Between June 30 and July 2, 1934, the Nazi Party leadership, on the order of Nazi Party Leader and Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler, purged the leadership of the Nazi paramilitary formation, the Sturmabteilungen (Storm Troopers; SA). The Nazi leaders took advantage of the purge to kill other political enemies, primarily on the German nationalist right. Known as the “Night of the Long Knives” or “Operation Hummingbird,” the murders cemented an agreement between the Nazi regime and the German Army (Reichswehr) that enabled Hitler to proclaim himself Führer of National Socialist Germany and to claim absolute power.
BACKGROUND TO THE PURGE
By June 1934, the SA, led by longtime Hitler friend and SA Chief of Staff Ernst Röhm, had expanded to a force of nearly three million men. The SA significantly outnumbered the German Army, which the Treaty of Versailles had limited to 100,000 men. It had provided an intimidating and often violent presence as the Nazi Party rose to power during the 1920s and 1930s. After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, many political leaders, including President Paul von Hindenburg and Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, feared that the SA had become too powerful. Although the SA continued to provide key support to the Nazi regime as it consolidated its power into a dictatorship in 1933, the demands of its leadership to “finish” the Nazi revolution became a source of embarrassment and discomfort for Hitler in his dealings with the traditional German nationalist elites. The SA leadership sought to remove the elites from power and replace them in their positions with fanatical Nazis. Hitler, the Nazi Party leadership, and the leadership of the SS, a formation of the SA, understood, however, that the Nazi regime would have to work with the traditional elites to consolidate its power and to prepare the nation for a war of expansion.
SA dissatisfaction with what its leaders perceived to be the stagnating pace of the Nazi revolution threatened by the late winter and spring of 1934 to split the Nazi-Nationalist coalition. The ambition of the SA leaders to replace the officer corps of the Reichswehr and to replace the professional Army with a “People's Army” became a threat to the Nazi regime itself, as the Army leaders responded by demanding the elimination of the SA as a condition for permitting the Nazi government to remain in power. Moreover, Röhm and his top commandants had lost the confidence of other key Nazi leaders, including Prussian Prime Minister Hermann Göring, Deputy Nazi Party Chief Rudolf Hess, Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and the SS leadership, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.
As early as April 1934, Himmler and Heydrich began to conspire with Göring to persuade Hitler to eliminate Röhm. In mid-June 1934, they planted rumors and evidence that Röhm was planning to overthrow the regime. Meanwhile, President von Hindenburg, the leadership of the Reichswehr, and Hitler's conservative coalition partners, including Vice-Chancellor von Papen, issued warnings about the increasing radicalization of the Nazi regime. If the “revolutionary elements” of the Nazi regime were not brought under control, the Army leaders threatened to overthrow the Hitler government and place the country under martial law.
For all their radical rhetoric, neither Röhm nor his top commanders ever planned to seize power in Germany. Well aware of this, Hitler, who considered Röhm one of his few friends, procrastinated over a decision as tension increased towards the end of spring 1934 and the plot against Röhm took on a more defined shape. Playing for time, Hitler persuaded Röhm to order the top SA leadership to take an extended leave on June 8, 1934. On June 17, Vice-Chancellor von Papen gave a speech at the University Marburg that was highly critical of Nazi failure to maintain the rule of law and seemed to focus Nationalist opposition to the regime. Partly to forestall the formation of a viable nationalist opposition, but primarily to maintain the professional army, which he had incorporated into his planning for rearmament and military expansion, Hitler decided during the last week of June to eliminate the top SA leadership.
Hitler tasked Himmler and the SS with carrying out the purge. On June 28, Hitler ordered Röhm to assemble the top SA leaders at a Bavarian spa in Bad Wiessee. SS units, commanded by Dachau concentration camp commandant Theodor Eicke, surprised the SA leaders on the morning of June 30 and transported them to Munich's Stadelheim prison. There SS men shot most of them. Hitler remained indecisive about Röhm's fate until July 1. On that day, at the Nazi dictator's expressed order, Eicke shot Röhm in his cell in Stadelheim. Röhm reportedly died with the words “Heil Hitler” on his lips.
