[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-German]: Burkhardt on Wackerfuss, 'Stormtrooper Families: Homosexuality and Community in the Early Nazi Movement'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Fri Oct 21 21:57:47 MDT 2016

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Wed, Oct 19, 2016 at 7:02 AM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-German]: Burkhardt on Wackerfuss, 'Stormtrooper
Families: Homosexuality and Community in the Early Nazi Movement'
To: H-REVIEW at h-net.msu.edu

Andrew Wackerfuss.  Stormtrooper Families: Homosexuality and
Community in the Early Nazi Movement.  New York  Harrington Park
Press, 2015.  352 pp.  $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-939594-05-1; $90.00
(cloth), ISBN 978-1-939594-04-4.

Reviewed by Alex Burkhardt (University of St Andrews)
Published on H-German (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Nathan N. Orgill

Soup Kitchens and Street Fighting: The Brownshirts in Hamburg

There is a long tradition of scholarly inquiry into the Nazi
_Sturmabteilung_ (SA), the brown-shirted paramilitary wing of the
National Socialist movement that was in no small part responsible for
the mayhem that descended upon the streets of Weimar Germany in its
last fraught years. Pioneering work in the 1980s by historians, such
as Conan Fischer (_Stormtroopers: A Social, Economic, and Ideological
Analysis, 1929-35_ [1983], Richard Bessel (_Political Violence and
the Rise of Nazism: The Storm Troopers in Eastern Germany, 1925-1934_
[1984]), and Peter Longerich (_Die Braunen Bataillone: Geschichte Der
SA_ [1989]), furnished a strong empirical base on the social
background, ideological leanings, and propagandistic provenance of
the Stormtroopers. More recent studies by the likes of Sven Reichardt
(_Faschistische Kampfbünde: Gewalt und Gemeinschaft im
italienischen Squadrismus und in der deutschen SA_ [2002]), Daniel
Siemens (_Horst Wessel: Tod und Verklärung Eines
Nationalsozialisten_ [2009]), and Dirk Schumann (_Political Violence
in the Weimar Republic, 1918-1933: Fight for the Streets and Fear of
Civil War_ [2009]) have brought the tools of cultural history to bear
on Nazi paramilitarism, offering further insights into the value
systems and "organisational cultures" that underpinned it. In
_Stormtrooper Families_, Andrew Wackerfuss, a historian with the
United States Air Force, makes a further contribution to this already
extensive body of literature with a local study of the Hamburg branch
of the SA.

_Stormtrooper Families_ is structured into nine chapters that proceed
chronologically, and it might be possible to discreetly divide the
book into three sections, which deal in turn with the background,
course, and aftermath of the crucial period from 1929 to 1933, when
the Hamburg SA was in its heyday. The first three chapters explore
the organization's prewar origins and its difficult fledgling years
in the 1920s. Wackerfuss first provides a brief history of Hamburg,
focusing particularly on the years before the First World War, which,
he argues, were critical to the later psychological and political
development of the SA. In chapters 2 and 3, he shows that the city's
first Brownshirts were mainly ex-soldiers disenchanted with the
Weimar Republic, but also that, before 1929, the Hamburg SA remained
a vocal but numerically quite negligible factor in local politics.

In the elections of September 1930, however, the Nazi share of the
vote skyrocketed, and Adolf Hitler's party became a major player in
national politics, signaling the beginning of the end of Germany's
interwar experiment with democracy. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 focus on
these last volatile years of the Weimar Republic, when the SA was at
its zenith and was key to the Nazi campaign to seize power. The
Hamburg SA expanded propitiously during this period, waging constant
and bloody war on the streets against its political opponents, mainly
the Communists. This enormous propensity for political violence is
the focal point in chapters 4 and 6, which concentrate not only on
the chronic, low-level conflict that was a constant feature of the
SA's (and Hamburg's) makeup but also on two set pieces, the Battle of
Sternschanze and the Altona Bloody Sunday, when the SA, along with
the police and Communists, managed to bring virtual civil war
conditions to parts of the city. Chapter 5, meanwhile, focuses more
on what Wackerfuss calls "the caring side" of the SA (p. xv)--the
vast social support network of soup kitchens, health-insurance
schemes, and barrack-style "SA Homes" that the paramilitary
organization established in the city and used to both attract and
integrate members.

The final three chapters focus on the decline of the Stormtroopers
after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933. Though the Hamburg SA
was initially in a triumphant mood and unleashed a wave of violence
against its enemies in the months after the Nazi "seizure of power,"
it soon became a problem in itself for the wider Nazi movement, which
was now looking to consolidate power and had less need of an unruly
paramilitary organization. The liquidation of a large part of the SA
leadership in the Night of the Long Knives and its gradual fading
into insignificance thereafter are the focal points of chapter 8 and
the epilogue.

This book, then, is ultimately a local study of a single
organization. But it is not a typical social history, being
relatively free of tables or statistics that show, for example, the
occupational background of members of the Hamburg SA. Instead, this
is a broader "cultural history" of the Brownshirts in the city,
focusing more on the content of the SA's newspaper, the relationships
between its key figures and its recruits, the social networks it
established in and around Hamburg, the nature and provenance of its
violence, and, crucially, the role played--and tensions
inaugurated--by homosexuality within its ranks.

