Ernst Julius Günther Röhm (German pronunciation: [ˈɛɐ̯nst ˈʁøːm]; 28 November 1887 – 1 July 1934) was a German military officer and founding member of the Nazi Party. As one of the first 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, Hitler had come to see him as a potential rival, and he was executed during the Night of the Long Knives.
Ernst Röhm was born in Munich, the youngest of three children (older sister and brother) of Emilie and Julius Röhm. His father, 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 had been 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 survived and 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") (Freikorps Epp), formed at 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, when it occupied the War Ministry for sixteen hours.
Following the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 9 November 1923, Röhm, Hitler, General Erich Ludendorff, Lieutenant Colonel 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 his 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 from Landsberg 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 SA. At Landsberg prison in April 1924, Röhm had also 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 movements 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. But 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 Gruppen 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 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 also 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. One American journalist later wrote, "[Röhm's] chiefs, men of the rank of Gruppenfuehrer or Obergruppenfuehrer, commanding units of several hundred thousand Storm Troopers, were almost without exception homosexuals." 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 1933, SA members were appointed auxiliary police and marched into local government offices forcing officials to surrender their authority to the Nazis.
Röhm and the SA regarded themselves as the vanguard of the "National Socialist revolution." After Hitler's 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).
All that was 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 Reichswehr leadership. Not surprisingly, the entire 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 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 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 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 comrade to the very end. 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 (Hitler's 45th birthday) Göring transferred control of the Prussian political police (Gestapo) to Himmler, who he believed could be counted on to move against Röhm. Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and Göring used Röhm's published anti-Hitler rhetoric to support the claim that the SA was plotting to overthrow Hitler. Himmler and his deputy Heydrich, who was the chief of the SS Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst or SD), built up a dossier of fabricated evidence to suggest that Röhm had been paid twelve million marks by France to overthrow Hitler. Leading officers were shown falsified evidence on 24 June that Röhm planned to use the SA to launch a plot against the government, the so-called Röhm-Putsch.
Reports of the SA threat were passed to Hitler, who felt it was time to act. Meanwhile, Göring, Himmler, Heydrich and Viktor Lutze (at Hitler's direction) drew up lists of people inside and outside the SA marked for death. Himmler and Heydrich issued marching orders to the SS, while Sepp Dietrich went around showing army officers a purported SA execution list.
Meanwhile, Röhm and several of his companions went on holiday at Hotel Hanselbauer in Bad Wiessee. On 28 June, Hitler phoned Röhm and asked him to gather all the SA leaders at Bad Wiessee on 30 June for a conference. Röhm agreed, apparently unsuspecting.
The Night of the Long Knives began two days later. At dawn on 30 June, Hitler flew to Munich and drove to Bad Wiessee, where he personally arrested Röhm and the other SA leaders, who were all consigned to Stadelheim Prison in Munich. From 30 June to 2 July 1934 the entire leadership of the SA was purged, along with many other political adversaries of the Nazis.
Hitler was hesitant in authorizing Röhm's execution, and gave him the option of suicide. On 1 July, SS-Brigadeführer Theodor Eicke (then Kommandant of the Dachau concentration camp) and SS-Obersturmbannführer Michael Lippert walked into his cell, laid a pistol on the table, told Röhm he had ten minutes to use it and left. He refused, stating, "If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself." Having heard nothing after the stipulated ten minutes, Eicke and Lippert returned to Röhm's cell to find him standing with his bare chest puffed out in a gesture of defiance, and Lippert shot him in the chest at point-blank range. The bullet hit Röhm in the heart, killing him almost instantly. He was buried in the Westfriedhof ("Western Cemetery") in Munich.
The purge of the SA was legalized the next day with a one-paragraph decree: the Law Regarding Measures of State Self-Defense. 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.
John Toland noted that Hitler had long been privately aware that Röhm and his SA associates were homosexuals; in their defense Hitler had stated that "the SA are a band of warriors and not a moral institution". In a speech on 13 July, Hitler alluded to Röhm's homosexuality but explained the purge as mainly a defense against treason.
A few days later, the claim of an incipient SA rebellion was publicized and became the official reason for the entire wave of arrests and executions. Indeed, the affair was labelled the "Röhm Putsch" by German historians, although after World War II the claim has usually been qualified as "the alleged Röhm Putsch" or known as the "Night of the Long Knives."
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 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.