What Was the Difference Between the Nazi SA and SS?

Gabrielle Kramer

3 mins

05 Jun 2018

Nazi Germany was a militaristic state. Multiple groups within the Nazi Party were created in order to intimidate or exterminate rivals and opposition. Two of the most well-known groups in Nazi Germany are the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the Schutzstaffel (SS). Each were created with a purpose, which changed as the Nazis rose to power. But what was the difference between these two organisations?

The Sturmabteilung (SA)

The SA began in 1921 by Adolf Hitler. The majority of early members are disgruntled former soldiers who fought during World War I. The SA worked as a paramilitary force which worked mainly to intimidate political rivals during the early rise of the Nazi Party. This force was often known as Stormtroopers or Brownshirts because of their uniform.

In 1923, The Beer Hall Putsch in Munich sparked a failed coup supported by the SA. On 9 November 1923, Hitler and the 600 SA members attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic. Hitler was arrested two days after the failed coup.

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Led by Ernst Röhm from 1931 to 1934, it was distinctly separate from the German army and often used street violence to intimidate Nazi opposition. Quickly growing in numbers due to the Great Depression, the SA was much larger than the army and likely was made up of about 2,000,000 men.

On 30 June 1934, Röhm and the other leaders of the SA were purged. This night is now known as The Night of the Long Knives. Following the execution of its leaders, the SA was led by Viktor Lutze until his death in 1943. The SA would play a major role in Kristallnacht on 9-10 November 1938.

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Beginning as the paramilitary force behind the rise of the Nazi Party, it soon became of lesser importance. Its role during much of the war was the train the German military.

The Schutzstaffel (SS)

In April 1925, the SS began as a group of bodyguards for Adolf Hitler. With the fall of the SA following The Night of the Long Knives, the SS became the superior paramilitary force in Nazi Germany. This force was under the control of Heinrich Himmler and answered only to Hitler himself.

The SS was recognisable by their black uniforms. The collar of these uniforms had the two runic S’s, which looked like lightening bolts. Other recognisable insignias included death’s head badges and silver daggers.

An SS officer inspecting his troops’ uniforms.

From its beginning as the personal bodyguards of Hitler and other Nazi leaders, the SS quickly expanded both in size and in responsibility. By the start of World War II in 1939, the SS was about 250,000 men.

Divided into two groups, a SS member was either a part of the Allgemeine-SS or the Waffen-SS. The Allgemeine-SS was in charge of the various police forces, such as the Sicherheitspolizei (Sipo), Kriminalpolizei (Kripo), and Gestapo.

They also oversaw the intelligence department, which was known as the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). The Waffen-SS was further divided into three groups: Leibstandarte (Hitler’s bodyguards), Totenkopfverbände (administrators at concentration and death camps), or Verfügungstruppen (elite combat troops).

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The motto members of the SS had to live by was: “Thy honour is thy loyalty.” They were expected to be loyal to Adolf Hitler above all others.

Following the end of the war, the SS was characterised as a criminal organisation at the Nürnberg’s Allied Tribunal in 1946.