Of all the German military organizations of WWII the Waffen-SS is one of the most widely studied. This is in part because of the combat record of the Waffen-SS and the elite status of many of its units, and in part because of the brutality attributed to some of its formations and the war crimes some of its members were responsible for.
By the end of WWII over 1,000,000 soldiers in 38 divisions would serve in the Waffen-SS, including over 200,000 conscripts.The Waffen-SS was a part of the German Schutzstaffel or SS, which saw its rise during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The SS was the single most powerful political organization within the Third Reich and consisted of the Allgemeine-SS, Totenkopfverbande, and the Waffen-SS.The Waffen-SS was born in 1933 after Hitler came to power when Politisches Bereitschaften or Political Readiness Detachments were formed under the control of the SS. These units were organized along military lines and were intended to help counter Communist strikes. On October 1st, 1934 these units became the SS-Verfügungstruppen or SS Special Use Troops. Initially the Verfügungstruppen consisted of small detachments located in larger German cities but by 1935 they were organized into battalions and in 1936 into Standarten or regiments. In 1936 two main SS-V Standarten existed, Deutschland and Germania.
The Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler also existed at this time and although related it was considered somewhat outside the purview of the SS-V.In 1938 the SS-Verfügungstruppen took part in the occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia along side the Wehrmacht. After the occupation of Austria a third Standart was formed known as Der Führer. In 1939 the SS-Verfügungstruppen consisted of three Standarden, the LAH, and a number of smaller service and support units. For the Campaign in Poland in 1939 all SS-V units were organized into the SS-Verfügungstruppe-Division and placed under the operational command of the Wehrmacht. The SS-Verfügungstruppe-Division also fought in the Western Campaign 1940. After the conclusion of the Western Campaign the SS-Verfügungstruppen was renamed and became the Waffen-SS.Although the Waffen-SS is frequently considered an elite organization not all of its units were actually elite. Some Waffen-SS units formed after 1943 had less than ideal combat records. This was in part due to the fact that the number of volunteers eligible for service in the Waffen-SS shrank as the war continued while the need for replacements increased. The number of conscripts taken into the Waffen-SS of lesser quality or questionable ability had a direct impact on combat effectiveness.
After WWII ended the Waffen-SS was condemned at the Nurnberg Trials as a criminal organization. This was in part due to a series of high profile atrocities and because of their connection to the SS and NSDAP. Only those who were conscripted into the Waffen-SS were exempt from the Nurnberg declaration. As a result Waffen-SS veterans were generally denied the rights and benefits granted to other WWII German veterans. Waffen-SS prisoners of war were often held in strict confinement and were treated harshly by the Soviets. Many foreign volunteers that served in the Waffen-SS were also treated severely by their national governments. In the years since WWII there have been attempts to rehabilitate the image and legality of Waffen-SS veterans, both through legislation and in published works by former officers like Paul Hausser (Soldaten wie andere auch - Soldiers Like Any Other). To this day the stigma on veterans from the Waffen-SS remains.