The Sturmabteilung (German: "Assault Division"; abbreviated as SA), were a paramilitary organization within the Nazi Party in interwar Germany, originally founded to protect Nazi meetings from disruption, they were the tool used to intimidate, threaten, and commit acts of violence against political opponents as well as Jews and other individuals opposed by party doctrines. When first founded, they were initially called "Monitor Troops," (Ordnertruppen) and were also given several name changes, including Sportabteilung/Turn -und sportabteilung (German: "Sports Division"/"Gymnastics and Sports Division"). Commonly referred to as the "Brownshirts" or "Storm troopers" (the latter of which was personally given by Adolf Hitler in reference to their founding on November 4, 1921 regarding a street fight against Marxists at the Fall Festival house of Hofbrauhaus in Munich, Germany), the SA at its height numbered greater than twenty times that of the German Army.
The origins of the SA naturally followed the beginnings of the Nazi Party. At the end of the First World War a small group founded by a locksmith named Anton Drexler in 1918, merged with another group in 1919 to form the "German Workers' Party" (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or DAP). An obscure former corporal in the regular army, Adolf Hitler, joined the DAP in September 1919, and through his fiery oratory would transform the small party into the "National Socialist German Workers Party" (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP). When the party expanded, a force was needed to protect meetings, in particular from their rivals the Marxists, and the SA was created in Munich in 1921, organized first to kick out hecklers at Nazi meetings, then to break up the meetings of other parties. Their first action during this time was to boot out over a thousand Marxists at the Hofbrauhaus's festival hall in Munich on November 4. They also proceeded to fight the Marxists on the streets, owing to Hitler's view on it being necessary to master the streets. The fascists of Italy under Benito Mussolini would inspire a uniform choice: brown shirts worn by all members, emblazoned with a red band bearing a swastika on the left arm. The uniforms themselves were derived from the Imperial Germany Schultztruppe members stationed in what was originally Germany's colonies in Africa, which they got cheaply largely because of the events of World War I.
The SA was a group consisting largely of ex-soldiers, Freikorps (Free Corps) members, and common thugs who believed in the Nazi cause; they would march in Nazi rallies, assault political opponents, and intimidate voters during elections. One particular political party that the SA frequently assaulted was the German Communist Party, which contrary to contemporary telling of history had nothing to do with the latter party adhering to Socialism, but instead dealt with the latter party taking orders from Moscow instead of Germany, being internationalists. One inspiration for the SA brownshirts, in their use of terror to force their views on the masses came from the Democrat party-run terror organization, the Ku Klux Klan during the post-Civil War period. Hitler used the SA unsuccessfully during the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, 1923, which resulted in a temporary disarray.
The SA reorganized by 1925. In particular, they gained the uniforms that led to their moniker of "brownshirts", and Hitler created a small separate unit called the SS within the party that would act as his personal bodyguard. Ironically, however, the reorganized SA ended up nearly causing the Nazi Party to be disbanded again for between 1926 and 1927, after they beat up an old pastor for heckling them. After their victory on September 14, 1930, and then formally taking 107 seats in the Reichstag, the SA, while wearing civilian clothing, proceeded to celebrate by smashing the windows of various Jewish owned shops, department stores, and restaurants, an action that would eventually be repeated on a larger scale in "Krystallnacht", several years later. However, the SA desire to become a revolutionary army, and frequently conducting attacks despite Hitler's insistence that they lay low, often embarrassed him, which ultimately resulted to a minor coup at the Berlin Nazi Party offices led by SA Captain Walter Stennes being put down by the SS on Hitler's orders. In 1931, they were led by a radical who had grandiose dreams of his own: Ernst Röhm, who had been nominated to replace Stennes for command of the SA. An anti-capitalist who believed in a permanent, continuing revolution (in a manner similar to what Leon Trotsky advocated), Röhm would use the SA to propel Hitler to the chancellery as well as increase the size of the organization to such an extent that it would threaten to replace the much smaller 100,000 man army as Germany's main fighting force, with himself at its head. To that extent the charismatic Röhm swelled the SA from approximately 200,000 in 1931 to close to 2 million men by 1933. His homosexual nature and stature within the SA also was the subject of scandal for Hitler and the Nazis during the 1932 election when the Social Democrats leaked letters between Röhm and a male doctor regarding their tastes in men to the general public. Eventually, the SA, alongside the SS, were banned by Heinrich Bruening via Article 48 on April 1932, with the SA being outraged over this, although Hitler allowed it to be done, knowing full well that it was only a temporary setback, which was ultimately proven when Schleicher after secretly meeting with Hitler on May 8, 1932 proceeded to lift the ban and also have the Reichstag dissolved and have new elections in exchange for Hitler's support for a conservative, nationalistic government. The ban was fully lifted by June 15. They later proceeded to arrive at Berlin emmasse in August in anticipation of Hitler's ascension into power. However, Hindenburg ultimately refused to allow Hitler into power, largely because of the SA's behavior, with Papen and Schleicher offering vice chancellor as compensation on August 13. This resulted in Hitler threatening to have the SA engage in violent mayhem for three days across Germany, which resulted in him being brought before Hindenburg and told off by the president in person. Hitler was ultimately forced to put the SA into furlough for two weeks. In addition, the Nazis were losing seats by November 6 of that year, with the SA's behavior being one of the main reasons for it (alongside Hitler and Hindenberg refusing to compromise, people growing tired of various new elections for the Reichstag seats occurring continuously, and the Communists' destructive behavior also turning the populace against them).
