Essence of berlin

Purging the SA: 'The Night of the Long Knives'

Sam Bavin 15 mins
Purging the SA: 'The Night of the Long Knives'

By the middle of 1934 the Stormtroopers – the brownshirted paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party – had become a problem for the fledgling National Socialist regime. 

The previous year had been tumultuous. After he became chancellor in January of 1933, Hitler had wasted little time dismantling democracy in Germany. In the immediate aftermath of the Reichstag Fire, the Nazis violently suppressed the Communist Party and forced through the ‘Enabling Act’ – legislation that allowed the government to issue laws without the consent of the Reichstag, effectively disempowering the German parliament. By July, the Nazis had eliminated all other political opponents, established Germany as a one party state in law, and centralised all institutions to the state with the exception of the army and the church. 

In a whirlwind few months the Nazis had laid the entire foundation for the totalitarian dictatorship that would rule over Germany until its collapse at the end of the Second World War. 

The National Socialist revolution, as far as Hitler was concerned, had come to pass. Revolution, he declared, was not, and could not be allowed to become, a permanent condition. The Führer now desired calm, and time to stabilize the regime. 

The violent excesses of the brownshirts, however, continued across the country – most notoriously at the ‘Köpenick blood-week’ in June of 1933. After three Stormtroopers from a raiding party were shot dead by a young social democrat defending himself in a southwestern Berlin suburb, the SA mobilised en-masse and rounded up more than 500 local men, torturing them so badly that 91 of them died. Several well known politicians were amongst those killed. Such violence had to be checked: it was no longer necessary to beat opponents of the Nazis into submission now that power in Germany belonged to the Nazis and the Nazis alone.

But reigning in the street-fighting, saloon-brawling stormtroopers would be difficult.

 

The Sturmabteilung

 

Initially a group of former military men providing protection for Nazi party meetings, the Sturmabteilung (SA) had become an official party organ in 1921. Mostly made up of ex-soldiers and beer hall brawlers, the SA protected gatherings, disrupted the meetings of opposing political parties, and fought the paramilitary units of other parties – such as the Communist Party’s Red Front Fighter’s League – on the streets. The violent activism of these brownshirted thugs was an integral part of the Nazi’s rise to power. 

In 1930, Hitler appointed himself head of the SA in the aftermath of the Stennes Revolt in Berlin. He sent a personal request to close friend Ernst Röhm, asking him to serve as Chief of Staff. Röhm, a co-founder of the Stormtroopers, was a former officer in the German military. His true ambition was to occupy the Ministry of Defence and have his brownshirted legion form the basis of a national militia that might eventually replace the German army altogether. Under his leadership the Stormtroopers grew to a force of roughly three million men by the beginning of 1934. To justify the continued existence and expansion of the SA after the Nazis had consolidated their power, Röhm began to preach that the National Socialist Revolution was not yet complete and that more violent struggle lay ahead – struggle in which the SA would play an integral part. 

 

Power Struggle

 

Hitler became genuinely concerned about the power Röhm was wielding, and the regime acted accordingly to diminish the SA’s influence in the summer of 1933.

Stormtroopers enrolled as auxiliary police officers were removed from their positions across Germany. Strict controls were also introduced with regards to who could place an individual in ‘protective custody’, and what procedures had to be observed in doing so.

Deprived of its raison d’être, parading through the streets and breaking up the meetings of political opposition, and now removed from its position in charge of improvised prison camps and torture centres too, the SA was suddenly without a role in the Nazi Germany their brutality had helped establish. Disillusion set in, and without a political outlet for their violent tendencies Stormtroopers became increasingly involved in brawls across the country. Gangs of Browshirts got drunk, caused disturbances, beat up innocent bystanders and then attacked police if they tried to intervene. 

Now marginalised from the centres of power in the National Socialist state, Röhm built a cult of personality around himself within the SA. He continued to beat the drum of revolution and launched attacks on the Nazi Party leadership and the German Army.

