The Sturmabteilung (1)

SA-LogoAdolf Hitler needed a paramilitary wing for his party for a number of reasons. First and foremost, he needed his own (i.e., loyal only to him personally) paramilitary force to successfully execute the coup without having to rely on Bavarian Army – Reichswehr units, Freikorps and the Civil Guard (their neutrality would be sufficient). The failed Beer Hall putsch proved it beyond the reasonable doubt.

A unique feature of the German political scene (that it owed to a whole series of bloody coups and uprisings – Spartacus uprising, Bavarian Soviet Republic, Kapp Putsch, Ruhr Uprising, etc.) was its acceptance of a high level of political violence. Which by mid-1920 most (if not just about all) Germans considered natural.

Natural and even necessary – Germans (especially Bavarians) sincerely believed that the return to “law, order and normalcy” can be achieved only by violence. Either “from the top” – by violence perpetrated by government forces (police and Reichswehr units) or “from the side” (by Freikorps and other non-government paramilitary units).

This belief, which got surprisingly deep surprisingly fast did not go away after the demise of Weimar Republic. On the contrary, it got even stronger – which explains why most (if not overwhelming majority) of Germans accepted (and even supported) violent suppression of political opponents and persecution of Jews by the Nazis (as well as their brutality on German-occupied territories).

Consequently, it is no surprise that both Left and Right parties (both no strangers to violence) established paramilitary units and used them on every suitable occasions to intimidate, assault (and sometimes even murder) their political opponents, disrupt their meetings (and, of course, protect themselves and their events from their political enemies).

Hence, to survive (let alone succeed) in this highly violent environment, NSDAP had to develop not just similar, but superior paramilitary capabilities.

However, there was another – very personal – reason why Adolf Hitler created a powerful paramilitary wing of his (now his and his alone) political party. A military environment was the only one where he was emotionally comfortable.

And although NSDAP was now his absolute dictatorship, the Führer’s party, it was still a purely civilian outfit. And he desperately (really desperately) needed a military (or at least a paramilitary) one.

And, being fiercely intolerant of any competition, he wanted his paramilitary force to ultimately replace all (very much numerous) right-wing nationalist paramilitaries (which he subsequently did).

Their Last Battle

Hitler rejoined the party, as member #3680, on July 26th, 1921. However, some of his opponents in party leadership were not yet ready to accept defeat. They made the desperate effort to stop him by denying confirmation of his dictatorial powers (confirmed in a hastily drafted new party constitution).

They even printed 3,000 copies of an anonymous pamphlet presenting him in the most denigratory terms as the “agent of sinister forces intent on damaging the party”.

It did not help. 554 out of 555 party members present at the extraordinary members’ meeting in the Festsaal of the Hofbräuhaus on July 29th voted for accepting new dictatorial powers over the party granted to Hitler. Essentially transforming NSDAP into a new-style party. The ‘Führer party’

It was a high-risk, high-return decision. Initially, it paid off because the Nazi party did get the absolute power in Germany and did implement most of its program. However, ultimately its Führer started to make horrendous strategic mistakes which in a few short years led to the demise of NSDAP and to his suicide in the Führerbunker.

They Bluffed – He Called

Failure of DSP (i.e. of the Thule Society) attempt to take over NSDAP did not make some other NSDAP leaders happy (to put it mildly). They believed that DSP offer to expand NSDAP outreach via its branches and put Adolf Hitler under control made perfect sense. So they had to come up with “plan B” – and fast.

And they did. Their “plan B” had the first and the last name – and even a title. Doctor Otto Dickel. Dr. Dickel was the founder of Völkische Werkgemeinschaft (Völkisch Work Community) – a German fascist movement – and an author of a somewhat successful book Die Auferstehung des Abendlandes (The Resurrection of the Western World) which was lauded in the Völkischer Beobachter.

