You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Brownshirt Violence and the Nazi Machine

Mitchell Abidor
December 19, 2017

Discussed in this essay: Stormtroopers: A New History of Hitler’s Brownshirts by Daniel Siemens. Yale University Press, 2017, 459 pages.

OUR DOMINANT image of the German streets, both during the rise to power of the Nazi Party and while it ruled, is of jack-booted men in brown uniforms beating opponents, threatening Jews, burning books, and dissuading people from doing business in Jewish stores. These brown-shirted Stormtroopers (Stormabteilung, aka the SA) served as the mass fighting arm of the Nazi Party and ensured its presentation as a group not to be trifled with. Other parties had their defense forces, but they functioned in precisely that role, defending rallies, demos, meetings… The Stormabteilung was a different matter entirely from the start, as we learn in Daniel Siemens’ through and fascinating Stormtroopers: A New History of Hitler’s Brownshirts.

Siemens’ interest is not only in providing a portrait of the Brownshirts of the kampfzeit (1919-33), when the Nazis were fighting for power, but in demonstrating that even after the Night of the Long Knives ( June-July 1934), when their leadership was murdered by Hitler, and after which they are considered to have fallen into a state of desuetude, the SA remained an important force in both Germany and its occupied lands, one that provided the ideas and manpower necessary to consolidate and spread the Nazi party’s ideology and control.

The SA was from the first a violent force that was the offensive weapon by which the Nazi implemented their strategy that “those who ‘ruled the street’ would sooner or later also come to political power.” Their unbridled brutality — an extension of that of the post-war freikorps which, among other things, participated in the crushing of the Spartakist uprising and murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht — played a key role in intimidating their party’s enemies and giving physical form to their ideas, and their success marched hand in hand with that of the party. Siemens’s statistics show the SA growing from relative insignificance at its founding in 1921, and, indeed, well into the 1920s, when Siemens estimates there were 30,000 members, to “77,000 members in January 1931 to 221,000 in November of the same year and 445,000 in August 1932.” Its membership would reach an astounding 4,000,000 in 1934! The extent of political violence was equally astounding: Official statistics for 1931 showed that 8,248 people had been injured or killed in political violence.

SIEMENS PROVIDES an ingenious analysis of the purposiveness of Nazi violence as advocated by Goebbels — an analysis with contemporary relevance. By engaging in violence, the Nazis increased their visibility, especially in large cities like Berlin, where it was easy for a speaker to get lost in the crowd; then, since police presence was inevitable, the forces of order became a protective force around the SA during their marches; finally, “seemingly audacious acts of provocation” were able to occur precisely because there was little risk of them growing out of hand, and “elated those who participated in them and thereby attracted new followers.” One can only marvel at the sheer genius of Nazi political activity.

When Hitler finally rose to power the street violence changed and became an adjunct of state power, and Brownshirts set up their own illegal prisons -- 240 where torture was carried out, and eleven early concentration camps, where they acted with impunity. “The centralized locations of many of these provisional prisons and torture chambers made the early SA terror a highly visible and at times audible element of Nazi rule,” Siemens writes. If SA violence during the runup to power was a harbinger of what would transpire when the party achieved power, SA actions when that finally occurred set the tone for the following twelve years.

Their impunity, and the presence within the SA of a large and vocal faction that insisted on the revolutionary nature of the party and the “socialist” part of the party name, would lead to the Night of the Long Knives and the murder of SA leader Ernst Rohm and approximately a hundred others. Much historiography views this as the end of the SA as a major force, but Siemens demonstrates that this simply marked a shift in SA activity. With its wings clipped, the SA could no longer act with the total impunity it had formerly arrogated to itself. No longer the “pioneer of Nazism,” the SA man was now “the guardian of the new state,” a far less exalted and exalting role, but an important one nonetheless. Now they worked at local projects to assist in tasks like uprooting trees or helping accident victims.

