53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
Hoehne's book on the SS is the most complete, authoritative, and interesting I have read on the subject. There is nothing in the formation, administration, directing and eventual destruction of the SS that is not addressed, and much is covered here which is simply never dealt with elsewhere.
From the start, Hitler had to contend with the various power blocs in his government. He had devised a system which his various paladins would have to jockey and maneuver for relative favor, which generally allowed Hitler greater room for maneuver and control, but which also at times forced unpleasant meetings and compromise. Himmler's SS was quite often at the center of these power struggles, as its grasp grew more and more ambitious and it conflicted with first the SA at home, then the foreign service abroad, and finally the Wehrmacht in the conduct of the war. The SS won some of these; they lost some, too. The bureaucratic struggles throughout Nazi Germany take up quite a large part of the book; they did not end until Nazi Germany itself did. Nazi rule was self-contradictory, anarchic and without structure; anything but the planned and directed political order it is usually alleged to have been.
As late as 1932 Hitler's position in the party and the nation was often in doubt. The 1934 Roehm Putsch, in which Hitler of all the top Nazis looks least duplicitous and may well have been maneuvered into against his wishes, is presented almost minute by minute. It is one episode among many which are treated definitively by Hoehne; others include the evolution of the racial policy, of the death camps - their planning, design, implementation and abandonment - of the peace feelers made to the west by Schellenberg of the SD and others; it contains a wealth of fascinating information.
Himmler's own grip on his institution was incomplete. Not only was he far from omnipotent even at the height of his power, his personal influence waned as the SS itself as a power center waxed. The smaller pre-war SS could be guided politically, seeded racially, and its leadership trained personally; as the organization expanded into eventually every single sphere of German life, Himmler's own control could not keep up. Much as Hitler was left as the broker of last resort in his circle, so Himmler spent more and more time keeping his competing SS police leaders, governors, recruiters, labor exploiters, camp commmanders, and death squad leaders from going at it amongst themselves.
Finally, the bibliography though dated is excellent, and the index is very good and useful. For a one-volume detailed history of the rise and fall of the SS as an organization I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2005
The "Order of the Death's Head" first published in 1965, was written while the dust had not yet settled on world war two and at 40 years of age Hoehne's work is a historical classic of the Nazi Period. As with Albert Speer's "Inside the Third Reich" and Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich", this is one of those quintessential works of the period. Focusing on the rise and actions of the German SS, this book certainly does not glorify the SS or the Nazi party while providing a near exhaustive record. The work, while still very useful is still quite flawed in its organization and is by no means complete. The majority of the work focuses on the origins of the SS and the early Nazi party as well as later actions as a political entity and finally discusses the SS involvement with concentration camps. While discussed, the combat actions of the Waffen SS are but an aside to the greater focus of the work and many significant happenings within Nazi Germany are discussed quickly while others that may seem less significant are given substance. This book is an excellent though incomplete resource that is well written and receives both benefit and disadvantage from the period in which it was written.
Building up the scene Hoehne discusses at great details the ideal and actions of the early Nazi Party and the formation of the Schutzstaffel (SS). Filled with interesting detail and anecdote this is perhaps the richest portion of the work. As the work progresses Hoehne discusses the interaction of the SS with the other part organizations including the SA the party itself and later the Wehrmacht, SD and Gestapo. Here we see a central theme of Hoehne's work: The Power of the Nazi Party rested solely in Hitler and all of the party organizations were dependent on Hitler and a few of his staff. Thus, the SS as pervasive as it had been, was always just one organization in an interdependent and often redundant network that comprised the political structure of Nazi Germany. The work goes on with continuing sporadic detail to discuss the "night of the Long Knives" the Gestapo, Kristallnacht, The Early War/occupation of Eastern Europe and the Concentration Camps. This last subject the author provides lucid descriptions and many grim and overwhelmingly bizarre instances.
This work is certainly among the most influential and resourceful works on the Third Reich. Along with the other two books mentioned above, the average person can get a pretty good understanding of a most bizarre era of history. No one of these books is complete and certainly there are many things completely ignored in all three of these books. The fact remains that "Order of the Death's Head" is still one of the finest and most complete books written about the SS. It makes a great point of departure for studying the SS and will be a work that the historian will reference often. The book is also well researched and has a great bibliography. Overall, I would recommend this book to college students and above and may want to be prefaced by a little basic 20th century German history if needed. Otherwise this book is a good record however, casual readers be warned, the book may be confusing do to its lack of chronological ordering. Considering that this book was written before the dust settled on the era and an historical consensus was just beginning to form on the Nazi Period, this is a very worth work that all interested parties ought to read.
