The torchlight parade of some ten to fifteen thousand brown-shirted stormtroopers through the streets of Berlin on the night of Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany in January 1933 is certainly one of the best-known images of the Nazi era. It is no surprise, then, that it was invoked last August by a few hundred American white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the moment they openly admitted their identification with National Socialism by chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us” and carrying the swastika flag alongside the Confederate flag. But who exactly were the stormtroopers, members of Hitler’s SA (Sturmabteilungen, or Storm Sections), whom the Americans were trying to emulate? Daniel Siemens’s new book, Stormtroopers, provides us with an up-to-date answer to that question. It varies in some ways depending upon which period of the Nazi era one is looking at, but there were also features of the SA, Siemens notes, that remained fixed throughout.
The constants of the SA were violence and racism. It was a paramilitary group composed above all, as Siemens notes, of “communities of violence.” Violence was rational and purposeful. It constructed identity, created sociability and a sense of belonging, and provided self-empowerment for the stormtroopers. It mobilized and unified them. It separated them from mainstream society and marked them as crusaders on behalf of a higher cause. It nourished “feelings of liberation”—above all a freedom to destroy. The higher cause was the national unity and social solidarity of the Volksgemeinschaft, or racial community of Germans, created by the exclusion of others and preserved through vigilant policing of that exclusion by the self-appointed guardians of racial purity, such as the SA itself.
As a fighting community, the SA was a subculture of militant masculinity that provided a surrogate family and an “emotional shelter” for its members. It created what Siemens calls a “lifestyle” based on “emotional excitement” rather than reason and an “alternative public sphere” for “extreme partisan views” not subject to “factual accuracy.” It rejected democracy, especially the divisiveness of political parties representing differing class and economic interests, in the name of a unity of race and conviction embodied in the bond between the people and the charismatic leader. Its sense of struggle against the old order as well as against Jews and Marxists made its members feel “relevant” within a “hostile” environment. Unresolved were potentially troubling questions about just how anticapitalist the SA’s populism was and just how much social change at least some of its members would demand should the movement succeed in coming to power. In the…
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