Waffen-SS foreign volunteers and conscripts

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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[edit]

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[edit]

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 no 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 soldiers 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 forcibly returned to the Soviet Union. Most along with their families were executed for treason.[31][c]

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][d] 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[edit]


Total: 6,500 to 8,000[35]


Total: 18,000 (about "evenly divided between Flemings and Walloons")[40]


Total: 700

Bohemia and Moravia[edit]

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



Total: 6,000[58]


Total: 20,000 officially entered in the Waffen SS[60][n]


Total: 1,180[61] to 3,000[35]


Total: 9,000[citation needed]


Total: 20,000[35]


Total: 4,500[70]


Total: 15,000[35]


Total: 60,000[74][better source needed] to 80,000[35][r]

The Netherlands[edit]

Total: 20,000 to 25,000[s]


Total: 6,000[75]


Total: 250,000–300,000[t]



Total: 300[81][better source needed][v]

Soviet Union (Russia)[edit]


  • Waffen-SS Abteilung Sveaborg.[x]
  • Historians estimate between 100 and 300 Swedish volunteers joined SS units, including the 5th SS Division Wiking,[83] and the III Germanisches Panzer Korps, among others.[84]


In total, approximately 1,300 Swiss volunteers joined the SS.[85][y]


Total: 20,000[86][better source needed][19]

United Kingdom[edit]

Total: 54[87]


Total: 20–40

Approximately about 20 to 40 Icelanders served in the Waffen SS, including Sveinn Björnsson's son, Björn Sveinsson Björnsson. Most of Icelandic volenteers fought in the 5th SS-Panzer-Division Wiking, or in the SS Nordland[citation needed]

See also[edit]



  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. ^ Most of these Cossacks had left Russia before or soon after the end of the Russian Civil War or had been born abroad, and thus had never been Soviet citizens. See the following primary source document: https://web.archive.org/web/20070928204604/http://www.holycross-hermitage.com/pages/Orthodox_Life/cossacks.htm
  4. ^ Also see: Richard Rashke, Useful Enemies: America's Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals, Open Road Media (2013)
  5. ^ Composed of Albanian muslim volunteers (mostly Kosovo Gheg Albanians), that operated principally in the Kosovo region until the general withdrawal of Axis troops.[37] Some soldiers came from Croatian Ustaša militias or from the SS "Handschar" division (1st Croatian), others volunteered or were supplied by the League of Prizren and the Albanian collaborationist government.[38]
  6. ^ An Albanian Muslim unit set up in the Sandžak by SS- und Polizeiführer Karl von Krempler[39]
  7. ^ Incorporated from Regiment SS-Westland and SS-Nordland into the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking[42]
  8. ^ The regiment was at only battalion strength and never saw combat.[43][better source needed]
  9. ^ A mixed police force of 20,000 men, established by the SS on 10 March 1943,[46] its members wore German SS uniforms and were under the command of the Reichsführer-SS Plenipotentiary for Croatia SS-Brigadeführer Konstantin Kammerhofer.[47]
  10. ^ Formed on 1 March 1943 as "Croatian SS-Volunteer Division", this unit was the first non-Germanic Waffen-SS division.[49] The contingent was composed mostly of Bosnian Muslims, but also contained Kosovo Albanian Muslims, (from 1943 to 1944) and Catholic Croatian volunteers.[50] The unit operated under German and Austrian cadres of the 7th SS Mountain Division “Prinz Eugen”[51] and reached a strength of 21,000 men in January 1944.[50]
  11. ^ Composed of Bosnian Muslims and Croat volunteers under German command,[52] the division was created during the Spring of 1944 as the sister division of 13th SS Handschar, the unit only reached 3,793 officers and men.[53]
  12. ^ Composed mainly of ethnic Germans Volksdeutsche from the frontier region of the Banat, Croatia, Hungary and Romania. The division was headquartered in the Zagreb/karlovac area of Croatia from 1942.[55] At its core were two Croatian units, an SS Selbstschutz and an EinsatzStaffel (an Ustasha Active Unit).[56]
  13. ^ Established in Hungary in July 1944 to command Croatian and Albanian units of the Waffen SS.[57]
  14. ^ Historian Rolf-Dieter Müller points out that an additional 20,000 Estonians served in SS frontier guard regiments.[60]
  15. ^ In September 1944 the Sturmbrigade brigade was amalgamated with the Legion of French Volunteers (L.V.F), which became the core of a Waffen Grenadier Division known as the SS Division Charlemagne.[65]
  16. ^ consisted of two battalions[69]
  17. ^ Used for propaganda and never saw combat.[72][better source needed]
  18. ^ Historian Andrejs Plakans puts this figure at 100,000.[24]
  19. ^ See: http://publications.niod.knaw.nl/publications/Veld_SSenNederland_01.pdf
  20. ^ not including tens of thousands of Romanian ethnic Germans.[79][better source needed]
  21. ^ A Serbian collaborationist militia briefly transferred to the Waffen SS while fleeing the country after the liberation of Belgrade by the Red Army.[80]
  22. ^ including Portuguese Volunteers who were counted as Spaniards.[72][better source needed]
  23. ^ attached to 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien and III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps[81][better source needed]
  24. ^ 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
  25. ^ 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
  26. ^ In November 1944, Galician No. 1 became Ukrainian No. 1[19] towards the end of the war it became "1st Ukrainian Division of the Ukrainian National Army" (1st UD UNA). According to Andrii Bolianovskyi, the change of the division’s official names illustrates the change of attitude of the Third Reich towards Ukrainian national aspirations.[19]
  27. ^ From 1942 to 1944 the largest ethnic group of the unit[86][better source needed]


