8

STORMTROOPERS IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR

As the Führer’s most loyal followers, we, the stormtroopers, know only two things in our lives: faithfulness towards the Führer until the last breath and fanaticism in our everyday lives, and, if necessary, in battle.

— Wilhelm Schepmann, 19441

The role of the SA during the Second World War has not been studied in detail.2 Some historians, however, have long felt that the violence exercised by SA men in the preceding two decades must have had an impact on how the Wehrmacht, the SD-Einsatzgruppen, the auxiliary police forces, and the SS fought this war, not only because many SA men were now drafted into the Wehrmacht. It is evident that the Brownshirts, as a mass organization as well as a paramilitary force, did not play a major strategic role in the war, but the regular SA man, ideologically reliable and accustomed to physical violence, did. In line with this argument, Michael Mann has observed that although the SA as an organization was for a second time ‘sidelined’ after Kristallnacht in 1938, ‘many of its hard-core members were transferred to other killing institutions’. Given the circumstances, going to war seemed a logical next step to those ‘Old Fighters’ who had built considerable careers in violence.3 The propagandists of the OSAF recognized such a linkage early on. SA-Hauptsturmführer Wilhelm Rehm, a Protestant pastor, secondary schoolteacher, and leader of the Deutsche Christen (DC) in the mid-1930s, claimed in 1941 that ‘the unique victories of the German Wehrmacht’ were at least substantially due to the SA’s readiness for action (Einsatzbereitschaft), willingness to sacrifice, comradeship, and community spirit.4

This chapter seeks to study how the individual conditioning in the SA, Nazi ideology, personal commitments, and strategic war efforts influenced and mutually reinforced each other. It also re-evaluates the importance of the SA within the framework of the National Socialist mass organizations during the war years. The SA was severely weakened by the drafting of the vast majority of its younger members into the Wehrmacht. Yet, contrary to what has often been believed, the SA did not sink into oblivion but attempted to seize the opportunities and initial territorial gains provided by the Second World War to expand its field of activities, both during the conflict and in the imagined post-war era. As late as March 1944, high-ranking SA leaders met for a three-day workshop in Posen in the Warthegau. As the official programme indicates, they not only discussed the problems of the day, but attended lectures on very general historical and political questions, including ‘The form of rule in the Roman Empire’, ‘The reign of the Mongolians’, ‘The foundations of the British Empire, and ‘The dollar imperialism’. Among the lecturers were two prominent SS officers, SS-Oberführer Franz Six, speaking on England, and SS-Obergruppenführer Gottlob Berger, lecturing on the German mission in the European east. SA Chief of Staff Wilhelm Schepmann, who had succeeded Viktor Lutze and the interim leader Max Jüttner in August 1943, gave a speech on ‘The idea of the Reich as a political mandate’.5 The climax of the meeting was a mustering of the SA leaders in the city and a public speech delivered by Alfred Rosenberg on ‘The Empire of the Germans’.6 Despite these triumphant themes, participants were advised to bring their food stamps and were warned not to frequent restaurants and bars apart from a few carefully selected and specially secured establishments.7 The contrast between the wide-ranging lectures on the problems of imperial rule and the everyday security problems within the region is indicative of the discrepancy between the persistently grandiose ambitions of the Nazi leaders and the increasing improbability of their achievement. Grotesque as it may appear today, this widening gulf offers yet another strong indicator that the SA once again became a relevant political factor in the last stages of the Third Reich. The following chapter will demonstrate why.

The SA and the Wehrmacht

The relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SA improved considerably in the second half of the 1930s. For sure, mutual distrust and hostilities on both sides following the showdown of 1934 did not vanish overnight, but with the passage of time and the territorial expansion of the Third Reich between 1935 and 1939, at least a working relationship could be established. More and more, it became Himmler’s SS that rivalled the Wehrmacht, not the ‘tamed’ SA. Bold self-confidence and far-reaching political ambitions no longer characterized the commanders of the SA; instead, deference to the will of both Hitler and the Wehrmacht prevailed. The moderate comeback of the SA as a paramilitary organization and its initially clandestine but later official operations in Austria and Czechoslovakia boosted its morale, yet this stimulus was achieved through actions that were completely in line with the aims of Hitler and the military and no longer reflected the ‘social revolutionary’ inclinations of the pre-1934 period.

With the expansion of the German Reich and its preparations for war, the profile of the SA rose at the end of the 1930s. The high point of this political rehabilitation was Hitler’s decree of 19 January 1939 in which he assigned responsibility for the pre-military and ideological training of the German men to the SA (Plate 25). Every German man between eighteen and twenty-one who fulfilled the preconditions for regular armed service now had the ‘moral obligation’ to earn the SA-Wehrabzeichen, the new term for the SA Sports Badge, issued since 1933 but available to non-SA members only beginning in 1935.8 Preparatory training to acquire this badge lay in the hands of the SA, which was ordered to establish so-called SA-Wehrmannschaften, literally ‘SA Defence Teams’. The men in the Wehrmannschaften were to receive regular ideological and physical training from full-time SA instructors, a mission that provided the latter with a job guarantee.9 According to plans from the summer of 1939, 20,000 permanent positions in the SA were needed to fulfil this task, which would have more than doubled the figure of 6,000 full-time SA leaders employed at that time.10 The financial funds for the new jobs were to come from the army, which was to transfer 11.7 million reichsmark to the SA on a month-by-month basis.11

As a result of the beginning of the war, such a massive enlargement of personnel did not take place. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1940, the OSAF boasted that nearly 13,000 SA-Stürme were involved in the training of the Wehrmannschaften, which by then comprised some two million men.12This figure was probably too high for 1940, but it seems plausible that between 1939 and 1942 more than two million men overall successfully participated in the three-month SA training courses.13 Through this programme the Nazi Party aimed at increasing the German men’s fighting strength while also monitoring and disciplining them. ‘Blood and soil, people and ground [Erde], folkdom [Volkstum] and national space [Volksraum]’ were to be the leading points of the National Socialist military education (Wehrerziehung) in the SA-Wehrmannschaften, Max Luyken informed his fellow SA generals in a speech from the first half of 1939.14 In such a way the NSDAP was able to get a firm grip on those German men who were too old for the Hitler Youth but too young for military service. Besides this group, the SA-Wehrmannschaften was also intended to comprise all reserves and those soldiers who had successfully fulfilled their military service.15 This organizational framework, which combined comprehensive control with constant indoctrination, constituted yet another component of the Nazis’ ‘totalitarian’ ambition never to let German men be free again, as Hitler stated in a speech in Reichenberg on 2 December 1938.16

Viktor Lutze’s personal notes provide background information on the genesis of Hitler’s important yet often underestimated decree of 19 January 1939, devolving responsibility for the education of German men to the SA. Lutze recorded that Hitler had summoned him to the Obersalzberg in the days after 9 November 1938 for a ‘debate about Feldherrnhalle’ and, in a personal conversation, had requested that Lutze discuss future regulations for pre- and post-military education (Wehrerziehung) with Walther von Brauchitsch, the chief of the Army High Command. Hitler asked Lutze and von Brauchitsch to create a report that could provide the basis for a new regulatory framework. Both sides were well aware that this decree would partially redefine their mutual relations. In the following weeks, Lutze claimed to have discussed matters extensively with von Brauchitsch, Franz Halder, Göring, and Erich Raeder, the leader of the Naval High Command.17 He also credited his Stabsführer and SA-Obergruppenführer Otto Herzog with having had a decisive influence in these negotiations.18 After an accord was reached and confirmed by Hitler, Lutze commented enthusiastically: ‘After all these long years this is the first step from exclusively ideological party work to a great task that, if understood properly, to my mind forms one of the most fundamental prerequisites for Germany’s future. In such a way the political soldier will form close bonds with the soldier in arms [Waffensoldat], the readiness for war [Wehrbereitschaft] will be closely intertwined with the military strength [Wehrkraft], the party will be connected to the Wehrmacht.’19 However, after this cry of joy, Lutze conceded that competing National Socialist organizations, particularly the SS, the Hitler Youth, and the NSKK, had immediately attempted to block the revaluation of the SA after the decree of 19 January 1939.20

This decree and the subsequent regulations issued by Lutze in the following months highlight that this effort aimed at nothing less than the total political and ideological submission of the Wehrmacht to the NSDAP and its Führer. Consequently, the SA’s attempt to organizationally cement its new power resulted in the establishment of an SA-Wehrstab, literally the ‘SA Staff for military matters’, on 1 June 1939, which was headed by Georg von Neufville, subsequently the commander of Infantry Regiment 195.21 The SA in 1939 thus was given a new purpose that, had it been carried out, would have made it an important organization for a very substantial proportion of German men. The military historian Manfred Messerschmidt has rightly called this development a ‘kind of recompense’ for the SA’s humiliation in 1934.22

Yet, the SA’s feelings of satisfaction were short-lived. The outbreak of the Second World War just weeks after the SA-Wehrstab was established decisively changed the situation – and, once again, to the disadvantage of the stormtroopers. Some 467,000 men, or 32 per cent of all members, were drafted into the Wehrmacht in August and September 1939 alone. By late 1940 the figure had risen to 741,208, or 53 per cent of all able SA men.23 As a result, regular SA service in the German Reich could not always be fulfilled. What is more, the moment a stormtrooper was drafted, the OSAF lost control of him, as his formal affiliation to the NSDAP and the SA was held in abeyance during his service.24 Among those drafted from the ranks of the SA was Neufville himself, who was called to the front and died on 3 November 1941 following wounds sustained at the Battle of Moscow.25 Nevertheless, Lutze and other high-ranking SA generals continued to view the January 1939 decree on the SA-Wehrmannschaften as a starting point for further growth.

