Chapter Two- The Roehm Affair

“THE NIGHT OF THE LONG KNIVES” – THE popular phrase for the bloodbath that began on June 28 and lasted until July 3, 1934- saw Adolf Hitler wreck the SA militia and order the shooting of its chief, Ernst Roehm, the man who, since 1919, had been Hitler’s sponsor and faithful second in command. Long before Hitler decided to “burn out this pestilential boil,” as he later labelled the SA leadership, he had built up the SS. A black shirted crew of tough body guards well experienced in street fighting, the SS, led by Heinrich Himmler and his deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, was conceived as an “elite guard” and was originally subordinate to the SA. Himmler’s dislike of Roehm, his superior and a homosexual, was an open secret. While the SA had skyrocketed from 300,000 members in January 1933 to three million eleven months later, the SS, which had begun with only three hundred members in 1929, had grown to just fifty thousand by 1933. Himmler’s hopes for expanding the SS rested on keeping Roehm’s ambitions in check. For his part, Roehm sought to replace the Reichschwer, or regular army, with his own SA. It was a dangerous desire. Roehm had never understood, as Hitler did, the need to avoid conflict and rivalry with the military, or any act that might provoke the army to move against the Nazi Party. Roehm didn’t understand why his brown shirted bully boys, so effective at spreading terror and intimidation when the Nazis were out of power, were now thought, after January 1933, to be an embarrassment and an obstacle. Inner-party rivalry grew more heated and bitter. Himmler, together with Heydrich and Goring, used every opportunity and means to drive a wedge between Hitler and Roehm, even going so far as to accuse Roehm, as Hitler’s only serious potential rival, of planning a coup against the Fuhrer. At long last, Hitler was forced to conclude that the SA, unruly and undisciplined, headed by a man whose objectives threatened his own, simply had to go. Operation Kolibri (German for “hummingbird”) was on.

On the night of June 28, when Hitler flew to Munich, he was accompanied by his usual entourage and a small cohort of SS officers. He had alerted Adolf Wagner, the Bavarian minister of the interior, to have the local SS armed and ready. The Reichschwer, under the command of Colonel Werner von Fritsch, clandestinely provided arms, munitions, and transportation. Himmler, Heydrich, and Goring were put in charge of Berlin. Some weeks before, Hitler had secretly picked Roehm’s successor, an obedient SA leader named Victor Lutze. The SA, Hitler would explain later, had been planning a putsch and had to be stopped by force. In fact, Hitler’s overthrow was the furthest thing from Roehm’s mind. Officially the SA was on vacation, dispersed all over the country. Roehm and his close followers were staying at the idyllic Pension Hanselbauer on Lake Wiessee, near Munich. A meeting between Hitler and Roehm was to take place on July 1 – a last effort to iron out the problems arising from Roehm’s stubborn insistence on replacing the regular army with SA. Unaware of the web of intrigue spun by his Nazi opponents, Roehm was looking forward to a reconciliation with his old brother in arms.

But once Hitler arrived at the Munich “Brown House,” he arrested the first two SA lieutenants he met, and ordered Sepp Dietrich, the commander of his bodyguard regiment, to round up all the SA men he could find and take them to Stadelheim prison. Then the Fuhrer’s motorcade proceeded hurriedly to the Pension Hanselbauer in the Bavarian countryside. Without warning, the SS troopers stormed the hotel. SA Lieutenant Edmund Heines, a Nazi Party stalwart whom Hitler especially disliked, was caught in bed with his young chauffeur. When Heines protested, an SS man smashed his face. Heines was arrested on the spot, handcuffed, and, together with Roehm and five other leaders, transported to Stadelheim, now overcrowded with bruised, uncomprehending SA men. The five, including such party veterans as Hans Peter von Heydebreck and Colonel Count Hans Joachim von Spreti-Weilbach, Roehm’s aide de camp, were executed the same day, together with several SA subordinates who never understood what was happening. Roehm, dazed and shaken was left in a solitary cell.