Ultimately, the Nazi Party ended up winning many seats in the parliamentary elections, and Hitler made a strong showing in the German presidential election against Hindenburg, thereby establishing himself as a strong political force. Thereafter on January 30, 1933, the SA, alongside the SS, turned out in full uniform to celebrate his election victory, and also awaited for him to make an appearance alongside crowds of men, women and children with Nazi banners.
To consolidate power, Hitler needed the backing of two groups considered fundamental to Germany's well-being: the big-business industrialists - such as I.G. Farben and Krupp - and the army. Both eyed the SA as an uncontrolled mob, and Röhm as a power-seeker who wanted control over the army; indeed, evidence that he was an avid homosexual only added fuel to the fire, although Hitler assured them that he had no plans to replace the army with the SA. In addition, in order to ensure Nazi control was consolidated within the government, Hermann Göring, by that time the Minister of the Interior of Prussia, had hundreds of police officers who had been loyal to the Weimar Republic replaced with Nazi officials loyal only to Hitler, and also gave strict orders that the police not interfere with the SA, or the SS, under any circumstance, thus ensuring the SA could get away with beating up, harassing, and even murdering anyone with impunity. On February 22, the SA, through Göring, managed to gain the power of the police force by setting up an auxiliary arm of the police force that allowed for 50,000 men strong. On February 24, the SA raided the Communist headquarters in Berlin, and then, via the list of members of the Communist party, proceeded to list all 4,000 members of the German communists, with Göring falsely claiming that they uncovered a Communist plot to have the excuse to do so. On February 27, members of the SA led by Karl Ernst proceeded to commit arson on the Reichstag, with Marinus van der Lubbe, a Communist arsonist who sought to instigate a revolution via arson, to also aid in the fire. After the resulting Reichstag Fire Decree was passed, the SA alongside the SS proceeded to raid known Communist hideouts and even private homes via trucks and then abduct them with the excuse of putting them under "protective custody, where many of them ended up beaten and tortured at the various SA barracks. Eventually, on March 5, after the elections, armed SA and SS members proceeded to raid the Reichstag to throw out legitimate office holders to replace them with Nazi Reich commissioners, using the aforementioned Reichstag Fire Decree as their justification. They then placed a number of political enemies in hastily constructed "wild" concentration camps, which were stockades with little more than barbed wire, and run by the SA. On May, there were flooded applications for Nazi branch organizations, with some going for the SA and SS after Hitler put a hiring freeze. 50,000 of the SS men were later thrown out by Heinrich Himmler, with the older members cynically calling them "March Violets."
On April 1, 1933, a week after the Enabling Act had been passed by the Nazis, the SA during the resulting boycott stood in front of any Jewish shops, department stores, professional offices, and various business places and picketed them with signs saying "Germans, defend yourselves against the Jewish atrocity propaganda, buy only at German shops!" However, this ended up a failure on the part of the SA due to the German populace largely ignoring the signs in order to get discounts, as well as getting shopping chores out of the way (as it occurred on a Saturday), in addition to the smaller stores owned by Observant Jews being closed for the Sabbath in either case.
Eventually, the powerful men in the Nazi hierarchy - Himmler, Göring, and Joseph Goebbels - saw Röhm and the SA as a threat to their recently-won acquisition of power and decided on a plan to eliminate him, with Hitler ultimately agreeing. At first, Hitler during a party meeting on February 1934 told Rohm that he won't the military commander/official in Nazi Germany, nor would the SA act as the official military, although he did intend to reserve them for certain political actions. Rohm publicly agreed with Hitler and signed the agreement, although after Hitler left, he made clear to the other members of the SA that he had no intention of honoring the agreement, viewing Hitler as a traitor. Two months later, Rohm dug himself and the SA into a deeper hole by boldly proclaiming to various foreign people in a press release that "[the Sturmabteilung] is the National Socialist Revolution", which ultimately made him a target by his rival, Himmler, alongside the latter's second in command, Reinhard Heydrich.