A telling example of the uplifted spirit of the OSAF in these months can be found in a lengthy letter written by Max Jüttner in April 1941. Jüttner was at that time responsible for ‘leadership education’ (Führerausbildung) within the SA. In this letter he claimed that it was first and foremost thanks to the SA’s educational efforts that a unique ‘spiritual and emotional defence community’ (seelisch-geistige Wehrgemeinschaft) had been established in recent years. This community could be found in the battle zones as well as on the home front, Jüttner asserted, and he consequently concluded that it would be the SA’s future task to secure this ‘defence community of German men’ and to ensure its continuation by future generations. He repeatedly stressed that this community was to be exclusively male, stating that the current distribution of male and female roles in Nazi Germany would likely remain a permanent feature of German life in the foreseeable future.26

The OSAF’s ultimate yet ever more utopian aim was to establish the stormtroopers as a major political and social force in a German-dominated post-war central Europe that would be based on allegedly male virtues such as readiness for action, paramilitary training, and ideological firmness. In line with such ambitions, the SA planned a propaganda offensive in Fascist Europe shortly after the outbreak of the war. Toward this end its Aufklärungsdienst, a kind of intelligence and propaganda service, had a brochure on ‘The History of the SA’ printed in Italian and Spanish in November 1939. According to the contract with the publisher, the astonishingly high number of 850,000 copies were to be produced and distributed. However, the brochure never reached its audience, as the Foreign Office’s Language Service regarded the translations as extremely unsatisfactory, and, in the end, the Nazi regime blocked the publication’s distribution.27

Such incidents were certainly disconcerting for Lutze and the OSAF, but they constituted only a small problem compared to the major obstacle that the organization faced during the war years: the constant loss of manpower. By early 1941 up to 70 per cent of all rank-and-file stormtroopers and more than 80 per cent of high-ranking officials in the SA had been sent to fight.28 This drainage of members decisively weakened the SA in the Reich, but at the same time it impacted on the Wehrmacht. The armed forces did not simply swallow up the former stormtroopers and thereby render them invisible.29 As the exemplary study of the Rhenish-Westphalian Infantry Division 253 by the historian Christoph Rass demonstrates, slightly more than one-third of all soldiers in this division were or had been members of one or more National Socialist organizations. A closer look reveals that the overwhelming majority (85.6 per cent) had been members of the Hitler Youth or the SA (or both), whereas the proportion of soldiers with affiliations to the SS and the NSDAP did not exceed 4.9 and 3.7 per cent respectively. Of all soldiers in this division, 13.7 per cent were SA men and 18.9 per cent were former members of the Hitler Youth.30 Rass also analysed the correlation between memberships and age brackets, distinguishing three groups: a cohort born before 1910, another cohort born between 1910 and 1915, and still another born after 1916. In the first cohort only 11.6 per cent of all soldiers were members of a Nazi organization. These ‘Old Fighters’ were, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly members of the SA, SS, and NSDAP. In the second cohort the SA and the HJ began to dominate, with 38.6 per cent being members of one or more Nazi organizations. In the third cohort, consisting of the youngest soldiers, the Hitler Youth predominated, and 62 per cent were affiliated with one or more Nazi organizations.31

These statistics demonstrate that it was not the ‘Old Fighters’ with their previous ideological training who composed the majority of Wehrmacht soldiers, but a younger generation, born in the 1910s, who had generally joined the SA in 1933 or later, at around the age of eighteen. This ‘post-war youth generation’, politically socialized in the last years of the Weimar Republic and subsequently ‘educated’ under the Nazi regime, overwhelmingly lacked any personal experience with the political battle of the late 1920s and early 1930s that was so often glorified in Nazi propaganda. This ‘second generation’ of SA men, who numerically dominated among those Wehrmacht soldiers with National Socialist affiliation, were therefore less shaped by the ‘glorious’ years of the SA than by their own experience of the transformation of the SA into a hybrid of a pre-military training organization and a politically controlled social welfare institution.32

These findings are not representative of all units in a technical sense. However, Infantry Division 253 was in many ways a typical Wehrmacht unit, fighting on both the western and eastern fronts.33 Based on Rass’s evidence, it makes sense to distinguish two groups when speaking of former SA men-turned-soldiers in the Second World War: the minority of ‘Old Fighters’ and the considerably larger group of younger men whose adolescence had coincided with the establishment of the Third Reich. These latter SA men had been shaped by their education under the swastika, with its emphasis on paramilitary training and personal hardening and its diminution of intellectual engagement, as well as by the need to conform to a given order and to accept the prerogative of the NSDAP at all costs. A considerable number of these younger soldiers had already served in the Wehrmacht before the war as a result of the reintroduction of conscription in 1935.

The distinction between these two groups is crucial. It strongly indicates that a straight line cannot be drawn from the pre-1933 violence of the SA to the violence of the Second World War. There was certainly much continuity among the Landsknechtnaturen (mercenary types) of the older SA activists, but this continuity did not exist among their younger SA comrades. To understand the motives and actions of the latter, it will prove fruitful to examine how their education in the SA in the second half of the 1930s translated into military action during the war. I will discuss this point by analysing individuals’ motives in joining the SA, the operations of the SA-Standarte Feldherrnhalle, and the effects of SA propaganda in the last years of the conflict.

The Beginning of the War

In the early stages of the Second World War, the SA longed for an intensified level of cooperation with the army under von Brauchitsch, chief of the Army High Command. This was a natural move, as the decree of 19 January 1939 that ordered German men to alternate between participation in the SA-Wehrmannschaften and regular military service automatically brought the Wehrmacht and the stormtroopers closer together. Irrespective of their mutual reservations, this new alliance would prove beneficial for both sides in the years to come.34 The army profited from the SA’s equipment, logistical help, and trained men, while the SA gained at least modest respect as the army’s junior partner. The high recruitment figures of the SA in Memel, Austria, and the Sudetenland in 1937 and 1938 had already contributed to a rise in the organization’s prestige, and many stormtroopers in 1939 saw the outbreak of war as a new opportunity to prove their worth. Consequently, in the first months of the military campaign, many militants longed to be assigned to active duty in the regular army units. A report from the SA-Gruppe Hamburg dated 15 September 1939, just two weeks after the German attack on Poland, stated that 35 per cent of its members had already been drafted into the military, and that many more were eagerly waiting to join the Wehrmacht as quickly as possible: ‘All men are proudly following the news of the lightning combat actions in the East, but they are also afraid of coming too late. The leaders and sub-leaders of the SA in particular suffer from the painful certainty that, later, they will be standing in front of their units knowing that they will comprise men with Fronterlebnis (front-line experience).’35

To understand the prevalence of this perceived problem, a generational approach is useful. Unlike the stormtroopers who had taken up arms, many of the higher-ranking SA leaders belonged, as previously noted, to the ‘war youth generation’ – those who had been too young to fight in the First World War and had experienced their adolescence in the 1920s as a time of crisis. The same men now feared they were the wrong age again – this time, being considered too old to join the regular forces and therefore confined to the role of involuntary spectators in a war that many perceived as a decisive ideological battle of global importance.36 Active participation in the war was the fulfilment of these men’s political ambitions, the next step that ‘naturally’ followed a period of paramilitary training and uncertain career prospects that had lasted for many years.37Consequently, with the outbreak of the war the OSAF began to pressure the Wehrmacht for expanded career opportunities for full-time SA leaders from the rank of Sturmführer upward. It reminded the army that in the negotiations following the 19 January 1939 agreement, both sides had consented to particular officer courses for SA cadres. Even if the continuation of these courses was no longer viable with the beginning of the war, a preferential treatment of SA leaders in the German army was desired.38

On 29 January 1940 von Brauchitsch reacted positively to such demands. He decreed that higher-ranking SA leaders not yet drafted were to be mustered immediately. Those already serving in the army were to be placed in positions in which they could prove themselves fit for later promotions to officers’ ranks. Furthermore, he explicitly declared that SA leaders should not be deployed in subaltern roles, such as typists, drivers, or telephone operators – a common practice in the first months of the war.39 These tasks might have corresponded with the individual SA leader’s skills, yet those assigned to these roles often perceived them as humiliating. The soldier Konrad Jarausch in his diary described a forty-year-old SA-Standartenführer from Magdeburg who had been drafted in reaction to these new orders. Jarausch noted that this officer candidate ‘is one of these down-to-earth men that keep the party organizations running today. He is not lacking in knowledge, at least in some realms. He also has been around quite a bit. Yet he has hardly any connection to the cultural and intellectual traditions.’40 It is not clear to what extent and how long the Wehrmacht observed orders to give SA leaders preferential treatment. The fact that many military service records of former stormtroopers did not contain any information on their paramilitary background suggests that the Wehrmacht did not think too highly of the training provided by the SA, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary.41

Immediately after the beginning of the war, the OSAF began to emphasize the SA’s contribution to the German war effort in 1939 and early 1940. The ‘liberation’ of the free city of Danzig was a frequently cited example. Beginning in June 1939, the SA-Standarten 5, 14, and 128 of the Danzig SA--Brigade 6 furnished the men for ‘enhanced border control units’ (Verstärkter Grenzaufsichtsdienst, or VGAD) in this region who were officially charged with the mission of preventing Polish attacks. These units were armed with machine guns and hand grenades, weapons that were used in the following weeks in regional skirmishes that cost the lives of at least one Polish soldier and one SA man. Immediately prior to 1 September 1939, those men in the border control units who had detailed local knowledge were integrated into the Wehrmacht, and local Sturmbanne of the Danzig SA were transformed into complete Wehrmacht companies, which were later involved in an attack on the small town of Dirschau, today’s Polish Tczew, located south of Danzig. The city’s Marine-SA contributed to the capture of Westerplatte and Gdingen/Gdynia.42On 15 October the GruppeEberhardt, or Eberhardt Brigade, under the command of the professional soldier Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt and composed of men from the Danzig police, stormtroopers, the ‘Heimwehr’, and individual volunteers, became the 60th Infantry Division.43 Although the National Socialist propaganda certainly played up the involvement of these organizations, it is highly likely that the pre-military training of the 3,000 militants from the city and its neighbouring areas used in the attack on Poland facilitated their integration into the regular army.44

Farther south a 1,600-man-strong SA unit of ‘Old Fighters’ and newly integrated ethnic Germans from nearby Poland was formed on 25 August 1939. From 1 September onward, these men penetrated Polish territory dressed in civilian clothes and are reported to have successfully prevented the destruction of important industries in the Upper Silesian industrial region. According to an unpublished OSAF paper, Standarte 22 from Gleiwitz, today’s Polish Gliwice, and Standarte 62 from Ratibor, today’s Racibórz, suffered heavy casualties in these missions.45 In the first weeks of the war, SA men dressed in uniform started to establish ‘homeland security units’ of Volksdeutsche in several newly occupied Polish cities in an attempt to copy the successful model pioneered in the Sudetenland in 1938. In the future these units were expected to provide the basis for the formation of local NSDAP chapters.46 A little later, a formal SA position called Beauftragter für die Organisation der volksdeutschen Mannschaft, literally, the ‘Commissioner for the Organization of the Ethnic German Formations’, was created and filled with a certain SA-ObersturmbannführerSchröder.47 Very soon these ethnic German units became known as Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz, a paramilitary organization that was dominated by the SS but whose men semed to have provided the nucleus for later SA units in the area. In close cooperation with the Einsatzgruppen of the security police, its members killed more than 40,000 people in the former Polish territories in 1939 alone.48

SA units were also involved in the German attack on Poland’s southern borders. In the autumn and winter of 1939 an SA unit from the Sudetenland led by Leo Bendak, a former leader of the Sudeten German gymnastics movement, was placed in charge of the procuration of weapons for the Wehrmacht, the safeguarding of munitions transports, and the ‘cleansing and securing of the area’ of action, a task that included the construction and oversight of prisoner-of-war camps.49 Stormtroopers with a knowledge of foreign languages – and particularly those from multilingual border regions – interrogated prisoners and passed on relevant information to the army command. Such tasks were not confined to the early stages of the war. In 1941 the OSAF boasted that no fewer than eighteen SA-Gruppen were involved with the transport and guarding of prisoners in their respective territories.50

The illustrated book Sudeten SA in Polen published in February 1940, part of the OSAF’s renewed attempts to present the SA in the proper light, provides additional information on the operations of stormtroopers in southern Poland – both on a factual level and on the mentality of the SA troops involved.51 In his foreword to this book Franz May, leader of the Sudeten SA, tellingly wrote that the stormtroopers who in the autumn of 1939 crossed the Polish-Slovak border were overwhelmingly men who – due to the high level of volunteers – had not been accepted into the Wehrmacht. Within this context they were said to have been ‘grateful’ to be used for organizational and logistical functions.52 One group, the Grenzwachregiment Zirps, operated for eight weeks as a ‘battalion’ at the request of the Armed Forces High Command (OKW), while another initially received training in the Austrian Alps. The book provides a flattering account of the SA’s achievements in Poland, beginning with the securing of the border in a joint operation with Slovakian forces and ending with Lutze’s late October 1939 visit to Spiš, or Zipser Land, a small strip in northern Slovakia that had been home to a relatively small group of ethnic Germans since the thirteenth century, usually referred to as Carpathian Germans.53

