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The SS: A History 1919 - 45
By Robert Lewis Koehl
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Robert Lewis Koehl
All rights reserved.
PREHISTORY – THE WILD BANDS
When Adolf Hitler and his comrades of the Replacement Battalion of the Second Bavarian Infantry Regiment set about to plan a new kind of revolutionary party in the spring of 1919, they were acting like thousands of other German soldiers who since 1914 had become increasingly resentful at the civilian world. They did not wish to see themselves for what they were – civilians temporarily in uniform – because in civilian life they had been nonentities. Now that the civilian world lay in a shambles, there was no excuse any longer to bow to its outer social or political forms. The new 'party' should be, in brief, not a parliamentary faction but a formation of political soldiers, intent on making good the error of the old army of being 'unpolitical', of following incompetent civilians into defeat. They would bring order into the chaotic civilian world, for were not republicans and Marxists 'merely civilians'? And was their thinking counter-revolutionary? Far from it: theirs was the true German revolution, the revolution of the trench soldiers.
'Soldierly nationalism' in post-war Germany was to take a multitude of forms, many of them contradictory to one another. Before Hitler could become master of this powerful force, it had spawned numerous organisations, each of which became the matrix of a different type of political soldier. Many of these types were later to join together to form the Nazi Guard Squadron. Though it did not come into existence until 1925, and scarcely numbered 300 members five years after that, the SS had its inception and acquired its basic ethos in the social and political maelstrom of the years 1919–24. In these years many Germans experimented with new and revolutionary forms of political and social life; among them were the Nazis, who found meaning and personal fulfilment in their version of the ubiquitous political combat league the SA (Sturm-Abteilungen) or Storm Troops, within which grew the future SS.
It is very likely that the stimulus for the formation of the rightist political combat leagues came with the formation of Soldiers' and Workers' Councils and Red Guard (Volkswehr) units in the first days of the revolution in Germany. The negative image of these formations is regularly part of both Nazi and rightist literature devoted to the pre-history of National Socialism, always alleging ruthlessness, cruelty and bestial stupidity on the part of these units. Why should not German soldier-patriots of the right turn the device around, against the Marxists, replacing 'anarchy' with the orderliness of the great Prussian military tradition? This appears to be the intention of the free corps (privately organised military and paramilitary units employed by the provisional regime in Germany in 1919 to fight the revolutionary left and Polish insurgents) leaders Märcker, von Epp, Reinhard and some others when the Majority Socialists appealed for military assistance and gave Gustav Noske power to recruit volunteer units to guard the republic. But the very contradiction which was to haunt the relationship between the SA, the SS and National Socialism – the question of whether ultimately the tail would not wag the dog – crept in when the nominally Marxist republicans called back to arms the soldierly nationalists of the right to protect the regime against their revolutionary rivals.
The older exponents of the Prussian militarist tradition were themselves forced to call upon a generation of lieutenants, captains and majors who were far more revolutionary than restorationist. In the guise of units for the restoration of order, junior officers like Ehrhardt, Rossbach and Röhm constructed paramilitary forces – to enhance their own political prestige and power – against the old army clique which had lost the war. Moreover, the trench soldiers such as Hitler, who were after all civilians in uniform, also found themselves in need of the counsel of the professional soldier class.
Thus, Hitler and the German Workers' Party served as agencies of the Munich Reichswehr (Reich Defence) headquarters in 1919. Hitler and his comrades were encouraged to enter the miniscule parties of the right and recruit likely candidates for paramilitary units like the Citizens' Militia and the Temporary Volunteers, which acted as auxiliaries for the free corps. The free corps leaders' purpose was always to remain essentially the same, though the aims of the Reichswehr leadership changed to the creation of a new model army to whose members soldiering for Germany was a way of life. The pattern for military manipulation of civilian life through patriotic parties had been set by the Fatherland Party of 1917. The north German Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet) – a conservative veterans' organisation – and the German-Folkish Protection and Defiance League (an anti-Semitic organisation based around the folkish movement in urban and small-town Germany) were products of the same striving to combine military preparedness with right-wing politics. It is true that the soldierly ideals of Ernst Röhm, the adjutant of Franz von Epp (the conqueror of the left-wing Soviet Republic), scarcely extended beyond counter-revolution and the reconstruction of a usable fighting force. In this Röhm had thousands of military counterparts. For such men any paramilitary organisation of the right would do. However, the political movement which remained for men like Röhm merely a means to soldierly ends soon became for Hitler and his comrades much more than a recruiting ground. Rechristened the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), the former civilian conventicle became a soldiers' movement into which Hitler and his friends poured their dreams and their ambitions. Being civilians and thus by no means as narrow as Röhm in their goals or methods, they absorbed the contending tendencies of post-war Germany into their new party and improvised from them something remarkably successful within the circumscribed limits of the Bavaria of 1920–23.
