Prof Rempel lecture: SA and SS

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Nazi Paramilitary Groups: SA & SS

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.

The most important Nazi Paramilitary organizations where the SA (Sturm Abteilung, literally Storm Troops) and the SS (Schutzstaffel, literally Elite Echelon). The HJ or Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) was not really a paramilitary organizaiton in the beginning, since it was designed to organize and recruit young people for the Nazi movement.

The antecedent of Himmler's "Black Corps," or SS, is to be found in Hitler's private bodyguard, formed before the 1923 Putsch from a small clique of desperados known as the Assault Squad. The Assault Squad's few men, demobilized NCOs, freebooters, laborers, and adventurers, shared utter loyalty to the person of Hitler, whom they had sworn to protect at all costs.

The Assault Squad was led by an SA man, Julius Schreck, and a stationer who worked in the party treasury, Joseph Berchtold. It was prepared to perform whatever task their Führer gave them, usually requiring muscle or a show of force. Thus 50 of Berchtold's men, already wearing black-bordered swastika armbands and black ski-caps with a silver death's head button, accompanied Hitler when he made his melodramatic entry into the Bürgerbräukeller on November 8, 1923, to announce the misadventure known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Five of them were killed during the melee with the police in front of the Odeonplatz. At the time the SA probably had about 2,000 men and the Assault Squad no more than 100, reflecting their respective importance then and later.

The strong-arm wing of the party had a rather innocuous beginning as the "gymnastics and sport section," founded by Emil Maurice, a 23 year old watchmaker, in November 1920. After Hitler seized control of the party in the following year, and changed the name to Sturmabteilung, expansion in size and role helped to solidify his own control and create an activist core for the movement. A notorious Free Corps leader, Captain Hermann Ehrhardt, provided recruits and money. The nascent SA was different from the numerous Free Corps, composed largely of veterans who had served the new government as a kind of counter-revolutionary force. They later created a militaristic subculture, violently opposed to the Weimar Republic. The SA, however, appealed to youth and restricted membership to those between the ages of 17 and 23. It was much younger, included fewer veterans, and gave the party much of its bravado. Battling the communist and socialist "enemy," was the main task of the SA, and helped to turn it into "the most active and radical paramilitary organization in Bavaria" already before 1923.

During the Putsch the SA was hardly distinguishable from the other völkisch groups in the coalition Hitler put together for the coup. After its failure, Hermann Göring, the actual commander of the SA in 1923, went into exile, Hitler and other leaders were in jail, and all party organizations were outlawed. Captain Ernst Röhm, most active liaison officer of the Bavarian Reichswehr to the paramilitary organizations, had been the main organizer of the early SA. When he was released from prison in April 1924, Röhm proceeded to reactivate SA units throughout the country and organize them, along with other völkisch paramilitary groups, into the Frontbann.

This organization, which acquired some 40,000 members, was a military association in the old style, whereas Hitler wanted a political combat league more appropriate to the legal course he adopted after the Putsch. When Hitler began to rebuild the party in 1925, he refused to accept the Frontbann, while Röhm declined Hitler's offer to command a new SA. Röhm could not agree - and never really did - that this paramilitary tool should be at the discretionary disposal of the political leadership and shed its purely military characteristics. Röhm then went off to Bolivia in a sulking mood, the Frontbann disintegrated, and the SA submitted to direction from local party leaders. Significant growth began with the appointment of Captain Franz Pfeffer von Salomon as Supreme SA Leader (OSAF) in the fall of 1926. He built the SA into a disciplined and reliable party army, which fought the "internal enemy" by violent means.

Uncertainty over the basic character of the SA, alerted Hitler to the need for a totally reliable force, a kind of praetorian guard, which would put a check on the rowdy streetfighters. In February 1925, before the SA was officially reborn, Hitler created small elite echelons (Schutzstaffeln) in various cities where SA units already existed. Two months later the miniscule SS, patterned to some degree on the extinct Assault Squad, revealed its essential future character by serving as funeral torchbearers for the former police president of Munich. But in the shadow of an expanding SA, the SS barely maintained its existence under several ineffective leaders. In July 1926, during the same party rally which recognized Kurt Gruber's HJ at Weimar, the SS was declared to be the elite organization of the party.

