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Difference Between the Gestapo, SS, and SA

Difference Between the Gestapo, SS, and SA
Hitler's rise to power and his rule in Nazi Germany has been attributed to the aid and support of several people, with three organizations playing a vital role - the SS, the SA, and the Gestapo. While they may seem very similar, they actually differed in the roles they played. Read on for the difference between the three ruthless organizations.
Vrinda Varnekar
Babylonian Exile Of The Jews
Germans who wish to use firearms should join the SS or the SA―ordinary citizens don't need guns, as their having guns doesn't serve the State.

― Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS.

It is quite likely that you have come across the terms SS, SA, and Gestapo frequently when studying or reading world history, especially the history of Germany and other parts of Europe from the 1920s to the 1940s. Though all largely contributed to Hitler's rise to power and his abuse of that power, the three organizations differed slightly in their functions. The Schutzstaffel, Sturmabteilung, and Geheime Staatspolizei played different and yet equally vital roles in Nazi Germany.

To understand the political system at the time in Germany, it can be helpful to learn about the differences between the functioning of the three organizations by identifying every individual organization properly. In this Historyplex write-up, we have distinguished the three organizations based on their formation, objectives, and responsibilities, to name a few factors.

The SA

What It Was

The SA, or the Sturmabteilung, were formed in Munich, Germany, in 1921 by Adolf Hitler himself. Also known as the Storm Troopers or the Brownshirts (they were called the Brownshirts because of their brown uniforms), it was the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, whose violent tactics played a huge role in Hitler's rise to power in Germany. Before establishing the SA as a paramilitary wing, it was known as a 'sports division' in the party to avoid suspicion.

The members of the SA were largely former soldiers, ruffians, and men of violent natures, whose job was to originally protect the Nazi rallies, fight people from the leftist parties, and physically assault political opponents. However, these tactics were quite useful for the rise of the Nazi movement.

Rise to Power

In 1931, the SA was handed over to Ernst Röhm, who headed it till his murder in 1934. Röhm wanted the SA to be run like the German Army, and he went about creating a structural hierarchy in the organization, a general staff, a training college, and placed Hitler himself at the very top of the hierarchy he had created. After the Supreme Leader (Hitler), came senior groups, lower groups, regiments, battalions, and troops, to name a few parts of the structure of the SA.

Under the leadership of Röhm, the number of employees in the SA increased dramatically. By 1932, the SA employed about 400,000 people and by the time Hitler had come to power in 1933, it consisted of over 10,00,000 people.

With its dramatic rise to power, the SA began to slowly assume themselves to be somewhat of a replacement to the German Army. Röhm harbored the same intentions. He hoped to merge the SA with the Army under his own leadership and continued to urge for a second Nazi revolution, one that was 'socialist' in nature.

Röhm's leadership and not-so-secret desire of merging with the Army made many senior Nazi officials feel threatened. Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring along with some Army officials began plotting Röhm's downfall. Together, they began convincing Hitler of Röhm being a threat to the Nazi regime, his hunger for more power, and his supposed plans to overthrow Hitler.

Night of Long Knives and the Downfall of Sturmabteilung

Röhm had been one of the earliest supporters of Hitler and was a personal friend to him too. Hitler initially refused to believe the claims against Röhm, even though his officials provided him with created evidence. However, Hitler too began to realize the risks associated with Röhm and his leadership, and was more concerned about his senior officials being wary of Röhm. He had to count on his senior officials' support for his rule, and he gave the go-ahead for the plan to put Röhm out of the picture once and for all.

The infamous Night of Long Knives, in June 1934, saw the murder of Röhm and several important SA members. Hitler, accompanied by the SS and the Gestapo, arrested and murdered important SA leaders who may or may not have been in connection with Röhm in any way. Röhm himself was arrested, put into prison and given a chance to commit suicide. (Hitler felt he deserved the chance to kill himself rather than have someone else kill him.) When Röhm refused to commit suicide, he was shot by two SS officers. Many others were beaten and tortured to death.

The killed SA members were further demeaned by making their homosexuality public. The Nazi Party was well aware of homosexual preferences of Röhm and some other SA members. However, this fact was cashed upon to invite empathy from the public as well as to add shock value.

Post the Night of Long Knives, the SA had downsized in its power and value. However, it was an important part of the brutal attacks against Jews in Germany. As the years progressed, the SA began to be overshadowed by the SS and the Gestapo. It was mainly used in riots, demonstrations, and the ransacking and destroying of Jewish homes and synagogues.

In 1939, the SA was largely used as a training center for the Army when the war started. Additionally, many of its members were handed over to the armed forces. The SA was formally declared not to be a criminal organization by the International Tribunal, and had officially ceased to exist in 1945.

The SS

What It Was

The SS, or the Schutzstaffel, was created in 1925 originally to serve as Hitler's personal bodyguards. Meaning Protective Echelon in German, the SS was made up of fervently anti-Semite Germans who possessed deep racial hatred. Gradually, with time, the SS became one of the most-feared organizations in Germany.

Hitler wanted an organization not similar but somewhat linked to the SA that would personally guard Hitler and other important Nazi officials. In 1929, Heinrich Himmler was appointed as the head of the SS. At that time, the SS consisted of approximately 300 members. Under his leadership, the SS grew to a sizable organization of over 2,50,000 members.

To join the SS, prospective members had to prove that none of them had any sort of Jewish roots in the ancestry traced back to over one hundred years. These men were then given training in racial hatred and were taught to become cold-hearted, violent, sadistic, and to not feel anything at human loss. They were taught that the SS was not only an elite group in the Nazi regime, but also in all of humanity.