His insubordination did not go unnoticed. Hitler maneuvered to bring the German Army – themselves appalled at Röhm’s assertions that they might be replaced by the Stormtroopers in the future German military – to his side. President Paul von Hindenburg was in ill health, and would likely not survive the year. Hitler wanted the army to support him as Hindenburg’s successor, and offered to reduce the size of the SA and suppress Röhm’s ambition in return.  

In a subsequent meeting with the leadership of the army, the SS, and the SA on 28th February 1934, Hitler declared emphatically that Germany’s military force of the future would be a professional and well-equipped army. The Stormtroopers would only be allowed to act in an auxiliary capacity. Röhm was then forced to sign a declaration that he would not attempt to replace the army with a brownshirt militia. 

Back amongst his own Röhm blustered that he would not obey Hitler, the ‘ridiculous corporal’, unaware that he had already been placed under covert surveillance by the Gestapo and that his words would get back to the Führer. 

His days were numbered.

 

Purging the SA in Munich

 

Tensions between the army and the SA continued to increase over the following months. There were even cases of SA detachments hijacking army supply trucks and taking weapons and supplies. Röhm, though, never made concrete plans to launch a putsch against the army. In June he announced that he would be going on a prescribed rest cure to Bad Weissee, near Munich, and sent the entire SA on leave for the following month of July. 

On the 21st June 1934 however, when visiting President Hindenburg, Hitler was confronted by the head of the German Army Werner von Blomberg, who made it clear that if the Brownshirts were not brought to heel then Hindenburg was prepared to declare martial law and put the government in the hands of the army. Hitler had no choice but to act and immediately began planning to overthrow Röhm.

SS Chief Heinrich Himmler and his subordinate Reinhard Heydrich began to manufacture evidence that Röhm was planning a national uprising. By the 24th June, SS leaders had been given instructions for how to deal with the coming ‘putsch’. The army put it’s resources at the disposal of Himmler in case serious conflict erupted, and on the 27th June put its troops on high alert. Two days later army chief Blomberg published an article in the Nazi daily newspaper – the Racial Observer – declaring unconditional support for Hitler’s regime. 

Rumours of the SA’s liquidation began to circulate, and on the night of 29th June a mob of around 3000 Stormtroopers rampaged through Munich – where a conference of SA leaders was scheduled to take place days later and where Hitler had originally intended to launch his purge. The Brownshirts shouted that they would crush any attempt to betray them and denounced the Führer and the army. Hitler decided he could wait no longer.

He flew into Munich at 4:30am on the 30th June 1934 to lead the purge against Röhm and the Stormtroopers himself. Hitler and his entourage drove first to the Bavarian Interior Ministry to confront the leaders of the Stormtroopers who had demonstrated the previous night. The Führer flew into a rage, threatened all present with execution, and then tore their epaulettes from their uniforms. The chastened Brownshirts were then carted off to Munich’s state prison – Stadelheim. Hitler then amassed a group of SS bodyguards and policemen and drove to Bad Weissee to confront Röhm. 

When he marched into the rooms of the Hanselbauer Hotel the Stormtroopers were still sleeping off a major drinking session from the night before. Hitler first confronted senior SA leader Edmund Heines – who was still lying in bed with an 18-year-old boy. Homosexuality within the Stormtroopers was not uncommon. Röhm, too, was a homosexual. Hitler was well aware of this when he and Röhm were close in the 1920s, and ignored it. Now it became another crime to add to the list. Hitler told Heines he would be shot, and the SA man and his young lover were locked in a linen closet. The Führer then confronted Röhm in his room, carrying a whip and flanked by two armed detectives. Röhm, oblivious, hailed Hitler from his bed, and was then taken straight into custody. Chaos ensued outside as the remaining Stormtroopers were arrested, locked in the hotel’s linen closet and then taken to Stadelheim. Elsewhere, other leading Brownshirts travelling into Munich by train for the planned conference were arrested at the central station by an SS detachment. 

Returning to Munich and barricading himself in the Nazi Party Headquarters, Hitler railed against Röhm, ranting that he had been collaborating with the French, that he was a traitor who had conspired against the Fatherland, and that he would be shot. All present yelled their assent.  

