After the war Roehm joined the Freikorps and served under Franz Epp in Munich in 1919. He remained active in right-wing politics and in 1921 he recruited Adolf Hitler to spy on the German Worker's Party (GWP). Soon afterward Roehm also joined the GWP. The arrival of Roehm was an important development as he had access to the army political fund and was able to transfer some of the money into the party.
Roehm took part in the Beer Hall Putsch and after its failure was one of those imprisoned and put on trial. Although found guilty of treasonable acts, he was released and dismissed from the German Army. He now moved to Bolivia where he worked as a military instructor.
In January, 1931, Adolf Hitler recalled Roehm to Germany and placed him in charge of the Sturm Abteilung (SA). In just over a year he expanded it from 70,000 to 170,000 members. By 1934 the SA had grown to 4,500,000 men.
In 1933, General Werner von Blomberg, Hitler's minister of war, and Walther von Reichenau, chief liaison officer between the German Army and the Nazi Party, became increasingly concerned about the growing power of the Sturm Abteilung (SA). Roehm had been given a seat on the National Defence Council and began to demand more say over military matters. On 2nd October 1933, Roehm sent a letter to Reichenau that said: "I regard the Reichswehr now only as a training school for the German people. The conduct of war, and therefore of mobilization as well, in the future is the task of the SA.
Werner von Blomberg and Walther von Reichenau began to conspire with Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler against Roehm and the SA. Himmler asked Reinhard Heydrich to assemble a dossier on Roehm. Heydrich, who also feared him, manufactured evidence that suggested that Roehm had been paid 12 million marks by the French to overthrow Hitler.
Hitler liked Roehm and initially refused to believe the dossier provided by Heydrich. Roehm had been one of his first supporters and, without his ability to obtain army funds in the early days of the movement, it is unlikely that the Nazis would have ever become established. The SA under Roehm's leadership had also played a vital role in destroying the opposition during the elections of 1932 and 1933.
However, Adolf Hitler had his own reasons for wanting Roehm removed. Powerful supporters of Hitler had been complaining about Roehm for some time. Generals were afraid that the Sturm Abteilung (SA), a force of over 3 million men, would absorb the much smaller German Army into its ranks and Roehm would become its overall leader.
Industrialists, who had provided the funds for the Nazi victory, were unhappy with Roehm's socialistic views on the economy and his claims that the real revolution had still to take place. Many people in the party also disapproved of the fact that Roehm and many other leaders of the SA were homosexuals.
Adolf Hitler was also aware that Roehm and the SA had the power to remove him as leader. Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler played on this fear by constantly feeding him with new information on Roehm's proposed coup. Their masterstroke was to claim that Gregor Strasser, whom Hitler hated, was part of the planned conspiracy against him. With this news Hitler ordered all the SA leaders to attend a meeting in the Hanselbauer Hotel in Wiesse.
On 29th June, 1934. Hitler, accompanied by the Schutzstaffel (SS), arrived at Wiesse, where he personally arrested Ernst Roehm. During the next 24 hours 200 other senior SA officers were arrested on the way to Wiesse. Many were shot as soon as they were captured but Hitler decided to pardon Roehm because of his past services to the movement. However, after much pressure from Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, Hitler agreed that Roehm should die. At first Hitler insisted that Roehm should be allowed to commit suicide but, when he refused, Ernst Roehm was killed by two SS men.
The purge of the SA was kept secret until it was announced by Hitler on 13th July. It was during this speech that Hitler gave the purge its name: Night of the Long Knives (a phrase from a popular Nazi song). Hitler claimed that 61 had been executed while 13 had been shot resisting arrest and three had committed suicide. Others have argued that as many as 400 people were killed during the purge. In his speech Hitler explained why he had not relied on the courts to deal with the conspirators: "In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I become the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason."
(1) Ernst Roehm, article published about Adolf Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany (June, 1933)
A tremendous victory has been won. But not an absolute victory! The SA and the SS will not tolerate the German revolution going to sleep and being betrayed at the half-way stage by non-combatants. Not for the sake of the SA and SS but for Germany's sake. For the SA is the last armed force of the nation, the last defence against communism. If the German revolution is wrecked by the reactionary opposition, incompetence, or laziness, the German people will fall into despair and will be an easy prey for the bloodstained frenzy coming from the depths of Asia.
If these bourgeois simpletons think that the national revolution has already lasted too long, for once we agree with them. It is in fact high time the national revolution stopped and became the National Socialist one. Whether they like it or not, we will continue our struggle - if they understand at last what it is about - with them; if they are unwilling - without them; and if necessary - against them.
