Night of the Long Knives

On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany but despite the solemn march of self-importance he and his acolytes undertook to the Reichstag that cold winter morning he had not been elected to the post, indeed his National Socialist German Workers Party, the NSDAP, or Nazis for short had lost votes and seats in the recent election, rather his appointment to the post of Chancellor had been engineered by a predecessor Franz von Papen to prevent his great rival General Kurt von Schleicher from forming a new administration.

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The aristocratic and vain Von Papen believed he could easily manipulate the low-born and ill-educated Hitler in what would be a Coalition Government with himself as its puppet master. Moreover, Hitler, the coarse ‘Little Corporal’ was despised by the aging Reich President Paul von Hindenburg who had been disinclined to appoint him as Chancellor in the first place and von Papen felt assured that he would willingly remove him if called upon to do so.

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So despite being Chancellor with only two other Nazis in the Coalition Cabinet, no majority in the Reichstag, and ill-considered by the President his grip on power was tenuous and it seemed his time in the top job would be short-lived, just as von Papen intended.

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All this was to change when on 27 February 1933, the Reichstag was set ablaze and a young Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested at the scene and charged with arson.

The fear of Communist Revolution in Germany remained a real one, the Roter Republik in Bavaria and the Spartakist Revolt in Berlin were both fresh in the memory and they formed the third largest party in the Reichstag polling around 25% of the vote; and so when Hitler, seizing upon the opportunity of the Reichstag fire to announce that he had uncovered a communist conspiracy to overthrow the Government and declare a state of emergency people were only too willing to believe him.

So when on 23 March, Hitler went to the Reichstag to demand the passage of an Enabling Bill that suspended the constitution for a maximum of four years permitting the Government to rule without recourse to established laws or to seek approval from the German Parliament it met little opposition.

At the stroke of a discarded match von Papen’s strategy had gone up in flames and Hitler had acquired the power he sought to re-build Germany in his own image and restore to her the greatness he believed it was his destiny to do and as part of that process over the next few months he suppressed the communists, abolished the trade unions, arrested and imprisoned his political opponents, and systematically eliminated all domestic opposition – but one threat still remained and it came from within the Nazi Party itself.

The Sturm Abteilung, better known as the SA or Brownshirts were a paramilitary organisation that had been created to intimidate opponents of the Nazi Party. In doing so they played a pivotal role in their rise to power confronting communists on the streets of German towns, initiating boycotts, and marching in force to cow local populations but now upon Hitler’s assumption of power their thuggery was to become more of a hindrance than a help but with more than 4 million members they were never going to voluntarily disband. Indeed, it was rumoured they were following an agenda of their own.

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The SA was led by Ernst Rohm, one of Hitler’s oldest comrades and like him a veteran of the Great War; a man of violence, a street brawler with the facial scars to prove it and an active and unapologetic homosexual as indeed many of the SA leadership were. He was one of the few men who could refer to Hitler in the familiar and criticise him to his face.

In fact, Hitler sometimes appeared in awe of Rohm, some even suggested he may have been afraid of him.

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Hitler’s elevation to the Chancellorship was known within Nazi circles as the First Revolution, Rohm and the leadership of the SA now began to call for the Second Revolution, or the implementation of those socialist policies contained within the Party’s 25 Point Programme, specifically the nationalisation of the big corporations, profit sharing in all large-scale industrial enterprises, and the expropriation and redistribution of land.

Rohm demanded that the Revolution be completed and the instrument for doing so would be the SA which would become the most powerful institution of State thereby making him Hitler’s natural successor. Thus, his final and most incendiary demand, that the Regular Army be abolished and the Officer Corps disbanded to be replaced by the Peoples Army, by implication the SA. At the very least, his Brownshirts must be incorporated into the Regular Army but as the Wehrmacht was restricted to a maximum of 100,000 men by the terms of the Versailles Treaty to do so would not only be in violation of that treaty but would see the Wehrmacht swamped by the Brownshirts leaving Rohm in effective charge.

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Hitler had never intended to implement any of the socialist policies contained within the Nazi Party’s 25 Point Programme, they had simply been designed to keep the more radical members on board and provide the Party with a policy platform that went beyond the acquisition of power for its own sake and with which to campaign on in elections. In any case, he needed the support of big business and had been busily wooing the likes of Krupp’s and I.G Farben for some years.

More importantly he sought the acquiescence and support of the army in his takeover of power, for though small in number it was a well-trained formation with an experienced and highly-skilled Officer Corps. He needed them if he was to achieve his territorial and geo-political ambitions – what he didn’t need was 4 million drunken, ill-disciplined street-brawlers.

