Ernst Röhm

11. Ernst Röhm and the Lost Generation
From Practitioners & Technicians Of Totalitarian RulePart 2 of 'The Face Of The Third Reich' (1999)

So far from fear,
So close to death —
Hail to you, SA! — Joseph Goebbels

Ernst Rohm once declared that he always took the opposite view (1). In saying this he was not merely acknowledging his spirit of contradiction and his self-confidence. The representative of a truly lost generation, he spoke in his self-revelation for those who came together after the First World War with vague but consistent feelings of opposition, of protest, in the Freikorps and armed nationalist associations, in order to transmute their incapacity for civilian life into extremist adventurism and criminality masquerading as nationalism. Active unrest, readiness to take risks, belief in force and irresponsibility were the essential psychological elements that lay behind the organized nihilism of those whose formative experience had been the war, with its underlying sense of the decline of a culture, and whose heroic myth was the spirit of the front-line soldier. Agents of a permanent revolution without any revolutionary idea of the future, they had no goal, but only restlessness; no idea of values that looked to the future, but only a wish to eternalize the values of the trenches. They fought on and marched on beyond the Armistice and the end of the war, not towards any vision of a new social order, but for the sake of fighting and marching, because the world appeared to them a battlefront and their rhythm was that of marching feet.

'Marching is the most meaningful form of our profession of faith.'

It only required the combination of this blind dynamism with a purposeful revolutionary will to make this group all but irresistible. The SA was this combination. It arose on the one hand because a 'pure driving force' wandering aimlessly in political space needed aims and tasks, and on the other because Hitler's plans for gaining power were, after vague beginnings, acquiring a sharper outline. Like a magnet drawing iron filings, to use one of his favourite metaphors, Hitler attracted these men who had been irrevocably thrown off course early in life. He was one of them himself, and he fitted their extremism, their moral brutalization, into his tactical system for the conquest of power. It was not only because there were natural points of contact here, not only because he found in these people a human type perfectly prepared to serve his purposes, that he directed his propaganda so expressly towards the militant groups. The truth was rather that he quickly saw the propaganda advantages to be gained from intimidating his opponents by the parade of uniformed groups ready and willing to use violence, and here more than anywhere else he showed his psychological astuteness. Contrary to civilized expectations, he put his trust in the propaganda value of terror, the attraction of terror spread by the most brutal methods.

'Brutality is respected' he once stated enunciating this principle. 'The people need wholesome fear. They want to fear something. They want someone to frighten them and make them shudderingly submissive. Haven't you seen everywhere that after the beerhall battles those who have been beaten are the first to join the party as new members? Why babble about brutality and get indignant about tortures? The masses want them. They need something that will give them a thrill of horror.'(2)

The SA's mobilization of the coarse instincts released by the war, intensified by the introduction of unequivocally criminal elements, of thugs and riffraff, was not an inevitable aspect of a revolutionary outbreak, nor, as was at times stated in an unmistakable attempt at excuse, was it made necessary by the organization of similar militant formations by political opponents; it was planned psychological exploitation. With growing tactical assurance Hitler ever more carefully appreciated the advantages of strong-arm bands over rhetorical and liturgical propaganda as a means of winning recruits; he expressly advocated combining 'activist brutality' or 'brutal power with brilliant planning'.(3)

In spite of the difficulty of distinguishing the meaning and function of the SA within the movement as a whole, we may now see the true task of the Brown Shirt detachments, in contrast to that of the Political Organization, to have lain in emphasizing the belligerent element in the setting up of an all-embracing system of coercion. The rise of the NSDAP and its conquest of power show the combination demanded by Hitler, although theory was continually complicated by practical difficulties because there were two distinct, though curiously interwoven, power groups with competing demands both struggling for independence. In general, however, the system proved practicable and successful so long as there was a firm goal and an accepted authority at the top, to whose tactical moves both blocs unprotestingly adapted themselves. But once power had been achieved the ambitions of the SA for independence previously smouldering more or less underground, strove for open expression. Hitler solved the structural problem of the 'double party' with bloodshed.(4) On 30th June 1934 and the following two days he arranged the liquidation of his old follower and friend Ernst Rohm, together with the homosexual element within the SA that had lent not merely the brown terrorist army but the whole of Hitler's movement some of its most striking and repellent features.

