“We fought for the German worker!” Stormtrooper Kurt Massmann recounts a meeting-hall battle between Brownshirts and Communists
The following short account, ‘Saalschlacht‘ (‘Meeting Hall Brawl’), was first published in the 1934 book Kampf: Lebensdokumente deutscher Jugend von 1914-1934, a collection of reminiscences from members of various nationalist, youth, and paramilitary movements. The translation below was not made by myself, but comes from George L. Mosse’s book Nazi Culture. The original author of the document was Kurt Massmann; as an economics student in Hamburg and Rostock, Massmann had joined the SA and NSDAP in 1929-30 and became particularly active as a leader in the National Socialist Student League. After 1933 he worked as freelance journalist and writer for a number of different publications and contributed to books relating to Party history and ideology. He died fighting in the Battle of Berlin in 1945. Elements of Massmann’s account below might strike some readers as being difficult to swallow, although the author does present his story as factual. While it’s entirely likely Massmann is exaggerating or romanticizing certain aspects, situations such as the author describes really weren’t that uncommon. Pitched meeting-hall battles where chairs, glasses, and bottles were employed as weapons were a feature of political life, especially in the early ’30s. The literature is also full of accounts of former Communists joining the SA (and vice versa), including those who had previously had quite a good time beating up the ‘enemies’ who later became their comrades-in-arms. As historian Peter Merkl has remarked: “For the young in particular, changing from the Red Front to the brown shirt appears to have been no more unusual or consequential than change of juvenile gang membership…” The anti-capitalist aspects of the NSDAP’s ideology, along with its emphasis to certain demographics of its status as a “Workers’ Party”, contributed to the blurring of the lines between the two movements which made such membership transfers possible – as did the Communist Party’s own enthusiastic attempts to play up its militancy and nationalist credentials.
A Meeting-Hall Brawl
Once we held a meeting in a workers’ suburb. The meeting had been called by us National Socialist students.
It was a very small meeting hall. One SA troop sufficed to guard the gathering. Around nine-thirty another SA troop was expected to show up at the close of the meeting in order to protect the participants from possible attack.
At eight o’clock the giant Schirmer, who was to speak that night, rolled up his shirt sleeves and with a friendly smile spat into his hands, which were as big as an average-sized trunk. He had been in Russia for three years and was familiar with the whole swindle there. Upon his return to Germany he became a National Socialist with all heart and soul, one of those who cause shivers to go through the hearts of the timid bourgeois, anxious over the dangerous “Socialism” rampant among the National Socialists! A splendid fellow! A man to whom one could entrust all one’s money and who would sooner kick the bucket from hunger before he would take a penny of it.
It is said that one day he was introduced to the Führer. The tall, uncouth lad, who otherwise was never at a loss for words, just stood there, swallowed hard, wiped his eyes with his fore-paw, and finally stammered: “Well, Adolf Hitler…” and exuberantly shook his hand. Then he came to his senses, blushed fiery red – oh, holy miracle! – pulled himself to his full height, saluted, and marched off with a smart about-face.
The SA man pushed himself through the roaring crowd, which had been staging a noisy reception for fifteen minutes, and took his place in a very narrow space in front of the podium.
It was a remarkable situation! There was a terrible ruckus lasting a half hour, nothing but a deafening din. There was no act of violence. Schirmer, the bear, stood on the podium, his mighty arms crossed, and smiled at the goings-on in the hall with a relaxed, unconcerned air.
Gradually this smile produced its effect. The din slowly died down and gave way to an air of tense expectancy.
Around eight-thirty Schirmer grabbed the water carafe, placed it to his lips, took a hearty swallow, and then poured the water into a glass that had been placed alongside the carafe. He took this glass and directed the water most skillfully over the heads of the SA and right into the neck of a man in the first row who had been yelling and egging on the crowd in the hall the whole time. Then Schirmer, abruptly and with a powerful voice, roared: “Quiet! Now I’ll do the talking!” And indeed quiet descended on the hall in an instant.
Then he let loose. He spoke in simple, plain words, in the everyday speech of these workers. They listened to him.
In the middle of the hall, which had been the source of the din the whole evening, a little Jew with horn-rimmed spectacles set on a thick nose climbed on a chair and began to give an opposing speech in an unpleasant and high-pitched voice like that of a eunuch.
