Who was Ernst Röhm?
Ernst Julius Günther Röhm was a Nazi Party member and an officer in the German military. Before the Nazi Party, he had served as a member of its predecessor, the German Workers' Party. He and Adolf Hitler were close friends and allies during the latter’s rise to power. A native of Munich, he joined the military in 1906. He served during World War I and suffered a serious injury that compelled him to accept the position of a staff officer in France and Romania for the remainder of the war. He continued to serve in the military even after the war. In 1919, he became a member of the German’s Workers Party and became acquainted with Hitler not long after. One of the founders of Sturmabteilung (SA), the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, he played an instrumental role in Hitler’s rise to become the Chancellor of Germany. By 1934, the German Army had begun to consider the SA extremely dangerous, and Hitler had started seeing him as a potential threat. During the Night of the Long Knives, he was arrested and subsequently shot to death.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on November 28, 1887, in Munich, Bavaria, German Empire, Röhm was the youngest of three children of Emilie and Julius Röhm. He grew up with an older sister and an older brother.
His father worked as a railway officer, who was quite strict while disciplining his children. However, after he discovered that exhortation was counter-intuitive while dealing with his youngest son, he started allowing Ernst more freedom to go after his interests.
No one in his family had served in the military before him. On July 23, 1906, he joined the Royal Bavarian 10th Infantry Regiment Prinz Ludwig at Ingolstadt as a cadet and received his commission on March 12, 1908.
At the advent of World War I in August 1914, he served as adjutant of the 1st Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment König. A month later, he was severely injured in the face at Chanot Wood in Lorraine and would go on to have the scars for the rest of his life. In April 1915, he was made Oberleutnant (lieutenant).
He was part of the forces that stormed the fortification at Thiaumont, Verdun, on June 23, 1916. During the battle, he sustained another serious wound, this time to his chest, and was forced to serve for the rest of the war in France and Romania as a staff officer. Just before the battle at Verdun, he received the Iron Cross First Class.
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While the war ended in 1919, Röhm kept on serving in the military as a captain in the Reichswehr. He would eventually submit his resignation on September 26, 1923.
In 1919, he obtained membership of the German’s Workers Party, which was renamed the National Socialist German Workers Party a year later. Shortly after, he was introduced to Hitler. They were close friends and political allies.
In later years, he would become part of Hitler’s intimate circle and was granted the usage of the familiar German “du” (the German familiar form of "you") when he corresponded with Hitler. He became the only Nazi leader who could call Hitler by his first name or by the nickname “Adi”.
In 1920, he and others established Sturmabteilung as a paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. Also known as the Brownshirts, the SA was used for protection in Nazi rallies and gatherings, creating mayhem and chaos in the assemblies of other parties, and engaging in brief skirmishes with the paramilitary units of the opposing parties. They were also used to threaten the Romani, trade unionists, and Jews.
During the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of November 8–9, 1923, Röhm marshalled the Reichskriegsflagge militia to the war ministry and took control of it. The coup d'état, led by Hitler, ultimately failed, and all its leaders were arrested. Convicted of the charges brought against him, Röhm spent 15 months in prison.
In April 1924, he was made the Reichstag deputy for the völkisch (racial-national) National Socialist Freedom Party. While Hitler was still imprisoned, Röhm co-established the Frontbann as a legal variant of the then-illegal SA. His ambitions for this organization caused one of the earliest contentions between him and Hitler.
On May 1, 1925, he quit from all his positions in the political groups and military brigades. In 1928, he left Germany for Bolivia, where he served as an advisor to the Bolivian Army.
The fact that Röhm and several other SA leaders were homosexual was widely known. Both he and the SA were severely criticised about the homosexuality in their ranks by the ‘Münchener Post,’ a Social Democratic newspaper, in 1931.
In 1932, the news outlet ‘Münchener Post’ printed a number of his private letters which demonstrably proved his sexual orientation. Hitler knew about Röhm’s personal life. Because of his close friendship with Röhm, there were rumours that Hitler was also gay.
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The Leader of the SA
At Hitler’s request, Röhm came back to Germany in 1930 to serve as the chief-of-staff of the Sturmabteilung. He introduced radical changes to the SA. The organization soon accumulated over a million members.
While their initial duties, like serving as protection at Nazi rallies and gatherings, were now performed by Heinrich Himmler’s Schutzstaffel, they still fought the communists in the streets, supported workers in strikes and other labour disputes, and intimidated right-wing parties during electoral campaigns.
After Hitler became the chancellor of Germany in January 1933, he appointed Röhm a minister without portfolio. Röhm wanted a second revolution, which would end exploitative capitalism and land and industry would be nationalised. As a result, he was considered dangerous by Hitler’s corporate financial backers.
Hitler and other members of the Nazi Party came to view Röhm and the SA as hindrances to their own visions about the future of Germany. The Nazis no longer needed an organization that was essentially comprised of street thugs.
Röhm garnered the distrust and outrage of the German military when he proposed a merger between the SA and Reichswehr under his leadership as the “minister of defence” in February 1934.
In April 1934, Hitler had a meeting with the army hierarchy where he told them that if they supported him as the successor of the ailing President Paul von Hindenburg, he would deal with both Röhm and the SA.
In the months leading up to the Night of the Long Knives, Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SS Security Service, gathered a dossier of made-up evidence against Röhm that showed that the government of France had bribed him 12 million Reichsmarks to depose Hitler.
According to the manufactured evidence, he was going to use the SA to complete the task. Hitler, with the help of Hermann Göring, Himmler, Heydrich, and Victor Lutze, made a list of people associated with the SA to be executed.
On June 30, 1934, Röhm and several other members of the SA leadership were arrested by Hitler, the SS, and the regular police at Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiessee. Although Hitler did not offer any evidence against Röhm, he condemned the leadership of the SA. Initially, he did not favour the idea of executing his long-time friend but later issued the order.
Röhm was granted a chance to commit suicide, but he did not. He was shot to death by SS-Brigadeführer Theodor Eicke and SS-Obersturmbannführer Michael Lippert on 1 July in his cell at Stadelheim Prison, Munich, Germany.
In the subsequent years, the Nazi government actively tried to wipe Röhm out of history. He was featured in the 1933 Nazi propaganda film ‘The Victory of Faith’. In 1934, all known copies of it were purged.