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The Night of the Long Knives (German: Template:Audio) or "Operation Hummingbird", or, more commonly used in Germany "Röhm-Putsch" was a purge that took place in Nazi Germany between June 30 and July 2, 1934, when the Nazi regime carried out a series of political executions. Most of those killed were members of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the paramilitary Brownshirts.

Hitler moved against the SA and its leader, Ernst Röhm, because he saw the independence of the SA and the penchant of its members for street violence as a direct threat to his power. He also wanted to conciliate leaders of the Reichswehr, the official German military who both feared and despised the SA—in particular Röhm's ambition to absorb the Reichswehr into the SA under his own leadership. Finally, Hitler used the purge to attack or eliminate critics of his regime, especially those loyal to Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, and to settle scores with old enemies.

At least 85 people died during the purge, although the final death toll may have been into the hundreds,[2][3] and more than a thousand perceived opponents were arrested.[2] Most of the killings were carried out by the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei), the regime's secret police. The purge strengthened and consolidated the support of the Reichswehr for Hitler. It also provided a legal grounding for the Nazi regime, as the German courts and cabinet quickly swept aside centuries of legal prohibition against extra-judicial killings to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime.

Before its execution, its planners sometimes referred to it as "Hummingbird" (German: Kolibri), as that was the codeword used to set the execution squads in motion on the day of the purge.[4] The codename for the operation appears to have been chosen arbitrarily. The phrase "Night of the Long Knives" in the German language predates the massacre itself, and it also refers generally to acts of vengeance. To this day, Germans still use the term "Röhm-Putsch" ("Röhm coup d’état") to describe the event, as that was the term the Nazi regime used at the time, despite its overall false implication that the murders were necessary to forestall a coup. To emphasize this, German authors often use quotation marks or write about the so-called Röhm-Putsch.[5]

Hitler and the Sturmabteilung (SA)Edit

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President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor on January 30, 1933[6]. Over the next few months, during the so-called Gleichschaltung, Hitler dispensed with the need for the Reichstag as a legislative body[7] and eliminated all rival political parties in Germany so that by the middle of 1933, the country had become a one-party state under his direction and control. Hitler did not exercise absolute power, however, despite his swift consolidation of political authority. As chancellor, Hitler did not command the army, which remained under the formal leadership of Hindenburg, a highly respected veteran Field Marshal, albeit increasingly frail and senile. While many officers were impressed by Hitler's promises of an expanded army, a return to conscription, and a more aggressive foreign policy, the army continued to guard its traditions of independence during the early years of the Nazi regime.

To a lesser extent, the Sturmabteilung (SA), a Nazi paramilitary organisation, remained somewhat autonomous within the party itself. The SA evolved out of the remnants of the Freikorps movement of the post-WWI years. The Freikorps were nationalistic organisations primarily composed of disaffected, disenchanted, and angry German combat veterans who believed that their government had betrayed Germany and sold them out by surrendering and submitting to the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty. The Freikorps were in opposition to the new Weimar Republic. Ernst Röhm was commander of the Bavarian Freikorps and was given the nickname "The Machine Gun King of Bavaria" because he was responsible for storing and issuing illegal machine guns to Freikorps units in Bavaria. He later became commander of the SA. During the 1920s and 1930s the SA functioned as a private militia that Hitler used to intimidate rivals and disrupt the meetings of competing political parties, especially those of the Social Democrats and the Communists. Also known as the "brownshirts" or "stormtroopers", the SA became notorious for their street battles with the Communists.[8] The violent confrontations between the two groups contributed to the destabilisation of Germany's inter-war experiment with democracy, the Weimar Republic.[9] In June 1932, one of the worst months of political violence, there were over 400 street battles, resulting in 82 deaths.[10] This very destabilisation had been crucial in Hitler's rise to power, however, not least because it convinced many Germans that once Hitler became chancellor, the endemic street violence would end.

Hitler's appointment as chancellor, followed by the suppression of all political parties except the Nazis, curtailed but did not end the violence of the stormtroopers. Deprived of Communist party meetings to disrupt, but inured toTemplate:Ndash and seduced byTemplate:Ndash violence, the stormtroopers would sometimes run riot in German streets after a night of drinking. Very often they would beat up passers-by, and then attack the police who were called to stop them.[11] Complaints of "overbearing and loutish" behavior by stormtroopers were common by the middle of 1933. Even the Foreign Office complained of instances of brownshirts manhandling foreign diplomats.[12] Such behavior disturbed the German middle classes and other conservative elements in society, such as the army.

