Officially named the 36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, it was commonly referred to as the Dirlewanger Brigade. Formed originally to combat partisan activities in Poland, they like most units saw eventual combat against the Red Army during the death rattle days of the Reich.
Initially the 36th was a unit composed of convicted poachers, but over time it began to become home to an increasing number of common Third Reich criminals. In contrast to those who served in the Wehrmacht’s penal battalions for minor offenses, the volunteers sent to the “Dirlewanger Brigade” had been convicted of such major crimes that would have been considered criminal in even civilian courts. In theory, it was believed that service in the “Dirlewanger” would rehabilitate even the most loathsome criminal but, in fact, it simply provided them with the ability to continue committing criminal acts without repercussions but against the partisan forces.
By September 1940, after news spread and hundreds of concentration camp criminal prisoners applied, the formation numbered over 9000 men strong. As the unit grew, so did the severity of the crimes the members committed. It became common for one soldiers to have committed either assault, burglary, rape or all three.
The notoriety of the Dirlewanger has allowed them to survive in popular culture; the name has been showcased in the video game Velvet Assassin and as the inspiration for the antagonist unit in the USSR film Come and See (1985).
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