Guns and hand grenades are not allowed in the theatres.

— Order of Munich’s Municipal Command, 8 May 19191

The Nazi stormtroopers were a typical product of the ‘transnational zone of paramilitary violence’ that emerged in central Europe after the First World War, and it is therefore apt to start this study by analysing the milieu that gave birth to this and several other right-wing paramilitary leagues.2The regional focus of this chapter is on Bavaria and, to a lesser degree, its neighbouring states Württemberg and Austria, as it was here that the SA was founded and operated until the mid-1920s. With regard to Fascism more generally, the impact of the Great War is hard to overestimate. The war contributed decisively to a new mentality that came to shape the political and social conflicts of the following two decades.3 Prussian military reformers had conceptualized the army as the school of the nation as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century. During the war years their view proved correct, but the military’s influence on society operated in a different, more comprehensive way: instead of instilling honourable virtues and soldierly discipline into the minds of the nation’s aristocratic youth, the Great War, with its mass-scale killings at the front lines and its severe food shortages within Germany, ultimately destroyed the old order upon which such virtues were based and contributed to the emancipation of all those previously excluded from politics and the military leadership, particularly working-class men and women in general.4 As historian Jörn Leonhard has recently pointed out, the First World War was also a ‘revolution of rising expectations’ that fundamentally shaped Europeans’ perceptions of politics and society. In the United Kingdom, France, and Germany alike, ordinary servicemen beginning in 1916 increasingly mocked the established political and military authorities, inventing a new antagonistic vocabulary and a new language of belonging and exclusion.5 What during the war was manifested as a particular form of (bitter) wartime irony, to be found in soldiers’ newspapers, letters, and diaries, was transformed after the armistice into a more violent and confrontational political language that contributed to the sharply antagonistic political climate of the interwar period.6

Fighting for Order

In the years following the revolution of November 1918, which resulted in the abdication of the Kaiser and paved the way for the transformation of the German Reich into a parliamentary democracy, a myriad of new paramilitary organizations came to play an important part in German politics, testifying not only to the erosion of the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force, but also to the fact that hundreds of thousands of ordinary men now felt called upon to take politics into their own hands. A provisional Reichswehr was established during the spring and summer of 1919, but because of the restrictions set by the Versailles peace treaty it remained limited to 100,000 men and 6,000 officers, at least officially.7 This meant that the majority of the soldiers who had fought in the Imperial army were now superfluous. Although many of them returned home, a relatively important minority joined new paramilitary groups that complemented the new Reichswehr units but were only partly loyal to the young democracy, despite being politically and financially dependent on it. By 1921 approximately 400,000 men had enrolled in paramilitary activities in Germany. Estimates of the number of Freikorps units and other semi-official ‘government forces’ existing at the time range from 70 up to 400.8 Whereas some of these units were recruited entirely from the Imperial army, others were short-lived hodgepodge militias comprising fewer than 500 men. These semi-legal troops initially helped to secure the borders of the Reich, particularly in the east and southeast. After their return to the German heartlands, however, they were to a considerable extent responsible for the growing level of political violence that marked the early years of the Republic.9Yet they were not direct forerunners of the SA; according to new research on the German Freikorps, only between 1 and 5 per cent of these paramilitary members later joined the SA.10

The situation was most extreme in Bavaria, where the political turmoil of 1919 – which saw the establishment of the Munich Soviet Republic and its subsequent liquidation by a joint cooperative effort of Reichswehr forces and state-recognized paramilitary groups like the Ehrhardt Brigade,11the Freikorps Epp,12 and the Freikorps Oberland13 – laid the ground for what became known as the Ordnungszelle Bayern, literally the ‘Bavarian Order Cell’ (Plate 1). This was a regional development that can be characterized by its very careful acceptance of the new democratic order in the Reich and its growing willingness to support all kinds of nationalist groups, both politically, legally, and financially.14 A key element of Bavarian politics in the early years of the Republic was the Einwohnerwehren, or ‘Civil Guards’: a patriotic self-defence organization headed by Georg Escherich. In the eyes of the authorities, the Einwohnerwehren were meant to back the government’s attempt to impose law and order, but they ultimately contributed to the radicalization of conservative politics and helped form a lasting alliance between moderately patriotic and ultra-nationalist circles. Although the Reich government established so-called Wehrkommissare, a network of Reichswehr army officers supposed to watch over the Einwohnerwehr movement, Escherich and his deputy Rudolph Kanzler, backed by the Bavarian government, insisted on their organizational autonomy and steered a political course that helped to transform Bavaria and its capital city Munich into the ‘headquarters of a massive counter-revolutionary conglomerate’.15

At the height of its influence, in the spring of 1920, the Einwohnerwehren comprised some 350,000 men. While many of their members were politically moderate in the sense that they intended to defend the heritage of the Bavarian monarchy, God, and fatherland against the ‘sins of the revolution’ and the political influence of the much-hated ‘Prussians’, the movement also provided a home for those soldiers and Freikorps members who had not been integrated into regular Reichswehr units. Under the protection of the Einwohnerwehren, extreme nationalist activists who ‘had nothing but contempt for the latter’s old fashioned parochialism’ and their ‘Lederhosen militarism’ often joined mobile brigades called Landfahnen or Reichfahnen, which could be up to 30,000 men strong. Here, the extreme nationalists formed lasting networks, established official and secret contacts with representatives of the Bavarian government and the military, received training and weapons, and – above all – earned public recognition for activities that increasingly did not help to stabilize the democratic order but were aimed at overcoming it when the next suitable moment arrived.16

These developments, tolerated and even fostered by the Bavarian governments led initially by Johannes Hoffmann from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and later, starting in 1920, by Gustav Ritter von Kahr, the unaffiliated candidate of the conservative Bavarian People’s Party (BVP), soon aroused the suspicion of the Allies, who repeatedly demanded the dissolution of the German paramilitary units. However, it was not until June 1921 when von Kahr, meanwhile the ‘strongman’ of Bavaria, agreed despite personal reservations to disband the Bavarian Einwohnerwehren as well as their counterpart in the Reich, the Organisation Escherich – for short, the Orgesch.17 Although these steps had stabilizing effects on the regional level within Bavaria in the years 1919 to 1921, at the same time they contributed to a growing antagonism between Bavaria and the Reich, dominated by its largest state, Prussia, which itself remained firmly in the hands of the Social Democrats until 1932 and turned out to be an ‘unlikely rock of democracy’.18 Throughout the Reich, however, many Germans still contested the legitimacy of the new political order, and even those who over the course of the 1920s made their peace with it, remained open to alternatives.

The rise and fall of the Bavarian Einwohnerwehr movement constituted the background against which the establishment of the National Socialist stormtroopers has to be viewed, particularly with regard to three factors. First, the formation of the paramilitary wing of the newly established NSDAP (which until 24 February 1920 had been called the DAP, the ‘German Workers’ Party’) happened at a time when a political turn to the right was in full swing in Bavaria. Yet, at least initially, the Nazi movement was deemed insignificant by the Reich compared to the hundreds of thousands of men who organized in the Einwohnerwehr units and in several other patriotic Verbände, or groups. Second, with the Einwohnerwehr movement, clandestinely financed and armed paramilitary groups that did not shy away from political murder became a widely tolerated element of politics in Bavaria.19 Third, the Einwohnerwehren cultivated the idea that political participation in Germany following the First World War required personal commitment both as a man and as a soldier. Consequently, even the most radical groups – the Nazi SA soon among them – were able in public to pass for legitimate defenders of law and order.