Yet violence remained a weapon in their arsenal, a violence now firmly controlled by the party and the party-state. If the SA no longer had its own prisons and camps where members could beat, torture and kill communists, socialists, and Jews far from prying eyes, they still engaged in open violence when the circumstances called for it, particularly against Jews. Siemens makes a point that it quite important in this regard: that the beating of Jews on the streets or the invasion of homes and shops, spitting and mocking them on the streets, had a pedagogical aim. “Stormtroopers made [Jewish] racial exclusion highly visible,” he writes. “Insulting, spitting at, and beating Jews not only humiliated and terrified the victims of such assaults but also illustrated the new, highly unequal balance of power in German society.” A Stormtrooper entering a Jewish-owned barbershop in Vienna and leaving without paying was doing more than getting a free haircut; he was cutting the Jew from society by showing he didn’t merit the basic exchange of cash. The aim was “to humiliate him and illustrate the new power relations in the city.”

SIEMENS SHOWS that the SA played a role in the Anschluss, which made Austria a part of the Reich, and in the occupation of the Sudetenland and the Memeland. After 1934, he writes, the SA “remained a relevant and violent organization, particularly on the local and regional levels. On the national and international levels, stormtroopers were ordered to fulfill more directly political tasks that were close to the SA’s paramilitary origins.”

SA men were abject failures in many regards, but the mass nature of the organization meant that many ordinary soldiers had passed through their school and were imbued with the SA vision. As well, former SA men were not lacking among those involved in mass murders in Poland, among other occupied countries — enabled, to quote Sieman, by their “simple Manichean worldview,” which viewed Jews and non-Aryans as less than human.

The Nazi desire to revolutionize diplomacy so that Germany’s ends were served by the occupied nations resulted in SA generals being seconded to diplomacy in countries of Central and Southeastern Europe in order to implement the final solution to the Jewish question. If the success of the Nazi emissary in Bulgaria was not as successful as that of Slovakia, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and in only one of the five cases Siemens examines did the SA diplomat survive —Adolf-Heinz Beckerle, who served in Bulgaria. He was an exemplary case of the fate of SA members general in the post-war world: Imprisoned in the USSR for ten years, upon his release he was greeted in 1955 by the mayor of Frankfurt and “is even said to have received compensatory damages of 6,000 deutschmark.” This resulted, in part, from the Nuremberg Tribunal’s decision that the pre-1934 SA was a strictly German phenomenon and so its crimes were a German matter, not a matter for an international tribunal. Regarding the SA during the war, the Tribunal’s decisions split hairs: “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 its members generally participated in or even knew of criminal acts.” Thus in post-war Germany it was seldom the case that SA veterans paid for any of their crimes, Members were viewed by many for decades as “misguided idealists.” And so the impunity of the Nazi years and the kampfzeit was extended into the Federal Republic.

Stormtrooper excels at history on a wide scale, on the major events and players. But it is also a goldmine of smaller facts that, if perhaps not quite so epochal, are nonetheless fascinating.

Siemens notes that the SA was a kind of employment agency for the unemployed, who were legion in the run-up to Hitler’s accession to power. The SA had its own insurance company, from which members were required to purchase polices, resulting in payoffs to members if they were injured in the course of duty, the numbers climbing from 163 cases in 1928 to 14,005 in 1932.

Siemens points out that SA membership was a lifestyle choice, and so members had to adapt to SA dictates even in matters of cigarette smoking. The SA had its own brands produced by the Sturm Company, from the high-end Neue Front brand, down through the Sturm and Stephandom, then the Alarm and Balilla to the cheapest and most successful Trommler brand. What you smoked was not optional, as bags were searched at SA gathering to make sure only the authorized cigs were present.

The brown shirt itself, which only became mandatory in 1926, was finally standardized and became a cash cow for the SA, since it could only be purchased through the organization. It, along with other Nazi uniforms -- like those of the Wehrmacht and SS -- was a goldmine for a company and designer that would go on to make a name for itself in the world of fashion: Hugo Boss. The company was at the brink of bankruptcy in 1931, but Boss joined the NSDAP, and his small firm, which had already been producing brown shirts for the SA, became the party’s official manufacturer. Boss’ advertising informed its customers that they had worked for the NSDAP since 1924. Not surprisingly, this goes unmentioned on the company website.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.