A sign declaring “Barnard College ranks Number 1 in the Journal of Economic Education’s, Fall 1997 ‘Rankings of 40 ELITE Liberal Arts Colleges’ Economics Departments’” adorns the door of my dorm room. Although society emphasizes the attainment of elitism or status, it may not be aware that the doctrine of elitism and those who are labeled “elite” have been ingrained in society since childhood. Parents dedicate their energies and funds to provide the best opportunities for their children. And the children’s resulting future success becomes the reward for their parents’ determination.
Similarly, in Soldiers of Destruction by Charles W. Sydnor, Jr. , Theodore Eicke, the creator and commander of the Third SS Panzer Division Totenkopf, strives to instill upon his soldiers the elite character of their division. With the goal of instilling elitism in his soldiers, Eicke’s combination of uncompromising demand for obedience, talent for organization, and a gift for inspiring and leading men has given the Totenkopfdivision the reputation as one of the most powerful formations in the German armed forces.
As a result of its uncompromising leader, Theodore Eicke, the SS Totenkopfdivision possessed a special character and demeanor even among the other SS divisions. First, Eicke’s doctrine of elitism was routed in the Nazi movement that he embraced with zeal and ferocity. This elitist mentality can be traced back to Eicke’s handling of the prewar concentration camps. Eicke’s conviction in the inferiority of the prisoners established the basis for his development of the standard concentration camp system as a place of forced labor, solitary confinement, and other established forms of abuse.
In addition, Eicke wholeheartedly believed that the concentration camps were the only available and effective instrument for destroying these adversaries of the National Socials. These concentration camps were organized, and guarded by the militarized SS formations that Eicke himself had recruited. Since the fuhrer had given the SSTV-a racially select group of individuals-sole responsibility for guarding and running the camps, the SSTV constituted an elite within the elite structure of the SS. In other words, not only were the SSTV elite, but they were superiors to others within the elite SS structure. Seventeen to twenty years old, at least five feet ten inches tall, in perfect health, and of ‘racially pure stock’” were the stipulations placed upon volunteers desiring acceptance into the newly formed SS Totenkopfverbande (25).
These core requirements demonstrate what Eicke deemed fit for the division and what he envisioned as elite. And this idea of elitism per versed the Totenkopfdivision through Eicke’s orders, circulars and adamant memoranda that constantly attempted to convince the men they served the most important and finest formation in the SS.
Therefore, Eicke sought to remove the stigma of the SSTV as jailor or prison guards for fear that it would damage their performance on the job. Eicke’s elitist belief marauded the Totenkopfdivision in all aspects of its operations. Awarding the men a sense of spirit and status allowed them to go and fight with courage, drive and perseverance. The men became very goal-orientated. The Totenkopfdivision faced the war with a set purpose and the view that they were the only ones able to perform the task fixed in their minds. Basically, they were conditioned to believe, by Eicke, if they can not do it, then no one can.
Eicke amazingly fused his political fanaticism, elitism and camaraderie in order to give the soldiers a sense of their own uniqueness within the SS. First, Eicke set up several criteria or rules of selection for admission into the Totenkopfdivision. In order that he may set up his own elite formation, Eicke resisted Himmler’s attempts to intervene in matters concerning enrollment and recruitment of soldiers in the SSTK (70). Searching for the perfect combination of administrative and military talents, Eicke gathered a reliable staff to advise him in his new command of the SSTK (46).
In addition, except for Bertling and Montigny, all high officials had been hand-picked and trained by Eicke solely to help him build the division into the kind of formation the prewar SS Totenkopfdivision had been (53). Eicke also had problems with the composition of the men in SSTK. About 7,000 soldiers-less than half of the original 15,000 man SSTK force- were members of original prewar Totenkopfverbande. According to Eicke, the remainder of the men were less disciplined and less experienced than the men who had served under him in former SS concentration camp divisions and thus were unwelcome (58).
In order to ingrain the soldiers with his doctrine of elitism, Eicke now had to properly train each soldier to be “elite. ” Eicke and his staff devoted almost every hour of training to making the division combat ready, especially for the expected western campaign. Eicke was very thorough about training. Every conceivable moment available for training the soldiers was utilized. For example, Eicke managed to conduct several large scale exercises during January and February 1940, despite all the difficulties resulting from the winter weather and lack of supplies (66).
Accordingly, as soon as warmer weather arrived, Eicke began intensive combat training exercises (78). Soldiers endured “grueling exercises continued seven days a week from dawn to dusk” (81). Eicke’s foremost goal with this harsh training was to teach the SS soldier how to handle himself and his weapons in every possible battle situation, thereby providing the soldiers with the materials, knowledge and skill to become an elite member of the SS. In addition, Eicke tried to instill in them the reason and drive to fight until the enemy was annihilated.
Thus, Eicke weeded out undesirables or inferior soldiers from his desired elite Totenkopfdivision. To better accomplish its missions, Eicke incessantly asked for adequate supplies and arms for his Totenkopfdivision. For example, in December of 1939, Eicke adamantly requested heavy weapons such as mortars, antitank guns, howitzers, and artillery pieces for the Totenkopfdivision (70). In addition, the soldiers were given a “daily menu of hearty German fare” to ensure that the group was properly nourished (69).
Eicke also was angered when his men had to dress down and withdraw to a defensive position during the French campaign because it called into question the elite doctrine he was trying to instill in each of the soldiers (101). After setting down his agenda and vision for the SS Totenkopfdivision, Eicke had to ensure that the soldiers adhered to his commands, adopted his beliefs and strove for elitism. First, Eicke was very careful about disease outbreaks in the Totenkopfdivision.
Thus, “any member of the SSTK who wished to marry had to send his own personal complete Anentafel (ancestral chart) and that of his prospective bride to Eicke, who, after examining the materials, passed them on through Fuhrlande to the RuSHA for final approval” (60). He also prohibited any further use of three day passes so that the soldiers would not go out into the city , commit adultery and therefore catch venereal diseases (61). Eicke utilized ”sharp arrest” to discourage first time offenders of his rules and prevent them from turning into persistent troublemakers (74).
Also the threat of the concentration camp, utilized by Eicke with great skill, had an immediate effect on the division. Soldiers no longer requested transfers, attempted to resign and many discipline problems subsided. Furthermore, Eicke was extremely worried about publicly negative comments in reference to the division that caused a stigma on the elite Totenkopfdivision. For instance, a young SS sergeant (SS unterscharfuhrer) was charged with revealing secrets in letters written to several women that diminished the elite image Eicke was arduously trying to build for the Totenkopfdivision.
Also, two days after receiving the memorandum concerning Montigny’s unfavorable report on the status of the Totenkopfdivision, Eicke announced plans for renewed intensive training even before the onset of good weather (67). Although the report had been published, Eicke had to denounced it and improve the image of the Totenkopfdivision quickly. “The major factor contributing to the division’s success in the face of such overwhelming odds was undoubtedly the fighting quality of the individual Totenkopf soldier.
The years of constant political and racial indoctrination, the long periods of strenuous training and physical conditioning, and the intensive cultivation of elitism had produced an SS fighting man superbly suited for the unique rigors of the Russian War” (192). Thus, Eicke devotion of time and energy succeeded in transforming the Totenkopfdivision into an elite division that retained both its fighting spirit and combat effectiveness in defeats as well as victory, and by its utterly ruthless behavior in the execution of political and military task against enemy civilians and soldiers.