Death before the firing squad against the walls of Stadelheim prison and the Lichterfeld Military College meant for most of the high SA leaders, from Ernst Rohm through Edmund Heines down to August Schneidhuber, the identical conclusion to identical careers.(5) Service as an officer in the war and in the Freikorps or the right-radical defence associations had in most cases been followed by half-hearted attempts to get a foothold in civilian life, as a traveller, commercial employee, estate manager or simply head of household. At intervals they cultivated the old contacts; there was a deeply ingrained longing for male companionship, for the trade of arms, for the unconstrainedness of the soldier's life, and finally, for unrestrained indulgence in eating and drinking. These men were merely hibernating behind a bourgeois facade which they felt to be alien and 'civilian'; meanwhile they conspired, joined in enterprises that amounted to high treason, in the assassination of Republican politicians, in vehmic murders. Almost every one of these careers included a period of imprisonment, a symptom of the inability to adapt on the part of men who, in fruitless resentment, always took 'the opposite view', opposed in any case to that despised and hated bourgeois world whose values and concepts of order had irrevocably perished for most of them in the course of their wartime experiences. Suddenly, with entry into the emergent SA, this empty, self-alienated life regained its central system of reference: now in all their unrest, their love of adventure, their feelings of hatred, they once more stood shoulder to shoulder with others; their feeling of meaninglessness was shared with comrades and thus, in the blurred reasoning of revolutionary irrationalism, acquired meaning.

There were various reasons for this generation's extraordinary inability to adapt to civilian life. For some it was the excessive psychic and intellectual demands made upon them by war and its aftermath. This was true above all for the mercenaries, whose outlook often swung from right to left extremism, but it was also true for the 'idealists', who imagined they had grasped in the 'fires of the war of equipment' the hem of a new, still vague meaning of life which they sought in vain to rediscover in the drab normality of peace. It was these who formed the true revolutionary core of the SA. For others economic ruin or social decline threatened or had already been suffered. The petty-bourgeois stratum, which provided the main manpower of the SA, was joined by another category, former professional soldiers who felt themselves socially reduced, deprived of their livelihood, and on top of this morally defamed by the Versailles Treaty, and were consequently full of resentment. Common to them all, in varying degrees, was the longing for new forms of community, aroused even before the war by the youth movement and confirmed and reinforced by the legendary comradeship of the front, and now neither absorbed nor adequately represented in existing parties that followed the methods of civilian organizations.(6) It is no statistical coincidence that the top leadership of the SA in the early days was made up almost exclusively, not of the dregs of the urban masses, but predominantly of failures who had started life with every advantage, an uprooted bourgeoisie which found its way to crime as a result of lost honour, lost faith. or lost social status, but took care to cover itself by orders from above, ideological pretexts and formal safeguards. Destined in normal times for the middle ranks of society and with a rather conservative outlook on life, these men were pushed, by the combination of a past they had been unable to cope with and multiple aggressive impulses, on to a revolutionary course outside and in deliberate opposition to every form of order except the military. Instead of the moderate social privileges they had once looked forward to, they now noisily and demonstratively claimed the privileges of force that go with the soldier's life. In the inimitable words of a toast proposed by one of the leaders of the Freikorps, making lofty claims to patriotism at the time of the battles in Upper Silesia:

'There's nothing better than a little war like this! God preserve the theatre of war. I'm threatening to become sober.'

And Ernst Rohm wrote:

'Since I am an immature and wicked man, war and unrest appeal to me more than the good bourgeois order.' (7)

The fat little man with the bullet scarred, always slightly red face was the typical representative of this group, which had gone off the rails and only found its way back in Hitler's army of brown-shirted terrorists; it was obviously more than a caprice of fate that this man should provoke the spectacular trial in the course of which Hitler thrust the prototype of the robust and popular trooper with the blustering self-confidence out of the top leadership of the movement. Coming from an old Bavarian family of civil servants, Rohm shared not only the sociological values but also many of the psychological values common to a number of Hitler's leading followers: above an intense attachment to his mother there rose the commanding shadow of his father, who was 'harsh towards himself, righteous and thrifty'.(8) Rohm was a fanatical soldier and officer, though without the arrogance and strained intensity that put a touch of martial demonism into the blank face of the General Staff officer of the old school. Although from childhood he had had 'only one thought and wish, to be a soldier ', and towards the end of the war was actually on the General Staff and a magnificent organizer, he was much closer to the type of the field officer. He was a daredevil who had come out of the war with numerous wounds and even in his memoirs he expressed a curiously exalted aversion for the word 'prudent' (besonnen).(9)

