Initially a small bodyguard unit under the auspices of the SA, the Schutzstaffel (SS; Protection Squadron) grew to become one of the largest and most powerful groups in Nazi Germany. Led by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler from 1929, the SS had over a quarter million members by 1938. Himmler initially envisioned the SS as being an elite group of guards, Hitler's last line of defence. The Waffen-SS, the military branch of the SS, evolved into a second army. It was dependent on the regular army for heavy weaponry and equipment, and most units were under tactical control of the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW). By the end of 1942, the stringent selection and racial requirements that had initially been in place were no longer followed. With recruitment and conscription based only on expansion, by 1943 the Waffen-SS could not longer claim to be an elite fighting force.
Despite its economic and political success, Nazism maintained its power by coercion and mass manipulation. The Nazi regime disseminated a continual outpouring of propaganda through all cultural and informational media. Its rallies—especially its elaborately staged Nürnberg rallies—its insignia, and its uniformed cadres were designed to impart an aura of omnipotence. The underside of its propaganda machine was its apparatus of terror, with its ubiquitous secret police and concentration camps. It fanned and focused German anti-Semitism to make the Jews a symbol of all that was hated and feared. By means of deceptive rhetoric, the party portrayed the Jews as the enemy of all classes of society.
We tried to get out – we’d seen the signs of what was to come, not that we could really have known the full extent of what would happen. My uncle had worked in Palestine in 1917 but had been forced to return to Poland when he got sick. We tried to use the contacts he still had there to escape, but the British (who were in control of it) wouldn’t give us permission to go there. In my mind they carry a lot of the blame for the deaths of many of the Jews – especially the Polish Jews – who perished.
Our daily occupation differed according to age. Prisoners below the forty-fifth year were used for especially hard labor outside the camp in the 'clinker works.' Heavy bags of cement had to be carried for long distances, and the return to the starting point had to be covered at a running pace. For a while the older prisoners were also used outside the camp working on an S.S. settlement. They had to dig or carry cement blocks. All this work was done under the supervision of young S.S. men, most of whom were boys of sixteen to twenty years from former Austria. They circled around us armed with loaded guns or light machine guns. They drove us on and misused their position of superiority with all sorts of torments. If presumably a little offense had been committed, especially if our speed of work didn't satisfy them, they might demand that the prisoner should do knee-bends until he was exhausted or that he roll down the slope a dozen times. In our camp were prisoners ranging in age from fourteen to eighty-four.
If, up to now, we had interpreted our fate only as a privation of liberty, our experience changed rapidly. We had to jump down from the truck without the aid of a chair, and the request for a helping hand was denied with abuse. One of our comrades, an older man lacking the agility of youth, fell in this enforced jump and hurt the back of his head so badly that his skin had to be sewed with several stitches. Hardly were we standing on the ground when a pack of young men in S.S. uniforms, with yells and abuse, chased us to the other end of the large, inner, so-called inspection ground, which is surrounded by the barracks of the prisoners. Those who couldn't run fast enough were kicked.
Adolf Hitler was released from prison on 20 December 1924. On 16 February 1925, Hitler convinced the Bavarian authorities to lift the ban on the NSDAP and the party was formally refounded on 26 February 1925, with Hitler as its undisputed leader. The new Nazi Party was no longer a paramilitary organisation and disavowed any intention of taking power by force. In any case, the economic and political situation had stabilised and the extremist upsurge of 1923 had faded, so there was no prospect of further revolutionary adventures. The Nazi Party of 1925 was divided into the "Leadership Corps" (Korps der politischen Leiter) appointed by Hitler and the general membership (Parteimitglieder). The party and the SA were kept separate and the legal aspect of the party's work was emphasised. In a sign of this, the party began to admit women. The SA and the SS members (the latter founded in 1925 as Hitler's bodyguard, and known originally as the Schutzkommando) had to all be regular party members.
I have already said I that our barracks were overcrowded. It should be added that, although these barracks contained toilets and washrooms, neither came up to the most modest demands of modern hygiene. The cleansing of our bodies took place in a special room and was limited to a short washing of the upper extremities with cold water. A weekly warm shower was supposed to be provided, but with the overcrowding of the camp it was several weeks before a bath was available for each one. There was, of course, no toilet paper.
