Röhm in uniform, 1933
Ernst Julius Günther Röhm|
28 November 1887
Munich, Bavaria, German Empire
1 July 1934 46) (aged|
Stadelheim Prison, Munich, Germany
Hauptmann, Royal Bavarian Army|
German Workers' Party|
National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP)
Ernst Julius Günther Röhm (German pronunciation: [ˈɛɐ̯nst ˈʁøːm]; 28 November 1887 – 1 July 1934) was a German military officer and an early member of the Nazi Party. As one of the members of its predecessor, the German Workers' Party, he was a close friend and early ally of Adolf Hitler and a co-founder of the Sturmabteilung (SA, "Storm Battalion"), the Nazi Party's militia, and later was its commander. By 1934, the German Army feared the SA's influence and Hitler had come to see Röhm as a potential rival, so he was executed during the Night of the Long Knives, also known as the "Rohm Purge".
Ernst Röhm was born in Munich, the youngest of three children – he had an older sister and brother – of Emilie and Julius Röhm. His father Julius, a railway official, was described as a "harsh man". Although the family had no military tradition, Röhm entered the Royal Bavarian 10th Infantry Regiment Prinz Ludwig at Ingolstadt as a cadet on 23 July 1906 and was commissioned on 12 March 1908. At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, he was adjutant of the 1st Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment König. The following month, he was seriously wounded in the face at Chanot Wood in Lorraine and carried the scars for the rest of his life. He was promoted to first lieutenant (Oberleutnant) in April 1915. During an attack on the fortification at Thiaumont, Verdun, on 23 June 1916, he sustained a serious chest wound and spent the remainder of the war in France and Romania as a staff officer. He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class on 20 June 1916, three days before being wounded at Verdun, and was promoted to captain (Hauptmann) in April 1917. In October 1918, while serving on the Staff of the Gardekorps, he contracted the deadly Spanish influenza and was not expected to live, but recovered after a lengthy convalescence.
Following the armistice on 11 November 1918 that ended the war, Röhm continued his military career as an adjutant in the Reichswehr. He was one of the senior members in Colonel von Epp's Bayerisches Freikorps für den Grenzschutz Ost ("Bavarian Free Corps for Border Patrol East"), formed in Ohrdruf in April 1919, which finally overturned the Munich Soviet Republic by force of arms on 3 May 1919. In 1919 he joined the German Workers' Party (DAP), which the following year became the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). Not long afterward he met Adolf Hitler, and they became political allies and close friends. He led the Reichskriegsflagge militia at the time of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. He rented the cavernous main hall of the Löwenbräukeller, supposedly for a reunion and festive comradeship. It was here that Rohm planned to announce the revolution and use the units at his disposal to obtain weapons from secret caches with which to occupy crucial points in the centre of the city. When the call came, he led his force of nearly 2,000 men to the War Ministry, which they occupied for sixteen hours.
Following the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 9 November 1923, Röhm, Hitler, General Erich Ludendorff, Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Kriebel and six others were tried in February 1924 for high treason. Röhm was found guilty and sentenced to a year and three months in prison, but the sentence was suspended and he was granted a conditional discharge. Röhm's resignation from the Reichswehr was accepted in November 1923 during his time as a prisoner at Stadelheim Prison. Hitler was also found guilty and sentenced to five years' imprisonment, but would only serve nine months (under permissively lenient conditions), during which time he wrote Mein Kampf ("My Struggle").
In April 1924, Röhm became a Reichstag deputy for the völkisch (racial-national) National Socialist Freedom Party. He made only one speech, urging the release of Lieutenant Colonel Kriebel. The seats won by his party were much reduced in the December 1924 election, and his name was too far down the list to return him to the Reichstag. While Hitler was in prison, Röhm helped to create the Frontbann as a legal alternative to the then-outlawed Sturmabteilung. At Landsberg prison in April 1924, Röhm had been given authority by Hitler to rebuild the SA in any way he saw fit. When in April 1925 Hitler and Ludendorff disapproved of the proposals under which Röhm was prepared to integrate the 30,000-strong Frontbann into the SA, Röhm resigned from all political groups and military brigades on 1 May 1925 and sought seclusion from public life. In 1928, he accepted a post in Bolivia as adviser to the Bolivian Army, where he was given the rank of lieutenant colonel and went to work after six months' acclimatization and language tutoring. After the 1930 revolt in Bolivia, Röhm was forced to seek sanctuary in the German Embassy. After the election results in Germany that September, Röhm received a telephone call from Hitler in which the latter told him "I need you", paving the way for Röhm's return to Germany.