Most of the activities described in Sudeten SA in Polen indicate that the group followed the Wehrmacht troops but did not actually fight on the front lines. However, some entries clearly reveal the violent character of the SA’s ‘cleansing’ of villages and small towns, stating that the SA was repeatedly involved in nightly clashes with ‘Polish and Jewish snipers’ who allegedly plundered the camps and murdered German soldiers under the screen of night. Unsurprisingly, the SA is said to have quickly located and ‘neutralized’ these enemies. On the very same page of the book, a photograph of a burning house is provided, graphically adding to the image of the SA as a dangerous and determined unit. The antisemitism of this work is striking, even by the standards of the Third Reich. The typical stormtrooper is portrayed as hands-on and clean, ‘always ready to help’, in sharp contrast to the ‘dirty Jew’. A caption under two photographs allegedly showing two Jewish men suggestively reads: ‘The SA’s help, however, cannot heal the wounds that these Jewish exploiters have opened in the course of several generations.’ Historical research has so far not analysed the extent to which SA units behind the front lines were involved in the mistreatment and killing of Jews in this particular region in the autumn of 1939. Yet the prominence of the alleged Jewish danger in this book of propaganda, as well as the previous terrorist attacks on Jews carried out by the Carpathian-German Freiwilliger Selbstschutz (FS) since early 1939, strongly suggest that its graphic examples reflected real operations.54

A simple Manichaean worldview also characterized the SA’s attitude toward the non-Jewish Poles. In his political diary for the year 1940, SA Chief of Staff Lutze justified even excessive retaliation against Polish civilians as long as the approval of such violence was not to be interpreted as a licence to kill: ‘It is ultimately for reasons of state, the political situation, the necessities of the future that determine whether one asks for 10 or 100 or 1,000 or even 10,000 Poles [to be executed] in retaliation for a German,’ Lutze wrote. ‘It is never, however, permissible to hand over the enemy or the defeated man as fair game to an individual, a group of men [Menschen], or to organizations. One cannot accept that a man, with a gun in his hand, becomes a “master of life and death” at any given moment that pleases him.’55 In light of German brutalities and war crimes against Poles and Jews, which during this period caused the deaths of more than 10,000 civilians murdered behind the front lines,56 Lutze in his personal writings advocated a more careful line of action. However, his attitude was more one of political caution than of categorical criticism. Lutze preferred the deportation of Poles from German-occupied territories to the illegal killing of them because ‘a family cannot be exterminated completely without someone taking notice. Someone from the family, from the village, from the neighbourhood, from the kin [Sippe] always remains [. . .] and these people become much more dreadful accusers, much more wicked agitators and much more unforgiving, bloodthirsty avengers than could otherwise be the case.’ Aside from all these reasons, Lutze added naively: ‘I know for certain that the Führer never ever approves of it, simply because it is not the German way!’57

The SA-Standarte Feldherrnhalle

The SA also participated directly with combat units in the Second World War, albeit operating under the supreme command of the Wehrmacht. As early as October 1935 an elite SA unit was formed under the name of Wachstandarte Stabschef, intended as an SA equivalent to the SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler.58 The first recruits to the Wachstandarte Stabschef comprised members of the former SA-Feldjägerkorps who had not been incorporated into the regular police forces and stormtroopers who had been previously barracked in the SA ‘welfare camps’.59 According to recruitment guidelines from April 1936, only unmarried and unemployed (or poorly salaried) men aged eighteen to twenty-five who had a ‘racially immaculate look’ were to be accepted into the ranks. Those who wore glasses were to be excluded, as were those who did not possess an ‘average command of orthography’.60 The men of the Wachstandarte were used for official ceremonies and parades and as guards of symbolically important places such as Hitler’s New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. At a party rally held in Nuremberg on 11 September 1936, Hitler bestowed the name SA-Standarte Feldherrnhalle on this unit, alluding to the central location of early Nazi martyrdom in Munich’s city centre. By late 1936 the Feldherrnhalle consisted of six Sturmbanne based in Güterfelde near Berlin, Erding, Hattingen, Fichtenhain, Stettin, and Stuttgart. After the Anschluss in 1938 a seventh Sturmbann was installed in Vienna-Kaltenleutgeben, and in 1939, after the dismantling of Czechoslovakia, an eighth was established in Prague.61

Hermann Göring received the Feldherrnhalle’s ‘honorary command’ on 12 January 1937 as a kind of present for his forty-fourth birthday.62 This was another humiliation for Lutze, who knew only too well of Göring’s central role in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’.63 Although the new unit comprised fewer than 2,000 men dispersed throughout the Reich and was thus only an extremely poor consolation for the stormtroopers’ failed plan for a people’s militia, the Standarte Feldherrnhalle became the SA’s flagship group during the remaining years of the Third Reich. The men of this elite unit were the only German soldiers who were allowed to wear SA insignias to symbolize the fusion of ‘SA spirit’ and military skills. In the eyes of the OSAF, the Feldherrnhalle represented the successful transformation of the NSDAP’s paramilitary organization of the Weimar years into a serious military formation that worked hand in hand with the regular armed forces to instil Wehrwillen in the hearts and minds of the German people. Service in the Feldherrnhalle was voluntary and, as of 27 October 1938, recognized as equivalent to regular military service. Men who now opted to join the SA instead of the Wehrmacht were required to bind themselves to the organization for at least three years. Service in the Feldherrnhalle was also attractive to many men because of the prospect it brought of full-time employment by the SA after the completion of active service.64 It was thus a prestigious elite formation with the entitlement to lifelong service.

On 20 June 1938, Göring, in his function as Reich Minister of Aviation, formally assigned the Feldherrnhalle to the Luftwaffe, an assignment that remained in place until 31 March 1939. During this period the Feldherrnhalle was an independent airborne regiment that belonged to the 7th Air Division (Fliegerdivision 7), even though it was trained as an infantry regiment.65 As such its participation in the occupation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 and in the dismantling of the rump of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 served as a kind of mock ‘baptism by fire’. According to Viktor Lutze’s personal notes, he himself piloted one of 160 Junkers 52s that departed from Breslau in October 1938 and flew south to penetrate the Czechoslovakian airspace. However, as the Munich agreement of 29–30 September had already fixed the line of demarcation between the two states, a violent encounter with the enemy did not take place, and the Feldherrnhalle’s contribution to the ‘liberation’ of the Sudetenland thus remained more peaceful than anticipated. ‘No casualties, just seven airplanes with some kind of damage to the landing gear,’ recorded Lutze almost disappointedly.66

Over the course of 1939 the Feldherrnhalle split into several factions. This development put an end to the OSAF’s hopes of having an armed corps completely at its disposal and left its commander, SA-Gruppenführer Erich Reimann, ‘totally embittered and discouraged’.67 Already in the first quarter of 1939 the majority of his men, about 1,200 stormtroopers, had been formally integrated into the regular air and paratrooper divisions of Fliegerdivision 7, removing them from the OSAF’s control.68 Nevertheless, these stormtroopers continued to be used as important role models in SA propaganda. Their contribution to their new units was indeed considerable. Of those German paratroopers deployed in 1940 in Belgium and the Netherlands, the OSAF claimed in 1941 that up to 90 per cent came from the SA.69 Later, paratroopers with a Feldherrnhalle background fought in Greece and southern Italy.70 It is therefore safe to deduce that the esprit de corps of the German Fallschirmtruppe was at least partly based on the ‘SA mentality’ and its particular values.71

A smaller fraction of the Standarte Feldherrnhalle throughout the war years served in their original function as guards in both the Reich and the German-occupied territories. Within the General Government, members of the Feldherrnhalle were also deployed for ‘special purposes’ alongside the SS and the police forces.72 In the city of Warsaw from late 1940 onward, about fifty men from the Feldherrnhalle were charged with standing watch at Brühl Palace, the headquarters of the district chief for Warsaw in the General Government, as well as at other public buildings.73 As self-declared representatives of the new Herrenrasse (master race), they acted as police forces, pressed civilians for money, and in at least one case even staged an attack on the palace as a pretext for killing a Polish man and raping two women. Their behaviour violated even the extremely racist standards of the German occupiers to such an extent that in May 1943, the Warsaw German Sondergericht (Special Court) sentenced thirteen Feldherrnhalle members to prison terms and even imposed the death penalty on one.74 The judges increased the normal penalties because the crimes in question were committed while the men were in the uniform of an elite formation and before the eyes of the Polish population. However, the judges also found mitigating circumstances. They reasoned that all thirteen defendants were Volksdeutsche with allegedly lower moral standards than the (Reich) German norm and as such would simply need more time to adjust to the higher level of German morality.75

In the autumn of 1939 a third faction of the Standarte Feldherrnhalle formed the third battalion of the 271st Infantry Regiment, initially one of only two regiments that constituted the 93rd Infantry Division.76 This motorized grenadier regiment was led by August Raben, a professional soldier.77Similar to the paratroopers, the men in this regiment were glorified in OSAF propaganda as the embodiment of SA values and as the representation of the successful merger of the SA’s fighting spirit with the glorious tradition of the German army.78 The 271st Regiment fought on the western front in 1940 as part of the First Army and contributed to the German breakthrough of the Maginot Line near Barst-Marienthal in northern Lorraine. After the victory against the French, the regiment was placed on leave from August 1940 until February 1941. Once reactivated, Herbert Böhme, one of relatively few German soldiers to be awarded the Ritterkreuz, then assumed command of the regiment. Böhme was an early Nazi activist who had joined the SA and the NSDAP in 1930 and later served as SA-Oberführer in the staff of the SA-Gruppe Schlesien prior to joining the Wehrmacht in 1937.79

With the German attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the 271st Infantry Regiment was deployed to the northeastern front and participated in the siege of Leningrad.80 The Nazi propaganda praised the regiment’s military achievements as an example of ‘SA spirit at the Eastern Front’. Ideology was a key part of this regiment’s self-image, as can be seen from the bestowal of the honorary title of Horst-Wessel-Kompagnie Leutnant M on those soldiers killed at a battle on the River Volkov.81 On 9 August 1942 the designation ‘Feldherrnhalle’, so far only used for the third battalion, was given to the entire regiment.82 On 4 May 1943 the unit was finally incorporated into the 60th Infantry Division (motorized), which was in dire need of fresh blood after its very heavy losses in the battle of Stalingrad, and was from then on referred to as Panzergrenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle.83

Apart from personal memories that form the heart of Internet discussions among the few surviving soldiers as well as military enthusiasts, not much is known about the foot soldiers of the Feldherrnhalle, whom SA propaganda during the war glorified as the paradigmatic stormtroopers of the Wehrmacht. The remaining personnel files and troop lists of the former German army are held at the Deutsche Dienststelle in Berlin, but this state-run institution would only grant access to the remaining personnel files of the former members of the third battalion of the 271st Regiment on condition that the soldiers’ names are made anonymous. Unfortunately, only a very small number of their personal papers have survived. The material is nevertheless sufficient to allow at least some tentative conclusions as to the group’s social composition and the motivation of its members to join the Feldherrnhalle. My research focused on the group’s staff and Companies 9 and 10. In November 1939 these two companies each consisted of between 165 and 180 men strong, while the staff comprised 91 soldiers.

