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The Sturmabteilung (SA) (; ; or ) functioned as a paramilitary organization of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (or Nazi Party). It played a key role in Adolf Hitler's rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s. SA men were often called "brownshirts" for the colour of their uniforms (similarly to Benito Mussolini's blackshirts).

The SA was the first Nazi paramilitary group to develop pseudo-military titles for bestowal upon its members. The SA ranks were adopted by several other Nazi Party groups, chief amongst them the SS, itself originally a branch of the SA. Brown-coloured shirts were chosen as the SA uniform because a large batch of them were cheaply available after World War I, having originally been ordered during the war for colonial troops posted to Germany's former African colonies.[1]

The SA became largely irrelevant after Adolf Hitler ordered the "Blood purge" of 1934. This event became known as the Night of the Long Knives. The SA was effectively superseded by the SS, although it was not formally dissolved and banned until after the Third Reich's final capitualtion to the Allied powers in 1945.



The term Sturmabteilung predates the founding of the Nazi Party in 1919. It originally was applied to the specialized assault troops of Imperial Germany in World War I who used Hutier infiltration tactics. Instead of large mass assaults, the Sturmabteilung were organised into small squads of a few soldiers each. The first official German stormtroop unit was authorized on 2 March 1915; the German high command ordered the VIII Corps to form a detachment to test experimental weapons and develop tactics which could break the deadlock on the Western Front. On 2 October 1916, Generalquartiermeister Erich Ludendorff ordered all German armies in the west to form a battalion of stormtroops.[2] They were first used during the German Eighth Army's siege of Riga, and again at the Battle of Caporetto. Wider use followed on the Western Front in March 1918, where Allied lines were successfully pushed back tens of kilometers.

The DAP (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or German Workers' Party) was formed in Munich in January 1919 and Adolf Hitler joined it in September of that year. His talents for speaking, publicity and propaganda were quickly recognized,[3] and by early 1920 he had gained some authority in the party, which changed its name to the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or National Socialist German Workers' Party) in April 1920.

The precursor to the SA had acted informally and on an ad hoc basis for some time before this. Hitler, with an eye always to helping the party to grow through propaganda, convinced the leadership committee to invest in an advertisement in the M nchener Beobachter (later renamed the V lkischer Beobachter) for a mass meeting in the Hofbr uhaus, to be held on 16 October 1919. Some 70 people attended, and a second such meeting was advertised for 13 November in the Eberlbrau beer hall. Some 130 people attended; there were hecklers, but Hitler's military friends promptly ejected them by force, and the agitators "flew down the stairs with gashed heads." The next year, on 24 February, he announced the party's Twenty-Five Point program at a mass meeting of some 2000 persons at the Hofbr uhaus. Protesters tried to shout Hitler down, but his army friends, armed with rubber truncheons, ejected the dissenters. The basis for the SA had been formed.[4]

Hitler and Hermann G ring with SA stormtroopers at Nuremberg in 1928. A permanent group of party members who would serve as the Saalschutz Abteilung (hall defense detachment) for the DAP gathered around Emil Maurice after the February 1920 incident at the Hofbr uhaus. There was little organization or structure to this group, however. The group was also called the Ordnertruppen around this time.[5] More than a year later, on 3 August 1921, Hitler redefined the group as the "Gymnastic and Sports Division" of the party (Turn- und Sportabteilung), perhaps to avoid trouble with the government.[6] It was by now well recognized as an appropriate, even necessary, function or organ of the party. The future SA developed by organizing and formalizing the groups of ex-soldiers and beer hall brawlers who were to protect gatherings of the Nazi Party from disruptions from Social Democrats and Communists. By September 1921 the name Sturmabteilung was being used informally for the group.[7] Hitler, it should be noted, was the official head of the Nazi Party by this time.[8]

On 4 November 1921 the Nazi party held a large public meeting in the Munich Hofbr uhaus. After Hitler had spoken for some time the meeting erupted into a melee in which a small company of SA distinguished itself by thrashing the opposition. The Nazis called this event "Saalschlacht" (meeting hall battle) and it assumed legendary proportions in SA lore with the passage of time. Thereafter, the group was officially known as the Sturmabteilung.[7]

The leadership of the SA passed from Maurice to the young Hans Ulrich Klintzsch in this period. He had been a naval officer and a member of the Ehrhardt Brigade of Kapp Putsch fame and was, at the time of his assumption of SA command, a member of the notorious Organisation Consul (OC).[9] The Nazis under Hitler were taking advantage of the more professional management techniques of the military.[7]

Under their popular leader, Stabschef Ernst R hm, the SA grew in importance within the Nazi power structure, initially growing in size to thousands of members. In 1922, the Nazi Party created a youth section, the Jugendbund, for young men between the ages of 14 and 18 years. Its successor, the Hitler Youth, remained under SA command until May 1932.

