Munich, Germany October 5, 1921

On this date in 1921 the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (National­sozialis­tische Deutsche Arbeiter­partie, NSDAP or Nazi Party) headed by Adolf Hitler formally estab­lished the Sturm­ab­teilung (lit. “Storm Detach­ment”). The orga­ni­za­tion is better known by its ini­tials SA and col­lo­qui­ally as “brown­shirts” (Braun­hemden) for the color of their shirt uni­form. The SA’s several ante­ce­dents are found in German World War I special­ized assault troops and later, after the Nazi Party was formed in Munich in Janu­ary 1919 under the name German Workers’ Party, in the “Gym­nas­tic and Sports Divi­sion” (Turn- und Sport­abteilung), a dis­arming cover name for the storm­troopers, as they have also been called. Com­prised of ex-soldiers, beer-hall hooli­gans, and “dis­heveled rabble” (Hitler’s words), the func­tion of the future SA was to pro­tect Nazi Party gath­erings from disrup­tions involving followers of other polit­ical parties, not­ably the Social Demo­crats (SPD) and Com­mu­nists (KPD). A mêlée in down­town Munich’s Hof­braeu­haus on Novem­ber 4, 1921, when Hitler spoke to a large mixed crowd, solid­i­fied the noto­ri­ety of the party’s mili­tant wing for brawling with any­one and every­one viewed as an oppo­nent of the party and its vision of German Volks­gemein­schaft (national or ethnic community). (See yellow text box below.)

In the Depression Era of the late 1920s/early 1930s, as the Nazis grew from an extremist fringe group to the largest polit­i­cal party in Germany, Hitler assumed supreme com­mand of the SA as its new Oberster SA-Fuehrer. He invited Ernst Roehm, an early Hitler ally and an SA co-founder, to serve as SA Stabs­chef (chief of staff). Between 1931 and 1933 SA member­ship exploded to over 2 mil­lion men com­pared with the tiny Reichs­wehr (Germany Army), which was limited by law to 100,000 men at arms. Reichs­wehr brass, with their old-school Prus­sian tradi­tions, did not look kindly on a power­ful rival orga­ni­za­tion, a new “people’s army” over which they had no influ­ence. The SA appeared to threat­en the Reichwehr’s exis­ten­tial role as Germany’s true national defense force by absorbing it into their ranks of untrained thugs.

Hitler, Germany’s new chan­cellor since Janu­ary 30, 1933, had his own concerns with the SA. So too did Nazi Party big­wigs Hermann Goering and Hein­rich Himm­ler, the latter heading up the Schutz­staffel (SS), the Nazi Party’s elite “Pro­tec­tion Squad­ron.” The trio saw Roehm as a rival center of power, a man conspiring to use his storm­troopers to unseat Hitler. Already noted were senior Reichs­wehr offi­cers who worried about their fate. Then there were the German indus­tri­alists and finan­cial mag­nates who had supplied much of the where­withal for the Nazis’ elec­toral gains in the Reichs­tag (German parlia­ment) and in the Laender (states). This group worried over Roehm’s social­istic views on the eco­nomy and his claims that the real revo­lu­tion was still to come.

Hitler’s cynical betrayal of Roehm and the SA became known as “The Night of the Long Knives” (Nacht der langen Messer). The decap­i­ta­tion of the SA leader­ship began on June 30, 1934. Roehm and other influ­en­tial SA offi­cials were elim­i­nated by Himm­ler’s SS (Roehm was shot dead in his holding cell when he refused to com­mit sui­cide) as were other figures thought to be in cahoots with Roehm. Hitler jus­ti­fied the murder of as many as 100 of his oppo­nents and the arrest of over a thou­sand “muti­neers” in a 2-hour speech on July 13 to the Reichs­tag, now short 13 mem­bers who had been killed in the “Roehm Putsch.”

The failing 86-year-old German president Paul von Hinden­burg was given a tele­gram drafted by Nazi Party mem­bers, which he duti­fully forwarded to Hitler, con­gra­tulating the chan­cel­lor on having “nipped trea­son in the bud” and saving “the German nation from serious danger.” Upon Hinden­burg’s death on August 2, 1934, Hitler’s cabi­net appointed their leader Fuehrer und Reichs­kanzler, a merger of offices con­firmed in a national pleb­i­scite (89.9 per­cent voting in favor) on August 19, 1934.