In September 1930, as a consequence of the Stennes Revolt in Berlin, Hitler assumed supreme command of the SA as its new Oberster SA-Führer. He sent a personal request to Röhm, asking him to return to serve as the SA's Chief of Staff. Röhm accepted this offer and began his new assignment on 5 January 1931. He brought radical new ideas to the SA, and appointed several close friends to its senior leadership. Previously, the SA formations were subordinate to the Nazi Party leadership of each Gau. Röhm established new Gruppe, which had no regional Nazi Party oversight. Each Gruppe extended over several regions and was commanded by a SA-Gruppenführer who answered only to Röhm or Hitler.
The SA by this time numbered over a million members. Its traditional function of party leader escort had been given to the Schutzstaffel (SS), but it continued its street battles with "Reds" and its attacks on Jews. The SA also attacked or intimidated anyone deemed hostile to the Nazi agenda, including uncooperative editors, professors, politicians, other local officials and businessmen.
Under Röhm, the SA often took the side of workers in strikes and other labor disputes, attacking strikebreakers and supporting picket lines. SA intimidation contributed to the rise of the Nazis and the violent suppression of right-wing parties during electoral campaigns, but its reputation for street violence and heavy drinking was a hindrance, as was the open homosexuality of Röhm and other SA leaders such as his deputy Edmund Heines. In 1931, the Münchener Post, a Social Democratic newspaper, obtained and published Röhm's letters to a friend discussing his homosexual affairs.
Hitler was aware of Röhm's homosexuality. At this point they were so close that they addressed each other as du (the German familiar form of "you"). No other top Nazi leader enjoyed that privilege, and their close association led to rumors that Hitler himself was homosexual. Röhm was the only Nazi leader who dared to address Hitler by his first name "Adolf" or his nickname "Adi" rather than "mein Führer".
As Hitler rose to national power with his appointment as chancellor in January 1933, SA members were appointed auxiliary police and ordered by Göring to sweep aside "all enemies of the state". Thereby, local government offices had to surrender their authority to the Nazis.
Röhm and the SA regarded themselves as the vanguard of the "National Socialist revolution". After Hitler's national takeover they expected radical changes in Germany, including power and rewards for themselves, unaware that, as Chancellor, Hitler no longer needed their street-fighting capabilities. Nevertheless, Hitler did name Röhm to the cabinet on 1 December as a minister without portfolio.
Along with Gregor and Otto Strasser, Joseph Goebbels, Gottfried Feder, and Walther Darré, Röhm was a prominent member of the party's radical faction. This group put emphasis on the words "socialist" and "workers" in the party's name, which put them ideologically closer to the Communists. They largely rejected capitalism (which they associated with Jews), and pushed for nationalization of major industrial firms, expansion of worker control, confiscation and redistribution of the estates of the old aristocracy, and social equality. Röhm spoke of a "second revolution" against the Reaktion (the National Socialist label for conservatives).
These plans were threatening to the business community in general, and to Hitler's corporate financial backers in particular, including many German industrial leaders (who hoped to reap huge profits from the coming Nazi military buildup), so Hitler swiftly reassured his powerful industrial allies that there would be no "second revolution". Many SA "storm troopers" had working-class origins and expected a radical programme. They were disappointed by the new regime's lack of socialistic direction and its failure to provide the lavish patronage they had expected. Furthermore, Röhm and his SA colleagues thought of their force as the core of the future German Army, and saw themselves as replacing the Reichswehr and its established professional officer corps. By then, the SA had swollen to over three million men, dwarfing the Reichswehr, which was limited to 100,000 men by the Treaty of Versailles. Although Röhm had been a member of the officer corps, he viewed them as "old fogies" who lacked "revolutionary spirit". He believed that the Reichswehr should be merged into the SA to form a true "people's army" under his command. At a February 1934 cabinet meeting, Röhm demanded that the merge be made, under his leadership as Minister of Defence.