  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. ^ a b c d 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 McNab 2009, p. 95.
  36. ^ a b c d e f g Hale 2011, p. 387.
  37. ^ a b Tomasevich 2002, p. 154.
  38. ^ Bougarel et al. 2017, p. 256.
  39. ^ a b Bougarel et al. 2017, p. 266.
  40. ^ Stein 1984, p. 136.
  41. ^ a b c d Stein 1984, p. 154.
  42. ^ a b Mitcham 2007, p. 1942.
  43. ^ a b Rikmenspoel 2004, p. 183.
  44. ^ Littlejohn 1987b, p. 238.
  45. ^ Tomasevich 2002, p. 268.
  46. ^ Ramet 2020, p. 73.
  47. ^ Tomasevich 2002, p. 285.
  48. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hale 2011, p. 388.
  49. ^ Bougarel et al. 2017, p. 263.
  50. ^ a b Brnardic & Aralica 2016, p. 37.
  51. ^ Mitcham 2007, p. 1951.
  52. ^ Mitcham 2007, p. 1959.
  53. ^ Brnardic & Aralica 2016, p. 39.
  54. ^ Cohen & Riesman 1996, p. 100.
  55. ^ McNab 2009, p. 220.
  56. ^ Butler 1998, p. 107.
  57. ^ a b McCroden & Nutter 2019, p. 122.
  58. ^ Stein 1984, pp. 136, 137.
  59. ^ Hale 2011, pp. 203, 388.
  60. ^ a b Müller 2012, p. 169.
  61. ^ Stein 1984, p. 161.
  62. ^ Lappalainen 1997, p. 114-115.
  63. ^ Jokipii 2002, p. 158-160.
  64. ^ Forbes 2010, p. 62.
  65. ^ Littlejohn 1987, pp. 161, 170, 172.
  66. ^ Littlejohn 1987, pp. 170, 172.
  67. ^ Muñoz & Pavlović 2005, p. 165.
  68. ^ Bernád & Kliment 2015, p. 295.
  69. ^ a b Kursietis & Munoz 1999, p. 61.
  70. ^ Stein 1984, p. 189.
  71. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Hale 2011, p. 389.
  72. ^ a b Rikmenspoel 2004, p. 187.
  73. ^ McNab 2009, pp. 325–326.
  74. ^ Rikmenspoel 2004, p. 189.
  75. ^ Stein 1984, pp. 136–137.
  76. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hale 2011, p. 390.
  77. ^ Mitcham 2007, p. 1949.
  78. ^ Bender 1971, p. 132.
  79. ^ Rikmenspoel 2004, p. 190.
  80. ^ a b Tomasevich 2002, p. 189.
  81. ^ a b c Rikmenspoel 2004, p. 192.
  82. ^ a b c d e f Hale 2011, p. 391.
  83. ^ Larsson 2015, p. 28.
  84. ^ Larsson 2015, pp. 119, 249.
  85. ^ Gutmann 2017, p. 20.
  86. ^ a b c d Rikmenspoel 2004, p. 193.
  87. ^ Thurlow 1998, p. 168.


Further reading[edit]

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