(2) Comments made by Ernst Roehm to Hermann Rauschning about Adolf Hitler in May, 1933.
Adolf is a swine. He will give us all way. He only associates with reactionaries now. Adolf knows exactly what I want. Not a second edition of the old imperial army. Are we revolutionaries or aren't we? We've got to produce something new, don't you see? A new discipline. A new principle of organization. The generals are a lot of old fogies.
(3) Comments made by Ernst Roehm to Kurt Ludecke (January, 1934)
Hitler can't walk over me as he might have done a year ago; I've seen to that. Don't forget that I have three million men, with every key position in the hands of my own people, Hitler knows that I have friends in the Reichswehr, you know! If Hitler is reasonable I shall settle the matter quietly; if he isn't I must be prepared to use force - not for my sake but for the sake of our revolution.
(4) Ernst Roehm, announcement to the Sturm Abteilung (SA) (May, 1934)
1934 will require all the energies of every SA fighter. I recommend, therefore, to all SA leaders to begin organizing leave already in June. Therefore, for a limited number of SA leaders and men, June, and for the majority of the SA, July, will be a period of complete relaxation in which they can recover their strength. I expect the SA to return on 1st August completely rested and refreshed in order to serve in those honourable capacities which nation and fatherland expect of it.
(5) Erich Kempka, was Hitler's chauffeur on 29th June, 1934. In 1946 he gave an interview where he described what happened when Hitler arrived at the Hotel Hanselmayer that night.
Hitler entered the room where Edmund Heines was staying. I heard him shout: "Heines, if you are not dressed in five minutes I'll have you shot on the spot!" I withdrew a few steps and a police officer whispers to me that Heines had been in bed with an 18 year old Obertruppfuher.
Hitler entered Roehm's bedroom alone with a whip in his hand. Behind him were two detectives with pistols at the ready. He spat out the words; "Roehm, you are under arrest."
Roehm's doctor comes out of a room and to our surprise he has his wife with him. I hear Lutze putting in a good word for him with Hitler. Then Hitler walks up to him, greets him, shakes hand with his wife and asks them to leave the hotel, it isn't a pleasant place for them to stay in, that day.
Now the bus arrives. Quickly, the SA leaders are collected from the laundry room and walk past Roehm under police guard. Roehm looks up from his coffee sadly and waves to them in a melancholy way. At last Roehm too is led from the hotel. He walks past Hitler with his head bowed, completely apathetic.
(6) Albert Speer met Adolf Hitler the day after the Night of the Long Knives. He wrote about the meeting in his book, Inside the Third Reich (1970)
Hitler was extremely excited and, as I believe to this day, inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger. Again and again he described how he had forced his way into the Hotel Hanselmayer in Wiessee - not forgetting, in the telling, to make a show of his courage: "We were unarmed, imagine, and didn't know whether or not those swine might have armed guards to use against us." The homosexual atmosphere had disgusted him: "In one room we found two naked boys!" Evidently he believed that his personal action had averted a disaster at the last minute: "I alone was able to solve this problem. No one else!"
His entourage tried to deepen his distaste for the executed SA leaders by assiduously reporting as many details as possible about the intimate life of Roehm and his following. Bruckner showed Hitler the menus of banquets held by the Roehm clique, which had purportedly been found in the Berlin SA headquarters. The menus listed a fantastic variety of courses, including foreign delicacies such as frogs' legs, birds' tongues, shark fins, seagulls' eggs, along with vintage French wines and the best champagnes. Hitler commented sarcastically: "So, here we have those revolutionaries! And our revolution was too tame for them."
(7) In March 1945 Joseph Goebbels wrote about the decision to kill Ernst Roehm in 1934.
I point out to the Führer at length that in 1934 we unfortunately failed to reform the Wehrmacht when we had an opportunity of doing so. What Roehm wanted was, of course, right in itself but in practice it could not be carried through by a homosexual and an anarchist. Had Roehm been an upright solid personality, in all probability some hundred generals rather than some hundred SA leaders would have been shot on 30 June. The whole course of events was profoundly tragic and today we are feeling its effects. In that year the time was ripe to revolutionise the Reichswehr. As things were the Führer was unable to seize the opportunity. It is questionable whether today we can ever make good what we missed doing at that time. I am very doubtful of it. Nevertheless the attempt must be made.
© John Simkin, March 2013