Establishing the Stormtroopers

The historiography of the National Socialists claimed that the party’s Turn- und Sportabteilung (literally the ‘Gymnastics and Sports Unit’), as the SA was originally called, had been founded under the leadership of the watchmaker Emil Maurice on 12 November of 1920.20 On this day, a group of National Socialist stewards defended a party reunion being held in the Munich Hofbräuhaus against protesters from the Republikanischer Schutzbund, the ‘Republican Self-Protection League’.21 However, although this somewhat randomly selected date provides a powerful founding myth, it condenses a longer process. In reality, the organization of the SA was a gradual development that, beginning in 1919–20 and parallel to the political formation of the NSDAP/DAP and the growing Einwohnerwehr movement, ultimately culminated with the solidification of clearly defined units of political-paramilitary character in 1921–2.22 Technically speaking, the SA and its mother party, the NSDAP, were a registered society bearing the name of Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Arbeiterverein e. V. With the one exception of the period after the Hitler Putsch in November 1923, when both the NSDAP and the SA were outlawed, this legal status remained valid until 1935, when the Nazi Party finally became a public body.23

The practice of supporting party work by creating specialized protection forces was not unique to the völkisch right, however. The National Socialists could not even claim originality for the name and later ‘brand’ of the SA, as already in 1919 the Bavarian Social Democrat Erhard Auer had started to form protection forces for himself and Social Democratic meetings and party rallies, forces that were initially known as the ‘Auer Guard’ or ‘Pitzer Guard’, after its first commander Franz Xaver Pitzer.24 The formation of these guards was a direct reaction to the assassination on 21 February 1919 of Kurt Eisner, the leader of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD) in post-war Bavaria and its premier until his death, by the extreme nationalist Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley.25 From 10 November 1920 onward, the Bavarian SPD also officially organized Saalschutzguards, or stewards. In the following months these units were often referred to as ‘SA’, understood as Sturmabteilung or Saalschutzabteilung. Lieutenant in Reserve Wilhelm Buisson26 led the socialist SA headquartered in Munich that, according to the police, comprised between 2,000 and 5,000 men, including those in units in the nearby cities of Freising, Ingolstadt, and Rosenheim.27 Several months after the Bavarian authorities banned Socialist paramilitary organizations in October 1923, the leftist Sturmabteilung was integrated into the new Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold, Bund Deutscher Kriegsteilnehmer und Republikaner, the nationwide paramilitary defence organization of the Social Democrats founded in Magdeburg on 22 February 1924.28

The initial Nazi SA, which analogous to the Auer Guard was known as the ‘Hitler Guard’,29 was therefore – strictly speaking – if not a copy, then at least deeply influenced by the Social Democratic attempts to create party-controlled self-protection forces. It did not take long, however, before important differences between these two organizations began to emerge. Whereas the Social Democratic SA justified its existence on the basis of the state’s reluctance to adequately protect SPD meetings and the authorities’ proven inability to guarantee the physical integrity of leading politicians on the left, the NSDAP’s Gymnastics and Sports Unit could hardly claim a purely defensive character. As early as 1920, the Nazis had formed Stoßtrupps, or shock troops, which insulted and injured political opponents in the streets of Bavarian cities without having been previously attacked.30 Party mobs also interrupted religious meetings, shouted antisemitic slogans, and attacked audience members at a theatre performance based on the murdered Kurt Eisner.31 They also molested representatives of the Entente Commissions in their Munich hotels and invaded the restaurant in the Munich House of Artists, insulting those present as ‘debauchees’ (Schlemmer).32 The self-proclaimed goal of the stormtroopers was to ‘blow up’ all political meetings in which Jews were allowed to address the crowd.33 Among the authorities, there were severe differences of opinion on how to react to this challenge. Whereas the Bavarian Minister of the Interior expressed his ‘serious disapproval’ (ernstliche Mißbilligung) of the Bavarian police’s lenient stance towards the National Socialists in an urgent letter to the police president as early as February 1921,34 the latter regarded the Nazi stormtroopers as a minor problem compared to their Socialist counterparts, at least until the year 1923.35

Historians usually consider 11 August 1921 as the official founding date of the National Socialist SA.36 On this day, the party paper Der Völkische Beobachter published a proclamation urging the ‘German Youth’ to join the new Turn- und Sportabteilung for the necessary ‘heavy fight’ against the Jews. This ‘foreign race’, the Nazis claimed, would continue to prevent the German people from recognizing their bitter reality, shaped by national shame and foreign domination. The proclamation contained some of the ingredients that over the next years were to be relentlessly repeated in the Nazi propaganda. The goal of this new subdivision of the NSDAP was to ‘unite the younger party members’ in order to provide the party with a ‘battering ram’. With regard to its ideological function, the ambition was to create an organization that would keep alive the idea of national defence (Wehrgedanken) among the German people. Remarkably, the dual character of the SA as a party protection squad and an instrument for ideological-educational purposes, which throughout its existence confused friends and foes alike, was already ingrained in its first manifesto. The party rhetoric contrasted sharply with the very modest beginnings of these units, addressing the prospective stormtroopers directly as an elite group that had been called upon to shape Germany’s destiny: ‘Your services will be needed in the future!’37

Two weeks prior to this public summons, on 29 July 1921, background talks had been held between Hitler and Captain Hermann Ehrhardt, a leading figure of post-war Germany’s extreme right who had just taken headquarters in Munich. Ehrhardt delegated the former marine lieutenant Julius Hans Ulrich Klintzsch – the twenty-two-year-old son of a Protestant senior pastor Johannes Paul Klintzsch and his wife Johanna Dorothea, from Lübbenau in Lower Lusatia, and a former member of the Freikorps Ehrhardt Brigade – to organize the NSDAP’s ‘self-protection’ forces.38Previously an active participant in the Kapp Putsch, Klintzsch had moved to Munich in the early summer of 1921. A few weeks after his arrival, Ehrhardt entrusted him with the task of ‘infiltrating’ competing organizations of the extreme right. The NSDAP’s self-protection forces were Klintzsch’s first target in the Bavarian capital.39

Those involved in the deal between Hitler and Ehrhardt perceived it as a win-win situation: Hitler would gain further access to the web of military and conservative political leaders in Bavaria, and his young self-defence units would benefit from the military expertise of individuals like Klintzsch. On the other side, Ehrhardt, nicknamed ‘the boss’ by friends and admirers, hoped to gain in Hitler a public voice and in the NSDAP a new party that would be at his disposal.40 Along with former Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, called by opponents the ‘big spider in the Swastika’ (große Hakenkreuzspinne) – so central was his role in the web of nationalist groups during the early 1920s41 – Ehrhardt was a key figure of the extreme right who enjoyed an almost mythical reputation among young activists of this persuasion throughout Germany. A resident of the Bavarian capital for political reasons, he developed close bonds with like-minded extreme nationalists and Fascists in Austria, Hungary, and Italy.42 He made use of well-trained soldiers-turned-terrorists by organizing them into a secret terror network, called the O. C. (Organisation Consul). Finally, he provided the early SA not only with logistical but also considerable financial support.43 In contrast, Hitler was at this time merely a promising and regionally well-known political orator who still remained dependent on the goodwill of those with better access to weapons and Bavarian high society.44