From April 1924 until late February 1925 the SA was known as the Frontbann to try to circumvent Bavaria's ban on the Nazi Party and its organs (instituted after the abortive Beer Hall putsch of November 1923). The SA carried out numerous acts of violence against competing socialist groups throughout the 1920s, typically in minor street-fights called Zusammenst e ('collisions'). As the Nazis evolved from an extremist political party to the unquestioned leaders of the government, the SA was no longer needed for its original purpose: the acquisition of political power. An organization that could inflict more subtle terror and obedience was needed, and the SA (which had been born out of street violence and beer hall brawls) was simply not capable of doing so. The SA also posed a threat to the Nazi leadership and to Hitler's goal of co-opting the Reichswehr to his ends, as R hm's ideal was to incorporate the "antiquated" German army into a new "people's army": the SA. The younger SS was more suited to this task and began to take over the previously held roles of the SA.


After Hitler took power in 1933, the SA became increasingly eager for power and saw themselves as the replacement for the German army, then limited by law to no more than 100,000 men. This angered the regular army (Reichswehr), which already resented the Nazis. It also led to tension with other leaders within the party, who saw R hm's increasingly powerful SA as a threat to their own personal ambitions. Originally an adjunct to the SA, the Schutzstaffel (SS) was placed under the direct control of Heinrich Himmler in part to restrict the power of the SA and their leaders.

Although some of these conflicts were based on personal rivalries, there were also key socioeconomic conflicts between the SS and SA. SS members generally came from the middle class, while the SA had its base among the unemployed and working class. Politically speaking, the SA were more radical than the SS, with its leaders arguing the Nazi revolution had not ended when Hitler achieved power, but rather needed to implement socialism in Germany (see Strasserism). Furthermore, the defiant and rebellious culture encouraged before the seizure of power had to give way to a community organization approach such as canvassing and fundraising, which was resented by the SA as Kleinarbeit, "little work," which had normally been performed by women before the seizure of power.[10]

In 1933, General Werner von Blomberg, the Minister of Defence, and General Walther von Reichenau, the chief of the Reichswehrs Ministerial Department, became increasingly concerned about the growing power of the SA. Ernst R hm had been given a seat on the National Defence Council and began to demand more say over military matters. On 2nd October 1933, R hm 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."[11] Blomberg and von Reichenau began to conspire with Hermann G ring and Heinrich Himmler against R hm and the SA. Himmler asked Reinhard Heydrich to assemble a dossier on R hm. Heydrich recognized that in order for the SS to fully gain national power the SA had to be broken.[12] He manufactured evidence that suggested that R hm had been paid 12 million marks by the French to overthrow Hitler. Hitler liked Ernst R hm and initially refused to believe the dossier provided by Heydrich. R hm 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 R hm'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 R hm removed. Powerful supporters of Hitler had been complaining about R hm for some time. The generals were fearful of R hm's desire to have the SA, a force of over 3 million men, absorb the much smaller German Army into its ranks under his leadership.[12] Further, reports of a huge cache of weapons in the hands of SA members gave the army commanders even more concern.[12] Industrialists, who had provided the funds for the Nazi victory, were unhappy with R hm's socialistic views on the economy and his claims that the real revolution had still to take place. Matters came to a head in June 1934 when President von Hindenburg, who had the complete loyalty of the Army, informed Hitler that if he did not move to curb the SA then Hindenburg would dissolve the Government and declare martial law.[13] Adolf Hitler was also concerned that R hm and the SA had the power to remove him as leader. Hermann G ring and Heinrich Himmler played on this fear by constantly feeding him with new information on R hm's proposed coup. A 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 [14] in Bad Wiessee. On 29 June 1934, Hitler, accompanied by the Schutzstaffel (SS), arrived at Bad Wiessee, where he personally placed Ernst R hm and other high-ranking SA leaders under arrest. During the next 24 hours 200 other senior SA officers were arrested on the way to Wiessee. Many were shot as soon as they were captured but Hitler decided to pardon R hm because of his past services to the movement. On 1 July after much pressure from Hermann G ring and Heinrich Himmler, Hitler agreed that R hm should die. Hitler insisted that R hm should first be allowed to commit suicide. However, when R hm refused, he was killed by two SS officers, Theodor Eicke and Michael Lippert.[15] The names of eighty-five victims are known; however, estimates place the total number killed at between 150 and 200 persons.[16] While some Germans were shocked by the killing, many others saw Hitler as the one who restored "order" to the country.[17] Goebbels's propaganda highlighted the "R hm-Putsch" in the days that followed. The homosexuality of R hm and other SA leaders was made public to add "shock value"[17] even though the sexuality of R hm and other named SA leaders had actually been known by Hitler and other Nazi leaders for years.[17]

After the purge

After the Night of the Long Knives, the SA continued to exist under the leadership of Victor Lutze, but the group was largely placated and significantly downsized. The SA became overshadowed by other Nazi groups in the coming years, chiefly the SS, and by 1938 had little remaining significance in the Nazi organization. With the start of World War II in 1939, the SA lost most of its remaining members to the draft, although an attempt was made to form an SA division on similar lines to the Waffen-SS, the result being the creation of the Feldherrnhalle SA-Panzer Division.

