The Waffen SS was the army wing of the SS (Shutzstaffeln – literally, protection squads). The SS became an independent organization within the Nazi Party in July 1934. The Waffen SS was established in November 1939 as a unification of several units of the SS. Waffen SS units were largely under the control of the German army, the Wehrmacht, and integrated into its command structures. At the same time, however, Waffen SS unites were subordinate to the SS High Command, headed by Heinrich Himmler, in questions of personnel, replacement training, and indoctrination.

By the end of the war in May 1945, over 800 000 men, organized into 38 divisions, had served in the Waffen SS. The Waffen SS played a major role in several important battles on the Eastern front, particularly the Battle of Kharkiv, and the Battle of Kursk. As the fortunes of war turned against Germany, volunteers from occupied territories began to be recruited into the Waffen SS. A Ukrainian division, the 14th Waffen SS Galicia, was formed in 1943.

The history of the Waffen SS is extraordinarily complex. Some units of the Waffen SS did participate in war crimes and wartime atrocities. However, organizationally the Waffen SS must be viewed as separate from the SS proper, which was responsible for several pre-war and wartime crimes. In particular, the SS proper was responsible for running concentration camps. The Waffen SS, in contrast, was committed to actual battles; many of the units distinguished themselves bravely, particularly as the tide of the war turned against Germany.