Dishonor Before Death:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
You think you live in a better country. Maybe you’re right. I think if you live long enough, you’ll see just how easy it is for evil to become an everyday practice. You’ll live your life every day like nothing has changed, while your leaders do evil in your name. Yours. And you’ll pretend that your silence carries no responsibility.
My grandfather told me that, about three and a half decades ago, a little more than four decades after he won the Knight’s Cross defending a forgotten hunk of rock above the Arctic Circle, four decades after he was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp as a political prisoner. I wrote it down at the time, and ran across it just before I sat down to write this. So it seemed like on this of all days, it cried out to be repeated.
I don’t particularly like writing or publishing books about evil. And for a long time, I simply wouldn’t publish stuff about the Waffen SS party militia, which was about as evil as they come. But then a while back I saw a post on a message board, “whatabouting” away Waffen SS crimes since American soldiers committed war crimes, too. It shocked me, that in 2019 anyone could still be that densely stupid. It shouldn’t have; I’d already seen plenty of evidence that the human capacity to wish away the sight of evil acts remains fully intact. We choose our team, our colors, and they can do no wrong.
The catalog of Waffen SS atrocities isn’t actually endless, it just seems that way. The Waffen SS began as a personal bodyguard for Adolf Hitler, expanding in the late 1930’s to embrace all areas of state security in the Third Reich. Heinrich Himmler, the national leader of the SS, set up a paramilitary force in November, 1938, with a view toward making it a complete force of all arms. One year later, these “Special Duty Troops” became known internally as “Waffen SS” (literally “Armed SS,” more accurately “Militarized”), a designation made official in March, 1940. The militia grew slowly at first, but by the end of the war commanded over a quarter-million thugs, many of them foreigners in German service. The regular Army and the Waffen SS conducted bitter bureaucratic warfare for the entire period; though the Waffen SS was never intended to supplant the army, the generals were determined to protect their prerogatives. They eventually lost the struggle to submit SS militiamen to the military draft; volunteering for the militia satisfied a young German’s obligation.
The Waffen SS was not a branch of the German armed forces; it remained a branch of the National Socialist Workers’ Party - despite the eventual possession of tanks and artillery, it was the party’s militia. The SS formations raised before the war and during its first years were not intended to fight in the front lines, though some of them did even during the 1939 invasion of Poland. Rather, their purpose was to occupy conquered territories and exterminate Germany’s racial and political enemies. They were not “just soldiers”; they were volunteer murderers.
Our Panzer Grenadier: Dishonor Before Death book sends the Waffen SS into action in Normandy and northern France in the summer of 1944. Mike Perryman designed thirty scenarios, split into eight chapters. Each chapter also has a “battle game” that ties the scenarios in the chapter together. The U.S. Army, the implacable foe of evil during the Second World War, opposes the SS in all 30 scenarios.
The SS militia isn’t always the bumbling bloodthirsty bozos of the early war years; by 1944 for the most part they’ve improved. They’re not the Aryan supermen of Nazi myth and fanboy fantasy, but they do have some competent units and are often armed with the best weaponry the Third Reich can provide. Some of the SS divisions are still pretty bad, with terrible leadership and low morale despite usually fielding a pretty generous allotment of support weapons and artillery. They didn’t sign up to fight someone who would shoot back at them, and it shows.
To go with the scenarios, the book also includes 165 die-cut and mounted pieces showing the SS militia in an alternate black color scheme, an old wargame convention. In our games we color them in camouflage; when the militia appear in a scenario alongside the regular Army they usually have lower morale so they need to be distinguishable. It’s also just more fun to wipe out the fancy SS. The fancy black pieces cover all of the SS pieces in Elsenborn Ridge and Liberation 1944, and most of them from Fire & Sword.
Once upon a time, a leader felt himself infallible. He could not lose, and he would make his country great as a reflection of his own greatness. He gathered to himself a militia of armed followers who engaged in street violence and convinced a plurality of voters that their misery was not their fault, it was caused by those other people. The ones who worshipped differently, who believed differently, who loved differently.
And so we’ve created Dishonor Before Death, so you can vanquish evil on your game table. And make no mistake: the Waffen SS were evil. The book is filled with history, the hard truths that we try to forget when we say these are “just games.” Well, they’re not. They represent historical events that happened, that happened as an exercise in political power in a titanic world-wide struggle between good and evil, in which good prevailed, at least for a time.
I only wrote the historical chapters of this book. I didn’t like doing it, but this is what I do. History never ends. Evil might suffer some serious wounds, and for a time it slinks away. Long enough so we can forget, so we can pretend that it’s all just talk. And then it returns. It might change its form a little, it might shift its target from one vulnerable group to another. But it always returns.
It’s not enough to vanquish evil on your game table. You can pretend that your silence carries no responsibility. I can’t do that; we have to fight evil every day. Maybe I have lived long enough to see that.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.