After asserting power in the political realm, it was time for the Nazi party to deal with the demon that it had created, the SA.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 26 - The Third Reich Pt. 12 - The Night of the Long Knives. After the Nazi party came to power in Germany, and after they removed all of their political rivals, they still had a problem, and this problem was far closer to home. Much like Mussolini in Italy, once Adolf Hitler finally achieved his goal of leading the nation he had to find a way to bring those who had helped him to get there under control. There were two main problems that Hitler and other Nazi political leaders faced at this point. First, the SA was a paramilitary group built around the idea that violence was necessary to achieve change within society. They were revolutionaries, radical revolutionaries, and up until 1933 the Nazi leaders had valued them because of that fact. But now that the new regime was firmly in place they no longer wanted a revolutionary force like the SA to be, well revolutionary. However, that revolutionary spirit was not just something that could be switched off on a whim, and as change did not occur as quickly as many SA members hoped they began to agitate for greater changes. The second problem was that there had always been a faction within the SA, led by Ernst Rohm the leader of the SA, that believed that the destiny of the SA was to replace the German army. Part of this second problem related to the first, because many within the SA felt that the military would always seek to maintain the status quo. The tensions between the political leaders of the party on one side and the paramilitary on the other dated all the way back to the founding of the party, and was exacerbated when Hitler had decided to pursue the political path to power. Throughout the spring and summer of 1933 Hitler was able to keep the coalition together. He still needed the assistance of those paramilitary groups to enact some of the societal changes that the regime wanted, but as Nazi control over the political organs of the state solidified throughout the summer months the challenges of balancing both sides was growing. The Party could not have both all of the political power at the national and state level, and also have this group of radical paramilitary members that were out on the street committing acts of violence like they had during the 1920s. This became particularly problematic when that violence was committed against foreign citizens, or even diplomats and their families. There was also mounting pressure from the industrialists and the aristocracy for Hitler to get his house under control. As early as March 1933 Hitler would try to give the SA an order to calm down, but there was some resistance. There was a general belief that Hitler was just saying that for appearances, and of course did not actually mean it. This was the inevitable outcome of the previous years of the Nazi party, where Hitler would often say things for public consumption, but would then make it clear in private that he actually felt a very different. We talked about a great example of this last episode with Hitler publicly downplaying the Jewish boycott, then clearly supporting it in private conversations. All of these problems and concerns would reach their breaking point in 1934, in an event that would come to be known as the Night of the Long Knives. Much like the Reichstag Fire there are many things we do not know for certain about this event. We do not know exactly when the decision was made to move against the SA, we do not know if the claims made by the government, that the SA was in the planning stages of an overthrow of the new regime, were genuine or if they were fabricated. We also have big gaps of information about what was happening on the side of the SA due to the destruction of so many documents by the government. These ambiguities are important to state up front because like like previous confrontation with the SA, the Night of the Long Knives was partially, perhaps primarily, a propaganda action, to remove any doubt about who was in control of Germany.
