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Ernst Roehm

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Ernst Roehm

Ernst Julius Roehm (Röhm), (1887-1934) was an early Nazi, and the operational leader, in the 1930s, of the Sturmabteilung ("Storm Troops"; "Brownshirts", SA). He was among the Nazis that emphasized the ”socialism” in National Socialism, and saw the Party as revolutionary. This clashed with Adolf Hitler’s later alliances with the Reichsheer as well as industrialists and financiers. In 1934, as part of the Night of the Long Knives, he was executed on Hitler's orders as a potential rival.

Joachim Fest, a German journalist and biographer of Hitler, called the bloody ending perhaps the "only instance of [classic] tragedy in Hitler's life." Roehm and Hitler were once close friends, but had become rivals. Hitler saw the need to grow the Nazis beyond the original core of the "Brown Revolution", making alliances with the capitalists and industrialists of the German right, as well as the Army. Roehm "had obligations to the dynamism and the unsatisfied cravings of his millions of followers." [1]

Early life

He entered the Royal Bavarian 10th Infantry Regiment, as a cadet, in 1906, and was commissioned in 1908. At the start of the First World War, he was a battalion staff officer, and wounded a month later, leaving his face scarred. A more serious chest wound, in 1916, put him out of combat for the rest of the war, in combat that earned him the Iron Cross First Class. He rose to Hauptmann in 1917.

Between 1916 and 1918, between convalescing from the wound and contracting influenza, he spent nearly a year on the home front, including service in a government department.[2] He transferred to the much smaller Reichswehr, but did not begin counterrevolutionary activity until February 1919. As the Army staff became less secure, he sought work elsewhere. The Army, from November 1918 on, had encouraged soldiers to join the more politically reliable right-wing Freikorps, and, while still part of the Reichswehr, he joined Colonel Ritter von Epp's Bayerisches Freikorps für den Grenzschutz Ost, which took control of Munich, and was his key planner. [3] During this time, he served in the military government of Munich, and became increasingly politicized, resenting civilian control of the military.[4]

Nazi beginnings

In 1919, Roehm became a member of the German Workers' Party, about the same time as Hitler, the party that changed name to National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP).[5] Fest writes that Roehm did more for the early party than anyone else, providing people, funds and arms from the Bavarian military regime. He was appealing to the Allied Supervisory Commission, which preferred soldiers in what they saw as an upcoming civil war. Where Hitler's oratory was unmatched, so was Roehm's set of contacts and organizational ability. [6]

He and Hitler became close friends, to the extent that they addressed one another by the German intimate pronoun, du.[7]Both wanted to create a strong nationalist Germany, hated the democratic republic, and they both believed, at the time, that the impetus had to come from the lower classes. [8] While he did help smuggle arms and create paramilitary forces in the 1920s, he did not join the SA until 1930, probably because Roehm wanted to make it into a trained military force, but Hitler wanted to reserve it for political intimidation. It cannot be overemphasized that Roehm's core goal was "to magnify the power of the military in the government." Above all, Roehm thought of himself as a soldier. [9]

Hermann Goering would organize the SA of the 1920s. [10]

He led the 9 November 1923 Reichskriegsflagge militia at the time of the Beer Hall Putsch, when it occupied the War Ministry for sixteen hours. [11] He, along with Hitler, General Erich Ludendorff were tried for treason in February 1924, and received a suspended 15 month sentence. [12] While in prison, he resigned from the Reichswehr.

First decline in role

Roehm did form the Frontbann, essentially an updated Freikorps, which Hitler did not consider politically viable. Hitler, in December 1924 took the SA out of the Frontbann, to use it as a political force, and Roehm felt his position of recognition of "the primacy of soldiers over politicians" was violated.

