Ernst Julius Günther Röhm ( 28 November 1887 – 1 July 1934) was a German officer in the Bavarian Army and was badly wounded during World War I.
In the years following the war, he became an early leader of the Nazi Party (NSDAP) of Germany. He was a co-founder of the Sturmabteilung (SA, “Storm Battalion”), the Nazi Party’s militia, and later was its commander.
In 1934, as part of the Night of the Long Knives, he was executed on Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler’s orders as a potential rival.
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), where 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.
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, 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, 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 a resort 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. 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”.
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 a speech on 13 July, Hitler alluded to Röhm’s homosexuality but explained the purge as mainly a defense against treason.
In an attempt to erase Röhm from German history, all known copies of the 1933 propaganda film Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith), in which Röhm appeared, were ordered destroyed in 1934. Der Sieg des Glaubens 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.