According to the surviving membership lists, most soldiers of the third battalion of the 271st Regiment were young men, overwhelmingly born after 1914. Information is rarely provided on their dates of enrolment in the SA, but it is evident that those men who would have referred to themselves as ‘Old Fighters’ (i.e. those with experience in the SA from 1933 and earlier) constituted only a small minority of the group. Instead, on average the soldiers of this regiment in late 1939 were between nineteen and twenty-three years of age, similar to the norm in other Wehrmacht units. The biography of Karl A., from the city of Walsum on the Lower Rhine, was in many ways typical of the men in the 271st Regiment. Born in 1920, this married storekeeper joined the SA in early 1938, around his eighteenth birthday.84 After serving as a regular member of the Luftwaffe between 20 June 1938 and 31 March 1939, Karl A. served in the SA-Standarte Feldherrnhalle until he was transferred to the 271st Regiment on 9 September 1939. In the following years he participated in the regiment’s battles in France and then, from the summer of 1941 onward, in the Soviet Union. Highly decorated, with the Infantry Assault Badge, the Iron Cross (II. Category), and the East Front Winter Campaign Medal to his name, he joined the Grenadier Regiment Feldherrnhalle on 1 November 1942 and was promoted to non-commissioned officer on 1 September 1943. On New Year’s Eve in 1943, Karl A. was severely wounded but seems to have quickly returned to the front. He went missing in the area of Mogilew near Minsk ‘between 24 June and 7 July 1944’, at a time when the Wehrmacht had stopped providing the exact location and date of individual soldiers’ deaths in the east.85

Herbert M. from Dortmund, a floor tiler by training, was born in December 1920 and also joined the SA at a very young age, several weeks before his eighteenth birthday. Initially a member of the Feldherrnhalle’s Sturmbann I and later its Sturmbann V based in Prague, he was transferred to the 9th Company of the 271st Regiment’s third battalion in the autumn of 1939. Herbert M. participated in the military campaigns against France and the Soviet Union and was wounded by shellfire on 19 April 1942 near Spasskaja-Polist on the eastern front. Probably because of his lasting injuries, Herbert M. was exempted from further front-line duties and sent back to the Feldherrnhalle’s Vienna Sturmbann in March 1943. Information about his life in the next twelve months is not available. On 26 April 1944, Herbert M. died in the military hospital for reserves in Prag-Reuth (Prague, Krč district). At the request of his wife, his remains were transferred to Düsseldorf and buried there.86

Kurt M., to provide a final example, was among the youngest members of the Feldherrnhalle when he joined in 1938. Born in Munich in May 1921 into a lower-middle-class family, he attended a gymnasium for four years before transferring to a commercial school (Handelsschule), where he remained for another three years. He joined the Hitler Youth in 1935 and then entered the ranks of the SA in 1938. Kurt M. volunteered for the Feldherrnhalle because of the prestige of Göring’s Luftwaffe and was integrated into the fourth Sturmbann, based in Erding near Munich, on 20 June 1938. However, he was unable to become a paratrooper ‘because of an illness’ and instead joined the 271st Regiment on 9 September 1939. Despite mixed evaluations from his superiors, Kurt M. advanced quickly and was recommended to participate in an officer-training course in August 1941.87 A letter of recommendation written by one of his superiors in 1941 portrays the young man as the paradigmatic SA fighter: ‘Intellectually average, sparsely yet clearly thinking, tall and slim, thoroughly fit and tough [. . .] In combat M. reveals himself as a cool-blooded daredevil, who by his personal example had led his group even in situations of extreme enemy action and never lost control of his leadership.’ Despite such qualities, Kurt M., later promoted to the rank of staff sergeant (Oberfeldwebel), was still alive in April 1944.88

These three case studies are certainly not representative of the 271st Regiment’s membership in a technical sense, but the existing data strongly suggest that their biographies are typical of the average men in the regiment. Among the soldiers of the Feldherrnhalle, working-class professions heavily dominated. Several of these young men joined this elite formation as early as 1938, attracted by the prestige of the Luftwaffe under Göring and the prospect of avoiding regular military duty and building a stable career in the military branch of the SA. In particular, young men of low educational background saw the Feldherrnhalle as an available path to modest upward mobility that was in line with their ideological preferences (Plate 30).89

Yet, at least until they joined the Feldherrnhalle, these young men’s personal experience with the SA was limited. For them, the typical SA narratives of the Kampfzeit were stories from and for another generation. Compared to their forerunners, this new generation of SA men had grown up in a political climate in which National Socialist values were already the norm; consequently, they did not represent the opposition, but the new mainstream. Many of them seem to have regarded service in the Feldherrnhalle as a regular career path within the Nazi regime – a conclusion supported by the substantial number of stormtroopers in this unit who were already married, despite their young age and their often incomplete vocational training. Finally, the men in the Feldherrnhalle were not drawn from any particular region but came from all parts of the Greater German Reich, including the annexed territories. At least in this respect, they represented a cross section of the German male population.

Communist Propaganda

In an immediate reaction to the German attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the propagandists of the Communist International in Moscow decided to launch additional German-language radio programmes to reach out to particular audiences. The programme Sturmadler, literally ‘Storm Eagle’, was meant to appeal to German youth, while SA-Mann Hans Weber was designed to influence the rank-and-file National Socialist. In 1942 both programmes became part of the Deutscher Volkssender, the umbrella radio station in the Soviet Union that served as the unofficial voice of the German Communist Party in exile.90 The journalist Fritz Erpenbeck, who later in the war became the deputy director of the radio programme Freies Deutschland, took the role of renegade stormtrooper Hans Weber. It is impossible to assess the impact of these twenty-minute-long daily broadcasts, which could be heard in many parts of the Reich. The creators of the programme nonetheless believed in its efficacy, as they quickly added a companion for Weber, a fellow SA man called Max Schröder, voiced by the journalist Max Keilson. This anti-Nazi comedy show built on the German Communist tactic of the 1930s of infiltrating the SA through Zersetzungsschriften, subversive ‘SA journals’. Written in simple popular language, at times in the form of fictitious dialogues, these works had attempted to draw dissatisfied ‘Old Fighters’ over to the other side by emphasizing the mismatch between the SA’s rhetoric of social revolution and the ‘selling out’ of the party establishment.91 The new radio programme was also influenced by the clandestine British radio station Gustav Siegfried Eins, or GS1, which had started up some months earlier, in May 1941. On this station an anonymous ‘boss’ uttered verbal slanders against both Nazis and Communists. In contrast to the British broadcast, the German Communist programme was intended to be ‘less vulgar and obscene’, Erpenbeck remembered after the war, not least because of initial Soviet censorship.92 In light of what we know about Nazi humour today, this was a wise decision, as the Germans at the time preferred rather innocent and tame jokes to outright, aggressive abuse that directly pointed the finger at what was perceived as ridiculous or scandalous.93

The key mission of SA-Mann Hans Weber was to reach out to the everyday Nazi using the colloquial language of the heavily industrialized and densely populated Ruhr, a dialect complemented later by the popular Berlin idiom. Both SA characters, modelled after the familiar type of the committed but limited Nazi, demonstrated the imperfections of the Third Reich by commenting on the affairs and endemic corruption of Nazi functionaries. Again and again they emphasized the discrepancies between the party propaganda and the social realities in Germany.94 Particularly memorable episodes that were allegedly based on accounts from intercepted German letters included a ‘thick description’ of party officials from a Westphalian town who had taken part in sexual saturnalia with a teenage girl, and a request from a German mother to her husband in the Waffen-SS to ‘send children’s clothing’ with the addendum, ‘I don’t mind if it is bloody, I’ll wash it out.’95 As such examples make clear, accusations of sexual abnormalities were still a regular feature of anti-Fascist propaganda. The Communists portrayed the National Socialists as sadistic perverts, in sharp contrast to the regime’s own morally saturated propaganda.

In the context of this study, it is remarkable that the surviving German Communists in Soviet exile – whose ranks had been heavily decimated by the Stalinist terror of the previous years – still believed in the potential to turn those working-class men whom the Communist movement had lost to the Nazis in high numbers between 1928 and 1934 back toward Communism.96 As the German Communists had done during the first years of the Third Reich, provoking confusion and discontentment within the ranks still appeared to be a reasonable strategy. Despite the fact that most stormtroopers had been drafted into the military, they still mattered. The German Communists not only identified them as a vital group for maintaining order in the Nazi state, but also deemed them re-educable. A few years later the Communist policy in the Soviet Zone of Occupation, from 1949 onward the GDR, would prove consistent with this policy. Whereas the judiciary continued to take a harsh stance toward the SA, at least in the first years after the war, it also worked toward the conversion of petty Nazis into good Socialists.97

Auxiliary Police in the General Government, the Protectorate, and in Slovenia

The German military victory in 1939 was the prerequisite for the subsequent break-up of the former Polish state. Its western parts were annexed and incorporated into the Greater German Reich, while its eastern parts became Soviet territory. The Polish heartlands, however, with the capital cities of Warsaw and Cracow, were transformed into a German zone of occupation called the General Government. Although the jurist and SA-Obergruppenführer Hans Frank ruled over this part of occupied Poland, the stormtroopers did not initially play a role in the region. Unlike the earlier cases of Austria, the Sudetenland, and the Memelland, the National Socialist regime in the General Government had no significant ethnic German population to mobilize as part of the newly established stormtrooper units. Whereas in the earlier cases the SA had helped pave the way for a later German occupation of the respective territories, in the case of the General Government it was the other way around. The military occupation had established a status quo that the stormtroopers in the following years attempted to uphold.

