Waffen-SS foreign volunteers and conscripts

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]

Ukrainian volunteers of the SS Galizien division marching in Sanok, May 1943
a man wearing Muslim mufti clothing holding his hand up in salute as he and a group of SS officers inspect a line of soldiers
Haj Amin al-Husseini, alongside SS-Brigadeführer Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig, greeting Bosnian SS volunteers, November 1943

History of the Waffen-SSEdit

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 conscriptionEdit

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]

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. As the war progressed, foreign volunteers and conscripts made up one half of the Waffen-SS.[13]

After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, recruits from France, Spain, Belgium (including Walloons), the territory of occupied Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the Balkans were signed on.[14] By February 1942, Waffen-SS recruitment in south-east Europe turned into compulsory conscription for all German minorities of military age.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] In addition by 1944, the German military began conscripting Estonians and Latvians in an effort to replenish their losses.[18][19] The foreigners who served in the Waffen-SS numbered "some 500,000", including those who were pressured into service or conscripted.[1] A lower estimate for foreigners in the entire German armed forces (both Wehrmacht and Waffen SS) is 350,000.[20] Both numbers include large numbers of ethnic Germans from outside Germany.

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.[21] 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.[22] In addition, the German SS Division Wiking included recruits from Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia throughout its history.[23] The number of SS recruits from Sweden and Switzerland was only several hundred men.[24] Despite manpower shortages, the Waffen-SS was still based on the racist ideology of Nazism, thereby ethnic Poles were specifically barred from the formations due to them being looked upon as "subhumans", despite other Slavic groups being allowed service such as Ukrainians and Byelorussians in the 39. and 40. Waffen Grenadier regiments, also supposedly considered "subhuman".[25][26][27]


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.[28][29] 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.[30] 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.

Walloon leader Léon Degrelle escaped to Spain, where, despite being sentenced to death in absentia by the Belgian authorities, he lived in exile until his death in 1994.[31] Some 146 Baltic soldiers from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia who fought against Soviets and escaped to Sweden were extradited to the Soviet Union in 1946.[32]

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.[33][34]

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.[35] Subsequently, in the spring of 1946, out of the ranks of Baltic conscripts who had surrendered to the Western Allies in the previous year, a total of nine companies were formed to guard the external perimeter of the Nuremberg International Tribunal courthouse and the various depots and residences of US officers and prosecutors connected with the trial. The men were also entrusted with guarding the accused Nazi war criminals held in prison during the trial up until the day of execution.[36][37]

Foreign Waffen-SS units recruited by Nazi GermanyEdit


Total: 6,500 to 7,000[24]


Total: 18,000 (about "evenly divided between Flemings and Walloons")[39]


Bohemia and MoraviaEdit

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



Total: 6,000[45]


Total: 20,000[47]


Total: 1,180[48] to 3,000[24]


Total: 20,000[39]

General GovernmentEdit

Total: 12 men arrived at the SS training base in Trawniki

  • Failed attempt at recruitment of Goralenvolk in 1943, the whole idea was abandoned and deemed impossible by SS-Obergruppenführer Krüger on April 5, 1943.[50]


Total: 20,000[24]


Total: 4,500[51]


Total: 15,000[24]


Total: 80,000[24]

The NetherlandsEdit

Total: 25,000[54]


Total: 6,000[45]


Total: 50,000[24]


  • Spanische-Freiwilligen-Kompanie der SS 101[55]
  • Spanische-Freiwilligen-Kompanie der SS 102[55]

Soviet UnionEdit


  • Waffen-SS abteilung Sveaborg.[57] Swedes and Estonian-Swedish Waffen-SS volunteers fought in various SS units.[58] Many of them were from Norrland, Stockholm, Göteborg and had fought for Finland. Many were members of NSAP/SSS. 60% were 17–25 years old.[59]
  • The number of Swedish SS-men is unclear; historians estimate between 100 to some 300, with the right number likely being somewhere in between.[60] The Waffen-SS lacked any recruitment office in Sweden, so those joining went to occupied Norway, Denmark or Germany. Some were enrolled in the SS-Junker Schools, SS leadership training camps.[61] The majority was in division Wiking and division Nordland, but also other divisions, and many were stationed in the bloodiest battles on the Eastern front, in the summer offensives 1941–1942, to the hard retreat 1944–1945 into the final battle of Berlin.[62][63] Swedish SS-men experienced the Holocaust on the Eastern front as massacres occurred in many locations Swedes were stationed.[64][65]


A considerable number of German-speaking Swiss joined the SS.[66] 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.[67]


Total: 27,886

United KingdomEdit

Total: 54[68]