-- Ted Murena
32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on February 29, 2004
This recounts the history of one of the most evil organizations ever created. Founded in 1925 as a bodyguard for Hitler, the SS ultimately became a security, military and bureaucratic behemoth whose influence pervaded the entire Nazi empire. Contrary to both contemporary propaganda and subsequent popular belief, however, neither the SS nor the Nazi regime were monolithic organizations devoted to exercising their leaders' directives. Indeed, a suggestive metaphor for the Nazi state would be that of a cancerous tumour, in which a collection of aggressively growing and constantly mutating cells maintains just enough cohesion to carry out its expansionist aims. The government consisted of a variety of departments whose ill-defined and overlapping responsibilities resulted in a permanent state of fractious feudalism. This arrangement suited Hitler perfectly. By pitting his subordinates against each other he maintained his position as the supreme and final authority.
The SS, for all its powers, was therefore still hemmed in by its rivals, of whom the most notable were the SA, the Party and the Wehrmacht. The rivalry with the SA was eventually settled in blood in the Roehm putsch of 1934, following which the SS gained primacy. But the rise of the SS would have been likely in any event by virtue of the Party's ascension to power. The SA had served its purpose: the regime no longer required an army of politicized street brawlers but rather a professional security apparatus.
The rivalries with the Party and the army were not so neatly resolved. Party administrators frustrated SS designs in the occupied regions - for example in Poland under Hans Frank - while Martin Bormann controlled access to the Fuehrer. The SS ambition to create its own statelet outside of Greater Germany was never realised. The Wehrmacht, meanwhile, maintained a long-standing opposition to the arming of Party organizations - both SA and SS alike - and initially inhibited the development of the Waffen SS. In the field of intelligence the SS organizations the Sicherheitsdienst and the Gestapo were frequently in conflict with each other and the military intelligence service, the Abwehr. This is apparently why the Stauffenberg circle, which almost succeeded in assassinating Hitler in 1944, escaped SS notice: its members were mostly in the military.
The Waffen SS eventually developed into a formidable fighting force. Based on storm trooper principles - which in fact had their origin in practices developed by front-line officers in the First World War - and which emphasized mobile, elite strike formations, and staffed by highly motivated and ideologically committed troops it was widely acknowledged as the best force on any side in the war. But its very success was self-limiting. Thrown into the harshest battles on the Eastern Front it took heavy casualties. At Rhzev in winter 1942, for instance, the SS regiment "Der Fuehrer" attacked and drove back a much larger Soviet force - reportedly in temperatures as low as minus 52 degrees Celsius. Of an original strength of 2,000, however, only 35 survived to claim the victory. The inability of the German population to provide enough manpower for a force which peaked at a strength of 900,000 led to the creation of what was in effect an SS foreign legion. While the earliest recruits came from sufficiently Nordic countries such as Holland and Norway, the numbers were eventually topped up by groups such as Soviet Muslims. Ultimately casualties, foreign recruitment and generally lowered levels of ideological fervour resulted in a dilution of Waffen SS strength.
The one area of supreme and unquestioned SS sovereignty was the world of the concentration camps. Minor impediments notwithstanding the SS was ultimately able to round up the large part of the Jewish population of the conquered territories. They were wiped out in the camps. Perhaps the most striking juxtaposition of Nazi petty legality and raw brutality is the bizarre story of the SS crackdown on improper behaviour by its own staff in the camps, in which hundreds of charges of corruption and even of "unlawful" killing of inmates were laid. Since these cases had to be properly documented, investigators were put in the absurd position of having to examine the precise circumstances of the isolated deaths of a handful of inmates in an environment where thousands were being killed "legitimately" every day. In the end, two hundred camp staff were themselves executed before the investigations were concluded.
Heinrich Himmler, the SS leader, was the stereotype of the Nazi functionary. A master bureaucrat, tenacious and obsessed with the minutiae of office politics, he was physically unprepossessing and far from the Aryan ideal. Nor did he approximate it any more closely in fighting spirit. He almost collapsed on one occasion when viewing the execution of Jewish prisoners. After a disastrous stint as a military commander in 1945 he feigned illness, reportedly cowering beneath the sheets when visited by General Guderian. As the inevitable outcome of the war became clear, he began to think increasingly about the prospects of surrender to the Western Allies. But such a plan would have entailed removing one major obstacle, namely Hitler, and this Himmler could not bring himself to do. In thrall to "the greatest brain of all times," Himmler - who clicked his heels when the Fuehrer spoke to him by telephone - was still dithering in early 1945. Finally, despite an admonition by finance minister von Krosigk that the Reichsfuehrer SS could not go running around in a false beard but must surrender openly, Himmler attempted to sneak through British lines in disguise. When detained he bit on a cyanide capsule, a coward to the (literally) bitter end.