On their part, the army had demanded that Hitler curtail the ambitions of Rohm and traduce the effectiveness and power of the SA but he was a powerful man and despised though they were by the regular army the SA could probably seize power if they wished. More to the point, Hitler appeared increasingly incapable of wielding effective control over them, and they were not only running extortion rackets and prostitution rings but continued to be responsible for widespread violence and it seemed as if the Nazi takeover of power had merely given them free licence for these activities.

For Hitler however the problems went beyond this, he was always a man for whom loyalty was paramount and he was loathe to act against old allies and especially Ernst Rohm, who was perhaps as close as anyone could get to being considered a friend.

In 1925, an elite group had been formed from within the SA that was to serve as Hitler’s personal bodyguard, the Shutzstaffel, or SS.

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In 1925, an elite group had been formed to serve as Hitler’s personal bodyguard known as the Shutzstaffel, or SS, which by 1933 had become the responsibility of Heinrich Himmler and his sinister deputy Reinhard Heydrich both of whom were every bit as ambitious as Rohm and saw him as a direct threat to their own power. Eager to be rid of the SA leader they worked assiduously on Hitler’s always heightened sense of paranoia informing him that Rohm intended to use the SA to seize power, that they had already uncovered a plot to do so, and that if Hitler did not strike first then he would be powerless to resist – still, he remained reluctant to act.

In February 1934, in a private discussion Rohm was told that in no circumstances would the SA ever replace the Regular army in Germany and much to everyone’s surprise he appeared to agree. It seemed for a time at least that the crisis had passed but in April, Rohm embarked upon a nationwide speaking tour where he addressed massed rallies of SA Storm-troopers telling them the SA is the National Socialist Revolution. If that was so then he must be its leader-in-waiting, providing all the ammunition that Himmler and Heydrich required.

On 4 June Hitler held a further meeting with Rohm where referring to him as his oldest friend they discussed those issues that still remained outstanding with regards to the future of the SA. Their time together was described as cordial and ended with Rohm announcing that he intended to take a vacation and would order the SA to stand down for the month of July. Later that day he ordered the SA leadership to gather at the spa resort of Bad Wiessee near Munich.

To his enemies, and he had many, it appeared that the leadership of the SA were gathering to organise a coup. In truth, it was intended to be little more than a homosexual orgy away from the public gaze.

Nevertheless, Himmler and Heydrich played it for all it was worth stoking up the anger against Rohm and calling for urgent action. In the meantime, the pressure was ratcheted up a notch.

On the 17 June, Franz von Papen under pressure from Heydrich gave a speech denouncing the SA for providing succour to the Party’s enemies. He told his audience: “We have not experienced an anti-Marxist revolution in order to put through a Marxist programme.” He then persuaded President Hindenburg of the urgency of the situation insisting that he must meet with his Chancellor no easy task given his personal loathing of the Little Corporal, even so on 21 June Hitler was summoned to a meeting with the President of the Reich.

The old man was by now very frail and increasingly senile but he was still able to curtly inform his Chancellor that if the problem with the SA was not resolved to his satisfaction then he would dissolve the Government, declare martial law, and invite the army to run the country. Hitler now had little choice but to act.

Following discussions behind closed doors with Himmler and Heydrich, Hitler called a meeting of the Nazi inner-circle where he informed them that he had uncovered a plot by the SA to overthrow the Government. These traitors would be dealt with by his personal bodyguard the SS and the arms for doing so would be provided by the army which would remain confined to their barracks throughout unless called upon. He would lead the operation himself.

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Hermann Goering would in the meantime round up the conservative opposition in Berlin.

Upon his arrival in Munich Hitler immediately arrested the leading SA man in the city and in a public ceremony stripped him of his insignia as he raged about disloyalty and treachery while Ernst Rohm, just a few miles away in Bad Wiessee remained oblivious to what was going on.

Before dawn on the 30 June, Hitler accompanied by the Deputy Fuhrer Rudolph Hess and soldiers of the SS arrived at the Hotel Hanselbauer where the SA leadership were staying. Once the hotel had been surrounded and the staff ushered into a room, Hitler entered and armed with a pistol hurriedly made his way to Rohm’s room where bursting in he ordered the SA leader dragged from his bed and out of the arms of his male lover and where standing naked before Hitler he endured a torrent of abuse before the Fuhrer ordered him taken away – roughly dealt with the normally aggressive Rohm so full of bombast seemed stunned.