Discontent within the SA started right at the top, with the leader of the group Ernst Rohm. No one could deny the importance of the SA, under Rohm’s leadership, in the Nazi rise to power but in the months after Hitler had been installed as Chancellor Rohm grew concerned that the seizure of power by the Nazi party had not led to a wider revolution within Germany. Core to Rohm’s belief was that there had to be a second revolution. The first revolution, in his mind, had ended with the installation of the Nazi led government and the destruction of the Left as a political and cultural force. However, this was not the desired end state, and instead there had to be another revolution, this time one against the traditional German Conservative and Nationalist parties and their supporters. That meant that the target would be the industrialists, the aristocracy, the old Prussian Junkers, and the Army. Through this second revolution Rohm believed that, after already completing the political revolution, the party would finally be able to achieve its wide ranging goals of a radical social revolution. Rohm was in some ways one of the few Nazi leaders who still hung on to that anti-capitalist message that had been such a core part of the party in its early days. Hitler and others had drifted from this anti-capitalist approach over the years, and instead had built connections with German industry and the existing German economic leaders. Hitler hoped to continue to lean on these connections and to use them to benefit his plans, but Rohm wanted to destroy them. Hitler would make it clear that this was not to be considered in a meeting of the assembled leadership of the SA and SS in July 1933. At the meeting he would say “The revolution is over,” that revolution “is not a permanent condition,” and “must not be allowed to develop into one. . . . One must guide the liberated stream of revolution into a secure bed of evolution. The education of people is therefore the most important consideration. The current state of affairs must be improved and the people . . . must be educated in the National Socialist conception of the state.” Hitler would even go so far as to dismiss some party members who he felt were not toeing the party line. While Rohm and others were perhaps calling back to the earliest Nazi party platforms, Hitler was trying to make it clear that the party would go in the direction that he wanted, and he was not in any way tied to existing party programs. Rohm’s message was powerful within the SA, because many of its members felt at best forgotten and at worst outright betrayed by what was happening. The old fighters had, in their mind, done so much for the Party, but now they felt that they had been passed over by new arrivals and opportunists. New Party members were given official positions within the party and state administrations, while long standing SA members were left jobless. They felt that they had been promised a revolution that, should they achieve victory, would bring with it the spoils of victory. But they were instead forced to continue to take unemployment, to live in SA barracks, all the while the feelings of betrayal fermented. In their mind they had, by their own sacrifices, brought the party through its period of greater struggle, and now they wanted to experience the benefits of that toil. There was some truth to all of this of course, the SA had been a tool used by the Nazi leaders to achieve their goals, but now they were a tool without a purpose. Voices within the party’s political leadership began to grow that if the SA’s violence could not be channeled and controlled, then they should be removed from the equation. While all of these discussions and political maneuverings continued, the violence continued as well and tens of thousands of individuals were arrested by the SA and held in makeshift prisons and camps, and that is not including those held in the more formalized concentration camps and prisons. At its core the SA was about violence, and that violence still found an outlet, even if suddenly the political side of the party no longer wanted it to continue.
The second problem that the SA was causing was due to Rohm’s view of what the SA could and should be for Germany. Rohm wanted to turn the SA into the official state military, with it continuing to be structured much like a revolutionary militia. The SA leadership saw the Army as a threat, if they were going to launch a second revolution of the targets of that revolution would be the existing German military, with the expectation that they would fight to maintain their position within society. Rohm was not daunted by this, and in February he would present his plans for the SA to the new cabinet. The SA, SS, and all veterans groups would be combined into a single new People’s Army under a new Ministry of Defense, with the obvious implication that Rohm would be in control. Hitler, joined by all of the other Nazi political leaders, believed that it was essential that instead of removing the Army, the support of the Army should be carefully cultivated. Hitler would never be shaken from this view during 1934, and so removing the Reichswehr was never a serious possibility. Hitler was adamant that the SA as a State Militia was never going to happen, and he would openly reject it at a meeting at the Reichswehr Ministry on February 28th 1934. Even with Hitler clearly rejecting Rohm’s plan the SA leader would never completely give up on it, at that meeting on February 28th Rohm would allegedly say “What the ridiculous corporal declared doesn’t apply to us. Hitler has no loyalty and has at least to be sent on leave. If not with, then we’ll manage the thing without Hitler.” This meeting would not be the end of the discussion, and into March Hitler and Rohm would still be at odds about the future of the SA. Rohm’s inability to move past this concept, which he obviously believed was the best path forward, forced Hitler into a position where he would eventually have to choose either between the SA and the Army. Hitler believed that while the SA had played a pivotal role in bringing him to power, he also believed that it was essential that the SA learn to follow the direction of the Party’s leadership, and that meant supporting the Army. With Rohm unwilling to alter his views, and Hitler believing that they were a growing threat to a continuation of Nazi power, the final confrontation between these two views would grow closer and closer during the spring of 1934.