The history of the SS is one of a fatal combination of arrogant brutality, overweening ideology and abysmal ignorance. Annihilated forever in 1945, it will continue to fascinate and appall readers for centuries to come.
This account is well-written and comprehensively researched, but somewhat difficult to follow because of its non-chronological approach. Given the vast scope of the topic, however, even such a sizeable volume as this can provide no more than an overview.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on December 13, 2004
The central theme of Hoehne's thesis is that the SS, and Nazi Germany in general, was not quite the efficient all-for-one tight-knit apparatus everyone thinks it was. There was structure, however the structure of the state apparatus was mostly set up by Hitler to keep his subordinates too busy fighting amongst themselves, to threaten Hitler's position. (Contrast this to Stalin's method, which was to simply kill off all potential rivals.) The subordinate departments; the SS, SA, SD, Gestapo were quite independent of one another, and often were at odds with one another due to overlap in jurisdiction.
There is a wealth of information in this book. A lot of things in here will surprise you; for example there is the case of Ernst Roehm, the leader of the SA, who went to court over a stolen suitcase. The thief was a male prostitute who testified in court that he left Roehm (without his suitcase) because Roehm wanted to "engage in a form of intercourse which he found abhorrent." And Roehm wasn't the only Nazi homosexual. (A "distilled" account of Nazi homosexuality can be found in the books "Pink Swastika" by Lively and "Germany's National Vice" by Igra.)
While not as comprehensive as Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" "Order of the Death's Head," like Shirer's book, gives the reader a good picture of what times were like then, and it is certainly sufficient to read this book if you want to understand some basic things about Nazi Germany.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2007
This book exploded some of the myths that I had come to accept as a given on the Nazi regime. I believed that the Nazi regime was a well oiled machine that ran more efficiently than any other in the world. Then I come to find out that the regime worked on nothing more than a cult of personality and that personality's ability to foster rivalries between competing forces on the lower rungs of power. It's amazing to me that in this chaotic atmosphere this regime was able to make the trains run on time let alone reconstitute the most powerful and technologically advanced army in the world.
This was also the most comprehensive look at the SS I have read as of yet. The author goes through the organization with a fine tooth comb to really give one a good look into this eclectic organization. The author goes through the reasons why some would join the SS for the credibility and standing membership gives the individual within the Nazi regime. Many professionals joined this organization so that they would be able to advance in their careers within the framework of the regime even though they were philosophically opposed to the organization. This of course does not go for every member. Himmler also had philosophical and practical problems between keeping his organization "pure" and raising enlistment numbers within the SS so he could gain more power and influence.
The book does a very good job describing what was happening during the regimes final days. Himmler's pipe dreams of leading the SS to the battlefield to save the German army to his belief that he could take over and negotiate terms with the allies and not be held to account for the horrible crimes committed under his authority. As the regime collapsed around its leading figures, they continued to exist in a world that was divorced from reality. Whether it was Goering's art and fine wine collections or his drug habit, Hitler's reliance on the miracle weapon or Himmler's unfounded belief in his military prowess, the leadership of the Third Reich was rarely in touch with reality. Even as Hitler's ability to actually command any part of Germany, Himmler could still not bring himself to act against the fuehrer.
This book was such a great find for me that I hope others may read this work also. There are rather few reviews for this work even though I believe it should be an essential read for anyone who wants to understand this era history. It is big but don't let the size intimidate you because this is one book that rewards the effort put into it.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2006
One of the first things I realized as a history major undergrad was that a lot of history, even recent history, was open to interpretation. And even when it really wasn't open to interpretation, a lot of historians would interpret it anyway. Sometimes this works, sometimes it clouds the issues. This is a bit of both, but well worth the effort to wade through this doorstop of a book because of the unique perspectives it gives not just on the SS, but on all of Hitler's Germany. The most controversial thesis, but one I thinks he supports well, was that the third Reich was not a well-oiled machine and the SS was not all powerful. Rather it was a collection of modern day feudal bureaucracies, and Hitler built his power playing them off one another. Eventually the SS probably did emerge as one of the top two or three players, but by then it wasn't going to do Hitler or his top aides much good, since by then their time on earth was short.
In addition to exploring the bureaucratic and personal wranglings of the various factions, the reader encounters a wealth of Gauleiters, Untergrueppfuehrers, and all manner of leaders and "chess pieces" that Himmler and Goering and Goebbels and others used to build their power. There are so many names, and the accompanying German ranks so rarely correspond to ranks the English or American reader is used to, that it can become very confusing. In addition the book does not build in logical, chronological fashion, and the reader can find himself lost in a third or fourth look at the Roehm Putsch, for example, suddenly jumping out at him. In other words, structure and segues were not the author's strong suit.
