Sunwheels and Siegrunen & Totenkopf – Reviewed by Mark Barnes

Two recent books from Helion highlight the enduring fascination with the history and personalities of the Waffen-SS.  The forward writer for one of them identifies the inherent dichotomy that exists when it comes to producing books like this.

Quality histories of an organisation so reviled as the SS can create all manner of issues for the authors where shallow criticism can be harmful. Nobody can change history or make angels of brutal men and a lot of what we know about the SS is tied to the worst excesses of World War II. I can already hear some hackles rising at this statement. I acknowledge the fascination with the SS and believe wiping horrible things from collective memory for the sake of easing emotions is a palpable nonsense.

Like it, or not, the SS are fascinating. Their affairs are a labyrinth of criminality, pomp and circumstance, combat glory and intense loyalty to an utterly discredited regime. They stand apart and invite continued scrutiny.

I was bombarded with books about the SS when we first started the reviews section on this site. I could not buy in to an endless stream of accounts of the Eastern front and the pages of war crimes and horrors.  For me, there was an element of glorification in some of what I saw and I found it unacceptable. I still do. But a good mate always counsels that there are two sides to every story and it is essential we learn from history, not hide it.

Knowledgeable and passionate authors who know what they are doing have put these books together.  Both collections of archive photographs are outstanding and the level of research going into them is truly impressive.

Marc Rikmenspoel offers a sumptuous look at volunteers from occupied or friendly countries of northern Europe serving in SS formations.  The first of two volumes, this book is packed with photographs accompanied by detailed captions. There is much to learn from this book and the author approaches his subject with care and consideration for prevailing attitudes in the aftermath of the events recorded here.

Mark C Yerger and Ignacio Arrondo have produced an in-depth illustrated history of the 3.SS-Panzer Division Totenkopf concentrating predominantly on personalities of the division.  Once again the use of photography is essential to the package and the result is outstanding. The biographies are superb pen portraits of some remarkable individuals who need to be understood and not just made into caricatures. This is a very impressive book.

Regardless of the subject matter, these authors have approached their work with authority and diligence and I have no qualms in recommending them to you. While it is difficult not to wince a little at the lavish presentation it is only right to remind the reader that this is standard stuff for Helion who have a track record of high-quality products. It is safe to assume that the follow-up volumes to complete these projects will be equally as good.

Both books have a number of uses for historians, model makers, living historians and photo collectors. But it is the history that matters most. We cannot learn from what we cannot see and high-quality non-sensationalist studies of the SS are vital to understanding their place in the story of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. That they are not my cup of tea is not the issue here. I know quality when I see it and these books have it in spades.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.

Wiking, Nordland, Nederland and the Germanic Waffen-SS in Photographs, Volume 1
By Marc Rikmenspoel
Helion & Company
ISBN: 978 1 909982 88 8

The Structure, Development and Personalities of the 3.SS-Panzer Division, Volume 1
By Mark C Yerger and Ignacio Arrondo
Helion & Company
ISBN: 978 1 910777 09 1

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.