For their part, the Reichswehr was alarmed and concerned about the hopes of the SA to replace them. Many military leaders saw the SA as no more than a destabilizing force within society, and certainly not one capable of creating a military force to defend Germany. However, there was a complicating factor in all of this, and that was the fact that everybody knew that Hindenburg was reaching the end of his life. The aging Field Marshal had been President for almost a decade, and among Nazi leaders there was a concern that the Army and Navy would support a return of the monarchy after he died. This was obviously not part of Hitler’s plans, and so he began discussions with military leaders to assure that when Hindenburg passed away they would give their support for Hitler and his position as Chancellor, and most importantly they would support the position of Chancellor absorbing many of the powers previously held by the position of President. This would kick off a series of discussions that we will discuss in more detail in later episodes when discussing the German military’s relationship with Hitler, but for now it is enough to say that the military leadership agreed to Hitler’s plans. This would in effect make the dictatorship a permanent feature of Germany. As part of these discussions, and as part of Hitler’s attempts to ensure the loyalty of the Reichswehr to the continuation of his power, he promised to once and for all remove the SA as a threat to the traditional German military. He then also guaranteed that the Army and Navy would continue to be the sole defensive institutions in Germany.
During the early summer months of 1934 it was clear that the SA problem would have to be solved quickly. The SA had taken over various buildings to serve as prisons for people they found to be enemies of the state, many Communists, Socialists, and Jews were included on that list. These people were kidnapped, taken to these buildings, and then tortured, starved, and then almost left to die. Rumors of what was happening inside these prisons would reach the police and other government officials, which eventually prompted action. From Goering’s Ministry of the Interior came an order to start closing down the SA prisons that had been opened over the previous year. Attempts to complete this action would provide a perfect example of the rift that had developed between the SA and the rest of the Nazi regime. Several SA commanders who were in charge of these prisons, even when presented with written authorization from the Ministry of the Interior and Goering, demanded that they be provided with an order directly from Roehm. When officials then entered the makeshift prisons what they found inside was ghastly. Many of the victims were simply beyond assistance, others would never fully recover either mentally or physically.
The calls for definitive and effective action from Hitler to contain the SA would only continue to mount. In early June Hitler would meet with Roehm for nearly five hours late into the night. He would claim that at this meeting he had made it clear what he expected Roehm to do. However, we do not have the account from Roehm’s perspective, with any personal notes from this period having been destroyed, and any close associated that Roehm may have spoken to having been executed. What we do know is that Roehm did kind of tone down his pressure on the Nazi government during the month of June, but he did not completely change his tune. The Minister of Defense General Blomberg would make it very clear that Hitler had to take action in the very near future if he wanted to ensure continued peace within Germany. He would then discuss the situation with the President, with the understanding that if the government could not get a handle on the the situation the President would declare martial law, which would put the military in control. This seems to have been the moment that lit a fire under Hitler and prompted him into action. He was more than prepared to move against the SA if it meant continuing good relations with the Army. Even though the military was pushing strongly for action, believing that actions against them was eminent, there is no firm evidence that Roehm or anybody else in the SA was seriously planning the second revolution at this point, or any direct action against the army. Again, information is fuzzy on the inner workings of the SA and the thoughts of SA leaders at this time, but if there was firm evidence, that seems like something that the Nazi leaders would have held onto.
