Political Violence and the Rise of Nazism: The Storm Troopers in Eastern Germany, 1925-1934

Ian Kershaw | Published in History Today

Political Violence and the Rise of Nazism: The Storm Troopers in Eastern Germany, 1925-1934

By Richard Bessel

256 pp. (Yale University Press, £18)

Richard Bessel's book is doubly welcome. Firstly, it has a great deal which is new and of interest to offer in exploring, largely on the basis of a wealth of material in Polish archives, the development of Nazism in the eastern border regions of Germany – East Prussia, Pomerania, Posen and West Prussia, and Upper and Lower Silesia – where the NSDAP recorded some of its greatest successes between 1930 and 1933 but which, largely on grounds of the accessibility of sources, had remained hitherto unresearched by western scholars. Secondly, it is valuable in focusing squarely upon an aspect of the rise of Nazism which, while mentioned in every account, has never before been subjected to such systematic examination: the role of political violence in winning mass support. Though, in the absence of contemporary opinion surveys and the like, Bessel is no more able than any other historian of the rise of Nazism to demonstrate precisely the connections between perceptions of violence and voter preferences, he succeeds impressively and writes persuasively in the task he set himself of uncovering the nature and function of violence within the Nazi Movement itself – and particularly within the Movement's biggest, most important, and most violent sub-section before 1933, the SA.

After descriptions of the geographical setting and the broad contours of the development of Nazism in the eastern regions, Bessel ranges in a series of perceptive and concise chapters over the SA's social composition, its relations with the different sections of the Nazi Movement and the Reichswehr, illustrative instances of particular violence and their impact, the changing role of the SA following the 'seizure of power', and finally its destruction as a power institution on June 30th, 1934. Bessel's views on the social composition of the SA are well enough known from his debate a few years ago with Conan Fischer. Here, however, we see them in their full context. Whatever the situation in the big cities – and it seems to me that a sizeable proletarian element there is scarcely deniable – Bessel demonstrates clearly that in the largely rural setting of the east the SA attracted above all young farmers, artisans and their apprentices, and salaried employees. Pronounced middle-class backgrounds and military or para-military experience characterised the SA's leadership. However, Bessel rightly avoids the reductionism of accounting for the SA's actions by way of its social composition, seeing violence not as the preserve of any particular social group but as the ethos of the organisation itself and the essence of a specific form of politics. Here we are coming close to the core of Bessel's argument: that the nature of the stormtroopers' violence has to be seen in the function of the SA as an organisation. This function was essentially threefold. Firstly, the stormtroopers not only disseminated propaganda, but functioned as propaganda themselves – the epitome of Nazism's image of youth, virility, and lack of compromise locked in mortal struggle with the nation's enemies within. Their offensive in this struggle gave Nazism great tactical advantages in the early 1930s. Secondly, and linked to this, while most stormtroopers had no fine grasp of whatever Nazi doctrine was sup- posed to be, the ideological thrust of the violence – in particular its anti-marxism – makes it 'possible to see the actions of the SA themselves as Nazi ideology'. And in a third extension, Bessel sees the SA violence as an expression of wider, bourgeois social values 'basic to German (and western) society' revolving around machismo, manliness, militarism, and tough cameraderie bolstering aggressive nationalism and anti-Marxism. He concludes that the stormtroopers' anti-social behaviour, while undermining the Weimar political system, was channelled into upholding the existing social order. Inevitably, therefore, it became rapidly counter-productive and had itself to be violently terminated within eighteen months of the 'seizure of power'. My only disagreement with this analysis arises when Bessel dubs the SA's violence the 'politics of hooliganism' not of terrorism – an aphorism which seems unwittingly to come close to 'elevating' terrorism to only those underground organisations prepared in a fundamental sense to challenge the social fabric while at the same time playing down the terrorising nature and function of SA violence towards its political opponents and towards social and racial minorities. However, this may be a disagreement about a form of words rather than a point of substance.

This stimulating book should be essential reading both on the rise of Nazism and on the potential of right-wing violence in conditions of extreme crisis for bourgeois political systems. However repulsive the SA's violence, the fact that millions of 'respectable' middle-class voters were prepared to take it on board in order to crush Marxism, socialism, and trade unionism contains a message little faded with the passage of time.

By Ian Kershaw

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week