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March 7th
2004

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2.3 - The Röhm Affair

Some of the Nazis were of course gay themselves, but it is dangerously naïve to believe the the Nazis ever "tolerated" homosexuality. An instructive illustration is provided by the case of Ernst Röhm, Head of the SA or storm-troopers.

Röhm was a member of Hirschfeld's League for Human Rights and openly attended homosexual meeting places. He was the man who, in 1919, first made Hitler aware of his own political potential, and the two were close friends for fifteen years. During that time, Röhm rose to SA Chief of Staff, transforming the Brownshirt militia from a handful of hardened goons and embittered ex-soldiers into an effective fighting force five hundred thousand strong -- the instrument of Nazi terror.

Hitler, of course, had known of Röhm's homosexuality since 1919, as Röhm himself was careless of his reputation. It became public knowledge in 1925, when Röhm pressed charges against a 17- year-old hustler who had robbed him the "morning after." He knew of Röhm's homosexuality, as well as that of others such as Edmund Heines, Karl Ernst, and La Paz, who owed their promotions to their "services" to Röhm. Heines would scour Germany picking up boys for his commander, and the clique met often in Munich for orgies.

Röhm's Brownshirt militia - mostly undisciplined soldiers and roughnecks from the city-slums - contained many gay men, and there was debauchery in the ranks. But Hitler was not yet strong enough in his own right either to quash his rival (Röhm lead a 100,000-strong army) or to maintain power without his help. He wisely decided to come to Röhm's defence: "His private life cannot be an object of scrutiny unless it conflicts with basic principles of National Socialist ideology." When Röhm's army grew to 500,000 men by 1932, Hitler saw a threat and decided that Röhm's private life did so conflict.

Himmler & RoehmBetween 1933 and 1934, Röhm was the leader of the SA (Stormtroopers) and, before the death of Hindenberg in 1934, he was a potential challenger to Hitler's supremacy. With the Nazis' rise to power came an attack from Germany's political left. Attempts were made to discredit Hitler and the Nazis. One of their arguments was the charge of homosexuality in the Nazi ranks. Hitler's old friend Röhm was one of their main targets. Interestingly, one of Röhm's principal defenders was Heinrich Himmler. He articulated the belief that accusations against Röhm were the work of Jews who feared the SS and were trying to discredit the movement.

All this while the Nazi Party had a virulently anti-gay policy, and many Nazis protested that Röhm was discrediting the entire Party and should be purged. Hitler, however, was quite willing to cover up for him for years -- until he stood in the way of larger plans. Party Judge Walter Buch arranged for the assassination of the gay leaders of the SA: Röhm, Count Du Moulin, Eckhart, George Bell, Stabsführer Uhl. But the plot was discovered, Buch was denounced, and Röhm and Bell fled to their friend Major Karl Mayr to find out who was behind the conspiracy. Hitler still needed Röhm's military skill and could rely on his personal loyalty, but he was ultimately a pragmatist.

The mood of the party, and of Himmler, changed, when Hitler decided in 1934 that Röhm was a threat to his authority. As part of a compromise with the Reichwehr (regular army) leadership, whose support he needed to become Fuhrer, Hitler allowed Goering and Himmler to murder Röhm along with dozens of Röhm's loyal officers.

Specifically, Hitler feared that Röhm was attempting to turn the SA (at this time, over 2 million strong) into a militia and was planning a military challenge to Hitler. While there is no evidence that such a plan existed, Hitler ordered a purge. On June 30, 1934, Röhm, many of his supporters, and over 1,000 of Hitler's political and personal enemies, were murdered. While the purge was politically motivated, the justification given for it was the homosexuality of Röhm and several of his associates in the SS command.

Himmler, who had once defended Röhm, assumed leadership of the SS and, in the process, also assumed the role of ridding the movement and Germany of homosexuals. In the wake of the Röhm execution, Hitler ordered the registration of homosexuals and the Gestapo was charged with the responsibility of creating dossiers on homosexuals and other "asocials" in the Third Reich. The beginning of the Nazi terror against homosexuals was marked by the murder of Ernst Röhm.

"Night of the Long Knives"

Hitler removed the glove from his hand on June 30, 1934, which came to be called "The Night of the Long Knives." A body of his troops converged upon a Bavarian resort where they discovered Röhm's men in the aftermath of a "party" - dramatized in Visconti's film The Damned' Röhm was found in bed with his chauffeur, and Heines in bed with another man.

Heines and his boyfriend were ushered outside and perfunctorily shot, while the rest were arrested as traitors. Simultaneously, 200 SA leaders were rounded up in Berlin and massacred. Röhm was taken to Stadelheim Prison in Munich by order of Himmler and Göring, given a gun, and told to kill himself. He refused, saying: "Let Adolf do his dirty work." They shot him down.

On the day that Röhm was murdered, Hitler issued an order to purge all gays from the army, for he feared a Secret Order of The Third Sex. Hitler had good reason to be concerned about the reputation of Nazi organizations, most of which were based on strict segregation of the sexes. Hitler Youth, for example, was disparagingly referred to as Homo Youth throughout the Third Reich, a characterization which the Nazi leadership vainly struggled to eliminate. Indeed, most of the handful of publications on homosexuality which appeared during the Fascist regime were devoted to new and rather bizarre methods of "detection" and "prevention."

While Röhm and his men were being rounded up for the massacre, the new Chief of Staff received his first order from the Fuhrer:

"I expect all SA leaders to help 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, Party, and Hitler Youth without fear that he may become morally corrupted in their ranks. I therefore request all SA commanders to take the utmost pains to ensure that offences under Paragraph 175 are met by immediate expulsion of the culprit from the SA and the Party."

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