Sturmabteilung – the SA

A parade of brown-shirted troopers of the Sturmabteilung

From its early years, the Nazi Party was closely affiliated with – and to a large extent defined by – its paramilitary branches: the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the Schutzstaffel (SS). Each embodied the Nazi fascination with militarism, authoritarianism, order and discipline. They had their own uniforms, rank structures, awards and training regimes. Unlike the Reichswehr, however, troopers in the SA and SS swore loyalty to the party, rather than to Germany. Their symbol was the notorious swastika, a party emblem rather than a national symbol. They were paraded at the forefront of party rallies in Nuremberg, highlighting the discipline, organisation and strength through numbers of National Socialism. Yet there was much more to the SA and SS than snappy uniforms, goose-stepping and impressive ceremonies. These groups had a more sinister function, serving as the party’s muscle, dealing with political opponents through threats, intimidation and violence.

Until the summer of 1934, the Sturmabteilung (SA) was the largest and most feared paramilitary branch of the NSDAP. The SA could trace its origins back to the first weeks of the party, when fist-happy party members were given free beer to provide security at meetings and rallies. The early SA was full of burly ex-soldiers, beer-hall brawlers, vicious Jew-haters and anti-communists – men who were nationalist and reactionary, but more interested in kicking heads than in staging a political debate. By September 1921, Hitler had fashioned these men into his own private army. He chose the name Sturmabteilung (‘Stormtroops’) and ordered them to be outfitted in military-style uniforms. Party organisers acquired a bulk shipment of cheap army surplus brown shirts, which would become the distinctive garb of the SA. Around 600 SA troopers joined Hitler when he attempted to initiate a putsch in Munich in November 1923. They were joined by an additional 1,500 SA men the following day, the small army marching alongside Hitler toward the centre of Munich. Of the 16 Nazis killed by police during the putsch, the vast majority were ‘Brownshirts’ of the SA.

A recruiting poster for the Sturmabteilung

German courts declared the SA an illegal organisation in the wake of the Munich putsch. It did not disappear but simply reinvented itself as a new group called Frontbann, toning down its activities. On his release from prison in 1925, Hitler set about reviving and restructuring the SA, ordering the formation of new units. He appointed a new commander, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, a former Freikorps officer who in 1923 had led terrorist raids against French troops occupying Germany’s Ruhr region. Through von Salomon, Hitler hoped to restrain and control the independent spirit that had grown in SA ranks during his imprisonment. Hitler wanted a paramilitary force that could take control of the streets; he did not want it to become some powerful and independent that it might take control of the party. In 1926 Hitler expressed these concerns in a letter to von Salomon:

The formation of the SA does not follow a military standpoint, other than what is expedient to the Party. In so far as its members are trained physically, the emphasis should not be on military exercises but sporting activity. Boxing and ju-jitsu have always seemed more important to me than any bad, semi-training in shooting… What we need are not one or two hundred daring conspirators, but a hundred thousand fighters for our ideology. The work should be carried on not in secret, but in mighty mass processions. Not through daggers and poisons and pistols can the way be opened for National Socialism, but through the conquest of the streets. We have to teach Marxism that the future master of the streets is National Socialism, just as one day it will be the master of the State.

But many in the ranks of the SA did not share Hitler’s view. They believed the SA was itself a popular movement and a fast-growing revolutionary army – not just an obedient tool of the party. This was not necessarily disloyalty to Hitler or the party, more a difference of opinion about the role of the SA. There were also internal dissatisfactions within the SA about petty issues, such as pay and favouritism in promotions. Some were also unhappy the NSDAP hierarchy had refused to allow more SA members to contest elections for Reichstag seats.

“The Reichswehr officer corps rightly regarded the Sturmabteilung as a pack of undisciplined and uncouth bums who had been responsible for a reign of violence on the streets unprecedented in the history of the nation, a period of crude brutality and terror in which even innocent people had been murdered in settlement of personal grudges under the guise of justified political activity.”
Trevor Ravenscroft, writer

These tensions between SA commanders and the party leadership came to a head in 1930. With Reichstag elections scheduled for September, Hitler – then striving to present himself as a legitimate politician – ordered the SA to suspend its attacks on unionists, communists and Jews. This infuriated radicals in the SA and sparked an internal revolt in August 1930. Walter Stennes, a Berlin SA commander, presented Hitler with a set of demands, the most notable being that the party make three Reichstag seats available to SA members. Meanwhile, SA men loyal to Stennes ransacked several party offices. Hitler refused Stennes’ demands and sacked von Salomon for not anticipating the revolt or handling it appropriately.

Ernst Rohm (centre), one of Hitler’s oldest allies and the leader of the SA

Confronted by his greatest fear – a powerful SA that might move to overthrow him – Hitler assumed direct leadership of the organisation. But he had no interest in personally running or organising the SA. For this he turned to one of his closest allies. Ernst Rohm was another World War I veteran, who had been by Hitler’s side during the 1923 Munich putsch. After avoiding prison Rohm travelled to South America as a military advisor. In September 1930 Hitler recalled him to take charge of the SA. Rohm was an experienced military commander and an inspirational leader of men. But he quickly began deviating from Hitler’s plans for the SA. Rohm had his own grand visions: he wanted to transform the SA from a disorganised group of street thugs, into a citizens’ army that would one day replace the Reichswehr. He set about expanding the membership of the SA, with propaganda and vigorous recruiting (see picture). Rohm also engineered the take-over of other paramilitary organisations. In 1933 the SA assumed control of the Stahlhelm (‘Steel Helmet’) and the Kyffhauserbund (a war veterans’ association). Public servants, policemen and others deemed suitable were subjected to considerable pressure to join the SA.

By late 1933 the SA had around 3 million troopers, while Rohm himself had been elevated to the Nazi ministry. The rapid growth of the SA was of great concern not only to Hitler, but also the Reichswehr, which under the terms of the Versailles treaty was still legally limited to just 100,000 men. Rohm spelled out his intentions in an October 1933 letter: “I regard the Reichswehr now only as a training school for the German people. The conduct of war, and therefore of mobilisation as well, in the future is the task of the SA.”

1. The Sturmabteilung or SA began as the NSDAP’s security arm. Comprised mainly of ex-soldiers and street brawlers, the SA safeguarded Nazi meetings, broke up rival political meetings and harassed opponents.
2. In 1921 the SA began to take a clearer shape as a paramilitary group, adopting recruiting and training programs, a brown-shirted uniform, a rank structure and military style insignia.
3. The SA continued to grow rapidly in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This led to differing views within the Nazi movement about what the SA was, what it should be and how it should serve Hitler and the party.
4. Hitler himself began to entertain concerns about the size and strength of the SA, as well as the attitudes and ambitions of its leadership. Officers in the German Reichswehr were also concerned.
5. In 1930 Hitler passed the leadership of the SA to Ernst Rohm, one of his longest serving allies and a veteran of the Munich putsch. Under Rohm’s command the SA continued to grow, reaching a membership of around three million by late 1933.

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