See alsoEdit


  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. ^ Nigel Askey (November 2013). Operation Barbarossa: the Complete Organisational and Statistical Analysis. p. 568. ISBN 978-1304453297.
  14. ^ Stein 1984, pp. 172, 179.
  15. ^ Longerich 2012, pp. 611, 612.
  16. ^ Stein 1984, pp. 178–189.
  17. ^ Wegner 1990, pp. 307, 313, 325, 327–331.
  18. ^ Robert Sturdevant (10 February 1944). "Strange Guerilla Army Hampers Nazi Defence of Baltic". Times Daily. Florence, Alabama.
  19. ^ Laar, Mart (2005). "Battles in Estonia in 1944". Estonia in World War II. Tallinn: Grenamder. pp. 32–59.
  20. ^ “SS: Hitler's Foreign Divisions” description
  21. ^ Gerwarth, Robert; Böhler, Jochen (2016). The Waffen-SS: A European History. Oxford University Press. p. 200. ISBN 9780192507822.
  22. ^ Stein 1984, pp. xvi, xviii, 151–164, 168–178.
  23. ^ Hale 2011, p. 324.
  24. ^ a b c d e f g McNab 2009, p. 95.
  25. ^ W. Borodziej (1985). "Część IX". Ruch oporu w Polsce w świetle tajnych akt niemieckich (in Polish). Kierunki. p. 16.
  26. ^ Eugeniusz Cezary Król (2006). Polska i Polacy w propagandzie narodowego socjalizmu w Niemczech 1919-1945 (in Polish). Instytut Studiów Politycznych Polskiej Akademii Nauk. p. 452.
  27. ^ Włodzimierz Borodziej (1985). Terror i polityka: policja niemiecka a polski ruch oporu w GG 1939-1944 (in Polish). Instytut Wydawniczy Pax. p. 86.
  28. ^ Flaherty 2004, pp. 155, 156.
  29. ^ Stein 1984, p. 251.
  30. ^ "The trial of German major war criminals : proceedings of the International Military Tribunal sitting at Nuremberg Germany". avalon.law.yale.edu. Retrieved 2019-06-07.
  31. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica. "Leon Degrelle". Retrieved 2009-12-03.
  32. ^ "Virtual Museum OCCUPATION OF LATVIA".
  33. ^ Chereshneff, Colonel W.V. (1952), The History of Cossacks, Rodina Society Archives
  34. ^ Roberts, Andrew (June 4, 2005), BLOOD ON OUR HANDS;, The Daily Mail
  35. ^ Richard Rashke, Useful Enemies: America's Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals, Open Road Media (2013)
  36. ^ Mart Laar (2008). Eesti Leegion The Estonian Legion In Words & Pictures. Grenadier. ISBN 978-9949-422-61-6.
  37. ^ "Esprits de corps - Nuremberg Tribunal Guard Co. 4221 marks 56th anniversary". Eesti Elu.
  38. ^ a b c d e f Hale 2011, p. 387.
  39. ^ a b Stein 1984, p. 136.
  40. ^ a b c d Stein 1984, p. 154.
  41. ^ Unknown Bulgarian Grenadier Regiment (In Bulgarian). Narod.ru. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  42. ^ Littlejohn, David (1985). Foreign Legions Of The Third Reich. San Jose: Bender Publishing. p. 22. ISBN 9780912138220.
  43. ^ Křen, Jan (2013). Historik v pohybu (in Czech). Charles University in Prague. p. 238. ISBN 9788024621005.
  44. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hale 2011, p. 388.
  45. ^ a b Stein 1984, pp. 136, 137.
  46. ^ Hale 2011, pp. 203, 388.
  47. ^ Thomas, Nigel (2012). Germany's Eastern Front Allies (2): Baltic Forces. Osprey Publishing. p. 15. ISBN 9781780967349.
  48. ^ Stein 1984, p. 161.
  49. ^ Littlejohn 1987, pp. 160, 161.
  50. ^ Rafał Kuzak (12 September 2012). "Jak zrobić z górali esesmanów? Legion Góralski Waffen SS" [How to make highlanders into SS men. The story of Goralenvolk Legion]. Ciekawostki historyczne. Społeczny Instytut Wydawniczy Znak sp. z o.o. (page 2)
  51. ^ Stein 1984, p. 189.
  52. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Hale 2011, p. 389.
  53. ^ Philip S. Jowett (2001-05-25). The Italian Army 1940–1945 (3): Italy, 1943–45. p. 18. ISBN 1855328666.
  54. ^ https://www.niod.nl/en/projects/dutch-volunteers-waffen-ss
  55. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Hale 2011, p. 390.
  56. ^ 81,999 Ukrainian volunteers signed up for service of which only 13,000 were enlisted. Michael Logusz. (1997). Galicia Division. Altglen, PA: Schiffer Military History. pg. 75.
  57. ^ 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")
  58. ^ Bosse Schön tells about other various units
  59. ^ https://www.svd.se/aventyret-lockade-svenskar-till-ss
  60. ^ Hitlers svenska SS-soldater. Bosse Schön. Fischer & Co. 2016. ISBN 9789188243171
  61. ^ Hitlers svenska SS-soldater. Bosse Schön. Fischer & Co. 2016. ISBN 9789188243171
  62. ^ "Ragnarök" (english release: "Twilight of the Gods"), by Erik Wallin as Viking Jerk, and Thorolf Hillblad. Den svenske, 1945.
  63. ^ Hitlers svenska SS-soldater. Bosse Schön. Fischer & Co. 2016. ISBN 9789188243171
  64. ^ https://www.helahalsingland.se/artikel/svenskar-hade-en-roll-i-forintelsen
  65. ^ https://militarhistoria.se/1900-tal/andra-varldskriget/svenskarna-i-waffen-ss
  66. ^ Gutmann, Martin R. (2017). Building a Nazi Europe: The SS's Germanic Volunteers; Chapter 3 - Joining the Burgeoning Waffen-SS. Cambridge University Press.
  67. ^ Byers, Richard (August 2018). "Byers on Gutmann, 'Building a Nazi Europe: The SS's Germanic Volunteers'". H-War. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  68. ^ Thurlow 1998, p. 168.
  69. ^ Weale, Adrian (2014). Renegades. Random House. Appendix 5: British Members of the British Free Corps and their Aliases (Kindle Locations 3757–3758). ISBN 9781473521506. Some only belonged to this unit for a few days.


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