In his memoirs, history professor Karl Alexander von Müller, one of the most influential historians during the Nazi regime, described the first NSDAP rally in Munich in January 1923. The SA members were “military-like stewards, a forest of bright red flags with black swastika on white ground, a strange mixture of the military and the revolutionary, of nationalist and socialist,” recalls Müller. Since its foundation in 1921, the Sturmabteilung, or SA, had the task of protecting the Nazi party meetings, intimidating political opponents, and enforcing the NSDAP’s ideology. While the Sturmabteilung played a crucial role in Hitler’s rise to power, its lack of discipline ultimately became a liability.
Political Turmoil in Bavaria & Founding of the Sturmabteilung
In Germany, the end of World War I led to political turmoil. After the abdication of the Kaiser and the establishment of the Weimar Republic, countless paramilitary organizations began to populate the political landscape. The result was a culture of violence that testified to the state’s legitimacy crisis. A worsening economic situation contributed to the general state of instability and unhappiness.
In Bavaria, the postwar turmoil was especially violent. In 1919, the Communists established a Soviet Republic in Munich. However, the Reichswehr and the Freikorps, or paramilitary nationalist groups, quickly crushed it. During the confrontations between the opposing political forces, Bavaria seemed to be on the verge of a civil war. The general state of instability laid the ground for the creation of several nationalist groups and organizations. In 1920, the so-called Ordnungszelle Bayern (Bavaria’s Order Cell), a nationalist project implemented by Ministerpräsident Gustav von Kahr to contrast the “Marxist chaos” of the Weimar Republic, fostered the spread of far-right groups, including the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party), or NSDAP.
The Founding of the Sturmabteilung
In 1920, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers’ Party), the precursor of the NSDAP, created a Turn- und Sportabteilung (Gymnastics and Sport Division). On August 11, 1921, Der Völkischer Beobachter, the party’s newspaper, urged the “German youth” to adhere to the Turn- und Sportabteilung to join the “heavy fight” against the “foreign races” controlling Germany. According to the newspaper’s proclamation, the new division would become a “battering ram” for the party.
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The NSDAP was not the first Bavarian political organization to establish a self-protection division. In 1920, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) created the Saalschutz guards, or stewards, to protect their meetings. The self-defense unit became known as Saalschutzabteilung, or SA. The creation of party-controlled forces was a testament to Bavaria’s highly polarized political landscape, where left-wing party leaders often felt that the state was unable to guarantee their safety. On the contrary, the NSDAP’s Turn- und Sportabteilung main task was to intimidate and assault political opponents.
Since its foundation, the rank and file of the new Nazi party’s division was composed of young men from the working class. On the other hand, the leading positions were occupied by officers and generals who fought during World War I. In particular, Captain Hermann Ehrhardt, the former Commander of the 2nd Marine Brigade, played an important role in shaping the initial organization of the NSDAP’s armed forces. A leading figure of Bavaria’s nationalist right, Ehrhardt had many contacts with the Freikorps, paramilitary groups mainly made up of war veterans unhappy with the postwar status quo.
In the summer of 1921, Ehrhardt assigned Julius Hans Ulrich Klintzsch the task of overseeing the new protection unit’s military training. Ernst Röhm, who served as a captain in the Reichsweher, was also crucial for the creation of the Turn- und Sportabteilung. As he continued his military career in the postwar years, Röhm served as an intermediary between the NSDAP and the Reichswehr, or regular army.
In October 1921, Hitler renamed the Gymnastics and Sport Division Sturmabteilung (Assault Division), or SA. The members of the SA were also often referred to as Storm Troopers or Brownshirts because of their uniform color. The first SA consisted of about 300 men divided into 21 groups. Their brown-colored uniform included high leather boots and a red armband with the swastika. On August 16, 1921, the SA members marched for the first time in closed formation during the far-right demonstrations against the Gesetz zum Schutze der Republik, a law banning all anti-republican associations, rallies, and publications following the assassination of Walter Rathenau.