The German Nazi Party supported German irredentist claims to Austria, Alsace-Lorraine, the region now known as the Czech Republic and the territory known since 1919 as the Polish Corridor. A major policy of the German Nazi Party was Lebensraum ("living space") for the German nation based on claims that Germany after World War I was facing an overpopulation crisis and that expansion was needed to end the country's overpopulation within existing confined territory, and provide resources necessary to its people's well-being. Since the 1920s, the Nazi Party publicly promoted the expansion of Germany into territories held by the Soviet Union.
Spengler's notions of "Prussian socialism" as described in his book Preussentum und Sozialismus ("Prussiandom and Socialism", 1919), influenced Nazism and the Conservative Revolutionary movement. Spengler wrote: "The meaning of socialism is that life is controlled not by the opposition between rich and poor, but by the rank that achievement and talent bestow. That is our freedom, freedom from the economic despotism of the individual". Spengler adopted the anti-English ideas addressed by Plenge and Sombart during World War I that condemned English liberalism and English parliamentarianism while advocating a national socialism that was free from Marxism and that would connect the individual to the state through corporatist organisation. Spengler claimed that socialistic Prussian characteristics existed across Germany, including creativity, discipline, concern for the greater good, productivity and self-sacrifice. He prescribed war as a necessity by saying: "War is the eternal form of higher human existence and states exist for war: they are the expression of the will to war".
On about 17 January or 18 January 1945, the SS dragged thousands of us out of the camp to walk to Ravensbrück concentration camp deep into central Germany. I don’t really know why. We were in terrible straits with no proper clothes, nothing suitable for marching through the snow. It was as if the cruelty would never end. If anyone sat down out of exhaustion, they were shot. Later we were transported yet again, and my aunt Piri became ill and was killed.
On 12 March 1938 the ‘Anschluss’ (‘Annexation’) of austrofascist Austria to the German Reich took place. Two weeks later, the National Socialist Gauleiter (regional head) of Upper Austria, August Eigruber, announced to an enthusiastic audience that his Gau would have the ‘distinction’ of building a concentration camp. The location chosen was the town of Mauthausen on the Danube. Political opponents and groups of people labelled as ‘criminal’ or ‘antisocial’ would be imprisoned here and forced to work in the granite quarries.
National Socialist politics was based on competition and struggle as its organizing principle, and the Nazis believed that "human life consisted of eternal struggle and competition and derived its meaning from struggle and competition." The Nazis saw this eternal struggle in military terms, and advocated a society organized like an army in order to achieve success. They promoted the idea of a national-racial "people's community" (Volksgemeinschaft) in order to accomplish "the efficient prosecution of the struggle against other peoples and states." Like an army, the Volksgemeinschaft was meant to consist of a hierarchy of ranks or classes of people, some commanding and others obeying, all working together for a common goal. This concept was rooted in the writings of 19th century völkisch authors who glorified medieval German society, viewing it as a "community rooted in the land and bound together by custom and tradition," in which there was neither class conflict nor selfish individualism.
Authorities in Belgium were not aware of the pensioners’ identities, the Belgian MPs (Olivier Maingain, Stephane Crusnière, Véronique Caprasse and Daniel Senesael) said, adding that the situation was “the same in the UK, where former SS people also receive payments directly from the German länder [states] without the amounts being taxed or communicated to the British authorities”. The German embassy in London said it did not have any information about the Belgian allegations.
In early 1942, at the Wannsee Conference near Berlin, the Nazi Party decided on the last phase of what it called the “Final Solution” of the “Jewish problem” and spelled out plans for the systematic murder of all European Jews. In 1942 and 1943, Jews in the western occupied countries including France and Belgium were deported by the thousands to the death camps mushrooming across Europe. In Poland, huge death camps such as Auschwitz began operating with ruthless efficiency. The murder of Jews in German-occupied lands stopped only in last months of the war, as the German armies were retreating toward Berlin. By the time Hitler committed suicide in April 1945, some 6 million Jews had died.
On 31 July 1941 Hermann Göring gave written authorization to SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), to prepare and submit a plan for a "total solution of the Jewish question" in territories under German control and to coordinate the participation of all involved government organisations. The resulting Generalplan Ost (General Plan for the East) called for deporting the population of occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to Siberia, for use as slave labour or to be murdered.