by Andrew Wackerfuss
Published by Harrington Park Press
Published August 18, 2016
352 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by C. Todd White
June 10, 2016
The French have a saying, that to understand is to forgive. Of course in America, have a saying of our own: to every rule is an exception. History has taught us the limits of cultural relativism, the line clearly delineated during the Nazi holocaust and World War II—which, by the summer of 1943, left much of Europe devastated and Germany, once again, in rubble.
In Stormtrooper Families, Georgetown historian Andrew Wackerfuss demonstrates that in order to comprehend the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, one must understand the history of a paramilitary brigade that allied itself with the Nazis early on, in 1923, under the guise of an athletic club. These “Stormtroopers,” as they called themselves, were a ragtag group of young men coming of age in a nation impoverished after crushing defeat in war. The original Sturmabteilung, or “storm battalions” [SA], had been responsible for the offensive shock factor of the German infantry during the First World War. In appropriating the name, the reborn SA allied itself with disgraced war veterans, tapped in to the lost sense of nationalistic pride that the Nazis sought to revitalize, and embraced a military metaphor taken very much to heart.
In the early 1920s, Germany was crushed under rampant post-war inflation due to its war debt, which quickly devoured any residual savings of the “folk” populace. This period is known as the Kampfzeit, the time of struggle where Germany was torn between three primary factions: Social Democrats [SDP], who were leading the Weimar Republic; the Communists [KPD]; and the National Socialist Workers Party [NDSAP], commonly known as Nazis.
The SA had been created to serve as a unit of men who would act to protect the NDSAP from attack by the KPD, which had a Red Front Fighting Brigade of its own. These men would police the pubs where Party meetings would convene and at night would litter Hamburg with posters promoting Nazi politics and their leader, Adolf Hitler.
In all of this, a post-war homosocial brand of fraternal masculinity took hold of the German youth. Some of this was a carryover from the war years, when homosexual acts between soldiers had been championed by Hans Blüher: “Erotic bonds between men offered a force for social and political cohesion superior to that of the heterosexual family.” Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin perpetuated this idea through his Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which argued that homosexuals in the military often became “the most capable servicemen”:
They tended to care more for the general social welfare than men who headed their own families, provided more dedication to their comrades because of their emotional attachment to them, and fought more fiercely due to a psychological need to prove themselves to a society that often challenged their patriotism.
Stormtrooper Families documents in detail the transitions and phases the Hamburg SA underwent as is sought to defend and promote the Nazi Party in the city and abroad. The Nazis reciprocated by providing the food, comfort, and camaraderie that these young men needed in this desperate time. It purposively courted young and unemployed men, and those who would readily step away from the nuclear family model in favor of homosocial bonds of brotherhood.
The SA had been started, on February 12, 1923, by five men inspired by war veteran and party hero Ernst Röhm. Röhm was known to be a homosexual and a misogynist who openly believed, as exemplified by Alexander and Frederick, that homosexually-inclined soldiers under patriarchic systems formed the most formidable fighting corps. One of the founding five had been a police officer until being cast from the force for being anti-Republican. These men and their recruits allied with the Nazis as protectors, though to many they more resembled thugs.
With Röhm as figurehead, the SA was constantly berated by the media and the KPD as a haven for homosexuals, calling them Röhmlinge: Röhm boys. The Nazis, though, had a powerful propaganda machine working to orchestrate the restless energy of the SA while defending the honor of these men. When violence broke out, the relentless Nazi propagandists spun the event to cast the SA as victims who had taken a patriotic stand against Communists. The SA were portrayed as the true family men, models of heterosexual virtue and virility—and their ranks began to swell.
After Hitler and the Nazis won control of Germany, in March of 1933, the SA became a problem. Attempts to integrate them into the police force failed miserably since few had the true makings of a soldier.
So Hitler neutralized the SA on June 30, 1934, when Röhm was jailed and later murdered. Hitler and his SS corps rooted out, imprisoned, or killed SA leaders under charge of treason. This Night of the Long Knives marked the end of any political or military influence the SA would ever have within the Nazi Party.
It was easy for Hitler’s propagandists to cite homosexuality as part of the moralistic reason for the purging:
Members of all political factions had long believed that the heart of the Nazis’ militant nationalist politics lay in the sinister schemes of decadent homosexual criminals, whose immoral personal lives encouraged them to collaborate in political crime.
Those SA who survived were now compelled to live up to the values they had originally espoused yet had largely flouted.
Wackerfuss concludes Stormtrooper Families with a call to “understand the Nazis so we can understand ourselves.” While some of his conclusions show how similar to the Nazis we can be—as in our use of the media for social manipulation and ongoing collusion between sycophant politicians and religious leaders—we are worlds apart from them in other ways. Though we play with “Nazi drag” in ritual (think Tom of Finland or Sex Pistols), our restless youth don’t seem to be all that interested in aligning themselves with political factions.
Still, the holocaust happened, and Stormtrooper Families reminds us that it was the young men of Germany, primed with ambition but hobbled by circumstance, who provided the fuel for the bonfires of Hamburg and Berlin, conflations that grew to consume those very people who had built the pyres—and then dropped the match.
Andrew Wackerfuss and the editors at Harrington Park Press deserve high commendations for having published this engaging history. While those who come to this book seeking affirmation of LGBT identity may be disappointed, Stormtrooper Families will have broad appeal to all scholars of social history, and every public or university library should have it available on their shelves.
An abbreviated version of this review was published in Out In Jersey magazine, June 2015.
©2015, 2016 by C. Todd White