The Sturmabteilung as the “Ideological Army” of the Nazi Party
The first SA groups were mainly tasked with protecting the NSDAP’s meetings, harassing political opponents, and marching during the party’s rallies. They often interrupted the meetings of opposing parties, especially when Jewish speakers were present. They also put up anti-Semitic posters and distributed leaflets calling for violent actions against the Jews, depicted as members of an “enemy race” responsible for Germany’s economic struggles.
The Brownshirts’ violent actions and rhetoric had the double task of intimidating opponents, especially the Communists and Social Democrats, and enforcing Nazi ideology and values in the streets. Thus, they became a key propaganda tool. In particular, the aggressive parades and marches organized by the SA were a display of force and unity that had a powerful effect on the younger generations. For the young men who grew up during the war internalizing the violent nationalist rhetoric, the SA provided an opportunity to experience a sense of belonging and camaraderie without social barriers.
In 1923, Hermann Göring took on the leadership of the SA and radically reorganized them. Under his command, the Sturmabteilung became a proper Wehrverband, or paramilitary organization, that counted about 3,000 members. In September 1923, during the Deutsche Tag (German Day) in Nuremberg, the SA became part of the Deutsche Bund, an alliance of several far-right, nationalist groups. In the same year, the Bund, led by Adolf Hitler, organized the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, during which the SA played a crucial role. After the attempted coup d’état failed, Hitler and other Nazi leaders were arrested. The German government banned the NSDAP and the Sturmabteilung.
The Sturmabteilung Played a Key Role in Hitler’s Rise to Power
While Adolf Hitler was in the Landsberg prison, Röhm devoted himself to the reconstruction of the banned SA. In 1925, when Hitler received an early release from his sentence, he abandoned the idea of seizing power with violent action. Instead, the Nazi leader opted to take a Legalitätskurs (legal course) and achieve his political goals through elections and popular support.
In this sense, he decided to transform the SA into a more disciplined paramilitary organization. Röhm, who disagreed with Hitler’s new tactics, resigned from his position in the SA. Then, Hitler entrusted the former career officer Franz Pfeffer von Salomon with the reorganization of the party’s Sturmabteilung.
In the following years, the SA played a crucial role in the NSDAP’s electoral success. Their main task was to assert the party’s dominance in the streets through the so-called Eroberung der Straße (control of the street), a propaganda tool mainly consisting of intimidating and physically assaulting political opponents and Jews. The SA members often achieved their goals by naming and shaming members of opposing organizations and networks. During the final years of the Weimar Republic, the unchecked street violence of the Sturmabteilung became a daily occurrence.
In the 1930s, the SA organized several boycott actions against Jewish-owned shops and businesses. They usually stood in front of Jewish establishments holding signs with anti-Semitic slogans and harassing the owners and their customers. In 1930, after the Reichstag fire, the SA members rounded up many political opponents and tortured them in provisional, illegal prisons set up in the Nazi party’s buildings. Many episodes of violence also took place in private homes. Often, the SA’s attacks were motivated not only by anti-Semitism but also by social factors. Indeed, many Brownshirts aimed to dismantle the existing social hierarchies. These members were also unhappy with Hitler’s new Legalitätskurs. Faced with mounting discontent among the SA units, Hitler asked Röhm to resume the leadership of the Storm Troopers. Thus, in 1931, Röhm was appointed Chief of Staff of the Sturmabteilung.
Under his leadership, the SA grew considerably, reaching more than 440,000 members by August 1932. The effect of the Great Depression contributed to increasing the paramilitary group’s membership. In 1932, the Sturmabteilung played a crucial role in the Nazi party’s electoral campaign. In the weeks before the July 31 Reichstag elections, several episodes of violence took place throughout the country. On July 17, during an SA march in Altona, a shootout between Storm Troopers, police officers, and Communists led to the death of 18 men. The episode became known as Altonaer Blutsonntag (Altona’s Bloody Sunday). The 1932 Reichstag election was a success for the NSDAP, which became the second-largest party in Germany.