This horrified the army, with its traditions going back to Frederick the Great. The army officer corps viewed the SA as an "undisciplined mob" of "brawling" street fighters, and was also concerned by the pervasiveness of "corrupt morals" within the ranks of the SA. Reports of a huge cache of weapons in the hands of SA members caused additional concern to the army leadership. Not surprisingly, the officer corps opposed Röhm's proposal. They insisted that discipline and honor would vanish if the SA gained control, but Röhm and the SA would settle for nothing less. In addition the army leadership was eager to co-operate with Hitler given his plan of re-armament and expansion of the established professional military forces.
In February 1934, Hitler told British diplomat Anthony Eden of his plan to reduce the SA by two-thirds. That same month, Hitler announced that the SA would be left with only a few minor military functions. Röhm responded with complaints, and began expanding the armed elements of the SA. Speculation that the SA was planning or threatening a coup against Hitler became widespread in Berlin. In March, Röhm offered a compromise in which "only" a few thousand SA leaders would be taken into the army, but the army promptly rejected that idea.
On 11 April 1934, Hitler met with German military leaders on the ship Deutschland. By that time, he knew President Paul von Hindenburg would likely die before the end of the year. Hitler informed the army hierarchy of Hindenburg's declining health and proposed that the Reichswehr support him as Hindenburg's successor. In exchange, he offered to reduce the SA, suppress Röhm's ambitions, and guarantee the Reichswehr would be Germany's only military force. According to war correspondent William L. Shirer, Hitler also promised to expand the army and navy.
Despite that, both the Reichswehr and the conservative business community continued to complain to Hindenburg about the SA. In early June, defence minister Werner von Blomberg issued an ultimatum to Hitler from Hindenburg: unless Hitler took immediate steps to end the growing tension in Germany, Hindenburg would declare martial law and turn over control of the country to the army. Knowing such a step could forever deprive him of power, Hitler decided to carry out his pact with the Reichswehr to suppress the SA. This meant a showdown with Röhm. In Hitler's view, because the army was willing to submit, the SA constituted the only remaining power centre in Germany that was independent of his National Socialist state. Blomberg had the swastika added to the army's insignia in February, and ended the army's practice of preference for "old army" descent in new officers, replacing it with a requirement of "consonance with the new government".
Although determined to curb the power of the SA, Hitler put off doing away with his long-time ally. A political struggle within the party grew, with those closest to Hitler, including Prussian premier Hermann Göring, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, positioning themselves against Röhm. To isolate the latter, on 20 April 1934, Göring transferred control of the Prussian political police (Gestapo) to Himmler, who he believed could be counted on to move against Röhm.
In preparation for the purge known as the Night of the Long Knives, both Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SS Security Service, assembled a dossier of manufactured evidence to suggest that Röhm had been paid 12 million Reichsmarks (EUR 48.2 million in 2018) by France to overthrow Hitler. Leading officers in the SS were shown falsified evidence on 24 June that Röhm planned to use the SA to launch a plot against the government (Röhm-Putsch). At Hitler's direction, Göring, Himmler, Heydrich, and Victor Lutze drew up lists of people in and outside the SA to be killed. One of the men Göring recruited to assist him was Willi Lehmann, a Gestapo official and NKVD spy. On 25 June, General Werner von Fritsch placed the Reichswehr on the highest level of alert. On 27 June, Hitler moved to secure the army's cooperation. Blomberg and General Walther von Reichenau, the army's liaison to the party, gave it to him by expelling Röhm from the German Officers' League. On 28 June, Hitler went to Essen to attend a wedding celebration and reception; from there he called Röhm's adjutant at Bad Wiessee and ordered SA leaders to meet with him on 30 June at 11:00 a.m. On 29 June, a signed article in Völkischer Beobachter by Blomberg appeared in which Blomberg stated with great fervour that the Reichswehr stood behind Hitler.
