Ernst Röhm


For people who study the Third Reich, the name "Ernst Röhm" is synonymous with betrayal and sad destiny. From the early 1920s up until his death in 1934, Ernst Röhm lived a life that many in retrospect believe could only have culminated in the ignominious explosion of fate that was the Night of the Long Knives. But who was Ernst Röhm and why did he go to his death yelling "Heil Hitler!" while NSDAP assassins opened fire on him and sent him to an early grave?

Early Life, the War, and the Freikorps

Ernst Röhm was born in Munich in 1887 to an aristocratic Bavarian family with a military history. Röhm joined the relatively young German army in either 1906 or 1907 (reports vary) and saw action on the Western Front during the Great War. He was injured several times, most notably in 1914 with a scar across the left side of his face that would make him instantly recognizable in later years. Eventually attaining the rank of Hauptmann, Röhm seemed to be destined for a career in military leadership. Then, in 1918, the unthinkable happened: Germany capitulated to the Allies and formally lost the war. The Second Reich was dismantled and Germany was ordered to pay the entire war idemnity and accept foreign occupation in certain demilitarized areas. To add insult to what was already sufficient injury, the Emperor Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate and Germany became a liberal democracy. Today, we refer to the period extending from 1919 to 1933 in Germany as the Weimar Republic.

Although we consider the Weimar Republic a failure today, it certainly would have been an interesting and exciting time and place at which to be alive. The Weimar Republic was the most politically tumultuous period in modern German history. For a staunch nationalist and monarchist such as Röhm, the very notion of the German Reich becoming a democracy was intolerable. Fortunately for Röhm, there were many politically active individuals who shared his opinions. The ruling government of the Weimar Republic at this time was a pseudo-socialist government that had been formed as a reaction against what was seen as an increasingly fragile and weak Imperial government. The Weimar government was more or less doomed from the start; it had enemies on the far left in the form of the communist and radical socialist parties as well as obvious enemies on the far right in just about every form. There was an uncomfortable alliance between the government and the Reichswehr (the German military) in which statists on both sides joined forces to put down "revolutions" in places like Munich and Berlin, both of which were threatened by agitators attempting to take control of the city governments and proclaiming them Soviet Socialist Republics. In fact, it was during one such rebellion that Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-born Marxist famous for founding the Spartakusbund, was killed in a battle between the Communists and the Freikorps.

The Freikorps was not one organization; rather, it was the general term used to describe the paramilitary groups of Monarchists, Nationalists, Imperialists, and disgruntled, disenfranchised Reichswehr soldiers that sadly had more credibility than the Weimar government in terms of internal defense and stability, and it was almost always the Freikorps that jumped to the rescue of the government they so utterly despised. As you might expect, this sort of working relationship could never last. The severely emasculated Reichswehr was directly in charge of many of the Freikorps groups (as a thinly veiled ploy to get around the restrictions placed on the German military by the Treaty of Versailles), with NCOs like Röhm in charge of them. Röhm was the Chief of Staff of the Munich Freikorps detachment and it was in Munich that he met a certain Corporal Adolf Hitler in 1920.

Hitler had been charged with infiltrating a minor regional political group called the German Workers' Party (Deutsche Arbeiters Parteii, DAP) by arguably rogue elements of the Reichswehr intelligence apparatus, specifically Karl Mayr. Not only did Hitler infiltrate the party, he soon became its featured attraction and within a short time took control of it and reconstituted it as the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiters Parteii, NSDAP, "Nazi" for the German pronunciation of "National...."). After Mayr retired in 1920, Röhm became Hitler's military contact and party liaison. Röhm was instrumental in attempting to subvert the Versailles treaty in that he virtually flooded Bavaria with hidden weapons dumps. Röhm was playing a double game: the Weimar government turned a blind eye to this hoarding (and tacitly encouraged it) since the Berlin and Munich revolts taught them that the uncertainty of the times necessitated the ability of swift armed responses; but on the other hand, Röhm seriously believed that he and those like him would soon be leading a revolution against the government in Berlin. He was building an official state militia for Bavaria to serve this end. Eventually, however, the government relented to international pressure (the French were well aware of what Röhm was doing) and ordered the dissolution of Röhm's guard. Embittered, Röhm turned to Hitler for help.


