The Night of the Long Knives: the bloody purge that secured Hitler’s power

Historian Gavin Mortimer explains how Hitler nearly came unstuck as early as 1934 – and that the bloody purge that followed was a warning of horrors to come

Once allies, Adolf Hitler and Ernst Röhm (sitting to his left) had a colossal falling out over ideology

Adolf Hitler was in a furious temper when his flight touched down in Munich at 4.30am on 30 June 1934. He was not only seething, he was also alarmed, desperate for the latest news about the trouble in the city. Before he’d flown out of Essen, almost three hours earlier, Hitler had been informed that the Brownshirts were out on the streets causing mayhem.

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Hitler was met off the plane by a Nazi Party leader, who told him that 3,000 Sturmabteilung (SA) stormtroopers, the party’s brownshirted paramilitary wing, had rampaged through Munich, smashing windows and shouting slogans, many of which accused Hitler of ‘treachery’.

The Nazi leader shook with rage on what he called the “blackest day of my life”. If there was any treachery afoot then it came from Ernst Röhm, the SA’s chief of staff. Adolf Hitler tore up the day’s itinerary. There would be no conference with Röhm and the other leaders of the SA as scheduled. The time for talking had passed.

He ordered his driver to race to the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior, and once there he summoned two senior SA figures. When they arrived, Hitler physically stripped them of their rank badges, screaming as he did so: “You are under arrest and will be shot!”

Hitler next assembled a party of armed detectives and SS bodyguards and, in a convoy of saloon cars, set off to the Hotel Hanselbauer in Bad Wiessee, a spa town 32 miles south of Munich. Only the hotel staff were up and about when Hitler marched through the front door and demanded the number of Röhm’s room. He bounded up the stairs to the first floor with two detectives at his heels and burst in. “You’re under arrest!” he roared. A hungover Röhm seemed unperturbed by the angry intrusion. “Hail, my leader,” he muttered, looking up from his pillow.

By the time Röhm emerged from his room – wearing a blue suit and smoking a cigar – the rest of the SA officers at the hotel had been locked in a linen cupboard. Hitler had already issued instructions that they were to be shot. But what to do about Röhm? That was the question that troubled Hitler as he returned to Munich.

Bonded by battle

For more than a decade, Hitler and Röhm had been ideologically inseparable, veterans of World War I who had been among the first embittered survivors of that conflict to call for a new Germany to rise from the wreckage of the nation.

Both had been convicted of high treason for their part in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, and it was Hitler who had resurrected Röhm’s career by appointing him SA chief of staff. But power had gone to his old comrade’s head. He was out of control, a political liability whose undisciplined organisation now threatened Hitler’s ambition to become Germany’s supreme leader.

Röhm (second from right) and Hitler were among the defendants of the Beer Hall Putsch, the Nazis’ failed coup d’etat in Munich in 1923.
Röhm (second from right) and Hitler were among the defendants of the Beer Hall Putsch, the Nazis’ failed coup d’etat in Munich in 1923. (Image by Getty Images)

Trouble had been brewing with Röhm and his Brownshirts for almost a year. On 6 July 1933, barely five months after his appointment as Chancellor of Germany, Hitler had assembled the leading figures within the Nazi movement to outline his vision for the nation, which was effectively now a one-party state. It was a positive analysis, although it came with a caveat, namely Hitler’s apprehension at the  prospect of intervention from the Western powers. With Germany being militarily very weak, Hitler had wanted to avoid any confrontation. Yet the SA’s well publicised antics were conveying the impression of a country that was violent and volatile.

The brutality had peaked at the end of June when the Brownshirts arrested 500 people in Berlin, after three of their number had been shot dead by a vengeful Social Democrat. At least 23 of the detained were tortured to death. The SA were running wild, and Hitler feared the prospect of foreign intervention before his rearmament programme had even got off the ground.

Trouble had been brewing for almost a year

Röhm, however, led an organisation of around three million, many of whom were diehard fascists and seasoned fighters; worse, they were becoming disillusioned with Hitler’s Germany. It didn’t seem much different from the previous regime and Röhm was talking openly of a second revolution.

“Revolution is not a permanent condition,” Hitler had retorted to the Nazi hierarchy on 6 July. “The stream of revolution has been undammed, but it must be channelled into the secure bed of evolution … For a second revolution can only direct itself against the first one.”

The declaration widened the breach between Hitler and Röhm. And while Hitler avoided criticising the SA by name, he let it be known that only “idiots” thought the revolution had not achieved its aims.

By 1933 the Brownshirts, the original paramilitary force of the Nazi Party, had become a law unto themselves
By 1933 the Brownshirts, the original paramilitary force of the Nazi Party, had become a law unto themselves. (Image by Alamy)

For his part, Röhm was having doubts about Hitler’s commitment to the ‘national uprising’. Had the accession to power weakened the Führer’s revolutionary spirit? Gradually, Röhm began to promote himself as the true leader of Nazi Germany, forcing Hitler from the pages of Der SA-Mann, the newspaper of the Brownshirts.

Matters came to a head in February 1934. On the first day of the month Röhm issued a memo in which he demanded the Reichswehr (the German army, later to be merged into the yet-to-be conceived Wehrmacht) was absorbed into the SA. Never, said the defence minister, General Werner von Blomberg, who protested to Hitler. At a conference on 28 February, Hitler rejected Röhm’s demand and endorsed Blomberg’s proposal that the SA be deployed as a border protection force and a pre-military training unit.