Overall I found it a worthwhile read, and interesting enough for me to finish. It also didn't overdo it on the concentration camp aspect, and gave one a "nuanced" look at the SS that was still in no way an apology.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Heinz Hohne's study of Nazi Germany's SS, "The Order of the Death's Head: The Story of Hitler's SS" chronicles the dreaded organization brilliantly. Hohne's work, now over forty years old, remains one of the great works on the subject and an important tool in the study of Hitler's Third Reich.
The book covers all of the major events, characters, and themes of the time including the all of the SS's subdivisions like the Gestapo, the SD, the Totenkampf, and the Waffen-SS. Hohne offers detailed and fascinating looks at Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann, and others. The formation of the SS as Hitler's personal security detail is covered exhaustively, as is its role in the Rohm purge of 1934. Hohne skillfully writes of the organization's expansion once the National Socialists came to power, and how its leaders exploited Hitler's divide and rule power structure to attain its aims.
Hohne's consideration of the role of the SS in formulating and implementing Nazi racial policy is by turns enlightening and terrifying. Created as an organization for Germany's racial elite, it was charged with marginalizing and ultimately murdering those who didn't fit into the Reich's perceptions of acceptability.
The SS certainly wasn't the only criminal organization within the Third Reich, nor was it solely responsible for Germany's police state, concentration camp system, or program of mass murder. But it had a major, if not leading role in all of them. This book, while occasionally offering a dated perspective on one or two minor points, is still the definitive study of Hitler's Praetorian Guard.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Heinze Höhne spins a masterful tale of the organizational quagmire that was Nazi Germany's SS. In so doing, he punches a huge hole in the Hollywood-developed myth which usually portrayed them as evil, highly-organized and efficient automatons in films like The Eagle Has Landed. Even worse, whole generations have grown up believing such poppycock as "true history" and that Heinrich Himmler was the second, most powerful man in the regime.
Well, evil they certainly were. But organized and efficient? Not hardly. Nor was "Reichheini" [the unflattering nickname pinned on Himmler by a host of Nazi Party members and SS leaders] as overwhelmingly powerful an individual as he appears in movies and novels.
Not only was he and his "claptrap racial superiority theories" [the words of one highly-placed Nazi] more often than not ignored, but several senior SD [security branch] officers were either openly critical ["He had power but in practice he made no use of it in Germany; he and his power were a pricked balloon" - Otto Ohlendorf], or simply disobeyed his orders.
One example of this was Dr. Werner Best, his man in occupied Denmark. Under orders to round up all of that country's 6,500 Jews for removal to the camps, he simply arrange for their escape to neighbouring, neutral Sweden. He then sent a note to Berlin which said "1. Anti-Jewish action in Denmark carried out without incident .... 2. As of today Denmark can be regarded as free of Jews."
Himmler had even less control over his vaunted, fighting arm, the Waffen-SS, as top generals like Sepp Dietrich, Paul Hausser, Wilhelm Bittrich, and "Panzer" Meyer paid him no attention whatsoever.
Fully indexed with several photos of people like Dietrich, Heydrich, Himmler, and marching columns of SS, as well as the death camps, it also contains a detailed fold-out organizational chart of the structure of the SS in 1944.
Fascinating insight, this book, first published in 1966 in Germany, is sure to raise more than a few eyebrows among those of you who grew up believing the Hollywood version.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2002
This was a good book overall, but it has a hard time telling you where you are as far as the timeline of the war is concerned. It constantly jumps back and forth and it is at times hard to understand. Yet you have to give the author credit for amassing
this much information on one of the most secret organizations of our century. Should have been a thousand pages long, then it might have covered a few things more in depth. Also would like to see more pictures of the central people involved.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2006
This is a huge book in a number of respects, not merely for the density of its 600 pages. It posits a number of interesting theories/takes on the rise of the SS, and I particularly liked the details about the sometimes-overlooked Reinhard Heydrich, who - fortunately for him - was killed half-way through the war. The sheer mundaneness of butchers like Himmler and Eichmann is positively eery, and although we all have horrible visions of the atrocities and most of us have seen Schindler's List, the systematic cataloguing by the authors of the mathematical progression from pseudo-masonic movement (as the SS was) to mass-murder seems scarily logical - small-steps, softly-softly, they-won't notice...this is a book you can dip into whenever you want to feel really, really uncomfortable...