Meanwhile, the swift purge, orchestrated by Heydrich, was taking its toll in Berlin and other German cities. About three hundred people were killed, many in no way connected with the SA but hated or feared by someone in the Nazi bureaucracy. Among them Gregor Strasser,a veteran Nazi theoretician, suspected of leftist leanings. He was thrown in a prison cell, tortured, and then riddled with bullets. The last Chancellor before Hitler assumed that office, General Kurt von Schleicher, was shot down at his home “while trying to escape arrest.”

Throughout Germany, old scores were settled. For the first time the Third Reich showed its true face. In Munich, Hitler ordered the SA regulars to the “Brown House,” screaming that they were al “homosexual pigs,” though he well knew that only a few in Roehm’s immediate entourage were homosexual. In Berlin, Goring greeted the stunned SA lieutenants with abuse, also calling them “homosexual pigs.”

So far, Ernst Roehm had been spared. We will never know whether Hitler was beset by any last minute regrets about his oldest comrade. In any case, on July 1, an SS officer entered Roehm’s prison cell, handed him a revolver, and said, “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. You have a choice.” Roehm is supposed to have answered, “Let Adolf do it himself. I’m not going to do his job.” Later that same day, Roehm was finally executed by two SS hitmen, led by Theodor Eicke, later picked by Himmler to organise the proliferating concentration camps. The corpses of the Stadelheim victims were taken away in a butcher’s tin lined truck.


Ernst Roehm was born in Munich on November 28, 1887, of a respected family of civil servants. Unlike other Nazi leaders, he appears to have had a peaceful childhood. In his rambling autobiography he describes his father as a “stern patriot of the old vintage,” and raves about his mother, to whom he remained dedicated all his life. From the start, he wanted to be a soldier.

At nineteen, Roehm gained entrance to the Tenth Regiment, named after Prince Ludwig, the Bavarian ruler. Until the end of his life he remained an admirer of all kings, especially those of the Bavarian branch. After he entered Germany’s War College, he quickly rose in the ranks and was detailed to supervise the training programs for new recruits. His success was enormous. He loved turning country bumpkins into professional warriors. He also exhibited administrative abilities, becoming chairman of a committee that resolved grievances among officers. Yet his real vocation, as he insisted repeatedly, was to train “raw country youngsters.”

From early on, he displayed an irreverent attitude toward those higher in rank, a trait that got him in trouble throughout his career. Later he would observe that “an intelligent, thinking subordinate is the natural enemy of his superior.” Roehm often went out of his way to let his superiors know that he considered them inept. His ill-concealed contempt did not endear him to the army’s high command. During his entire career Roehm battled incessantly with his higher-ups, and quickly gained a reputation for being unnecessarily abrasive.
Like many other Germans of his generation, Roehm welcomed the First World War. “With joyous pride, Germany enters the greatest war in her history,” he wrote. He was never given to boasting about his career at the front, and he tended to dismiss the fact that half his nose was shot off, leaving him scarred for life. He went back to the front until his last injury, around 1916 or 1917, made him unfit for combat. His talent for organisation must have been apparent, because he won the admiration of Erich Ludendorff, the notoriously difficult administrative genius of the German army.

After the defeat in 1918, Roehm, like many other soldiers, joined one of the dozens of post-war paramilitary organisations. But, unlike others, Roehm continued to engage in secret work for the army, storing clandestine weapons at a cache in Bavaria. Still, he was drifting and he knew it. He longed to live in a truly modern state modelled after the military. Roehm was convinced that a technological monarchy was the answer to Germany’s problems. He was a man in search of a king.