Dickel’s mystic völkisch philosophy was a perfect match for Thule’s and some of his ideas – building up a classless community through national renewal, combating “Jewish domination” through the struggle against “interest slavery”, creation of a Greater German nation by uniting all German lands (including Austria) into Ein Reich, etc. – bore undeniable similarities to those of both the NSDAP and the DSP.

Like Hitler (and maybe even more so), Dr. Dickel considered himself a missionary and (again like Hitler) was a dynamic and popular public speaker. Which has been proven beyond the reasonable doubt when Dickel spoke with major success before a packed audience in one of Hitler’s usual haunts, the Festsaal of the Hofbräuhaus (when Hitler went on a fundraising trip to Berlin to save the ailing Völkischer Beobachter).

Drexler, Feder and their co-conspirators (four of the five members of the party Executive Committee) had no illusions about the long-term value of Dr. Dickel to NSDAP.

True, he was the author of an influential book and an inspirational public speaker but he was way too intellectual and too bourgeois to appeal to German masses, especially to workers (and NSDAP was the workers’ party).

He had a PhD but no military decorations and was not a war hero – all major disadvantages compared to Adolf Hitler. And his open völkisch mysticism was not popular with masses – which was one more disadvantage.

Consequently, they could use Dickel only as a tool to make (force if necessary) Adolf Hitler agree to the merger with DSP and with Dickel’s group (which would make the resulting organization more attractive to the Thule society). And to be controlled by the Executive Committee (and ultimately by the Thule).

The NSDAP conspirators called Dickel its “second outstanding speaker with a popular touch” and scheduled more of his speeches in Munich. And when Hitler came back from Berlin, he was almost immediately ushered into a meeting with Dr. Dickel.

For more than three hours, Dickel tried to convince Hitler of the benefits of a loose confederation of the different nationalist groups and recommendations for improvements to the NSDAP’s program.

To no avail. His arguments only prompted numerous outbursts from Hitler before, being able to stand it no longer, he stormed out of the meeting. So Drexler et al had no other choice but to bluff.

They cornered Hitler and plainly threatened to replace him with Dr. Dickel as the key speaker (and propaganda chief) and to go ahead with the merger and with consideration – with or without Hitler. They failed – and failed miserably.

In addition to his unique capabilities as a public speaker, Hitler had another key talent – he was an excellent judge of characters and situations. And his (mostly successful) fundraising experiences made him a skillful and cunning political manipulator.

He immediately knew that his opponents were bluffing. So he waited for three days – and then sent the resignation letter to NSDAP Executive Committee. He claimed – powerfully but erroneously – that the committee members, in violation of the party statutes and acting against the wishes of rank-and-file party members handed over the movement to a man whose ideas (in Hitler’s opinion) were totally incompatible with those of the NSDAP.

At the end of his letter, he solemnly declared:

I will not and can not be any longer a member of such a movement

It was a carefully planned and calculated maneuver to use his position as the party’s star performer to blackmail the Party committee into a total submission to his will.

They bluffed – he called. He knew – and they knew that Otto Dickel was no Adolf Hitler. That the loss of its sole star performer would have been a fatal blow to the NSDAP. And that there was no shortage of competing parties who will accept Adolf Hitler with open arms as their key public speaker, their propaganda chief and their Führer.

So on July 13th, just two days after Hitler’s resignation from the party Dietrich Eckart (the only Executive Committee member who did not take part in the conspiracy) was asked by the other members to negotiate Hitler’s return to the fold of NSDAP.

It was full capitulation from the party leadership. His key demands – to be accepted by an extraordinary members’ meeting – were ‘the post of chairman with dictatorial power’; the party headquarters to be fixed once and for all as Munich; the party program to be regarded as inviolate; and the end of all merger attempts – were immediately and unanimously accepted.

A day later the Executive Committee of NSDAP expressed its readiness in recognition of his ‘immense knowledge’, his services for the movement, and his ‘unusual talent as a speaker’ to give him ‘dictatorial powers’ (i.e. to make him the Führer of the party).