On 30 October 1939 the first instructions issued by SA-Obergruppenführer Max Jüttner on the ‘set-up of the SA in the German territories of the former Polish state’ made the SA-Gruppen Ostland, Ostmark, Silesia, and Sudeten jointly responsible for creating SA ‘cells’ in the adjoining regions. However, no regular SA structures beyond the most basic levels of ScharenTrupps, and Stürme were to be created. Uniforms and money would follow but could not be provided for the time being.98 A few weeks later, with the district borders of German-occupied Poland redrawn, responsibility for the build-up of the SA in this area was redistributed among the SA-Gruppen Ostland and Silesia, which each became responsible for the Gaue of the same name. In addition, the SA-Gruppen ‘Weichsel’, headquartered in Danzig (responsible for Danzig-Westpreußen), and ‘Warthe’ (for the Warthegau), based in Posen, were established.99 As early as November 1939 the SA started to recruit in cities like Łódź and Bielitz, ‘with excellent results’.100 On 22 January 1940 the SA-Obergruppenführer Heinrich Hacker was promoted to the leadership of the SA-GruppeWarthe, which, according to SA statistics, comprised more than 10,000 men by March 1940 and more than 25,000 by the summer of 1941.101 Most of these men were so-called Volksdeutsche who had either lived in the region prior to the outbreak of the war or had moved into the area from regions farther east, such as Volhynia, Galicia, and Bessarabia.102 The leaders of these new SA units, which initially often came from the Old Reich, but also consisted of many Baltic Germans, quickly realized that a considerable proportion of the ‘robust men [kernige Menschen] with a German look’ under their command did not speak German.103 They therefore organized German language and history lessons for the stormtroopers in the Warthegau – a fact that demonstrates the extent to which the SA literally ‘made’ German men.104

A fanatical anitisemite, Hacker cooperated closely with Gauleiter Arthur Greiser in the years that followed.105 However, Hacker was extremely ambitious and in September 1941 requested to be transferred farther east, preferably to the Caucasus. His motivation for this transfer was that ‘the fight of the SA would be quite naturally completed by ruling over Russia. The triumph of the SA spirit over Bolshevism calls first of all the stormtrooper to take the lead in the East.’106 This reasoning elucidates the extent to which the proponents of such ‘escapism for fanatics’ grounded their ambitions in a language that invoked early Nazi stereotypes of the enemy as much as colonial fantasies.107

In February 1940 the first SA leadership training course for ethnic Germans living in the territories of these new SA groups was held at the SA Reich School in Dresden. ‘Better than I thought . . . also racially and physically,’ Viktor Lutze wrote in his diary.108 One year later, in early February 1941, the SA-Gruppe Warthe comprised two brigades based in Posen and Litzmannstadt, whereas the SA-Gruppe Weichsel had four brigades headquartered in Danzig, Elbing, Bromberg, and Thorn.109 At the same time, dispersed SA units were also established in the Protectorate, the occupied but unannexed parts of the former Czechoslovakian state. According to the Nazi press, SA-Stürme or even Standarten existed in Königinhof (Dvůr Králové nad Labem), Königgrätz (Hradec Králové), Pilsen (Plzeň), Brünn (Brno), and Prague. Reliable information about these units is sparse, but they seem to have overwhelmingly comprised ethnic Germans from the respective regions. They were at least partly led by professional SA leaders from the Reich and, in addition, received training from the Wehrmacht. Here, as in other German-occupied parts of central and eastern Europe, the SA fostered a sense of ‘Germanness’ among its members, who often performed auxiliary police duties.110

The situation was different in the General Government. In this region, regular SA units were not established until the spring of 1942, although SA leaders were mustered as part of the official festivities held to celebrate the General Government’s first year of existence on 26 October 1940.111However, at this time all SA leaders in the General Government were citizens of the Reich who had been sent to the east to carry out administrative and military functions. On official occasions they dressed in their SA uniforms, with the symbols of their respective home regions, but they had not been organized into new local units. The first attempt to change this state of affairs occurred in the autumn of 1941, when the NSDAP allowed the formation of an honorary SA storm (Ehrensturm) in Cracow to be used for parades and ceremonies.112 In the following months, however, the situation changed dramatically in response to the increasing ‘security problems’ in the region, which were largely a consequence of the ever more repressive and inhumane German colonial rule. German authorities executed no fewer than 17,386 alleged ‘bandits’ in the General Government in 1942 alone.113 With the conditions of life for Poles and Jews becoming more and more unbearable, armed resistance driven by despair multiplied.114 In order to uphold their rule, Hans Frank and Himmler, usually vying for supremacy in the General Government, tried to come to terms to establish the so-called Wehrschützenbereitschaften, a mixture of an ethnic German militia, a neighbourhood watch group, and an auxiliary police force that was to be trained by SS officers and in some ways was a new version of the SA-Wehrmannschaften established in 1939.115When these negotiations did not lead to an agreement, Frank, well aware that Lutze and the OSAF were eagerly waiting for an opportunity to increase their importance and influence, called for the SA to take the place of the SS in the region. In late October 1941, SA-Standartenführer Kurt Peltz, who had previously been employed by the SA Reich Leadership School in Munich, arrived in Cracow to organize the Wehrschützenbereitschaften.116 With effect from 17 December, all German men in the General Government aged seventeen or older were registered in such units.117

As was to be expected, Himmler and the SS were furious. They feared that the SA would use its influence on these new Wehrschützenbereitschaften to establish proper SA units that would be at the disposal of the autocratic Frank. On 3 February 1942, Himmler thus decreed the formation of a new rival unit, the SS-Sondersturmbann Ost.118 Several weeks later, on 20 March, Lutze responded by mandating the establishment of a proper SA-Gruppe in the General Government to lead the Wehrschützenbereitschaften. Peltz estimated that ‘after some initial difficulties’ the SA in the General Government could comprise up to 50,000 men, a number he later reduced to 22,000.119 Frank on 16 April finally decreed the formation of a new SA unit for the General Government, the SA-Einheit Generalgouvernement.120 The SA was to take responsibility for the ‘registration, training, and leadership’ of the former SA-Wehrschützenbereitschaften, which from now on would be referred to as the SA-Wehrbereitschaften. Frank, who had previously been an honorary SA-Obergruppenführer, would himself formally command the SA in the General Government.121

As internal documents make clear, the OSAF was convinced that this step ‘would by far’ accomplish more than the organization of a paramilitary defence force. As every German man in the region – with ‘German’ defined in terms of both nationality and ethnicity – who was not an active member of another National Socialist organization was required to serve in these new units, they hoped that a thorough programme of ‘political education that is of invaluable benefit for the colonization in the East’ could be instituted.122 As early as 19 June 1942 the SA-Wehrbereitschaftencomprised 8,000 men in Warsaw and 12,000 men in Radom.123 Three months later there were eleven SA-Standarten with more than 200 Stürme in the General Government.124 Detailed membership lists do not seem to have survived, but a very conservative estimate should assume that at least 30,000–40,000 ‘ethnic Germans’ were organized in these SA-Wehrbereitschaften by late 1942.

To the OSAF’s disappointment, the SA was only allowed to organize and train these men, whereas the decision to call them to action resided with the SS and the regular police forces.125 As the security situation in the General Government further deteriorated, however, the SS’s attempts to minimize the military clout of the SA in the region lessened considerably.126 In the spring of 1943 the new SA-Gruppe already participated in the ‘inspection’ (Überprüfungsaktion) of ethnic German settlers in the General Government.127 Hans Frank at the same time complained that with a mere 11,000 policemen to oversee the 16.5 million people living in the General Government, he could only secure the public order in Cracow, Warsaw, and some of the smaller cities.128 In this context, stormtroopers recruited from among the Volksdeutsche became indispensable, and the SA came to ‘very largely dominate the political life in the General Government’, as one of its leaders in December 1943 boasted.129 By this time, entire groups of ‘completely armed’ stormtroopers were carrying out regular police duties.130

The regional SA leader, Peltz, had meanwhile fully adapted to the local habits of the German occupiers. Previously, in 1938, his SA superiors had deemed him a ‘very reliable SA leader’, but had noted a certain ‘softness’ and reticence in his character. In 1944, by contrast, one of his subordinates complained to the OSAF about Peltz’s luxurious lifestyle in Cracow. Peltz, he declared, would request additional food ration coupons for his wife and himself and would send his men to buy rare goods at the city’s black market. Peltz defended himself against these charges rather half-heartedly, insisting that the additional food was needed to live up to the standards of a German bureaucrat with social obligations.131 Accusations that high-ranking SA leaders were ravaging the occupied territories in fact went back to the beginning of the war. Erich Reimann, for example, preparing for a trip home from Poland in December 1939, filled his car with parcels for his wife and the spouses of his SA and Wehrmacht comrades.132 Even the OSAF in Munich had benefited from the booty, receiving 20,000 metres of Polish uniform cloth.133

With the SA’s increasing participation in the German ‘policing actions’ in the General Government, stormtroopers more and more came within the crosshairs of Polish resistance fighters. SA-Oberführer Peltz was the target of a failed bomb attack in 1943, and on 15 July of the same year a squad of the Polish resistance group Gwardia Ludowa threw a hand grenade at a marching SA column in Warsaw, severely wounding several men. The German authorities executed about 130 Poles in retaliation.134 A year later, when the Warsaw Uprising broke out in August 1944, the city’s stormtroopers actively participated in the counter-insurgency and suffered heavy losses.135 By this time, Hans Frank’s characterization of the SA in the General Government as the ‘Sturm fist of fighting Germandom’ (Sturmhand des kämpfenden Deutschtums) was more than the usual Nazi rhetoric. Since 1943 the SA in the General Government had been heavily involved in the ever more violent attempts to control the population and uphold German rule through the recruitment of forced labourers for defence work, punitive expeditions, and an unknown number of acts of local violence that left few traces in the remaining documents.136 These former latecomers (in comparison to those regular SA units established in the Warthegau, Alsace, and Lorraine) had been transformed into the spearhead of an ever more brutal German occupation regime.

This development was not unique to the General Government. Between 17 April and 15 May 1941 armed SA units comprising Austrian residents and refugees from the Bukovina region operated in Southern Styria and Carniola, areas that had been occupied by the German military in early April 1941.137 As had occurred in western Poland in the first weeks of the war, undercover SA units from the SA-Gruppe Südmark, with a total strength of between 3,500 and 4,500 men, followed the Wehrmacht’s advance in the Balkan campaign. As a euphemistic report written on behalf of the SA noted, the stormtroopers established order in the ‘liberated areas of Southern Styria and Carniola’. They secured vital public utilities and ‘cleansed the areas of roving hordes’. These tasks were completed quickly and rigorously, wrote the embedded journalist in the service of the SA.138This article, however, was never published – perhaps because of its very direct language, which made it clear that the SA in the border regions of the Reich had been transformed into an armed political police and fighting force that was deeply implicated in the war. In contrast to this official restraint, a publication of the SA-Gruppe Südmark in May 1941 openly boasted of the stormtroopers’ ‘special operation in the liberated lowland’ in Styria and beyond. Whereas the majority of the men deployed there were used for the protection of industrial plants and for ‘general security tasks’, 600 of them were sent into the Pohorje Mountains to cleanse the area of ‘franc-tireurs’ and dispersed ‘Serbian troops’. This operation was placed under the command of SA-Gruppenführer Walther Nibbe, the leader of the SA-Gruppe Südmark, and was carried out by ‘closed SA units’ (geschlossene SA-Einheiten).139

From the early summer of 1941 onward such tasks were taken over by the newly formed SA-Wehrmannschaften under the command of the Steirischer Heimatbund and the Kärntner Volksbund, two organizations created to serve as regional NSDAP branches. One year later, in the summer of 1942, the Nazi weekly Illustrierter Beobachter printed a photo essay under the headline ‘Border patrol against bandits’ (Grenzwacht gegen Banditen), which stated that armed Wehrmannschaften under the leadership of the SA were successfully fighting ‘Bolshevist rabble-rousers’ and dispersed groups of soldiers from the former Yugoslav army in the new borderlands of Upper Carniola.140 Similar to the development in the General Government, the SA-Gruppe Südmark thus played a vital role in the ‘securing’ of Southern Styria and Carniola, an effort that included the persecution of both alleged and real partisans. However, the official task of the SA-Wehrmannschaften was not to pacify Southern Styria and Carniola by fighting partisans, but to provide their members with a ‘National Socialist education’ that included paramilitary training, in line with the SA’s general mission since 1939. Service in the SA-Wehrmannschaften was considered the main way to ‘show its members the way back into Germandom [Rückführung zum Deutschtum]’.141 As in other annexed or occupied parts of the Greater German Reich, regional policing went hand in hand with attempts to ‘Germanize’ those parts of the local populations deemed racially sufficient.142

Yet the activities of the Steirischer Heimatbund and the Kärntner Volksbund in conjunction with the SA-Wehrmannschaften did not have the intended effects. Instead, only one year of National Socialist rule produced a complete change of mood among the local population, largely because of the violence and corruption of the German organizations put in place.143 The situation became so critical that the SA-Wehrmannschaften of the Kärntner Volksbund were dissolved in October 1942. In its place, a proper SA-Standarte Oberkrain was formed, but only slightly more than 1,000 men had joined its ranks by January 1943.144 From that autumn onward, the continuing operations against ‘partisans’ were increasingly carried out, with an extreme level of violence, by the so-called SS-Karstwehr under the command of SS-Standartenführer Hans Brand.145 Once more, the SS ultimately surpassed the SA.

