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Nazis - Night of the Long Knives

Nazis - Night of the Long Knives Saturday June 30 and Sunday July 1, 1934
Nazis - Night of the Long Knives Saturday June 30 and Sunday July 1, 1934

The Night of the Long Knives (Saturday June 30 and Sunday July 1, 1934) (German, Nacht der langen Messer), also known as Reichsmordwoche, "Operation Hummingbird" or "the Blood Purge", was a lethal purge of Adolf Hitler's potential political rivals in the Sturmabteilung (SA; also known as storm troopers or brownshirts). The SA was the paramilitary organization of the Nazi Party that had helped the Nazis rise to power in the Twenties, culminating with Hitler being appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933. The name, "Night of the Long Knives", is a reference to the massacre of Vortigern's men by Angle, Jute, and Saxon mercenaries in the Arthurian myth.

Occurring over a weekend, the purge targeted SA leaders and members who were associated more with socialism than with nationalism, and hence were viewed as a threat to the continued support for Chancellor Adolf Hitler within the Army and conservative business community that had supported Hitler's rise to power. During this event, however, the Gestapo also targeted conservative rivals and elements within and outside the regime, and the purge did not focus on suppressing the communists or Social Democrats, the Nazi Party's primary foes from the left.

Official records tally the dead at 82, including almost the entire SA leadership, though some 200 alleged opponents of the Nazi regime are believed to have been killed.

Background to The Night of the Long Knives

By the summer of 1933, the SA (Sturmabteilung) had grown discontented with the progress of the Wall Street in the autumn of 1929. The stock market crash of 1929 on Wall Street forced the US banks to withdraw their financial loans to foreign countries, which also affected Germany, as it had received a rather large amount of money as loans during the Dawes Plan, which rendered financial support from the US to Germany in the period after World War I. The withdrawing of these loans resulted in numerous bankruptcies all over Germany, leading to widespread layoffs and unemployment amongst the working class. For these unemployed workers, the dream of food, clothes, and solidarity all became reality with the creation of the SA. This made many of the unemployed German workers join the SA, which by the Nazi assumption of power in March 1933 numbered about 700,000 men. Of these, about 85% belonged to the working class. This eventually resulted in strong socialist leanings within the SA, and resulted in alienation towards the national-socialist policy of the NSDAP. The SA grew increasingly distant from the Nazi leadership as a result and believed further steps needed to be taken to achieve substantive social and economic change. Importantly, they also wanted to become the core of a new German army, something strongly rejected by the regular German army.

Hitler dominated Germany's government by 1934 but still feared losing power in a coup d'état. To maintain complete control, he allowed political infighting to continue among his subordinates. As a result, a political struggle grew, with Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich on one side and Ernst Röhm, the leader of the SA, on the other. The German Army and the SA were the only contenders to threaten Hitler's power.

The power of Röhm and his violent organization frightened his rivals. Goering and Himmler asked Heydrich to assemble a dossier of manufactured evidence to suggest that Röhm had been paid 12 million marks by France to overthrow Hitler. Himmler presented the "evidence" to Hitler, fueling his suspicion that Röhm intended to use the SA to launch a plot against him ("Röhm-Putsch"). Himmler at the time had nearly completed the restructuring of another Nazi organization, the SS (Schutzstaffel), from one tasked with protecting Nazi leaders into a secret police formation. The eventual marginalization of the SA removed an obstacle to Himmler's accumulation of power over the coming years.

Hitler had always liked Röhm; he was one of the first members of the Nazi Party and had participated in the Beer Hall Putsch. But Hitler was under increasing pressure to reduce the influence of the SA. Hitler's wealthy industrialist supporters were concerned over the SA's socialist leanings: Socialist rhetoric had been useful for the Nazi rise to power, but many felt the ideology stood in contradiction to nationalist Nazi goals. military leaders were likewise alarmed by Röhm's proposal that the German army, which was limited by the Treaty of Versailles to 100,000 men, be absorbed into the larger SA, which in early 1934 numbered 2.5 million. Some leaders of the Nazi party also joined in the dislike that many conservative officers expressed over the overt homosexuality of Röhm and some other SA leaders.

The Night of the Long Knives represented a turning point in the conduct of German government. From that point on, a number of things were clear: the Nazi party was in unquestioned control of the state, Hitler was in control of the Nazi party, and both were fully prepared to use raw, brutal violence to accomplish their political objectives. In the post-war period, this first round of fratricidal bloodletting would be seen by some as a presage of the Holocaust.