Wackerfuss brings a very perceptive eye to his subject. His analysis
is augmented by insights from social psychology and cultural theory,
and some of his conclusions are highly thought provoking. In the
first chapter, for example, he lays bare the central significance
that an imaginary idea of prewar Hamburg--a gleaming "city on the
hill" (p. 16)--had for the young Stormtroopers and, even more
important, the role of their fathers in conveying this image.
Stormtroopers, Wackerfuss suggests, wanted to honor their fathers and
assume their rightful place in this tradition of success, but the
loss of the war and the German Revolution of November 1918 prevented
this. Thus, the central motivation of their lives (and the factor
that drew them to the SA) was a desire to restore Hamburg to its
(perceived) prewar state, which of course meant destroying the hated
Weimar Republic. However, as Wackerfuss compellingly shows, the
Stormtroopers, unlike their fathers, were prepared to accomplish this
with violence; that is, they sought to uphold the bourgeois order
through practices that were (ostensibly) contradictory to that very
order. Joining the SA, then, was an act of both conformity and

This was not the only contradiction at the heart of the Hamburg SA,
however. As Wackerfuss repeatedly shows, many of its members joined
the organization because they viewed it as a force for order and
"moral authority" that would support the traditional family (p. 60).
However, it also drew them into an exclusively male universe in which
homosexual relationships could and did flourish. The SA's enemies on
the left, despite their ostensibly "progressive" politics, showed no
compunction about using this in an attempt to discredit the Nazi
paramilitaries. But Wackerfuss also argues that this dynamic of
ambiguous sexuality--in an environment of increasingly uncertain
gender relations--was one of the key factors that drove the SA to
violence. The desire to prove their putative "masculinity" through
involvement in a violent male fighting league was, he suggests, one
of the main reasons people became involved in it at all.

Along with these unstable dynamics around sexuality and identity, SA
violence was also driven by a remarkably paranoid narrative that ran
throughout its press. In a detailed analysis of the Brownshirt
newspaper, Wackerfuss shows that Stormtroopers consistently presented
themselves as victims of enemy violence and as constantly on the
defensive, which meant that subsequent SA aggression was understood
by its practitioners as retaliatory and retributive. Similar
narratives, he argues, are observable in the local Communist press.
This mutual paranoia and sense of victimhood produced a spiraling
dynamic of almost sectarian violence that was perceived as
"defensive" by both sides, though it was frequently anything but.

But the marked instability evinced by the Hamburg SA in the domains
of both sexual identity and violence were to prove its undoing after
Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, as the very practices and
internal tensions that had made it such an effective unit for winning
power were precisely those that made it an embarrassing liability in
a National Socialist state. The result was the Night of the Long
Knives. In Hamburg itself, where the SA purge claimed eleven lives,
this unmistakeably indicated the decline of the Nazi paramilitary
group, demonstrated by, for example, the local Nazi Party's decision
to stop compiling reports on the causes of Stormtrooper suicides. The
SA had fulfilled its purpose and the party was, to some degree, past
caring about it.

Despite the insightfulness of some of Wackerfuss's analysis, there
are a few issues with the overall focus of this volume. In the
introduction, he promises "the truth about the connection between
sexuality and Nazism," a claim the book does not deliver on (p. x).
Indeed, its weakest sections are those that stray from its central
subject: the Hamburg _Sturmabteilung_. For example, chapter 7
contains a section about the Reichstag Fire and how Communists
portrayed this as the result of a homosexual "conspiracy" within the
Nazi movement, while the final chapter concludes with some
reflections on the pernicious stereotype of "the gay Nazi" and how
certain contemporary figures have used this in the service of a
homophobic agenda. These aspects of the book are not uninteresting,
but they dilute its focus and detract from what is, ultimately, its
main task--to present a comprehensive sociocultural history of the
Hamburg SA. Indeed, homosexuality plays an important role in
Wackerfuss's analysis of the _Sturmabteilung_ in Hamburg, but it is
arguably not the central factor treated here. The occasional
divergences into the wider links between Nazism and homosexuality
thus add little to the account, and the book might have been stronger
had it understood itself in more limited terms as a sociocultural
history of the Hamburg SA (and the place of homosexuality within it).

If, however, we do indeed view the book in these less ambitious but
still worthy terms, then it can comfortably be judged a great
success. Wackerfuss scores a lot of points in two basic aspects of
the historian's craft: style and archival work. He has done the
latter extensively, and he conveys his findings with considerable and
unusual flair. Above all, as already mentioned, he imparts some
striking insights into the group and individual psychology of SA men
that are not to be found in more drily empirical studies. Academic
readers will find his contribution to our knowledge of the SA, and
especially his perceptive analysis of the psychology of some of its
members, immensely useful, while more casual readers will surely find
his account, quite simply, very enjoyable to read.

Citation: Alex Burkhardt. Review of Wackerfuss, Andrew, _Stormtrooper
Families: Homosexuality and Community in the Early Nazi Movement_.
H-German, H-Net Reviews. October, 2016.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=45189

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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