The lightning bolts symbol of the dreaded SS in Nazi Germany dates back to a 9th century Scandanavian runic alphabet known as Young Futharck, where a symbol similar to a lightning flash stood for the letter S:
In 1906 an Austrian mysticist and Germanic revivalist, Guido von List, claimed that whilst recovering from a cataract operation, the “secrets of the runes” had been revealed to him. His list of runes, the Armanen Futharkh, is a reinterpretation of the Scandanavian runes:
Symbol 11 above was reclassified by him as meaning “victory”.
His symbols were adopted by völkisch supporters.
The German völkisch movement (meaning people’s movement) were people dabbling in mysticism and extreme nationalism. According to historian James Webb, the word also has "overtones of 'nation', 'race' and 'tribe'. Völkisch ideology rejected liberalism, democracy, socialism and industrial capitalism as being un-German”, all features of the political system of Weimar Germany. They characterised such features as the result of subversive Jewish influences. By the end of WW1 there were about seventy-five völkisch groups in Germany, promoting a variety of pseudo-historical, mystical, racial and anti-semitic views. This had a major influence on the embryonic Nazi Party; Hitler wrote in his 1925 book Mein Kampf that "the basic ideas of the National Socialist movement are völkisch and the völkisch ideas are National Socialist."
The völkisch movement adopted the use of List’s Armanen Runes, including the swastika, and the Nazi’s in turn adopted the use from that movement. Heinrich Himmler, who led the SS from 1929 to 1945, was one of many leading Nazi figures associated with völkisch groups, and his interest in Germanic mysticism led him to adopt a variety of List's runes for the SS. Some had already been adopted by members of the SS and its predecessor organisations but Himmler systemised their use throughout the SS. By 1945 the SS used twelve Listian runes, in addition to the swastika.
The SS was the abbreviated name of the Schutzstaffel, meaning "Protection Squadron", a Nazi paramilitary organisation. It had begun as a small guard unit known as the Saal-Schutz ("Hall-Protection") made up of National Socialist Party volunteers to provide security for Nazi Party meetings in Munich. In 1925, Heinrich Himmler joined the unit, which had by then been reformed and given its final name. Under Himmler's direction (1929–45), it grew from a small paramilitary formation to one of the most powerful organisations in the Third Reich. From 1929 until Nazi Germany's collapse in 1945, the SS was the foremost agency of surveillance and terror within Germany itself and the occupied territories in Europe.
The SS's runes insignia was introduced in 1933 for Hitler’s protection unit but eventually it became the insignia for the entire SS.
A graphic designer, Walter Heck, came up with the SS lightning bolts insignia. Heck was an SS Sturmhauptführer who worked as a graphic designer for Ferdinand Hoffstatter, a producer of emblems and insignia in Bonn. For his efforts and design concept, Heck received a token payment of 2.5 Reichsmarks for his work. The device had a double meaning; as well as standing for the initials of the SS, it could be read as a rallying cry of "Victory, Victory!" During the Nazi period, an extra key was added to German typewriters to enable them to type the SS logo with a single keystroke.
The various divisions of the military arm of the SS, the Waffen-SS (German for "Armed SS", literally "Weapons SS"), also had their own insignia in addition to the SS. These insignia were also based on the List runes:
The Waffen-SS was formed in 1940 and was a crack front line combat organisation. An elite military formation of nearly 600,000 men by the time WWII was over, its units spearheaded some of the most crucial battles of WWII.
The image of an all-German Waffen-SS is, however, misleading.
My father in law, Noel, a history buff, pointed out to me recently that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was a Hitler supporter and that there was an SS Division composed of Bosniak recruits.
As WW2 dragged on, the Waffen-SS competed with the Wehrmacht (the Nazi combined military forces of the army, navy and air force) for new recruits. Himmler solved the problem by creating Waffen-SS units composed of other nationalities and Germanic people in other countries. By the end of 1943 approximately 25% of the SS (310,000 men) consisted of SS “Foreign Legions”, including French, Dutch, Belgian, Ukrainian Albanian, Serbian, Croatian and Turkish recruits. In many cases the recruits joined the Nazis because of hostility to Germany’s enemies, including opposition to Russia and Stalin. Hostility to the British was so high in India that there was even an Indian Waffen-SS unit composed mainly of disaffected Indian prisoners who had served in the British Indian Army.
The exiled Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, was made an SS-Gruppenführer by Himmler in May 1943. The Mufti subsequently used anti-Semitism and anti-Serb racism to recruit an entire Waffen-SS division of Bosnian Muslims, the SS-Handschar
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini greeting Bosniak SS volunteers before their departure to the Eastern Front, 1943
Haj Amin al-Husseini meeting with Adolf Hitler (December 1941).
By 1944 Himmler’s need for further Waffen-SS recruits was so desperate that he was seeking release of Muslim prisoners from the concentration camps to supplement his SS troops.
One final comment:
The SS uniforms were designed and manufactured by Hugo Boss, who had started his own clothing company in Stuttgart in 1924. Boss joined the Nazi Party in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power. The Hugo Boss company produced the black SS uniforms along with the brown SA shirts and the black-and-brown uniforms of the Hitler Youth. In 1999, US lawyers acting on behalf of Holocaust survivors started legal proceedings against the Hugo Boss company over the use of slave labour during the war. The misuse of 140 Polish and 40 French forced workers led to an apology by the company.
It has led to the following comment: