Röhm was an important figure in the Nazi Party. According to Konrad Heiden, a journalist who investigated him: "Röhm was the secret head of a band of murderers. For his arsenal, he had men killed without the slightest qualm. In his inconspicuous position, he spent four years in Bavaria, secretly building up an army... He never wearies of praising the communists and their military qualities. Once he had him in his company, he assures us he could turn the reddest communist into a glowing nationalist in four weeks." (3)
On 4th April, 1931, Röhm promoted Karl Ernst to the post of supreme Sturmabteilung (SA) leader of Berlin. The following year Röhm arranged for Ernst to be elected to the Reichstag. Later he became SS-Gruppenführer (Lieutenant General) and was attached to the supreme leadership of the national SA. (4)
Röhm was an openly gay man and was accused of using his power in the Nazi Party to seduce young recruits. Joseph Goebbels, who held highly reactionary views about sexuality, later brought this information to the attention of Adolf Hitler, who replied: "Nauseating! The Party should not be an Eldorado for homosexuality. I will fight against that with all my power." (5)
However, Hitler allowed him to continue in his post. According to Ernst Hanfstaengel, during this period, Hitler was frightened of Röhm because Karl Ernst had information about the leader's sexuality: "Ernst, another homosexual SA officer, hinted in the early 1930s that a few words would have sufficed to silence Hitler had he complained about Röhm's behavior." (6)
On 27th February, 1933, the Reichstag caught fire. When they police arrived they found Marinus van der Lubbe on the premises. After being tortured by the Gestapo he confessed to starting the Reichstag Fire. However he denied that he was part of a Communist conspiracy. Hermann Göring refused to believe him and he ordered the arrest of several leaders of the German Communist Party (KPD). (7)
Willi Frischauer, the Berlin correspondent for the Vienna newspaper, Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, reported on the night of the fire: "There can scarcely be any doubt that the fire which is now destroying the Reichstag was set by henchmen of the Hitler government. By all appearances, the arsonists used an underground passage connecting the Reichstag to the palace of its president, Hermann Göring." (8)
According to William L. Shirer, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1964) Ernst was involved in starting the fire. "From Göring's Reichstag's Palace an underground passage, built to carry the central heating system, ran to the Reichstag building. Through this tunnel Karl Ernst, a former hotel bellhop who had become the Berlin S.A. leader, led a small detachment of storm troopers on the night of February 27 to the Reichstag, where they scattered petrol and self-igniting chemicals and then made their way quickly back to the palace the way they had come." (9)
Many people in the party disapproved of the fact that Ernst Röhm, and many other leaders of the SA, including his deputy, Edmund Heines, were homosexuals. Konrad Heiden, a German journalist who investigated these rumours later claimed that Heines was at the centre of this homosexual ring. "The perversion was wide-spread in the secret murderers' army of the post-war period, and its devotees denied that it was a perversion. They were proud, regarded themselves as 'different from the others', meaning better." (10)
Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler were all concerned with the growing power of Röhm, who continued to make speeches in favour of socialism. As Peter Padfield has pointed out, the Sturmabteilung (SA) "now a huge, heterogeneous and generally discontent army of four million, threatened the hereditary leadership of the Army, the Junker landowners, the bureaucracy, and the heavy industrialists" with talk of a second revolution. (11)
On 11th June 1934, Hjalmar Schacht had a private meeting with the Governor of the Bank of England, his personal friend and business associate, Montagu Norman. Both men were members of the Anglo-German Fellowship group and shared a "fundamental dislike" of the "French, Roman Catholics, Jews". (12) Schacht told Norman that there would be no "second revolution" and that the SA were about to be purged. (13)
On the evening of 28th June, 1934, Adolf Hitler telephoned Röhm to convene a conference of the SA leadership at Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiesse, two days later. "The call served the double purpose of gathering the SA chiefs in one out-of-the-way spot, and reassuring Röhm that, despite the rumours flying about, their mutual compact was safe. No doubt Röhm expected the discussion to centre on the radical change of government in his favour promised for the autumn." (14)
The following day Hitler held a meeting with Goebbels. He told him that he had decided to act against Röhm and the SA. Hitler felt he could not take the risk of "breaking with the conservative middle-class elements in the Reichswehr, industry, and the civil service". By eliminating Röhm he could make it clear that he rejected the idea of a "socialist revolution". Although he disagreed with the decision, Goebbels decided not to speak out against "Operation Humingbird" in case he was also eliminated. (15)