On the Home Front

Not all SA men served in the Wehrmacht or in units within the occupied territories. In particular, those too old for active duty instead took on auxiliary roles on what the regime’s propagandists referred to as the ‘home front’. Such duties were diverse and started immediately with the beginning of the war. In Greater Hamburg, for example, the local SA was placed in charge of air-raid alert duties starting in September 1939, a task that kept nearly 500 SA men busy. Large numbers of stormtroopers were also ordered to support the work of the ‘provision aid organization’ (Ernährungshilfswerk) of Greater Hamburg (600 men) and to build air-raid protection trenches in the region (400 men).146 These jobs were certainly less prestigious than front-line duty, but as the war progressed they became increasingly important for the maintenance of public order in the Third Reich.

A few years later, in July and August 1943, such preparatory work yielded fruit when massive Allied airstrikes on Hamburg in ‘Operation Gomorrah’ destroyed substantial parts of the city and killed about 37,000 people.147 This was at least the perspective of Gustaf Deuchler, one of the most fanatical Nazi activists within German academia. A committed storm-trooper since 1934, Deuchler euphorically praised the emergency aid administered by the Brownshirts in the days of the bombings. At a time when centralized commands could not be given, the local SA units had demonstrated a remarkable level of self-organization, he claimed. He and his fellow comrades had to carry out the extraordinarily difficult tasks of providing for the hundreds of thousands who had been bombed out of their homes, helping the injured, and locating the dead. The SA also secured buildings at risk of collapse, organized the evacuation of those made homeless, and fought the fires that blazed all over the city. The fulfilment of these tasks was all the more remarkable as many of the stormtroopers had themselves lost their homes and relatives, Deuchler claimed. He even maintained that, at this time of crisis, the men of the SA had been the main ones providing help and consolation: ‘Where an SA man appeared, he immediately drew the attention and had the respect of the Volksgenossen [. . .] The trust in the SA man was simply boundless. The SA man knows everything, can achieve anything, is capable of doing anything. That was the discernible conviction of the Volksgenossen vis-à-vis the SA.’148

This uncritical glorification of the SA by one of its members was of course exaggerated, yet it contained a grain of truth. Since the beginning of the war, the SA had been involved in a range of activities that had not always flattered the stormtroopers’ self-esteem but had indeed contributed to what Nazi propaganda referred to as the ‘securing of the home front’. Those SA men who were not drafted participated in an SA ‘care service’ for the families of their comrades in the military, were repeatedly called on to donate blood, and helped with the transport of wounded soldiers. By 1941 some SA groups also disbursed funds to pay for cigarettes, books, newspapers, and pocket money for injured comrades being treated in military hospitals.149 SA units furthermore helped in the construction of anti-aircraft gun shelters and the Siegfried Line on the Reich’s western border, aided German farmers during the harvest, helped in the resettlement of ethnic Germans ‘returning home’, attempted to prevent forest fires, and supported the regular border police as ‘auxiliary policemen’, as they had done in 1933–4.150 Of particular importance was the policing of those foreign slave labourers who were being put to work in the factories and fields of the Reich in ever larger numbers. By August 1944 the number of foreigners in the Reich had risen to nearly eight million, with the vast majority of them being forced labourers. In order to keep these large numbers of foreigners under control, the regime relied on more than one million German men, who, as auxiliary policemen or Land- or Stadtwachtmänner, were responsible for preventing escapes and racially undesirable intimate encounters and upholding public morale in the wider sense.151

The Landwacht and Stadtwacht were under Himmler’s control, and, in light of the SS’s pressure on the SA since 1934, the OSAF understandably feared that the new bodies would recruit heavily from the ranks of the SA. In April 1942 the SA leadership therefore requested that at least its leaders be excluded from recruitment. Otherwise, the SA’s ‘mass work’ (Breitenarbeit) risked coming to a complete standstill. The OSAF was not willing to hand over its last remaining cadres on the ‘home front’ to Himmler. At least this time it won the tug of war against the chief of the German police, who in June 1942 gave in to its demands.152

Later in the war, with the increased destruction of German cities, the stormtroopers were ordered to collect those remains of bombed-out flats that were still usable, such as stoves and bathtubs, and to make them available for those in need.153 They also enforced the frequent lights-out orders and, in cooperation with the National Socialist People’s Welfare (NSV) group, provided civilians in need with carbon during cold periods.154 All these activities served the purpose of maintaining public order. In this capacity the stormtroopers also strictly disciplined both foreigners and the German population. Deuchler, in his above-mentioned report on Hamburg, did not fail to note that among the SA’s tasks was the ‘inconspicuous watch of dubious or suspicious people’155 – a description that was applied to various foreign slave labourers as well as everyday German civilians.

Despite this multitude of tasks, many long-standing members of the SA complained about a lack of recognition for their contributions. For example, SA-Sturmführer Fritz Hancke, an employee of the SA archives in the Horst-Wessel-Haus and an ‘operating air-raid warden’ (Betriebsluftschutzleiter), expressed the belief that he, as a committed Nazi, was not being used in the right capacity: ‘At least our fellow Germans can now see that we old rowdies are still of use during the war. Unfortunately, we are no longer welcome at the front, although it is precisely us who should have a right to participate in the final march against the Bolshevists, we the active fighters of the first hours. But unfortunately, we have to stay here and keep house [einhüten]!!!’156 Similarly, Viktor Hölscher, a stormtrooper and the owner of the Munich-based H. Traut photography company, complained about his situation in an inflammatory six-page-long letter to the OSAF in June 1942. Many of the rank and file regarded active service in the SA during the war years as extremely unsatisfactory, Hölscher stated. The men under his command were mostly between twenty-eight and forty years of age, ideologically firm and experienced, and desperate to contribute actively to Germany’s final victory – but instead, they were condemned to a Stammtischgemeinschaft that did little more than regularly meet at an inn for perfunctory and largely social gatherings. ‘No activist can stand this week by week, month after month!’ Hölscher exclaimed. In his view the SA had come to resemble a veterans’ association more than a modern and strategically important party organization. Consequently, newcomers to the SA were now mostly candidates for the civil service (Beamtenanwärter), for whom membership in at least one party organization was required. Such people at best became formal ‘members’, but with no guarantee that they would be committed and activist-oriented ‘real SA men’. All in all, there was no denying that the SA was the only important party organization that did not fulfil a strategic task, Hölscher concluded.157

Such criticism from committed SA activists struck a nerve within the organization. Still, it is important to distinguish between the SA’s activities in the Old Reich and its tasks in the newly acquired or occupied territories. Whereas the numerically reduced SA units in Germany’s heartlands in the first years of the war did indeed often lack purpose and motivation, this was less the case farther east and south, in those regions where SA units had only been established recently and early on became part of the German war effort. It is indicative of the SA’s continuing relevance that Himmler continued to supervise the group’s activities closely in these years and to monitor news about the efforts of Lutze and later Schepmann to enhance the stormtroopers’ importance. Yet as the war intensified and bombings of German cities and industries multiplied, the SA was assigned an increasing number of tasks in the Old Reich as well. With the majority of younger men fighting on the front lines, the ability of the SA to gather, discipline, and employ both older and extremely young German men, as well as to keep an ever more anxious civilian population in check, became a vital element of the nation’s war effort.

These new responsibilities also had a gendered dimension, as an example from Munich illustrates. A secret report from September 1942 written by Hans Sponholz, a moderately successful novelist who served as an SA propagandist in the OSAF, stated that women were talking about a recent Allied airstrike on the city in ways that alarmed the authorities. Specifically, they were openly speculating that the German Reich had attacked the Allies first and that thus moral outrage about the raids – as voiced in the official propaganda – was not justified. What is more, some of them even interpreted the high number of civilians killed or made homeless by the bombings as a ‘judgement from above’ for the fact that Germany ‘had forced the Jews across the border and had engulfed them in misery’. In order to stop such discussion, Sponholz recommended sending some SA leaders in plainclothes into shops to ‘nail down some individual cases’.158 It might be a coincidence that he used in this instance a verb with sexual connotations in German, but even if it was, it is remarkable that he identified the problem as woman-related and suggested an explicitly male intervention as a solution. His message was clear: when women became weak in the face of terrifying airstrikes, strong-willed men had the right to punish them as an example to others.159 In a society at war, the SA, as moral police and ‘guardians of the people’s community’, not only targeted foreigners and those declared social outsiders, but also ordinary Volksgenossen in Nazi Germany.

To the Last Man

Ever since the economic crisis of the early 1930s, the SA had focused on finding jobs for its rank-and-file stormtroopers. Prior to 1933 the Nazis also attempted to penetrate the unions, which were then firmly in the hands of the SPD and the KPD, and even established their own kind of union, the Nationalsozialistische Betriebszellen-Organisation (NSBO). In practice, the relationship between the SA and the NSBO was not free of tensions, particularly when the NSBO had more success than the SA in providing jobs for its members.160 As explained above, the SA then started to organize so-called Hilfswerklager, or ‘welfare camps’, provisional work camps in which unemployed stormtroopers were housed in barracks. The men in these camps constituted a cheap labour pool at the disposal of the party and the state and were employed mostly for infrastructure work such as the building of new roads. At the same time these Hilfswerklager were an attempt to control the population and channel the persistently high level of discontent and violence among ordinary militants in a more productive direction.161

As the economic situation recovered in the second half of the 1930s, most of these ‘welfare camps’ were closed down. Some of them, however, such as the camp in Lockstedter Lager, today’s Hohenlockstedt in Schleswig-Holstein, were transformed into so-called SA-Umschulungslager, or ‘occupational retraining camps’, later re-baptized SA-Berufsschule, or ‘SA professional schools’.162 Here, stormtroopers who struggled to find regular employment were trained for one or two years for regular jobs in industry. The aim of the camps was to qualify as many men as available ‘in the shortest time possible’ to become Facharbeiter, or ‘skilled labourers’, an officially recognized professional status that entitled its bearers to higher pay than unskilled workers. These camps produced locksmiths, mechanical engineers, ship builders, precision mechanics, coppersmiths, galvanized steel workers (Feinblechner), and welders.163 Local companies in return were asked to contribute the training equipment of the schools and help improve their facilities.164

