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The Schutzstaffel (info • help) (German for "Protective Squadron"), abbreviated (Runic) or SS (Latin), was a large security and military organization of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi Party) in Germany.
The SS was established in the 1920s as a personal-guard unit for Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Heinrich Himmler was its leader from 1929 to 1945. During that time, the SS grew from a small paramilitary formation to become one of the largest and most powerful organizations in Nazi Germany. The Nazis saw the SS as an elite unit, the party's "Praetorian Guard," with all SS personnel selected on the principles of racial purity and unconditional loyalty to the Nazi party.
In contrast to the black-uniformed Allgemeine-SS, which was the political wing of the SS, the military wing was called the Waffen-SS, which evolved into a second German army within the Wehrmacht. It worked in tandem with the regular German army, or Heer. The Waffen-SS compiled a record of fierce fighting and notorious brutality against civilians and prisoners of war. Its units helped wipe out resistance by Polish Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and slaughtered U.S. prisoners of war near the Belgian town of Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
As the Nazi party monopolized the political power in Germany, key government functions such as law enforcement were simply absorbed into the SS. Many SS organizations became the de-facto government agencies. To maintain the political power of the party, the SS was given authority to establish and run the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), which was the security and intelligence service, and the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), or SS secret police, effectively putting the SS above the law.
Heinrich Himmler, the SS leader, was one of the chief architects of the Final Solution. The SS Einsatzgruppen murdered civilians; mostly Jews, in the countries occupied by Germany during World War II. The SS was responsible for establishing and operating concentration camps and extermination camps in which millions of inmates died of inhumane treatment, exploitation, malnutrition or medical experiments. After the war, the judges of Nuremberg Trials declared the SS a criminal organization responsible for the implementation of racial policies of genocide and committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.