In addition to the murder of the top SA leaders both in Munich and around the country, the SS took the opportunity to eliminate several other political opponents, mostly right-wing nationalists, as well as former supporters whom they believed to have betrayed the Nazi movement. Among those the SS killed between June 30 and July 2 were Röhm; Reichswehr General Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler's predecessor as Reich Chancellor, and his wife; Major General Kurt von Bredow, Schleicher's friend and collaborator; Gustav von Kahr, the Bavarian chief of state who had refused in 1923 to support Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch; and Gregor Strasser, a former Nazi leader who had sought in the winter of 1932 to reach an electoral agreement with then Chancellor von Schleicher that would have barred Hitler from rising to power. The SS also targeted von Papen, who barely managed to escape with his life; they killed two of his aides, Edgar Jung and Herbert von Bose.
In all, sources identify by name 85 persons killed in the Röhm purge; the actual toll is estimated at between 150 and 200 persons. The police took more than 1,100 persons into protective custody, including many SA officers.
On July 3, the Reich Cabinet issued a law, legalizing the murders after the fact as an emergency action to save the nation. Hitler addressed the Reichstag on July 13, 1934, explaining that, as the supreme ruler of Germany, he had exercised his power against individuals who threatened the existence of the German nation.
Following the purge, Goebbels launched a propaganda campaign to portray it as an effort to root out traitors who planned to overthrow the government and plunge Germany into political chaos. In justifying the killings, Nazi Party leaders also referred to Röhm's known homosexual preference. Some claimed that Röhm had surrounded himself with homosexuals, who undermined both the moral fiber of the Nazi movement and endangered national security. Though Hitler himself had never criticized or commented on Röhm's sexual preference, Röhm's death served as a convenient excuse for Himmler and the Criminal Police detective force to sharpen persecution of homosexuals by broadening the range of prosecutable homosexual acts and increasing the severity of punishment for convictions on charges of homosexual acts.
LONG-TERM CONSEQUENCES OF THE PURGE
The elimination of the SA leadership had several important long-term consequences. First and foremost it cemented an alliance between Hitler and the German Army leadership that would remain intact, with rare exceptions, until the end of World War II. In return for the elimination of the SA leadership and the threat to the professional officer corps, the Army leaders supported Hitler when he proclaimed himself Führer (Leader) of the German Reich on August 19, 1934, less than three weeks after President Hindenburg's death. As Führer, Hitler's authority was supreme in the German state and, in emergency situations, extended beyond the laws of the state. The military leaders swore their service oath to Hitler personally as the symbol of the future and destiny of the German Nation on August 20.
Second, as a reward for their loyalty and their role in carrying out the purge, Hitler decreed the SS to be independent of the SA on July 20, 1934. This granted Reichsführer-SS (SS chief) Heinrich Himmler direct access to Hitler and gave a distinct advantage to the SS in realizing its ambition to gain control of the German police. Already during the second half of 1934, the SS assumed control of a centralized political police force and a centralized concentration camp system. By 1936-1937, Himmler would complete the consolidation of all German police forces under SS control and remove the police from any form of legal or judicial oversight.
Third, the Röhm purge ended the role of the SA as a political player in the Nazi regime. Although it continued to exist under Röhm's successor, SA Chief of Staff Viktor Lutze, outnumbered other formations of the Nazi Party, and engaged in murderous violence, both during Kristallnacht in 1938 and during shooting operations in German-occupied Poland and the Soviet Union, the SA never recovered its political clout in the Nazi system.
Finally, the killings of June 30-July 2 represented a vital watershed in terms of the regime's preparedness to go outside the law and the norms of civilized society to commit murder as an act of state for the survival of the nation. This realization was not lost on key Nazi figures at the time. More than nine years later, when giving his infamous speech to SS generals at Poznan in October 1943, Himmler brought up the issue of the so-called Final Solution, the physical annihilation of the European Jews. In introducing the topic, he explicitly referred to the SS role in the Röhm purge as a reflection of the SS commitment to do whatever Hitler deemed necessary. He said: “I wish to bring up to you in complete frankness a difficult chapter. We should be able to talk about it quite openly among ourselves, but we will never speak of this publicly. As little as we [the SS] hesitated on June 30, 1934 to carry out the task that we were ordered to perform and to stand comrades who had gone astray against the wall and shoot them, so little did we speak about that and [so little] will we speak about that [in the future]…. Every single one of us shuddered; nevertheless each of us understood clearly that he would do it the next time if it were ordered and if it were necessary. I mean here the evacuation of the Jews, the annihilation of the Jewish people.”
Eleanor Hancock, Ernst Röhm: Hitler's SA Chief of Staff (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)
Heinz Höhne, Mordsache Röhm: Hitlers Durchbruch zur Alleinherrschaft, 1933-1934 (Rowohlt: Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1984).
Peter Longerich, Geschichte der SA (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2003).