The alliance between Hitler and Roehm cooled in the spring of 1925. While the National Socialists were banned from the military in 1927,[13] Roehm served briefly in the Reichstag, as a member of the renamed National Socialist Freedom Party. In 1928, he became an adviser to the Bolivian Army, sponsored by the Reichswehr and raising him to the rank of colonel. [14]

Hitler's vision for the SA

Hitler waited a year before naming Franz Pfeffer von Salamon as Roehm's replacement. Preffer and Hitler's first priority was better defining the role of the SA, which Hitler saw, according to Fest, a "specialized instrument for propaganda and mass intimidation, under firm control from party headquarters." Hitler established ceremonies for new SA units in which they took an oath of loyalty and received marching standards designed by Hitler. Hitler wrote to Pfeffer, "The training of the SA must be guided by party needs than by military points of view. [the struggle must] be lifted out of the atmosphere of minor acts of revenge and conspiracy, raised to the grandeur of an ideological war of annihilation against Marxism, its structure and its henchmen....The work must be conducted not in secret conventicles, but in huge mass productions. The was can be cleared for the Movement not by dagger and poison or pistol, but by conquering the streets."[15]

Hitler wanted a paramilitary force responsive to his needs. Roehm and the SA quarreled internally, not infrequently over homosexual affairs in the leadership. Hitler created a more stable personal guard, the Schutzstaffel, which he assigned to a young recruit, Heinrich Himmler, in 1929. [16] Himmler's power would grow until he was a major figure, and especially a rival to Roehm.

Given that there were, at the time, few conventional military requirements, this was a real role for the SA, but it was not the one that Roehm and his core sympathizers wanted. Pfeffer was more responsive to this need. Fest said he "evidenced a remarkable feeling for the mass psychological effectiveness of strict, drillmasterly arrangements. His orders for meetings and ceremonies reveal the point of view of a theatrical director as much as a leader..." Such ceremonies, when arranged by Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer, were meat and drink to Hitler. Pfeffer wrote,
The only form in which the SA displays itself to the public must be en masse. The sight of a large body of disciplined men, inwardly and outwardly alike, whose militancy can be plainly seen or sensed, makes the most profound impression on every German and speaks to his heart in a more convincing and persuasive language than writing and oratory and logic ever can. Calm composure and matter-of-factness emphasizes the impression of strength — the strength of marching columns.[17]

Shows of force, such as described by Pfeffer, are textbook actions from police and military doctrine on crowd and riot control. Those military wings of political organizations that do not operate as guerillas frequently use such displays. It failed, according to Fest, with the SA, for two reasons. First, the SA members had a "rough cut-and-thrust temperament, the raw mercenary spirit of these professional soldiers." Pfeffer may have had the vision, but not the materials. German tradition also assigned great status to the military, and saw itself as a "Fighting Movement" superior to the Nazi Political Organization. The SA never grasped Carl von Clausewitz's dictum that war is the extension of national politics by military means, that action always must support a political goal.

Other political forces

The Berlin SA was especially. Hitler moved to change some of its more revolutionary leadership, by appointing Joseph Goebbels the Gauleiter of Berlin. Previously, Goebbels was subordinate to Gregor Strasser. Goebbels, in turn, began to reexamine his radical leftist views and became more and more loyal to Hitler, although with regret over his relationship to Strasser. Hitler, in a classic move to confuse power seeking, put Strasser in charge of the party's propaganda, but also made Goebbels, who would become Party Propaganda Minister later on, autonomous in his propagandizing.

Strasser was made Reich Organization Leader and given authority over the start of a shadow government.


Leading up to the September 1930 elections, deputy SA leader Walter Stennes confronted Hitler. In exchange for SA manpower for the campaign, Stennes demanded more autonomy from the party leaders -- Gauleiters -- for the SA. The SA was to have sole responsibility for meeting security, be well paid for doing so, and have SA leaders run as Nazi candidates for the Reichstag. Hitler refused to meet with him. On August 30, SA men stormed the Party headquarters. Hitler fired the SA leader, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon.[18]

Hitler asked Roehm to the SA leadership in 1930, to quell the Stennes revolt. At that time, Gregor Strasser was second in the Party as a whole. [19] Roehm returned in January 1931.

Roehm becomes a liability

In the early 1930s, Hitler believed it necessary to form alliances with the Right: the aristocracy, business and finance, the landlords and the Army. Roehm and Goebbels, however, believed that there must be a "second revolution" against those factions. In addition to the economic difference, Roehm's personal life became a liability for Hitler's relations with the establishment. [20]

Given the worldwide economic depression, wide sectors of the German people were disaffected. Hitler broadened his appeals to the masses, which left less room for Red or Brown revolutionaries.

