Sex and Character: The Conscious Amoralism of Ernst Röhm

A PROMINENT leader of the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung movement during the rise of the Third Reich, Ernst Röhm (1887-1934) had once been engaged to the daughter of one of his military superiors. At the turn of the century, in fact, he was even considered by his fellow cadets at Ingolstadt to be a ‘foppish’ type with a keen eye for the ladies. Whilst Röhm is often dismissed as a ‘homosexual’ therefore, he actually led a profoundly bisexual lifestyle and enjoyed promiscuous encounters with people of both sexes.

One of Röhm’s more interesting standpoints was his controversial attitude towards morality. Like the famous nineteenth-century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), he believed that advocates of morality were attempting to mask their own clandestine hypocrisy. Röhm was particularly scathing towards the political organisations which tried to use morality in order to gain support. For Röhm, the very notion of an underlying moral contract, spiritual or otherwise, was total anathema and in that sense his outlook was anti-bourgeois and completely amoral. Röhm never looked at things in isolation, naturally, and as a lifelong soldier he was always interested in the military connotations:

The soldier turns away from this kind of false morality in disgust. What mattered to me in the field was not whether a soldier measured up to society’s morals, but only whether he was a dependable man or not. An immoral man who achieves something is far more acceptable to me than a ‘morally upright’ fellow who accomplishes nothing. So-called society commits no greater sin and inflicts no greater harm than it does in this way. Suicides of the best people speak only too eloquently here.[1]

Whilst the reactionaries of the Weimar period were prone to condemn the ‘degeneracy’ of German youth, therefore, Röhm believed that imagined notions of morality did not change the fact that most young people were optimistic, principled and carried with them high ideals.

Röhm’s amoral tendencies, a term which must not be confused with immorality, meant that he completely rejected the prevailing mores of his bourgeoisie contemporaries. Rather like the infamous French aristocrat, the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), Röhm’s mental and physical nature was an explosive cocktail of philosophical transgression and sexual libertinism. At the same time, however, we must not exaggerate the carnal proclivities of a man who, in reality, was simply living at a time when such behaviour was considered to be completely unacceptable. It is a question of context.

In a letter to the Nazi physician, Dr. Karl-Günter Heimsoth (1899-1934), on February 25th, 1929, Röhm discussed his homosexual tendencies openly:

I can also remember […] a series of homosexual feelings and acts back to my childhood, but have had sexual relations with many women as well. To be sure, never with particular pleasure; also I earned three cases of gonorrhoea from this, which I later considered to be nature’s punishment for unnatural intercourse. [2]

Drawing on the sexological findings of Otto Weininger’s Geschlecht und Charakter (1903) and Hans Blüher’s Die Rolle der Erotik in der männlichen Gesellschaft (1919), Dr. Heimsoth was a homosexual rights’ campaigner and had both a professional and personal interest in ‘homophilia’, or same-sex relationships.

Attitudes towards Röhm’s sexuality within the NSDAP varied:

His homosexuality divided opinions about him within the Nazi movement itself. the attitude of some leaders, notably Hitler, mirrored Röhm’s own man-of-the-world attitude, though sometimes this “tolerance” was patronising and self-conscious. Some accepted his sexuality without really understanding it, while others were strongly and lastingly hostile to him for this reason. [3]

In January 1925, Röhm had a suitcase stolen by a seventeen year-old-youth. When he reported it to the police, however, the teenager revealed that he had been invited back to Röhm’s hotel room and asked to perform an ‘unreasonable’ sexual act. Homosexuality, according to Section 175 of the criminal code, was completely illegal in Germany at that time. This led to the growth of a vigorous homosexual rights movement.

Discussing Berlin’s homosexual underworld in further correspondence with Dr. Heimsoth on August 11th, 1929, Röhm explained that the

bath house there is however still in my view the peak of all human happiness. At any rate the type and manner of intercourse there pleased me exceptionally. [4]

It is difficult to ascertain how much Röhm’s family actually knew about his sexual activities, but they had certainly become common knowledge throughout the ranks of both the Reichswehr and the various paramilitary formations. Indeed, many of his relationships – such as those with Karl Zehnter (1900-1934) or Gerhard von Prosch (1895-1937), for example – involved men from similar military backgrounds. Zehnter was part of the Heines-Rossbach circle and had won a seat in the Reichstag. Prosch, meanwhile, who had served in the Saxon State Police and the SA, was later sentenced to eight months in prison for pederasty.

