Ernst Röhm was head of the SA (Brownshirts) up to July 1934. Many assumed that Röhm was a loyal member of the Nazi Party who had created an organisation (the SA) to protect Nazi Party meetings. However, fearing that Röhm was going to betray him, Hitler ordered his arrest and death.
Ernst Röhm was born on November 28th 1887. In July 1906, he joined the German Army and was awarded a commission in March 1908 in the Royal Bavarian 10th Infantry Regiment. Röhm was adjutant to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Bavarian 10th Infantry Regiment when World War One was declared. In September 1914, he was seriously wounded in the German advance into France. Röhm was promoted to Oberleutnant (senior lieutenant) in April 1915 and in the following year suffered another serious injury at the Battle of Verdun. Röhm had received serious injuries to his face and chest and as a result spent the rest of World War One as a staff officer. By the time the war ended, Röhm had been awarded the Iron Cross First Class and had been promoted to Hauptmann (captain).
After the end of the war, Röhm remained in what was left of the army. The Treaty of Versailles reduced the German Army to just 100,000 men – something that greatly angered a lot of Germans. Röhm fought with the Bavarian Freikorps (Free Corps) against the communists who had taken over Munich in 1919. The Freikorps was notorious for its brutality in eradicating the communists and socialists that helped, along with others, to destabilise the early years of the Weimar Republic.
Certain issues festered in Röhm’s mind. He could never accept that Germany lost World War One. He also believed that the hated Treaty of Versailles had been imposed on the Germans by hated and traitorous socialist politicians. For many of similar beliefs, there was not a huge difference between the socialists and communists in Germany. Based in Munich it was almost inevitable that Röhm would have heard about a young political party that espoused similar views that he held. In 1919 while still an officer in the German Army, Röhm joined the German Workers’ Party. This later became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – the Nazi Party.
Röhm took part in the failed Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923. He was still an army officer but resigned his commission after spending some time in prison prior to his trial. In February 1924, Röhm was found guilty of treason and was sentenced to a suspended 15 months in prison. In effect, he was given a conditional discharge.
But he had been at Hitler’s side during the attempted putsch and in later years Hitler was to hold in the very highest esteem anyone who had shown such loyalty. In April 1924, the imprisoned Hitler gave Röhm his full support to develop the SA (banned after the failed Beer Hall Putsch) in whatever manner his wished. However, when Hitler was released from jail, he expressed his disapproval at what Röhm had done. Clearly upset by this, Röhm quit the Nazi Party (May 1925) and went into a period of self-imposed seclusion. In 1928, Röhm accepted a position as advisor to the Bolivian Army with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. However, a popular revolt against the government in Bolivia and improving election results for the Nazis in Germany prompted him to return – as did a personal request by Hitler.
Hitler gave himself the title ‘Oberster SA-Führer’ but made Röhm SA Chief of Staff. He took up his position in January 1931.
In the Great Depression, the environment was right for a blossoming of support for left wing parties. Many German workers were unemployed with few prospects. Hitler’s biggest rival for power was the Communist Party and clashes between the supporters of the two parties were common. The SA defended Nazi Party meetings while they set out to disrupt Communist Party meetings. Violence was common. In fact, it suited Hitler’s purpose for chaos to be created as it made the incumbent government look weak and ineffectual. He offered a new alternate – if you crushed the enemy, you will get stability in Germany. The years 1930 to 1933 saw a large growth in the electoral support for the Nazi Party.
By 1933, the SA was three million strong. The power this gave to Röhm was huge. However, the SA was a complex movement. It was used to support men who were out on strike and attacked strike breakers. This was what Röhm saw as the socialist element within the party’s strict title. To others in the party, it looked too much like the activities of the communists/socialists. To some, such as Himmler, Röhm was drifting offline and away from what he believed to be pure national socialism. He was also a threat to the dominance that Himmler wanted as his SS was much smaller in numeric terms that the SA. Others were worried about the power Röhm wielded and could potentially wield with 1 million followers. But at this time, Röhm had one major factor in his favour – the support of the man who had asked him to return from Bolivia; Hitler. Röhm was the only senior Nazi who addressed Hitler as ‘Adolf’ as opposed to ‘Mein Führer’. Röhm’s SA men were used to round up communists after the Reichstag building caught fire. Hitler still very much needed them despite the negative press that the SA received for their rowdy and drunken behaviour when in uniform. Many saw SA men as believing that they were above the law when it came to their behaviour. Hard line Nazis believed that they brought discredit to the Nazi Party – especially the behaviour of Röhm and his deputy, Edmund Heines, who were both known to be homosexual in an era when in the UK, for example, homosexuality and homosexual behaviour were illegal.
Once Hitler had acquired draconian powers under the March 1933 Enabling Act, Röhm expected a second revolution in Germany based on true socialism. Many men in the SA were from the working class and they now expected Hitler to reward their loyalty with what Röhm called a ‘Second Revolution’. It never happened. Hitler had needed big business to get him into power and he knew that their leaders would never tolerate any advance in the power of the working class at their expense. Enemies of the SA and Röhm said that the Brownshirts were “brown on the outside and red on the inside”.
Röhm probably made his worst mistake in February 1934 when he insisted that the Germany Army should be incorporated into the SA. Senior army leaders were horrified at the suggestion. Hitler had no love for senior army commanders but he knew that he needed to keep the army on his side and that meant rejecting what Röhm proposed. Röhm complained about Hitler in public but was unaware that Hitler had already decided to reduce the SA by two-thirds thus vastly cutting the power of Röhm while increasing the power of the SS led by Himmler.
On April 11th 1934, Hitler met with senior army staff on board the ‘Deutschland’. He was courting them to get their support for when President Hindenburg died and he wanted to become not just Chancellor but President – and he needed the army’s support for this. In exchange for their support, Hitler offered to greatly reduce the power of the SA. It was a proposal that neither could turn down. However, the political instability felt by many in Germany was not in Hitler’s favour and he knew he had to act swiftly when he learned that the ageing Hindenburg was threatening to declare martial law in Germany with the army being given the power to run the country.
Röhm had also made enemies out of most senior Nazi officials – Goering, Goebbels, Himmler and Heydrich included. They convinced Hitler that Röhm, encouraged by France, was plotting a coup d’état against Hitler. Himmler and Heydrich readied the SS for action. Hitler convinced Röhm that he wanted to meet him and all senior SA leaders at the holiday resort of Bad Wiessee on June 30th 1934. It would appear that Röhm was completely unaware of what was about to happen.
Between June 30th and July 2nd, all senior SA men were arrested by the SS. Hitler allowed Röhm to have the option of taking his own life but Röhm refused. He was shot in a prison cell by SS Obersturmbannführer Michael Lippert on July 2nd.
Hitler gave legality to what had happened when he said that he had been jury, judge and executioner and that this authority came within the remit of the ‘Law regarding measures for state self-defence’ passed on July 3rd.