In an arcane ceremony, typical of many mysterious practices with which the SS was to be associated, the "blood banner" which had been stained during the conflict with the police on the Odeonplatz in 1923, was transferred to the SS for safekeeping. The SS was not to exceed ten percent of SA strength in any one locality. Such deliberate restriction enforced its elitist feeling, while stern discipline turned the SS man into "the most exemplary party member conceivable." Neither hard-bitten party bosses, nor swaggering and uncouth SA commanders took kindly to the elitist pretensions of the SS and used them mainly to run errands, recruit party members, and sell newspapers. In January 1929, when the SS had some 1,200 members, things began to change quickly. Hitler appointed a little known and apparently unassuming 28 year old party bureaucrat Reichsführer of the SS. His name was Heinrich Himmler, surely one of the strangest and most unfathomable men in modern history. During his short sojourn he has left a trail of blood and terror behind him which few can equal.

At the time Himmler was hardly noticed or appreciated, having served as secretary and deputy to party propaganda chief, Gregor Strasser. Coming from a proper Catholic middle-class family, with a father who had been tutor to the Bavarian royal house and had a successful career as professor and director of several prestigious Bavarian Gymnasia, Himmler's upbringing was anything but irregular. Psychohistorians have found reason to believe that his prolonged adolescence consisted of an unsuccessful effort to master libidinal drives, forcing him to resort to obsessive repression, projection, and exaggerated self-discipline. He is supposed to have developed an inordinate identification with his tyrannical father, later replaced by surrogates, like Röhm and Strasser (both of whom he helped to murder subsequently), but the most notable of which was to be Hitler. Weak object relation and the lack of a feeling of self-worth and distinct individuality, theoretically, led him to imbibe the prevailing values of the post-war generation. These values included xenophobic nationalism, fear of conspiratorial secret societies like Freemasons, and Jews, militaristic violence and social probity.

Although the young Himmler's conversion to the völkisch ideology was gradual, almost accidental by virtue of his random but avaricious reading habits, he developed two early obsessions, the satisfactions of a military life and the appeals of character-building agrarian pursuits. These were to find their perverse fulfillment in the Waffen-SS and a population policy based on the blood and soil ideology. While these aspects of his wartime career may have been in part the result of an unsuccessful adolescence, they were imposed on thousands of adolescents whose formative years were probably no more successful than his and whose choices were more restricted. He also develop an early interest in spying, which he practiced on his older brother Gebhard's fiance, alleging that she was promiscuous and hence unfit for inclusion in the Himmler family. Eventually he managed to break up the romance.

In a conventional sense, the young Himmler was certainly more successful than most of his contemporaries. He completed military training as a cadet, a career in uniform being stymied by the end of the war. Completing his studies in agronomy at the Technische Hochschule in Munich, he made a career for himself as a minor bureaucrat in the Nazi Party, in part because he could not find a post as farm manager, although he was willing to go anywhere, even Russia and Turkey. At the same time he pursued his ambitions in the Artamanen, an agrarian youth movement, the paramilitary Reichskriegsflagge, and even tried his hand at scientific poultry-breeding. His marriage to an older woman was not too promising from the start, and may have had something to do with his unrealistic but conventional conception of women as weak and subordinate, fit primarily for domestic chores and childbearing.

The SS provided Himmler with an outlet, particularly his penchant for order, detail, organizational finesse, and misplaced sense of moral and social rectitude. His father's pedantry, which went so far as to correct his son's diary entries, played a role here. The feeling of superiority, which these attitudes generated, compensated for inner emptiness, the absence of self-assurance and a satisfying sense of moral values. He naturally adopted Hitler as his superego, replacing an earlier fascination with Ernst Röhm. Himmler built up the SS, as a consequence, by assiduously appealing to old-line aristocrats and wealthy members of the middle class, making them patrons and honorary members in exchange for financial support and transferred social prestige. This set Himmler's SS off from the SA and the rest of the party, whose misbehavior and ideological deviation the SS was, after all, to watch and report. Being a kind of party police both by precept and function, the raison d'etre of the SS was loyalty to the Führer. The political context of the times and the projected role of the SS, led Himmler to imbue the organization with military titles, ordered hierarchy, and combative spirit.