On one occasion, in 1931, Röhm took the English journalist and propagandist, Sefton Delmer (1904-1979), on a tour of Berlin’s night-life. After buying drinks at the Eldorado club, a transvestite approached their table and spoke to Röhm about a party they had attended together. When Delmer expressed surprise at the candid manner in which the hostess had spoken to an ex-client in front of a stranger, Röhm, who

normally was open and unashamed about his pickups and enjoyed talking about his ‘weakness’, was suddenly huffy. ‘I am not his client. I am his commanding officer,’ he said with complete seriousness. ‘He is one of my stormtroopers!’ [5]

Whilst Röhm may not have appreciated the politics, the language or, indeed, the ethnicity of the Anarchist poet, Paul Goodman (1911-1972), the following lines about homosexuality probably express how Röhm himself really felt about his self-described ‘weakness’:

God damn and blast and to a fist of dust / reduce me the contemptible I am / if I again hinder for guilt or shame / the blooming of my tenderness to lust / like a red rose; I have my cock traduced / to which I should be loyal. None to blame / but me myself that I consort with them / who dread to rouse me onward and distrust / what has a future. Let me bawl hot tears / for thee my lonely and dishonored sex / in this fool world where now for forty years / thou beg’st and beg’st and again thou beg’st / because this is the only world there is, / my rose in rags among these human wrecks. [6]

In 1929, Röhm’s sexual interests were suddenly politicised when he became actively involved with the League for Human Rights (Deutsche Liga für Menschenrechte), the largest of three homosexual lobbies campaigning for a repeal of Section 175. As I discussed in my 2016 biography, Political Soldier: The Life and Death of Ernst Röhm, when the German was discussing the hypocrisy of morality in his Memoirs, he held the view that

the mask can be torn away from all areas of human social and legal order. [7]

Whilst Röhm’s comments had, understandably, been written in a very cryptic fashion, it has been alleged that his original draft was far more detailed and Captain Seydel had persuaded him to make his veiled references to homosexual liberation appear less obvious.

Despite his bisexuality, Röhm’s attitude towards women was similar to ‘masculinist’ homosexuals, who, whilst seeking the masculinity they lack in others or trying to accentuate that part of their character, have a distinct loathing for effeminacy in general. Indeed, the fact that so many ‘masculinists’ still become fascists today is almost certainly due to what they perceive as the increasing feminisation of society:

Röhm’s laissez faire attitude to issues of sexuality and reproduction ran counter to the emphasis of völkisch and Nazi thought on this issue. The homosexual rights movement’s literature may have also influenced his hostility to what he saw as women’s excessive role in modern German society. [8]

Röhm’s sexuality would continue to haunt him throughout the final years of his life and by late-June 1934, during the so-called Night of the Long Knives, he was finally taken to task by the increasingly totalitarian Hitler regime and forced to pay the ultimate price for his transgressive behaviour.

Notes:

1. Röhm, Ernst; The Memoirs of Ernst Röhm, op. cit., pp.170-1.

2. Déak, Istvan; Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918 (Oxford University Press, 1990), p.143.

3. Hancock, Eleanor; Ernst Röhm: Hitler’s SA Chief of Staff, op. cit, p.88.

4. Röhm to Dr. Heimsoth; August 11th, 1929, Klotz, Drei Briefe, p.16.

5. Delmer, Sefton; Trail Sinister: An Autobiography, Volume 1 (Secker & Warburg, 1961), p.122.

6. Goodman, Paul; Collected Poems (Random House, 1974), p.205.

7. Hancock, Eleanor; Ernst Röhm: Hitler’s SA Chief of Staff, op. cit, p.171.

8. Ibid., p.90.

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