Consequently, the early SA initially observed Ehrhardt’s military command (via Klintzsch) and was said to have been only at the ‘political disposal’ of Hitler.45 At this time the stormtroopers in the Bavarian capital consisted of at least 241 men and boys who were organized into twenty-one groups and, according to a membership list that made it into the hands of the authorities, predominantly aged between seventeen and twenty-four.46 The choice of the twenty-three-year-old Klintzsch as commander seems therefore logical. In addition to his credentials as a soldier, he was just about an adult man – the legal age was then twenty-one – and thereby embodied the claim that ‘youth is led by youth’, an important element of the German youth movement.47 Klintzsch’s command was cut short, however, as he was taken into custody on 14 September 1921, suspected of having been involved in the murder of the former Reich Finance Minister, Matthias Erzberger, during the previous month.48 Dietrich von Jagow supposedly represented Klintzsch in the following months until the latter was acquitted and released from detention in early December 1921 and returned to active duty as leader of the SA, a position he held until Hermann Göring superseded him in March 1923.49 This short list of early SA leaders already demonstrates a consistent feature of the stormtroopers in the years to come: whereas the majority of the rank and file were made up of young men without practical military experience, their leaders were selected from the much smaller band of National Socialists who had occupied leading positions in the German military during the First World War.50

A Public Nuisance

The Nazi activists in the earliest days mostly originated from the lower-middle and working classes, but soon former military leaders of noble descent also took up important positions.51 Those individual rank-and-file stormtroopers whose names have survived in press clippings and police files allow for a tentative picture of the early SA’s social composition, particularly in light of the nonexistence of more reliable statistics. Professions like baker, locksmith, and merchant frequently appear, but there were also students, a farmer, a lieutenant, a chimney-sweeper, and at least two police officers.52 These young men were not necessarily deeply politicized, but they had experienced the political instability and the social hardship of the post-war period as well as the excessive violence by revolutionaries and paramilitary forces alike from close range. Having grown up during the war years, with their glorification of German might and the idea of cultural superiority, these teenage boys and young men had not been ‘brutalized’ (as has been argued in parts of the historiography),53 but they certainly lacked any personal pre-war experience that might have guided them through the post-war turmoil.

By all standards the initial months of these first SA units were very modest. Instead of fighting political enemies or parading the streets, the SA group leaders were above all busy organizing their groups, which usually comprised no more than ten men. On 26 August 1921, just two weeks after the publication of the call to join the SA, unit leaders noted a ‘lack of discipline’, and two months later they stressed that ‘punctuality’ should be considered a prime virtue and a basic prerequisite for joining the necessarily ‘tight organization’ – thus indicating the existence of fluctuations in commitment to the political cause among these first stormtroopers.54 As undercover police reports on the ‘control evenings’ that were held weekly by the SA in Munich 1921 and 1922 make plain, it was not rare for only 50 per cent of the men ordered to report for duty to show up, despite the fact that Hitler often attended these meetings. They initially took place in inns like the Sterneckerbräu, located close to the Isartor, which had previously also hosted the first NSDAP office, or the Högerbräu, just a stone’s throw away from the centrally located Marienplatz. The police described the atmosphere of such meetings as ‘lively’, ‘humorous’, and ‘cheerful’, with piano playing and much dancing, singing, and bouncing around.55 Hitler usually arrived late. His addresses, however, ‘energized’ the young Nazi followers. To judge from the police reports, the dullest and most routine get-together of stormtroopers could be transformed by Hitler’s speeches into a successful evening that usually ended with loud cheers and drunken young men stumbling home.

Hitler’s talks lasted up to two and a half hours. At times he told autobiographic stories from his time in the List regiment during the First World War, but usually his speeches revolved around the ‘Jewish question’ and the future rise of the NSDAP.56 ‘We want to stir up hatred against everything and everyone,’ Hitler exclaimed in a meeting on 6 April 1922, referring, of all things, to the historic example of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. He argued that faith was the prerequisite of a people’s strong will, and that this would be the prerequisite of any deed. Just as Martin Luther had exploited the passions of his time to spur the Reformation, so the National Socialists should propagate and exploit the anti-Jewish sentiments of the day.57 If critics would denounce his party as a ‘coarse and brutal mob that would stop at nothing’, he would be more than delighted, Hitler exclaimed: harsh criticism of that sort could only benefit his party, making it both feared and more widely known.58

How can we account for the phenomenon of hundreds of workers, students, and salesmen in Munich feeling uplifted by such political demagoguery? With no stable or adequate replacement for the old order, easy answers became increasingly popular in post-war Bavaria. ‘Bolshevism primarily means criminal tyranny, organized and led by the Jews,’ one defamatory pamphlet in Munich claimed as early as 1919.59 Such proclamations set the tone for the following years, in which the nationalist right, building on the sharp rise in antisemitism that had occurred during the war years, increasingly identified ‘Jews’ and ‘Bolsheviks’ as national traitors, blaming all kinds of shortcomings and economic and social problems on the alleged influence of a Judeo-Marxist conspiracy.60 Although the Nazis’ propaganda of hate repelled many adherents even of the radical right, its underlying rationale was widely embraced. The Bavarian consensus that emerged during the 1920s was to a considerable degree built on clear friend-foe distinctions (Bavaria versus the Reich, good patriotic Christian Germans versus internationally oriented Jews and Bolshevists). Whatever the Nazi stormtroopers did, they often benefited from the fact that many Germans in Bavaria attributed patriotic and therefore honourable motives to them.61 At a time when legal experts as well as the wider public regarded high rates of juvenile criminality as alarming signs of cultural change and social decline,62 the political activism of the young Nazis, excessive as it was, could be viewed as a vague promise for a better future that would be won by determined and fearless political fighters. Important parts of the judiciary, the police, and the influential upper-middle classes interpreted the stormtroopers’ radicalism and violence merely as defensive actions, a legitimate response to the alleged ‘crimes’ of the ‘November criminals’ and a consequence of the perceived social disorder. Considerable parts of the German public explained the rise to power of the Italian Fascists in 1922 in similar terms. The conservative Bayerische Staatszeitung commented: ‘First and last, the fascists soak up force and power from the disappointments that the post-war period caused to large segments of the population, instead of bringing them prosperity and happiness, as promised. Furthermore, they profit from the opposition between the völkisch and national consciousness on the one hand and the international flattening (Verflachung) and the community of fate (Schicksalsgemeinschaft) on the other.’63

The first test of the National Socialist SA occurred on 4 November 1921, when Hitler spoke at a party rally held in Munich’s Hofbräuhaus. That night, in a fight that lasted up to twenty minutes, forty-six stormtroopers were supposedly able to beat out of the hall ‘nearly 400 soldiers of the Judeo-Marxist hit squad’ (Sprengsoldaten des Judenmarxismus, in Hitler’s words). In later accounts this number was increased to ‘800 Marxists’.64 These figures were certainly an overstatement, but the story became a powerful second founding myth that set the tone for the SA’s self-glorification in the following years: again and again, filigreed accounts of brave SA units successfully defeating a much stronger opposition appeared in Nazi papers and books, testifying to the supposed superiority of the party’s ideas, ideas that enabled their activists to demonstrate superhuman strength and extraordinary courage, which, in turn, legitimized the ideas.65

