Ernst Roehm (1887-1934)
Ernst Rohm was born in Munich in 1887. An intensely militaristic man, he joined the German army and served throughout World War I. In 1919, after the war, Rohm met Adolf Hitler, a meeting which invariably altered the path of Rohm's life forever. Rohm maintained his militaristic inclinations and became the leader of the Frontbann, one of several paramilitary organizations existing in the Weimar Republic. Rohm became increasingly radical, and he felt angry and betrayed, as most Germans did, over the loss of World War I. Therefore, Rohm happily accepted his old friend Hitler's welcome into the Nazi party.
Rohm participated in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, and by 1925, took his major role in the Nazi Party and in history. He began to organize his own paramilitary organization from the sportabteilung, or sport detachment, of the Nazi Party. The sportabteilung had valiantly defended Hitler during the abortive Beer Hall Putsch, and in recognition Hitler renamed the sports detachment Sturmabteilung, abbreviated as SA
, and appointed Ernst Rohm as their leader . Rohm took the ragtag crew of ruffians and street thugs that comprised the SA and began to organize and train them in a strict military fashion. This training provided the Nazi party with a strong military arm which made itself known in several street brawls while defending Hitler and the Nazi Party. But the relationship between Rohm and Hitler deteriorated, mainly over the leadership of the SA and the role it would play in achieving the Party's goals.
Rohm wanted the SA to be independent of the party's political structure, but Hitler forbade this mainly due to his desire to consolidate all control under his position. This objective would have been seriously inhibited if the SA was granted autonomy. Also, Hitler was becoming increasingly weary of Rohm's ever growing radical nature and the unruly conduct ofhis "brownshirts," which degraded the Nazi's public image and therefore jeopardized the struggle for power. When his request for autonomy was denied, Rohm grew spiteful of Hitler, declaring that he had claimed the glories won by the SA for himself. As a result, Rohm resigned from his position and became a military instructor in Bolivia.
Hitler replaced Rohm's position as SA leader several times with more conservative and controllable candidates. However, the SA only became more and more violent without Rohm's leadership, and Hitler began to fear losing control. As a consequence, Hitler faced a potential violent party division which could seriously undermine his ascension to power. In addition, the German army was voicing concern over the SA's violent behavior and increasing militancy. These traits increased the chances or challenges and altercations with the military. Therefore, Hitler established himself as supreme commander of the SA and re-established Rohm as his subordinate in hopes that the uneasiness and violent nature of the SA would be curbed. But, Rohm only militarized the SA further, organizing and training them into a more disciplined organization. Rohm also eased the Army's fears and gained usage of military facilities for SA training by pledging his support in any military operation where SA assistance could be used. Rohm's actions caused Hitler to debate his own ability to control the stormtroopers. Nevertheless, the SA continued to perform its duties as the visible power of the Nazi Party. Rohm amalgamated other existing paramilitary groups into the SA causing their membership to soar. But by this time, the Nazi party was beginning to exert more and more control over Germany's political and social institutions. The role of the SA now became obsolete, even dangerous since their violent nature threatened to generate harsher feelings for the Nazis and thereby undermined Party goals.
On the 1st of January 1934, Hitler wrote to SA leader, Ernst Roehm:
"I thank you my dearest Ernst Roehm, for the services which you have given to the National Socialist Movement and the German people, and to assure you how very grateful I am that I am able to call such men as you my friends and fellow fighters."
Despite that letter, all was not well between Hitler and Roehm. The SA was really nothing less than the Nazis own revolutionary army. By 1934, it had about two million members- twenty times more than the real army! They were mostly working class and many came from among the unemployed. Above all, they were firmly Socialist. That was one of the problems.
As far as Hitler was concerned the SA had done by helping him to gain power. Now, it was no longer useful. In fact, Hitler had good reasons for wanting to get rid of it:
1. Roehm and many other SA men wanted a second, Socialist, revolution.
2. The SA was unpopular with businessmen.
3. It was unpopular with the army, who saw the SA as a "rival", and Hitler needed the army's support if he were to take over as President when Hindenburg died.
By the summer, Hindenburg was very sick. Hitler told the SA to take a month's leave in July. Roehm told his men:
"I expect that on the 1st of August, the SA will be once more ready for duty. If the enemies of the SA are hoping that the SA will not return from leave, we are ready to let them enjoy the hope for a short time. The SA is, and remains, Germany's destiny."
He could not have been more wrong.
A meeting of SA leaders was fixed for 30th of June and Hitler had promised to attend. The night (night of the long knives) of 29-30th of June found the SA leaders at a village inn near Munich. There were no sentries on duty and no guards. Just before 7 a.m. a number of cars drove into the village and sped to the inn. Hitler, carrying his dog-whip, went in and woke up a sleepy Ernst Roehm. "You're under arrest" he told him. He did the same in the other bedrooms. At about 10 a.m., the SS began the round up in Berlin. Some "enemies" were just shot on the doorstep after they answered the bell. Many had no idea what was happening. The Munich police chief told his SS executioners, "Gentlemen I don't know what this is all about, but shoot straight."
Roehm himself was shot in his prison cell after he refused to commit suicide. Hitler later said that he was sorry that he had to destroy Roehm.Afterwards, the SA was disbanded, and the internal obstacle to the Nazi consolidation of power was eradicated.