When Hitler wanted to punish four Waffen SS divisions for retreating in violation of his orders, he had them stripped of the treasured cuffbands identifying them. That is, he punished their uniforms, which by that time had acquired all but mystical significance. Hitler was especially angry because one of the cuffbands had read Leibstandarte, designating it the personal guard of Hitler himself, a unit sworn to death before dishonor.
Attention to these German uniforms necessarily drags us into the murky world of twentieth-century German social understanding. Aside from the programs to purify the German race by expelling and exterminating the Others, a key impulse in the social operations of the Third Reich was the urge to uniformity, regarded as the ideal cultural condition. As Joseph Goebbels once said, the object of the cultural departments of the Reich—literary, musical, cinematic—was 'to unite all creative persons in a cultural uniformity of the mind.' Even on the wartime front lines, the German army emphasized 'comradeship' among the troops. One had to be a joiner, and a vigorously enthusiastic one. Ideally, it was thought, comradeship among the soldiers would permeate postwar society as a whole. That is, Frontgemeinschaft would bring about Volksgemeinschaft, and people of original mind would be recognized as enemies of the state. Doubters, wits, skeptics, ironists, dissenters, and loners would either be quietly absorbed and transformed, or vanish—do not ask where. The Third Reich would finally become one tightly knit whole. The development of handsome uniforms for everyone would provide visible evidence of group cohesiveness and would stimulate citizens' impulses to join in. Far from the unprepossessing olive-drab outfits of the Anglo-Saxons and the Russians, the German uniforms couldn't help appealing to the normal desire of ordinary people to dress up. There was hardly a definable trade or labor community that didn't have its good-looking uniform. To work with your equals, you could dress down in dungarees or protective clothing. But when you wore your walking-out ensemble you could really impress your audience, who would regard you as something special. 'Madly theatrical,' wrote Kurt Vonnegut of Nazi uniforms, civilian as well as military.
At work in the mines, for example, miners necessarily wore practical, unsightly clothes, but walking out, what a change: an apprentice miner wore a black high-collared tunic with rows of silver buttons on sleeves and chest, twenty-four buttons in all, and, on top, a quasi-military visor cap. As you rose in the mining ranks, your black tunic added silver buttons, to a total of thirty-four. (The German fondness for double-breasted uniform jackets may be explained as a device for exhibiting more buttons.) As a graduate miner, your headgear was a black shako with a large silver eagle on the front and a plume on top. For formal affairs, you added white gloves and a sword and a red-white-and-black Nazi armband. Postal workers and bus and tram conductors closely resembled military personnel, with brass buttons on their tunics and, on their caps, the national emblem—the eagle holding the swastika. A senior locomotive driver got to display on his left thigh a sword in a fancy scabbard with sword knot. Veterans of past wars all had their official uniforms, with aiguillettes, eagles, and armbands.
If you were lucky enough to land a job as district falconry master, you wore a quasi-Tyrolean cap with feathers, to go with your gray uniform, silver buttons, and black leather belt, and since your venue was outdoors, you wore high black boots. Emergency, construction, and transport units had clothing that made them look like soldiers, and were all so attractive that anyone would want to join. An emergency unit commander even got a sword. Workers in the national construction corps were uniformed like troops but with a sleeve band identifying their branch of service. Both male and female members of the German Red Cross were put into uniforms suggesting military connections, with indications of rank on collars and shoulders.
Children were by no means excluded from this national enjoyment of uniforms. Members of the Bund Deutsche Madel (the compulsory girls' organization) were identified by a black skirt and white blouse. Boys in the Hitler Jugend wore black corduroy shorts, brown shirts with insignia, and black neckerchiefs with leather slide. Leaders could be identified by the junior-sized sword attached to their belts.
Belonging to the diplomatic corps of the Foreign Office did not mean that you were necessarily consigned to a business suit. At formal, white-tie functions, an ambassador wore a black tailcoat with black trousers decorated with/a broad silver trouser stripe and, of course, a sword. For walking-out clothes he wore a black tunic with white or silver straps of rank on the shoulders and a silver belt. In cold weather he added a double-breasted overcoat with large fold-back lapels. These critical lapels on overcoats were a standard place to exhibit color as a sign of high rank. A senior Red Cross officer had gray lapels; a general in the engineer corps, pink; a grand admiral in the navy, light blue; field marshal, red; medical officers in the national medical service, brown, like the adults directing the Hitler Jugend. Many military officers wore uniforms requiring breeches and riding boots, highly acceptable because of their association with such former aristocratic activities as animal hunting and steeplechasing.
Another uniform detail unique to the Germans was the semicircular metal breastplate, hanging around the neck by a chain, known as a gorget. Gorgets identified men on military police duty and policemen in general, and suggested an actual armor breastplate. (The troops liked to refer to gorget-wearers as Kettenhunde, chained-up dogs.) Whatever their precise meaning, gorgets betokened special authority, and even the supervisor of air-traffic controllers wore one. Their frequent appearance certainly added to the decorative dimension so inseparable from the German uniform practice, like the arm- and cuffbands with words on them, the swords and daggers, and the white skull on the caps of the SS, extra expressive against the customary black background. In the regular army, officers had red stripes down their trouser legs, and even the Gauleiters (political leaders of various districts) got to dress up in quasi-military uniform, with, for verisimilitude, a small pistol in a holster.
But the Navy was one place where some restraint and traditional good sense presided. In fact, the star worn above the gold stripes on officers' cuffs was identical with the one familiar in the American Navy, and the sailors' uniforms were strikingly close to those traditional in other countries. This was a far cry from one of the funniest of all Nazi uniforms, the one worn by the SA (Sturm Abteilung), the original unit of bully-boys in the 1930s who were skilled in beating up Jews, Socialists, and Communists, breaking windows, and generally raising hell in the interest of the Nazi Party. Having gone too far even for Hitler, they were wiped out by the SS in 1934. The SA wore a sloppy uniform of brown shirt and Sam Browne belt, with brown breeches stuffed into boots. But its most noticeable feature was a little boy's visor cap, a messy sort of soft French kepi with a needless chin strap, always deployed. At this ludicrous little cap no one surely had the courage to laugh out loud, but certainly many felt the urge to giggle, especially when the little cap was worn by the SA's leader, fatty Ernst Rohm. Hitler was once photographed wearing the absurd SA cap, but apparently he was so embarrassed by his appearance that he never allowed the picture to be published. Another photograph depicts him standing with a number of SA people, all in uniform. He is the only one capless.
During the 1930S, such 'auxiliary' or political pseudo-military forces were popularly known largely by the color of their uniforms. The SA were the Brown Shirts; Mussolini's private army. Black Shirts. It's hard to think of any military unit on the Allied side proudly known by a color—certainly not the olive drabs of the United States or the khakis of the USSR and Britain.
But the wholly black uniform of the German SS was a triumph of originality, and wearers were so fond of being identified with it that their official periodical was titled Der Schwarze Korps. For the SS, blackness could be associated with a whole rich folklore of intimidation and useful wickedness. Listen to Susan Sontag romanticizing Himmler's SS as well as the embrace of black as a sign of power and menace by the lowest sort of motorcyclists. She wrote of these, suggesting a form of sado-masochism, 'The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.'