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What was the SA?


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The SA is the abbreviation for the Sturmabteilung. These were the original "storm troopers" who were the strong-arm of Hitler and terrorized the Jewish population and regularly fought the Communists in Germany in 1931-33.

The SA was a paramilitary organization of the NSDAP - the German Nazi party- and was very important to Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s until they were superseded by the SS. SA troopers were often called "Brownshirts", for the colour of their uniforms, and to distinguish them from the Schutzstaffel (SS), who wore black and brown uniforms.

The SS eliminated many of its leaders during the purge that was called "the Night of the Long Knives".

The SA was originally founded in 1920 as "Saalschutz" (SS; stewards) to protect meetings of the Nazi party and was originally made up of members of various Freikorps and Bavarian army. It would eventually become the feared SA, a pure goon squad, used for instigated brawls with left-wing rival parties that often developed into brutal street fights.

The first stewards were provided by members of the Bavarian Army's 19th Mortar Company through Ernst Röhm's military contacts. It was given the name Sturmabteilung following a public mass rally at the Hofbräuhaus, Munich, on 4 November 1921, described by the Nazis as a mass brawl (Saalschlacht). It received training from the Bavarian military, especially the 7th Pioneer Batallion and the 19th Infantry Regiment.

By 1923 the Munich SA alone was 1,150 man strong and was made up of infantry companies and cavalry platoons and their first "military" action took place during the Hitler-Ludendorff Putsch (Beerhall Putsch) of 8/9th November 1923, when 2,000 SA members and prominent Nazis attempted to overthrow the Bavarian government. As a result of this putsch attempt Hitler was arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment (but only served 9 months). The Nazi party and the SA were also banned (although the ban would be lifted in 1925).

In order to get around the ban Röhm founded the Frontbann in May 1924 as a cover for the SA other other paramilitary organisations which had also been banned. By September that year more than 30,000 men had joined the organisation.

When the the proscription of the SA and NSDAP was lifted in 1925, the organisation quickly fell apart, with the majority of its members returning to the SA and NSDAP,whilst the reaminder formed the far-right Tannenbergbund, a nationalist organisation opposed to Hindenburg, the German Royal family and Hitler himself.

After Hitler's release from Landsberg Prison in 1925 he decided that the SA should become a political militia, whose only role was to provide security at rallies and during electioneering, the SA's leader, Ernst Röhm, on the other hand wanted it to remain a revolutionary, paramilitary force (the original use he had envisaged for it). Due to these disagreements over of the role of the SA, Röhm was sacked by Hitler and went into exile. Control of the SA was given to an ex-Freikorps veteran, Captain Franz Pfeffer von Salomon and Röhm sailed to Bolivia, where he became a military advisor.

Over the next 10 years the SA would grow into a formidable military organisation with over 4.5 million members at it height. Its size and the Nazis' general lack of control over the SA and its leaders would eventually lead to what became known as the Night of the Long Knives or the Blood Purge.

Another reason for the purge was due to the fact that many members of the SA were genuine socialists, lured to the party and the organisation by the the socialist aspect of the party. One such man was Walter Stennes (1895-1989), the Berlin commandant of the SA. In September 1930 he led a mutiny (Stennes Revolt), accusing Hitler of betraying the Nazi's revolutionary, socialist ideals. This revolt, which was put down with the help of the SA and the police, forced Hitler to take direct command of the SA and send a humiliating request to Röhm to return to Germany as his deputy and restore order.

The SA, by now numbering hundreds of thousands (when Röhm returned from exile the SA numbered around 100,000, by the end of 1932, his leadership had caused the number to swell to nearly half a million), again awoke the desire in Röhm to turn it into a revolutionary force, a peoples' army, that would remove the old Prussian establishment. Hitler, aware of Röhm's renewed intentions, began making plans to break the SA leadership once and for all. Hitler could rely on many allies in his quest, not least his own party members, hoping to gain favour with Hitler and further their own career, but also from the establishment, such as the Army, who viewed the SA, now five times larger than the German armed forces, with envy and fear.

Röhm's Achilles heel was his homosexuality, which was widely known, and his penchant for appointing his gay friends to high-ranking positions within the SA. The Brownshirts soon became known for their scandalous sexual behaviour. Hitler, who had no strong aversion to homosexuality at the time, was well aware of Röhm's sexual orientation and the scandals within the SA and stated the SA was "not a moral institution for grooming young ladies, but a club for fighters".

Röhm's main enemy was his prudish subordinate, and leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, who believed homosexuality to be degenerate and wanted it rooted out of German life.

Following Hitler's election as German Chancellor in 1933, the SA hoped to complete his grip on power by grabbing control of key government institutions throughout Germany (Hitler headed a coalition government was was still constrained by the other parties). The SA began to run riot in the major cities, kidnapping, torturing and imprisoning rival politicians.

Journalist and author Hugh Greene recalled: "When I started work as a journalist in Germany, in the winter of 1933, I saw the stormtroopers in the days of their glory. The strutting bully boys of the streets, in every town and village, sure that they, 4 million strong, were the masters now".

