The SA was instrumental in the Nazi’s rise to power yet played a diminished role during the Second World War. The Brownshirts are infamous for their operation outside of the law and their violent intimidation of Germany’s leftists and Jewish population.
However, it was the SA’s thuggish vigilantism, independence from the regular army (which caused hostility between the two), and anti-capitalist sentiments of its leader, Ernst Röhm, that ultimately caused its undoing.
Hitler launches the SA
Hitler formed the SA in Munich in 1921, drawing membership from violent anti-leftist and anti-democratic former soldiers (including the Freikorps) in order to lend muscle to the young Nazi Party, using them like a private army to intimidate opponents. According to the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, the SA was ‘a group composed in large part of ruffians and bullies’.
Many of the SA were former soldiers, upset with the way they had been treated after World War One. Germany’s defeat in the war had come as a surprise to the German people, which led to a theory that the brave German army had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by the politicians.
Many Germans hated the government for signing the armistice in November 1918 – and saw the government as the ‘November Criminals’. Hitler used these terms in many speeches to further turn people against the Government.
Speaking politics in public was potentially a dangerous matter at the time. Recognisable by their brown uniforms, similar to those of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, the SA functioned as a ‘security’ force at Nazi rallies and meetings, using threats and outright violence to secure votes and overcome Hitler’s political enemies. They also marched in Nazi rallies and intimidated political opponents by breaking up their meetings.
When fights broke out, the Weimar police appeared powerless, with law and order usually restored by the SA. This enabled Hitler to claim that the Weimar regime lacked leadership and power, and that he was the person who could restore Germany to law and order.
The Beer Hall Putsch
Ernst Röhm became the leader of the SA after taking part in the Beer Hall Putsch (also known as the Munich Putsch) in 1923, a failed coup against the Weimar government in which Hitler lead 600 Brownshirts into a meeting between the Bavarian Prime Minister and 3,000 businessmen.
Röhm had fought in the First World War, reaching the rank of captain, and later joined the Bavarian division of the Freikorps, a virulent right wing nationalist group active during the early years of the Weimar Republic.
The Freikorps, which officially came to an end in 1920, were responsible for the murder of prominent leftists like Rosa Luxemburg. Former members made up a large part of the initial ranks of the SA.
The growth of the Brownshirts
After the Beer Hall Putch, the SA was reorganised, and took part in violent street clashes with communists, and began to intimidate voters into voting for the Nazi Party. Its ranks swelled into the thousands during the 1920s and into the 1930s.
Though Röhm left the Nazi Party, and Germany, during the later half of the 1920s, he returned to lead the Brownshirts in 1931 and watched its numbers swell to 2 million within only 2 years – twenty times as large as the number of troops and officers in the regular German Army.
The vast increase in membership was aided by unemployed men joining up due to the effects of the Great Depression. The Depression had caused American banks to call-in all of their foreign loans (which had helped fund German industry) at very short notice, leading to a significant rise in unemployment. This encouraged people to turn to extreme political parties such as the Nazi’s, who appeared to offer simple solutions to their problems.
The 1932 Presidential Election
Intimidated by their thuggish behaviour, President Hindenburg refused to allow the SA onto the streets during the election, where he stood against Hitler. Hitler needed the SA on the streets to create chaos (which he could then control, in the eyes of the German public), but equally wanted to portray himself as adhering to the law. He therefore accepted Hindenburg’s requets and kept the SA off the streets for the election.
Despite Hitler losing, Hindenburg’s re-election ultimately would fail to prevent the Nazi’s from assuming power. Two successive federal elections later that year left the Nazi’s as the largest party in the Reichstag and anti-republic parties in the majority. Hindenburg thus appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. When Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler became absolute dictator of Germany under the title Führer.
The Night of the Long Knives
Although some of the conflicts between the SS and SA were based on rivalries of leaders, the mass of members had key socio-economic differences too, with SS members generally from the middle class, while the SA had its base among the unemployed and working class.
The SA’s violence against Jews and communists was unbridled, yet some of Ernst Röhm’s interpretations of Nazi ideology were literally socialistic and in opposition to Hitler’s, including supporting striking workers and attacking strike-breakers. Röhm’s ambition was that the SA should achieve parity with the army and the Nazi Party, and serve as the vehicle for a Nazi revolution in state and society, and carry out its socialist agenda.
Hitler’s main consideration was to ensure the loyalty to his regime of the German establishment. He could not afford to annoy businessmen or the army, and in his bid to secure powerful support and rise to power, Hitler sided with big business instead of Röhm and his pro-working class supporters.
On June 30, 1934 the Night of the Long Knives erupted in a bloody purge among the SA ranks, in which Röhm and all senior Brownshirts, either deemed too socialist or not loyal enough for the new Nazi Party, were arrested by the SS and eventually executed.
SA leadership was granted to Viktor Lutze, who had informed Hitler of Röhm’s seditious activities. Lutze headed the SA until his death in 1943.
The Night of the Long Knives removed all opposition to Hitler within the Nazi Party and gave power to the SS, ending the revolutionary period of Nazism.
The shrinking role of the SA
After the purge, the SA diminished both in size and importance, though it was still used for violent actions against Jews, notably Kristallnacht on the 9 – 10 November, 1938. After the events of Kristallnacht, the SS took over the position of the Brownshirts, who were then relegated to the role of a training school for the German military.
Mistrust of the SA by the SS prevented the Brownshirts from ever regaining a prominent role in the Nazi Party. The organisation was officially disbanded in 1945 when Germany fell to the Allied Powers.
After World War Two ended, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg declared that the SA had not been a criminal organisation. stating that effectively, after the Night of the Long Knives ‘the SA was reduced to the status of unimportant Nazi hangers-on’.