The Order of the Death's Head: The Story of Hitler's SS by Heinz Hoehne
Created: Thu Nov 18 17:27:31 2010 | Last modified: Thu Nov 18 18:22:36 2010
This book, without doubt is one of the most authoritative sources on the Nazi SS and it is clear that the author meticulously and painfully researched his subject thoroughly before bringing out this book. Incidentally this book shatters a lot of myth and generally accepted "truisms" about the totalitarian dictatorship's functioning and its instruments of subjugation and organized terror. Was the SS really the highly organized, monolithic and disciplined security/paramilitary apparatus of brainwashed, fanatical elites as it is made out to be? Heinz Hoehne disabuses the reader of any such notion. What started out as a headquarters' bodyguard for Hitler (and other top Nazis) in the 1920s, expanded and evolved into a kind of cultish pseudo-Teutonic Order of supposed Germanic racial elite peasant warriors under Heinrich Himmler, later becoming a huge, unwieldy network of sub-organizations (including a military wing: the SS-Verfuegungstruppe, later to become the Waffen SS) each pulling in different directions and finally ended up becoming the scourge of occupied Europe and primarily associated with the actual execution of the Nazi's "Final Solution"/the Holocaust.
The book meticulously lays down the history of this bizarre organization. It also describes the origins and differences between the SS and the other state apparatus of the Nazi rule and their not infrequent conflicts of interest: the Gestapo for instance. In fact, the Gestapo itself originated as a remnant of the Prussian State Political Secret Police and was actually originally under the control of Hermann Goering who was a rival of Himmler for the position of the Third Reich's top policeman. Not until the Night of Long Knives did Himmler actually gain control of the Gestapo as well and put it under his deputy, Heydrich's control. Even so, the SS was often frustrated in its bid to grow in influence or power without constant struggles and conflicts with other rival organizations within the Nazi regime, particular the Party and the Wehrmacht. In fact, Hitler rather than centralizing power in a single agency, sought to disperse it among as many of his subordinates as possible in order to keep their individual domains of influence low and ultimately remain the sole arbitrator and judge of any conflicts of jurisdictions. Hitler's own vision of the SS was far from the heights of fantasies conjured up by the Reichsfuehrer-SS: it was to remain, from beginning to end, nothing more than an ultra-loyal police, protection and paramilitary force principally to carry out the will (and the dirty work) of the Nazi leadership. The Teutonic dream of Himmler -- to racially seed, nurture and grow a class of Nordic super-Aryans; to create a nation-state of warrior peasants made up of "racially pure" elite overlords settled on and governing the fertile soils of Eastern Europe remained just that -- a futile dream.
The different aspects of the SS, its wierd racial ideologies, its different arms, its public history as well as the lives, private intrigues and political games of its pivotal leaders are also well documented in this book. Hoehne does not leave much out. The Night of Long Knives in which the SS gained its final triumph over the SA in an orgy of blood is described in full detail. Other events and incidents in the short history of the Third Reich are not as completely thorough, but Hoehne's book is unique in that it gives an SS perspective to the whole narration.
The final half of the book is also equally fascinating. The reasons for the SS's disillusionment with the War, the attitude of the Waffen SS generals towards Himmler, its role in the July 20th plot, the treasonable thoughts of Himmler towards the end of the War and the intrigues of SS general Walter Schellenberg and Himmler's personal masseur Felix Kersten in trying to arrange a separate peace for Germany with the Western Allies through the agency of the Swedish humanitarian Folke Bernadotte behind Hitler's back are well explored.
Where the book does drag is in the middle though. Some of the chapters are not as interesting but it's hardly the author's fault. The narration is not chronological, but rather arranged into logical aspects of the SS's history. This does mean that the action swings back and forth between (mostly) the early 1930s and 1945 and it can be a bit disconcerting for somebody who is not well versed with the history of Nazi Germany. The style of writing though is extremely friendly to the lay reader as well and the English translation is smooth and seamless.
I strongly suggest reading William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" before this book to understand the events that led to the rise of Hitler, his ascension to power, the Second World War and ultimately the destruction of Nazi Germany and to give a more panoramic view of the entire history of the Third Reich. I rate it 7/10 for its unique perspective into one of the most dreaded secret organizations in the history of the world in the 20th Century.