Charles W. Sydnor’s Soldiers of Destruction is a model piece of military writing covering an otherwise unsavory aspect of World War II. (In this respect it is like Heinz Hohne’s Order of the Death’s Head, which I also recommend.) Soldiers of Destruction details the career of the SS Totenkopf (Death’s Head) Division, one of the Third Reich’s most formidable and ruthless formations. The author is dispassionate and avoids all sensationalism. At the same time his scholarly approach is superior to recent hobbyist literature which tends to sanitize the criminality of Hitler’s elite formations.
As this book makes clear, the fanaticism of the Totenkopf soldiers paid off in terms of tactical finesse. But this elite unit was also a “law unto itself,” run as a private fiefdom by its founder and commander Theodore Eicke—founder of the original concentration camp apparatus in Germany. The Totenkopf was answerable to no moral code other than its own survival and quest for ruthless efficiency. Aside from being responsible for a disproportionate number of atrocities, Sydnor explains that other wartime massacres, like the infamous reprisals against civilians in Oradour, France, were frequently the work of Totenkopf soldiers who had been transferred to other units. The men of the 3rd SS Division were indeed “soldiers of destruction.”