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Sturm Abteilung (SA)
In 1921 Adolf Hitler formed his own private army called Sturm Abteilung (Storm Section). The SA (also known as stormtroopers or brownshirts) were instructed to disrupt the meetings of political opponents and to protect Hitler from revenge attacks. Captain Ernst Roehm of the Bavarian Army played an important role in recruiting these men, and became the SA's first leader.
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.
When Ernst Roehm left Germany to work in Bolivia in 1925, Heinrich Himmler took over the leadership of the SA. However, in 1931 Hitler recalled Roehm to Germany and asked him to head the SA. In just over a year Roehm expanded it from 70,000 to 170,000 members. By 1934 the SA had grown to 4,500,000 men.
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 Roehm had been given a seat on the National Defence Council and began to demand more say over military matters. On 2nd October 1933, Roehm 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.
Werner von Blomberg and Walther von Reichenau began to conspire with Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler against Roehm and the SA. Himmler asked Reinhard Heydrich to assemble a dossier on Roehm. Heydrich, who also feared him, manufactured evidence that suggested that Roehm had been paid 12 million marks by the French to overthrow Hitler.
Hitler liked Ernst Roehm and initially refused to believe the dossier provided by Heydrich. Roehm 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 Roehm'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 Roehm removed. Powerful supporters of Hitler had been complaining about Roehm 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 Roehm would become its overall leader.
David Low, They salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)
Industrialists, who had provided the funds for the Nazi victory, were unhappy with Roehm'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 Roehm and many other leaders of the SA were homosexuals.
Adolf Hitler was also aware that Roehm 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 Roehm'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 Wiesse.
On 29th June, 1934. Hitler, accompanied by the Schutz Staffeinel (SS), arrived at Wiesse, where he personally arrested Ernst Roehm. During the next 24 hours 200 other senior SA officers were arrested on the way to Wiesse. Many were shot as soon as they were captured but Hitler decided to pardon Roehm because of his past services to the movement. However, after much pressure from Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, Hitler agreed that Roehm should die. At first Hitler insisted that Roehm should be allowed to commit suicide but, when he refused, he was killed by two SS men.
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."
Roehm 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.
SA service develops comradeship, toughness, strength (1941)
(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) Ernst Roehm, 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.
(3) Ernst Roehm, 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.