Roehm met his liege in 1919, when he gave a bewildered thirty year old veteran with an odd little moustache his first job. They had much in common. Both had been front line fighters and both had been wounded (Hitler had been gassed). Roehm quickly became Hitler’s most trusted friend. (When talking to Roehm, Hitler used the familiar form of address. Except for his chauffeurs and valets, no one else in Hitler’s entourage will ever be so honoured by such a gesture of intimacy- not even Martin Bormann, the “Watchdog of the Inner Chamber.”) Four years after their first meeting, Roehm took part in the famous abortive Beer Hall Putsch. Many of the conspirators were killed; Hitler was shot in the left arm, tried, and sentenced to one year in prison.
Incarceration provided quit and leisure. Treated more like a celebrity than a convict, Hitler began composing his political manifesto, Mein Kampf. Roehm, too, was briefly jailed, but the court placed him on probation.
Hitler’s admiration for Roehm’s organisational skills grew as Roehm built up the SA. The Fuhrer’s need for Roehm was so great that he steadily ignored every report of Roehm’s homosexual activities. In 1925, however, they quarrelled – though not over Roehm’s sexual preferences- and Roehm resigned from the SA. Roehm soon found himself embroiled in an embarrassing lawsuit against Herrmann Siegesmund, a Berlin Hustler, who had somehow gotten hold of several incriminating letters. In the end, the suit was dismissed, but the damaging letters were to haunt him for the rest of his life. (In 1932 the letters were leaked to the press and proved to be a boon to his enemies within the Nazi Party. More than his homosexuality, it was Roehm’s indiscretion and lack of discipline that angered many of his comrades. In a letter to Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann wrote to express his outrage: “I have nothing against Roehm as a person. As far as I’m concerned, a man can fancy elephants in Indochina and Kangaroos in Australia- I couldn’t care less.” But Bormann was offended by the spectacle of “the most prominent SA commander…. Slandering and denouncing people [in his letters] in this blatant manner.”)

In his autobiography, Roehm defended himself without apology. “Nobody can call me a puritan… A so-called `immoral` man who does something competently means more to me than a so-called `morally` clean person who is inefficient.” For Roehm, a left-wing storm trooper who fought well was preferable to a fearful Fascist- a sentiment he often voiced when ordering his SA subordinates to recruit among the Communists. Or, put another way, a brave homosexual was to be preferred to a cowardly heterosexual. Roehm believed that in order to be a “real fighter,” a leader must remain a bachelor. His admiration for Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Prince Eugene of Saxony, and King Karl II of Sweden was unbounded: “One can barely imagine that they yielded to feminine wiles.” Indeed, the last three are known to have been bisexual or homosexual. He complained vigorously about the smear campaigns against him. “It appears to me to defy all laws of common sense if the state takes it upon itself to regulate the private lives of human beings or tries to redirect these lives toward other goals.” He detested the “incredible prudishness” that motivated the “guttersnipes” attacking him.

Finally, Roehm left Germany and accepted a job training the Bolivian army. From La Paz, feeling banished and isolated, he poured out his heart to a gay Berlin physician and astrologer, Dr Karl Hellmuth Heimsoth. He sorely missed Berlin’s pleasures. His attempts to convert several Bolivians to his special type of eros went unrewarded, but he added in a letter to a protégé of Heimsoth’s, “I will continue bravely to try and spread some culture here, probably without success.”

In 1929 a party squabble threatened to tear the SA apart; a rebel group under Captain Walter Stennes had started to mutiny. Stennes taunted Roehm’s stalwarts at a rally, dismissing them as “sissies in frilly underwear who couldn’t order their boys around.” As the rebellion grew more serious, Hitler urged his old friend to return to Germany. Roehm did not hesitate to heed his Fuhrer’s call, and his armed squads quickly and ruthlessly suppressed the mutineers. The “sissies,” as it turned out, knew how to use their revolvers.

Roehm was made chief of the SA and went on to preside over its expansion, recruiting thousands of adoring, unsophisticated young men. He kept their loyalty until the end. According to his recollections –and even his most venomous enemies within the Nazi Party never disputed this- he never began a sexual relationship with anyone under his command. Indeed, Roehm was thirty seven years old when he had sex with another man for the first time. It must have taken a certain amount of bravado for Roehm to conduct his affairs as casually as he did. Whether this was a sign of indifference and courage or just plain foolhardiness is hard to know. What is certain is that such unabashed behaviour earned him the unending hatred of Himmler and Heydrich, both still nominally under Roehm’s command.

For about one year, Hitler kept faith with his second in command. When complaints about the blatantly open homosexual behaviour of Roehm and his henchmen continued to reach him, Hitler issued an official statement: “Some people expect SA commanders… to take decisions on these matters, which belong purely to the private. I reject this presumption categorically…. [The SA] is not an institute for the moral education of genteel young ladies, but a formation of seasoned fighters. The sole purpose of any inquiry must be to ascertain whether or not the SA officer… is performing his official duties…. His private life cannot be an object of scrutiny unless it conflicts with basic principles of National Socialist ideology.”

