Sturmabteilung (SA)

Emil Maurice joined the Nazi Party in 1919 (member No. 19). He became a close friend of Adolf Hitler and in 1920 became head of his bodyguard at public meetings. According to Alan Bullock, the author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962): "The strong-arm squades were first formed in the summer of 1920, under the command of an ex-convict and watchmaker, Emil Maurice, but their definitive organization dates from August 1921, when a so-called Gymmnastic and Sports Division was set up inside the Party." This group eventually became known as the Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment). William L. Shirer, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) points out: "The storm troopers, outfitted in brown uniforms, were recruited largely from the freebooters of the free corps and placed under the command of Johann Ulrich Klintzich."

Hitler's stormtroopers were often former members of the Freikorps (right-wing private armies who flourished during the period that followed the First World War) and had considerable experience in using violence against their rivals. The SA wore grey jackets, brown shirts (khaki shirts originally intended for soldiers in Africa but purchased in bulk from the German Army by the Nazi Party), swastika armbands, ski-caps, knee-breeches, thick woolen socks and combat boots. Accompanied by bands of musicians and carrying swastika flags, they would parade through the streets of Munich. At the end of the march Hitler would make one of his passionate speeches that encouraged his supporters to carry out acts of violence against Jews and his left-wing political opponents. The SA was assigned the task of winning the battle of the streets against the Communists. Hitler believed that the "possession of the streets in the key to the power of the state."

In 1922 Kurt Lüdecke joined the Nazi Party. Lüdecke considered the Sturmabteilung as "little better than gangs". He approached Hitler and suggested that he should form an elite, well-disciplined company of Storm Troopers. He thought that their example might prove an inspiration to the rest of the SA. Hitler agreed and as James Pool points out: "Lüdecke began recruiting, accepting only the toughest and most able-bodied men who had either served in the war or had some military training. Two former Army officers were appointed as platoon leaders. A number of young students began to join the troop. A band with four drummers and four fifers was organized. Drills were held regularly. Every Wednesday night the entire company would assemble in a room Lüdecke had rented in a cafe on Schoenfeldstrasse, where he lectured his men on the political aims of the Nazi Party. Every new member took an oath of allegiance on the swastika flag and pledged loyalty to Hitler."

Kurt Lüdecke also bought the uniforms and other equipment for the men. Except for a few small details, the appearance of Lüdecke's men was almost indistinguishable from regular Army troops. Their uniform consisted of Army tunic, military breeches, Austrian ski-caps, leggings, and combat boots. each man also wore a leather belt and a swastika armband. By the end of December 1922 about 100 men. Lüdecke a close friend of Ernst Röhm had managed to help him obtain 15 heavy Maxim guns, more than 200 hand grenades, 175 rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition. According to Lüdecke's own account in Knew Hitler (1938) he earned the money to finance his S.A. troop by selling treadless tires to the Russian government.

Röhm played an important role in recruiting these men, and became the SA's first leader. Röhm's biographer, Paul R. Maracin, has pointed out that he played a vital role in arming the SA: "After the war a large arsenal was left by the German Army, and Röhm was one of several officers who conspired to divert and cache the arms. The German government had promised the Allies that the guns, ammunition, and vehicles would be dutifully destroyed, and according to the peace treaty, this should have been done. However, in some instances (with the connivance of some Allied officers attached to control commissions), these arms were stored for future use and would later he issued to members of the Freikorps and the SA. As an officer, Röhm had the reputation of a man who resolutely stood by his subordinates, while acting as a buffer between them and his superior officers. For all his dedication as a soldier, he was, paradoxically, a person who casually arranged for the murder of informants who tried to reveal the whereabouts of his hidden arsenals."

Louis L. Snyder has argued: "From its earliest days Hitler regarded the SA as a political and not as a military force. He considered his Brownshirts shock troops for a revolution that was never to be made. His problem was to maintain the spirit of the of the SA without allowing it to move into revolutionary action. Above all, he was determined to keep it from a conflict with the Army. Roehm, on the other hand, saw the SA not only as the backbone of the Nazi movement but as the nucleus of a revolutionary army."