He divided men simply into soldiers and civilians, into friend and enemy, was honest and without guile, coarse, sober, a simple-minded and straightforward swashbuckler who liked 'the noise of the camp and the bustle of the quartermaster's stores'.(10) Wherever he appeared, one of his comrades from the period of illegal military activity noted,

'life came into the place, but above all practical work was done'. (11)

His robustly practical Bavarian mind, to which all brooding was alien, had no time for profound cults, for emotional enthusiasm for the Nordic ideal, or insane race fantasies, and he openly mocked the complex philosophical mysticism of Rosenberg, Himmler and Darre. His successor, Viktor Lutze, later remarked reproachfully that he had never been able to get on friendly terms with Rohm because he 'did not take sufficient interest in questions of Weltanschauung'.(12)

At the same time, Rohm was a brutal boss, who gathered around him a dissolute crew who did not shrink from a bad reputation and actually prided themselves on their corruption, perverse debauchery and crimes of violence. Admittedly the functions and aims of the SA quickly brought out the criminal energies liberated by the First World War, but only under Rohm was there that ostentation which, so to speak, institutionalized them and finally stamped the SA as a kind of wrestling club with a political bias. Rohm had no qualms of conscience; murder did not worry him, and whereas Captain Weiss wrote that wherever Rohm appeared 'life' came into the place, often enough precisely the opposite was the case. When his close friend Edmund Heines was condemned by a court of law for murder, he called this, in angry ignorance of legal standards, 'an encroachment by formal justice upon a soldier's right to be "consciously one-sided"',(13) as he proudly proclaimed. In his memoirs he spoke with enthusiasm of the time when the soldier was 'everything', and openly demanded special privileges for his caste, 'the primacy of the soldier over the politician'.(14) His view that those in the opposing, ununiformed camp consisted exclusively of 'draft-dodgers, deserters and profiteers' was based on the argument that the only man entitled to lead was the one who, free from private interests, was ready to die for his principles —

'an outlook of staggering naivety', as has rightly been said, 'a kind of total military resentment against the civilian environment'.(15)

He once stated that, since they shared the same activist attitude, he had more in common with the Communists than with the 'bourgeoisie', and in 1933 he told a British diplomat that he

'would reach an understanding more easily with an enemy soldier than with a German civilian; because the latter is a swine, and I don't understand his language'.(16)

Conditions after the First World War were extraordinarily favourable to Captain Rohm of Reichswehr Group Headquarters 4 in Munich. He was one of a large group of ambitious captains and majors who, after their return from the front, exploited the helplessness of public institutions and, with the real power at their disposal, occupied a growing area where no one was in control. Not least of their reasons for being the most resolute in refusing to recognize the revolutionary new democratic state was their almost traumatic self-reproach for having failed to defend the monarchy in November 1918. In Bavaria above all they were all the more free to develop their counter-revolutionary activity against the Reich and its legality because here, as a result of the more radical revolutionary events and the resultant chaos, they found wide popular support reaching up into the highest echelons of the government. Rohm himself rose, through various positions the precise sequence of which we cannot examine here, to be master of a secret cache of weapons in Bavaria, and accordingly one of the most powerful men in the province (17). The activities of the Freikorps and armed associations would have been inconceivable without the restless initiatives of this man who, less by virtue of his rank than through his actual influence, became one of the key figures on the political scene. Guided by the idea of the soldier's right to leadership, he first organized a special intelligence department for the General Staff, with whose aid he kept watch over the political groups and thus made contact with the 'V-man' Adolf Hitler. Impressed like almost everyone else by the young agitator's oratorical genius, Rohm obtained for him his first valuable links with the politicians and military leaders of the province. In his efforts to promote the party, one of whose early members he was and which enjoyed many special favours thanks to his initiative, he brought it numerous supporters from among his own friends or the ranks of the Reichswehr and also supported it during the founding and building up of the SA. But whereas Hitler, the tactician out to achieve unrestricted authority, envisaged the SA purely as a terrorist organisation to assist the party leadership, Rohm's intention, after his discharge from the army enabled him to take an active part in the movement, was to create an armed military force for the revolutionary conquest of the state.

