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An open letter to Ernst Röhm

Hello, Ernst Julius Röhm! Hello! Welcome back from the grave. You’ll find our world very similar to your home in Germany in the 20s and 30s. There are differences, but I think you’ll find them very congenial. Jackboots have been replaced by Supergas, and the Brown Shirts are now the Armani Suits.

And in your day, you only had one Adolf Hitler, peddling racial hatred, bombastic electioneering promises, and violent tribal promises in exchange for power. Nowadays, you’ll find us a lot more enterprising. There are little Hitlers everywhere, from the balmy banks of the Ivory Coast to the grubby steps of the Johannesburg high court, and taking in the beautiful Mountain Kingdom of Swaziland, the breadbasket case of Zimbabwe, and a dozen other African paradises in between.

And we have this amazing thing called democracy, which you didn’t have in your day. Oh, wait, silly me! I forget, the Nazi Party was voted into power. One always thinks of democracy as a recent invention, like BMWs and sushi. But it’s not. Its pay-off line might as well be “Democracy! Allowing people to choose their own doom for over 2 500 years!” Or even better: “Democracy! Recommended by nine out of 10 demagogues as an effective way to legitimate corruption!”

Let’s play a game, Ungentle Reader. It’s called spot the similarities between Ernst Röhm’s Storm Battalion (SA), the infamous Brown Shirts, and political and police organisations of present day South Africa. And not all of these are negative things, but if you’re looking at the whole package, well … I’d be nervous if I were you. And I am you.

The nature of politics in this country are such that the populist vote is paramount. To get the popular vote, you have to say crazy things, and do crazy stuff. From dancing blue monkeys to ANCYL-biters French-kissing farmers, it’s a crazy world. Well, I’m not sure politicians do have to say these crazy things. I think the general populace is a helluva lot cleverer than politicians would like to believe. But you know how the big boys with taxpayer-funded toys think, tossing around technical terms like “pre-emptive insult”, “make empty promises now, get paid a shitload of bribes later”, and “shoot to kill”.

So the comparison between Röhm and some of our politicians and leaders is not meant to be entirely accurate. It is, though, a warning about how political rhetoric can lead us into some very, very bad places once it runs away with itself.

So here’s a list of Röhmantic facts (almost entirely lifted from Wikipedia and a couple of other sites, except for the bits I made up. Sorry, I did African history at varsity). Big Ernst’s Brown Shirts were pro-nationalisation, and vocally for increased worker control, and for confiscation and redistribution of the estates of the old aristocracy. They were aggressively for social equality, and violently against average Germans who, according to historyplace dot com, “feared and disliked the … brownshirts with their arrogant, gangster-like behavior, such as extorting money … driving around in fancy new cars showing off, often getting drunk, [and] beating up … innocent civilians”. (Interestingly, the beginning of BMW’s automobile production was in 1928, two years before Röhm took charge of the Brown Shirts. Coincidence? I think not.)

Many of the Brown Shirts were socialists, and Hitler had to reassure big business that there would be no “second revolution”, and their businesses wouldn’t eventually be donated to the workers, or at least their fatcat representatives in Sandton. It was said that the Brown Shirts were like a beefsteak — “brown on the outside and red on the inside”. Of course, this was before BMW invented the first cappuccino.

There are way more difference than similarities. For example, one of the reasons Hitler had Röhm assassinated was because of his “open homosexuality”. That could never happen here, thanks to our great Constitution, and also because there is no word for “transvestite” in Pedi. And surely we would never get sucked into a situation where we built big compounds and imprison people there just based on their ethnicity or nationality? I’m not counting the Lindela Holding Facility for illegal immigrants, of course. And surely we’ll never have a Kristallnacht, unless it’s an ANCYL misspelled celebration of the champagne (thanks to @brodiegal for that one).

I read these words describing the role of the Brown Shirts, and think of some of the tactics of our rabble-rousing political organisations. “The [Brown Shirt] man is the sacred freedom fighter … 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 [Brown Shirts] appear on the scene, this stops. They are out for all or nothing. They know only the motto (metaphorically): Strike dead! You or me!”

This is the kind of naive, moronic philosophy that many of our politically active organisations espouse. A philosophy that says we’ll govern until Jesus comes again, by divine right. A philosophy that allows our guardians of the law to beat Andries Tatane to death because they believe that naked aggression is the only way to counter resistance. A way of being in the world that leads you to believe you have the right to flaunt semi-automatic weapons in the face of the justice system you truly believe exists for other people.

So let this serve as a warning. If you mix violent, irrational politicking into your mix, no matter if you believe it’s just a subset of your larger, worthier political aim, you risk being dragged down to that lowest common denominator. You can unleash the dogs of war, but you’ll find it difficult to turn them back into the poodles of Sandton when you need to.

Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisroperza, and read his blog at

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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