Ernst Röhm joined the NSDAP in 1921 and brought the remnants of his Freikorps detachments as well as his Bavarian defense force with him. This formed the basis for a new organization called the Sturmabteilung (Stormtroops, generally abbreviated as the SA), designed to provide protection for Hitler and other party officials. What this really meant was that Röhm and his men would beat the shit out of anyone they perceived as threats to the Party. Hitler and Röhm seemed to have taken an instant liking to one another, despite the fact that the two men had little in common besides a severe hatred for the government and a vague intersection of political beliefs. Hitler was personally a somewhat scrawny introvert while Röhm was a fat, gregarious partier. Hitler was the son of a poor Austrian civil servant while Röhm was born into the Bavarian aristocracy. Hitler had had one of the most dangerous jobs during the War (message-courrier) while Röhm was rather comfortably attached to an artillery group (although to be fair, that wasn't a cakewalk either). Hitler was motivated by ideology while it seems Röhm was motivated by an exasperating desire for constant adventure (initially, anyway; I'll get back to this point). Finally -- and this is what most people know about Ernst Röhm -- he was an open and flamboyant homosexual.

Some people would imagine that for Hitler, that last one would be a deal-breaker. But surprisingly, he really didn't care about it, saying it was Röhm's personal business. Other NSDAP figures (most prominently the party's Estonian-born theoretician Alfred Rosenberg) were less accepting. This was due not so much to the fact that Röhm was homosexual as it was the fact that he allegedly used the SA to pick up men. Röhm was actually the defendant in a lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged Röhm had offered him money to "take part in a form of sexual intercourse which was abhorrent to {him}." There is some evidence that Röhm was running a homosexual brothel out of the Brown House (the SA lodge) and that he engaged in a form of nepotism whereby other homosexual SA members rose quickly in the ranks. Röhm was called on to resign, but since Hitler ran the Party as a dictatorship, the matter was dropped. Truth be told, I think it's fairly intuitive that he didn't care for Röhm's homosexuality, but he knew that he needed him and the SA to keep the NSDAP functioning.

In 1923, Hitler decided the revolution had come. He and Röhm (with the sponsorship of Erich von Ludendorff) effectively declared war on Bavaria, with the former announcing as much in a Munich beer hall. Simultaneously, Ernst Röhm and his men fought their way into the Munich police chief's office and occupied the building. Hitler took to the streets, but within a few hours, the police violently put down the now-infamous Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler, Röhm, and several others were arrested and charged with high treason and subsequently jailed in the Landser Prison. There, they lived comfortable if regulated lives and both were released early. Both the NSDAP and the SA were banned by law, but the two men set about rebuilding them anyway. By 1924, Röhm himself had become more ideological. Ironically, Röhm began to develop more left-wing tendencies, aligning himself with Otto and Georg Strasser.

Although the Nazi political philosophy received its clearest delineation in Hitler's laborious Mein Kampf (written in prison), the NSDAP was hardly the ideological monolith that people think it was. This is related to the fact that it was created for one purpose and then ended up serving another. The German Workers' Party had originally been sponsored by the esoteric Volkisch organization called the Thule Society. Think of the Thule Society as the place where bored German aristocrats got together to complain about the lower classes (particularly the new bourgeois government) and to dress up in suits of armor emblazoned with swastikas, runes, and various other occult symbols. At some point, the Thule Society decided that it needed to take control of Germany and rule over it as a Shadow Government. To this end, the Thule Society founded and financed the DAP, which attracted working and middle class attendants with patriotic rhetoric, including Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a rising star in the Party and was acquainted with certain Thule Society members, but after the Putsch, regular contact between them ceased. The new party became flooded with ex-Freikorps members, disgruntled soldiers, racists, farmers, Artamans (the Artaman Group was a whole subculture unto itself typified by an idealization of agricultural life and work, nudism, "Blood and Soil," anti-Slavism, anti-modernism, and a general dislike for "degenerate" urbanization; Heinrich Himmler and Walter Darré were both Artaman enthusiasts), romantic nationalists, and so on. Josef Goebbels described his early ideology as "German communism," while the Strassers are almost synonymous with the term "National Bolshevism" today. As I have stated, Röhm became inclined toward the latter, causing a serious rift with Hitler.

In 1925, Röhm had had enough. He quit the party in a huff and left Germany for Bolivia, ostensibly as a military observer/advisor. Although Hitler and the NSDAP started making serious gains politically, the new SA leadership was plagued by incompetence and the formation of a new organization -- the Schutzstaffel (the SS) -- required that Hitler's attention be diverted. Realizing that the party's prospective success in the future was directly tied to the effective "protection" of its ranking officers, Hitler swallowed his pride and in 1930, wrote a gracious letter to Röhm, begging him to return to Germany. Röhm agreed and returned to help an old friend. For the moment.

