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An SA propaganda poster

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." 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[1]), 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 the party was a small group founded by a locksmith named Anton Drexler in 1918, merging with another group in 1919 under the name "German Workers' Party" (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or DAP).[2][3] 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).[4] 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 4th. They also proceeded to fight the Marxists on the streets, owing to Hitler's view on it being necessary to master the streets.[5] 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.[6] 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. Hitler used them unsuccessfully during the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, 1923, which resulted in a temporary disarray.

Still believing in Hitler's cause, the SA reorganized by 1925. In particular, they gained the uniforms that led to their moniker of brownshirts, a choice decided upon by Hitler due to realizing that the German man were fond of uniforms; and he created a separate unit called the SS within the party that would act as his personal guard.[7] 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.[8] 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 desired to become a revolutionary army, and frequently conducting attacks despite Hitler's insistence that they lay low, often embarrassing him, which ultimately resulted in 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.[9] In 1931, they were led by a radical who had grandiose dreams of his own: Ernst Röhm. An anti-capitalist who believed in a permanent, continuing revolution[10] (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.[11]

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; indeed, evidence that he was an avid homosexual only added fuel to the fire. The powerful men in the Nazi hierarchy - Heinrich Himmler, Hermann 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.

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 Reinhard Heydrich.[12] Röhm - caught in bed with a male SA lover by Hitler himself - was summarily executed, as well as many SA leaders over the next two days.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16][17][18]


  2. Shoah Resource Center,
  4. McNab, Chris (2009). The Third Reich.
  6. Toland p. 220
  10. 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."[1]
  12. Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: A Biography (2008).
  13. Lively, Scott & Abrams, Kevin. The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party, 4th Edition.
  14. Weale, Adrian. The SS: A New History (2010).