Vague as the two opposing conceptions were at first, a silent conflict, fought with growing stubbornness, soon broke out between them and was not resolved until 30th June 1934. To begin with, Hitler was at a disadvantage. His position was difficult not only because of the far greater power Rohm held at that time, but also because of the large number of soldiers who were joining the SA. There was an increasing tendency, for reasons of organization, for the SA to develop military forms, which in turn increased the self-confidence with which the Brown Guard demanded wider functions. From 1923 onwards Rohm succeeded more and more openly in imposing his ideas, so that the NSDAP visibly developed into a 'double party' made up of two rival blocs: the SA, or Storm Troops, as Hitler had christened them after a beerhall battle that became a party legend; (18) and the Political Organization, abbreviated to PO and contemptuously dubbed 'P-Zero' by the SA. Hitler at this period was little more than an expert speaker recruiting for a movement whose true core was the paramilitary organisation led by Rohm, and if everything indicates that the leader of the NSDAP was at this time content with such a distribution of roles, subsequent events proved that it had its effect on his desire for self-assertion. At the latest after the unsuccessful enterprise of 9th November 1923, which saw Hitler on his knees before the authority of the state on the steps of the Feldherrnhalle, he realized that Rohm's crude idea of a head-on conquest of power was hopeless and that consequently the building up of a great military party organisation was fundamentally wrong. Whereas Rohm, released on probation immediately after the trial, at once tried to reassemble the shattered nationalist armed organizations, Hitler, even while still in Landsberg prison, began to dissociate himself from Rohm, to drop the military presuppositions of his plans for seizing power, and, as he proudly stressed later, remained 'immune to advice'.(19) Various half-hearted attempts by both sides to reach an understanding came to nothing, so that soon after his release Hitler brought about the break that robbed Rohm of any further opportunities for activity. Repudiated by Hitler, whose position and prestige within the movement had been greatly strengthened largely because of the course taken by the trial, and dismissed from the Reichswehr, Rohm was 'nothing now but a private individual'; (20) his name carried no more weight. On 17th April 1925 he withdrew from political life. According to entirely credible interrogation findings, he lived 'the life of a sick animal',(21) removed from the excesses and irregularities of a soldier's life and from most of his comrades. He wandered restlessly, stayed here and there with friends, became a travelling salesman for a patriotic publishing company, and worked for two months in a machine factory, until finally he was invited to go to Bolivia as a military instructor, he accepted almost precipitately 'within twenty-four hours'.

Meanwhile Hitler was attempting a complete reconstruction of the SA. 'The purpose of the new SA', as the 'General instructions for the Re-establishment of the NSDAP' of February 1925 had already declared, would be

'to steel the bodies of our youth, to educate them in discipline and devotion to the common great ideal, to train them in the organisational and instructional service of the movement'.

Together with Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, the newly appointed leader of the SA, Hitler developed the principles of an organization which was to be freed both from the character of the defence corps and from its limited and fragmentary role as the bodyguard of local party leaders. Instead, it was to become a rigidly controlled, powerful instrument of mass terror in the hands of the political party leadership.

'The training of the SA', Hitler wrote in a letter to Pfeffer, 'must be carried out, not according to military principles, but according to the needs of the party. In so far as the members are to be made physically fit, the chief stress should be placed not upon military drill but upon athletic activities. Boxing and jujitsu have always appeared to me more important than any ineffective, because incomplete, rifle practice.' 'In order also to divert the SA', the letter continues, 'from any temptation to satisfy their activism by petty conspiracies, they must from the very beginning be completely initiated into the great idea of the movement and so fully trained in the task of representing this idea that the individual does not see his mission as eliminating some great or petty rogue, but as committing himself to the establishment of a new National Socialist people's state. Thereby the struggle against the present state will be raised out of the atmosphere of petty acts of revenge and conspiracy to the grandeur of a philosophical war of annihilation against Marxism, its constructions and its wire-pullers. We shall not work in secret conventicles but in huge mass marches; the way for the movement cannot be opened up by dagger or poison or pistol, but by conquest of the street.' (22)