The SA professional school in Lockstedter Lager was initially quite popular, welcoming more than 1,000 trainees in 1938.165 At this time, one-quarter of all apprentices were aged thirty or above. In other words, as in the Hilfswerklager tradition, the ‘professional school’ was initially concerned with qualifying ‘Old Fighters’, but over the next years, it became more and more successful in attracting young German men who only knew of the ‘time of struggle’ by hearsay.166 The majority of these candidates increasingly came from impoverished border areas of the Reich. In 1938, Lockstedter Lager welcomed its first unemployed stormtroopers from the Sudetenland, and in 1939 it accepted several hundred men from Upper Silesia.167 During the war years it took in apprentices, at times as young as fifteen years old, from the previously Polish part of Upper Silesia, the Memelland, and occupied Lithuania.168

Similar SA professional schools built on this successful model. By 1941 there were four different SA professional schools that carried the names of their respective regions: the above-mentioned Nordmark in Lockstedter Lager; Nordsee in Westerstede near Oldenburg; Ostland, later renamed Tannenberg, located in Contienen near the East Prussian capital of Königsberg, today’s Kaliningrad; and Weichsel in Schulitz, today’s Polish Solec Kujawski, a small town in the vicinity of Bromberg, or Bydgoszcz.169 During the war, the Marine High Command provided the financial support for the construction and development of these four schools.170 From July 1941 onward they were run by the SA leadership in Munich in close cooperation with the Consortium for the SA Professional Schools (Industriegemeinschaft für die SA-Berufsschulen), a group of several northern and eastern German companies led by Heinrich Middendorff, a former submarine commander and chairman of the executive board of the Deutsche Werke Kiel AG.171 The companies Middendorff represented were active in the shipbuilding business, which, while benefiting from an increase in demand for war cruisers and submarines, lacked qualified workers due to conscription.172 Furthermore, the physically demanding shipbuilding business did not attract many workers with an educational background, so the industry targeted the extremely young as well as those ‘older German men who for whatever kind of misfortune had failed to learn a trade’. In the face of this shortage, the industry cooperated with the SA, which it had (rightly) identified as a lobbyist for men with relatively low social status and education. However, Middendorff officially insisted that the goal of the companies he represented would not be ‘to employ whatever people were available in the shortest time possible’, but to train the best men, defined as those who were ‘politically and personally qualified SA men’.173

In most cases the men who enrolled in these professional schools were sent there directly from the German job centres. Prior membership in the SA was not a formal requirement for enrolment, but every aspirant had to signal willingness to join the SA later on.174 Peasant labourers were explicitly prohibited from joining these schools for practical and ideological reasons.175 First, these men were needed in the agricultural sector, particularly during the war years; and second, the Nazis did not want to contribute to further rural flight, especially as they regarded practical work on ‘German soil’ as physically healthy and morally important. The SA in fact had a hard time defending ‘political education’ as a vital part of the school curriculum.176 It also struggled to fill the 5,500 places available in these schools, even though the education they offered was free of charge and the schools provided accommodation, work clothes, and a small salary.177 Further compounding these difficulties was the fact that many of those admitted did not stay long but were quickly sent home by the school administration. The SA justified these decisions by claiming that no company would have an interest in employing workers who suffered from tuberculosis, cardiac problems, or feeble-mindedness – a defence that threw a glaring spotlight on the social composition of the men in these professional schools during the war years. According to the OSAF, the job centres were to blame for this problem, as they only sent to the camps a dubious selection of those few men available in Germany at the time.178

In the summer of 1942, the OSAF started to realize that Middendorff had only cooperated with the SA as long as the German industry was in dire need of workers. With the military campaign against the Soviet Union looking promising and new waves of Russian and Polish forced labourers becoming available, Middendorff’s enthusiasm for the inclusion of SA ideological education in the professional training of unskilled labourers lessened considerably. In July 1942 he strongly urged the SA leadership in Munich to accept Russian ‘civil workers’ (Zivilarbeiter) into the school at Lockstedter Lager to maximize the number of workers who could be brought into the shipyards.179 The SA, however, strongly opposed such plans, arguing that its activities were first and foremost meant to benefit German workers and the people’s community, not necessarily wealthy industrialists. If the Russians were to be accepted at all, their barracks had to be separated from the other quarters by a fence three and a half metres high.180 By now, Middendorff had proven an ‘extremely ruthless manager’ (Betriebsführer), complained SA-Brigadeführer Herbert Merker, the officer in charge of the school. When it came to matters of social concern, Middendorff was ‘as unaffected as a newborn child’. Such judgements not only attest to the bitterness of long-time SA activists once again confronted with the fact that industrial needs were deemed more important than ideological matters,181 but also reveal the survival of certain elements of the NSDAP’s ‘socialist’ ideology from the time prior to 1933. Most instructive in this regard is a statement from Siegfried Uiberreither, the Reichsstatthalter and Gauleiter of Styria. In a speech to the SA men of his region delivered in the spring of 1941, he declared that once the war was over, they should ‘grab again the banner of the revolution’ and transform Greater Germany into the ‘greatest welfare state on earth’.182

As German stormtroopers in need of professional and ideological training became increasingly unavailable, Merker concluded that the existence of the SA professional schools (from November 1942 referred to as SA-Werklager, or ‘SA work camps’) could only be justified on the basis of the strategic necessities of a nation at war.183 Although the Werklager Nordmark operated until the end of the war, the raison d’être for these schools/camps was shifted into the near future, in the context of the peacetime that was to follow the German military victory. At present, Germany’s top priority was the formation of the ‘best Wehrmacht possible’, Merker admitted. However, after the war, the military soldier would be replaced by a new role model: the ‘workman soldier’ (Soldat der Arbeit). In Merker’s view, the SA was called to shape this new type of German skilled labourer by helping him obtain a higher level of technical skill and training him both ideologically and physically. Once qualified, the German worker would ultimately be able to serve as ‘defender of the newly acquired space’ (Verteidiger des neu erworbenen Raumes).184

There are striking parallels between this conception and the idea of the SA Wehrbauern, or ‘defensive peasants’, from the new German east, as analysed in the previous chapter. While the activities of SA units in many regions of the Old Reich between 1940 and 1944 were severely diminished by a lack of available men and the absence of an overarching sense of purpose, the SA leadership compensated for its temporary unimportance by making ever more grandiose plans for the post-war period. In its imagination, the new German society would be one in which even traditional ‘civil’ professional activities, such as farming and industrial work, would be carried out with soldierly conviction. Peace, in its literal meaning of the absence of war and violent confrontation, was no longer viewed as feasible. Just as the individual stormtrooper had in the earliest days of the Nazi ‘movement’ been in need of violent conflicts to prove his determination and social worth, so the German Volksgemeinschaft post-Second World War was imagined as a community constantly threatened by enemies living outside its boundaries. Consequently, the German man throughout his adult life was to have two closely intertwined professional identities, a civil identity and a military one. Put bluntly, all German men were in the future expected to be ideologically firm stormtroopers or SA-Wehrmänner throughout their entire adult lives, ready to be mobilized for war at any given moment.

Confronting Defeat

In contrast to such high-flying expectations, the situation of the SA between 1943 and 1945 was anything but promising. Its intensified activities did not make up for its overall lack of reputation, resources, and prospects. By the autumn of 1943 even the notoriously optimistic SA Chief of Staff Wilhelm Schepmann had to concede that the situation of the organization was critical. In a long speech at a meeting of the Reichsleiter and Gauleiter in Posen on 6 October 1943, he explained that his organization should be judged not by its immediate results (or lack thereof), but by its long-term impact. The general tone of his speech was defensive.185 Schepmann repeatedly emphasized that the role of the SA was as an instrument of the party and of Hitler.186 Consequently, he was eager to improve its relationship with other party organizations, particularly the Hitler Youth and the SS. In direct talks with Himmler, Schepmann seems to have unconditionally accepted the preeminent role of the SS and the Waffen-SS, at least during wartime. He explicitly stated that he would not pursue plans for a Waffen-SA, which would comprise exclusively SA men, even as he claimed that Himmler had previously agreed to establish such a group. Modelled along the lines of the Standarte Feldherrnhalle, but under the command of the Wehrmacht, the projected SA combat unit to complement the Waffen-SS was never established. It is highly unlikely that Himmler ever intended to form such a unit. He most likely made the promise merely to demonstrate goodwill toward the new SA Chief of Staff and ensure his obedience. An agreement between the SA and SS from the year 1944, allowing stormtroopers to volunteer for the 18th SS volunteer Panzergrenadier Division ‘Horst Wessel’, served the same purpose.187

Yet the dramatically deteriorating military situation from 1943 onward increased the relative importance of the SA against all odds. Until the end of the Third Reich, paramilitary activism became once again a regular feature of stormtrooper practice. As the front lines rapidly approached and then penetrated the territory of the German Reich, the remaining Brownshirts – about 500,000 in 1944188 – were mobilized to organize and coordinate the national defence effort ‘from within’. The enemies of the Volksgemeinschaft would now be confronted by the SA’s ‘revolutionary drive’, the organization’s propaganda exulted: ‘We live again in the Kampfzeit.’189 Consequently, the SA – alongside other National Socialist organizations like the Hitler Youth – resorted once more to street parades in 1944, aiming to publicly display an allegedly undaunted Volksgemeinschaft. One critical observer commented in his diary that such processions were understandably ‘highly popular at this particular time’, as they could ‘provide a feeling of security when dreadful things announce themselves from out front [wenn draußen Schreckliches sich ankündigt]’.190

In 1944 and early 1945 the Nazi leadership ordered the stormtroopers to fight against both the military enemy and the rapidly deteriorating German morale, not only with rhetoric and demonstrations, but also with force. On 26 September 1944, SA Chief of Staff Schepmann was appointed Chief of Staff for the German Volkssturm’s Shooting Training (Inspekteur der Schießausbildung im Deutschen Volkssturm).191 The unequal distribution of power between Himmler and Schepmann continued. Whereas Himmler, as Commander of the Reserve Army (Befehlshaber des Ersatzheeres), determined the Volkssturm’s operational missions, Schepmann was given responsibility only for the training and equipping of those considered too old or too young to fight in the regular Wehrmacht.192 In addition to SA leaders serving as Volkssturm instructors or commanders, rank-and-file stormtroopers came to provide the nucleus of many Volkssturm units.193 For example, the leader of the Austrian SA-Brigade 94 Oberdonau was given command of the formation of fighting units, which were to be recruited from the Gauwehrmannschaften, the Austrian civil-defence formation. The Nazi militants were ordered to organize and supervise this ‘last draft’ and were expected to provide these men ‘with clear political attitude’, ‘soldierly expertise’, and a grasp of military necessities.194

Under the circumstances, the training offered by the SA could not meet high standards, even if the propaganda of the Nazi regime naturally asserted the opposite.195 Schepmann promised that the new Volkssturm units would be trained so effectively that they would be able to turn back any ‘urgent danger’ to the Reich territory. Many of the men now being drafted had been trained in the SA-Wehrmannschaften in previous years, he pointed out. Furthermore, the new training would be organized in a less formal way than had previously been seen. The main goal of the relatively short instructional courses would be ‘to awaken’ men’s ‘interest in shooting’ in order to ‘maximize firepower’.196 Over the course of the next few months, power and weapons were transferred from the disintegrating SA to the regional Volkssturm units.197 Despite organizational shortcomings, the SA continued to provide many of the fanatical ‘believers’ who attempted to defend the Third Reich and its social system until the last days of the regime (Plate 31).