Grateful for Hitler’s support, Roehm responded by issuing an order of the day that flaunted his homosexuality and widened the gap between himself and his enemies: “I take advantage of the prevalence of these… excrescences of prudishness… to make it clear that the German Revolution has been won not by philistines, bigots, and sermonisers, but by revolutionary fighters…. It is the SA’s task not to keep watch on the attire, complexion, and chastity of others, but to haul Germany to its feet by dint of their free and revolutionary fighting spirit. I therefore forbid all officers and men of the SA and SS to employ their activities in this field and allow themselves to become the stooges of perverse moral aesthetes….”

Roehm’s bold declaration must have infuriated Himmler, whose loathing of homosexuals knew no bounds. But he could not act against Roehm without Hitler’s permission- and that permission would not be forthcoming until the Fuhrer was persuaded that Roehm was no longer needed. And until his 1933 takeover, Hitler had little choice but to rely upon his SA captain. Roehm’s storm troopers had provided a spigot of terror that Hitler had turned on and off as the occasion demanded. The SA had cleared a path to power. By the end of 1933, Hitler had succeeded brilliantly: most important government jobs had been filled by Nazi Party members; the expulsion of non-Nazis from key positions in the judiciary, the civil service, and various bureaucracies proceeded without complication. Neither left-wing, moderate, nor conservative groups offered significant resistance. Hitler had swept everything before him. Yet some internal problems persisted. Among them, in 1934, was one that Hitler did not wish to face: what do with Roehm and his Brown Shirts now that they were no longer needed.

To put it plainly, in 1934, this swashbuckling mercenary, father and drillmaster to his troops, straightforward and tactless, simply did not grasp Germany’s political reality. Quick on the battlefield but slow in politics, Roehm never understood Hitler’s renunciation of insurrection in favour of a strategy of legality to consolidate his power. Circuitous tactics in the military or political arena were beyond Roehm’s imagination. Roehm was never able to understand why Hitler, now that he was a chancellor, seemed so solicitous, even generous, toward the army and the ancient regime. For Roehm, unlike Hitler, had never learned the lesson of the failed putsch of 1923: if Nazi victory was to be achieved, it would be necessary to win the army’s support, or at least its acquiescence. Hitler’s embrace of the tactics of apparent accommodation, even compromise with the old order, seemed to Roehm to be a betrayal of the original ideals of the Nazi Revolution. But it was precisely these tactics that Hitler had to use to outmanoeuvre the barons of industry and the patricians of the army. Hitler had been elected chancellor by the slimmest of margins. Now he had to reassure the industrialists and army aristocrats that he could be trusted to pursue a course of moderation and to expel the extremists within his own party.

But Roehm kept trying to push his pet scheme: the SA must incorporate the regular army into one powerful unified force, under his command. It was, he felt, the only sure means of guaranteeing the purity of the Nazi Revolution. At first the military had welcomed Roehm, since the SA had militarised thousands of men who, because of the 1918 treaties, could not join the regular ranks. But the high command had never countenanced the possibility that a coarse homosexual Bavarian provincial should actually run the armed forces. General Walther von Brauchitsch, one of Roehm’s more outspoken critics, remarked: “Re-armament is too serious and militarily important to be left to hoodlums and homosexuals like Captain Roehm.” But as the SA grew, Brauchitsch and other leading officers began go fear that the army might well be replaced. To General Werner von Fritsch, commander of the regular army, it was unthinkable that the ragged upstarts of the SA could be anything but subordinate to the professional military men of the Reichschwehr. (It is one of the many ironies to be found in the Third Reich’s history that von Fritsch, who conspired to smash the SA and propel Himmler’s SS into power, would four years later fall victim to an SS plot in which the general’s alleged homosexuality would topple him from power.)