What the Nazis exalted as the spearhead of the movement to liberate Germany from alleged Jewish ‘stock-exchange terror’ was in the eyes of the Social Democrats simply ‘mentally immature rowdiness [geistig unreifes Rowdytum]’.66 The political left early on identified the Nazis as an imminent political threat, not least because of the close relations among and between parts of the Bavarian police, the Reichswehr, and the SA. As became quickly known, the Reichswehr provided the stormtroopers with privileged access to weapons, and the police and public prosecutors frequently dealt sympathetically with the crimes committed by these militants.67 However, it would be misleading to regard this early SA as a regularly armed, highly disciplined, and hard-hitting organization. It possessed weapons, but these were basically the weapons of the street: truncheons (nicknamed ‘rubbers’), knuckledusters, knives, sticks, and whips. Some members owned small firearms (called ‘lighters’), but such weapons were rarely used.68 In Munich it was rumoured that the National Socialists had distributed hand grenades to individual stormtroopers on at least one occasion, but the truth of such statements is doubtful.69 In any case, real fighting by these early SA units was rare – and if such events did occur, they generally showed the usual characteristics of beer-hall brawls, with little more destruction than flying beer mugs and broken chair legs. Among the numerous patriotic Verbände in Bavaria, the comparatively young and inexperienced boys and young men from the SA were a local nuisance, but hardly a relevant political factor – at least not until the spring of 1923.

Furthermore, its first units did not impress the public as possessing a coherent character or determination. They even lacked a proper uniform, as the brown shirt was not introduced until 1924 and was not made mandatory until late 1926.70 Initially, the stormtroopers attended their meetings in casual clothes, marked only by red armbands emblazoned with the swastika. In November 1922 the NSDAP introduced the group’s first uniform, consisting of grey riding trousers, windbreakers with the red armbands, and ski caps.71 Slightly earlier, in July or August of the same year, the party had organized an ‘SA bicycle troop’ (Radfahrerabteilung),72 the first step toward what ten years later had been transformed into a highly complex web of SA sub-groups; among them the Motor-SA (in 1934 transferred to the NSKK, the Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrkorps), the Marine-SA, the Reiter-SA (‘Equestrian-SA’), and the Pioneer- and Messenger-SA were some of the most important.73 In the early years, however, most of these sub-units existed only on paper. As late as the summer of 1923, the NSDAP possessed no more than two motorcars and two lorries suitable for the transport of men, and their drivers (among them Emil Maurice) regularly failed to report for duty.74

A police report on an outing of the SA bicycle troop to Bad Tölz, a spa town some fifty kilometres south of the Bavarian capital, sheds light on the character of the early SA’s activities. Around noon on Sunday, 15 August 1922, a group of eighteen members of the NSDAP, all in their twenties and led by Klintzsch, arrived in Bad Tölz. The cyclists stopped at the Zum Oswaldbräu inn located in the city centre and symbolically occupied it by hanging a red banner with a large swastika on the front of the tavern. This provocation caused the local constable to be called to the scene. Anticipating violence, he warned the stormtroopers not to molest anyone but did not interfere otherwise. At about 1 p.m., and presumably after some pints of beer, the SA bicycle troop lined up behind the Nazi flag and started parading through the streets of the city singing ‘national songs’. They marched across the Isar River and ended at the upscale Park Hotel, located near the city’s spa park. This hotel was owned by Julius Hellmann, one of the few Jewish residents of Bad Tölz and a popular figure among upper-middle-class Jewry – a fact also known to the Nazis. As they paraded in front of the hotel, the young men sang the notorious Ehrhardt song that ended with the refrain ‘Out with the Jews!’ As was intended, some of the Jewish hotel guests came out and confronted the molesters, calling them ‘rascals’ and hitting them with the then popular walking sticks. At this point the local police intervened and had most of the Nazis identify themselves. Their leader, Klintzsch, requested that those guests who had violently confronted the stormtroopers also be identified, but – according to the police – that attempt failed when both the hotel guests and its owner refused to betray their compatriots. Finally, the local police sent the Nazis home and handed over the dossier on the incident to their colleagues in Munich. It is not known whether the attackers were punished for their actions in any way. Regardless, they did not fear punishment. Klintzsch in his interrogation even dared to threaten the policemen: ‘We’ll be back, you will see, things will change. We have been frequently at the police, we are not afraid of it [punishment]. It will not better us; instead, we will become ever more fanatical.’75

According to Klintzsch, the SA bicycle troop in the summer of 1922 undertook such trips nearly every Sunday and on public holidays, travelling to different places in the vicinity of Munich. We can therefore assume that the incident at Bad Tölz was somewhat typical, and not only with regard to the strong antisemitism that was voiced.76 The SA’s actions in Bad Tölz also contain several characteristics of what sociological research calls the ‘expressive acting of violence’ (expressives Gewalthandeln), defined as violence that is seen as an end in itself. For sure, the politics of the extreme nationalist right was not totally absent on this occasion, but it served largely as a means to provoke violent confrontation. The day trip started with several hours of physical exercise (such as cycling), continued with the symbolic occupation of a central public place in the city (the inn) and the performance of rites of male sociability there, and reached its climax with the successful provocation of the hotel’s affluent Jewish guests. The trip thereby provided key benefits popular among male youth: an intensified appreciation of the body and its physical strength, the opportunity to feel manly by the demonstration of power and energy, and, last but not least, a means to enjoy collectively experienced ‘fun’.77

Despite such hooliganism, which was legally an offence for disturbing the public order, the Bavarian police failed to change its view that the actions of the SA did not differ from the activities performed by other patriotic leagues. Although the police confiscated the large antisemitic posters that the Nazis publicly displayed to celebrate the stormtroopers’ first year of existence in Munich in August 1922 – posters apparently containing such strong antisemitic rhetoric that Jewish organizations referred to them as a veritable ‘call for a pogrom’78 – they usually described the National Socialist field exercises as ‘outings’ that expressed a continuation of the pre-war German youth movement, with its joint cooking, athletic, and gymnastic activities. If the authorities recognized a ‘military element’ to the NSDAP’s activities at all, official documents emphasized the ‘always unarmed’ nature of the units involved.79 Even if one takes into account the Bavarian police’s deliberate downplaying of the danger of the SA to the public order, there is no denying that the ‘fighting value’ of the Nazi militants was indeed limited. Ernst Röhm, who in the first half of the 1920s was an influential intermediary between the Reichswehr and several paramilitary leagues of the extreme right, in his memoirs from 1928 frankly wrote about the early SA: ‘Doubtless it had hundreds of well-trained men who would address the task with enthusiasm and with a will, and were loyal to Hitler’s person. Their training was naturally difficult, and they could not rise to the level of full military value. They would be no match in battle for trained troops.’80

The Crucial Year of 1923

In spite of their limited military power and often improvised public appearances, the stormtroopers – along with a few high-profile public speakers such as Hitler or the journalist Hermann Esser from the Völkischer Beobachter, who enjoyed Bavarian-wide publicity – progressively came to stand for the National Socialists in the eyes of the public, particularly as the NSDAP was not represented in either the Reichstag or any of the regional parliaments.81 At this time, the party did not take part in elections because Hitler argued that although ‘principled opposition’ from within the parliament was theoretically conceivable, it could not be undertaken in practice. Conceding that the Nazis lacked a forceful press, he claimed that the party thus could not expect to reach the wider electorate, making successful campaigning impossible. Furthermore, Hitler openly admitted that his party had only a handful of qualified public speakers at its disposal, with most cadres producing little more than ‘theoretic and fantastic reveries’ (theoretisch-phantastische Schwärmereien).82 Against this background the deployment of stormtroopers was a more reliable option for distributing the party’s antisemitic propaganda, particularly because in such circumstances orderly conduct and brute physical strength counted for more than rhetorical talent.