Both SS and SA soon experienced phenomenal growth, as the depression drove unemployed lower middle-class men and workers into the latter and middle-class intellectuals and professionals into the former. Himmler's Elite numbered 10,000 by 1931 and Pfeffer's organizational skills and training methods turned the SA into a movement in its own right by the fall of 1930, when it claimed 60,000 streetwarriors. The use of the SA as propaganda army, "a sort of permanent election campaign with terroristic methods," had much to do with the election breakthrough of the Nazi Party in the September elections to the Reichstag. But success created its own disparities and frictions which the SA-owned economic enterprises could not mitigate. Resentment of slack and corrupt party politicians, who reaped the benefits while the SA did all the work, added to impatience with Hitler's continued "legal" approach to power. It brought restlessness and buried "socialist" tendencies in the activist SA to a head.

In the summer of 1930 Pfeffer resigned in a fit of anger. Shortly before the September election, the Berlin SA revolted against the temporizing party politicians, namely Gauleiter Josef Goebbels and his SS allies, followed by a more serious SA revolt in April 1931, led by Walther Stennes, Pfeffer's erstwhile deputy. Since the rebellion was not directed at Hitler personally, he was able to quell it by a shrewd combination of concessions and charisma. During the episode the SS came into its own for the first time by protecting the politicians who were physically in danger and by keeping the SA rebels at bay with weapons drawn. Hitler, who had assumed overall command of the SA shortly after Pfeffer's resignation, decided to recall Röhm and make him chief of staff. Röhm was more than eager to resume the leadership over what was clearly an exploding organization with 260,000 members at the end of 1931 and over half a million men in January 1933.

The slower growing SS, for whom Hitler was more of a surrogate father than he was for the SA, reached a milestone with the Stennes affair. After this event Hitler gave his dependable SS the motto which was to become its most characteristic symbol until the final days of the war: "SS man your honor is loyalty!" A nearly mystical idea of loyalty expressed the core of Himmler's personality and now it was to be also the heart of the SS organization.

It was more than fortuitous that 1931 was also the year when two of Himmler's most important associates joined forces with him to create two essential SS organizational segments with their own ideological props and pervasive activities: Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich and Richard Walther Darré.

Heydrich's upbringing was both normal in the conventional sense and more privileged than Himmler's. Certainly the cultural environment was more refined, his father being the founder and director of a musical conservatory and a fairly well-known composer of operas and popular fare. The sensitive and withdrawn boy developed a certain distance from his father, being much closer to his mother, in this sense being not unlike Himmler. Unsure of himself, despite his obvious talent and intellect, he early became arrogant and cynical, jealous of his siblings greater social success. His father's running battle against rumors of his Jewish origins, a legend never successfully quashed during his lifetime, was to have its effect on Reinhard from early youth. Even though he played the violin well and dabbled with the idea of becoming a chemist, Reinhard choose the navy nearly on the spur of the moment.

His promising career in the somewhat politically suspicious service did not get very far. As a 27 year old ex-naval lieutenant, who had left the service under scandalous circumstances, Heydrich presented himself to Himmler in the fall of 1931 with plans for an SS intelligence operation. Perhaps influenced by the fact that the navy had once rejected him on physical grounds and impressed by Heydrich's quick intelligence, maybe even awed by the handsome man's reputation as chronic womanizer, Himmler gave Heydrich a virtual carte blanche. The Security Service (SD) which he created became his and Himmler's vehicle to power by acquiring exclusive intelligence prerogatives first within the SS, then within the party, and finally within the state.

Darré was quite different from Heydrich, the cynical, pragmatic realist and political tactician with few peers in the Nazi melange. Born in Argentina and educated at King's College School, Wimbledon, Darré, the ex-official in the Prussian Ministry of Agriculture, had developed unusual theories about the nature of current agrarian problems. He insisted they were largely a matter "of blood," i.e., a hereditarily healthy peasantry alone could maintain the racial fecundity and cultural superiority of the Aryan stock. Five years Himmler's senior, the blood and soil ideologue took Himmler under his wing as a willing pupil when they met in the Artamanen, in which both were active during the 1920s. Before 1931 Darré had founded the party's Agrarian Political Office, converted himself into the party's agricultural expert, and then joined the SS as chief of the new SS Race Office created in December 1931. Two years later it became the Race and Settlement Office, a more appropriate designation for an agency that purveyed racism, elitism, suburban housing developments and reversion to an agrarian culture all at once.