In a series of so-called SA orders and decrees, Pfeffer later further differentiated the principles governing the activities of the SA and, especially fascinated by its potentialities for influencing the masses, stated:

The only form in which the SA appears to the public is that of the closed formation. This is at the same time one of the most powerful forms of propaganda. The sight of a large number of inwardly and outwardly calm, disciplined men, whose total will to fight may be unequivocally seen or sensed, makes the most profound impression on every German and speaks to his heart a more convincing and inspiring language than writing and speech and logic can ever do. Calm composure and matter-of-factness underline the impression of strength — the strength of the marching columns and the strength of the cause for which they are marching. The inner strength of the cause leads the German emotionally to deduce its rightness: 'For only the right, the honest, the good can release true strength.' Where whole hosts purposefully (not in the welling up of sudden mass suggestion) stake life and limb and existence for a cause, the cause must be great and true!

The same SA order contains the following statement on the demarcation of the functions of the SA and the PO:

The SA man is the sacred freedom fighter. The Pg [Parteigenossemember of the NSDAP] is the instructor and skilled agitator. Political propaganda seem to enlighten the adversary, to dispute with him, to understand his viewpoint, to go into his ideas, up to a certain point to agree with him — but when the SA appear on the scene, this stops. They are out for all or nothing. They know only the motto (metaphorically): Strike dead! You or me! (23)

Beyond such maxims of a general programme of fighting and killing, the SA did not in fact develop any marked ideological profile, and when Hitler saw in it the 'fanatical fighting unit of a great idea', here too the absoluteness of their fanaticism was more important to him than their strict ideological orthodoxy. The 'proletarian' attitude so often attributed especially to the early SA, in contrast to the petty-bourgeois political organization of the party, meant at bottom no more than the plebeian lack of ties of men who had burnt their bridges and stylized their nihilism into the selflessness of the political fighter. It was precisely this indistinct outlook, determined by vague national and social elements, which allowed SA members to attach to their organization the most varied personal predilections, instinctual attitudes and interests. Matched with the ideology of the National Socialist movement, so exactly made to measure for the individual restlessness of these failures, it had a powerful attraction and went far to meet the need of the German soldier, the predominant type in all ranks of the SA, for a leadership and a rank-and-file both equally devoid of ideas. Unlike the common criminal, such a man demanded an ideological motive for his actions,(24) but this demand was generally satisfied by the empty phrases of a demagogically exalted collective feeling of value, in so far as it was not satisfied in advance by the semi-military structure of the SA itself. There is a curious misconception, rife in a society stamped by militarist traditions, which leads it to believe that a 'cause' is being represented and 'idealism' practised wherever the possessors of individual emotions and resentments form ranks and march in step. Pfeffer's order quoted above is vivid evidence of this. The ideology of the SA was activity at any price, with the background of a general, totally undifferentiated readiness to believe, and its seductive power upon the generation of those who had been pushed off the rails by the war was further reinforced by the romantic notion of the 'Lost Band' claiming to be defending the nation's value and dignity against a world of enemies, at a time when the nation had forgotten its honour and society was concerned only with its own selfish advantage — a notion deliberately fostered to attract recruits. At this point, with these fundamental principles clear, it must be stated that this overall picture consisted of various hues. For example, non-ideological dynamism was especially characteristic of the South German core of the SA. In the North German wing certain leftist, anti-capitalist ideas were rife even if they were vague and never raised to the level of an intellectually elaborated concept and were overridden and finally liquidated through the growing predominance of the central office in Munich. In accordance with the homosexual stamp of the SA, its members' devotion was aroused far less by programmes than by persons, by 'born leaders', the centre of a passionate admiration that was in strange contrast to the strikingly barbaric style of all other expressions of emotion. The general force of these observations is underlined by statistical evidence that crimes of violence of a non-political nature notably decreased in number during those years: the activity of the para-military formations evidently absorbed a part of the country's criminal energy.(25)

