Trump’s Brownshirts and Incitement to violence: A view from History

Waitman Beorn
10 min readSep 15, 2020

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The guns have come out. Or, as President Trump tweeted, “when the looting starts the shooting starts.” This comment earned him a Twitter condemnation for “glorifying violence.” When I lived in Charlottesville in 2017 during the Unite the Right rally, I was frankly surprised that the heavily armed right-wing militias that showed did not fire on counter-protesters. There, Trump’s signalling of support for extremism occurred after the fact, when he claimed that there “good people on both sides.” Despite the murder of Heather Heyer by an extremist, it seemed that the line between street fighting and more serious vigilante armed violence held. It appears that we have now well and truly crossed that boundary as well.

White supremacist drives his car into counter-protesters, Charlottesville, 2017. (Ryan Kelly/Daily Progress)

In the context of protests across the United States in the wake of police killings, some of those self-styled militia have begun to pull the trigger. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, a 17-year old gunman shot three people, killing two. The vigilante, Kyle Rittenhouse, appears to have responded to a call from a local militia group asking “Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city tonight from evil thugs?” Another would-be vigilante and US Marine veteran who came into the city that night stated ominously that, “Ain’t nothing being done. We’re the only ones. Three thousand of us are armed and ready.” Other right-wing groups such as the so-called “boogaloo bois” have already been charged with a variety of crimes and violent plots. And Trump continues to signal encouragement for these dangerous and extra-legal groups, refusing to condemn them, has actively expressed support for alleged murderer, Rittenhouse. While simultaneously endorsing this extra-legal organized violence, Trump takes no responsibility for the violence and, instead, is campaigning on a platform of what one columnist has called “the promise of law and order without the rule of law.”

What does this portend for the future and, in particular, for the upcoming elections? As an historian, I often look to the past for clues. My thoughts turn to Germany. Not the Germany of the official Nazi state. Not the Germany of dictatorship and mass-propaganda. Not the Germany of World War II and the Holocaust which might seem more alien to us today. Instead, we should consider a time of economic crisis and fiery political battles that spilled into the streets. It was also a time of looming elections in the early 1930s.

Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler emerges from the party’s national headquarters at the Brown House in Munich, Germany on December 5, 1931 (source)

After his failed coup attempt in 1923, Adolf Hitler had concluded that he could only come to power legitimately within the legal framework of the government, through the ballot box. His National Socialist party conducted political campaigns and promoted candidates for public offices. Behind the scenes, however, Hitler and the Nazis realized that a “legal” strategy needed to be helped along by just the right amount of violence. His brown-shirted stormtroopers, the SA, were just the tool for this. The SA began as part para-military fraternity, part political muscle. The brownshirts battled communist extremists in the streets and attempted to influence politics. The organization took its cues, of course, from Hitler. Control was often loose, however, as the brownshirts, many of whom were veterans of the Free Corps paramilitary groups, were always itching for a fight. But, after his failed coup, Hitler attempted to walk the tightrope between the image of the Nazi party as a legitimate political organization and the pragmatic use of SA violence against party enemies. In order to appeal to conservative and more moderate voters, he could not be seen as fomenting or supporting lawlessness.

For this reason, as historian Richard Evans points out, the Nazi leadership “gave orders couched in rhetoric that, while violent, was also vague;” the stormtroopers, however, would clearly understand what was being asked of them. Moreover, many within the SA itself were unhappy with the NSDAP pivot to working within the system. It’s important to remember that, while Nazi influence had increased by 1930, they remained quite far from power. The Weimar Republic had weathered the difficult immediate postwar period and was a functioning, if flawed, democracy in the hands of democratic politicians. The advent of the Great Depression, however, offered Hitler an unprecedented opportunity to gain support if he could take advantage for electoral benefit.

Hans Litten (center) in court in 1932. (History Extra)

At this crucial historical moment in 1930, the SA reared its unruly head. Stormtroopers from a local Berlin branch rushed into the Eden Dance Palace, a known hangout for leftists. In a hail of gunfire, the SA men murdered three and wounded twenty others. This then kicked off a three-month wave of violence in a Berlin neighborhood. Enter Hans Litten, an unreasonably courageous twenty-eight-year-old attorney. He saw an opportunity in this case to connect Hitler to the crimes of his followers by representing four of those injured alongside the state’s prosecution. Award-winning historian Benjamin Carter Hett tells the story of Hans Litten and the Eden Dance Palace in his book Crossing Hitler: The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand. Litten challenged Hitler’s façade of normality in court by arguing that he bore responsibility for the violence of his supporters.

It is hard to say where the line is between self-defense and attack.

- Hitler in court, 1931.

Hitler was worried. He had told a court in September 1930 that the Nazis were a “purely spiritual movement;” he disavowed the SA as only a “propaganda arm” and argued that he could not be held responsible for the actions of his followers. Now, he was being called to account in court for the crimes of those same followers. Litten would cross-examine him on the stand. Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary that “I am anxious for today’s results.” Litten argued that the assault on the Eden Dance Palace was organized and ordered by the party leadership which would make Hitler responsible. Hitler tried to evade these questions, stating in defense of the SA men that “it is hard to say where the line is between self-defense and attack.” Ultimately, the future Nazi leader narrowly escaped being publicly discredited and held responsible for the crimes of his militia. Though the SA would eventually be pushed aside in the Nazi state, it was not before they helped Hitler become the Führer as his violent enforcers on the streets.