On 29th June, Karl Ernst got married and as he planned to go on his honeymoon and therefore could not attend the SA meeting at the Hanselbauer Hotel. Ernst Röhm and Hermann Göring both attended the wedding. (16) Later that day he alerted the Berlin SA that he had heard rumours that there was a danger of a putsch against Hitler by the right-wing of the party. (17)
On 29th June, Karl Ernst got married and as he planned to go on his honeymoon and therefore could not attend the SA meeting at the Hanselbauer Hotel. At around 6.30 in the morning of 30th June, Hitler arrived at the hotel in a fleet of cars full of armed Schutzstaffel (SS) men. (18)
Erich Kempka, Hitler's chauffeur, witnessed what happened next: "Hitler entered Röhm's bedroom alone with a whip in his hand. Behind him were two detectives with pistols at the ready. He spat out the words; Röhm, you are under arrest. Röhm's doctor comes out of a room and to our surprise he has his wife with him. I hear Lutze putting in a good word for him with Hitler. Then Hitler walks up to him, greets him, shakes hand with his wife and asks them to leave the hotel, it isn't a pleasant place for them to stay in, that day. Now the bus arrives. Quickly, the SA leaders are collected from the laundry room and walk past Röhm under police guard. Röhm looks up from his coffee sadly and waves to them in a melancholy way. At last Röhm too is led from the hotel. He walks past Hitler with his head bowed, completely apathetic." (19)
Edmund Heines was found in bed with his chauffeur and along with Ernst Röhm were taken to Stadelheim Prison. At the Munich railroad station, the SA leaders were beginning to arrive. As they alighted from the incoming trains they were taken into custody by SS troops. It is estimated that about 200 senior SA officers were arrested during what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. (20)
On 30th June, 1934, Karl Ernst was driving to Bremen with his bride to board a ship for a honeymoon in Madeira. His car was overtaken by Schutzstaffel (SS) gunman, who fired on the car, wounding his wife and his chauffeur. Ernst was taken back to Berlin and executed later that day. (21)
Willi Münzenberg was a leading figure in the KPD. After narrowly escaping arrest he moved to Paris where he established the World Committee Against War and Fascism. The group, that included people such as Heinrich Mann, Charlotte Despard, Sylvia Pankhurst, Ellen Wilkinson, Vera Brittain, Storm Jameson, Ella Reeve Bloor, John Strachey, Kurt Rosenfeld, Norman Angell and Sherwood Anderson, established an investigation into the Reichstag Fire.
Münzenberg arranged for the publication of the book, The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag. With a cover designed by John Heartfield, the book argued that Hermann Göring was responsible for the Reichstag Fire. The historian A. J. P. Taylor, has pointed out: "Münzenberg and his collaborators were a jump ahead of the Nazis. Not only had they the evidence of the experts, demonstrating that van der Lubbe could not have done it alone and therefore implicating the Nazis; they also produced a mass of evidence to show how the Nazis had done it. The vital point here was an underground passage from Göring’s house to the Reichstag, which carried electric and telephone cables and pipes for central heating. Through this passage some S.A. men (Brown Shirts) were supposed to have entered the Reichstag." (22)
One of the documents published in the book was a letter signed by Karl Ernst. He confessed that on the orders of Göring and Wolf von Helldorf, he along with Edmund Heines, had helped to set fire to the Reichstag. "Helldorf told me that the idea was to find ways and means of smashing the Marxists once and for all". "We spent hours settling all the details. Heines, Helldorf and I would start the fire on the 25th February, eight days before the election. Göring promised to supply incendiary material of a kind that would be extremely effective yet take up very little space."
Ernst went on to point out: "A few days before the fixed date, Helldorf told us that a young fellow had turned up in Berlin of whom we should be able to make good use. This fellow was the Dutch Communist van der Lubbe. I did not meet him before the action. Helldorf and I fixed all the details. The Dutchman would climb into the Reichstag and blunder about conspicuously in the corridor. Meanwhile I and my men would set fire to the Session Chamber and part of the lobby. The Dutchman was supposed to start at 9 o'clock - half an hour later than we did.... Van der Lubbe was to be left in the belief that he was working by himself."
Karl Ernst said that he had signed this document on 3rd June, 1934, because he feared for his life. "I am doing so on the advice of friends who have told me that Göring and Goebbels are planning to betray me. If I am arrested, Göring and Goebbels must be told at once that this document has been sent abroad. The document itself may only be published on the orders of myself or of the two friends who are named in the enclosure, or if I die a violent death." (23)
At the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial attempts were made to discover who started the Reichstag Fire. Hans Gisevius, an official of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior at the time of the fire. He disapproved of the illegal activities of the Nazi government and resigned his post. He later went to work with Wilhelm Canaris and Hans Oster of Abwehr. Gisevius joined the German resistance and was passing information to John Foster Dulles of the Office of Strategic Services. He managed to flee to Britain and gave evidence at Nuremberg.
