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Ernst Julius Rohm

The defendants of the Beer Hall Putsch, during their trial, with Rohm second from right, standing next to Adolf Hitler.
The defendants of the Beer Hall Putsch, during their trial, with Rohm (second from right), standing next to Adolf Hitler.

Ernst Julius Rohm, also known as Ernst Roehm in English (Munich November 28, 1887 - July 2, 1934) was a German military officer, and the commander and co-founder of the Nazi Sturmabteilung - the SA


Early years

Rohm was one of three children of Julius Rohm and his wife Emilie (nee Baltheiser). A native of Munich, Rohm served as a career officer with the Bavarian Army during World War I. He held the rank of Oberleutnant with the Bavarian 13th Infantry Regiment, and was severely wounded in the face in September of 1914, in Lorraine, France. He was later promoted to Hauptmann.

Following the end of the war in 1918, he joined the Freikorps, one of the many private militias that had formed in Munich to combat Communist insurrection. In 1920, he became a member of the National Socialist German Worker's Party, or Nazi Party and helped to organize the Sturmabteilung (SA). In 1923, after the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, Rohm spent fifteen months in prison, during which time he strengthened his friendship with Adolf Hitler.

After Rohm was released from prison in 1924, he worked with Hitler to rebuild the Nazis, but several intense differences developed between the two. In April 1924 he helped create the Frontbann as a legal alternative to the temporarily defunct and outlawed SA. He then served in the Reichstag as part of the renamed National Socialist Freedom Party before resigning in 1925. He went to Bolivia to serve as a military advisor.

During this time, Reichswehr maintained Rohm on its rolls, where he was eventually promoted to the rank of Oberst.

Rohm's return to Germany

In 1930, Hitler personally assumed command of the SA as the new Oberster SA-Fuhrer. Hitler sent a personal request to Rohm to return to Germany, offering him the position of Stabschef (or "chief of staff") of the SA. Rohm accepted the offer in 1931, introducing radical new ideas to the SA and staffing the senior leadership with several of his close friends . Rohm's homosexuality, and that of other SA leaders, such as Edmund Heines, combined with the stormtroopers' penchant for heavy drinking and street violence, added to the SA's notoriety among the German public.

The main function of the SA during the formative years of the Nazi Party had been that of a '"political army." It was charged with protecting the party leadership and terrorizing political opponents such as the Communist Red Front. Their violence and intimidation of opposition political parties contributed to the rise of the Nazis, first in Munich, and later throughout Germany.


Following the Nazis' ascent to power in 1933, the socialist faction of the Nazi Party - led by Rohm - continued to believe in the socialism inherent to the party's name. This faction of the party insisted on nationalization of large firms, profit sharing for employees, and cuts in the interest rates; all of these measures were anathema to the business community that had supported Hitler's rise to power. Rohm himself spoke of a "second revolution," and vowed to act against the "reactionaries", much as the Nazis had acted against the Communists during the consolidation of power earlier that year. (During their ascent to power, "reactionary" was the label the Nazis applied to their enemies on the Right.)

Hitler moved swiftly to reassure the German business community. In so doing, a breach was opened between Hitler and the SA. The storm troopers, whose ranks were largely composed of dispossessed members of the working class, were anti-capitalist in tendency, and they hoped to gain from the "revolution" they had helped win by their fighting in the streets. Hitler was of the opinion that the storm troopers were a political force who, once the Nazis had gained power, were no longer needed. Rohm, on the other hand, believed the SA was destined to be the germ of a "revolutionary" army for Hitler. While Rohm showed contempt for the Prussian military leadership, Hitler was well aware that he could not have come to power without the support of the Army, nor could he remain in leadership were the Army to withdraw its backing. Furthermore, Hitler realized he needed the Army's support to succeed the 86-year-old Paul von Hindenburg as President and Commander-in-Chief when von Hindenburg died.

In 1934, as it became clear that the President was weakening and approaching death, many factions in Germany devised schemes to position their own favorite candidates as von Hindenburg's successor. Shirer writes that a group of conservatives - including many within the armed forces - sought the return of Crown Prince Wilhelm, the son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, to Germany either as President or as head of a re-established German monarchy.

