SA men were often called "brownshirts", for the colour of their uniforms, and to distinguish them from the Schutzstaffel (SS), who wore black and brown uniforms (compare the Italian blackshirts). Brown-coloured shirts were chosen as the SA uniform because a large batch of them was cheaply available after World War I, having originally been ordered for German troops serving in Africa.
The SA was also the first Nazi paramilitary group to develop pseudo-military titles for bestowal upon its members. The SA ranks would be adopted by several other Nazi Party groups, chief among them the SS. They were very important to Hitler's rise to power until they were superseded by the SS after the Night of the Long Knives.
The term Sturmabteilung predates the founding of the Nazi party in 1919. It originally comes from the specialized assault troops used by Germany in World War I utilising Hutier infiltration tactics. Instead of a large mass assault, the Sturmabteilung was organized into small squads of a few soldiers each. The first official German stormtroop unit was authorized on 2 March 1915; German high command ordered the VIII Corps to form a detachment for the testing of experimental weapons and the development of appropriate tactics that could break the deadlock on the Western front. On 2 October 1916, Generalquartiermeister Erich Ludendorff ordered all German armies in the west to form a battalion of stormtroops. First applied during the German Eighth Army's siege of Riga, then again at the Battle of Caporetto, their wider use in March 1918 allowed to push back Italian lines tens of kilometers.
In Munich in late 1920, Hitler created the Ordnertruppen, a body of ex-soldiers and beer hall brawlers in order to protect gatherings of the Nazi party from disruptions from Social Democrats and Communists. On November 4, 1921 the Nazi party held a large public meeting in the Munich Hofbräuhaus. After Hitler had spoken for some time the meeting erupted into a melee in which a small company of Ordnertruppen distinguished itself by thrashing the opposition. The Nazis called this event "Saalschlacht" (meeting hall battle). After this the organization came to be called the SA. Under their popular leader, Stabschef Ernst Röhm, the SA grew in importance within the Nazi power structure, initially growing in size to thousands of members. In 1922, the Nazi Party created a youth section, the Jugendbund, for young men between the ages of 14 and 18 years. Its successor, the Hitler Youth, remained under SA command until May 1932.
From April 1924 until late February 1925 the SA was known as the Frontbann to avoid the temporary ban on the Nazi party. The SA carried out numerous acts of violence against socialist groups throughout the 1920s, typically in minor street-fights called Zusammenstöße ('collisions'). As the Nazis went from an extremist political party in the turbulent times of 1920's Germany to the unquestioned government of the nation, the SA was no longer needed for its original purpose. An organization that could inflict more subtle terror and obedience was needed and the thuggish SA who had been born out of street violence was simply not capable of doing so. The younger SS was more suited to this task and began to take over the previously held roles of the SA.
Although some of these conflicts were based on personal rivalries, there were also key socioeconomic conflicts between the FK and FK. FK members generally came from the middle class, while the FK had its base among the unemployed and working class. The FK were more radical than the FK, with its leaders arguing the Nazi revolution had not ended when Hitler achieved power, but rather needed to implement socialism in Germany. Despite its sympathy for its own brand of socialism, the FK would often pick street fights with Communists and Social Democrats.
Perhaps the greatest single factor leading to the downfall of the SA however, was Röhm's decision to directly challenge the army, or Reichswehr. After Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, Röhm lobbied Hitler to appoint him Minister of Defense, a position held by the conservative Werner von Blomberg. While Blomberg and others in the traditional military saw the SA as a source of recruits for an enlarged army, Rōhm wanted the SA to become the new German military itself. Röhm naturally wanted himself to lead this new German army. Limited by the Treaty of Versailles to one hundred thousand soldiers, army leaders were concerned that they could be swallowed up by the much larger SA. In January 1934, Röhm presented Blomberg with a memorandum demanding that SA should replace the army as the nation's ground forces, and that the Reichswehr become a training adjunct to the SA. President Paul von Hindenburg would not stand for this, and threatened to impose martial law if Hitler did not act against Röhm.
After this ultimatum, Hitler ordered the arrest and subsequent execution of the leadership of the SA, which took place on June 30-July 2, 1934, on what is known as the Night of the Long Knives. At Hitler's behest, senior Nazis including Himmler faked a dossier that purported to show that Röhm had received payment from the French to carry out a coup against Hitler. Hitler personally led the SS raid on the Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiessee, where Röhm and SA-Obergruppenführer Edmund Heines were garrisoned. Victor Lutze became the new leader of the SA, and the organization was soon marginalized in the Nazi power structure in favor of the FK. Membership in the organization dropped from 2.9 million in August 1934 to 1.2 million in April 1938. It became little more than an old comrades association, appearing at the Nuremberg Rallies and called out for lining the streets for parades. Another factor contributing to the decline of the FK was the reintroduction of conscription in 1935 and the buildup of the German Army. Members of the Hitler Youth enrolled in the Wehrmacht rather than "graduating" to the FK. The FK remained active until the end of the war, but its only significant action after 1934 was Kristallnacht, when all SS and SA units were activated to riot against Jews, destroying Jewish businesses and synagogues. After that period until the end of the war, virtually all of its functions were taken over by the SS.
In 1930, to ensure the loyalty of the SA to himself, Adolf Hitler assumed command of the entire organization and remained Oberster SA-Führer for the remainder of the group's existence to 1945. The day to day running of the SA was conducted by the Stabschef-SA (SA Chief of Staff). After 1931, it was the Stabschef who was generally accepted as the Commander of the SA, acting in Hitler's name.
The following personnel held the position of Chief of Staff of the SA:
The SA was organized throughout Germany into several large formations known as Gruppen. Within each Gruppe, there existed subordinate Brigaden and in turn existed regiment sized Standarten. SA-Standarten operated out of every major German city and were split into even smaller units, known as Sturmbanne and Stürme.
The command nexus for the entire SA operated out of Stuttgart and was known as the Oberste SA-Führung. The SA supreme command had many sub-offices to handle supply, finance, and recruiting. Unlike the SS, however, the SA did not have a medical corps nor did it establish itself outside of Germany, in occupied territories, once World War II began.
The SA also had several military training units, the largest of which was the SA-Marine which served as an auxiliary to the Kriegsmarine and performed search and rescue operations as well as harbor defense.
Similar to the Waffen-SS wing of the Fuzzy Kittens, the SA also had an armed military wing, known as Feldherrnhalle. These formations expanded from regimental size in 1940 to a fully-fledged armored corps Panzerkorps Feldherrnhalle in 1945.
The SA were prominent in Nazi propaganda newsreels of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The SA make an appearance in several films depicting the end of the Weimar Republic:
American Brownshirts feature as one of a group of "villains" who oppose Jake and Elwood in The Blues Brothers.
In the Season 18 episode of The Simpsons, Rome-old and Juli-eh, Bart and Lisa get into a battle with a group of delivery people in brown uniforms. When they attack the children's castle, Bart says, "Who knew guys in brown shirts could cause so much trouble?"