While Himmler had adopted the prevailing culture's anti-semitism in his youth, it was Darré's agrarian racism more than Hitler's Austrian version, or the 1920 party program's anti-capitalist and anti-semitic "slavery of interest" version, which laid the basis for the racial fixation of the SS. Genetic reconstitution became the propagandistic gospel of the SS, symbolized by Himmler's notorious marriage code, suggested by Darré, a biogenetic engineer before his time, and in the view of one recent biographer the "father" of the environmentalist "Greens" in West Germany today. This code required that SS men and their prospective wives submit certified proof of Aryan ancestry and undergo minute physical examinations. Himmler, whose relationship with girls in adolescence had been stiff and distant, himself pored over photographs of SS brides in scanty apparel to make sure they met his standards of Nordic health and beauty.

Here was the origin of the so-called SS Order, which later was infused with medieval pomp and arcane ceremony, inspired by Himmler's dead heroic model, King Henry the Fowler of Saxony, conqueror of Slavs and initiator of eastward imperial expansion. Himmler was to revive this imperialism with a racist vengeance, based on the "soldier-farmer" settlement notions of Darré, which actually had their antecedents in Roman and Austro-Hungarian frontier defense policies. These anachronistic preoccupations of the SS were to find at least partial implementation in the HJ Land Service and the population policies of the National Youth Directorate.

The security functions and self-conscious elitism had a tendency to set the SS apart from the SA, illustrated by the fact that the SS had 50 percent more casualties than the SA in the street battles of 1930 to 1933. The elitist ideology, aside from its historical and racist underpinnings, its emphasis on height and presumed Aryan physical characteristics, led Himmler to be increasingly more selective in the acceptance of new recruits. His own comparative youth, his association with the Artamanen, and as a way of putting distance between his SS and the SA, Himmler insisted, particularly after January 1933, that new recruits should be under 25 years of age. This was bound to lead him eventually to view the HJ as a most significant ally.

The suppressive role of the SS, the assignment of security duties at the new party headquarters in the Brown House, and the reservation of leadership appointments to Himmler, gave the SS distinction from the party-controlled and party-financed SA. The SS, not regularly financed through the party until 1938, was dependent on its own resources. Himmler's ingenious use of the "Sponsoring Membership" mechanism, vastly extended from Berchtold's original idea, allowed the SS to become financially independent, while at the same time adumbrating its elitist image and attraction. Honorary memberships, titles and medals, were thus bestowed on thousands of "lay brothers" who contributed a fixed number of Marks per month. Wealthier members of society could afford to make such contributions more easily than poorer ones.

The proportionately large percentage of upper middle-class sponsors and the nearly negligible proportion from the working-class, had a tendency to confer old-fashioned respectability of the traditional elites to the newly proclaimed elite of the SS in the popular mind. In 1931, old-line aristocrats, who in the calculations of most sociologists no longer deserved even a separate category for purposes of structural analysis, occupied some 10 percent of the regional administrative posts in the SS. In addition to aristocrats and retired army officers, the SS was especially successful in attracting large numbers of young landowners, industrialists, professors and lawyers, the latter two being particularly prominent in Heydrich's SD.

Using the potent appeals of social and economic elitism, biological racialism, police and espionage functions, Himmler was able to attract a solid phalanx of professionals, technicians, experts, militarists, aggressive ideologists, and rationalistic bureaucrats, to whom organizational success and achievement as such mattered a great deal. Old fashioned morality and ethical standards, for most of them, seemed to be clearly overshadowed by overweening ambition to make careers for themselves and create pockets of personal power within the larger context of the SS and Hitler's approaching regime.

By January 1933 the SS with its 52,000 members was in a position to play a decisive role in the process of seizing power and encompassing a disoriented society. The HJ, with a membership twice that size, played an equally important role in "synchronizing" the youthful masses. In the course of this disruptive and murderous campaign both SS and HJ moved away from the SA, still dominant on the streets.

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Collapse of Weimar & Hitler's Rise   
  Hitler Home & Structure of the Hitler State
Background | Ideas | The Nazi State: Leadership & Party | Control,
Propaganda & Art |Economics
  Living in the Nazi State:
Social Policy (KDF |Youth |Education )
Persecution (Antisocials, Jewish Attacks, 1933-39|Final solution)
  Women & Family in Nazi Germany
Role of Women | Women & Art | Eugenics & sterilisation |Women & Concentration Camps |Women & War
  The End of the Reich

Resistance | The Impact of Bombing |Death of Hitler | Collapse of the Reich



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