The Röhm Affair & the “Second Revolution”
After Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, the SA became an important tool in the process of Gleichschaltung (Nazification) of the country. The number of their members continued to grow steadily. By 1943, the SA numbered four million men. However, their success and unchecked violence soon became a liability for Hitler, who had decided to halt the Nazi revolution and sought to win the support of the traditional elite. The radical wing of the NSDAP, led by Röhm, opposed the new policy. A firm anti-capitalist, the SA Chief of Staff rejected the idea of a compromise with the old establishment. Instead, he aspired to radically transform the existing socioeconomic system through a “second revolution.” To achieve his goal, Röhm planned to turn the SA into a Volkmiliz (People’s Militia), which would eventually replace the Reichswehr.
Röhm’s radical project alarmed the army general and the old nationalist elite, who threatened to declare martial law in Germany. In his June 1934 Marburg speech, Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen denounced the SA rule of terror and expressed doubts about Hitler’s ability to maintain order. Hitler, who planned to succeed Hindenburg as president, could not afford to lose the support of the army. Thus, he decided to purge the party from all those who disagreed with his strategy. At the end of June, he tasked Himmler and the SS, at the time a subdivision of the SA, to organize the elimination of Röhm and his supporters.
The Night of the Long Knives
On June 28, 1934, Hitler asked Röhm to call a meeting of the SA leadership at the Hotel Hanslbauer in Bad Wiessee, a spa town in Bavaria. In the weeks before the purge, Röhm’s opponents inside the NSDAP, especially Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler, had started the rumor that the SA Chief of Staff was planning a putsch. They also claimed that Röhm, whose homosexuality was an open secret, ran homosexual rings and corrupted the Hitler Youth members.
On the morning of June 30, Hitler and a group of SS men burst into the hotel and arrested all Brownshirts. The prisoners were later transported to Stadelheim prison in Munich, where they were summarily shot. Röhm was executed without trial on July 1st. Hitler had briefly hesitated before ordering his death. The purge, commonly known as the Night of the Long Knives, also provided an opportunity to settle old accounts inside the party and eliminate all enemies. Between June 28 and July 2, about 85 SA high-ranking officials were killed. According to other estimates, the number of casualties is as high as 200.
On August 2, 1934, Hindenburg died. With the support of the Reichswehr’s leadership, Hitler succeeded him as president of Germany, thus becoming Füher und Reichskanzler.
The Sturmabteilung after the Röhm Purge
On July 13, 1934, Hitler held a speech in the Reichstag, presenting the purge as an action to defend the state from its internal enemies. In his propaganda campaign after the “Night of the Long Knives,” Joseph Goebbels made numerous references to Röhm’s sexual orientation to portray the SA leaders as morally corrupt and degenerate. Goebbels’ campaign contributed to the creation of the “myth of the homosexual Nazi,” which became embedded in the public imaginary surrounding National Socialism.
After the purge, the SA continued to exist, albeit reduced in numbers and influence. In November 1938, the Brownshirts took part in the violence against Jews during the so-called Reichskristallnacht, or November pogroms. From 1939, the SA oversaw the training of the Home Guards units. While the Sturmabteilung ceased to be a key player in the Nazi regime, the SS (Schutzstaffel) took on a crucial role. In his 1943 Posen speech, Heinrich Himmler referred to the SS role in the Röhm purge to highlight their steadfast loyalty to the National Socialist cause:
“It appalled everyone, and yet everyone was certain that he would do it the next time if such orders are issued and if it is necessary. I mean the clearing out of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish race.”
The Nuremberg Tribunal described the SA as “a group composed in large part of ruffians and bullies who participated in the Nazi outrages of that period. It has not been shown, however, that these atrocities were part of a specific plan to wage aggressive war.”
Thus, the Tribunal did not “declare the SA to be a criminal organization.”