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Hitler’s Second Army: The Waffen SS, by Edmund L. Blandford, Motorbooks, Osceola, Wis., 1995, $24.95.

“We were thrown into the battle once,” noted one Waffen SS soldier, “and I tasted action for the first time. All of the Russian tanks were advancing at full speed with hundreds of infantrymen coming up behind them. The heat in the tank became almost unbearable, so when the action was over, we leapt out for some fresh air. By that time all we could see was the smoking wrecks of the T-34s and (the) field littered with corpses of the Russian infantry.”

This is one of the myriad first-person accounts from former members of the Waffen (Armed) SS–from private to colonel-general–that make this book a real gem for all military buffs, World War II aficionados, and students of the German armed forces in general.

This is a marvelously engaging and highly readable work on a much-covered subject. The book’s strength is that it gives the general reader all the information he’ll want while also providing enough detail for the scholar. The 48 black-and-white illustrations are poorly reproduced, however, in some cases embarrassingly so. And while the first-person accounts of training and combat are fascinating, the sources of those accounts could be better detailed for readers who want to know where they came from, other than the general laundry list given in the bibliography at the end. These are minor flaws, however, in what otherwise is a very good work indeed.

Adolf Hitler hardly appears in the book at all, Reichsführer (national leader) Heinrich Himmler only where necessary, and the top-tier commanders only as sources of first-person testimony. Thus, the emphasis in the work is on the evolution of the force, its training and weaponry, and how its men experienced these and the resultant combat firsthand. In that respect, the author has produced a unique work in the Waffen SS literature.

He points out that the creators of the new, revolutionary Waffen SS–all former members of the conservative German army of World War I–established exactly what they wanted to: “A new type of soldier rarely equaled in the history of warfare.” There would not be the old, rigid, Prussian-style discipline or utter distinction between officer and enlisted man. The young SS officers led their squads and platoons from the front.

Blandford is at pains also to correct what he sees as the myths about these men that have emerged since 1945. “The SS soldier imbued with hatred was a rarity even during the war,” he writes. “These were not fanatical Nazis committing unsoldierly acts, but very ordinary young men.” In fact, the entire last chapter of the book is no less than a lengthy apologia for the SS combat veterans, noting their differences from the Death’s Head Division that was recruited en masse from concentration camp guards and the Polizei division that came from the regular police. Ultimately, the reader must decide the veracity of that assertion, and this is a splendid work to aid in making that decision. Blaine Taylor