Röhm's time in Bolivia is very poorly documented, so there's no way of knowing what happened there, but by the time he returned, he had become far more anti-reactionary in his stance. The reason he had joined Hitler was because after the government dissolved his Bavarian defense force, he saw the democratic process as his only way of getting into power and Hitler was the best choice for him. With the advent of the SS, however, conflict between the two wings of the party was inevitable. Röhm felt that the SS should be just another division of the SA, limited in number, and with its head (Heinrich Himmler) answering directly to him. Himmler formed a highly unlikely alliance with Hermann Goering (as a general rule, the two detested one another) to get rid of Röhm. However, they had a predicament: Röhm still enjoyed Hitler's favor since it was the SA who was largely responsible for "campaigning" (i.e., intimidating) and getting the vote out. Electoral victories for the NSDAP in the early 1930s were due largely to Röhm's effectiveness in this regard.

The Second Revolution

Originally, the SA had been designed to be entirely separate from the political wing of the party. Röhm's return made this impossible. The SA became the proletariat wing of the armed NSDAP while the SS represented the middle and upper class wing. Himmler and Hitler both courted wealthy industrialists for financial backing and many of them were given honorary commissions in the SS in return. This incensed Röhm and the Strassers, who believed Hitler was betraying the NSDAP's working class roots (just look at the name of the party!). Röhm became bold and outspoken in his opposition to Hitler, even after his rise to the Chancellorship on January 30, 1933. He became convinced that he was invincible because he was irreplaceable.

At Himmler's insistence, his deputy Reinhard Heydrich presented Hitler with the outlandish claim that the French government had paid Röhm millions of francs to overthrow him. Hitler wasn't biting, but he was growing tired of Röhm's criticisms. Careless statements like these in polite company provided the rationale for his worry:

Adolf is a swine. He will give us all way. He only associates with reactionaries now. Adolf knows exactly what I want. Not a second edition of the old imperial army. Are we revolutionaries or aren't we? We've got to produce something new, don't you see? A new discipline. A new principle of organization. The generals are a lot of old fogies. - May, 1933.
If these bourgeois simpletons think that the national revolution has already lasted too long, for once we agree with them. It is in fact high time the national revolution stopped and became the National Socialist one. Whether they like it or not, we will continue our struggle - if they understand at last what it is about - with them; if they are unwilling - without them; and if necessary - against them. - June, 1933.

However, I'm sure this was the kicker:

Hitler can't walk over me as he might have done a year ago; I've seen to that. Don't forget that I have three million men, with every key position in the hands of my own people, Hitler knows that I have friends in the Reichswehr, you know! If Hitler is reasonable I shall settle the matter quietly; if he isn't I must be prepared to use force - not for my sake but for the sake of our revolution. - January, 1934.

Ernst Röhm had sealed his fate.

Death In June

On June 25, 1934, Ernst Röhm was expelled from the German Officers' Association for "conduct unbecoming an officer," which was related to anti-Hitler comments he had made. On June 28, Hitler called the SA headquarters in a fury, demaning to meet all the major SA leaders at an inn in Bavaria. Hitler claimed that some SA men had severely insulted some foreign diplomats in the Rhineland and he wanted an explanation. The brow-beating session was to be held on the morning of June 30. In the early evening of June 29, the call went out. Over the next 24 hours, political opponents from all across the board (but especially those within the SA) were rounded up and imprisoned, shot, or ordered to commit suicide. When Röhm was arrested, he had been in the company of a nude young man.

Despite this ignominy, Hitler insisted that Röhm be given the opportunity to shoot himself instead of having to die by the hands of the SS. Röhm maintained that he had done nothing wrong and repeatedly professed his allegiance to Hitler, pooh-poohing the idea of the "Second Revolution" which had landed him in such trouble in the first place. The SS men eventually shot him as he fulfilled his oath of loyalty unto death. The Second Revolution was over. The SS triumphed and the SA became a progressively smaller and less relevant arm of the National Socialist Party. Röhm's successor as Chief of Staff, Viktor Lutze summed up the rationale for the Night of the Long Knives in an address to the SA:

"The revolution is not a permanent condition. In the same way that the world does not live off of wars, neither do peoples live off of revolutions. Nothing that is great on this planet that developed in a millennium could have developed in a matter of decades."

Höhne, Heinz. The Order of the Death's Head: the Story of Hitler's SS.. Trans. Richard Barry. Penguin Classics, 2000.