Hitler seems to have realised very soon that the post-war parliamentary regimes rested on the masses as never before. The new age was to be an age of propaganda. Much as the soldier in him detested persuasion, he grasped the dependence of modern states on it. Even before 1914 persuasion had ceased to be the reasonable, refined process of the middle-class press, the public lecture, or the formal debate. The war years had exacerbated the lying style of a yellow press and irresponsible demagogues. Press censorship, bribery and strong-arm squads had made their appearance along with the conspiratorial methods of infiltration, spying, murder and putsch used by Bolsheviks and syndicalists. Without abandoning the elitist ideal of political soldiers as the core of their movement, these civilian soldiers began immediately to consort with quite unsoldierly types who were necessary for the capture of the masses and for conspiracy. Thus, inevitably the first Nazis introduced into their ranks the very contradictions of civilian society which they were fighting, and which were in effect part of themselves. But they went further and created a separate political soldierdom resembling, yet not the same as, themselves (the SA, later the SS) and never wholly subordinate to themselves. On the other hand, the unsoldierly types with whom they had to work, and the civilian masses whom they needed for the power the masses represented, seemed to many far less admirable and indeed often despicable. The ambivalence of German society in the early 1920s toward the soldier thus became a permanent element in National Socialism.
This ambivalence is illustrated in the history of the strong-arm squads of the infant NSDAP. The guards for the founding meeting of the NSDAP on 24 February 1920, in the Hofbrauhaussaal am Platzl were a squad of Temporary Volunteers armed with pistols and clad in the field-grey of the Munich Reichswehr to which they were attached perhaps as part of a mortar company. Supplied with the co-operation of Röhm and the rightist Minister of the Interior, Ernst Pöhner, they were composed of younger police officials and students. Such guardsmen might well be sympathetic, but there could be no thought of undying loyalty to the ridiculous little movement.
Certainly Röhm sent a number of the Bavarian Reichswehr division, perhaps also some of the Citizens' Militia and especially the young Temporary Volunteers into the party itself. They were often avid nationalists, but their first loyalties lay elsewhere. Hitler describes the very earliest party guards in October 1919 as some of his truest trench companions, probably as usual a more figurative than literal statement but an indication that he preferred his cronies' loyalty to Röhm's assignees. Then in 1920 after the Kapp Putsch in March and the installation of the Gustav von Kahr regime in Munich, the field-grey had to disappear from the NSDAP. Hitler and his comrades had to accept discharges. Röhm found it advisable to disguise Reichswehr support of paramilitary and revolutionary activities. The places of the soldier guards were taken by fifteen- to twenty-man Ordnertruppe (marshals) in civilian clothing with red armbands on which a swastika was displayed on a white disk. Possibly the use of the swastika symbol of the Ehrhardt-Brigade free corps on marshals' armbands indicates the role played by these veterans of the ill-fated Kapp Putsch as Nazi bouncers in the summer of 1920. In this thin disguise von Kahr and Pöhner permitted Röhm to keep a 'force-in-being' for future use against the Republic.
They were, however, unreliable and even mutinous bands, intrinsically less valuable to Röhm and the Nazis than the members of the well-organised Bavarian Einwohnerwehr (paramilitary police force formed by an order of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior) system of Dr Georg Escherich. Organised in towns, counties and regions, these farmers and white-collar workers formed an anti-trade union, anti-Marxist militia, which extended west and north of Bavaria as the Orgesch and into Austria as the Orka. These were counter-revolutionary bands loyal to Kahr, although they contained revanchist hotheads and conspirators. Röhm tried for some time to capture this organisation. He encouraged Hitler to copy the structure of Orgesch and enlist some of its radical membership in his strong-arm squads. Thus, toward the end of 1920 we find signs of a permanent and regular Nazi guard organisation in Munich grouped in Hundertschaften (hundreds) like the Orgesch. Indeed, they may have often been essentially Nazi 'cells' within Orgesch hundreds strengthened with a few free corps men. When Escherich unwisely tipped his hand by an armed anti-French rally during the 1920 Oktoberfest and Berlin passed a law requiring troops like the citizen militia to register and/or surrender their weapons, Röhm made preparations to abandon the Orgesch, and branched out beyond the NSDAP in several directions, not only forming in Munich a unit of the reactionary National Union of German Officers but also accepting leadership of a Munich detachment of Captain Adolf Heiss's free corps.
While not exactly independent, Hitler began to improvise fighting forces out of his own immediate following, drawing upon other paramilitary groups for leaders and 'stiffening'. In January 1921 he felt strong enough as Nazi propaganda chief to threaten publicly in the large Kindl-Keller to break up 'unpatriotic' meetings with these forces, and in February he was able to put some of them on 'propaganda trucks' which roamed throughout Munich distributing leaflets and posting placards for the first mass meeting in the building of the Krone circus. The success of these methods can be gauged by the continued growth in the size of the mass meetings. They paid off with Hitler's capture of the organisational structure of the NSDAP in July 1921, whereupon he strengthened and consolidated these 'battle units' inside Munich and in the outlying towns of Upper Bavaria where Nazi groups had been founded. However, owing to Allied pressure during the summer, the strong-arm squads had to go through another metamorphosis: into 'Gymnastic' and 'Sport' sections (Sport-Abteilungen), which were really camouflaged party troops under the command of an Ehrhardt free corps officer and conspirator, Lieutenant Hans Ulrich Klintzsch.
