The SA (Sturmabteilung or Storm Detachment) was better known as the Brownshirts or Storm Troopers. The SA got their nickname from the colour of the shirts they wore. From 1921 to 1933 the SA disrupted the meetings of Adolf Hitler’s political opponents as well as defended the halls where Hitler was making a speech in public. According to the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, the SA was made up of “ruffians” and “bullies”. However, it played a very important role in the first years of the Nazi Party.
Many of the original members of the SA came from the Freikorps, post-World War One nationalists who had opposed the Versailles Treaty, fought the brief Bavarian Soviet and opposed the general weakness of the Weimar government. Those who lived in Munich gathered around the party that seemed to be most in synch with their beliefs – the German Workers Party that became the Nazi Party (NSDAP). The name Sturmabteilung was first used in late 1921 when it was led by Captain Pfeiffer von Salomon. Because speaking in public was potentially a dangerous matter when politics was concerned, the original task of the SA was to protect Hitler as such events usually attracted the Communists and frequently ended in violence and disorder. This played into Hitler’s hands as many members of the SA were from the old German Army and knew how to cope during such incidents. When fights broke out the Weimar police appeared powerless and law and order was usually restored by the SA. This gave Hitler the lever he needed to claim that the Weimar regime lacked leadership and power while he was the one person who could restore Germany to law and order. Ironically, it was members of the SA who frequently were at the front of breakages of the law. However, their seeming power on the streets and their charismatic leader attracted more to the SA and its numbers grew and grew. Their original uniform came from old custom officials uniforms that were no longer needed and they were not brown. The uniform most associated with the SA was designed later and the cost of providing the rapidly expanding SA with such a uniform pushed the financial capability of the party to the limit.
In 1931, the leadership of the SA passed to Captain Ernst Rőhm. He wanted the organisation of the SA to mirror that of the German Army. Rőhm created a general staff along with a training college in Munich. He created a system of structure in the SA that went from the very top to the very bottom. At the top was the ‘Supreme Leader of the SA’ – Hitler. Rőhm was Chief of Staff. Below him were senior groups, groups, lower groups, regiments, battalions, Storm Troops, troops and then bands. Rőhm covered just about every aspect of structure within the SA.
Hitler ordered Rőhm to take “possession of the streets” as the streets held “the key to the power of the state”.
In 1931, there were 100,000 men in the SA. In 1932 there were 400,000. President Hindenburg refused to allow SA men onto the streets during the 1932 Presidential election. This put Hitler in a difficult position as he needed the SA on the streets to create chaos (which, he would tell the German public, only he could control) but at the same time he wanted to portray himself as the man who adhered to the law. Hitler accepted Hindenburg’s order and the SA were kept off the streets for the election.
In his mind Rőhm had a very clear idea as to the purpose of the SA. Rőhm saw the SA as a revolutionary force that would be the spearhead of Nazism. Rőhm believed that there would be a revolution in Germany and that he would be at the front of it. Rőhm wanted to stress the socialistic side on National Socialism, which definitely flew in the face of what Hitler wanted, which was to portray the party in nationalistic terms. Matters came to a head when Rőhm suggested that the SA and the army could be combined with him at the head of this new force. Senior officers in the Reichswehr were horrified by the mere thought of this. Their traditions, philosophy and attitudes were totally at odds with what they believed the SA to be – street thugs who lacked discipline led by a man who lacked class. Hitler was also becoming more concerned about the power being acquired by his SA Chief of Staff, especially as the SA had grown to 2 million by 1934. Rőhm also made statements that almost certainly got back to Hitler:
“Adolf is rotten. He’s betraying all of us. He only goes round with reactionaries. His old comrades aren’t good enough for him. So he brings in these East Prussian generals. They’re the ones he pals around with now. Adolf knows perfectly well what I want. Are we a revolution or aren’t we? Something new has to be brought in, understand? The generals are old fogies. They’ll never have a new idea.” Rőhm in June 1933.
Rőhm effectively signed his own death warrant. He had given Hitler what he had always wanted – the opportunity to make a deal with the Reichswehr. The German Army would swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler if he got rid of the threat posed by Rőhm and his other senior SA followers. The result was the Night of the Long Knives in June 1934.
From 1934 to 1935, the SA was in a form of limbo. In 1935, a reorganisation took place. Men aged between 18 and 35 were sent on active service with the German military. Those members of the SA aged between 35 and 45 were put in the reserves. Those aged 45 and above were assigned to the local militias. Hitler believed that the 35 to 45 years group could be used to maintain public order.
After World War Two the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg found that the SA was not a criminal organisation. Its judgement was:
“Up until the purge beginning on June 30th, 1934, the SA was a group composed in large part of ruffians and bullies who participated in the outrages of that period. It has not been shown however, that these atrocities were part of a specific plan to wage aggressive war, and the Tribunal therefore cannot hold that these activities were criminal under the Charter. After the purge the SA was reduced to the status of unimportant Nazi hangers-on. Although in specific instances some units of the SA were used for the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, it cannot be said that the members participated in, or even knew of, the criminal acts. For these reasons the Tribunal does not declare the SA to be a criminal organisation within the meaning of Article 9 of the Charter.”