Germany's military leadership was incensed by Rohm's proposal in February 1934 that Germany's armed forces (the Reichswehr) be absorbed into a single organization wherein the SA would have a clear numerical superiority and, thereby, become dominant. The Army viewed the SA as a brawling mob of undisciplined street fighters, and the tales of homosexuality and "corrupt morals" were well known within the Army; the officer corps unanimously rejected Rohm's proposal, citing the destruction of German military honor and discipline were Rohm's brawling storm troopers to gain control of the armed forces.

Hitler was presented with the opportunity to meet with the leaders of Germany's armed services on April 11 on board the pocket battleship Deutschland while reviewing the military's spring maneuvers in East Prussia. In the company of Defense Minister Werner von Blomberg, Hitler met with the army commander-in-chief - General Werner von Fritsch - and the head of the navy - Admiral Erich Raeder. Hitler advised the commanders of the deterioration of Hindenburg's health and proposed that the Reichswehr support Hitler's succession to the presidency. In exchange, Hitler offered to reduce the size of the SA, suppress Rohm's ambitions, and guarantee that the Reichswehr would become Germany's sole bearer-of-arms. Shirer's account states that it was quite likely that Hitler also seduced the military leaders with a promise to expand both the army and the navy in exchange for their support.

The tension within the Nazis worsened after further calls from Rohm for the "second revolution," (this time against the conservative power structure) and after a showdown between Rohm and Hitler in early June.

Similarly, the conservative industrialists who had supported Hitler's rise to the chancellorship in 1933 continued to voice unease over the socialist leanings Rohm shared with the Strasser brothers, in particular their calls for the "second revolution." Through their close relationship with President von Hindenburg, both conservative groups - the officer corps and the industrialists - made their displeasure known to him.

In early June of 1934, von Hindenburg, though ailing, conveyed an ultimatum to Hitler that, unless the tension in Germany was ended, he was considering a declaration of martial law. Knowing that such a step would take power out of his hands - possibly forever - Hitler decided he could no longer forestall honoring his pact with the Reichswehr to suppress the SA and end its plans for the "second revolution."


In spite of the pressure applied to him, Hitler postponed the decision to do away with his long-time comrade to the very end. However, once Hitler knew he had to act, he did so relentlessly. Himmler, Heydrich, and Goring, based on Rohms anti-Hitler rhetoric, contrived a plot of the SA that was to overthrow Hitler. Rohm was executed without trial during the purge of the SA - the "Night of the Long Knives" in June 1934. Following his arrest by Hitler himself at the resort of Bad Wiessee on June 30, Rohm was held briefly at Stadelheim Prison in Munich. There, on July 2, he was visited by SS-Brigadefuhrer Theodor Eicke (then the Kommandant of Dachau) and SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Michel Lippert. Lippert shot Rohm at point-blank range after he refused to commit suicide with a pistol given to him. Rohm may not have realized who had ordered his execution; it has been unverifiably reported that his last words were reported as being "mein Fuhrer, mein Fuhrer". Eicke's response to the dying Rohm was said to have been, "You should have thought of that before. It is too late now." The measures taken by Hitler's followers during that weekend were made legal after the fact by a decree in the Law Regarding Measures of State Self-Defense on July 3. Ernst Rohm was buried in Westfriedhof (German for "west cemetery") in Munich.

Rohm's sexual orientation

Rohm was in fact a homosexual, as was his deputy in the SA, Edmund Heines. Much was made of this in Nazi accounts of the purge, as a way of justifying his execution. Having been outed in 1925, however, Rohm made little attempt to hide his sexuality. Despite Hitler's pretense of shock upon discovering his deputy's sexual orientation, he had in fact long known that Rohm was homosexual.

During Rohm's tenure at the head of the SA, it has been suggested that a number of homosexual men (notably Karl Ernst, a former bouncer at a gay nightclub, and Edmund Heines) were appointed to and promoted within the SA as a result of high-level liaisons with powerful SA figures. This was despite the openly anti-gay policies of the Nazis, exemplified by their strengthening of Paragraph 175 (criminalising homosexual acts) of the German Criminal Code of 1871.

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