The dissolution of the Orgesch during the summer of 1921, due partly to the Allied pressure and partly to internal dissension, weakened Kahr, so that he fell in September and was replaced by the moderate Lerchenfeld regime which favoured co-operation with the Berlin government and the Allies. Hitler and Röhm nearly parted company for the first time in the autumn of 1921 (an episode to be repeated several more times until 1934), for Röhm now decided to back Escherich's successors, Dr Otto Pittinger and Rudolf Kanzler, whose semi-military and semi-conspiratorial Bund Bayern und Reich toyed with a Danube federation and 'temporary' dissolution of the Berlin tie. Röhm's motives were purely opportunistic; he saw no contradiction in simultaneously supporting the Nazis. Hitler, however, saw in Pittinger's group the Nazis' most dangerous rivals. Breaking up its meetings as well as those of the left became the chief function of the SA (Sport-Abteilungen). In November 1921 Hitler adopted the term Storm Troops (Sturm-Abteilungen) and thus openly alluded to the elitist military ideal of the trenches. This suggested that the movement with military ideals should triumph over both middle class parliamentary parties and conspiratorial cabals. Moreover it implied that it could break away from its dependence on the irresponsible Landsknechte (freebooters) of the free corps.
During 1922 the Nazi movement continued to grow throughout Bavaria and penetrate northwards to middle Germany, and with it the Storm Troops, for they absorbed the Arbeitsgemeinschaften (semi-secret work-groups) of the illegal free corps and feme societies. Hitler's month of imprisonment in the summer of 1922 at the hands of the Lerchenfeld regime for the use of strong-arm methods against the Pittinger group did the Nazis no harm. In August they displayed six SA Hundertschaften among the 50,000-person folkish and conservative-patriotic movements' protest rally in Munich against the new law protecting the German Republic and immediately attracted additional volunteers for more Hundertschaften. Under pressure from Röhm, Hitler tentatively made common cause with Pittinger in September 1922 in a putsch plot that failed to come off. By October fourteen SA Hundertschaften from Upper Bavaria were represented (about 700 men) in a demonstration march to Coburg on the Thuringian frontier to join the Third Annual German Day of the Schutz- und Trutzbund (Protective and Defensive League). The latter organisation was about to disappear due to the application of the Law for the Protection of the Reich, but its defiant invitation to the Nazis to join it in supposedly 'red' Coburg led to Nazi intimidation of the town after pitched battles with democratic and left-wing groups. In November 1922 Julius Streicher brought völkisch Franconia solidly into the Nazi sphere by merging his branch of the Deutsch-Soziale Partei (German Social Party) with Hitler's, while in Munich the Nazis were pressed by Röhm into their first temporary alliance, the United Patriotic Societies. In the north scattered bands of Nazis opened up liaison with the new anti-Semitic Deutschvölkische Freiheitspartei (German People's Freedom Party) of Reinhold Wulle and Albrecht von Gräfe.
Behind this trend of consolidation lay the strivings of the whole German right and the hopes of the free corps perhaps even of segments of the Reichswehr for a German uprising against the demands for reparation. Now the NSDAP received unprecedented recognition by being forbidden by the state governments of Prussia, Saxony, Thuringia and Hamburg. By January 1923 Hitler could summon to his first 'national' Party Day several thousand SA men – a figure swollen by free corps members, of course. Their organisation and outfitting had at this time been turned over to the air ace, Hermann Göring, a fellow student at the University of Munich with Rudolf Hess and Alfred Rosenberg. The first SA uniform of grey field jackets and ski caps was worn by the relatively well-to-do Munich student SA Hundertschaft (hundred), led by Rudolf Hess. But most of the SA wore whatever clothing they had, perhaps parts of their First World War uniform, sometimes a helmet with a swastika. Nor should we assume that these were organised 'hundreds' neatly grouped under the four official Standarten (standards), literally a Roman 'standard', consisting of a banner with a swastika reading 'Germany Awake!', an old folkish slogan, surmounted by the initials N.S.D.A.P. and the eagle, also bearing the name of the community or unit below the scarlet banner, Munich I, Munich II, Landshut and Nuremberg. Everything was improvised, loose, changing from day to day. Records and rosters were not kept, and SA volunteers were not necessarily listed as NSDAP members either in local files or in the new, incomplete Munich party card file. Many of them were 'members' of two or three defence leagues at the same time. Staunch 'civilian' party members not in the SA were pressed into service for rallies and propaganda marches. Thus, most of the large figures for the early SA in Nazi sources, repeated by many later writers, are misleading.
Excerpted from The SS: A History 1919 - 45 by Robert Lewis Koehl. Copyright © 2012 Robert Lewis Koehl. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Prehistory – The Wild Bands, 1919–24,
2. The Early Years, 1925–29,
3. The Formative Years, 1930–32,
4. The Age of Opportunity, 1933,
5. The Betrayal, Winter 1933–30 June 1934,
6. The Years of Growth, 1934–39,
7. The Years of Tragic Fulfilment, 1939–45,
8. Conclusion: Behind the Mask of Possession,
List of Abbreviations,