Appeal to the Right

In November 1930, Hitler also began alliances with wealthy right-wing industrialists and financiers, a group despised by Roehm and the anti-capitalist Brownshirts. It was preliminary, with 39 businessmen, including Hjalmar Schacht and the leadership of Krupp, Thyssen, Bosch and Siemens signing a letter to Hindenburg, urging the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor. While they did not yet make major financial contributions to the Nazis, they believed that Hitler, in power, would really be a capitalist. [21]

Army negotiations

Schleicher, in 1932, may have negotiated with Roehm, but Roehm did not abandon Hitler. By 1933, however, the Army solidified into an anti-Roehm position.[22] Responding to Army sentiment, Hitler defined the role as "the Reichswehr is the sole bearer of arms of the nation; the SA is responsible for the political education of the people." Roehm, however, insisted "we are the incorruptible guardians of the National Socialist revolution."

Hitler held a meeting between the SA and Reichswehr on 28 February 1934. He urged compromise, and insisted that War Minister Blomberg and Roehm sign an agreement. The SA was given two paramilitary functions: border policing and premilitary training of youth[23] Afterwards, however, Roehm said ""What that ridiculous corporal says means nothing to us. I have not the slightest intention of keeping this agreement. Hitler is a traitor, and at the very least must go on leave...If we can't get there with him, we'll get there without him."

SA Obergruppenfuehrer Victor Lutze reported the remark to Rudolf Hess. Hitler responded, "the new army would be a brown one, not a gray one."[24] By 1931, however, Hitler made Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach, while still an SA man, operationally independent of Roehm.


Roehm was, for the time, overt about his homosexuality, which Hitler tolerated until it became a scandal. [25] "In 1931 the public prosecutor's office in Berlin began investigating Roehm for `unnatural sexual offences'. Although Roehm admitted being `bisexually inclined' and having `often had to do with young boys in that direction', he refused to admit engaging in criminal intercourse `as defined by Paragraph 175' -- the standard argument advanced by all accused men, and one that was hard to refute. The case was therefore dropped.

In March 1932, however, erotic letters allegedly by Roehm, in 1928-9, were printed in the German press. The Munich Post attacked "the disgusting hypocrisy that the party demonstrates -- outward moral indignation while inside its own ranks the most shameless practices prevail," and said that "every knowledgeable person knows that inside the Hitler party the most flagrant whorishness contemplated by paragraph 175 (defining homosexuality as a criminal offense) is widespread."[14]


On New Year's Day, 1934, Hitler named Roehm and Rudolf Hess cabinet members, warned that the "Army has to guarantee the security of the nation against the world beyond our frontiers", acknowledged that the task of the SA is to "secure the victory of the National Socialist Revolution and the existence of the National Socialist State", and concluded
At the close of the year of the National Socialist Revolution, therefore, I feel compelled to thank you, my dear Ernst Roehm, for the imperishable services which you have rendered to the National Socialist movement and the German people, and to assure you how very grateful I am to fate that I am able to call such men as you my friends and fellow combatants.[26]

Foreign contacts

Hitler, in February 1934, may have reassured Anthony Eden that the SA would not go out of control. [27] Hitler felt confident enough of the situation to visit Mussolini, in Italy, on June 14.

The End

Shirer wrote that while the full story will probably never be known, key documents about both the Reichstag Fire and the Night of the Long Knives having been destroyed by Goering, "all the evidence that ha come to light indicates that the SA chief never plotted to put Hitler out of the way."[28]

Hitler and Roehm appeared together, in public, for the last time on April 17. [29] In the same month, Hess, Heydrich, Goebbels and Goering were actively working to bring down Roehm; Himmler was reluctant but joined. It was announced, on June 7, that the SA would take a month-long leave. [30] Hitler later told the Reichstag that he had met with Roehm, for five hours, at the beginning of June, and said
I informed him that I had the impression from countless rumours and numerous declarations of faithful old Party members and SA leaders that conscienceless elements were preparing a national Bolshevist action that could bring nothing but untold misfortune to Germany...I implored him for the last time to voluntarily abandon this madness and instead to lend his authority to prevent a development that, in any event, could only end in disaster.[31]

