Daniel Siemens’s excellent new history of the Sturmabteilungen — the SA; better known as the Nazi Party’s Stormtroopers or Brownshirts — includes a lot of violence.
It begins with the horrific murder of an innocent Polish down-and-out in German Upper Silesia in August 1932. Accused of being a Communist, he was savagely beaten to death by local SA thugs. His murderers were arrested, charged, and found guilty in court. But under pressure from the Nazi Party, their death sentences were transmuted to life imprisonment. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the murderers were released and greeted by cheering crowds.
Most histories of the SA end in July 1934, when its leader Ernst Rohm and other prominent members were killed in the so-called ‘Night of the Long Knives’. But Siemens argues that this was not the end of the SA, that their influence lived on not just in the ideology but in the culture and psychology of the Nazi Party.
It is a convincing thesis, supported with immense scholarship and research in national, regional, and local archives, providing a rich and detailed history.
Siemens begins in the early 1920s, when 400,000 returning soldiers joined paramilitary groups across Germany.
Amid this turmoil, the tiny German Workers’ Party in Bavaria reformed as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) and the SA became its self-defence force.
From the start, it took an aggressive stance towards its enemies, attacking political opponents and beating up Jews. It was known as the ‘battering ram’ of the Nazi Party.
But equally important was its role educating the Party’s youth. Hitler’s beer-hall speeches at weekly SA meetings in Munich helped to unify and inspire the stormtroopers in the infancy of their movement.
Hitler’s failed putsch of November 1923 resulted in 16 dead who later became the ‘holy sacrifice’, leaving an enduring myth about the SA November martyrs. But it was not until 1926 that the SA was revived as a national force, under its then leader Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, a former army officer.
Under Pfeffer, the SA controlled the SS and the Hitler Youth. Pfeffer organised the SA as a people’s militia along strict military lines. Mainly concerned with spreading Nazi propaganda rather than confronting its rivals, it remained a relatively small operation.
In 1930, the Nazi Party won 18% of votes in the Reichstag, and in 1931 Ernst Rohm became Chief of Staff of the SA. During that year, 8,248 people were injured or killed as a result of political violence. In the next 18 months, the SA grew in numbers from 77,000 to 445,000.
Many seem to have been attracted not so much by fascist ideology as by the opportunity to participate in an aggressive male cult, with ritualistic bouts of drinking, physical exercise, bonding, and shows of public camaraderie. All of this amounted to a form of empowerment for those who felt dispossessed by society.
HITLER IN POWER
After Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the Nazis interned 80,000 of their enemies, and the SA took over the prisons and the new concentration camps. Thousands of SA men became auxiliary policemen, beginning a reign of brutality and sadism in many German cities.
By 1934, the SA had grown to three million members. But when Hitler heard rumours of an attempted coup by Rohm, he acted swiftly, ordering Rohm’s assassination along with about 100 other SA leaders.
These political murders failed to provoke a backlash. Instead, they completed Hitler’s consolidation of power. In future, there would be only one, all-powerful Fuhrer.
Viktor Lutze became the new Chief of Staff of a ‘purified’ SA. The days of brawling in the streets were over. Their role became one of educating German youth in Nazi ideology and preparing them to serve in the Army. Siemens shows how the SA continued to play an important part in the militarisation of German society in the late 1930s. They performed paramilitary tasks in Austria after its annexation, and in Czechoslovakia after the Sudetenland occupation.
At least a million SA members went into the Wehrmacht and pursued the Nazi idea of the ‘political soldier’. They would continue their battle with ‘Bolshevism’ in the vast plains of Russia, forming extermination squads that roamed the countryside.
SA generals and officials played their part in the Holocaust, rounding up Jews in Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Many governments paid the Reich up to 100 Marks for each Jew ‘deported’. Hundreds of thousands were sent to camps and killed en masse. The SA also provided guards at the death camps. After Hungary’s occupation in
1944, nearly half a million Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, where even the industrial-scale apparatus of killing at the camp struggled to cope with the huge numbers arriving daily.
Siemens, very interestingly, also looks at post -war accounts that tended to downplay the role of the SA. They were presented as hangers-on and not as principal drivers of the Nazi movement. Unlike the SS, they were not declared a criminal organisation at the Nuremberg War Trials.
As a consequence, ex-members went on to become responsible and highly regarded citizens, many serving as councillors or mayors across West Germany. In East Germany, some SA men were prosecuted if they had attacked Communists during the Nazi era, but were pardoned if they agreed to spy for the Stasi.
Siemens describes how, in the early 1920s, many stood up to the SA thugs. Photographs show passers-by ignoring Brownshirts parading in the streets.
By the 1930s, however, the SA was rarely challenged. As Europe today witnesses the rise of many small right-wing parties, Siemens’s book demonstrates how powerful movements can start as tiny, minority groups that most people find easy to ignore. It is a timely reminder.