Gisevius claimed: "It was Goebbels who first came up with the idea of setting fire to the Reichstag. Goebbels discussed this with the leader of the Berlin SA brigade, Karl Ernst, and made detailed suggestions on how to go about carrying out the arson. A certain tincture known to every pyrotechnician was selected. You spray it onto an object and then it ignites after a certain time, after hours or minutes. In order to get into the Reichstag building, they needed the passageway that leads from the palace of the Reichstag President to the Reichstag. A unit of ten reliable SA men was put together, and now Göring was informed of all the details of the plan, so that he coincidentally was not out holding an election speech on the night of the fire, but was still at his desk in the Ministry of the Interior at such a late hour... The intention right from the start was to put the blame for this crime on the Communists, and those ten SA men who were to carry out the crime were instructed accordingly." (24)
According to A. J. P. Taylor, because of the testimony of people such as Gisevius, the vast majority of historians believed that the Reichstag Fire had been started by agents of the Nazi government: "People outside Germany, and many inside it, found a simple answer: the Nazis did it themselves. This version has been generally accepted. It appears in most textbooks. The most reputable historians, such as Alan Bullock, repeat it. I myself accepted it unquestioningly, without looking at the evidence." (25)
In 1960, Fritz Tobias, a retired civil servant, published a series of articles in Der Spiegel, later turned into a book, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963), in which he argued that Marinus van der Lubbe acted alone. (26) After making an extensive study of The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag he came to the conclusion that it was based on forged documents. Arthur Koestler, who had been part of the team working on the book, admitted that the "Obeffohren Memorandum" had been written by them. (27)
Another important document, the signed confession by Karl Ernst, was also shown to be a forgery. Erich Wollenberg, a KPD member, who worked with Willi Münzenberg on the book, admitted that the "Ernst testament, which was concocted by a group of German Communists in Paris - including Bruno Frei and Konny Norden - after Ernst's murder on June 30th, 1934, and only published after Dimitrov himself edited it in Moscow." (28)
Two of the men, Ernst Hanfstaengel, and Richard Fiedler, mentioned by Ernst as knowing about the Nazi conspiracy to set fire to the Reichstag, both survived the war. They both told Tobias that the "Ernst confession was a complete fabrication". (29) Tobias was also able to show that Edmund Heines, who according to the document, helped Ernst to set the building on fire, was in fact that night at an election meeting in far-away Gleiwitz. (30)
Fritz Tobias argued that the actions taken by the Nazi government after the Reichstag Fire shows that they were not responsible: "Today there seems little doubt that it was precisely by allowing van der Lubbe to stand trial that the Nazis proved their innocence of the Reichstag fire. For had van der Lubbe been associated with them in any way, the Nazis would have shot him the moment he had done their dirty work, blaming his death on an outbreak of 'understandable popular indignation'. Van der Lubbe could then have been branded a Communist without the irritations of a public trial, and foreign critics would not have been able to argue that, since no Communist accomplices were discovered, the real accomplices must be sought on the Government benches". (31)
Another man who enjoyed a sensational career in the SA was Karl Ernst, who had gotten to know Captain Paul Röhrbein," to his old friend Röhm and did his best to further his career. By April of that year Ernst had become a favourite of Röhm and did his best to further his career. By April of that year Ernst had become a favourite of Röhm and was commanding SA Subgroup East, and a year later he was in the Reichstag.
The whole truth about the Reichstag fire will probably never be known. Nearly all those who knew it are now dead. most of them slain by Hitler in the months that followed. Even at Nuremberg the mystery could not be entirely unravelled, though there is enough evidence to establish beyond reasonable doubt that it was the Nazis who planned the arson and carried it out for their own political ends.
From Göring's Reichstag's Palace an underground passage, built to carry the central heating system, ran to the Reichstag building. Through this tunnel Karl Ernst, a former hotel bellhop who had become the Berlin S.A. leader, led a small detachment of storm troopers on the night of February 27 to the Reichstag, where they scattered petrol and self-igniting chemicals and then made their way quickly back to the palace the way they had come.
The allegations of "mutiny" and "rising" fall to the ground when we remember that almost all, and particularly the most important, S.A. leaders were in Wiessee or on the way to Wiessee, a forlorn spot near the frontier. Were the men to rebel without their rebellious commanders?
One of the men shot had not gone to meet Rohm. In his case the very fact that he had not joined Rohm was cited as proof of mutiny.
In the Reichstag Hitler gave an account of the night that preceded the massacre: "At one o'clock at night I received two urgent messages from Berlin and Munich: firstly that in Berlin the men had been ordered to hold themselves in readiness at four in the afternoon... and that on the stroke of five the action was to begin with the occupation of Government buildings. Group-Leader Ernst had for this reason not travelled to Wiessee, but had remained behind in Berlin to superintend the action personally...."