Between late 1922 and November 1923, the Weimar Republic’s second ‘year of crisis’ after its rocky start in 1919, the Nazi activists became involved in a growing number of clashes with political opponents that slowly but surely aroused the suspicion of the authorities. At the same time these incidents consolidated the Nazis’ reputation within the nationalist camp as an organization of particularly determined young men. Mussolini’s ‘March on Rome’, the successful Fascist takeover of power in Italy in late October 1922, further encouraged the National Socialists to come out into the open.83 As the early SA was still more of a traditional Wehrverband than a party army, plans to stage a paramilitary coup in Bavaria with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the government of the Reich became highly popular, both among the military leaders of the SA and the young men who increasingly filled the ranks of its Hundertschaften (groups of a hundred). The street violence that characterized the group’s activities in Bavaria prior to November 1923 therefore not only testifies to the early stormtroopers’ high level of aggression but also proves to have been of strategic use to the NSDAP in the sense that, by destabilizing the public order step by step, the party’s ultimate aim was to provoke a situation in which an attempt by the extreme nationalists to take power could be justified as a rescue of the fatherland.

Newspaper clippings from the time testify to the increasing SA violence in both Bavaria and neighbouring Austria, where SA units had existed at least since 1922, initially led by Hans Lechner. On 19 June 1922 there was a ‘big brawl’ in Vienna, where the National Socialist SA and up to 400 Communists clashed after a speech delivered by Hitler. Several people were injured, and fifteen participants were taken into custody.84 Whereas on this occasion the stormtroopers were at least provoked by Communist hecklers, incidents like the following clearly demonstrate that in most cases they actively laid the foundation of the violence. On 29 August 1922 the Munich shopkeeper David Heß and his nineteen-year-old son Ludwig were about to remove an antisemitic pamphlet from their shop window when they were attacked and severely beaten by a group of stormtroopers who had been waiting nearby for their victims to come out. Although the local police arrested several SA men on the spot, only one of them was later indicted and sentenced to the mild penalty of a one-week prison term.85 In September 1922, following a mass gathering prohibited by the authorities, the streets of Munich reverberated with shouts of ‘Down with the Jews!’ for the first time.86 Several weeks later, on 14 and 15 October 1922, the National Socialists took part in a völkisch ‘German day’ in the Franconian city of Coburg, located in the north of Bavaria. The majority of the stormtroopers present, approximately 500 men, had come from Munich by train. Beginning immediately on their arrival, they repeatedly clashed with their political opponents in the streets and beer halls of the city. However, they also attended prayers in the prestigious Protestant Ehrenburg Palace Church, a symbolic gesture that was well received among Coburg’s middle classes.87 In contrast to publications that drew on such actions to present SA men as religiously devoted national fighters, newspapers sympathetic to the political left reported ‘the barest street terror’ (nacktester Straßenterror) and the ‘most brutal tyranny’ (brutalste Gewaltherrschaft) in Coburg. It was clear to contemporaries that the violence in the streets had not broken out spontaneously but was prearranged, as many of the Nazi attacks started with the blast of a whistle, whereupon seconds later the stormtroopers would strike out at opponents and ordinary passers-by, who were often caught by surprise.88

Just days after their return from Coburg between thirty and forty Nazi militants raided the café of the German Theatre in the Bavarian capital, allegedly after a Jewish guest had arrived. They threw beer bottles and smashed at least ten windows, but they also encountered resistance, as guests in the café hit back and injured at least one of the attackers.89 And on 21 December 1922 ten stormtroopers armed with rubber truncheons entered a Jewish-operated communal kitchen in Munich’s Klenzestraße 4, where they addressed the waitresses with the words ‘Are you a Jewish wench [Judenmensch]?’, attempted to steal a collection box for the Jewish National Fund, and repeatedly shouted: ‘When do the Jewish gobblers arrive?’ (Wann kommen die Juden zum Fressen?) By the time the police arrived, the troublemakers had long left.90 In these weeks and months such SA provocations in front of shops, in cafés, and in restaurants, with the aim of prompting first verbal protests and then physical violence, became a regular, albeit unwelcome feature of Bavarian public life.91

This increase in antisemitic violence ran in parallel with the further expansion of the stormtroopers, who in the spring of 1923 acquired a leading role within the Bavarian Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Vaterländischen Kampfverbände, generally translated as the ‘Joined Forces of the Patriotic Leagues’ or the ‘Working Community of Patriotic Fighting Organizations’. These forces comprised about 30,000 men in the capital city of Munich alone. Internal leadership changes in the SA at this time reveal that the group was undergoing a shift in character from an aggressive but limited network of ‘defence units’ to a small paramilitary army, a genuine Wehrverband with considerable access to weapons and the aim of interfering in Bavarian state politics. As a consequence Hermann Göring in March 1923 replaced Klintzsch as leader of the SA. The latter had increasingly struggled to organize the quickly growing numbers of stormtroopers, but the main reason for this leadership change was the growing estrangement between Hitler and Ehrhardt. Klintzsch from then on acted as Göring’s Chief of Staff, but resigned only two months later.92 By this time the SA in the Bavarian capital comprised three subdivisions, each of which was 300 men strong. Every subdivision was itself organized into three Hundertschaften, or ‘battalions’, that themselves contained four Sturmtrupps with up to twenty-five men.93 Senior Lieutenant in Reserve Wilhelm Brückner, who in the 1930s would be promoted to SA-Obergruppenführer and Hitler’s chief adjutant, from the beginning of 1923 oversaw three Sturmtrupp battalions in Munich, commanded respectively by Karl Beggel, Rudolf Hess, and Joseph Berchtold, the latter of whom was soon to be appointed leader of the newly formed Stoßtrupp Adolf Hitler, the nucleus of the later SS.94 Within Bavaria as a whole the number of stormtroopers now amounted to approximately 3,000, organized into forty Hundertschaften. About two-thirds of these Hundertschaften were situated in and around Munich, not only because of the SA’s rising recruitment figures, but also because entire formations like the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Roßbach and a certain Frontsoldatengruppe W had been converted to the NSDAP. In addition to this core SA, in early 1923 units also existed in the neighbouring states of Württemberg and Thuringia, as well as in Saxony, the Ruhr region, and the cities of Hamburg, Hanover, and Göttingen. Furthermore, there were several thousand SA men in Austria, ready to cross the border if need be.95

Public rallies, the recruitment of new party members, and the dissemination of propaganda were not always well received by the local population, as demonstrated by the so-called ‘Battle at the Whale Cellar’ in the Württemberg town of Göppingen on 11 December 1922. Here, the small local branch of the NSDAP had planned a public convention under the slogan ‘National Socialism, Germany’s future’, but the local authorities prohibited the meeting at short notice, referencing Nazi violence in the previous days in nearby Stuttgart and Geislingen. Nevertheless, in the evening hours of 11 December, sixty to ninety armed stormtroopers arrived in Göppingen from Munich by train, accompanied by the infamous ‘nurse Pia’ (Eleonore Baur) and led by Ernst von Westernhagen, a former lieutenant and fighter in the Freikorps Oberland.96 Hitler had personally instructed his Munich followers to make the meeting happen at any cost. However, from the time of their arrival, his men encountered severe resistance from local workers. As the Nazis sang their ‘patriotic’ songs in the streets of the town, several hundred workers intoned the ‘Worker’s Marseillaise’ and denounced their opponents as ‘Rathenau murderers’ – referring to the fatal attack on the German Reich’s Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, launched by right-wing terrorists on 24 June 1922. At some point the confrontation escalated. Dozens of shots were fired, injuring four or five people on each side. The local police finally managed to escort the Munich stormtroopers back to the train station, from which they departed. Later in the night, infuriated Göppingen workers severely injured about twenty students from Tübingen who had arrived late for the Nazi meeting.97

