The SA — Sturmabteilung, meaning ‘assault division’ — also known as the Brownshirts or Storm Troopers, was a violent paramilitary group attached to the Nazi Party in pre-World War Two Germany.
The SA was instrumental in the Nazi’s rise to power and 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. It was the SA’s thuggish vigilantism, independence from the regular army, and anti-capitalist sentiments of its leader, Ernst Röhm, that were ultimately its undoing.
Hitler Launches the SA
Hitler formed SA in Munich in 1921, drawing membership from violent anti-leftist and anti-democratic former soldiers in order to lend muscle to the young Nazi Party. 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.
The Beer Hall Putsch
Ernst Röhm became the leader of the SA after taking part in the Beer Hall 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 took part in violent street clashes with communists. 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 3 million within only 2 years. 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.
The Night of the Long Knives
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 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.