On 14th February 1926 the Bamberg Party Congress took place. This was Hitler's attempt to negotiate a new Nazi Party program. There had been a clash of opinion between northern and southern leaders about future policy. Ernst Röhm, Gregor Strasser and Joseph Goebbels represented the urban, socialist, revolutionary trend, whereas Gottfried Feder reflected rural, racialist and populist ideas. At the conference Hitler made a two-hour speech where he opposed the socialism of Röhm, Goebbels and Strasser. He argued that the NSDAP must not help Communist-inspired movements.

Goebbels and Strasser accepted these arguments and in return they received promotion. Strasser was appointed as Propaganda Leader of the NSDAP and Goebbels became Gauleiter of Berlin. However, Röhm made it clear that he still retained his faith in socialism. As a result Hitler removed him as leader of the Sturm Abteilung and replaced him with Franz Pfeffer von Salomon. According to Michael Burleigh, the author of The Third Reich: A New History (2001): "Franz Felix Pfeffer von Salomon... brief was to check its aspirations to quasi-military status by firmly subordinating it to the Party's political and propaganda goals. The SA was to perform two functions: to rough up opponents during elections, a practice Hitler seems to have admired across the Atlantic, and to assert the Nazi presence on the streets." Hitler wrote to Pfeffer: "We have to teach Marxism that the future master of the streets is National Socialism, just as one day it will be master of the state."

Ernst Roehm
Franz Pfeffer von Salomon with Adolf Hitler at a Sturm Abteilung Rally.

The authors of The Third Reich (1987) have argued: "Pfeffer added orderliness and traditional army drill to SA formations to try to give parade-ground impressiveness and the glamour of a military appearance. His object was to make the SA an instrument of propaganda rather than a gang of bullies. It was Pfeffer who trained the SA in the mass parades and salutes with the raised arm, and the massed shout Heil Hitler! that became a feature of Party rallies." However, Pfeffer found Hitler difficult to work with as he was unable to discuss issues: "Hitler gets a cue to something he is interested in - but that's something different every day... then he takes over the conversation and the point of the discussion is shelved." Pfeffer gradually lost respect for Hitler and began describing him as "that flabby Austrian."

Alan Bullock, the author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) has argued that Pfeffer became just as difficult as Röhm had been. "Whatever steps Hitler took, however, the S.A. continued to follow its own independent course. Pfeffer held as obstinately as Röhm to the view that the military leadership should be on equal terms with, not subordinate to, the political leadership. He refused to admit Hitler's right to give orders to his Stormtroops. So long as the S.A. was recruited from the ex-service and ex-Freikorps men who had so far provided both its officers and rank and file, Hitler had to tolerate this state of affairs." On 2nd September 1930 Hitler relieved Franz Pfeffer von Salomon of his command. Hitler assumed temporary leadership of the Sturm Abteilung but decided to forgive Ernst Röhm for past indiscretions. A telegram was dispatched from Munich to La Paz. By the end of 1930 Rohm had returned to Germany, and in January 1931 he was named Chief of Staff of the SA.

David Low, The Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)
The Illustrierter Beobachter (1933)

When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 Ernst Röhm made a speech where he stated: "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 defence 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."

In 1933, General Werner von Blomberg, Hitler's minister of war, and Walther von Reichenau, chief liaison officer between the German Army and the Nazi Party, became increasingly concerned about the growing power of the SA. Ernst Röhm had been given a seat on the National Defence Council and began to demand more say over military matters. On 2nd October 1933, Röhm sent a letter to Reichenau that said: "I regard the Reichswehr now only as a training school for the German people. The conduct of war, and therefore of mobilization as well, in the future is the task of the SA." When he realised that Hitler had supported the army over the SA he wrote: "Adolf is a swine. He will give us all way. He only associates with reactionaries now. Adolf knows exactly what I want. Not a second edition of the old imperial army. Are we revolutionaries or aren't we? We've got to produce something new, don't you see? A new discipline. A new principle of organization. The generals are a lot of old fogies."