Even though the SA was a high priority for the government, it was not the only thing that the Nazi leaders were trying to get a handle on during June 1934. For example Hitler would met Mussolini in Venice on June 14th. However, during the last week of June the situation began to develop rapidly. On June 25th, the commander of the Reichswehr put the Army into readiness, all leaves were cancelled, all troops were recalled to barracks. Even after this order was given, it does not appear that a final date and time for any action against the SA was decided on until perhaps as late as June 28th. It was only on that day that orders were sent out by Goering and Heinrich Himmler to ready the SS and elements of the Goering-controlled police. By this time word was getting out that something was happening, and the SA had learned that there was something that the Nazi leaders were going to do to bring them under greater control in some way. This cause the SA to react, exactly as you might expect, doing what they did best which was to take to the streets. In Munich up to 3,000 SA men would move through the city, shouting things like ‘The Führer is against us, the Reichswehr is against us; SA out on the streets.’ These demonstrations would continue all through the night. Hitler was on his way to Munich anyway, for the purpose of meeting with the SA leaders, with their meeting scheduled for midday on the 30th, but instead of waiting he decided to move against them immediately after he arrived. Hitler and his entourage would gather up some police and move directly to the Hotel Hanselbauer where Rohm and other SA leaders were staying. They would then enter Roehm’s room and declare that he was under arrest. Roehm would be jus tone of many SA leaders that were arrested at this time. Just a few hours later Hitler would speak to both Party and SA officials that were gathered to hear his speech. Apparently Hitler was visibly furious during this speed, almost to the point of uncontrollable rage. He would fire away at Rohm and the other SA leaders, saying that they were plotting against him and against the Party. He declared that they would be punished as an example to everyone else, and that they would be executed. Interestingly, at least initially Roehm was not one of the SA leaders who was to be executed, with Hitler apparently planning to spare him on the basis of his long and distinguished service to the Nazi cause. However, other Nazi leaders, especially Himmler and Goering who felt most threatened by Roehm and the SA, put pressure on Hitler to make an example out of Roehm. One item I did want to mention, and that gets a mention in some older histories, is the subject of Roehm’s homosexuality, which was kind of an open secret among Nazi and SA leaders. Apparently when this topic was discussed in front of Hitler by other SA leaders, Hitler made it clear that Roehm’s sexual orientation was a private matter, and he did not feel that it in any way altered his capabilities as a leader. What this seems to make clear is that, for all of the reasons that Hitler had Roehm arrested and then later executed, his homosexuality was not among them.
On July 1st Hitler would agree to have Roehm killed, although he was given the option of suicide. When Roehm was given the pistol in his prison cell, he refused to use it, instead requesting the Hitler come and kill him personally, this was not going to happen, and so he was shot and killed. Roehm was not the only person executed as part of the action against the SA, although the number is challenging to ascertain. On July 13th Hitler would claim that it was only 61, but there would be a list published by German émigrés in Paris that listed 116 but also claimed there were over 400, and then at a trial in Munich in 1957 the number was put at over a thousand. As with many events at this time, it is very hard to track down exactly what happened when it would be so long, and after so many calamitous events, that an investigation would even begin. General Schleicher, who we of course discussed in some detail a few episodes ago was shot and killed at his house outside Berlin, Gregor Strasser was arrested in Berlin and then killed in prison, apparently on the personal order of Goering. As these two examples make clear, not all of the people who were executed in the first few days of July were in any way associated with the SA, instead it was used simply as a way of clearing the books a bit for the Nazi party leaders, removing anyone who knew too much of past events or that had crossed the party in the past. The SA was put under new leadership, with Viktor Lutze taking over for Roehm. Lutze was an SA leader from before the purge who just so happened to be the one that had been feeding information to the Nazi leaders which contributed to their decision to move against Roehm. The SA itself would begin a rapid reduction in total size, with membership reduced by almost half within a year. The German public new about what had happened, Hitler would even speak about it in front of the Reichstag later in the month. Many believed that the government had successfully removed a violent threat to Germany, and had moved to protect the German people. Obviously, the fact that the SA was a violent group created by the Nazi party was downplayed as much as possible. Hindenburg would send Hitler a message saying that he felt gratitude for Hitler’s ‘resolute intervention’ and that he had ‘rescued the German people from a serious danger.’ International reaction was more mixed, there was concern about such state sponsored violence, especially where it spilled out beyond the SA leadership. While the SA had become so problematic for the Nazi leaders in the year before the Night, it had been a useful tool, and so the position that the SA had occupied was filled with a new organization. Days after the Night it would be announced that the SS was now fully independent of the SA, and it would quickly begin to massively expand its numbers, eventually becoming far more powerful than the SA had ever been. However, the Nazi leaders sought to fix what they saw as the SA’s greatest weakness, its disloyalty, and it was made clear to members of the SS that their own loyalty was to Adolf Hitler, and they would swear an oath to affirm it.
The reduction of the SA to the point of impotence marked an important turning point for the new Nazi regime, it represented a final and firm break from all of its talk of revolution, and made it clear that the Nazi leadership was in it for the long haul. They still had many changes planned for Germany, but they would all be done incrementally and with at least a nod to some kind of legality, although they of course cared very little for the actual legality of their actions. Next episode will be a pretty big shift in topic as we discuss the economic policies of the new regime as it tried to bring Germany out of the Great Depression.