According to Lutze, Hitler decided to take action on the night of June 22, telling Lutze to take orders only from him. Himmler and Heydrich called an SS commander to Berlin, and put them on "unobtrusive alert." The Army agreed to give arms to the SA. Edmund Heines for Silesia, became aware of Army preparations on 25 June, while General Ewald von Kleist, district commander for Breslau, learned of SA preparations. [32]

On June 28, Roehm was expelled from the League of German Officers. While the Army wanted the SA purged, they did not want to be personally involved. Hitler claimed, on the 29th, that he only intended to "deprive the chief of staff of his office and for the time being keep him and custody and arrest a number of SA leaders whose crimes were unquestioned..." On the night of the 30th, however, Hitler claimed he received "urgent messages" about an imminent SA coup. At the time, most of of the SA leadership were sleeping at the Halslbauer Hotel resort. Roehm had left his guards in Munich.[33] Himmler, who had just told Joachim von Ribbentrop that "Roehm was as good as dead", said the Berlin SA would start to occupy government buildings at 5 PM. Adolf Wagner, Gauleiter of Bavaria, said the SA were in the streets.

The Night of the Long Knives actually began just after dawn, when a group, led by Hitler himself, drove from Munich to the Hanslbauer Hotel. One SA leader and his bedmate were immediately shot, but others, including Roehm, were brought back. Hitler had personally told Roehm, using the intimate form of German, "Ernst, you are under arrest." [34]

Roehm was taken to Stadlheim Prison, where Hitler gave him a last chance to commit honorable suicide. Roehm told the men who had brought him a loaded gun, "If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself." After a waiting time, the officers, Theodor Eicke and Michael Lippert, shot him to death. His last words were reported to be "Mein Fuehrer, Mein Fuehrer".

Hundreds of other SA men were shot, but the purge went well beyond the SA, eliminating many of Hitler's political opponents, as well as some most hostile to the leaders, Goering and Himmler. In particular, former chancellor and general Kurt von Schleicher, left-Nazi Gregor Strasser, and the editor of Mein Kampf, Father Bernhard Stempfle, met their deaths. Fritz von Papen was targeted but escaped.

In explaining the actions, much indignation was voiced at the depravity of the SA leader. Sepp Dietrich said the situation in which Heines and a young bedmate were arrested and immediately shot, "defied description." Shirer said, however, that Hitler knew the situation well, including that Heines would send SA men all over Germany to find him new lovers. [35]


  1. Joachim C. Fest (1973), Hitler, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 487
  2. Eleanor Hancock (2008), Ernst Röhm: Hitler's SA chief of staff, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 26-28
  3. Fest, p. 134
  4. Hancock, pp. 32-35
  5. Hancock, p. 40
  6. Fest, pp. 134-135
  7. William Shirer (1960), The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon & Schuster, p. 207
  8. Shirer, p. 38
  9. Fest, p. 135
  10. "Sturm Abteilung", Axis History Sourcebook
  11. Steakley, James. (Röhm: Die Geschichte eines Hochverräters, Franz Eher Verlag, Munich 1928)."Homosexuals and the Third Reich" Jewish Virtual Library
  12. Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, p. 192 (Praeger Publishers, 1973).
  13. Shirer, p. 139
  14. 14.0 14.1 Ernst Roehm, Globalsecurity
  15. Fest, pp. 254-255
  16. Shirer, p. 121
  17. Fest, p. 255
  18. Gordon Williamson (2004), The SS: Hitler's Instrument of Terror, Zenith Press, pp. 24-25
  19. Shirer, p. 147
  20. Shirer, pp. 204-205
  21. John Toland (1976), Adolf Hitler, Doubleday, p. 277
  22. Joseph Nyomarkay (1967), Charisma and Factionalism in the Nazi Party, University of Minnesota Press, p. 167
  23. Fest, pp. 329-330
  24. Fest, p. 331
  25. Lothar Machtan (2001), The Hidden Hitler, Basic Books
  26. Volkischer Beobachter, 2 January 1934, quoted by Shirer, p. 208
  27. Alan Campbell Johnson (2006), Anthony Eden: A Biography, Kessenger, pp. 222-224
  28. Shirer, p. 217
  29. Fest, pp. 474-475
  30. Toland, pp. 331-332
  31. Shirer, p. 216
  32. Fest, p. 479
  33. Shirer, pp. 220-221
  34. Toland, p. 339
  35. Shirer, p. 225