- Stormtroopers: A New History of Hitler's Brownshirts by Daniel Siemens
Daniel Siemens's comprehensive history of the SA is an impressive achievement that fills a major lacuna. Deeply researched, finely contextualized, and eminently readable, Siemens destabilizes the traditional historiography of the SA, which sees the organization's influence wane after the so-called Night of the Long Knives in the summer of 1934. He shows that the SA fulfilled numerous important roles thereafter—at home and abroad, in peace and in war—and investigates the organization's "long-term effect on large numbers of Germans living in the Third Reich, an effect that lasted even longer than Nazi rule" (xxiii).
Framed by an excellent introduction and a powerful conclusion, the book is divided into four parts of unequal length. In the first part, Siemens focuses on the history of the SA before 1933, discussing its development from its inception to a social movement, as well as its organizational and political history. A "community of action" based on loyalty and commitment, the SA gave "political orientation, job opportunities, and diverse outlets for male sociability" to young men in search of worth, belonging, and power when male identity seemed under modernity's attack (331). Siemens investigates SA violence, showing its communicative aspects, and integrates the development and the role of the SA into the broader study of everyday [End Page 646] violence at the time. It is, indeed, important to show in detail that the growth of the SA, its activism, and its finely calibrated provocations—protected, nolens volens, by the Weimar police—undermined Germans' trust in the state.
The book's second part concerns the violent and hard to control heyday of the SA in 1933–1934 and "the forms and aims of [its] parapolice violence." Siemens is particularly interested in the ways in which "SA violence was embedded in the political transformation of Germany from a democratic to a dictatorial state" (xxxviii)—the communicative aspect of the SA's violence—and how individual SA men tried to make sense of their activities. The chapters add much to our understanding of the establishment of the Nazi state and its most violently active—or actively violent—supporters. However, their expected reward was not forthcoming; instead, this chapter of the SA's history ended with the murder of Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders, seemingly leaving the organization in shambles.
In the third part of the book, Siemens tackles the least understood and least studied years of the SA. He shows that between 1934 and 1945 the SA was a heterogeneous mass organization that reached far beyond the strictly faithful and significantly contributed to the Nazification and militarization of society—for example, by infiltrating bastions of hometown middle-class respectability such as riding clubs and shooting associations. He discusses the paramilitary tasks the SA took on during Germany's prewar expansion; its settlement plans for Eastern Europe; the SA's wartime role in the occupied territories, as well in stabilizing the home front; and the role and tasks of those high-ranking SS generals appointed to diplomatic posts in southeastern Europe at the very moment that the Final Solution began to take shape. The SA that emerges in this account is anything but unimportant.
In the book's last part, Siemens explicates how the conception that came to define the historiography—namely that the SA lost its importance in 1934 and filled no relevant role thereafter, a view he masterfully dismantles in Part 3—came into being as a juridical defense in the immediate postwar era and served its former members well. Indeed, it allowed many of its former members to recast their wartime activities as having been restricted to an organization of minimal importance and remember fondly not the organization's violence but its alleged anticapitalist and egalitarian nature—while ignoring its restriction to the racial community, the Volksgemeinschaft, that the SA itself had helped violently create and maintain.
The book's great strength is its focus on 1934...