Blomberg and Reichenau began to conspire with Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler against Röhm and the SA. Himmler asked Reinhard Heydrich to assemble a dossier on Röhm Heydrich, who also feared him, manufactured evidence that suggested that Röhm had been paid 12 million marks by the French to overthrow Hitler. Hitler liked Ernst Röhm and initially refused to believe the dossier provided by Heydrich. Röhm had been one of his first supporters and, without his ability to obtain army funds in the early days of the movement, it is unlikely that the Nazis would have ever become established. The SA under Röhm's leadership had also played a vital role in destroying the opposition during the elections of 1932 and 1933.

However, Adolf Hitler had his own reasons for wanting Röhm removed. Powerful supporters of Hitler had been complaining about Röhm for some time. Generals were afraid that the SA, a force of over 3 million men, would absorb the much smaller German Army into its ranks and Röhm would become its overall leader. Industrialists, who had provided the funds for the Nazi victory, were unhappy with Röhm's socialistic views on the economy and his claims that the real revolution had still to take place. Many people in the party also disapproved of the fact that Röhm and many other leaders of the SA were homosexuals.

Adolf Hitler was also aware that Röhm and the SA had the power to remove him as leader. Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler played on this fear by constantly feeding him with new information on Röhm's proposed coup. Their masterstroke was to claim that Gregor Strasser, whom Hitler hated, was part of the planned conspiracy against him. With this news Hitler ordered all the SA leaders to attend a meeting in the Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiesse.

Louis L. Snyder argues: "Hitler later alleged that his trusted friend Röhm had entered a conspiracy to take over political power. The Führer was told, possibly by one of Röhm's jealous colleagues, that Röhm intended to use the SA to bring a socialist state into existence... On June, 1934... Hitler came to his final decision to eliminate the socialist element in the party. A list of hundreds of victims was prepared."

On 29th June, 1934. Hitler, accompanied by the Schutzstaffel (SS), arrived at Wiesse, where he personally arrested Ernst Röhm. During the next 24 hours 200 other senior SA officers were arrested on the way to Wiesse. Erich Kempka, Hitler's chauffeur, witnessed what happened: "Hitler entered Röhm's bedroom alone with a whip in his hand. Behind him were two detectives with pistols at the ready. He spat out the words; Röhm, you are under arrest. Röhm's doctor comes out of a room and to our surprise he has his wife with him. I hear Lutze putting in a good word for him with Hitler. Then Hitler walks up to him, greets him, shakes hand with his wife and asks them to leave the hotel, it isn't a pleasant place for them to stay in, that day. Now the bus arrives. Quickly, the SA leaders are collected from the laundry room and walk past Röhm under police guard. Röhm looks up from his coffee sadly and waves to them in a melancholy way. At last Röhm too is led from the hotel. He walks past Hitler with his head bowed, completely apathetic."

A large number of the SA officers were shot as soon as they were captured but Adolf Hitler decided to pardon Röhm because of his past services to the movement. However, after much pressure from Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, Hitler agreed that Röhm should die. At first Hitler insisted that Röhm should be allowed to commit suicide but, when he refused, Ernst Röhm was killed by two SS men.

David Low, The Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)
David Low, They Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)

The purge of the SA was kept secret until it was announced by Hitler on 13th July. It was during this speech that Hitler gave the purge its name: Night of the Long Knives (a phrase from a popular Nazi song). Hitler claimed that 61 had been executed while 13 had been shot resisting arrest and three had committed suicide. Others have argued that as many as 400 people were killed during the purge. In his speech Hitler explained why he had not relied on the courts to deal with the conspirators: "In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I become the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason."

Hitler told Albert Speer what happened at Wiesse: "Hitler was extremely excited and, as I believe to this day, inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger. Again and again he described how he had forced his way into the Hotel Hanselmayer in Wiessee - not forgetting, in the telling, to make a show of his courage: We were unarmed, imagine, and didn't know whether or not those swine might have armed guards to use against us. The homosexual atmosphere had disgusted him: In one room we found two naked boys! Evidently he believed that his personal action had averted a disaster at the last minute: I alone was able to solve this problem. No one else! His entourage tried to deepen his distaste for the executed SA leaders by assiduously reporting as many details as possible about the intimate life of Röhm and his following."