By 1934 Adolf Hitler appeared to have complete control over Germany, but like most dictators, he constantly feared that he might be ousted by others who wanted his power. To protect himself from a possible coup, Hitler used the tactic of divide and rule and encouraged other leaders such as Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Roehm to compete with each other for senior positions.

One of the consequences of this policy was that these men developed a dislike for each other. Roehm was particularly hated because as leader of the Sturm Abteilung (SA) he had tremendous power and had the potential to remove any one of his competitors. Goering and Himmler asked Reinhard Heydrich to assemble a dossier on Roehm. Heydrich, who also feared him, manufactured evidence that suggested that Roehm had been paid 12 million marks by the French to overthrow Hitler.

Hitler liked Ernst Roehm and initially refused to believe the dossier provided by Heydrich. Roehm had been one of his first supporters and, without his ability to obtain army funds in the early days of the movement, it is unlikely that the Nazis would have ever become established. The SA under Roehm's leadership had also played a vital role in destroying the opposition during the elections of 1932 and 1933.

However, Adolf Hitler had his own reasons for wanting Roehm removed. Powerful supporters of Hitler had been complaining about Roehm for some time. Generals were afraid that the Sturm Abteilung (SA), a force of over 3 million men, would absorb the much smaller German Army into its ranks and Roehm would become its overall leader.

Industrialists such as Albert Voegler, Gustav Krupp, Alfried Krupp, Fritz Thyssen and Emile Kirdorf, who had provided the funds for the Nazi victory, were unhappy with Roehm's socialistic views on the economy and his claims that the real revolution had still to take place. Many people in the party also disapproved of the fact that Roehm and many other leaders of the SA were homosexuals.

Adolf Hitler was also aware that Roehm and the SA had the power to remove him. Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler played on this fear by constantly feeding him with new information on Roehm's proposed coup. Their masterstroke was to claim that Gregor Strasser, whom Hitler hated, was part of the planned conspiracy against him. With this news Hitler ordered all the SA leaders to attend a meeting in the Hanselbauer Hotel in Wiesse.

Meanwhile Goering and Himmler were drawing up a list of people outside the SA that they wanted killed. The list included Strasser, Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler's predecessor as chancellor, and Gustav von Kahr, who crushed the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923.

On 29th June, 1934. Hitler, accompanied by the Schutzstaffel (SS), arrived at Wiesse, where he personally arrested Ernst Roehm. During the next 24 hours 200 other senior SA officers were arrested on the way to Wiesse. Many were shot as soon as they were captured but Hitler decided to pardon Roehm because of his past services to the movement. However, after much pressure from Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, Hitler agreed that Roehm should die. At first Hitler insisted that Roehm should be allowed to commit suicide but, when he refused, Roehm was shot by two SS men.

Roehm was replaced by Victor Lutze as head of the SA. Lutze was a weak man and the SA gradually lost its power in Hitler's Germany. The Schutzstaffel (SS) under the leadership of Himmler grew rapidly during the next few years, replacing the SA as the dominant force in Germany.

The purge of the SA was kept secret until it was announced by Adolf Hitler on 13th July. It was during this speech that Hitler gave the purge its name: Night of the Long Knives (a phrase from a popular Nazi song). Hitler claimed that 61 had been executed while 13 had been shot resisting arrest and three had committed suicide. Others have argued that as many as 400 people were killed during the purge. In his speech Hitler explained why he had not relied on the courts to deal with the conspirators: "In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I become the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason."

The Night of the Long Knives was a turning point in the history of Hitler's Germany. Hitler had made it clear that he was the supreme ruler of Germany who had the right to be judge and jury, and had the power to decide whether

The Night of the Long Knives : References

  • Schafranek, Hans: Sommerfest mit Preisschießen. Die unbekannte Geschichte des NS-Putsches im Juli 1934. Czernin-Verlag, Wien 2006.
  • Tolstoy, Nikolai, Night of the Long Knives Balantine Books, New York City, 1972.
  • Spielvogel, Jackson J. "Hitler and Nazi Germany: a history. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996.
  • Mau, Herman, "The ‘Second Revolution’ - June 30, 1934" article in Republic to Reich: The Making of the Nazi Revolution edited by Hajo Holborn. Pantheon Books, N.Y.C., 1972.
  • Heiden, Konrad, A History of National Socialism A.A. Knopf, New York City, 1935.
  • Littlejohn, David, The Sturmabteilung: Hitler’s stormtroopers 1921 - 1945 Osprey Publishing, London, 1990
  • Maracin, Paul, Night of the Long Knives: 48 Hours that Changed the History of the World

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