In the meantime, Hitler hadn’t been so generous with another SA leader he had discovered in the act of having homosexual sex with a young man. He ordered them both executed on the spot.

An eyewitness to events was Hitler’s chauffeur, Erich Kempa:

“I run quickly up the stairs to the first floor where Hitler is just coming out of Rohm’s bedroom. Two detectives come out of the bedroom opposite. One of them reports to Hitler: ‘My Fuhrer, the Police-President of Breslau is refusing to get dressed!’ Hitler enters the room: ‘Heines, if you’re not dressed in five minutes I will have you shot’. I withdraw a few steps and a police officer whispers to me that Heines had been in bed with an 18 year old SA man.

At last Heines comes out of the room with a fair-haired boy mincing in front of him.”

The arrested SA leadership are locked in the hotel’s laundry room until transportation arrives to take them to prison while Rohm is kept separate from his colleagues in a room on his own where he is provided with coffee and cigarettes.

Not long after the arrests the situation becomes tense when a lorry of armed SA men arrived, just one word from Rohm and everything could have changed but the despondent SA leader remained oblivious to their presence and they were disarmed and ordered to leave.

Despite everything Hitler could not bring himself to order the execution of his old friend and was inclined to grant him a pardon but under pressure from Himmler, Heydrich, and Hermann Goering he eventually conceded that Rohm had to die but he hoped that as an Officer and a man of honour he would take his own life. He told his captors to provide him with a pistol and a single bullet but languishing in his cell Rohm had no intention of doing Hitler’s dirty work for him. Presented with suicide as an alternative to execution and public disgrace he replied:

“If Adolf wants me dead then let him do it himself.”

Fifteen minutes later two Officers, one of whom was Theodore Eicke the future Commandant of the Dachau Concentration Camp, entered Rohm’s cell and shot him dead. His last words were: “Mein Fuhrer! Mein Fuhrer!”

A propaganda campaign now blanketed the country condemning the SA as traitors: its leaders had been plotting a coup it was repeated again and again, and those associated with the organisation could not be trusted. No longer the heroes of the Nazi revolution, jeered at and abused in the streets, and fearing for their own lives, members now began to leave the SA in droves – its power had been broken.

Meanwhile in Berlin, Hermann Goering had also been busy as he and others elsewhere in Germany now took the opportunity to settle old scores eliminating not only those they considered enemies of the Nazi Party but had in some way opposed or merely offended them in the past.

One such murdered was Gustave Ritter von Kahr who as State Commissioner of Bavaria had crushed Hitler’s Putsch in Munich; another was General Kurt von Schleicher who had been Hitler’s rival for the Chancellorship, shot along with his wife.

Others killed included Gregor Strasser, Hitler’s only remaining rival within the Nazi Party itself; Father Bernhard von Stempfle who it was thought knew too much about Hitler’s past and his family history; and Erich Klausener the leader of the right-wing opposition Catholic Action Party. Assassins were also sent to eliminate Franz von Papen but he was not in his office at the time so they shot dead his secretary instead.

One young man, a promising cellist, was dragged from his family home and shot because he was unfortunate enough to share the same surname as a prominent anti-Nazi. His body was later returned to his family along with a letter explaining that he had died in a road accident and with express orders not to open his coffin.

Hitler tried to cover up the events of what was to become known as the Night of the Long Knives but this was to prove impossible and so on 13 July, in a speech to the Reichstag that was broadcast to the nation he sought to justify the extra-judicial murders instead:

“If anyone reproaches me and asks me why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this, in this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and I thereby became the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterise down to the raw flesh the ulcer of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life. Let the nation know that its existence – which depends on its internal order and security – cannot be threatened by anyone. Everyone must know for all future time that if he raises his hand to strike the State then death will be his lot.”

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The Nazi Government gave the official death toll for the Night of the Long Knives as 61 executed and 13 killed whilst trying to escape. More recent research however has suggested the real figure for those killed to be as high as 1,200.

There is little doubt that in the months preceding the Night of the Long Knives Ernst Rohm had been flexing his not inconsiderable muscle and had been manoeuvring for a greater role in Government for himself and his brown-shirted supporters but little evidence has ever been uncovered that they were plotting a coup.

Soon after the events of 13 July the Nazi’s passed a law retroactively legalising the murders but few people were any longer in doubt that what had been viewed as the authoritarian but legally constituted Government had become little more than a regime of murder.

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