The so-called 'good' years of the Republic, which cost all the extreme groups on both political wings considerable loss of support, left the SA largely unaffected. Whereas the movement as a whole, as a political party, found itself squeezed into almost hopeless-looking fringe positions, the SA was able not merely to maintain its membership but actually, thanks above all to recruits from the camps of the dissolving Freikorps and private defence formations, to increase it to approximately 70,000 men by autumn 1930. Conflict and friction, arising both from recurrent difficulties over the demarcation of jurisdiction between SA and PO and from the jealousy of many party functionaries for the visibly more self-confident SA leadership corps, finally led to Pfeffer's resignation. Shortly after the NSDAP's great electoral victory of 14th September, Hitler therefore recalled Ernst Rohm from Bolivia, though not without first himself assuming the post of Supreme Leader of the SA and demanding from every SA leader 'an oath of unconditional allegiance' to his person, as an assurance against future insubordination. (26)

Rohm immediately obeyed the call, and the passion with which he devoted himself to his new task as Chief of Staff of the SA seemed to contain some conviction that, in spite of all contrary assurances, his former conception of the para-military organization and of direct action for the seizure of the state had gained ground. Attracted by the SA hostels and kitchens, there flocked to the Brown Shirt formations during the world economic crisis, in a second wave, countless unemployed as well as the socially déclassés whose hatred against society reacted in conjunction with that of the adventurous activists and led to extreme aggression. Nine months after Rohm had taken up his duties, the SA already numbered 170,000 men. He brought with him the whole notorious company of his friends, whose entry finally ensured the dominance of the criminal element within the SA. This left no more room for selfless devotion to the cause, which had in any case been only a faint and fitful impulse. Rohm, it soon came to be said, was building up a 'private army within the private army', while Hitler rejected reports of criminal activities within the top leadership of the SA 'utterly and vigorously' as an 'impertinence'; the SA, he said, was a

'gathering of men for a political purpose, not an institute for the moral education of young ladies but a band of rough fighters'. The crucial question was 'whether or not the SA leader or man did his duty in the SA. A man's private life can be an object of consideration only if it runs counter to essential principles of the National Socialist "Weltanschauung".'(27)

Confident in the knowledge of its ceaselessly swelling numbers, the SA now became for the first time the instrument of calculated mass terrorism which Hitler had intended. Battles in meeting halls and in the streets, propaganda trips, the blowing up of buildings and murder spread paralysis and fear, and caused a complete breakdown of morale among the Republican forces. According to investigations by the police, its arsenal contained the 'classic' weapons of criminals: blackjacks, brass knuckles, rubber hoses, etc., while 'as for the pistols — likewise in the established manner of criminals — "girls" were employed where necessary as ever-ready "arm bearers"'. Above all in the big cities, 'a permanent underworld war was carried on between the SA and the Red Front (RF), in which both sides made use of low taverns as bases', not without occasional tactical alliances and, following National Socialist reverses at the end of 1932, frequent desertions from the SA to the RF, which in the spring of 1933 were offset by whole units of the RF going over to the SA. The underworld style is also reflected in SA slang: Munich units in the early period referred to a pistol as Feuerzeug (cigarette-lighter) and a rubber truncheon as Radiergummi (eraser), and the Berlin SA of the early 1930s, with the perverted pride of gangsters, took nicknames which showed up in talk about the supposed political-revolutionary impulse behind these fighting units as propagandist eyewash. One SA unit at Wedding was called Räubersturm (the Robber Band), a troop from the central district Tanzgilde (Dance Guild), one of the men Mollenkönig (King of the Beer Barrels), another Revolverschnauze (Revolver-muzzle), and yet another Schiessmüller (Muller the Shot).(28)

While the SA were winning the freedom of the streets for Hitler and thus opening his road to power, the question of what was to happen to its formations after the seizure of power was becoming ever more urgent. Rohm, his self-confidence immeasurably swollen by success, now returned more provocatively than ever to the old solution: a duumvirate with Hitler as political leader and agitator and himself as generalissimo of a vast armed force in which the whole nation was to be organized.(29) Hitler at first kept his options open by giving the SA, after 30th January 1933, the most varied tasks in an unparalleled tangle of tactical directions. Within the framework of the double revolution from above and below, it was given the role of expressing the popular anger that could no longer control itself; some of its units were now permitted, free from all the restrictions of the preceding years, to hunt, torture and murder and, in the first unsupervised concentration camps, to give vent to all the sadistic ingenuity of inhibited petty-bourgeois feelings. The number of murdered within the first nine months of the regime has been estimated at 500 to 600, the number of those sent to the concentration camps already announced by Frick on 8th March at about 100,000.(30)