It was a humiliating snub for Röhm, who revealed his true feelings when the pair had left the Defence Ministry. “What the ridiculous corporal declared doesn’t apply to us,” he said, a reference to Hitler’s rank in World War I. “Hitler has no loyalty and has at least to be sent on leave. If not with, then we’ll manage the thing without Hitler.”

The words were relayed to Hitler by Viktor Lutze, an informer within the SA senior command. “We’ll have to let the thing ripen,” murmured the Führer. But Röhm wasn’t the only thorn in Hitler’s side in 1934. The Vice Chancellor, Franz von Papen, had ambitions of his own – with his eye on the presidency once the increasingly frail Paul von Hindenburg expired – and among his devoted supporters were many highranking conservative army officers.

Röhm began to promote himself as the true leader of Nazi Germany

Speaking at the University of Marburg on 17 June, von Papen warned that Germany could not “live in a continuous state of unrest, to which no one sees an end”. An angry Hitler quickly fired a warning of his own to von Papen by way of riposte. “It is the fist of the nation that is clenched and will smash down anyone who dares to undertake even the slightest attempt at sabotage,” he said.

From his sick bed in East Prussia, the 86-year-old Hindenburg followed events with deepening dread. The father of the nation was dying, but he still possessed enough spirit to tell Hitler that he would declare martial law if something wasn’t done to lance the boil infecting the nation.

President Hindenburg (left) – the only person with the power to sack Hitler – thanked him for the way he dealt with the SA
President Hindenburg (left) – the only person with the power to sack Hitler – thanked him for the way he dealt with the SA. (Image by Getty Images)

Cleansing the wound

The remedy planned by Hitler was simple. He would convene a conference of the SA leadership at Bad Wiessee on 30 June and have them arrested. As he departed to Essen to attend a wedding, word was sent to the head of his SS houseguards to prepare for “a secret and very important commission of the Führer”. Meanwhile Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SS security serivice, compiled an arrest list of persons deemed “politically unreliable”.

But as the SA stormtroopers in Munich took to the streets on the evening of 29 June to air their grievances, their leaders – gathered at the Hotel Hanselbauer in Bad Wiessee – appeared to believe there was no imminent threat from Hitler. They spent the evening carousing, as drunk on power as they were on beer.

Propaganda poster for the SA 'brownshirts'
The propaganda posters worked – in June 1933 the SA could call upon some three million stormtroopers. (Image by Alamy)

The Röhm question

Having returned to Munich from Bad Wiessee, an enraged Hitler addressed leading Nazis at the party HQ known as the Brown House at midday. With spittle running down his chin, the Führer described how Röhm had received 12 million marks from France to kill him, which Hitler called as “the worst treachery in world history”. There was no evidence for such a claim, and the written order calling for a coup reportedly found among Röhm’s possessions was almost certainly a forgery. Nonetheless, it was used as justification for the arrest and execution of SA commanders.

While the SA were the targets in Munich, in Berlin it was conservatives who were being singled out. On his return from Bad Wiessee, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s head of propaganda, had telephoned Hermann Göring with a codeword: ‘Hummingbird’. It was the signal for the Minister of the Interior for Prussia to start eliminating the people on the list of the “politically unreliable”.

SA leaders believed there was no threat from Hitler

Among those murdered were Herbert von Bose, who was von Papen’s press secretary, and Edgar Jung, a leading intellectual on the conservative right who had written some of Papen’s speeches. Senior figures within the army were also killed, including Major-General Ferdinand von Bredow, and General Kurt von Schleicher, the last Chancellor of Germany during the Weimar Republic, shot dead in his home along with his wife. Von Papen survived only because Hitler feared an adverse reaction at home and abroad if a statesman of his stature was killed.

Röhm’s prestige afforded him no protection. On 1 July Hitler, under pressure from Göring and other leading Nazis, decided that he could not allow his former comrade to live. He gave him the chance to take his own life, but Röhm refused to use the pistol handed to him by two SS officers in his prison cell. “Röhm was given the opportunity to draw the consequences of his treacherous behaviour,” said Hitler in a communiqué. “He did not do so and was thereupon shot.”

The following day Hitler announced the end of the “cleansing action”, and on 13 July told the Reichstag that 74 people had been killed. Other estimates put the figure as high as 200. Whatever the number, what came to be known as the Night of the Long Knives secured Hitler as the strongman of Germany.

Hitler spins the Night of the Long Knives to the Reichstag
Hitler spins the Night of the Long Knives to the Reichstag, cementing his position as the dominant force in German politics. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The German response to the bloodletting was mainly positive. The people were grateful that Hitler had dealt firmly with an organisation regarded as thuggish and immoral. The army high command shared those sentiments, and General Blomberg hailed Hitler’s decision to eliminate Germany’s “traitors and murderers”, ignoring the fact that several of the dead were fellow highranking officers with no links to the SA.

One of the few with the foresight to understand that the events of 30 June had set a dangerous precedent was Erwin Planck, a former army officer and civil servant. “If you look on without lifting a finger,” he warned General Werner von Fritsch, Chief of the Army High Command, “you will meet the same fate sooner or later.”

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Gavin Mortimer is a writer and historian specialising in World War II Special Forces

This article was taken from the October 2019 of BBC History Revealed magazine