Above all, the Fuhrer needed a strong, devoted fighting machine. He realised that the Reichswehr, not the SA, was its natural nucleus. Even before the death of the aged President von Hindenburg, Hitler had made up his mind: a new war would first subdue the decadent West; then a crusade eastward would vanquish Russia and conquer Europe. To achieve these goals, Hitler had to appease the Reichswehr officers, to induce them into accepting him unconditionally as their leader. And thus a bargain was struck: in exchange for the destruction of Roehm and the SA, the army would swear loyalty to Hitler. This it did. Within one month after the purge, soldiers were obliged to swear personal fealty to Hitler, not to the German state. What the Reichswehr nobility failed to grasp was that they had made a pact with the devil. They did not foresee that “within less than ten years of Roehm’s murder, the SS would have succeeded, where the SA had failed, in establishing a Party army in open rivalry with the generals’ army…”

At the start of 1934, however, when the deal was made, the army tried to drive Hitler into speeding up the liquidation of their homosexual competitor. Hitler might have put off a decision for many weeks- he often showed a surprising and, to his staff, unnerving talent for procrastination- if events had not forced his hand. Roehm’s adversaries were also manufacturing additional “events.”

On February 28, Hitler assembled both the army high command and Roehm’s executive officers. He had prepared a surprise. He announced a timetable for a new European war. Both groups were stunned. Next, Hitler laid down the law: the army was to remain the only legitimate military force. Roehm did not immediately react. Hitler then left quickly with the army high command. Afterward, Roehm exploded:

Adolf is rotten. He’s betraying all of us. He only goes around with reactionaries. His old comrades aren’t good enough for him. So he brings in these East Prussian generals. They’re the ones he pals around with now…. Adolf knows perfectly well what I want… Not a second pot of the Kaiser’s army, made with the same old grounds. Are we a revolution or aren’t we?...The generals are old fogies… And guys like us have to cool our heels, when we’re burning for action… The chance to do something really new and great, something that will turn the world upside down- it’s a chance in a lifetime. But Hitler keeps putting me off… He wants to inherit a ready-made army all set to go… He’ll make it National Socialist later on, he says. But first he’s turning it over to the Prussian generals. Where the hell is revolutionary spirit to come from afterwards? From a bunch of old fogies who certainly aren’t going to win the new war?

A shocked Victor Lutze reported the outburst to Rudolf Hess, the Fuhrer’s deputy. To make things worse, a week later Roehm gave a speech praising the valiant SA soldiers, contrasting them with the decadent bourgeoisie and its commercial values. It was an act of consummate folly. On April 20, Himmler and Heydrich were appointed heads of the Gestapo, thus giving Roehm’s most implacable enemies nearly limitless powers.
On June 4, Hitler attempted to reason with Roehm. It was to be their last discussion- only Roehm did not know it. The talks lasted five hours. Later, witnesses testified that both men were exhausted and angry. On one point Roehm gave in: he agreed to send the SA on vacation in July and August. He too needed a rest: he suffered from fatigue and neuritis. Two days later his rage got the better of him and he published another reckless statement: “The SA is, and will remain, the destiny of Germany.”

Meanwhile, Himmler, Heydrich, and Goring were busy cooking up the “proof” that Hitler needed to make up his mind. Numerous documents containing secret SA orders to start a revolution, to march against the Fuhrer, began to pile up in Hitler’s office. Army generals found files stamped “Secret” mysteriously appearing on their desks. Inside were lists of officers to be liquidated after the new putsch had succeeded. Himmler and Heydrich had to work especially hard even the man in the street might wonder how the SA could have prepared an uprising of such magnitude when half its ranks and almost all its leaders were on vacation.

From then on, everything conspired to drive Hitler in one direction. When visiting President von Hindenburg, who clearly did not have much more time to live, Hitler met General von Blomburg of the army, who reminded him to get rid of Roehm and his ruffians. Even the fact that Hitler flew out of Berlin to attend the wedding of a minor official played into the hands of the SS. Now it could bombard the Fuhrer by phone with faked news of streetfights, uprisings, and other ominous SA doings. On June 26, Roehm received a notice that should have put him on guard: for “behaviour unworthy of an officer,” he was being expelled from the prestigious Officers’ League. Roehm did not let it upset his vacation plans. On June 27 or 28 he moved into the Pension Hanselbauer on Lake Wiessee and assured his staff that Hitler would hold a meeting with the SA leadership on July 1st. all problems would be ironed out then.

