May the 4th Be With You
Nearly everything in Star Wars is derived from something in history. From space dogfights to lightsaber duels, George Lucas and his crew of writers, designers, and producers borrowed from the most iconic historical people, places, and events to underpin the Star Wars universe.
No better day to start this ongoing series than today, May the 4th, and no better topic to begin with than stosstruppen — the real life stormtroopers.
Yes, you recognize this helmet. From the moment they blast through the hatchway on the Tantive IV in Episode IV, stormtroopers have been the grim vanguard of the Empire.
They’ve improved in skill over time (our chronological time, not in Star Wars universe time), culminating in the black-armored death troopers of Rogue One.
In many a combat theater — Hoth, Endor, Jedha — the stormtroopers have donned a variety of armor and deployed various weapons and tactics.
And they are firmly rooted in our very terrestrial, very violent history.
Go back to World War I. (Again fitting, since 2017 marks 100 years since the United States entered that war.) When Germany attacked France in August 1914, it did so with something called the Schlieffen Plan. That plan was supposed to quickly cross Belgium and crack through British and French lines on the way to Paris.
But it didn’t happen. Germany, fearful of Russia to the east, diluted the mass of their French assault. French and British troops, fighting better than Germans expected, stalled the assault at the Marne River.
Industrial warfare of the 20th Century, with machine guns, long-range artillery, gas, flame-throwers and other horrors, made warfare largely defensive. Both sides dug in, and the war took on its most identifiable characteristic — the TRENCH.
From the English Channel to the French Alps, an ugly, muddy scar ripped the French countryside. Some of it, though eroded with time and weather, is still visible.
From the end of 1914, through 1915, 1916, and 1917, neither side was able to break through the other’s complex trench lines. Late in the war, the British army developed tanks in an attempt to breach the German lines.
But the Germans had something going for them, too. The stosstruppen, or assault troops. Yes, you can also call them sturmtruppen, or STORMTROOPERS!
Germany first deployed them on the Italian front, but they gained their fame on the Western Front in spring 1918 when Germany launched its last major offensive. By then the Bolshevik Revolution had taken Russia out of the war. That allowed Germany to transfer troops from the Eastern Front to the Western. With that added mass, Germans hoped to finish the war before the United States was able to get all its troops to Europe and ready to fight.
To do that, they adopted new tactics. Instead of large assaults on broad sections of Allied trenches, German commanders hit on the idea of quickly hitting weak places in the enemy line. Shock troops — the sturmtruppen — were trained to violently hit those spots, punch through, and keep moving. Larger units would follow up to exploit the breach.
Sturmtruppen carried rifles, pistols, lots of grenades, and spiked trench-clubs. A select few packed flame throwers. They all wore the coal scuttle helmet with the neck flange that would become the classic German helmet silhouette. Gas masks protected them from chlorine or mustard gas attacks. In 1918, they looked other-worldly, as if Jules Verne or H.G. Wells had imagined them.
They were surprisingly successful. At some points, Germans gained as much as fifty miles in places where the line hadn’t moved in three years.
But the exhausted German army could go only so far, despite the abilities of the sturmtruppen. The spring offensive stalled, in part because enough Americans had arrived in France to tip the balance in favor of the Allies.
Germany lost the war, of course, but the German army — and the sturmtroopers — would rise again. In the 1920s, when Adolf Hitler began his rise to power, a group of khaki-uniformed troops were his chief head-busters. They were the Sturm Abteilung (which also means storm trooper somehow), usually called simply the S.A. They were more frequently called the “brownshirts” because of their khakis.
After becoming German chancellor, Hitler found he could no longer trust the S.A.’s leadership. He had most of them killed in 1934 in something called “The Night of the Long Knives.” The S.A. effectively ended, replaced by the more notorious S.S. — the Schutzstaffel, or “protection squadron.”
Thus, the historical ancestors of the Empire’s combat troops were men who, 60 years before Star Wars appeared, dared all to keep the German empire from crippling defeat.