THE BROWN-SHIRTED STORMTROOPERS OF THE STURMABTEILUNGEN (SA) were one of the most visible and feared symbols of Nazism before and immediately after Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power. While historians have rarely considered their significance beyond the early years of Hitler’s rule, Daniel Siemen offers the first comprehensive account of the SA by following its stormtroopers from the streets of Munich to the German settlements of Eastern Europe.
Siemens traces the stormtroopers’ early years in post–World War I Bavaria, showing how violence was key to the SA’s foundational myth even before its members first donned their infamous brown shirts in 1924. The SA relied on war veterans to shape the younger recruits who joined in search of the sense of power they gained from fighting and humiliating the Nazis’ political enemies. By April 1934 the SA’s membership had swelled to four million, yet its power was threatened when Hitler began compromising with the German elite. The murderous 1934 purge of the SA’s leadership, including Ernst Röhm, the most influential of its higher-ups, thus provided Hitler with the opportunity to subdue the stormtroopers and make amends with the old-guard military leaders who feared they would be replaced with a “people’s militia” of brownshirts.
Siemens acknowledges that the Röhm purge seriously weakened the SA, but he departs from earlier histories by documenting how the next generation of stormtroopers, spurred on by virulent anti-Semitism, helped to “Germanize” the East, trained future soldiers for military service, served in the Wehrmacht with regular and elite divisions, and collaborated in the implementation of the Holocaust.
The myth of the SA’s post-1934 impotence stemmed from the effective defense adopted by its lawyers at the International Military Tribunal in 1945–1946, which found that the organization was not criminal. Siemens has corrected this fallacy—and with it our understanding of the SA’s significance to the Nazi movement—in this book, which is, quite simply, the best history of Hitler’s stormtroopers to date.
BRIAN K. FELTMAN is the author of The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue (Vol. 30, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Reviews | Fear vs. Freedom
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