Book review: Stormtrooper Families, written by Andrew Wackerfuss, PhD

Andrew Wackerfuss traces the history of early Nazism and its organic development by exploring gender tropes and same-sex relationships amongst Sturmbteilung (SA-Stormtroopers, SA hereafter) who operated as a shock unit of the German Army in the First World War and later under the Nazi regime. His careful re-examination of history serves two larger aims: first, he invites us to see the formation of the Nazi movement beyond political campaigns and top-down perspectives through microcontingencies such as familial relationship and sexuality. Second, he criticizes misreadings of history that associate homosexuality and fascism together. His effort is a rejection of biased readings of the early Nazi movement and the role of SA troopers in its development. He traces the SA in the ‘triangle of homosocial, homoerotic, homosexual’ (p. xxii) to challenge the so-called ‘claims of gay fascism’ (p. 344). His research discredits prejudiced historians who ‘link homosexuality and fascism . . . as exclusive partners in political crime’ (p. 344). Therefore, he portrays the SA in the larger network of community, family and local social relationship that ‘includes far more heterosexuals than homosexuals’ (p. 344).

The book forms its narrative across an introduction, eight chapters and an epilogue that explains the political ideology of the book. In the introduction, the author claims that he will expose ‘the truth behind the connection between sexuality and Nazism’ (p. x). In the first chapter Wackerfuss begins with the emergence of the SA in the city of Hamburg and traces the social imaginaries of the SA whose nostalgia for the golden age of this city encouraged their political ideology to restore the past. He implies that the SA’s nostalgia for Hamburg is based in their desire for a ‘dead father’. His Freudian reading of the violent past detects the ‘SA men fixat[ion] on a greater metaphorical sense of loss: the loss of the image of the exemplary gentleman capitalist’ (p. 10). The Freudian framework remains visible in the book, revealing the impact of earlier scholarship on sexuality, militarism and masculinity within the Nazi movement.

The ‘Shattered Sons’ who form the SA become the centre of the second chapter. Wackerfuss starts with the life-narrative of Alfred Conn who ‘eventually came to lead the Hamburg SA’ (p. 35). The Social Democratic revolutionaries controlled the father city and brought about ‘a sense of anxiety about the future’ (p. 35) for right conservatives The chapter shows how the rise of the SA came about because of this regime of fear and crisis. The emergence of different value systems shattered the veterans who ‘emphasized . . . [the] homosocial nature [of SA], since this quality reinforced its appeal as a vigorous defender of an uprooted patriarchal order’ (p. 51). The ideas of masculinity, camaraderie and homosociality are traced along each other to display how ‘assertion of traditional valour’ (p. 50) created an emotional bond among SA members. The men who joined the ranks of the SA were disappointed with the realities of the post-war era and felt a conflict between the familial loyalties and those forged in the trenches. This chapter is the heart of the book and ends by addressing the propaganda regime that encouraged public violence as a virtue that proved loyalty to the movement.

The third chapter briefly recounts the SA’s protest against a theatre play in December 1928. The author uses this case to show how the SA felt ‘threatened by the play’s exposure of homosocial male environment’ (p. 99). They found it accusatory and their protest became a public renunciation of homosexuality. However, they remained indifferent toward both the gay men who were among them and the homoeroticism that overarched their camaraderie. The fourth chapter follows the change in rhetoric of the Nazi party, which ‘heavily promoted the SA’s ties to family, church and the city in order to make the SA men seem still more respectable’ (p. 135).

The fifth chapter looks at how the SA masked their violence behind three basic elements of pre-war social unity: ‘family, church and comrades’ (p. 140). These elements integrated more recruits into the Nazi movement but the Great Depression in 1930 challenged the propagated elements. Here Wacherfuss offers a quantitative comparison between marriage rates, economic problems and stormtroopers’ membership. He clearly shows how economic insecurity and lack of financial stability reduced the possibility of marriage. The author takes his suggestion too far by assuming a conscious, deliberate and planned usage of violence by the SA. He proposes violence was used ‘to elevate themselves to a leadership position’ (p. 140) and that homosexual SAs ‘hoped that their contribution to a Nazi victory would win them tolerance in the coming Nazi state’ (p. 185). However, he does not offer any coherent historical narrative to support his proposition.

The sixth chapter shifts to religion and its connection with violence from sexuality and homosociality in relation with violence. Wackerfuss focuses on how the Nazi movement moved toward crafting a unified identity among diverse members of the SA who had proved difficult to be controlled by the party leadership. Here he offers a broader understanding of the SA through their everyday life such as seeking employment, attending church, gender tropes, production of the (communist) other, emergence of violence and militarization of bodies through 11 narratives in this chapter. The 11 narratives are selected from SA newspapers that produced the sense of constantly ‘being under threat’ between the stormtroopers. This is worthy information, however it deviates from the book’s concentration on sexuality and familial relationships.

The appointment of Hitler to vice chancellorship is the turning point of the seventh chapter. Members of the SA who lived in the margins and peripheries because of depression and crisis reached financial and psychological prosperity. They became ‘an essential part of an aggressive ruling party’ (p. 261) which opened new opportunities for them. They imposed extortion and claimed mastery of public places where they were not welcomed earlier. Their placement in the police proved futile and the party leadership became frustrated with their lack of discipline. However, Wackerfuss highlights another important aspect in the failure of the SA. It began to disintegrate and appeared fragmented because of the emergence of stable nuclear families among stormtroopers. The unaccountability and prosperity became the new attractions that brought new members to the ranks of the SA. The changes and corruption among them caused public anger and resistance against the SA. Thus, the Nazi party that needed public support ‘felt the public pressure . . . [and] true to Nazi form, they chose a sudden and murderous solution’ (p. 286).

The last chapter highlights 30 June 1934, known as the night of the long knives. Wackerfuss states the operation’s significance ‘did not lie in the number of stormtroopers killed or arrested . . . [but it was] deploying public panic against homosexuality’ (p. 301). This panic became ‘a powerful means to influence, threat[en], or taking revenge against who had wronged [others]’ (p. 313).

Overall, these eight chapters elucidate how ‘political movements are shaped by their relationship with homosexuality as a concept’ (p. 342). This book offers a detailed examination of a troubled past to expose the dark hand of homophobia that misinterprets histories. Wakerfuss’s book is a platform to compare bygone with current militant groups across the world.

Reviewed by Younes Saramifar