Schirmer made a contemptuous motion with his hand and continued speaking in a voice that was so powerful that the echo reverberated from the walls and completely drowned out the whimpering of the little man on the chair.
But the little man persisted in his aim to break up the meeting and ranted on and on with an unheard-of display of gestures.
When Schirmer, who had just spoken about the community of fate of the Volk, paused for a moment, the little Jew could be heard screaming: “Workers! Proletarians! Your front is the international proletariat! …Your…” No further words were heard. Schirmer had pushed his way through the thick chain of the SA men and went all by himself through the shouting crowd straight up to the little Jew, the spokesman and leader of the Communists. The Jew cut his speech short in astonishment, and although he was surrounded by three hundred and fifty comrades, he climbed down from the chair with a monkeylike agility and stepped back a few rows. Schirmer shrugged his shoulders, and had a grim expression on his face. Then he roared at the people in the hall: “Workers, look at the toad who brought you here and then look at me! I’m a worker like you are! I produce with my fists like you! Do you belong to him over there or to me?”
The Jew, meanwhile, was screaming: “Comrades, he wants to provoke us!” Schirmer could no longer speak amid the tumult that had been unleashed. Grimly, he returned to the podium and continued to speak from there.
But the little Jew had climbed on his chair once more. He certainly had reason to fear that his people could be influenced by this speaker, and he gave the signal to break up the meeting. “Let’s go!” he screamed. “Moscow! Let’s go!”
In a moment the hall resounded with yells, ear-shattering noises, blows, and wild screaming.
Schirmer stood on the podium and roared a few times the word “Germany!” into the hall with such strength that it could be heard above the din. “Germany!” It sounded like a trumpet call. I did not know whether this word was actually part of his speech or whether it was a last exhortation thrown into the meeting-hall brawl. After uttering it he sprang into the fray with a mighty leap.
At that moment the main door of the hall was opened and the second SA troop stormed in. The little Jew, who a minute ago had still looked like an unlucky Napoleon, stood on his chair as if paralyzed. Schirmer, who was knocking down his opponents right and left, had already gotten close to the Jewish ringleader along with a couple of SA men. In a really artistic movement, the Jew leaped from his chair, ran like a weasel through the hall, between the brawlers, and jumped through the closed window into the courtyard, the shattered glass panes crashing on the ground with him.
For a moment a current of laughter coursed through the hall.
Most of the Communists, above all the main hecklers, had already fled through the side door. Only a little band of Reds tenaciously defended themselves in a corner. I saw that those who resisted were precisely the best-looking among the Communists, mostly older workers.
Soon even the resistance of these people was broken. They were allowed to leave unmolested, after they had given up.
The hall was a scene of desolation. It was covered with blood, not a single chair was in one piece, wreckage was strewn everywhere. Some of the Communists, not those of the last group, had fought with beer bottles and glasses!
About eight SA men had received head injuries from these rude and contemptible weapons. The faces of some of them were so encrusted with blood that it covered their eyes and they groped around the hall like blind men.
Several Communists remained stretched out on the floor. When the SA medics began to attend to their injuries, an older worker with a good clean-cut face, who had fought to the last and defended himself with real courage, exchanging blow for blow, took his party book from his pocket, tore his party badge from his lapel, and handed both to the giant Schirmer, whom he had demanded to see. He shook his hand and said: “So, now I’m cured!” After he was bandaged he signed an entry blank to join the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.
The eternal petit bourgeois complained about the “primitivization of politics.” They said that things would not improve in Germany by people busting one another’s heads in.
They had no idea of what was at stake! The fight for the soul of German man and the new Germany was being fought even in such assemblies and in such brawls at meeting halls!
We National Socialist students did not go into working-class quarters to have our heads broken for nothing! Neither did we do it to win a dozen votes for some election or other, which wouldn’t have been worth the effort. We could have held academic discussion evenings, which at least would have been less dangerous.
We fought for the German worker. We wanted to help the worker take his place in the nation!
Often we had to use fists and chair legs in order to reach him and to drive out the racially alien “leaders” and their bodyguards who stood between them and us!
Transcribed from George L. Mosse’s (ed.) Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural, and Social Life in the Third Reich (1965), The University of Wisconsin Press