The Night of the Long Knives

The four million brown shirted Nazi storm troopers, the SA (Sturmabteilung), included many members who actually believed in the ‘socialism’ of National Socialism and also wanted to become a true revolutionary army in place of the regular German Army.

But to the regular Army High Command and its conservative supporters, this potential storm trooper army represented a threat to centuries old German military traditions and the privileges of rank. Adolf Hitler had been promising the generals for years he would restore their former military glory and break the “shackles” of the Treaty of Versailles which limited the Army to 100,000 men and prevented modernization.

For Adolf Hitler, the behavior of the SA was a problem that now threatened his own political survival and the entire future of the Nazi movement.

The anti-capitalist, anti-tradition sentiments often expressed by SA leaders and echoed by the restless masses of storm troopers also caused great concern to big industry leaders who had helped put Hitler in power. Hitler had promised them he would put down the trade union movement and Marxists, which he had done. However, now his own storm troopers with their talk of a ‘second revolution’ were sounding more and more like Marxists themselves. (The first revolution having been the Nazi seizure of power in early 1933.)

SA Leader Ernst RoehmThe SA was headed by Ernst Röhm, a battle scarred, aggressive, highly ambitious street brawler who had been with Hitler from the very beginning. Röhm and the SA had been very instrumental in Hitler’s rise to power by violently seizing control of the streets and squashing Hitler’s political opponents.

However, by early 1934, a year after Hitler came to power, the SA’s usefulness as a violent, threatening, revolutionary force had effectively come to an end. Hitler now needed the support of the regular Army generals and the big industry leaders to rebuild Germany after the Great Depression, re-arm the military and ultimately accomplish his long range goal of seizing more living space for the German people.

The average German also feared and disliked the SA brownshirts with their arrogant, gangster-like behavior, such as extorting money from local shop owners, driving around in fancy news cars showing off, often getting drunk, beating up and even murdering innocent civilians.

At the end of February, 1934, Hitler held a meeting attended by SA and regular Army leaders including Röhm and German Defense Minister General Werner von Blomberg. At this meeting Hitler informed Röhm the SA would not be a military force in Germany but would be limited to certain political functions. In Hitler’s presence, Röhm gave in and even signed an agreement with Blomberg.

However, Röhm soon let it be know he had no intention of keeping to the agreement. In April he even boldly held a press conference and proclaimed, “The SA is the National Socialist Revolution!!”

Within the SA at this time was a highly disciplined organization known as the SS (Shutzstaffel) which had been formed in 1925 as Hitler’s personal body guard. SS chief Heinrich Himmler along with his second-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, and Hermann Göring, began plotting against Röhm to prod Hitler into action against his old comrade, hoping to gain from Röhm’s downfall.

On June 4, Hitler and Röhm had a five hour private meeting lasting until midnight. A few days later Röhm announced he was taking a ‘personal illness’ vacation and the whole SA would go on leave for the month of July. He also convened a conference of top SA leaders for June 30 at a resort town near Munich which Hitler promised to attend to sort things out.

On June 17, Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen, who had helped Hitler become Chancellor, stunned everyone by making a speech criticizing the rowdy, anti-intellectual behavior of the SA and denouncing Nazi excesses such as strict press censorship. Papen also focused on the possibility of a ‘second revolution’ by Röhm and the SA and urged Hitler to put a stop to it. “Have we experienced an anti-Marxist revolution in order to put through a Marxist program?” Papen asked.

His speech drastically increased the tension between German Army leaders and SA leaders and further jeopardized Hitler’s position. But for the moment Hitler hesitated to move against his old comrade Röhm.

A few days later, June 21, Hitler went to see German President Paul von Hindenburg at his country estate. Hindenburg was in failing health and now confined to a wheelchair. Hitler met with the Old Gentleman and Defense Minister Blomberg and was stiffly informed the SA problem must be solved or the president would simply declare martial law and let the German Army run the country, effectively ending the Nazi regime.

Meanwhile, Himmler and Heydrich spread false rumors that Röhm and the SA were planning a violent takeover of power (putsch).

On June 25, the German Army was placed on alert, leaves canceled and the troops confined to the barracks. An agreement had been secretly worked out between Himmler and Army generals ensuring cooperation between the SS and the Army during the coming action against the SA. The Army would provide weapons and any necessary support, but would remain in the barracks and let the SS handle things.

For the rest of the post…

Advertisements