David Low, The Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)
David Low, The Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)

Joseph Goebbels later regretted the killing of Ernst Röhm: "I point out to the Führer at length that in 1934 we unfortunately failed to reform the Wehrmacht when we had an opportunity of doing so. What Röhm wanted was, of course, right in itself but in practice it could not be carried through by a homosexual and an anarchist. Had Röhm been an upright solid personality, in all probability some hundred generals rather than some hundred SA leaders would have been shot on 30 June. The whole course of events was profoundly tragic and today we are feeling its effects. In that year the time was ripe to revolutionise the Reichswehr. As things were the Führer was unable to seize the opportunity. It is questionable whether today we can ever make good what we missed doing at that time. I am very doubtful of it. Nevertheless the attempt must be made."

SA service develops comradeship, toughness, strength (1941)
SA service develops comradeship, toughness, strength (1941)

Ernst Röhm was replaced by Victor Lutze as head of the SA. Lutze was a weak man and the SA gradually lost its power in Hitler's Germany. The Schutz Staffeinel (SS) under the leadership of Himmler grew rapidly during the next few years, replacing the SA as the dominant force in Germany.

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg decided that the SA was not guilty of war crimes: "Up until the purge beginning on June 30, 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."

Primary Sources

(1) Ernst Hanfstaengel first met Anton Drexler in 1922.

Anton Drexler, the original founder of the Party, was there most evenings, but by this time he was only its honorary president and had been pushed more or less to one side. A blacksmith by trade, he had a trade union background and although it was he who had thought up the original idea of appealing to the workers with a patriotic programme, he disapproved strongly of the street fighting and violence which was slowly becoming a factor in the Party's activities and wanted to build up as a working-class movement in an orderly fashion.

(2) Paul R. Maracin, The Night of the Long Knives: Forty-Eight Hours that Changed the History of the World (2004)

After the war a large arsenal was left by the German Army, and Röhm was one of several officers who conspired to divert and cache the arms. The German government had promised the Allies that the guns, ammunition, and vehicles would be dutifully destroyed, and according to the peace treaty, this should have been done. However, in some instances (with the connivance of some Allied officers attached to control commissions), these arms were stored for future use and would later he issued to members of the Freikorps and the SA. As an officer, Röhm had the reputation of a man who resolutely stood by his subordinates, while acting as a buffer between them and his superior officers. For all his dedication as a soldier, he was, paradoxically, a person who casually arranged for the murder of informants who tried to reveal the whereabouts of his hidden arsenals.

It was Röhm - not Hitler - who first stumbled across the German Workers' Party, and it was Röhm who transformed that "talking club" (as one early writer described it) into a viable, fermenting hotbed of activists. It was Rohm who provided the infusion of restless, action-seeking (and action-producing) soldiers and former soldiers, thereby changing the original working-class character of the party. Röhm was already a member when Hitler discovered the party in the fall of 1919. He was impressed with Hitler's oratory, and was instrumental in putting Hitler in touch with politicians and military personnel who could be useful to the party. Without this assistance, it is doubtful that Hitler's political star could have risen so quickly.

The genesis of the SA dates back to the summer of 1920, when Emil Maurice, an ex-convict who later became Hitler's personal chauffeur, was placed in charge of a motley group of unruly party protectors. As a camouflage, in August 1921, they were called the "Gymnastic and Sports Division" of the party, and this transparent attempt to conceal the true purpose of the division was continued until October 1921 when it became known as the SA. Röhm was always the guiding light behind the SA, and it was his influence that brought in the militaristic recruits, his fine hand and expertise that restructured the SA into the formidable force it became in later years. It was Hitler who spouted the words; it was Röhm and his SA who provided the brawn to back them up.

During the latter part of September 1923, Rohm resigned from the Reichswehr and devoted all of his time to Hitler and the cause. Less than two months later he was deeply involved in the Beer Hall Putsch. He was the only leader in the coup d'etat who accomplished his objective: to seize the headquarters of the army at the War Ministry in Munich. Two hours after Hitler's march through the streets had been halted and dispersed by police bullets, Röhm realized the futility of the operation, surrendered, and was placed under arrest. He was one of the ten defendants tried for treason.