On 30 June 1934, Hitler and a large group of SS and regular police flew to Munich and arrived between 06:00 and 07:00 at Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiessee, where Röhm and his followers were staying. With Hitler's early arrival, the SA leadership, still in bed, were taken by surprise. SS men stormed the hotel and Hitler personally placed Röhm and other high-ranking SA leaders under arrest. According to Erich Kempka, Hitler turned Röhm over to "two detectives holding pistols with the safety catch removed". The SS found Breslau SA leader Edmund Heines in bed with an unidentified eighteen-year-old male SA senior troop leader. Goebbels emphasised this aspect in subsequent propaganda justifying the purge as a crackdown on moral turpitude. Hitler ordered both Heines and his partner taken outside of the hotel and shot. Meanwhile, the SS arrested the other SA leaders as they left their train for the planned meeting with Röhm and Hitler.
Although Hitler presented no evidence of a plot by Röhm to overthrow the regime, he nevertheless denounced the leadership of the SA. Arriving back at party headquarters in Munich, Hitler addressed the assembled crowd. Consumed with rage, Hitler denounced "the worst treachery in world history". Hitler told the crowd that "undisciplined and disobedient characters and asocial or diseased elements" would be annihilated. The crowd, which included party members and many SA members fortunate enough to escape arrest, shouted its approval. Joseph Goebbels, who had been with Hitler at Bad Wiessee, set the final phase of the plan in motion. Upon returning to Berlin, Goebbels telephoned Göring at 10:00 with the codeword kolibri ("hummingbird") to let loose the execution squads on the rest of their unsuspecting victims. Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler commander Sepp Dietrich received orders from Hitler to form an "execution squad" and go to Stadelheim prison in Munich where Röhm and other SA leaders were being held under arrest. There in the prison courtyard, the Leibstandarte firing squad shot five SA generals and an SA colonel. Several of those not immediately executed were taken back to the Leibstandarte barracks at Lichterfelde, given one-minute "trials", and shot by a firing squad. Röhm himself, however, was kept prisoner.
Hitler was hesitant in authorizing Röhm's execution, and gave him the option of suicide. On 1 July, SS-Brigadeführer Theodor Eicke (later Kommandant of the Dachau concentration camp) and SS-Obersturmbannführer Michael Lippert visited Röhm. Once inside Röhm's cell, they handed him a Browning pistol loaded with a single bullet and told him he had ten minutes to kill himself or they would do it for him. Röhm demurred, telling them, "If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself." Having heard nothing in the allotted time, Eicke and Lippert returned to Röhm's cell at 14:50 to find him standing, with his bare chest puffed out in a gesture of defiance. Eicke and Lippert then shot Röhm, killing him. He was buried in the Westfriedhof ("Western Cemetery") in Munich. In 1957, the German authorities tried Lippert in Munich for Röhm's murder. Until then, Lippert had been one of the few executioners of the purge to evade trial. Lippert was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
The purge of the SA was legalized on 3 July with a one-paragraph decree: the Law Regarding Measures of State Self-Defense, which declared, "The measures taken on 30 June, 1 and 2 July to suppress treasonous assaults are legal as acts of self-defence by the State." At this time no public reference was made to the alleged SA rebellion, but only generalised references to misconduct, perversion and some sort of plot. In a nationally broadcast speech to the Reichstag on 13 July, Hitler justified the purge as a defense against treason.
In an attempt to erase Röhm from German history, all known copies of the 1933 propaganda film The Victory of Faith (Der Sieg des Glaubens), in which Röhm appeared, were ordered to be destroyed in 1934. The Victory of Faith was long thought to have been lost until a single copy was found in storage in Britain in the 1990s. The 1935 film Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens), produced in 1934, showed the new Nazi hierarchy, with the SS as the Nazis' premier uniformed paramilitary group and Röhm replaced by Viktor Lutze as the far less powerful new head of the SA.
Decorations and awards
- Steakley, James. Röhm was not involved with the Sturmabteiling until after he returned from a trip to Bolivia, but he did work to create armed militia units. He was deeply involved in hoarding arms and shipping weapons into Austria in defiance of the terms of the Versailles Treaty, but was never caught. See Röhm, Ernst (1928) Die Geschichte eines Hochverräters Munich: Franz Eher Verlag; and "Homosexuals and the Third Reich", Jewish Virtual Library
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- Ernst Röhm at Find a Grave
- Newspaper clippings about Ernst Röhm in the 20th Century Press Archives of the German National Library of Economics (ZBW)