Despite this rather unsuccessful outing – which was nevertheless elevated to a party legend in Nazi propaganda – Bavaria remained the main field of activity for the SA. Consequently, it was there that on 1 May 1923, the traditional holiday of the working-class movement, the National Socialists made their first attempt to destabilize the public order to such a degree that the establishment of an authoritarian military dictatorship could be justified as a necessary act of self-defence. The SA furnished roughly half of the 2,000–2,500 men from the Patriotic Leagues, determined to disrupt the Socialist festival procession in the city under the guise of trying to save Bavaria from a Communist coup.98 Most of the stormtroopers were Munich locals, but some arrived from the nearby cities of Landshut, Freising, and Bad Tölz, ordered into action by a barely disguised telegram sent from the SA Command with the words ‘Send off all caps immediately!’ (Sämtliche Mützen sofort losschicken!)99 As the Munich police reported in a government communication on 3 May, in contrast to their public statements, which regularly stressed these forces’ importance for the paramilitary training of German youth and their role in preventing a Communist putsch, the leading figures of these forces were clearly driving their rank and file into the camp of ‘extreme right-wing nationalism’ (ausgesprochener Rechtsradikalismus).100 This had now become a political problem, the president of the Bavarian police admitted, as ‘for years, the police had cooperated closely with these groups in order to prevent riots from the political left’. Furthermore, the groups in question increasingly carried arms, including artillery guns and mortars, which had partly been obtained from sympathetic soldiers from nearby Reichswehr barracks.101 Despite the obvious risks of such cooperation, the police president was nevertheless convinced that any attempt to secure public order in the capital against the leagues of the extreme right would be impossible – an indirect confession that the authority’s course of tolerance toward and clandestine cooperation with the extreme right in the previous years had failed. It had not increased political stability, but undermined it.102

In sharp contrast to the police’s view, the Social Democratic newspaper Münchener Post described the events of 1 May 1923 as revealing the true character of the National Socialist SA as a ‘purely military fighting league’ (rein militärische Kampftruppe). According to this usually well-informed source, the ‘SA officers’ had expressed a determined fighting spirit and repeatedly stated that in the case of a major clash with the left, the Reichswehr would fight on their side. The paper also provided graphic details of the SA’s armaments:

Every single man of the Sturmtrupps had a modern infantry rifle as well as a bullet pouch and a woven belt. The hand-grenade detachments disposed of entire boxes of their murder weapons; every man carried three grenades on his belt and was furthermore armed with a Browning pistol [. . .] A battery of lightweight 12cm field guns was stationed behind a cluster of trees, pointing in the direction of the workers on Theresienfeld [. . .] Captain Gehring [sic] who swaggered around showing his ‘Pour le Mérite’ [medal] was in military command.103

The Reichswehr commander in Munich, General Otto von Lossow, who was noticeably sympathetic to the NSDAP,104 later denied that the Reichswehr had provided cannons to the SA, but confirmed the distribution of smaller weapons. However, he insisted that the Patriotic Leagues had returned all of these weapons on the afternoon of 1 May and furthermore complained that sensational press reports on the subject would only help the French authorities to locate hidden arms depots.105

Among the rank-and-file stormtroopers who gathered on the Oberwiesenfeld parade ground on 1 May were many youths. Rumours spread that even pupils from higher secondary-education schools in Munich had participated, which is less surprising if one notes that since the revolutionary year of 1919, university and high-school students had frequently joined the regular armed forces as ‘temporary volunteers’.106 Playing civil war was more interesting than learning from books in school, or so it seems. This development testifies to the increasingly popular perception that politics not only mattered to one’s life, but required one’s own physical commitment. Such views were by no means restricted to Germany. A leader of the Avanguardie studentesche fasciste, the Italian ‘Fascist Student Avant-Guarde’, explained this pragmatic logic with unusual clarity: ‘The fist is a synthesis of many things [. . .] Since it interacts directly upon the body of the adversary in a manner which is short and sharp, it cannot be ignored.’107 Similarly, a German boxing magazine in 1923 coined a rhyming motto for this particular attitude: ‘You can’t defend yourself with thoughts, you have to grab the boxing glove.’108

In reality, most stormtroopers seemed to rely more on weapons than on their fists, and they usually attacked single opponents from within a larger group. As Franz Schweyer, the conservative but Nazi-critical Bavarian Minister of the Interior from the Bavarian People’s Party (BVP), said in the Bavarian Landtag on 8 June 1923, it was a well-known National Socialist tactic to provoke attacks from the political left by sending two to three uniformed men, followed by fifty or sixty comrades in civilian clothes, through the working-class districts of Munich. If the few uniformed stormtroopers were attacked, their comrades would then ‘retaliate’. Those involved in such incidents were overwhelmingly ‘immature striplings’ (halbwüchsige Bürschchen), the minister stated, assuring the public that the police had already taken effective measures against the growing violence among the capital’s youth.109

Schweyer’s observation is in tune with the more recent findings of the sociologist Randall Collins, who, in his widely acknowledged theories on the micro-sociology of violence, has emphasized that even those people we imagine as particularly violent – the early stormtroopers being the case at hand – react violently only in specific situations that allow for particular ‘emotional dynamics’.110 The task of the SA’s leaders was to create these situations, which were so vital for the bonding between individual SA men and the political movement, in a way that at the same time prevented the actual violence from escalating. Against this background, Schweyer’s optimistic claim of the forces’ immaturity was only superficially correct. He rightly stressed that the boys and young men of the SA posed no substantial threat to the state as long as the armed forces were loyal to the government, but he did not grasp the dual role of the police as an instrument of the state and as a force that guaranteed shielded spaces in which repeated acts of highly ceremonial SA violence could occur in a controlled manner.

The previously described incident of SA violence in Bad Tölz illustrates this dual character of the police: whereas the constable’s report stressed that his behaviour had prevented the political violence from escalating into a severe physical confrontation, he was blind to the fact that the securing of a public space allowed the National Socialists at least two hours to disseminate their propaganda (first in the inn, then in the streets), not to mention the ability to capitalize, at low risk, on the ‘thrill’ of a symbolic confrontation with the police, contributing to the stormtroopers’ growing attraction for those young men prone to violence. Other examples even point to the police’s direct complicity: in the evening hours of 19 October 1921 several dozen members of the SA spontaneously decided to march to the Munich main railway station, determined to ‘batter every Jew who comes our way’. Despite the police’s presence, they beat up at least one man in the station hall until a constable escorted the victim of early Nazi violence out of the aggressors’ reach. The stormtroopers remained unmolested as they intimidated the public and shouted antisemitic songs like the following, a variation on the well-known Borkum song: ‘The Jew with his flat feet, and his crooked nose, and his frizzy hair, is not supposed to enjoy the German lands: throw him out! Throw him out!’111 The formerly mentioned example of Göppingen, however, points to the limits of the Nazi strategy. The NSDAP virtually required the police’s protection for its provocations to be successful. Without it, open violence could erupt that might go either way.