It welcomed his willingness, having turned down Drexler’s offers in the past, now to take over the party chairmanship. This willingness had a simple explanation – all previous offers were to make him the “first among the equals”, not the all-powerful Führer that he wanted (and needed) to be to achieve his highly ambitious objectives.


The Attempted Takeover

ThuleThe crisis the ultimately made Adolf Hitler the absolute and unquestionable leader – the Führer – of NSDAP in June of 1921, began two months earlier – in April. It was prompted by what ostensibly was a merger offer from the leaders of German Socialist Party (DSP). In reality it was not a merger offer, but an attempt of a hostile takeover by DSP over the NSDAP. Hostile to Adolf Hitler that is.

DSP and DAP (subsequently NSDAP) were sister parties set up by a single parent – the Thule Society. To achieve its very ambitious political objectives, Thule obviously needed a political party.

As a precaution (that subsequently turned out to be a wise one), the society established not one, but two political parties – DAP and DSP (which consequently had little – if any – fundamental differences). By August 1920, NSDAP had Adolf Hitler (whom DSP once rejected), but DSP had a much wider infrastructure (branch network).

In addition to its Nuremberg headquarters (subsequently moved to Berlin), it had offices in Düsseldorf, Kiel, Frankfurt am Main, Dresden, and Munich. In other words, by that time it was already a national party while NSDAP was still very much a local outfit. And when a nationwide party merges with a local one, it is no merger – it is a takeover, plain and simple.

There was another serious reason for this takeover attempt. Adolf Hitler – a de-facto leader of NSDAP – severed all ties with Thule society which consequently lost all control over its “baby”. And while it still had a significant control over DSP, the latter had nowhere near the political potential of NSDAP.

Thule wanted both potential and control so the takeover attempt made perfect sense – it will acquire Adolf Hitler and use the extensive DSP infrastructure to control him. It was another attempt to control Hitler that failed miserably – and quickly.

Although in March of 1920 DSP leaders managed to convince Anton Drexler (then Chairman of NSDAP who had his own reasons for establishing control over Hitler) to agree to their merger (i.e. takeover) terms – including the transfer of NSDAP headquarters to Berlin.

When Hitler learned about the agreement (which for him was tantamount to a betrayal), he exploded with fury and threatened to resign from the party – something that would have been fatal to NSDAP. So Drexler had no other choice but to cancel the agreement with DSP and any further negotiations with this party. The Thule-engineered takeover attempt failed.

Which did not make some other NSDAP leaders happy (to put it mildly) as they believed that DSP offer to expand NSDAP outreach via its branches and put Adolf Hitler under control made perfect sense.


Völkischer Beobachter


To implement their highly ambitious “25-point” program, Nazis needed to come to power in Germany. To come to power, they needed to transform their fledgling local party into a powerful nationwide mass movement.

To make it happen, they needed a nationwide newspaper. And, given their very limited funds, the only way to get a nationwide newspaper was to acquire a local one – and make it national.

Fortunately for them, such an opportunity soon presented itself when the essentially bankrupt weekly newspaper Völkischer Beobachter was put up for sale in mid-1920.

Originally called Münchener Beobachter, (Munich Observer), it was a an anti-Semitic weekly scandal-oriented paper (i.e. tabloid) that was established before the Great War. In Munich it was known as “a gossip sheet devoted to scandal mongering”.

In 1918 was acquired by the Thule Society and, in August 1919, was renamed Völkischer Beobachter (“People’s Observer”). It is worth noting that already in March of 1920 it advocated the “final solution for the Jewish question” well before the Nazis did (and even openly called for placing all German and Austrian Jews in concentration camps).

However, it did not achieve much success with German public (to put it mildly) and thus by summer of 1920 was heavily in dead (essentially bankrupt). Hence, Thule society (already in decline by that time) had no other choice but to put the newspaper up for sale.

Apparently, the effectively bankrupt newspaper had a powerful enough brand and an efficient enough infrastructure (editors, designers, printers, distribution, etc.) to attract several potential buyers in December of 1920.