An early example of Hitler’s auto­cratic, anti­demo­cratic intol­­er­ance was his party’s radi­cal reac­tion to Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front and the sub­se­quent 1930 Hollywood release by the same name. Selling 2.5 mil­lion books in 18 months, the pop­u­lar anti-war senti­ment in the book and film—a sear­ing indict­ment of the Great War—ran counter to Hitler’s ultra­na­tionalist ten­den­cies. He and his SA storm­troopers, along with other Nazi Party para­mili­tary orga­ni­zations like the Hitler­jugend (Hitler Youth), which was an arm of the Sturm­abteilunng until May 1932, fomented book burnings of the novel and dis­rupted movie showings, which included launching stink bombs, spreading sneezing power, and chanting “Juden­film” (Jewish movie) in thea­ters showing the film. The novel, its sequel, and the movie were banned in Nazi Germany.—Norm Haskett

Rise and Fall of Sturmabteilung (SA) Chief Ernst Roehm (1887–1934)

Sturmabteilung (SA), or Brownshirts, boycott of Jewish businesses, April 1, 1933Adolf Hitler with Sturmabteilung (SA), Nuremberg, August 1929

Left: Although the German public did not com­plain much when SA acti­vi­ties were directed against Jews, com­mu­nists, and socialists, by 1934 there was gen­eral con­cern about the level of civic vio­lence for which Roehm’s storm­troopers were respon­sible. Pres­i­dent Hinden­burg went so far as to inform Hitler in June 1934 that if the chancellor did not to curb the excesses of his SA, he would dissolve the government and declare martial law. This photo shows Roehm’s (and by extension, Hitler’s) thug­gish work­force in front of a Jewish shop during the boy­cott of Jewish busi­nesses in Germany on April 1, 1933. The sign says: “Germans, Atten­tion! This shop is owned by Jews. Jews damage the German eco­nomy and pay their German em­ployees star­vation wages. The prin­cipal owner is the Jew Nathan Schmidt.”

Right: Hitler posing in Nuremberg’s Main Market Square, 14th-century brick Gothic Frauen­kirche (“Church of Our Lady”) as a back­drop, with SA mem­bers during the Fourth Nazi Party Con­gress, August 1–4, 1929. In the fore­ground, bedecked as usual in medals, is Hermann Goering. Goering, together with Reich Minister of Public Enlighten­ment and Pro­pa­ganda Joseph Goebbels and Schutz­staffel (SS) head Hein­rich Himm­ler, plotted the demise of the SA. Goering per­sonally reviewed the list of detainees who were to be killed in the “Night of the Long Knives.”

Adolf Hitler with Sturmabteilung (SA) Chief of Staff Ernst Roehm, 1933Sturmabteilung (SA) parade past Hitler, Nuremberg Rally 1935

Left: Mustered out of the Kaiser’s army as a cap­tain, Ernst Roehm con­tinued his mili­tary career as an ad­ju­tant in the Reichs­wehr, the much dimin­ished defense force of the Weimar Republic (1919–1935). In 1919 he joined what became the Nazi Party and he and Hitler became close friends. He was tried along with Hitler for par­ti­ci­pa­tion in the Novem­ber 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch. From his prison cell in Lands­berg, Bavaria, Hitler gave Roehm per­mis­sion to rebuild the Sturm­ab­teilung any way he saw fit. Under both men the SA grew to num­ber nearly 3 mil­lion men who en­gaged in street battles with com­mu­nists and Jews. Hitler is pictured with SA Chief of Staff Roehm at the 1933 Nuremberg Party Rally.

Right: Hitler triumphant. Chastened SA troops parade past Hitler during the 1935 Nurem­berg Party Rally. Hitler admitted in a speech to the Reichs­tag on July 13, 1934, that the killings con­nected with the “Night of the Long Knives” had been illegal but claimed a plot had been under­way to over­throw the govern­ment. (For his Reich­stag speech Hitler ordered the German secret police (Gestapo) to pro­duce an “offi­cial” casual­ty list: 61 shot dead, 13 allegedly died resisting arrest, and 3 sui­cides.) A tame Reichs­tag passed a mea­sure that retroactively made the action legal.

Adolf Hitler, Ernst Roehm, and the Night of the Long Knives