The title sounds quite violent and dramatic doesn’t it? Well then prepare yourselves for what’s to come ahead. This article speaks about yet another atrocity committed by Hitler and the Nazi Party over a period of three dreadful days. The Night of the Long Knives ended on this day – 2nd July, 86 years ago, in 1934. However, this one differs from the other heinous acts committed by the Nazi Party, in terms of the fact that this one was inflicted upon members of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party), itself. But the story begins a few years before the purge took place.
Left – SA (Sturmabteilung); Right – SS (Schutzstaffel)
The very first thing we need to understand is the structure of the Nazi Party. The Nazi’s had many groups within the party, created with the sole purpose of exterminating their rivals and the opposition. Two of the most well–known groups within this party were the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the Schutzstaffel (SS). The SA was the older of the two organizations, set up in 1921 by Hitler. It consisted mainly of the dissatisfied former soldiers of World War 1. They were also known as the Stormtroopers or Brownshirts because of their uniforms. The SA was a paramilitary force which mainly aided the Nazi Party in its early rise to power, by intimidating their political rivals. It supported Hitler during the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. It was led by Ernst Röhm from 1931 to 1934 and was quite different from the SS in terms of the fact that they used street violence in great measures to intimidate anybody who opposed the Nazi propaganda. The SS on the other hand began in 1925 as a group of personal bodyguards to Hitler. This force was commanded by Heinrich Himmler, one of the superior officers of the Party, and answered only to Hitler himself. The SA was much larger in size than the SS and consisted of around 20,00,000 men, while the latter consisted of around 2,50,000 men, at the start of 1939, after the Night of the Long Knives ended.
Ernst Röhm in 1934
As mentioned before, the SA was under the control of Ernst Röhm between 1931-34, and under his control it was an uncontrolled and rabid organization that sought to eliminate all forms of oppositions – the conservatives and the existing German Defence Force (Reichswehr), via extreme means. Hitler wanted to build the existing Reichswehr into the new German Army (Wehrmacht). He tried to pacify Röhm by making him a Minister without a Portfolio in December 1933. However, this did not console him. Röhm wanted to take over the existing Reichswehr completely and replace it with the three million underpaid SA. Hitler was in disagreement with Röhm’s ideology and wanted to slowly take over the entire of Germany, not all at once. This faction was the only one in disagreement with Hitler, and so, a frustrated Hitler on 28 February 1934 issued a final warning to the SA and their commander Ernst Röhm:
The Revolution is finished and the only people entitled to bear arms are the Reichswehr.Adolf Hitler
Centre – Hitler, Left – Joseph Goebbels and Right – General Blomberg
Up until June 1934, when Heinrich Himmler, the commander or Reichsfuhrer of the SS, informed Adolf Hitler that Röhm was planning a takeover. He offered his army, the SS, to Hitler to enable him to overthrow the SA and Röhm’s ‘ambitions’. On the 25th of June, the German Commander in Chief of the Army put his troops on a general alert against any action taken by the SA. He also publicly announced in the German newspapers that the Army was fully in support of Hitler. Hitler then asked Ernst Röhm to meet him on 30th June at 11:00. Hitler flew to Munich first, where he assembled all those SA leaders who were involved in a rampage that had taken place the night before. He yelled at August Schneidhuber, the chief of the Munich police, for failing in his duty to keep order in the city and accused him of treachery. Later that day, Schneidhuber was executed. The rest of the SA was sent off to prison. After this, Hitler assembled a large group of SS and regular police and left for Bad Wiessee (German Municipality), where the SA leader Ernst Röhm and his entourage were staying.
Left: Heinrich Himmler – Commander of the SS ; Right: August Schneidhuber – Chief of the Munich police
When Hitler arrived at Bad Wiessee between 06:00 and 07:00, hours before his meeting with Röhm, the SA leaders, still in bed were taken by surprise. Some of them were caught in ‘compromising positions’ with their male lovers. SA leader Edmund Heines was found in bed with an unidentified eighteen-year-old male SA senior troop leader. They were both taken outside the hotel and shot, on Hitler’s orders. Joseph Goebbels, later justified this action as a ‘crackdown on moral turpitude’. Post this, Hitler arrived at the Nazi Party’s headquarters in Munich and addressed a large crowd. He denounced Röhm’s “failed coup” and described it as “the worst treachery in world history”. Goebbels returned to Berlin and set the final phase of the purge into motion. He telephoned Hermann Göring, another popular and senior Nazi figure, at 10:00 with the codeword ‘Kolibri’ and signalled him to let loose the ‘execution squad’ on the rest of the unsuspecting victims. The SS, went to the Stadelheim prison where the rest of the SA soldiers were being held. In the prison courtyard there, they unleashed their firing squad on the prisoners and killed 5 SA Generals and one SA Colonel. Those who were not immediately killed, were taken to the SS headquarter’s barracks and were given one-minute ‘trials’, before being shot.
Left: Kurt von Schleicher; Right: Gustav Ritter von Kahr
The SA were not the only targets of the purge. Hitler also ordered the murder of Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler’s predecessor as Chancellor, and his wife at their home. Gustav Ritter von Kahr, the former Bavarian state commissioner who had crushed Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, met a particularly gruesome end. His body was found in a wood outside Munich – hacked to death, supposedly with pickaxes. There was also at least one accidental victim. A man by the name of Willi Schmid, who was a music critic for a German Newspaper.
Willi Schmid – The ‘accidental’ victim of the Purge
But the main target of this purge was Ernst Röhm. So, what was his fate? Röhm was held in the Stadelheim prison in Munich while Hitler decided his fate. On 1st July, 1934, two men – one the commander of the Dachau concentration camp, and the other his SS adjutant, Michael Lippert, visited Röhm in his prison cell and handed him a Browning pistol. They told him that he had 10 minutes to kill himself or else he would be murdered. Röhm, with a lot of pride answered,
“If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself.”Ernst Röhm
They returned to his cell at 14:50 to find him standing, bare-chested, with his chest puffed out in a gesture of defiance. The two Nazi soldiers then shot him, killing him on impact. Lippert was tried for Röhm’s murder in Munich, by the German authorities in 1957. He was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Headlines in the newspapers across the world
While some records say that 400 were killed that fateful weekend, others say it was closer to 1000. After all of it was over on 2nd July 1934, the German President Hindenburg, thanked Hitler for saving Germany from a ‘terrible conspiracy’. He considered the Night of the Long Knives to be a huge victory over the uncontrollable and vicious SA, a feeling he savored for exactly a month until his death on 1st August 1934. On the 2nd of July itself, a governmental decree was passed, co-signed by the Vice-Chancellor, justifying the killings of hundreds of people as ‘self-defense’ and thus making them completely legal in the eyes of the law.
Law Relating to National Emergency Defense Measures July 3, 1934
So, finally came an end to a bloody weekend. Hitler, very cleverly eliminated anybody who could challenge him in the future, under the pretext of ‘saving Germany from a terrible coup or conspiracy’. It was never officially confirmed whether or not Röhm was actually planning a coup to overthrow the Nazi Party. In fact, some sources suggest that Heinrich Himmler had assembled a dossier of manufactured evidence to suggest that Röhm had been paid 12 million Reichsmark (EUR 24.6 million in 2020) by France to overthrow Hitler. Whatever be the truth, the fact remains that hundreds of people, some completely innocent, were murdered in a matter of 3 days. Yet, no one was held accountable for their actions, at the time.