Death's Head Units
SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV)
SS Totenkopf.jpg
Right collar insignia (second version, 1934–1945)
Bundesarchiv Bild 192-206, KZ Mauthausen, SS-Männer vor Gefangenen.jpg
SS-TV officers at Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp (October 1941)
Agency overview
FormedJune 1934
Dissolved8 May 1945
TypeParamilitary Organisation
HeadquartersOranienburg, near Berlin
52°45′16″N 13°14′13″E / 52°45′16″N 13°14′13″E / 52.75444; 13.23694
Employees22,033 (SS-TV 1939[1] and
SS Division Totenkopf c.1942)
Minister responsible
Agency executives
Parent agencyFlag of the Schutzstaffel.svg Schutzstaffel

SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), literally translated as Death's Head Units,[2] was the SS organization responsible for administering the Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps for Nazi Germany, among similar duties.[3] While the Totenkopf (skull) was the universal cap badge of the SS, the SS-TV also wore the Death's Head insignia on the right collar tab to distinguish itself from other Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) formations.

The SS-TV originally created in 1933 was an independent unit within the SS, with its own ranks and command structure. It ran the camps throughout Germany and later in occupied Europe. Camps in Germany included Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Buchenwald; camps elsewhere in Europe included Auschwitz-Birkenau in German occupied Poland and Mauthausen in Austria among the numerous other concentration camps, and death camps handled with the utmost of secrecy. The extermination camps' function was genocide; they included Treblinka, Bełżec, and Sobibór built specifically for Aktion Reinhard, as well as the original Chełmno extermination camp, and Majdanek which was fitted with mass killing facilities, along with Auschwitz. They were responsible for facilitating what the Nazis called the Final Solution, known since the war as the Holocaust;[4] perpetrated by the SS within the command structure of the Reich Main Security Office, subordinate to Heinrich Himmler, and the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office or WVHA.[5]

At the outbreak of World War II, one of the first combat units of the Waffen-SS, the SS Division Totenkopf, was formed from SS-TV personnel. It soon developed a reputation for brutality, participating in war crimes such as the Le Paradis massacre in 1940 during the Fall of France. On the Eastern Front, the mass shootings of Polish and Soviet civilians in Operation Barbarossa were the work of special task forces known as Einsatzgruppen, which were organized by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.[6][7]


After taking national power in 1933, the Nazi Party launched a new programme of mass incarceration of the so-called enemies of the state. Originally there were only wild camps in operation. Springing up in every town across Germany "like mushrooms after the rain" (Himmler's quote),[8] the early camps utilized lockable spaces usually without infrastructure for permanent detention (i.e. engine rooms, brewery floors, storage facilities, cellars).[9] Following the fall from power of the paramilitary Brownshirts of the SA during the NSDAP purge known as the Night of the Long Knives (30 June to 2 July 1934), the SS took control of the fledgling camp system.[10] The SS founded state-run concentration camps at Dachau, Oranienburg, and Esterwegen, which held the total of 107,000 'undesirables' already by 1935.[11]

On 26 June 1933, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler appointed SS-Oberführer Theodor Eicke the Kommandant of the Dachau concentration camp.[12] Eicke requested a permanent unit that would be subordinate only to him and the SS-Wachverbände was formed.[12] Eicke began his infamous tenure by issuing new orders about the killing of inmates trying to escape (Postenpflicht). He developed the first Nazi Punishment Catalogue regulating the system of extreme disciplinary sanctions for detainees (Lagerordnung). His rules were adopted by all concentration camps of Nazi Germany as of 1 January 1934. Eicke was promoted to SS-Brigadeführer (equivalent to Major-general in the army) on 30 January 1934. Following the Night of the Long Knives, Eicke – who played a role in the affair by shooting SA chief Ernst Röhm – was again promoted to the rank of SS-Gruppenführer and officially appointed Inspector of Concentration Camps and Commander of SS-guard formations. Thereafter, all remaining SA-run camps were taken over by the SS.[13][14][15] In his role as the Concentration Camps Inspector, Eicke began a large reorganisation of the camps in 1935. The smaller camps were dismantled. Dachau concentration camp remained, then personnel from Dachau went on to work at Sachsenhausen and Oranienburg, where Eicke established his central office.[2]

SS-TV officers at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, 1936

In 1935, Dachau became the training center for the concentration camps service.[2] Many of the early recruits came from the ranks of the SA and Allgemeine SS. Senior roles were filled by personnel from the German police service. On 29 March 1936, concentration camp guards and administration units were officially designated as the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV).[16] In the summer of 1937, Buchenwald became operational, followed by Ravensbrück (near Lichtenburg) in May 1939. There were other new camps in Austria, such as Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, which opened in 1938.[2] All SS camps' regulations, both for guards and prisoners, followed the Dachau camp model.[17]

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