In truth Hitler was reluctant to have Röhm, one of his longest serving supporters, put to death. On the 1st of July Hitler sent word to Stadelheim – Röhm was to be given a revolver and was expected to kill himself. He refused. Theodor Eicke, commandant of Dachau Concentration Camp, was dispatched to the prison with another SS officer. The two entered Röhm’s cell, gave him a loaded browning pistol, and told him to commit suicide. If he didn’t, they would return in 10 minutes and finish him off themselves. When the SS men returned they found Röhm alive, bare-chested and defiant. They shot him dead at point blank range.

Hitler also ordered that Heines, all SA leaders involved in the demonstrations on the 29th June, and three others were to be shot. Other Stormtroopers were driven to Dachau, where they were badly beaten by the SS guards. Hitler then returned to Berlin, where he had left Hermann Göring in charge.  

 

Purging the Conservatives in Berlin

 

Göring, shuttered in his office with Himmler and Heydrich, was orchestrating a massacre. Whereas the Brownshirts had been the primary target in the south, the conservative political establishment was the focus in Berlin. The communists and social democrats had already been dealt with a year prior. Now Hitler sought to remove conservative politicians he saw as problematic or unreliable. Göring – dressed in one of his gaudy, self-created white uniforms – marched up and down his office brandishing a list of names, shouting death orders, and bellowing with laughter when news of successful murder operations came in. 

General Kurt von Schleicher, who had preceded Hitler as Reich Chancellor was shot dead by the SS in his home with his wife. Another army officer, Major-General Kurt von Bredow, who was thought to have published criticisms of the regime abroad, was also killed at his home. Though they had been brought on side, Hitler was sending a message to the army – they too would face the consequences if they did not toe the party line. Heydrich had Erich Klausener – a senior civil servant in the Transport Ministry and leader of the ‘Catholic Action’ group – killed to send a message to both the Catholics and another former chancellor Heinrich Brüning, who had fled the country having been tipped off about the purge. While Franz von Papen was too close to President Hindenburg to touch, both his secretary Herbert von Bose and his political advisor Edgar Jung were shot dead while Papen was confined to his home under guard – a blatant warning to the man who had disastrously politicked Hitler into power in 1933. 

Murders and arrests continued over the next two days as Hitler and his cronies took the opportunity to settle old scores. Former Minister-President of Bavaria, Gustav Ritter von Kahr – who had played a key part in dismantling Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch on November 9th 1923 – was gunned down by several SS men brandishing submachine guns. Another Bavarian politician, Otto Ballerstedt, who had successfully prosecuted Hitler in 1921 and sent him off to Stadelheim for a month, was arrested and shot in Dachau. 

In total, over three days between the 30th June and the 2nd of July – the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ – at least 85 people are known to have been summarily executed, including 12 Reichstag deputies. Countless more people had been taken into custody. Göring alone had well over a thousand people arrested. 

 

Aftermath

 

Most of the SA leaders had gone to their deaths believing their arrest and execution had been ordered by the army. Many swore loyalty to the Führer as they were killed. Over the following weeks the arrests continued. The heavy drinkers, the homosexuals, and the rioters in the SA were rooted out. An exodus of Brownshirts from the organisation began. 100,000 men left the Stormtroopers between August and September of 1934 alone. As a threat to the army and the state they had been utterly nullified. The conservatives had also been brought to heel. The message was clear. In the new political order, nothing less than absolute devotion and conformism would be tolerated. 

The army breezed over the murders of several of their high ranking officers, congratulated Hitler on his soldierly actions against traitors, and assured the Führer of the army’s complete devotion. The mood amongst the German armed forces was one of celebration. 

The German Army had bound itself to the Nazi Party and its Führer. Erwin Planck, a retired captain and senior civil servant in the Reichstag, was one of the few who saw the grim consequences of such an act. “If you look on without lifting a finger,” he told his friend, Commander-in-Chief General Werner von Fritsch, “you will meet the same fate sooner or later.”

 

Sources:

Evans, Richard J., The Third Reich in Power, 2005

Header image:

Hitler and Röhm together in 1933, Bundesarchiv