Including Nazis who apparently (and, as it turned out later, correctly) believed that Adolf Hitler could achieve the same success with the printed word as he could with the spoken one.

Hitler, Eckart and Drexler arranged for a complicated financing structure and on December 17th, 1920 the latter became an official owner of the newspaper and Eckart – its editor-in-chief.

60,000 Marks were provided as a loan by General Franz Xaver Ritter von Epp who at that time controlled the secret Reichswehr fund used for political purposes. Eckart guaranteed the loan with his house and other property.

30,000 Marks were given by one Dr. Gottfried Grandel – Augsburg chemist and factory-owner (and a personal friend of Eckart). Drexler himself took over the remaining debts of 113,000 Marks (no small sum at that time).

Nazis did manage to turn newspaper around and in a very short time transform it into a powerful force that generated awareness, recognition, membership and huge crowds at Nazi meetings (and violent confrontations and scandals, of course). And a not insignificant amount of cash for the party coffers.

But it was still not enough. To survive (let alone prosper and come to power in Germany), the party needed sponsors. Wealthy sponsors. And a lot of them.


The Confrontation Strategy


His personality was charismatic, magnetic and inspirational; his tone harsh and aggressive; his language expressive, direct, coarse, earthy and full of insults directed at his political enemies; his sentences short and punchy – and that’s exactly what his audience understood and enjoyed.

So it is no surprise at all that he produced such a powerful impact on his listeners. Especially after his party commenced the large-scale use of party banner designed by Hitler himself – red banner with black swastika in a white circle.

Arguably the most emotionally and spiritually powerful symbol and the most powerful color combination (although selected mostly because these were the colors of Imperial Germany – the Second Reich).

But Adolf Hitler wanted more. Much more. He wanted to influence not hundreds, but thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Millions. He wanted himself and his party to be noticed. In Munich, Bavaria and in the whole Weimar Republic. Ideally – in the whole damn world.

And he knew how to make them notice. How to make them pay attention. With scandal. Confrontation. Violence. “Political fireworks”, if you will. Unlike the “mainstream” politicians, he did not care a damn thing about reputation – his or his party’s.

In Mein Kampf, he wrote:

It makes no difference whatever whether they laugh at us or revile us; whether they represent us as clowns or criminals; the main thing is that they mention us, that they concern themselves with us again and again

To be honest, Adolf Hitler was not the first German politician to recognize the value of intimidation of opponents, the importance of the mastery of techniques of disruption, and the vital need for knowledge and skills of how to deal with disturbances caused by your political opponents.

Unlike the dull, lifeless and utterly boring meetings and events of mainstream parties, DAP (and later NSDAP) meetings were anything but peaceful. On the contrary, they were designed from the start to be confrontational. Very confrontational. Noisy. Intense. Violent.

Even the posters that announced the meetings, were printed in vivid red (and carefully distributed) to provoke the Left to attend. The result was that DAP meetings were packed long before the start, and the numbers of their Leftist opponents present (no less violent than the Nazis) guaranteed that the atmosphere was potentially explosive.

To win this confrontation every time, the party needed powerful and efficient security, in other words, a paramilitary organization more powerful than the Rotfrontkämpferbund (“Red Front Fighters League”) – the paramilitary wing of German Communists.

The paramilitary wing of DAP was initially called Saalschutz (“hall protection squad”) and initially consisted of a few Hitler’s old Army comrades. They first saw hall combat on November 13th, 1919 when Communists and Social democrats tried to shut down DAP meeting but were “thrown down the stairs with gashed heads”.

Subsequently, this unit was labeled the ‘Gymnastic and Sports Section’ in August 1921, and finally got the name that made it (in)famous: Sturmabteilung (“Storm Section”), or SA for short.

The strategy worked. The party got noticed. The amount of free PR it (and Adolf Hitler) received from German media was simply astounding.