After a long talk on June 1934, Rohm had the SA, by that time reaching well over four million members, go on leave for the month of July, with Hitler vowing to meet with the SA in a resort village near Munich to sort things out. However, on June 17 Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen ended up exposing the SA's rowdy behavior in a stump speech, as well as strongly insinuating that, far from being anti-Marxists, the SA were in fact actual Marxists, with President Hindenburg, alongside General Blomberg, admonishing Hitler and warning him that if he didn't get the SA under control, they would put Germany under martial law by the German military. In addition, Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich were busy spreading rumors that Rohm and the SA were planning to overthrow the government. By June 28, Hitler, after being notified by telephone by Goring that various German conservatives were advocating for Hindenburg to declare martial law and that Rohm was planning an imminent overthrow during Josef Terboven's wedding, decided to put the plan in action, and eventually left his hotel at 2 a.m. to personally confront the SA leadership at the Bad Wiessee resort. This after Goring and Himmler made repeated late night phone calls indicating that the SA had somehow found out about the plans and are planning a counterattack. After arriving in Munich, he learned from Adolf Wagner that SA street demonstrations had occurred at Munich though they had since dissipated. Hitler then arrived at the Ministry of the Interior to confront the three SA members responsible, and ripped the Nazi insignia off their uniforms.
Beginning on June 30, 1934, the Night of the Long Knives (die Nacht der langen Messer) took place near Munich at the Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiessee where it was known that SA leadership were on holiday; the plan for execution was conceived by Himmler and Heydrich. Röhm - caught in bed with a male SA lover by Hitler himself - was then arrested and eventually executed, as well as many SA leaders over the next two days. The only exception was Edmund Heines, who was summarily executed on Hitler's orders after seeing him in bed with a male lover. The Night of the Long Knives eventually spanned Berlin and 20 other cities, which had included the SA leader of Berlin, Karl Ernst. Rohm himself would ultimately end up gunned down while in Dachau after the latter refused to commit suicide via revolver due to arrogantly demanding that Hitler deliver the final blow, with the camp commander, Eicke, angrily telling the former SA leader it was too late when he attempted to insist in what were allegedly his final words that Hitler was the fuhrer. Himmler gained enormously from the killings; his Schutzstaffel (SS) became its own separate branch and would later grow from Hitler's personal bodyguard to become a terrifying force in World War II. Its leadership decimated, the SA became a shadow of its former self. Thereafter, its only military use was that of training units for the German armed forces and later acting as the Home Guard during World War II.
The term is sometimes erroneously broadened to include all Nazis and even all fascists, although strictly speaking Italian fascists were Blackshirts, for similar reasons of their uniform. The term "Stormtrooper" was used earlier by the Imperial German Army to denote special trench assault units during World War I (although in that case, they were referred to as "Stoßtruppen", literally "Shock Troops" or "Siege Troopers", and the companies they operated in were known as "Sturmtruppen").
A lot of their tactics in disrupting meetings by rival political organizations were replicated by similar groups, most notably the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the Weather Underground during the 1968 Republican Convention, and Antifa.
- Shoah Resource Center, http://www1.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%205946.pdf
- Germanculture.com, http://www.germanculture.com.ua/library/weekly/aa012400b.htm
- McNab, Chris (2009). The Third Reich.
- Toland p. 220
- Shirer, William L. Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. "The Nazification of Germany: 1933-34; 'No Second Revolution'"
"A tremendous victory has been won. But not an absolute victory! The SA and the SS will not tolerate the German revolution going to sleep and being betrayed at the half-way stage by non-combatants. Not for the sake of the SA and SS but for Germany's sake. For the SA is the last armed force of the nation, the last defense against communism. If the German revolution is wrecked by the reactionary opposition, incompetence, or laziness, the German people will fall into despair and will be an easy prey for the bloodstained frenzy coming from the depths of Asia. If these bourgeois simpletons think that the national revolution has already lasted too long, for once we agree with them. It is in fact high time the national revolution stopped and became the National Socialist one. Whether they like it or not, we will continue our struggle - if they understand at last what it is about - with them; if they are unwilling - without them; and if necessary - against them."
- Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: A Biography (2008).
- Weale, Adrian. The SS: A New History (2010).