The elimination of the protection of the law and its replacement by private vengeance had the most varied motives, as a list of some of the victims of this phase makes clear: along with the anarchist poet Erich Muhsam others murdered include the philosopher and pacifist Theodor Lessing, the Jewish theatrical agent Rotter and his wife, and Horst Wessel's murderer, Ali Hohler. As always when we come to analyse the complex structures of National Socialist behaviour, we see an almost inextricable tangle of political motives, satisfaction of personal instincts and cold calculations. In the individual explanations given for terrorist activity National Socialism revealed itself as precisely that high school for the disguise of individual impulses behind ideological pretexts which for the majority of its supporters it fundamentally was — as for example when the ingenious tortures were justified on educational grounds. The SA, wrote Gruppenfuhrer Ernst at the beginning of 1934, has in the concentration camps the

'major pedagogic task' of 'helping misled fellow citizens against their will but in their own best interests to political reflection and the ethos of work'.(31)

Other units were employed soon after 30th January as auxiliary police, or, in order to complete the confusion during the seizure of power, had to parade for church services on Sundays, act as stewards at meetings, or go out into the streets with collection boxes. Hitler called his tactical method

'a unique, wonderfully elastic interplay between the impulsive popular movement and carefully thought-out guidance by the leadership'

this corresponded almost literally with what he had demanded in the past.(32)

Nevertheless the SA were dissatisfied. They felt they had been cheated of their real wishes, and in their violent urge to action they were not prepared to let the promised 'Night of the Long Knives' be suddenly explained away as a rhetorical metaphor. The vague promise that after victory Germany would belong to them had largely become for them the tangible prospect of a comprehensive 'sacking of Germany'; occasional permission to break into private homes or plunder Jewish shops was not by any means the same thing. For others the dawn of the new era was linked with the hope of an officer's commission, a district president's office, a post as forest administrator, or whatever else met their demand for social elevation. Very soon cases came to light where members of the SA had used force to gain positions for themselves in industry and commerce, and in May 1933 Goring had to attempt to pacify disquiet over the Brown Shirt leadership's hunger for office; he attempted to justify this as a claim to 'restitution' and by saying that it was an eternal law that 'he who has fought for and won a position will occupy it'.(33) in general, however, it was rather the officials of the party's Political Organization whose demands were met, and in any case the expectations of the SA were not fulfilled. It was their determination not to be pushed aside without a struggle that lay behind the slogan 'Second Revolution', so often misinterpreted as indicating a predominantly socialist programme, whereas in reality it was merely an expression of the aim of many individuals to enrich themselves or to regain a place in society.

These upheavals finally revealed how the SA had been transformed into an organization with a petty-bourgeois class structure under the impact, especially, of the world economic crisis. Unlike its early composition, which had taken its stamp from the basic extremism of the war generation and the Freikorps, it was largely dominated now by the type of man who was an extremist only till he got what he wanted, the man whose trauma and formative experience was not the 'war of equipment' but unemployment which led to loss of social status and individual self-respect. Not the downfall of a world, but his exclusion from a world was his decisive experience, and his extremism was based largely on an uninhibited desire to re-conquer while at the same time leaving the fabric of this world's order untouched. He did not want to change the world by revolution, but merely to obtain for himself a place in it, if possible with greater security and greater social prestige than before and with more opportunity of exercising influence. Konrad Heiden coined the unforgettable phrase 'SA class' for those classes whose aim was a secure existence through state aid and who, instead of claiming the state for their own, as the workers did at the time of their greatest self-confidence, were content to make claims upon the state (34) — desperadoes in search of a pension.

