National socialism was, contrary to what is commonly believed, never a movement of the right. It strove for a sincere and authentic German socialism. Traditionally, the left in Germany never pursued the interests of the German people. With the defeat of the German empire in 1918 this once more became painfully evident. The first World War exposed the vulnerable position of the nation as a 'Mittellage' between its French arch-enemy on the one hand and the Russian empire on the other. From the West, the Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy tried to integrate Germany, in the form of the Weimar Republic, into their liberal democratic world order. At the same time from the East, Germany was threatened by the communist world revolution of Moscow. The East gained influence through the presence of a strong communist party, the KPD, which acted as a promising vassal for Moscow.
National Socialism was born in this political climate in 1920, as an attempt to create an authentic German völkisch-socialism. As the name national socialism already suggests, this movement had a double complementary identity; the unification of the ideal of nationalism and that of socialism. However, in political practice this appeared to be rather controversial, because a convinced socialist worker party cannot do anything else than focusing on the working class and forging alliances with worker movements. On the other hand, a primary nationalist party is expected to address the people as a whole, forging alliances with right wing political and social formations. A certain schizophrenia stems from this, which led to tensions within the movement.
North-West against South
As the strong man of the movement, it was Hitler who determined the course of the NSDAP. From the start, he tried to take a neutral centrist position by acknowledging the socialism of the party, but denying its proletarian class character. Still, this was not enough to prevent the buildup of regular tensions between the national and the social camps. Especially the period between the failed national socialist coup of 1923 and the take over of power in 1933, the movement was a scene of violent principled conflicts about the course of the party. During many occasions the party militia, the Sturm Abteilung (SA), was in the middle of these conflicts. Besides this, there was a cultural gap that spread straight through the party. This gap revealed itself in 1925 as a contradiction between the old Southern gravity point of the NSDAP and the leadership of the movement in the industrial West and North of Germany.
Inside the West and North German movement, Joseph Goebbels and the Strasser brothers proved to be the biggest rivals of Munich. It was Gregor Strasser who developed a socialist alternative, devised in a revolutionary adaption of the NSDAP program. Since the beginning of his career, he already proved to be a sincere anti capitalist. He understood very well that the industrial North of Germany required a different approach than the rural and traditional South. He was supported in this by a young Joseph Goebbels, who stated that the German nationalism had to develop into a German socialism - and this was supposed to be a radical socialism. He openly sought alliances with the national-bolshevists and was quite positive about the communists, whose biggest mistake according to him was their connection to Moscow. This controversy got a political charge when Strasser and Goebbels openly presented their revolutionary program. However, under strong pressure from Hitler and the party leadership in Munich, Strasser caved and withdrew the copies of his program. Afterwards the ideological discussion in the party leadership was silenced.
1926: Strasser and Goebbels in Berlin
The Sturm Abteilung
For the SA this wasn’t the case. National socialism stemmed from the soldiers revolt that followed the defeat of the German empire. Many members in the party were veterans from the many Freikorps and other paramilitary organizations in the country, who in this uncertain times upheld order on their own. In a sense they simply continued the war, spirited by a deep desire for community, fellowship and equality. This was the breeding ground for a renewed believe in the national cause and a more egalitarian society - a militant nationalism connected to a radical socialism. With the SA the NSDAP created its revolutionary vanguard, that was to embody what the movement was meant to be: a revolutionary combat group, with unconditional loyalty to the Führer.
Although the SA was officially subordinate to the party leadership, tendencies towards independence arose on several occasions. This commenced from the proletarian make up of the SA, whose militants were inclined to more revolutionary and radical actions. In many occasions the militia developed its own ideological preferences. When Hitler (in 1923 after the failed putsch) was sentenced to prison, Röhm let the SA 'submerge' into a new combat group. When Hitler was released from prison and tried to claim the highest authority back, Röhm was an inconvenience. It wasn’t until the end of 1926 that Hitler was able to replace Röhm with a more compliant commander. However, this didn’t solve the tensions between the party and the militia.
The revolutionary profile of the SA became strengthened throughout the following years by a steady influx of workers. The SA presented itself as the vanguard of the proletariat, and as such knew a huge influx of new members. During the economic depression that started in 1929, the membership rose from 10.000 members to 300.000 members in less than three years. There was also great discontent among the members of this militia because of the huge electoral victory during the Reichstag-elections. This electoral victory led the party leadership to openly embrace a legal way towards power and consensus politics. This was at odds with the SA who favored revolution, because of its class character, temperament and ideology.
SA men in a truck bearing the slogan: Be socialist in deed!
When in 1930 the head office of the party in Munich settled in an extremely prestigious and precious building, the SA demanded an improvement of its financial position. The common SA man had a very bad wage, but was obliged to do the dirty work for the party leadership. When this demand was not met, the SA stormed the head office of the party in Berlin and caused major damage there. As a consequence, Röhm was re-appointed to restrain the SA, but without much success. Walther Stennes, commander of the SA in Berlin, maintained his position that the legal course of Hitler equaled treason to the revolutionary spirit of national socialism. A rumor that Walther Stennes had been fired, was enough to unleash a SA revolt in the whole North- and West of Germany. During this revolt more and more SA men looked at the communist KPD as an example of a real workers party. Although this revolt took threatening shapes, the party leadership was able to appease the moods. However, in 1931 it once again sprung to a conflict, in which Stennes violently occupied the printers and offices of 'Der Angriff' in Berlin. The SS was deployed to get the occupiers out of these offices. Also notable, were the good relations between the SA and the Kampfgemeinschaft Revolutionärer Nationalsozialisten of Otto Strasser, who left the party with about 100 dissatisfied members under the slogan: “The socialist leave the party!”
Walther Stennes, Commander of the SA in Berlin
The Treason of 1934
While Hitler and the party leadership defended their choice for a legal conquest of power and profiled themselves as the moderate representatives of their movement, the radicalized proletarian support of the SA was ready to push the revolution by overthrowing capitalism. In 1933 the transfer of power from Paul von Hindenburg to Hitler took place. The representatives of big business had embraced Hitler’s appointment and even managed to get a place in the new cabinet.
This political lobbying behind closed doors and the collaboration with capitalists was a thorn in the eye of the SA. The SA started to deal with their political enemies, the hated bosses and bureaucrats, on the streets. Banks and corporations were attacked and the stock exchange in Frankfurt was occupied by a SA unit that demanded the resignation of the entire management. The militia wanted to push their revolution, but Hitler was far from delighted by these actions. During a mass manifestation of the SA in April, he thanked the militia in the name of the people and the nation. However, for the good listener a farewell could be heard.
The tensions between Hitler and the SA increased even more because of the ambitions of Röhm to predestine the SA as the new national army of the German empire. This made the Reichswehr feel threatened, and they started to put pressure on Hitler. Soon unconfirmed rumors were circulating that the SA had plans for a putsch, to get rid of the Reichswehr. In the night of 30 June to the 1st of July SS leaders Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich seized the opportunity to behead the SA, thereby squashing their revolutionary aspirations. On this 'night of the long knives' 89 SA leaders were ambushed by SS units and executed. Shortly after the SA was shredded and shrunk, with which the last autonomous and revolutionary force in the national socialist movement disappeared.
89 SA leaders are being executed in 1934