While Hitler was sent to Landsberg Prison, Röhm (although found guilty) was placed on probation and released. He now entered the most difficult period of his life. While Hitler was serving his sentence, he and Gregor Strasser aligned themselves with the recently formed National Socialist Freedom Movement and won themselves seats in the Reichstag in the May 1924 election. Other than that accomplishment, it was all downhill. During 1924 Röhm endured the embarrassment of having his suitcase and personal papers stolen while he was consorting with questionable acquaintances in a sordid section of Berlin; as a result of this indiscretion, his homosexual proclivities became known to police authorities.

In April 1925 he had a falling-out with Hitler, withdrew from political life, and failed miserably in his efforts to support himself. He drifted about, worked for a short period at a machine factory, became a book salesman, and imposed on his homosexual friends for sustenance. As a civilian, he was totally out of his element. At one time he had frankly acknowledged that "war and unrest appeal to me more than the orderly life of your respectable burgher." But, respectable burgher he was not; virtually destitute, he moved about in the lowest of circles and associated with the dregs of the social stratum. He had also once made the statement that he could "reach an understanding more easily with an enemy soldier than with a German civilian, because the latter is a swine and I don't understand his language." He now found himself living as "a swine."

In 1928 he briefly reconciled with Hitler and traveled throughout Germany renewing contacts with active duty Reichswehr officers as the party chief's envoy. After yet another dispute with Hitler, he abruptly left Germany for South America, accepting the post of military adviser to the Bolivian Army as a lieutenant-colonel. From Bolivia he imprudently sent letters to friends in Germany in which he decried the lack of understanding for homosexuals in that faraway land. Some of the letters addressed to Dr. Karl-Gunther Heimsoth fell into the hands of newspaper journalists and were given wide-spread publicity.

With Röhm in South America, Hitler placed Captain Franz Pfeffer von Salomon in charge of the SA. This was a move Hitler came to regret, as Pfeffer von Salomon (like Rohm) had an independent mind, but unlike Rohm had no fealty to Hitler, who he characterized as "that flabby Austrian."

By August 1930 Hitler had reached the end of his patience with Pfeffer von Salomon. He relieved him of his command and, on an interim basis, personally assumed leadership of the SA. A telegram was dispatched from Munich to La Paz, as once again Hitler in a time of need turned to the man who had been so essential to him in past days of travail. By the end of 1930 Rohm had returned to his native Germany, and in January 1931 he was named Chief of Staff of the SA.

He immediately began the task of rebuilding and enlarging the SA, and in so doing brought his homosexual friends into leadership positions. Hitler turned aside all complaints about Rohm's morals, lifestyle, methods, and techniques, and defended the SA by saying it was "not an institute for the moral education of young ladies but a band of tough fighters." And so it was, as the ranks burgeoned to encompass the criminal element as well as sundry undesirables.

This was all done with the acquiescence of Hitler, but to the dismay of Reichswehr leaders, who viewed Rohm and his men as distinct threats to displacing the army as the Fatherland's first line of defense. The Treaty of Versailles limited the Reichswehr to a force of 100,000. No such restriction applied to the SA, which operated somewhat like the National Guard in the United States, with many members holding full-time civilian jobs.

With the responsibility of the SA firmly in Röhm's hands, Hitler concentrated on his final push toward his goal. By the time he negotiated his power play to snatch the chancellorship from under the very noses of von Schleicher and von Papen, Röhm had molded the SA into an intimidating strike force. Hitler's private army was ready and eager to be tested. Thanks to Rohm-who had again done his job-Hitler could operate from a position of strength.

(3) Ernst Röhm, article published about Adolf Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany (June, 1933)

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 defence 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.

(4) Ernst Röhm, announcement to the Sturm Abteilung (SA) (May, 1934)

1934 will require all the energies of every SA fighter. I recommend, therefore, to all SA leaders to begin organizing leave already in June. Therefore, for a limited number of SA leaders and men, June, and for the majority of the SA, July, will be a period of complete relaxation in which they can recover their strength. I expect the SA to return on 1st August completely rested and refreshed in order to serve in those honourable capacities which nation and fatherland expect of it.