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In 1934, 581 members of the Nazi Storm Troops (SA) responded when Columbia University sociologist Theodore Abel sponsored an essay contest which asked for ""the best personal life history of an adherent of the Hitler movement."" The collected responses form the Abel Collection upon which Peter Merkl (Political Science, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) based his 1975 work Political Violence under the Swastika: 581 Early Nazis and to which he returns again in this effort to describe and understand the social background and motivations of those who joined the SA. Both books are dedicated to Merkl's conviction that there is no simple definition of fascism or nazism; in the earlier work he used the Abel Collection data to show that the Nazi party embraced all social classes and that there was no such thing as a typical Nazi, or even a definable Nazi ideology; now Merkl uses the same sophisticated combination of quantitiative methods and a balanced, lucid historical analysis to show that there was no ""ideal type"" of storm trooper. The members of the SA came from all classes and joined for a variety of reasons, including unemployment, anti-Semitism, and a nostalgia for the manly companionship they had known in the World War. Indeed, in large measure these men were linked by their similar war experiences, and their yen for violence thrived in the volatile Weimar period--some of Merkl's best pages describe the extent to which paramilitary organization pervaded political groups on the left as well as the right. Merkl, in fact, shows that the members of the paramilitary groups--whether communist, socialist, conservative, or Nazi--""were almost interchangeable. . . yet they clashed with deadly effect time and again. . . [in] the last years of the Weimar Republic."" Thus, Merkl argues again that the startlingly rapid rise of the Nazis and the growth of the SA (which formed Hitler's power base) had more to do with the general brutalization of German society and with the ""accidents"" of war and depression than with ideological factors. Whether or not that's true to the extent that he claims, this is an important contribution.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1980
Publisher: Princeton Univ. Press