Röhm was now at the height of his power and began to push, ever more forcefully for a full-blown (socialist) revolution. The Generals, fearful of his power and the strength of his private army, complained to Hitler and suggested that the SA be combined with the "Stahlhelm" (a paramilitary organisation of ex-soldiers, and the armed wing of the German National People's Party, DNVP) to form a militia under the control of the army. Against all expectations, Röhm agreed, but once the two organisations were united, was able to ensure that the now hugely enlarged SA remained under his control, now totalling 4.5 million men (45 times larger than the German army!).

Outwitted, the Generals once again complained to Hitler to do something to curb the growth of the SA. Hitler was reluctant to and instead attempted to cobble together a peace agreement between the army and Röhm. Röhm, however, was contemptuous of Hitler. At a dinner for high-level members of the SA he proclaimed drunkenly: "I have not the slightest intention of keeping this agreement. Hitler is a traitor and at the very least must get out. If we can't get there with him, we'll get there without him!"

Viktor Lutze, an SA member who attended the meeting, immediately reported this to Hitler who was still reluctant to act against his old comrade-in-arms.

Himmler and Göring, however, were not. The two had been in a long-running quarrel over control of Germany's police forces. Himmler controlled all except that of Prussia, which was controlled by Göring, but both now realised that Röhm and his army was a much greater threat to their political ambitions and so put aside their differences and agreed that Himmler would take over Prussia's police force, including its dreaded Gestapo, and in return Himmler would support Göring's drive to become head of Germany's armed forces, which was being blocked by Röhm. With Himmler now controlling all of Germany's police forces and the SS, he finally had a force large enough to take on the SA.

The threat the SA posed was brought home in the summer of 1933, when a Brownshirt was found in the grounds of Hitler's Bavarian residence, the Berghof, with a gun, intending to kill Hitler. Using this isolated incident as an excuse, Göring, Himmler and Heydrich attempted to find evidence that the SA were attempting a putsch against Hitler but could find nothing.

Over the course of that year, however Hitler began fomenting a plan of his own. On 10 April 1934, in secret talks with the German generals, Hitler agreed to to curb Röhm's power and the SA in return for their supporting him becoming President when Hindenburg died.

On 4 June 1934, still hoping to avoid the use of force against his old comrade, Hitler had a five-hour meeting with Röhm, asking him to scale back the activities of the SA. Röhm agreed and stood the SA down for the summer, while he in turn took a holiday in the spa resort of Bad Wiessee on the German-Austrian border.

Pressure on Hitler to deal with the SA continued to grow and, whilst on a state visit to Italy on 16 June 1934, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini urged him to "muzzle" the SA. The following day, Germany's Vice Chancellor von Papen gave a speech criticising the excesses of the Nazi regime (Marburg Speech), a clear attack on the SA. The Nazis were able to prevent its broadcast and publication but this had now brought the matter to the attention of Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, the German President, a much more intimidating foe for Hitler. Hindenburg, who had the power to depose the Hitler regime, summoned Hitler on 21 June 1934 and told him that unless he acted immediately against the SA, martial law would be declared and the army used to crush it. Hitler now had no choice. Himmler, Göring and Heydrich immediately began drawing up contingency plans and death lists.

In order to maintain the facade of normality, Göring went with Röhm to the wedding of the Berlin commander of the SA, Karl Ernst, who was oblivious to the fact that Göring had already placed his name on the death list.

On 27 June 1934, Hitler obtained the support of the armed forces for any action against the SA and the army was put on alert.

On 29 June 1934 Hitler, who was in Essen on private business, received a phone call from Himmler, who informed him that the SA were on the streets of Berlin, demonstrating against him (a lie as it turned out). A similar phone call was received from the Bavarian interior minister, that the SA had taken to the streets in Munich, calling for revolution (about 3,000 SA had in fact marched through Munich, after hearing rumours of action against them). As it was, both reports were deliberately exaggerated, with the intention of forcing Hitler to act. Hitler immediately phoned Röhm's adjutant to arrange a meeting the next day.

Hitler flew to Munich and early the next morning personally arrested Röhm. Joseph Goebbels then telephoned Göring to say Koilibri (hummingbird), the codename to begin the purge. Röhm and the SA leadership were taken to Stadelheim prison. On direct orders of Hitler, many were shot the same day but still Hitler could not bring himself to order the death of Röhm. This changed the following day, when Röhm was ordered to commit suicide. When he did not comply he was shot by Waffen SS general Theodor Eicke and SS Standartenführer Michel Hans Lippert (Lippert survived the war and was convicted in 1957 of Röhm's murder.

The young SA officer, whose wedding Röhm and Göring had attended only a few days earlier, was arrested as he boarded a cruise ship with his bride to go on honeymoon. Believing it to be a sick SS joke, he went along with it and calmly allowed himself to be handcuffed and led away. He was taken to Berlin and was murdered shortly after. It is estimated that during the operation at least 191 people died. Curiously, the next of kin of the murdered SA men were given state pensions between 1000 RM and 1600 RM a month, depending on their seniority.

Viktor Lutze, the SA officer who had reported Röhm's treasonous remarks to Hitler, was made commander of what was left of the SA. Lutze was weak-willed and the SA slowly faded away into obscurity, its position taken over by the SS, SD and Gestapo.