But a Bremen newspaper announced guilelessly on July 3rd: "Together with Group-Leader Ernst, who was arrested in Bremen on June 3oth with his adjutant Kirschbaum and taken by aeroplane to Berlin, Frau Ernst was also charged and taken into protective custody."
It transpired that Ernst was just setting off on his honeymoon and that he and his wife were going to embark the next morning for Madeira; he had his passage ticket in his pocket and was in high holiday spirits. He was no more of a mutineer than Rohm.
It is doubtful whether it will ever be established what Rohm really wanted ; whether he was actuated by ambition and wanted to become Supreme Commander of the whole Army, as Hitler maintained, or whether, more probably, he only wanted to give the S.A. the status of a militia affiliated to the Reichswehr, the "technical army," and the S.A. leaders commissioned rank in the armed forces. It is certain, at any rate, that he did not mutiny.
The consensus was (and still is) that the Nazis themselves were responsible for the arson, and that Lubbe was merely a dupe. An underground heating system passage connected the Reichstag to the palace of the Reichstag president, which in turn was occupied by Goring. The thesis is that Gobbels, with the connivance of Goring, masterminded the plot and helped select the arson squad headed by SA leader Karl Ernst, also a Reichstag deputy.
It was significant that Hitler and all of the top Nazis were in Berlin the evening of February 27 and within a close proximity to the Reichstag building, despite the fact that this was a scant week before a national election in which they were all feverishly involved. It was notable that Goring had arrest lists already prepared when he arrived at the scene of the fire, and that by the next day Hitler had a cleverly drafted "emergency decree" ready for von Hindenburg's signature. The entire scenario had the earmarks of a scheme that proceeded to fruition precisely as planned, and appeared to be part of Hitler's overall agenda to seize control of all governmental processes.
A 1964 book by German Fritz Tobias submitted that Lubbe was the only person responsible for the fire, and that the Nazis were entirely blameless. Although a few chroniclers (including the American writer John Toland) were swayed, the majority of historians have not changed their original opinion. Heinrich Frankel, who has coauthored several well-researched books on the Nazis, conducted his own inquiry and interviewed a woman who told him that a few days before the fire, she dealt with Lubbe in her capacity as a district nurse in Berlin, at which time the young vagrant was in the company of two members of the SA. This is in direct contradiction to Tobias's assertion that Lubbe did not have any contact with the SA prior to the fire. It has also been established that Karl Ernst was a frequent visitor to Goring's office prior to February 27.
Moreover, Nazi experts Konrad Heiden and Willi Frischauer were working as newspapermen in Germany in 1933, and both have written extensively on the Nazi participation in the plot. Frischauer was the Berlin correspondent for the Vienna newspaper, Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, and on the night of the fire cabled a story to his editors that included these words: "There can scarcely be any doubt that the fire which is now destroying the Reichstag was set by henchmen of the Hitler government. By all appearances, the arsonists used an underground passage connecting the Reichstag to the palace of its president, Hermann Goring."
(1) Lothar Machtan, The Hidden Hitler (2001) page 185
(2) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 86
(3) Konrad Heiden, Hitler: A Biography (1936) page 31
(4) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 86
(5) Joseph Goebbels, diary entry (27th February, 1927)
(6) Lothar Machtan, The Hidden Hitler (2001) page 208
(7) Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (2001) page 151
(8) Willi Frischauer, Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung (27th February, 1933)
(9) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1964) page 241
(10) Konrad Heiden, Hitler: A Biography (1936) page 235
(11) Peter Padfield, Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991) page 141
(12) Andrew Boyle, Montague Norman (1967) page 194
(13) Albert Grossweiler, The Röhm Affair (1983) page 451
(14) Peter Padfield, Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991) page 156
(15) Ralf Georg Reuth, Joseph Goebbels (1993) page 196
(16) David Welch, The Hitler Conspiracies (2012) page 147
(17) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 302
(18) Richard Overy, The Third Reich: A Chronicle (2010) page 101
(19) Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (2005) page 32
(20) Paul R. Maracin, The Night of the Long Knives: Forty-Eight Hours that Changed the History of the World (2004) pages 120-122
(21) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 86
(22) A. J. P. Taylor, History Today (August, 1960)
(23) Karl Ernst, signed confession (3rd June, 1934)
(24) Hans Gisevius, testimony at Nuremberg War Crimes Trial (4th April, 1946)
(25) A. J. P. Taylor, History Today (August, 1960)
(26) Benjamin Carter Hett, Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich's Enduring Mystery (2014) page 267
(27) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 117
(28) Erich Wollenberg, Echo of the Week (12th August, 1949)
(29) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 143
(30) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 110
(31) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 72