The OSAF’s instructions for the ‘total war’ effort, distributed by Schepmann to the SA leadership corps in early December 1944, allow some insight into the mentality and self-understanding of the late SA activists. The ultimate goal of this effort, Schepmann explained, was to ‘fanaticize’ the individual stormtrooper to a degree of ‘unconditional commitment’ to the Volksgemeinschaft and total resistance to the enemy. Therefore, SA men were encouraged to wear their uniform at the workplace and in the general public.198 Drawing an audacious historical parallel, Schepmann compared the Reich’s situation in late 1944 with the wars of liberation that had broken out across Europe in the early nineteenth century. As his predecessors more than 100 years prior had done, he regarded the racial and ideological unity of the nation as a prerequisite for Germany’s liberation.199 Schepmann declared that ‘international Jewry in its quest for world domination’ was responsible for the war. In a way his rhetoric echoed that employed in the early days of the NSDAP in Munich, with the addition of apocalyptic threats. The future of a defeated Reich was extremely bleak, if there was a future at all, Schepmann warned. Families would be torn apart and slave labour introduced. Millions would die of hunger. The Jewish Untermenschentum would destroy German culture and the German language.200 In short, the Reich would suffer from what it had done to its eastern neighbours in the previous years – a logical connection that Schepmann of course did not make explicit, but of which he and many others were certainly aware.201

Such alarmist propaganda was not only a consequence of the current military situation. Ever since the Germans had launched ‘Operation Barbarossa’, the attack on the Soviet Union, in July 1941, extreme anti-Bolshevism and antisemitism – combined in the term ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ – again became vital elements of the SA’s ideology.202 SA magazines began to repeatedly publish extracts from soldiers’ letters that condemned the Soviet ‘workers’ paradise’ as the greatest of lies. What they had seen with their own eyes, such writers declared, was far worse than they had expected. While the German Volksgemeinschaft would accept social differences only as long as they were based on commitment to the community and individual talent, Soviet society according to such statements was one of extreme social difference resulting from a Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy, which aimed to mercilessly dominate the Russian people. The common people of Russia reminded the soldiers of animals, without prospects or hope and exploited by the Jews: ‘Here, the Jew raged himself out. State and people rear his very own ugly head.’203

With the course of the war turning, such rhetoric was used less as a call to change the European east for the better than as a way to mobilize the remaining Germans in the Reich. To prevent the worst-case scenario of the Red Army winning the war, the stormtroopers were ordered to be extremely vigilant in their attempts to keep the nation safe. Hidden enemies could be anywhere. In particular, the Brownshirts were urged to keep a sharp eye out for all ‘foreign races’ (Fremdvölkische). The final battle would bring ultimate empowerment, or so Schepmann argued. Unrestricted by legal or moral concerns, he declared, ‘the SA man has always to take a tough stance against all that can harm the spiritual warfare (rumours – defeatism). If necessary, he has to help himself as during the Kampfzeit. As at that time, we break resistance with our fists.’204

It is hard to measure the effectiveness of such calls. Yet, even if by late 1944 the majority of the German population was weary of war and only partly susceptible to such propaganda, the acts committed by many stormtroopers in the last months of the conflict suggest that at least they took such calls to heart.205 As they had previously done in the General Government, local SA leaders now increasingly performed police service all over Germany. At times they even took the lead in spontaneous hate crimes, as in the industrial city of Rüsselsheim, where, after heavy Allied bombing, an angry mob of Germans tortured and killed several captured American airmen on 26 August 1944. After an initial wave of blows, Josef Hartgen, the local Nazi Party official and an SA leader, pulled out his revolver and shot at least four of the men. The next day Hartgen attended the funeral of the American soldiers dressed in his brown-shirted uniform, thus attempting to transform the mob violence and his own murderous actions into acts of legitimate self-defence.206 Following a similar logic, stormtroopers in rural Germany continued to uphold the racial boundaries established by the regime. As in the mid-1930s, when they publicly humiliated German-Jewish couples for alleged racial defilement, these men now severely punished sexual relations between Germans and slave labourers, particularly if the latter were of Slavonic descent. SA propaganda from the time characterized Poles and members of other eastern European nations as ‘cruel and insidious’ and in need of supervision, particularly in the countryside, where the danger of ‘blood mixing’ was said to be very high.207 Local SA searches for such couples regularly ended in beatings. In the most extreme cases it escalated into genuine acts of lynching, events that up to the present constitute some of the most vivid memories of those Germans old enough to have grown up in the countryside in the 1940s. In the rural district of the small city of Herford in Westphalia, for example, uniformed stormtroopers in cooperation with the SS hanged at least one male Polish slave labourer from a tree in a small grove. They also compelled several other forced labourers from the region to attend the execution, threatening them with a similar fate if they refused to obey.208

What had previously been glorified as the ‘German fighting spirit’ in the last weeks of the regime vanished as the local hierarchies of power disintegrated. Those who still wore their Nazi uniforms now noticed an increasing hostility from the general public.209 Because of the heightened danger of Allied airstrikes, the SA headquarters in Munich were relocated to the training school run by the SA-Gruppe Hochland on the shores of the Schliersee in the Alpine upland, approximately fifty kilometres south of the Bavarian capital.210 Used from 1938 onward for the schooling of the SA’s regional leadership corps, the facilities from the spring of 1944 onward served as provisional SA headquarters.211 Yet it was not until 1945 that Chief of Staff Schepmann and his family arrived here.212 By that time there was effectively nothing left for him to do. Already in the weeks leading up to his arrival, the OSAF, in the absence of a functioning bureaucracy, proved incapable of effectively controlling the hundreds of thousands of SA men who still lived in Germany.

Instead, provisional groups consisting of committed National Socialists who claimed leadership on the local and regional levels mushroomed. Some stormtroopers still felt empowered to defend the people’s community by violent means. Their activism was directed against Allied forces, Jewish concentration-camp prisoners, and German ‘defeatists’, but it predominantly harmed members of the two latter groups. According to the latest research by historian Patrick Wagner, fanatical National Socialists murdered several hundred German civilians during the last months of the war.213The number of Jewish and eastern European slave labourers killed during the final months of the regime was as high as 250,000.214 Particularly well researched are the massacres of Hungarian-Jewish slave labourers sent to Mauthausen concentration camp in March and April 1945. Local Volkssturm units in Styria were called upon to oversee these ‘death marches’, and a ‘police company’ from the city of Eisenerz that consisted of 150 ‘reliable’ SA men was ordered ‘to kill as many Jews as possible’. These stormtroopers shot between 150 and 200 people on 7 April 1945 alone.215 Some of the Nazi Freikorps units, hastily arranged in the last months of the war, proved more dangerous to German civilians than to Allied soldiers. A special ‘hit squad’ of the Freikorps Sauerland, headed by an SA man called Friedrich Jäger, hunted down deserters and dissenters and killed at least five people: two alleged deserters, a male civilian, a female civilian, and a mine manager who was held responsible for the flying of a white flag on the pithead of his mine in Weidenau near Siegen.216 In southwestern Germany another group called the Sturmabteilung Freikorps Adolf Hitler was sent to Munich to crush an anti-Nazi movement in April 1945. Still another SA task force that operated in Bavaria and was led by the SA-Brigadeführer Hans Zöberlein, a writer and fanatical National Socialist, killed ten civilians on 28 and 29 April 1945 in the small working-class town of Penzberg, some fifty kilometres south of Munich, where the local mayor had been forced to step down to enable a peaceful surrender to the Americans.217

In most places, however, the slogan ‘Fight until the last drop!’ was replaced by ‘Save yourself if you can!’ virtually overnight. When local media spread the news that Allied troops had reached the area, local Nazi authorities usually went into hiding, and the rank-and-file National Socialists disposed of their insignias, banners, and party badges. People from the Schliersee region raided the last remaining headquarters of the SA on 5 May 1945 and, according to the testimony of the town’s pastor, destroyed or stole up to 2,000 SA coats, several radios, clothes, and furniture, all ‘of the highest quality’, in a ‘barbaric frenzy’. In one room the looting mob even discovered the bodies of a ‘Nazi’ and a woman who had jointly committed suicide, but no one attempted to bury them.218 During this period Mein Kampf disappeared from the bookshelves in Germany and, together with other Nazi memorabilia, was hidden away until children and grandchildren cleared out the homes of their parents or grandparents, sometimes decades later. Highly visible signs of ideological commitment to the Nazis, such as the stormtroopers’ brown shirts, were usually not part of such belated ‘discoveries’. As one eyewitness from the city of Höxter remembered, dozens of SA uniforms could be seen floating in the nearby River Weser in April 1945.219 In many cases these castoffs represented more than a simple changing of clothes, as the Nazi identity of their former owners seems to have been washed off as well. As will be analysed in the last chapters of this book, the transformation of the hearts and minds of the former stormtroopers was actually a more complicated process – and one that was in many respects the most ambiguous and long lasting.

Everyday Fanaticism

Between 1939 and 1945 the character of the National Socialist project of the Volksgemeinschaft changed. Reflecting its initial military and political gains, the regime up to 1941 made sure that the needs of the war machine were met while at the same time carefully paying attention to the material well-being and morale of Germans on the ‘home front’. However, as the prospect of German hegemony over large parts of Europe became more and more obsolete, the regime’s repressive character increased dramatically. The people’s community was now imagined as a community fated to fight a heroic battle for survival on an unprecedented scale.220 In line with this general development the importance of the ‘greedy institution’ of the SA increased precisely in those regions where this battle was to be fought. Between 1939 and 1942 the focus of this battle was predominantly viewed as the annexed and occupied territories, where the formation of new SA units offered a low-threshold opportunity for Reichsdeutsche and ethnic Germans to prove their loyalty to the regime. From 1942 onward these SA units became part of the broader German effort to uphold public order in these increasingly unstable areas.

As the front lines approached and ultimately crossed the borders of the Old Reich, the Nazi regime attempted to replicate these experiences from the occupied territories in the German heartlands. By then, however, the generation of German men who were in their late twenties and thirties – those who had previously so decisively contributed to the Nazis’ rise and consolidation of power – were already serving in the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS. The regime was forced to grasp at straws to organize civil defence and uphold its rule. Those local and regional leaders of the SA who had not been drafted, many of whom were ‘Old Fighters’, were the natural choice to organize the last defence – even if by 1944–5 the OSAF’s former capacity to mobilize and discipline its men had been severely curtailed. Nevertheless, the ideological fervour and militancy of the local SA leaders to a certain extent made up for the group’s organizational shortcomings in the last phase of the war. The disciplinary power of the individual stormtroopers in the villages and towns, and not the strength of the organization as a whole, turned out to be one key factor that prevented the regime from collapsing from within. In many places local activists still had the power to mobilize and intimidate a war-weary population. With their backs to the wall, the National Socialists resorted once again to extreme violence. ‘Local liquidating communities’ killed representatives of civil authorities who were willing to hand over power to the Allies and murdered former concentration-camp inmates on ‘death marches’.221 The training of the SA, ideologically as well as militarily, proved to have deadly repercussions.

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