In 1943, Victor Lutze was killed in an automobile accident and leadership of the group was assumed by Wilhelm Schepmann. Schepmann did his best to run the SA for the remainder of the war, attempting to restore the group as a predominant force within the Nazi Party and to mend years of distrust and bad feelings between the SA and SS.

The SA officially ceased to exist in May 1945 when Nazi Germany collapsed. The SA was banned by the Allied Control Council shortly after Germany's capitulation. In 1946, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg formally judged the SA to be a criminal organization alongside the SS and the Nazi Party.

In the modern age, several Neo-Nazi groups claim to be continued extensions of the SA, with terms such as "stormtrooper" and "brown shirt" common in Neo-Nazi vocabulary, although these groups are often loosely organized with separate agendas.


Ernst R hm, SA Chief of Staff, was shot on Hitler's orders, after refusing to commit suicide, in the Night of the Long Knives purge in 1934 The leader of the SA was known as the Oberster SA-F hrer, translated as Supreme SA-Leader. The following men held this position:

In September 1930, to quell the Stennes Revolt and to try to ensure the personal loyalty of the SA to himself, Hitler assumed command of the entire organization and remained Oberster SA-F hrer for the remainder of the group's existence to 1945. The day-to-day running of the SA was conducted by the Stabschef-SA (SA Chief of Staff). After Hitler's assumption of the supreme command of the SA, it was the Stabschef-SA who was generally accepted as the Commander of the SA, acting in Hitler's name. The following personnel held the position of Stabschef-SA:


Vehicle command flag for the Stabschef SA, 1938-1945
Vehicle command flag for the Stabschef SA, 1938-1945

The SA was organized throughout Germany into several large formations known as Gruppen. Within each Gruppe, there existed subordinate Brigaden and in turn existed regiment-sized Standarten. SA-Standarten operated out of every major German city and were split into even smaller units, known as Sturmbanne and St rme.

The command nexus for the entire SA operated out of Stuttgart and was known as the Oberste SA-F hrung. The SA supreme command had many sub-offices to handle supply, finance, and recruiting. Unlike the SS, however, the SA did not have a medical corps nor did it establish itself outside of Germany, in occupied territories, once World War II had begun.

The SA also had several military training units, the largest of which was the SA-Marine which served as an auxiliary to the Kriegsmarine and performed search and rescue operations as well as harbor defense.

Similar to the Waffen-SS wing of the SS, the SA also had an armed military wing, known as Feldherrnhalle. These formations expanded from regimental size in 1940 to a fully-fledged armored corps Panzerkorps Feldherrnhalle in 1945.

The SA not only instigated street violence against Jews, Communists and Socialists, it also enforced boycotts against Jewish-owned business, such as this one in Berlin on 1 April 1933.


  • "Terror must be broken by terror"[19]
  • "All opposition must be stamped into the ground"[19]

Film and media

See also

Affiliated organisations



  • Allen, William Sheridan, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1930-1935 (Quadrangle Books, 1965).
  • Bessel, Richard, Political Violence and The Rise of Nazism: The Storm Troopers in Eastern Germany, 1925-1934, (Yale University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-300-03171-8).
  • Campbell, Bruce, The SA Generals and The Rise of Nazism, (University Press of Kentucky, 1998, ISBN 0-8131-2047-0)
  • Evans, Richard, The Coming of the Third Reich. Penguin Group, 2004.
  • Evans, Richard, The Third Reich in Power. Penguin Group, 2005.
  • Fischer, Conan, Stormtroopers: A Social, Economic, and Ideological Analysis, 1929-35, (Allen & Unwin, 1983, ISBN 0-04-943028-9).
  • Fuller, James David, Collectors Guide to SA Insignia, (Matth us Publishers, Postal Instant Press, 1985, ISBN 0-931065-04-6).
  • Halcomb, Jill, The SA: A Historical Perspective, (Crown/Agincourt Publishers, 1985, ISBN 0-934870-13-6).
  • Hatch, Nicholas H. (trans. and ed.), The Brown Battalions: Hitler's SA in Words and Pictures (Turner, 2000, ISBN 1-56311-595-6).
  • Kershaw, Ian, Hitler: A Biography. W. W. Norton & Company, 2008, ISBN 0-393-06757-0.
  • Littlejohn, David, The Sturmabteilung: Hitler s Stormtroopers 1921  1945, Osprey Publishing, London, 1990
  • Manchester, William Raymond, The Arms of Krupp, 1587-1968: The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Dynasty That Armed Germany at War, (Back Bay, 2003, ISBN 0-316-52940-0)
  • Maracin, Paul, The Night of the Long Knives: 48 Hours that Changed the History of the World, The Lyons Press, 2004.
  • Merkl, Peter H., The Making of a Stormtrooper, (Princeton University Press, 1980, ISBN 0-691-07620-0).


External links

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