Meanwhile, army troops in Munich went on alert; ammunition was distributed; plans were readied for occupying the railroad station where the SA leaders would arrive the next morning for the Hitler-Roehm conference. And on June 28, Hitler, surrounded by Sepp Dietrich’s bodyguards, stormed into the “Brown House” and the Night of the Long Knives had begun.


Roehm had made it easy for Hitler to act against him by so flagrantly flaunting his homosexuality. His unapologetic behaviour had provided a convenient peg on which Hitler could hang a multitude of sins. But Roehm’s sexual habits were a sideshow; they were never the real cause of his downfall. To be sure, in addition to the charge of treason, the homosexuality of some of the victims of the purge was offered as justification for their deaths. Homosexuality within the SA was used by Hitler as a ploy so that he could pose as the moral leader of the Nazi Party and the Reich. After the purge, Hitler had a directive ready:

I expect all SA leaders to help to preserve and strengthen the SA in its capacity as a pure and cleanly institution. In particular, I should like every mother to be able to allow her son to join the SA, [Nazi] Party, and Hitler Youth without fear that he may become morally corrupted in their ranks. I therefore require all SA commanders to take the utmost pains to ensure that offenses under Paragraph 175 are met by immediate expulsion of the culprit from the SA and the Party. I want to see men as SA commanders, not ludicrous monkeys.

But it was difficult to make Roehm appear as a ludicrous monkey; it was easier to make him disappear. Thus, on July 12 Roehm’s name was ordered removed from those “Swords of Honour” that worthy SA men had been awarded as badges of merit. The name of the “Roehm House” was changed. All photographs of Roehm in party offices were removed and destroyed.

Neither Roehm nor his SA had ever harboured any actual plot to upstage Hitler and the army. And it was Goebbels who had suggested that Roehm had schemed to infiltrate the networks of power with his homosexual cronies. Roehm was innocent of such charges. He was a master at street fighting, but a novice at political intrigue. The tactics of stealth were simply beyond Roehm’s skills. Nevertheless, Roehm had provided as easy a target for his enemies as Magnus Hirschfeld. He had no respect for his superiors; he was blunt and tactless when voicing his opinions; and he rarely bothered to hide his interest in muscular young men. He was the most visible homosexual in German politics, he was a Nazi, and he was doomed.

For most observers at the time, the elimination of Roehm and his SA was regarded either as an inner-party squabble, as an honest attempt by the Fuhrer to create a morally respectable society, or as a symptom of the Nazi regime’s internal weakness. Some thought that the Roehm affair meant that the Nazi Party was so riven by unrest and factionalism that it would not survive much longer. Only much later did the world realise that the true significance of the purge was the legalization of crime in the name of the state. As Karl Dietrich Bracher, one of the best informed historians of the period, has written: “The arbitrary power of the Fuhrer was formally turned into a principle…Murder officially sanctioned and lauded became the norm for the smooth future annihilation of political enemies, Jews, and `inferiors.`” Barely two weeks after the purge, Hitler, addressing the Reichstag, declared: “If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this: in this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people. I became the supreme judge of the German nation… Everyone must know for all future time that if he raises his hand to strike the state, then certain death is his lot!”

Ina single blow, by eliminating Roehm and the SA, Hitler had resolved the old conflict between political and paramilitary leadership, removed a potential and embarrassing rival, gained the support of the generals, freed Himmler and the SS from their subordinate role, and bolstered his own image as a tough leader capable of imposing discipline and high moral standards on his own party. But the real meaning of the Roehm affair escaped even seasoned observers: namely, that under Hitler wholesale murder had become a permissible principle of state. This principle, embodied in the Roehm purge, was to have enormous and hideous implications for contragenics of all types – Jews, leftists, homosexuals, liberals, clergymen, Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Precisely one year after the Night of the Long Knives, and shortly before the anti-Jewish laws were announced in Nuremburg, stringent new laws concerning homosexual conduct among men were promulgated. The date on which these new restrictions were made public- June 28, 1935- clearly alluded to the Roehm purge of the year before. The crusade against those dangerous contragenics, the homosexuals, was on.