An Emperor is nothing without the support of ground forces to enforce their will. These troops must be unquestionably loyal to the cause and its leader. In the Star Wars galaxy, that task falls to the Imperial stormtroopers. This faceless corps of soldiers was inspired by the similar storm troops from the past.
While most well-known “storm troops” were the Nazi Sturmabteilung, the formation of “storm troop” units predates the National Socialists or World War II. In Germany, the SA (Sturmabteilung) took its name from the small units of storm troops used in German offensives of World War I. When the First World War turned into a trench-laden stalemate, both sides looked for new ways to break through enemy defenses. Organized into small units of fast moving soldiers and often armed with grenades, these original storm troops were trained to quickly break through enemy lines using stealth and surprise to their advantage.
After the Great War ended in 1918, the burgeoning National Socialists established their own storm troops in the 1920s to protect Nazi party meetings. Like so many of the most iconic elements of Hitler’s Nazi party, the name storm trooper was simply repurposed from earlier times. Over time, the SA grew into the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party. Used to maintain order, they were widely identified by their brown shirts and black jackboots. Hitler’s SA, and later the SS, were prominent in party propaganda leading up to the outbreak of war. Thanks to newsreels everywhere, the image of jackbooted storm troopers became one of the iconic images of fascism and inspired the iconic stormtroopers of Star Wars.
Germany wasn’t the only nation to form such a force after World War I. Italy formed the Arditi in 1917 to play the role of shock troops, similar to the storm troops in the German army. After the war, a number of the Arditi aligned themselves with the fascist movement in the country, including Mussolini. Like Hitler, Mussolini relied on his paramilitary troops, known as Blackshirts, to enforce his will.
The most famous group of stormtroopers in the Star Wars galaxy is the 501st Legion. In real life, the legion is the largest Star Wars costuming group, promoting costuming and charity around the world. Fellow StarWars.com blogger Albin Johnson founded the group in 1997 that has now grown to more than 12,000 members. Coming up with the name for the iconic fan group, Johnson reached back to his past. “Something in my head clicked and I thought back to my dad’s old flight school graduation book from World War II.” The son of a veteran, he went on to explain, “My first thought was that the Empire was super-huge. The movies made that clear. So if they had a unit number it was a big number. And whatever number should be a memorable one, and lend itself to working with a cool nickname. The first thing I thought of was “Fighting” as part of a unit name. So something starting with that word, and I thought that 500 was a good round number — plus, adding a number on the end would make it more realistic. So ‘Fighting 501st’ came up. It sounded so good, I just couldn’t see improving on it.”
World War II had its own 501st too. The 501st Infantry Regiment was part of the famed 101st Airborne Division in World War II. This paratrooper unit dropped into Normandy on D-Day in June of 1944, later participated in Operation Market Garden, and went on to fight at the Battle of the Bulge in 1945. Like other paratrooper regiments, this elite unit was made up entirely of volunteers who went through rigorous training before jumping by parachute behind enemy lines.
The idea of volunteer soldiers is especially important in Star Wars. Whereas the clone army of the Republic was made up of soldiers created for the sole purpose of service, Lucasfilm’s Pablo Hidalgo explains that, “stormtroopers are men and women like you and me. They volunteer.” As we will see in Star Wars Rebels, the Empire finds, “better uniformity in fervent patriots who volunteer for service.” Convincing millions to volunteer for the Empire requires a powerful propaganda machine — a machine that we will explore next month!
Cole Horton is an R2 builder, historian, and creator of From World War to Star Wars, an ongoing series of lectures at Star Wars Celebrations. He has also worked as World War II historian for Marvel Comics Augmented Reality app. You can find him on Twitter @ColeHorton.