Before 1929, the SS wore uniforms similar to the SA. The only thing distinguishing them was the black hat with a skull and bones on it. Later on, the SS had its own special uniforms that distinguished it from other organizations such as the SA and the Gestapo. The SS initially had an all-black uniform specially designed for its men, which was replaced by uniforms in camouflaging colors during the war.

What it Did

The SS has been held responsible for some of the most horrific crimes ever committed in the history of the world. The 'Jewish Question' needed to be solved, and it was the SS who took up the job. The Schutzstaffel has also been held responsible for planning, coordinating, and implementing the 'Final Solution', in which countless Jews and people of other seemingly undesirable ethnic groups were murdered. Their victims also included the unemployed, the disabled, homosexuals, religious leaders, and political opponents.

According to the trials that were held after Germany's defeat in the war, the SS was responsible for a majority of the crimes committed in Nazi Germany. It was also largely responsible for planning and carrying out the Holocaust. The SS also identified and arrested Jews in the German-occupied territories. It ransacked homes, tortured people, deported them to concentration camps, and also killed them for no apparent reason.

The leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, along with a few other senior Nazi officials carefully plotted and planned the murder of the leader of the SA. Post the successful execution of both the leader as well as several of his followers, the SS was granted independent entity by Hitler as a reward for their services and loyalty to the Nazi Party, and more importantly, to Hitler.

The SS was given the complete authority of all the concentration camps in Germany as well as the occupied regions after 1934. The SS was also known as the parent organization of the Secret State Police, the Gestapo, and was responsible for organizing mobile killing units that went on a murder rampage in the occupied territories.

The Downfall of the SS

The SS remained in existence until the end of the war. It was officially declared to be a criminal organization and banned in Germany by the International Tribunal in 1945, and some of its surviving officials were arrested, tried, and executed for inhuman war crimes.

Many of the SS officials had predicted defeat as the war came to a possible end, and escaped to South America with or without their families to avoid arrest, trial, and an almost guaranteed execution by the Allies. These officials were helped and supported by a mysterious organization called the ODESSA, which helped provide them identification, passports, and visas to South American countries.

The Gestapo

What It Was

The Nazi Party felt the need for a secret police organization, and hence, the Geheime Staatspolizei was born in 1933. An organization that would become one of the most-feared ones in Nazi Germany was created so as to strengthen Nazi rule by weeding out anyone who could be perceived as a threat to the Party.

The Gestapo was somewhat of a division of the SS, making SS the parent organization. The Gestapo was officially declared to be answerable only and only to Hitler, and could not be reviewed by the judiciary in any way. The Gestapo had its own system of arrests, judiciary, and execution.

At the beginning of the war, the Gestapo employed about 40,000 men. As the war progressed, however, the number of people working for the Gestapo increased to approximately 150,000 men. Many of the men employed by the Gestapo were former criminals and extremists who were ideal for committing the atrocities the Nazi regime had planned.

What it Did

When the war started, the Gestapo basically had to identify and arrest any suspicious person and send him/her to a concentration camp, or kill him/her on the spot. The people who came under the 'suspicious' category were political opponents, Jews, the Gypsies, people from other ethnic minorities, the disabled, the unemployed, and the homosexuals. No reason was ever given for their arrest or execution―just the fact that they seemed suspicious was enough.

The Gestapo aided and supported the mobile killing units, and even provided its men for the same. These units traveled to villages in the German-occupied regions and shot down civilians, men, women, and children included, and buried them in mass graves. The killing units wiped out entire villages as a result.

The Gestapo was responsible for keeping a close watch on Hitler's personal safety, as well as ensuring the safety of the most important Nazi officials. It successfully thwarted Operation Valkyrie, wherein an attempt to assassinate Hitler was made by some senior Nazi officials themselves.

The Gestapo had terrible methods of interrogating people who they deemed to be anti-Nazi or suspicious in any way. They nearly drowned suspects in ice-cold water, gave them electric shocks, hung them by their wrists, or beat them savagely. Anyone suspected of even having made an anti-Nazi joke would be subjected to such treatment, or worse.

The Downfall of the Gestapo

Just like its parent organization, the Schutzstaffel, the Gestapo was officially declared a criminal organization and banned in 1945. However, very few arrests were made. Those who were arrested were tried, and sent to prison or were executed, depending on their role in the Gestapo.

The long-time head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, was never found. Some historians feel he was killed in the final days of the war, while others believe he escaped to South America and lived the rest of his life unidentified.

Though the Gestapo, the SS, and the SA were all created to serve Hitler and his Nazi regime, they differed somewhat in their functioning and the way they were controlled. We hope the above sections have made the identification of all three organizations clearer. To summarize the information above, we have provided the following short table.

Gestapo The SS The SA
Complete Name of Organization
Geheime Staatspolizei Schutzstaffel Sturmabteilung
Year of Formation
1933 1925 1921
Reason of Formation
Secret State Police Originally, Hitler's personal bodyguards Original paramilitary wing
First Notable Leader
Hermann Göring Heinrich Himmler Ernst Röhm
Arresting anyone who is a threat to the Nazi regime, Jews, other colored people Complete authority of concentration camps Defend Nazi rallies, disrupt political opponents
Nature of Members
Policemen, ex-criminals, not necessarily Nazis Strictly anti-Jewish, with a pure Aryan ancestry Ruffians, bullies, thugs
Status after WWII
Banned, declared as 'criminal' Banned, declared as 'criminal' Banned

History has indeed told us terrifying tales of the Holocaust and World War II, which claimed countless innocent lives. Without the help, support, and co-operation of these organizations, perhaps Hitler wouldn't have been able to spread the terror he did, for whatever reasons. To ensure that history does NOT repeat itself, it is vital that we realize that humanity is above all, and not any one race or ethnic group.