(Out-take from Gay Star No. 4 Summer 1981)


By Peter Brooke





At the end of the First World War, there was a widespread passionately held belief in Germany that the soldiers at the Front had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by politicians at home.  When the General Staff realised that defeat was inevitable, they arranged for the transfer of power to the German Parliament (whose powers had previously been very limited).  They argued that the Parliament (‘Reichstag’) could make a better peace with the victorious allies than they could themselves, since the allies would be more sympathetic to a fledgling democracy in Germany than they would to the old Prussian military oligarchy.  At the same time, the allies would have an interest in negotiating a reasonable peace, sine the German army was till intact and able to mount substantial and costly opposition to any possibility of an invasion.

No sooner had power been transferred, however, than the army, its morale shattered began to break up, while large scale rioting broke out at home.  The new government tried at first to appease the rioting by getting rid of the monarchy and expressing revolutionary sentiments. Later they suppressed it viciously, using the ‘Freikorps’ – groups of soldiers who had informally banded together in opposition to the revolutionary movement.

But in t he meantime, Germany had suffered a military and political collapse which eventually resulted in the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles.  It was in this period that the ‘German Workers Party’ (later National Socialist Germany Workers Party) was founded, in Munich, capital of Conservative and Catholic Bavaria, in 1919.

Ernst Roehm was one of the first members of the Nazi Party, and a highly influential one, owing to his position as Chief of Staff of the Reichwehr (German Army) in Bavaria.  Together with is commandant, Franz von Epp, he had been active in the Freikorps immediately after the war.  He illustrates the ambivalence that existed between the army, the local government in Bavaria, and the extreme right.  The Munich putsch of November 1923 was originally projected as a march on Berlin (in imitation of Mussolini’s march on Rome) headed by the Bavarian government. Roehm was closely involved in the negotiations to bring this about.  In the event, of course – though only at the last moment – the negotiations proved abortive and Hitler spent a year on Landsberg gaol, where he wrote Mein Kampf.

Paramilitary Strength

During that year, the movement split in a bewildering number of directions, but the main disputes were those between, on the one hand, a socialist wing in North Germany  (mainly led by the brothers Gregor and Otto Strasser, and by Goebbels) and the right wing in Bavaria.  And, on the other hand, those who wanted to pursue a parliamentary road, and those who wanted to build up the movement’s paramilitary strength.  Roehm was very much in favour of paramilitary activity and, after the failure of the putsch, had formed the ‘Frontbann’ – a private army independent of party discipline.

While in prison, Hitler kept aloof from these disputes, ensuring that all sides maintained their personal loyalty to him, but in 1925, after his release, he concentrated on building a unified party command to which all paramilitary activity would be subordinate.

With the defeat of his views on the need for an independent paramilitary force, Roehm left Germany and went to Bolivia as a Lieutenant Colonel on the General Staff of the Bolivian army.  He came back in 1928 and had an autobiography – The Story of a Traitor – published by the Nazi Party’s publishing house in the same year. Early in 1931, Hitler appointed him as Chief of Staff of the SA.


The SA (Sturmabteilung – stormtroopers, or ‘Brownshirts’) had been established in 192, dissolved after the putsch, and revived again after Hitler’s release from Landsberg in 1925.  Their leader since then had been Franz von Pfeffer who, however, fell out with Hitler in 1930, by which time a rival had emerged in the shape of the SS (Schutzstaffeln – protective squads).  This had been led, since January 1929, by Heinrich Himmler, who had originally been introduced to the Nazi Party by Roehm.

When Roehm was appointed, he was known as an early ‘hero’ of the Nazi movement, a close friend of Hitler’s (despite their differences on opinion) and also as a confidante of the Reichswehr leaders, notably the powerful General Schleicher.   Nonetheless, it was still, apparently an odd choice.  Hitler’s argument with Pfeffer had turned on the autonomy of the SA from the political structure of the Nazi party.  Roehm had in the past had much more extreme views on the need for such autonomy than ever Pfeffer had (and he delayed agreeing to take the job for nearly a year because of this issue.)

As an older NSDAP member than Hitler he was less likely to be absorbed in the Hitler-myth that almost any other Nazi leader. He had been out of the country when Hitler was most vigorously establishing his supreme control over the movement.  His main contribution to the Munich putsch had been to secure promises of help, which, in the event, were broken.  And he had not played a prominent part in the movement since his return from Bolivia.

In addition to which, of course, e was gay, and made few attempts to conceal the fact.

Genteel Young Ladies

Roehm’s homosexuality had made him enemies from the start – principally Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann and Walter Buch (head of Uschla – the Nazi’s internal secret police).  But in February 1932, Hitler dismissed these attacks, saying:  ” …the SA is a body of men formed for a specific political purpose.  It is not an institute for the moral education of genteel young ladies, but a formation of seasoned fighters.”  The following month saw the publication of letters from Roehm complaining of the difficulty of obtaining boys in Bolivia. This led to an attempt from within the SA to assassinate him.  While he tried to prevent publication, he made no attempt to deny that he had written the letters.

Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, and set about wiping out all the opposition parties to establish a one party sate.  The SA and the SS had become by the middle of the year organs of the state.  The SA which, since Roehm took command, had increased from around 60,000 members to around two and a half million, even had its own prisons.  The only non-Nazi power centre left by 1934 was the (very heavily infiltrated) army.  The army was willing to be incorporated into the Nazi system (it adopted the eagle and swastika as its insignia in May 1934) but Roehm argued that it should be subjected to SA command and remoulded ideologically.

Throughout 1933, in fact, the SA, while given plenty of opportunities to brutalise opposition groups, was chafing under the political control which prevented it from overrunning the society completely.  In February 1933, Roehm proposed that the army shod be subjected to the SA and was denounced by Hitler, who pointed out that an army would be more effective in a European war than a uniformed mob.  Roehm denounced this his friends as a ‘new Versailles treaty’ and, over dinner with Himmler, accused the SS of supporting reaction.  In April he complained  ” … the Party isn’t a political force anymore; it’s turning into an old age home”.  At another meal with Himmler in that month, Himmler denounced his homosexuality; Roehm burst into tears but the next night he held an especially large and noisy gay party at the SA headquarters).

Anarchic Force

By June 1934, a clear alliance had formed against Roehm consisting of Hess, Bormann, Himmler and Goering (Goebbels until the last moment was attempting to promote reconciliation).  They could argue that the state was well on its way to becoming a monolithically Nazi state, yet the SA was an anarchic force operating independently of it.  The SA, on the other hand, took the view that it was itself the Nazi revolution, so the state should be subjected to it.  It was reluctant to become just another component part of the state under the direction of the political wing of the movement (which it had traditionally regarded – always excepting Hitler himself – with contempt).

In June 1934, Hitler, who had, in typical manner, delayed choosing between the two perspectives for as long as possible, threw in his lot with the anti-Roehm group and resolved the issue once and for all with a dramatic purge of the SA leadership.  This also entailed a speedy resolution of his previously ambivalent attitude to homosexuality.  On the day of the purge, he ordered Roehm’s successor as Chief of Staff of the SA, Victor Lutze (who had been proposed by Himmler, to enforce Paragraph 175 of the German legal code (the German anti-gay law).

Hitler On Homosexuality

That he had been thinking along these lines previously is suggested by a conversation he had with Rudolf Diels, the first commandant of the Gestapo (which had been established in Berlin by Goering partly as a counterbalance to the SA) in January 1934.  Paradoxically, Hitler’s argument against homosexuality may also a tribute to the high personal regard he undoubtedly had for Roehm:

“He [Hitlerl lectured me on the role of homosexuality in history and politics.  It had destroyed ancient Greece, he said.  Once rife, it extended its contagious effects like an ineluctable law of nature to the best and most manly of characters, solely eliminating for the reproductive process those very men on whose offspring a nation depended.”

Roehm would certainly have appeared to Hitler to be one of the ‘best and most manly characters’ and his aggressively masculine homosexuality had already been extensively theorised upon in German in a manner that would have been unthinkable in Britain.  (E. g. in Hans Bluher’s The German Wandervogel Movement as an Erotic Phenomenon and in Benedict Friedlander’s group – a breakaway from Magnus Hirschfled’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee – the Community of the Special).

According to Hans Peter Bleul (in his Sex and Society in Nazi Germany), Hitler was also worried about the possibility of an Order of the Third Sex – a gay freemasonry organising in secret for its own purposes.   This notion may well have been encouraged by Roehm’s tendency to pick gay men for the leadership of the SA (though Karl Ernst, the SA leader in Berlin, who is represented in [the play, then film] Bent as gay, had a reputation for seducing high society heiresses).

Male Comradeship

I am unable at this point to reconstruct Roehm’s own politics.  He was of course fundamentally opposed to parliamentary democracy and had been a Royalist before becoming a Nazi.  Like many Nazis he was nostalgic for the war and the male comradeship of the army.  Tight army discipline, by relieving the individual of much of the responsibility for decision making, can allow for a high degree of individual anarchy, and this seems to have been how Roehm envisioned the Nazi state.

He was not particularly anti-Semitic and argued against the emphasis on anti-Semitism after the take-over of power (though, of course, the SA was the main vehicle for Nazi anti-Semitic activity prior to the war).  Despite his love for the army, he was not particularly interested in territorial expansion.  He doesn’t seem to have held any particular economic theories (though Hjalmar Schacht, the economist who fashioned the Nazi welfare state was one of his proteges).  In contrast to the elitist SS, the SA was designed to be a mass movement and, though opposed to parliamentary democracy, he probably had some vague notion that power should come from below.

He could perhaps be summed up as an anarchist, who was opposed to all moral conventions but who accepted that, without moral conventions, the strong will triumph over the weak and who was therefore determined to be one of the strong.  We may also suggest that he was encouraged in this point of view by his feelings as a gay man watching thousands of young men reduced to utter poverty and purposelessness in the early 1920s.  In a Germany that had been deliberately economically crippled in the aftermath of an (in his view) undeserved defeat.



More reading on ERNST ROEHM:

  1. Mein Kamp
  2. Wikipedia – Ernst Röhm
  3. Spartacus Educational – Ernst Rohm




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