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Homosociality and the Nazi rise to power

StormtrooperFamiliesCover650Stormtrooper Families:

Homosexuality and Community in the Early Nazi Movement

by Andrew Wackerfuss

Published by Harrington Park Press

Published August 18, 2016
History (European)
352 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by C. Todd White

June 10, 2016

The French have a saying, that to understand is to forgive. In America, we have a saying of our own: to every rule is an exception. History has taught us the limits of cultural relativism, the line having been 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 nationalistic pride 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 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 infamous 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 scapegoat homosexuals 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 restless young men of Germany, primed with ambition and hobbled by circumstance, who provided the fuel for the bonfires of Hamburg and Berlin, conflagrations that grew to consume those very people who had built the pyres—then tossed the match.

Andrew Wackerfuss and the editors at Harrington 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.

A version of this review was first published in Out In Jersey magazine, June 2015.
©2015, 2016 by C. Todd White

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1 Comment

  1. David Hughes

    Within the last year, I ran across a discussion by archivist Manfred Herzer of the political persuasion of German gays in the decade or so leading up to 1933. That discussion had some personal relevance to a reading-study group I was a part of when we realized Donald Trump was ascendant. In his chapter “Communists, Social Democrats, and the Homosexual Movement in the Weimar Republic,” in Gay Men and the Sexual History of the Political Left (Harrington Park Press, 1995), Herzer writes:

    In 1921, Kurt Hiller speculated that seventy-five percent of the homosexuals voted for “the right-wing parties, the parties of monarchistic restoration and revanchism.” In 1927, Richard Insert referred in passing to the “numerous members of the National Socialist German Workers Party and the German People’s Freedom Party [Deutschvölkische Freiheitspartei]” who simultaneously belonged to the WhK [Scientific-Humanitarian Committee]. In late 1932, the BfM [League for Human Rights] all but bragged that the Nazi leader Ernst Röhm was to be counted among its members. In exile in 1934, Magnus Hirschfeld remarked retrospectively on the homosexuals “who could not praise Hitler enough for his tolerance toward Röhm and his cronies and who therefore switched to his camp in droves.”

    These scattered references do not allow any firm conclusions about the political views, voting patterns, or party affiliations of most homosexuals during the Weimar years. In no way do they warrant the conclusion that homosexuals were more oriented toward the political right than were heterosexuals. On the other hand, they do support the assumption that most German homosexuals were just as conservative and antidemocratic in outlook as heterosexual Germans, and their votes for the Nazi Party (or any of the right-wing parties allied with it) contributed to the peaceful revolution of January 30, 1933, and the defeat of the left.

    Indeed, when our study group compared the rise of Trump to that of Hitler, we noted that Hitler went from jail for treason, released on 20 Dec 1924, to being appointed chancellor eight years later. Had he obtained German citizenship prior to 1932, he surely would have succeeded sooner. If only that had happened well before the crash of ’29, Hitler would have appeared to be part of the problem rather than the solution.

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