Hitler's next move would be to strengthen his position with the army by moving against its nemesis, the SA.[13] On July 6, 1933, at a gathering of high-ranking Nazi officials, Hitler declared the success of the National Socialist, or Nazi revolution. Now that the NSDAP had seized the reins of power in Germany, he said, it was time to consolidate its hold. As Hitler told the gathered officials, "The stream of revolution has been undammed, but it must be channeled into the secure bed of evolution."[14]

Hitler's speech signaled his intention to rein in the SA, whose ranks had grown rapidly in the early 1930s. This would not prove to be a simple task, however, as the SA constituted a large part of the most devoted followers of Nazism. The SA traced its dramatic rise in numbers in part to the onset of the Great Depression, when many Germans lost their jobs and faith in traditional institutions. While Nazism was not exclusivelyTemplate:Ndash or even primarilyTemplate:Ndash a working class phenomenon, the SA fulfilled the yearning of many workers for both class solidarity and nationalist fervor.[15] Many stormtroopers believed in the socialist promise of National Socialism and expected the Nazi regime to take more radical economic action, such as breaking up the vast landed estates of the aristocracy. That the regime did not take such steps disillusioned those who expected an economic as well as a political revolution.[16]

Conflict between the Army and the SAEdit

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No one in the SA spoke more loudly for "a continuation of the German revolution", as one prominent stormtrooper put it, than Röhm.[17] Röhm, as one of the earliest members of the Nazi Party, had participated in the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt by Hitler to seize power by force in 1923. A combat veteran of World War I, Röhm had recently boasted that he would execute 12 men in retaliation for the killing of any stormtrooper.[18] Röhm saw violence as a means to political ends. He took seriously the socialist promise of National Socialism, and demanded that Hitler and the other party leaders initiate wide-ranging socialist reform in Germany.

Not content solely with the leadership of the SA, Röhm lobbied Hitler to appoint him Minister of Defence, a position held by the conservative General Werner von Blomberg.[19] Although nicknamed the "Rubber Lion" by some of his critics in the army for his devotion to Hitler, Blomberg was not himself a Nazi, and therefore represented a bridge between the army and the party. Blomberg and many of his fellow officers were recruited from the Prussian nobility, and regarded the SA as a plebeian rabble that threatened the army's traditional high status in German society.[20]

If the regular army showed contempt for the masses belonging to the SA, many stormtroopers returned the feeling, seeing the army as insufficiently committed to the National Socialist revolution. Max Heydebreck, an SA leader in Rummelsburg, denounced the army to his fellow brownshirts, telling them, "Some of the officers of the army are swine. Most officers are too old and have to be replaced by young ones. We want to wait till Papa Hindenburg is dead, and then the SA will march against the army."[21]

Despite such hostility between the brownshirts and the regular army, Blomberg and others in the military saw the SA as a source of raw recruits for an enlarged and revitalized army. Röhm, however, wanted to eliminate the generalship of the Prussian aristocracy altogether, using the SA to become the core of a new German military. Limited by the Treaty of Versailles to one hundred thousand soldiers, army leaders watched anxiously as membership in the SA surpassed three million men by the beginning of 1934.[22] In January 1934, Röhm presented Blomberg with a memorandum demanding that the SA replace the regular army as the nation's ground forces, and that the Reichswehr become a training adjunct to the SA.[23]

In response, Hitler met with Blomberg and the leadership of the SA and SS on February 28, 1934. Under pressure from Hitler, Röhm reluctantly signed a pledge stating that he recognized the supremacy of the Reichswehr over the SA. Hitler announced to those present that the SA would act as an auxiliary to the Reichswehr, not the other way around. After Hitler and most of the army officers had left, however, Röhm declared that he would not take instructions from "the ridiculous corporal"Template:Ndash a demeaning reference to Hitler.[24] While Hitler did not take immediate action against Röhm for his intemperate outburst, it nonetheless deepened the rift between them.

Growing pressure against the SAEdit

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Despite his earlier agreement with Hitler, Röhm still clung to his vision of a new German army with the SA at its core. By early 1934, this vision directly conflicted with Hitler's plan to consolidate power and expand the Reichswehr. Because their plans for the army were mutually exclusive, Röhm's success could only come at Hitler's expense.

Moreover it wasn't just the Reichswehr that viewed the SA as a threat. Several of Hitler's paladins feared Rohm's growing power and restlessness, as did Hitler himself. As a result, a political struggle within the party grew, with those closest to Hitler, including Prussian premier Hermann Göring, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, and Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess, positioning themselves against Röhm.

While all of these men were veterans of the Nazi movement, only Röhm continued to demonstrate his independence from, rather than his loyalty to, Adolf Hitler. Röhm's contempt for the party's bureaucracy angered Hess. SA violence in Prussia gravely concerned Göring, Minister-President of Prussia.[25] As a means of isolating Röhm, on April 20, 1934 Göring transferred control of the Prussian political police (Gestapo) to Himmler, who, Göring believed, could be counted on to move against Röhm.[26] Himmler envied the independence and power of the SA. Although by this time he and his deputy Reinhard Heydrich had already begun the restructuring of the SS from a bodyguard for Nazi leaders (and a subset of the SA) into its own independent elite corps; one loyal to both himself and Hitler. The loyalty of the SS men would prove useful to both when Hitler finally chose to move against Röhm and the SA.

