Friday, 29 January 2016

Ernst Röhm, rival to Adolf Hitler

Everyone knows the name of Adolf Hitler, but that of Ernst Röhm is far less familiar. However, had things worked out differently, the reverse might well have been the case.

Ernst Röhm was born in Munich (Bavaria) in 1887 (making him two years older than Hitler). Coming from an aristocratic and military background he joined the German army in 1906 and was seriously wounded by shrapnel shortly after World War I broke out. His facial injuries could only be repaired to the extent allowed by the standards of plastic surgery at that time, with the result that he remained severely scarred for the rest of his life. He returned to the front and was wounded on two further occasions, eventually being invalided to an office job.

Adolf Hitler, whose origins were more middle-class, was also a soldier during World War I, and, like Ernst Röhm, he suffered injuries at the western front, although his were not as serious as Röhm’s.

The outcome of the war horrified both men, who regarded the settlement imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, in Hitler’s words, as “the greatest villainy of the century”. They both saw a need to fight on and not let the German military spirit die. Hitler remained a member of the Reichswehr (the much reduced German army as permitted by the Versailles treaty) while Röhm became the commander-in-chief of the Munich Freikorps, a loosely structured organisation consisting of various groups, the members of which harboured a grudge against the new order and were particularly opposed to the growing menace of Bolshevism in southern Germany.

Both Hitler and Röhm became members of a political organisation called the German Workers Party (the Deutsche Arbeitspartei or DAP). Hitler had originally been sent as a spy to infiltrate the DAP, but he found its ethos to be much to his liking and, instead of disrupting the DAP, he joined it and left the army. He was soon to rise to the top of the DAP and transform it into the National Socialist German Workers Party, which the world would come to know as the Nazi Party.

The two men probably first met towards the end of 1919, and it soon became apparent to Hitler how useful Röhm could be to him. Röhm had all sorts of connections in the seedy underworld of paramilitary groups that had comprised the Freikorps, and he was able to get hold of weapons. Once armed, the Nazis could clearly become a force to be reckoned with.

Hitler and Röhm became close friends, as they shared a common world view and the same hatreds, namely of Jews, Marxists and weak German politicians.

Hitler’s skills were clearly in politicking and speech-making, whereas Röhm was a man of action who knew how to use violence to support the politics. He recruited a gang of thugs whom he dressed in brown shirts and gave the name “Sturmabteilung” (Stormtroopers), generally shortened to SA. These became Hitler’s enforcers who were adept at creating mayhem and beating up anyone who appeared to dissent from the ranting offered by the man on the platform, namely Adolf Hitler.

In 1923 the Nazis attempted to seize power in Bavaria but the “Beer Hall Putsch” failed and both Hitler and Röhm were arrested and sentenced to jail terms in Landsberg Prison (where Hitler used his time to write “Mein Kampf”). Both were released early, in 1924.

Hitler now decided on a change of tactics, which was to use the political process to gain power. This marked the first breach between Hitler and Röhm, as the latter was much keener on using force. Hitler was afraid of further arrests as a result of the SA’s violence and wanted to restrict it to being a recruiting agency for the Nazi Party. That did not suit Röhm at all, and in 1925 he quit Germany altogether and spent the next five years in South America as an advisor to the army of Bolivia.

Hitler’s strategy of pursuing a political route to power started to pay dividends in the late 1920s as increasing numbers of Nazis won seats in the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament). However, he was troubled by the fact that the SA, without Röhm’s leadership, was getting progressively out of hand. He now had another group to act as his bodyguard, the highly disciplined Schutzstaffel (SS) led by Heinrich Himmler, and he wanted the SA to perform a different role. Only Ernst Röhm would have the authority to drum them into shape, so Hitler invited Röhm to return to Germany, which he did in January 1931.

Hitler’s idea was that the SA could be used to exert less than gentle pressure on people to make them vote for the Nazis, but its image would have to change for this to happen. Röhm accepted this new role and began cleaning up the SA, groups of whom now went on church parades on Sundays rather than smashing up beer halls on Saturdays. The SA also increased hugely in size, growing from 88,000 to 260,000 members within the first year of Röhm’s return. By 1934 its size exceeded three million.

Röhm’s big mistake was to have a different point of view from that of Adolf Hitler. He insisted on what he called “The primacy of the soldier”, and did not want the SA to be under political control. This was completely counter to Adolf’s Hitler’s thinking.

However, Hitler was slow to realise that his action of recalling his old friend from Bolivia could have been a serious mistake on his own part. The SA was now a rapidly growing armed force, far more disciplined than before, and its members were loyal firstly to Ernst Röhm and only secondly to Adolf Hitler.

Röhm, for his part, was making enemies of other powerful members of the Nazi Party, particularly Heinrich Himmler of the SS, who had risen from nowhere during Röhm’s absence and now saw himself as being under threat. Himmler clearly despised Röhm, despite the latter’s aristocratic pedigree, because he regarded Röhm as the leader of a working-class rabble of bully-boys, unlike his own elite force of hand-picked SS guards who came from a different class of German society.

One tactic used by Himmler, with the assistance of Hermann Göring, was to smear Ernst Röhm’s character. There was little doubt that Röhm was a homosexual, as were other leading members of the SA. His behaviour was far from discreet, and rumours of gay orgies involving SA officers were rife. However, this did not bother Hitler at first, as he still regarded Röhm as a valuable ally whose private life was his own affair.

But Röhm went too far by boasting that his SA was the real force in Germany and that Hitler could not touch him. He was quoted as saying: “Hitler can’t walk over me as he might have done a year ago. I’ve seen to that. I have three million men, with every key position in the hands of my own people”.

Hitler was only persuaded to turn against his old friend when he was eventually convinced that Röhm was plotting to overthrow him. Himmler and Göring invented a story to the effect that Röhm’s SA was going to seize power in a coup, having been offered money by the French government. Fake dossiers were produced to provide “evidence” against the leaders of the SA, and Hitler believed what he was told.

Hitler’s revenge came on 30th June 1934. He had ordered the SA leaders to a meeting at a hotel in Bavaria, but early in the morning of the day on which it was supposed to take place he arrived at the hotel in person, accompanied by armed SS members, and burst into Röhm’s room, where he was still in bed, to accuse him of treachery.

The events of the next 24 hours have been given the name “The Night of the Long Knives”. Suspected SA plotters were rounded up and executed, possibly as many as 200 people. Hitler’s sentence on Ernst Röhm was that he be made to take his own life, possibly so that Hitler would be spared the personal guilt of having ordered the killing of his old comrade-in-arms. However, Röhm refused to play along with this ploy and, having been left alone in a room with a pistol for ten minutes without shooting himself, was shot by the three SS guards who had been sent by Hitler to carry out his orders.

The death of Ernst Röhm and his fellow SA leaders made it abundantly clear that there was only one Führer in Germany, and that was Adolf Hitler. With his one serious rival out of the way, albeit by foul means rather than fair, the Hitler dictatorship was firmly entrenched. On the other hand, there were few who mourned the passing of Ernst Röhm.

© John Welford

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