Rohm was born in 1887. By twenty-six he was an Army captain, thrice wounded in the First World War. His views on the old bougeoisie of the Weimar Republic were well known. He detested them. But he disliked Communism too, and fought in the Free Corps to squash the communist government of Bavaria in 1919 when he was thirty-two. It was at that time that he formed a special political intelligence unit which would later become known as the SA (Sturm Abteilung, formed 1921).
It was Ernst Rohm who recruited a virtual unknown called Adolf Hitler to infiltrate the German Workers’ Party, and it was from these beginnings that the National Socialist Party grew. Rohm became a close and trusted confidant of Hitler, almost a friend in as much as it was possible for Hitler to maintain friendships.
In 1923 Rohm took part in the failed putsch at Munich, causing his abrupt dismissal from the Army. In 1931 Hitler made Rohm chief of the newly formed SA, after which he played a dominant role in Hitler’s unstoppable rise to power. His methods were crude, but no one doubted his intelligence, especially Hitler.
The latter was elected Chancellor in 1933, and Ernst thought that he and the SA would rise too. He became bitter when this did not happen. Historians agree that this was the time Hitler, prompted by his associates Goering and Goebbels began to think of Rohm with suspicion. Rohm, for his part, distrusted his old friend because he thought he was too readily influenced by the old Junker class – industrialists, bankers and army officers. He did not appreciate that Hitler hated the last of these – army officers – above all else. If a general had a von before his surname he had to work very hard to gain Adolf’s faint admiration.
Gradually, a dividing line grew between the two old friends, mainly because Rohm thought of the German Army as a stronghold of reactionary, outdated ideas, whereas Hitler knew his future depended on the Army above all else. Rohm on the other hand was suggesting merging the Army with his SA, making it a people’s milititia under his own control.
This really alarmed the generals (whose support Hitler needed for his super-aggressive foreign policy). Also, Hitler knew he would need senior officers’ backing when von Hindenberg died, in order to be made President of the Republic.
To all his other enemies Rohm now added the worst – Himmler – who told Hitler that Rohm was planning to take over the Nazi Party, after which he would wipe them all out, Goering, Hess, Himmler, Goebbels and all. Hitler was easily convinced.
Ernest Rohm was an affected homosexual, given to excessive alcoholic partying and abuse of young soldiers. Himmler whispered a lot of this in the Fuhrer’s ear. For the greens-eating, alcohol-hating Adolf it was the final straw. Rohm made a drunken speech to his cronies, which was reported to the Leader. In it Rohm muttered that “Adolf is a swine. He will give us all away. He only associates with reactionaries.” It was time for Rohm to go.
The Night of the Long Knives
On 30 June, 1934, Hitler gave the world a preview of what was about to happen to it after 1939. He ordered the death of Ernst Rohm and the dismantling of the SA. He gave the job to the Gestapo and the SS (q.v.) and put Reinhard Heydrich in charge, though he warned that he would personally take part in the putsch. The German Army provided transport and munitions. In Berlin and all over northern Germany the purge was carried out with surprisingly little resistance, mainly because Heydrich (who would go on to even greater things until he was blown up by Czechoslovak rebels q.v.) planned a series of nocturnal assaults on Barracks, night clubs, late-night cafés etc. used by the SA. Hitler himself was among the executioners.
In the three nights of mayhem hundred of people were killed, including persons who Hitler and Co. did not like, such as General von Schleisser, who had been Chancellor before Hitler. The SS took care to orchestrate the slaughter so that it looked like a cleaning up of perverted and immoral interests in the higher ranks. Officers in the SA of field rank were murdered in bed with corporals who had been paid, poor fools, to please an officer. Propaganda put out by Goebbels calmed the German people, who were at first shocked by such violence, telling them that Hitler had saved Germany from civil war. Hitler had made ‘a soldierly decision’ and had shown ‘exemplary courage’ in destroying ‘mutineers and traitors’.
Hindenberg died on I August. The Army did not object when he instantly combined the offices of Chancellor and President, and took the overall title of Fuhrer. All officers and men were required to sign an oath of allegiance to him. Later, this would make resistance to him almost impossible. The SA was reduced to a harmless bureaucratic section of Government, and the SS grew to become a separate organisation (it had been a part of the SA). From now on, terror would become institutionalized and controlled.
Among the many filmed versions of the Night, there stands out a clip from Luccino Visconti’s film The Damned (it has other titles), highly imaginative, but true to the treacherous horror of the original.