Demands for Hitler to constrain the SA strengthened. Conservatives in the army, industry, and politics placed Hitler under increasing pressure to reduce the influence of the SA and to move against Röhm. While Röhm's homosexuality did not endear him to conservatives, they were more concerned about his political ambitions. On June 17, 1934, conservative demands for Hitler to act came to a head when Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, confidant of the ailing Hindenburg, gave a speech at Marburg University warning of the threat of a "second revolution".[27] Privately, von Papen, a Catholic aristocrat with ties to army and industry, threatened to resign if Hitler did not act.[28] While von Papen's resignation as vice-chancellor would not threaten Hitler's position, it would nonetheless be an embarrassing display of independence from a leading conservative.

In response to conservative pressure to constrain Röhm, Hitler left for Neudeck to meet with Hindenburg. Blomberg, who had been meeting with the President, uncharacteristically reproached Hitler for not having moved against Röhm earlier. He then told Hitler that Hindenburg was close to declaring martial law and turning the government over to the Reichswehr if Hitler did not take immediate steps against Röhm and his brownshirts.[29] Hitler had hesitated for months in moving against Röhm, in part due to Röhm's visibility as the leader of a national militia with millions of members. However, the threat of a declaration of martial law from Hindenburg, the only person in Germany with the authority to potentially depose the Nazi regime, put Hitler under pressure to act. He left Neudeck with the intention of both destroying Röhm and settling scores with old enemies. Both Himmler and Göring welcomed Hitler's decision, since both had much to gain by Röhm's downfallTemplate:Ndash the independence of the SS for Himmler, and the removal of a rival for the future command of the army for Göring.[30]

In preparation for the purge both Himmler and his deputy Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SS Security Service, assembled a dossier of manufactured evidence to suggest that Röhm had been paid twelve million marks by France to overthrow Hitler. Leading officers in the SS were shown falsified evidence on June 24 that Röhm planned to use the SA to launch a plot against the government (Röhm-Putsch).[31] Göring, Himmler, Heydrich, and Victor Lutze (at Hitler's direction) drew up lists of people in and outside the SA to be killed. One of the men Göring recruited to assist him was Willi Lehmann, a Gestapo official and NKVD spy. On June 27, Hitler moved to secure the army's cooperation.[32] Blomberg and General Walther von Reichenau, the army's liaison to the party, gave it to him by expelling Röhm from the German Officers' League, and placing the army on alert.[33] Hitler felt confident enough in his position to attend a wedding reception in Essen, although he appeared somewhat agitated and preoccupied. From there he called Röhm's adjutant at Bad Wiessee and ordered SA leaders to meet with him on June 30.[30]

PurgeEdit

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At about 4:30 on the morning of June 30, 1934, Hitler and his entourage flew into Munich. From the airport they drove to the Bavarian Interior Ministry, where they assembled the leaders of an SA rampage that had taken place in city streets the night before. Enraged, Hitler tore the epaulets off the shirt of Obergruppenführer Schneidhuber, the chief of the Munich police, for failing to keep order in the city on the previous night. He shouted at him that he would be shot.[34] Schneidhuber was executed later that day. As the stormtroopers were hustled off to prison, Hitler assembled a large group of SS and regular police, and departed for the Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiessee, where Röhm and his followers were staying.[35]

At Bad Wiessee, Hitler personally placed Röhm and other high-ranking SA leaders under arrest. According to Erich Kempka, one of the men present during the raid, Hitler turned Röhm over to "two detectives holding pistols with the safety catch removed", and the SS found Breslau SA leader Edmund Heines in bed with a (male) unidentified eighteen-year-old SA senior troop leader.[36] Goebbels emphasized the latter in subsequent propaganda justifying the purge as a crackdown on moral turpitude.[37] Both Heines and his partner were shot on the spot in the hotel grounds on the personal order of Hitler.[34] Meanwhile, the SS arrested a number of SA leaders as they departed their train for a planned meeting with Röhm.[38]

The fact that no plot by Röhm to overthrow the regime ever existed did not prevent Hitler from denouncing the leadership of the SA.[37] Arriving back at party headquarters in Munich, Hitler addressed the assembled crowd. Consumed with rage, Hitler denounced "the worst treachery in world history". Hitler told the crowd that "undisciplined and disobedient characters, and asocial or diseased elements" would be annihilated. The crowd, which included party members and many SA members fortunate enough to escape arrest, shouted its approval. Hess, present among the assembled, even volunteered to shoot the "traitors" himself.[38] Goebbels, who had been with Hitler at Bad Wiessee, set the final phase of the plan in motion. Upon returning to Berlin, he telephoned Göring with the codeword Kolibri to let loose the execution squads on the rest of their unsuspecting victims.[37]

Against conservatives and old enemiesEdit

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