The Dirlewanger Brigade, also known as the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger (1944), or the 36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (German: 36. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS), or Black Hunters, was a unit of the Waffen-SS during World War II. The unit, named after its commander Oskar Dirlewanger, consisted of convicted criminals who were not expected by Nazi Germany to survive their service with the unit. Originally formed in 1940 and first deployed for counter-insurgency duties against the Polish resistance movement, the brigade saw service in anti-partisan actions in German-occupied Eastern Europe.
During its operations, the unit participated in the mass murder of civilians and in other war crimes in German-occupied Eastern Europe; it gained a reputation among Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS officers for its brutality. Several commanders attempted to remove Dirlewanger from command and to dissolve the unit, but powerful patrons within the Nazi apparatus protected Dirlewanger and intervened on his behalf. Amongst other actions, the unit took part in the destruction of Warsaw in late 1944 and in the massacre of around 100,000 of Warsaw's inhabitants in August 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising - as well as in the brutal suppression of the Slovak National Uprising of August to October 1944.
n 23 March 1940 a department in the Ministry of Justice received a telephone call from Himmler's headquarters informing them that Hitler had decided to give "suspended sentences to so-called 'honorable poachers' and, depending on their behaviour at the front, to pardon them". A confirmation of Hitler's order was sent specifying that the poachers should where possible be Bavarian and Austrian, not be guilty of crimes involving trap setting, and were to be enrolled in marksmen's rifle corps. The men were to combine their knowledge of hunting and woodcraft similar to traditional Jäger elite riflemen with the courage and initiative of those who willingly broke the law. In late May 1940 Dirlewanger was sent to Oranienburg to take charge of 80 selected men convicted of poaching crimes who were temporarily released from their sentences. After two months training, 55 men were selected with the rest sent back to prison. On 14 June 1940, the Wilddiebkommando Oranienburg ("Oranienburg Poacher's Unit") was formed as part of the Waffen-SS. Himmler made Dirlewanger its commander. The unit was sent to Poland where it was joined by four Waffen-SS NCOs selected for their previous disciplinary records and twenty other recruits. By September 1940, the formation numbered over 300 men. Dirlewanger was appointed an SS-Obersturmführer by Himmler. With the influx of criminals, the emphasis on poachers was now lost, though many of the former poachers rose to NCO ranks to train the unit. Those convicted of other more severe crimes, including the criminally insane, also joined the unit.
From the beginning the formation attracted criticism from both the Nazi Party and the SS for the idea that convicted criminals who were forbidden to carry arms, therefore then exempt from conscription in the Wehrmacht, could be a part of the elite SS. A solution was found where it was proclaimed that the formation was not part of the SS, but under control of the SS. Within a couple of years, the unit had grown into a band of common criminals. Accordingly, the unit name was changed to Sonderkommando Dirlewanger ("Special Unit Dirlewanger"). As the unit strength grew, it was placed under the command of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (the formation responsible for the administration of the concentration camps) and redesignated as the SS-Sonderbataillon Dirlewanger. In January 1942, to rebuild its strength, the unit was authorised to recruit Russian and Ukrainian volunteers. By February 1943 the number of men in the battalion doubled to 700 (half of them Volksdeutsche). It became a Waffen-SS unit again in late 1944. In May 1944, the 550 men (Turkestanis, Wolgatatars Azerbaijanis, Kirghiz, Uzbek, and Tadjiks) from the Ostmuslemanische SS-Regiment were attached to the SS Dirlewanger brigade.
Although other Strafbataillons were raised as the war proceeded and the need for further manpower grew, these penal military units were for those convicted of military offences, whereas the recruits sent to Dirlewanger Brigade were convicted of major crimes such as premeditated murder, rape, arson and burglary. Dirlewanger provided them with an opportunity to commit atrocities on such a scale that it even raised complaints within the brutal SS. The historian Martin Windrow described them as a "terrifying rabble" of "cut-throats, renegades, sadistic morons, and cashiered rejects from other units". Some Nazi officials romanticized the unit, viewing the men as "pure primitive German men" who were "resisting the law".