After the National Socialist mobilization for a government overthrow came to nothing in May 1923, the party and its SA suffered some loss of prestige, both within the wider milieu of Bavarian nationalists and within its own ranks. Angry stormtroopers requested the removal of unqualified personnel in the SA military leadership, lamented the damage done to weapons, complained about the henhouse (Weiberwirtschaft) in the party’s headquarters, and urged that proper bookkeeping be conducted.112 As undercover informers reported to the Bavarian authorities, the NSDAP and its SA also underwent a serious financial crisis in the early summer of 1923, caused partly by the split between Hitler and Ehrhardt, and partly by skyrocketing inflation. When party funds permitted, SA leaders at this time preferred to receive their salaries in foreign currency. According to Konrad Heiden, one of the first historians of the NSDAP, officers received respectable sums of eighty to ninety Swiss francs per month.113 The financial crisis of the party and its stormtroopers only came to a provisional halt after Hitler toured throughout Germany and received a considerable donation from former navy lieutenant and NSDAP party member Hellmuth von Mücke worth US$500, which in this time of hyperinflation amounted to roughly 400 million Papiermark.114

It was this climate of semi-clandestine cooperation between the political realm and the military that allowed for some of the most remarkable careers of 1920s Germany. Among them was that of Ernst Röhm, formerly a professional soldier in the Bavarian army who in the troubled days of 1919 first served in the Freikorps Epp and then from May onward was charged with the reorganization of Munich’s security forces. In this role he helped ‘cleanse’ the police of liberal and left-leaning officials and in turn allowed for a rapprochement of paramilitary leagues including the SA, the Reichswehr, and the police.115 Until the end of his life Röhm’s beliefs and ideas were not only shaped by National Socialist ideology but also remained deeply affected by his experiences as an officer in the First World War. His contemporary Konrad Heiden characterized him as ‘a passionate politician who as passionately fails to understand politics’.116

The often-glorified background of ‘wartime experience’ served as a common denominator for very different individuals, not only in Germany but in interwar Europe more generally. To give one example, the biographer Nigel Jones characterized Röhm’s contemporary, the British Fascist leader and well-to-do playboy Oswald Mosley, in a way that also fitted Röhm – regardless of the fundamental national, social, and educational differences between these two men. Both shared a ‘contempt for democracy and civilian life; impatience with muddle and delay; desire for action and efficiency at almost every price; enjoyment of violence and the military life’.117 Similar to other leading interwar figures of the European extreme right, like Miklós Horthy in Hungary or the charismatic leader of the Romanian Legionary movement Corneliu Codreanu, Röhm – and with him many of the early SA leaders – idealized and intended to create a militarized society in which unreserved loyalty to leaders and martyrdom for the nation ranked among the highest virtues. Historians usually portray Röhm as a ‘military desperado’, but in addition to being an uprooted professional soldier he remained a Bavarian nationalist with a profound nostalgia for the Wittelsbach monarchy (Plate 2).118

Despite a considerable literature on Röhm, in particular Eleanor Hancock’s detailed 2008 biography, his influence on the Nazi stormtroopers prior to the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 is difficult to assess. It is undisputed that he played an important role in Bavaria between 1919 and 1923 that was vital for the rapprochement of the middle classes and the extreme nationalist organizations that more and more became an unofficial element of what can be called the state of Bavaria’s joint anti-Marxist forces. However, Hancock’s view that Röhm was the ‘party’s patron’ and that he played a decisive role ‘in all important events of the National Socialist Party up to 1 May 1923’ seems exaggerated.119 Most of the information on Röhm provided in the secondary literature is taken from his autobiography, published in 1928 under the self-confident title Geschichte eines Hochverräters, the ‘History of a Traitor’.120 Its author, who shortly afterward left Germany to take up a job as a military advisor in Bolivia, would not have envisaged his rather surprising comeback in late 1930, which catapulted him into the leadership of the SA, but he clearly had no interest in making his debut as an investigative journalist either. In the years before his book came out, Röhm generally operated below the radar of the public’s attention and only rarely made it into the files of the authorities and into newspaper columns. He was certainly more of a powerbroker than a visible politicized military, who focused on using his proven organizational skills and good connections to Reichswehr and Freikorps personnel to traffick weapons to the paramilitary right (and hide them from both the Reich government and the Allies).

By 1923, Röhm, sometimes called the ‘machine-gun king of Bavaria’ because of his abilities to procure and hide weapons,121 had made himself into an important figure in Bavarian politics and the military. As the self-styled ‘father’ of the Patriotic Leagues, he was indeed one of the most important actors on the counter-revolutionary right in the weeks and months prior to the November Putsch.122 Other works have traced in detail the political developments of this period, driven by quickly rising inflation rates and an ever stronger political polarization.123 As has been analysed before, the stormtroopers were ready for action as early as April 1923, but they were too insignificant to directly influence the course of political change over the next months. When Hitler finally decided to attempt a putsch, he was encouraged to act by the public outcry that followed the collapse of the German resistance to the French in the occupied Ruhr district as well as by the development of similar plans by the Bavarian quasi-dictator Gustav von Kahr, who threatened to bypass him.124 Hitler at this time relied on the SA in two ways. First, they were supposed to act as his ‘Praetorian Guard’, enforcing his orders through physical power against his political rivals. Second, they were to act as a symbolic manifestation of the new leader’s might in the streets of Munich, similar to the role played there by the Freikorps units in May 1919. Whereas the stormtroopers succeeded in the first role, particularly when Hitler had the leaders of the Bavarian government arrested in the evening hours of 8 November 1923, they failed to secure a leading position in the state’s security forces. In the morning hours of 9 November it became clear that neither the Bavarian police nor Munich’s Reichswehr units had joined in the putsch. When the party activists undertook a rather desperate attempt to save their ‘revolution’ by confronting the much better-armed and better-trained government troops in the streets of Munich, they were quickly defeated. After a short exchange of bullets within sight of the Feldherrnhalle, fourteen ‘insurgents’ lay dead, among them a waiter from a nearby café. Four policemen were also killed.125 Hitler, injured in one shoulder, escaped but was apprehended a few days later in nearby Uffing in the country house of a confidant, the businessman Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengel, put on trial for high treason, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on 1 April 1924 in Landsberg Prison.126

More important than the stormtroopers’ factual involvement in the treasonable activities of the November Putsch was their later veneration of those ‘martyrs’ shot dead on 9 November 1923, as well as those who died in the following days because of their injuries.127 The Nazis remembered these sixteen men every year in a central party ceremony in Munich, to be complemented from 1930 onwards with the idolization of Horst Wessel, a charismatic Berlin SA-Führer killed by a Communist squad. His veneration allowed for a more memorable personification.128Beginning with the Party Congress that was held in Weimar in May 1926, Hitler swore in his followers in the presence of a new party relic, the so-called ‘Flag of Blood’ that had been carried past the Feldherrnhalle in 1923. The symbol of defeat was now turned into a banner of glory. The ‘holy sacrifice’ made by the SA in 1923 and on numerous other occasions in the following years served, in the eyes of the faithful, to legitimize their claims to national leadership and social participation.129