Returning to the present, there are certainly differences between the SA and the various militias that Trump is inspiring. No historical analogy is perfect. None of the vigilante groups emerging are tied nearly as closely to the GOP as the SA was to the NSDAP. The relationships may not have been as developed, but the similarities are instructive. Trump did not create the right-wing militias and extremist groups that are inserting themselves into public protests, but he is enabling them. He has called these people “GREAT PATRIOTS” and predicted a “backlash” in Portland. Having attempted and failed to mobilize the National Guard to intimidate protesters, Trump appears to be turning to right-wing groups and vigilantes with similar vague but instructive rhetoric to that used by the Nazi leadership in its early years. The President’s exhortations include “calling for the jailing of political foes (which Trump has done regularly); openly encouraging violence on his own perceived behalf by private mobs; seeming to support an alleged killer who may have been similarly motivated; deliberately undermining local civil authorities.” During an interview with Fox’s Jeanine Pirro, the President praised the killing of an individual accused of killing a pro-Trump supporter, saying, “that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.”

I guess it looks like he fell and then they very violently attacked him. And it was something that we’re looking at right now, and it’s under investigation. But I guess he was in very big trouble. He would have been — probably would have been killed, but it’s under investigation.

— President Trump, 2020

And the rhetoric is increasing in intensity and frequency. Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, ranted on Facebook that “there are hit squads being trained all over this country” and “when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin.” Scholar Heather Cox Richardson solemnly notes that we are “likely to see sporadic violence from groups of unorganized thugs, spurred by leaders’ rhetoric and by Nazi-adjacent QAnon rumors of a Satanic cabal, exactly as the repressed threat assessment from the Department of Homeland Security said.”

A right-wing protester confronts left-wing protesters in front of the Louisville Metro Hall. (Getty Images)

Given the fetishization of the military and gun culture by the far right in America, we sadly must expect an escalation in violence. Commentator Dahlia Lithwick recently wrote that Trump is telling his “gun-toting countrymen” that “they are well within their rights to decide when actual law enforcement is not doing its job correctly, and they can cross state lines with weapons of war to pick up the slack themselves.” As we approach perhaps the most important election in a generation in a time of economic turmoil and pandemic, it is crucial to hold Trump accountable for the very real violence he is responsible for. Who will be our Hans Litten? Who will challenge the president’s inflammatory rhetoric? I hope we are not too late. After his close call with Litten, Hitler never forgot the man who had crossed him. On the same night as the Reichstag fire in 1933, the Nazis arrested and imprisoned Hans Litten. He hung himself four years later in the Dachau concentration camp.

Memorial plaque tp Hans Litten at the Berlin District Court. “Hans Litten, fearless fighter for humanity and peace, attorney and defender of the oppressed, murdered at Dachau concentration camp in 1938” (Wikipedia)

Here is the edited text of a portion of Hitler’s cross-examination from 1931 (courtesy of the Cross Examination Blog)

Q You said that no violent actions are carried out by the National Socialist Party. But didn’t Goebbels come up with the slogan “The enemy must be beaten to a pulp?”
A That is not to be taken literally! It means that one must defeat and destroy the opponent organizations, not that one attacks and murders the opponent….
Q Herr Hitler, you heard the question about appointing Herr Goebbels as Reich Propaganda Director [despite his statement in a training book advocating violence and revolution].
A I cannot say under oath whether I knew Goebbels’ book at that time…[he] must stay within the guidelines which I, as Party leader, give him.
Q Is it correct that Goebbels had already been made Party boss of Berlin in 1926?
A I cannot confirm the date. [it was correct]
Q You didn’t discipline or expel Goebbels, but instead made him Reich Propaganda Director. Mustn’t Goebbels’ example rouse the idea in the Party that the program of legality hasn’t gotten very far?
A [Hitler begins to stutter and search for an answer] The whole Party stands on the basis of legality and Goebbels likewise on this basis. He is in Berlin and can be called here at any time…
Q Has Herr Goebbels been forbidden to disseminate his text?
A I don’t know…
Q Did you promise Reich Chancellor Bruning to dissolve the SA in the event of your joining the administration….show[ing] that you yourself saw the SA as something illegal.
A [Hitler now is extraordinarily excited] I insist that Bruning has not offered me any participation in his government…Dissolving the SA would mean for me the end of the Party…
Q In your opinion, what is the spirit of the Free Corps [another Nazi subgroup]?
A The Free Corps spirit lived in those who believed that a change in the fate of the German nation could be brought about through….physical strength….
Q Do you also include the notorious crimes and killings that were committed by the Free Corps as a part of this spirit?
A [Hitler now is outraged]. I refuse to acknowledge that that kind of thing happened. The Free Crops committed no killings. They defended Germany.
Q Herr witness, is it correct that on the occasion of the so-called SA revolt last year you were accompanied on your tour of Berlin restaurants by armed SS men [for purposes of protection against the SA]?
A [Again outraged]. This is complete lunacy! In all the taverns I was greeted with stormy enthusiasm [Much laughter and merriment in the spectators gallery by Hitler’s unintended pun of “stormy enthusiasm” from the storm troopers.]….
Q I have just learned that this pamphlet is sanctioned by the Party, that it is sold at all Goebbels’ meetings and that it is available in all Party bookstores…
A [Hitler yells with a bright red face] Herr Advocate, how can you say that that is a call to illegality? That is a statement that can be proven by nothing!
Q How is it possible that the Party publisher took over this text, which stands in clear contradiction to the party line?

For more on Hans Litten, please do check out Benjamin Carter Hett’s book, Crossing Hitler: The Man who put the Nazis on the Witness Stand.

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Waitman Beorn

Dr. Waitman Wade Beorn is a Senior Lecturer in History at Northumbria University in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK.