp. 178–189.
  18. ^ Wegner 1990, pp. 307, 313, 325, 327–331.
  19. ^ Młynarczyk et al. 2017, p. 200.
  20. ^ Stein 1984, pp. xvi, xviii, 151–164, 168–178.
  21. ^ Hale 2011, p. 324.
  22. ^ Młynarczyk et al. 2017, pp. 166–167.
  23. ^ Młynarczyk et al. 2017, p. 167.
  24. ^ a b c Plakans 2011, p. 357.
  25. ^ Gutmann 2017, p. 31.
  26. ^ Flaherty 2004, pp. 155, 156.
  27. ^ Stein 1984, p. 251.
  28. ^ Avalon Project–Yale University, Judgement: The Accused Organizations.
  29. ^ Griffiths 2005, p. 144.
  30. ^ Buttar 2013, pp. 329–330.
  31. ^ Mueggenberg 2020, pp. 264–273.
  32. ^ U.S. Government 1949, pp. 174–177.
  33. ^ Mole 2012, p. 48.
  34. ^ Hale 2011, p. 379.
  35. ^ a b c d e f McNab 2009, p. 95.
  36. ^ a b c d e f g Hale 2011, p. 387.
  37. ^ a b Stein 1984, p. 136.
  38. ^ a b c d Stein 1984, p. 154.
  39. ^ Littlejohn 1987b, p. 238.
  40. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hale 2011, p. 388.
  41. ^ Stein 1984, pp. 136, 137.
  42. ^ Hale 2011, pp. 203, 388.
  43. ^ Thomas 2012, p. 15.
  44. ^ Stein 1984, p. 161.
  45. ^ Littlejohn 1987a, pp. 160–161.
  46. ^ Stein 1984, p. 189.
  47. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Hale 2011, p. 389.
  48. ^ McNab 2009, pp. 325–326.
  49. ^ Stein 1984, pp. 136–137.
  50. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Hale 2011, p. 390.
  51. ^ Goldsworthy 2010, p. 242.
  52. ^ a b c d e f Hale 2011, p. 391.
  53. ^ Larrson 2015, p. 28.
  54. ^ Larrson 2015, pp. 119, 249.
  55. ^ Gutmann 2017, p. 20.
  56. ^ Thurlow 1998, p. 168.


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