The Aftermath of the Putsch

When the Reich authorities on 23 November 1923 banned the NSDAP and other organizations that had taken part in that month’s putsch, the SA officially dissolved. Although many of its rank and file provisionally lost touch with the now rather static ‘movement’, the leading figures of the party never considered letting the organizational build-up of the previous years peter out. While still in Landsberg Prison, Hitler in April 1924 ‘entrusted’ Röhm with the ‘rebuilding’ of the SA, or so the latter claimed in his autobiography. Röhm likewise maintained that he held secret talks with Göring in his Innsbruck exile and with Gerhard Roßbach, the former Freikorps leader who had participated in the putsch and was now hiding from the German authorities in Salzburg. As a result, Göring is said to have ‘appointed’ Röhm – who, unlike him, could move freely on German soil – as his deputy with ‘unlimited authority’ over the SA.130

A first conference on the fate of the banned SA, held in Salzburg on 17 and 18 May 1924, brought together under Röhm’s auspices Nazis from the Reich and Austria, but apparently without Göring who was suffering from the after-effects of a bullet he had received on 9 November 1923 that might have prevented him from returning to the SA leadership. It showed ‘much disunity, discord, disagreement and uncertainty,’ Röhm later remembered.131 Although he might have drawn a deliberately negative picture of this situation in order to showcase his subsequent organizational work in more gleaming colours, the following months – until the first split between Röhm and Hitler in April 1925 – allowed only for a modest revival of the stormtroopers, who were slow to recover from the blow of November 1923. One factor that prevented a quick renaissance of the SA, at least in its prior form, was obvious: Hitler, the whip and tribune of the völkisch right in Bavaria, was not available – initially because of his confinement in Landsberg and then, after his release from prison shortly before the Christmas holidays in December 1924, because of a ban that prohibited him from giving public speeches. As we have already seen, as early as 1921 Hitler had risen to become a charismatic leader of the extreme right in Bavaria whose influence might not have yet reached the masses outside Munich, but whose regular beer-hall speeches in the capital worked as an instrument of bonding for the SA.

Röhm could not follow in these footsteps, and it is unlikely that he aspired to do so. Instead, he stuck to what he was more experienced in: organizing a new umbrella organization, the Frontbann, that would unite the remains of the Patriotic League, including the banned SA.132 Unlike the stormtroopers prior to the November Putsch, the Frontbann partly succeeded in operating on a nationwide level. Its original name, Völkischer Frontkampfbund Frontbann, testifies to the broad appeal to which this new organization aspired, in sharp contrast to the Bavarian state-sponsored Notbann, a short-lived attempt to unite and control the moderate Wehrverbände as a special police reserve force.133 Despite its ultimate failure, the Frontbann brought together northern and southern German political activists of the extreme right for the first time and thus proved an important stage in the establishment of a nationwide National Socialist network. Officially, this new organization, which comprised at most 30,000 men, was supposed to ‘prepare young men for military service through physical exercise and by accustoming them to obedience’, as Röhm explained to the Bavarian authorities in the summer of 1924.134 The latter, sceptical after their experience with such groups in the previous year, remained hesitant to officially recognize this new organization – regardless of the fact that Röhm had been elected a member of the Reichstag for the Nationalsozialistische Freiheitspartei, the ‘National Socialist Freedom Party’, on 4 May 1924. Even the strong support he enjoyed from Ludendorff, who was still a man of great renown in Germany, did not help him now.135 Yet more problematic for Röhm than the scepticism of the Bavarian government was Hitler’s lack of approval for his ambitious new organization. Both men met on several occasions in Landsberg Prison between May and the autumn of 1924 but could not reach an accord on a joint strategy.

Despite Hitler’s lasting opposition, Röhm pursued his plans until early 1925, assuming that Hitler could be won over once the Frontbann had risen to become a powerful organization in the hands of the National Socialists. The dissent between the two men persisted, however, because they had mutually exclusive ideas about the future of the National Socialist movement: whereas Röhm’s plans were basically a more sophisticated way to unite the paramilitary forces on the extreme right with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the Weimar Republic through violent means, Hitler had come to the conclusion that every umbrella organization of this kind was hard to bring into line, as each group usually insisted on its autonomy. The fact that competing organizations such as the Bund Wiking, the Bund Bayern und Reich, and the Blücherbund had all attempted to lure stormtroopers into their own ranks after the failed November 1923 putsch, did not increase Hitler’s confidence in these organizations.136 Furthermore, he had learned the lesson of the failed putsch: that a genuine paramilitary coup was unlikely to succeed as long as Reichswehr and police forces remained loyal to the legitimate government, regardless of the sympathies many of their members quite openly expressed for the goals of the extreme nationalists.137

After Hitler was released from Landsberg Prison on 20 December 1924, as part of a general amnesty for political prisoners, he gave up all short-term attempts to gain power through an immediate act of violence against the state and instead proclaimed a strictly legal course. Observers from the beginning suspected this approach was purely tactical – particularly after Hitler on 26 February 1925 publicly called for a refounding of not only the NSDAP but also the SA.138 This new SA, he now claimed, should no longer carry weapons, but should operate on strictly legal terms, serving as a propaganda tool for the NSDAP and as a training school for the party youth.139 Its members should wear uniforms in public in order to be recognizable to everyone in the streets. The Storm Detachment must not be allowed to sink to the level of a mere defence organization (Wehrverband), or secret society, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, not least because ‘real soldiers cannot be made by training of one or two hours per week’.140 There were also strategic reasons behind his decision, as it would be impossible to carry out a programme of voluntary military training for large masses of men unless one could be assured of absolute power of command.141 Competing paramilitary leaders would have made Hitler’s ‘absolute power of command’ impossible, or so he believed.

Initially, even National Socialists had a hard time understanding the new tasks and character of this reconditioned SA, as Hitler conceived it. To many of his followers, it was counterintuitive to refuse to strike with physical force at a time when their political opponents seemed to be organizing themselves along similar lines. In early 1924 the Reichsbanner – closely associated with the SPD – had been founded in Magdeburg, followed by the Communist Red Front Fighters League a few months later.142 Hitler finally gave up trying to persuade all of his followers and, on 28 September 1926, simply forbade the ‘entire National Socialist press’ from reporting on the reason for the SA’s existence and its tasks, basic principles, and subdivision.143 A rather desperate move, this was more a sign of temporary frustration than a clever strategy to keep the prerogative of interpretation within the National Socialist camp. In any case, Hitler’s order went largely unheard – particularly as newspapers and magazines on the political right became increasingly busy defending the SA against investigative reporting by their Socialist and liberal opponents.

The general public regarded the stormtroopers in the mid-1920s predominantly as a remnant of Germany’s troubled post-war years, but hardly as an organization powerful enough to challenge the public order. In contrast to this view, however, the designated Supreme SA Leader Franz Pfeffer von Salomon in October 1926 praised the group, who at that time were still a fractured web of local National Socialist militias with not more than 40,000 members throughout the Reich, as the backbone of National Socialism. Even if it was common for Fascist leaders to boisterously stress the historic mission of their ‘movement’, directly or indirectly referring to it as a kind of religious crusade,144 Pfeffer’s predictions of the SA’s future role are worth quoting in full as they set the tone for the self-perception of many stormtroopers in the future:

Only a [political] movement of immense inner strength is able to create such an organization as our SA. Unquestionably, it is first and foremost the SA that sets us apart from the ordinary parties in parliament. The SA will guarantee our victory once the parliamentary system and its ‘means’ collapse. I regard the SA as the crown of our organization and of our political efforts.145

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