Most dissatisfied of all was Ernst Rohm himself, who saw the dream of a soldiers' state fade after a few months. With an unmistakably threatening undertone he declared, referring to the many mass proclamations of the victory of the national revolt, that he 'preferred to make revolutions rather than celebrate them',(35) adding that the goal 'was far from being reached'; the national revolt represented only 'a partial stretch' along the road 'to the National Socialist State, our ultimate goal'. Deeply offended, he accused Hitler of being nothing but 'a civilian, an "artist", a dreamer'.(36) From the summer of 1933 onwards he demonstratively revived the SA's old militaristic tendencies and organized huge parades all over the Reich, voicing his discontent in numerous critical utterances on foreign policy, anti-Semitism, the destruction of the trade unions, or the suppression of freedom of expression. He turned bitterly against Goebbels, Goring, Himmler and Hess and moreover, with his plans for amalgamating the Reichswehr and the SA into a National Socialist militia, antagonized the generals, who were jealous of their privileges.

'The grey rock,' he would say, 'must be submerged by the brown flood.' (37)

Thus he gradually arranged the stage, upon which his own fate was to be decided. Undoubtedly no revolt was in progress when on the morning of 30th June 1934, drowsy and bemused, he was arrested by Hitler himself; for fundamentally, despite all his impulsive rebelliousness, he had always demanded leadership and offered obedience. In the early years of the movement he had already begged Hitler

'not to bother to spend a long time explaining any political or military measure. "It is enough if you say: at such and such a time you will be at the Siegestor with such and such a number of men; then I shall be there."' (38)

But at least he wanted to be at the Siegestor with his band, if possible after a battle at the barricades, the smoke of gunpowder and bloodshed. His complaint was that Hitler never called him there. In his dull-witted simplicity he had no understanding of the crafty tactics for the seizure of power employed after 30th January 1933. When the Bavarian Minister of Justice, Hans Frank, visited him in his cell in Stadelheim prison on 30th June he told Frank with resignation, 'All revolutions devour their own children.' (39)

In fact, there died with Ernst Rohm only those children of the revolution who, like himself, wished to achieve in a swift assault what Hitler, in his own words, sought 'slowly and purposefully, in tiny steps'.(40) Rohm's conviction, held to the last, that he was in full agreement with Hitler was entirely correct, as is shown by the evolution of the SS, the true victor in this bloody story. For its influence, its power, later attained that all-embracing extension which Rohm had planned for his SA. And if his ambitious lieutenants had dreamt of an SA state, now the SS state became a reality. Its key positions were largely occupied by the survivors of just those radical activists of the war and Freikorps generation whose revolutionary nihilism had been smothered in the course of the SA's development by the petty-bourgeois type with its material ambitions. Those who perished in the three days of murder died in the last analysis merely because of their impatience, for victims and victors were both unconditional revolutionaries; the reproaches which Hitler had made in his major speech of justification of 13th July 1934 applied to both sides:

[This] group of destructive elements arises out of those revolutionaries who, in 1918, were shaken and uprooted in their previous relationship to the state and hence have lost all inner relation to the human order of society. They have become revolutionaries who worship revolution as revolution and wish to see in it a permanent condition. Among the countless documents which it has been my duty to read through during the past weeks I found a diary containing the jottings of a man who in 1918 was thrown on to the path of resistance to law and now lives in a world in which the law as such seems to inspire resistance; a shattering document, an everlasting conspiracy, an insight into the mentality of men who, without suspecting it, have found in nihilism their last faith. Incapable of any real collaboration, determined to adopt an attitude of opposition towards all authority, their unrest and disquiet find satisfaction only in continual intellectual and conspiratorial preoccupation with the destruction of whatever exists.(41)

In fact this picture, apt as it may appear in detail, is incomplete. War, the post-war period and the consequences of each certainly played an extraordinary part in the wasted lives of this generation. But the great corrupting force which opened to their aimless searching, after the wretched years of the Freikorps, the path to a gangster's existence (disguised of course by ideological pretexts) and finally liberated their already dangerously unconstrained impulses by bestowing upon them the halo of a political struggle — the great corrupting influence of their lives was Hitler himself.

What so fascinated them and drew them under his spell was the promise of irresponsible violence, the terror of which they had long spread abroad, before they themselves now became its victims. In its casual brutality Hitler's retribution conformed to the maxims that had been practised for years by the SA. Strictly speaking, it is not that revolutions devour their own children: it is the principle of violence that destroys revolutionaries.

« NEXT » « Part 2 » « The Third Reich » « Library » « Home »