The night of long knives would go into history as one of the defining moments of Nazi Germany. But did the massacre really strengthen Hitler?
This article has been adapted from an essay written by me.
In early 1934, Adolf Hitler looked back on a year filled with successes. He had tightened his grip on Germany, used communist arson to declare a state of emergency, eradicated political opposition and established a propaganda state. He was on the brink of becoming Europe’s new emperor, of establishing what he believed would be a ‘Reich’ greater than any before.
But in the shadow of his triumphs lay a nation crippled by its failing economy and 'stabbed in the back' by the Versaille treaty. Most dangerous for Hitler, however, was opposition from his own ranks. The Brownshirt leader Ernst Röhm was a force to reckon with. Röhm, as the commander of a paramilitary organisation 20 times the size of Germany’s army, meant nothing but trouble. He had become all too powerful.
3 days that changed history
Alleging that Röhm was plotting a putsch, Hitler ordered a massacre in the luxury 'Kurheim Hanselbauer' hotel. The 3 day purge saw Röhm and other SA leaders killed by SS-men. Some of Hitler’s other enemies were also murdered, including the last chancellor of the Weimar Republic, Kurt von Schleicher. Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen narrowly escaped a brutal ending.
Many historians argue that the callous brutality with which former allies and friends of Adolf Hitler were assassinated in the purge first brought to light his true nature. While the killings were met with interest and widespread admiration among the German ‘Volksgemeinschaft’, it was on the international stage that the birth of tyranny was watched with horror and contempt. Once dubbed a “gentle dictator” by TIME magazine, Hitler had shown his true colors to anyone so much as considering opposition to his macchiavellian politics.
According to Nazi confidant Erich Ludendorff, the 'Führer' had “courageously, at the risk of his own life, suppressed all treasonable machinations at the outset”. But Hitler, torn between friendship, power and reluctance, was forced to act. Bloodshed had become inevitable.
Did the purge show Hitler's strength? Some say yes. They argue the Night of Long Knives revealed Hitler as a strong leader because it was under his command that the killings took place and he, ‘in self-critical demeanor’, recognized the pertinence of satisfying the demands of the German public while keeping possible threats to a minimum. But experts who think that friends helped him into power disagree.
Röhm: powerful agitator who 'loved company of men'
Ernst Röhm was one of the ‘DAP’s’ (German Workers Party) founders, helping Hitler win the support of the Bavarian army during Weimar unrest. Röhm, himself from a humble background, had been sympathetic to a second revolution intent on destroying social elites and replacing the military by a “people's army”. These radical ideas alienated Hitler once he had secured sufficient power in 1934 and was now less reliant on the democratic vote than the support of wealthy benefactors.
These historians maintain that the execution of over 400 SA members does not only demonstrate the influence of other powerful personalities such as Göring on Hitler, but that it strengthened their authority.
So, was resorting to means of brutal force really a measure of desperation rather than what German propaganda made out to be a valiant defense against revolutionary forces?
Hitler had initially been hesitant to suppress Röhm’s machinations. Under his command, the SA had become a powerful political institution that over 4 million men, drawn to militancy and radicalism, had entered. And the ‘humiliating’ Versailles treaty, which had not only weakened Germany economically but reduced the German army’s permitted size to 100 000, had allowed the proletarian SA to gain supremacy with regards to enrollment and power.
Many bourgeois-conservative army leaders such as Werner von Blomberg (Minister of war and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces) felt disgruntled by this development, considering the SA a threat to stability within the country and a force for communism. Chilling documents reveal Röhm had sent Blomberg a message saying he wanted the army to be replaced by the SA as the country's primary fighting force.
Because the the army leadership now considered Röhm an increasing threat to their position of power, the ‘weak dictator’ was left in an uncomfortable limbo between SA and Military interests. Even Goebbels, purported to be one of Hitler’s most enthusiastic subordinates, became discontent with Hitler’s apparent indecision. Writing in his diary, he commented that the ‘Führer’ “must act or we could go under”.
But due to sympathy to Hitler’s promises of bringing resolve to the Versailles treaty, Blomberg had brought around the army to an increasing open-mindedness towards the Nazi regime. Concessions to Nazi ideology such as the Aaryan paragraph (banning Jews from the army), showed support for Hitler was increasing within army ranks and contrasted to the greater alienation of SA forces to the ‘tail-coat’ Führer. Nazi-skeptical forces had united behind Hitler in their struggle to weaken Röhm.
There is today limited evidence that Röhm was actually planning a putsch in 1934. Indeed, even an aggressive speech to the SA calling for “ the energies of every SA fighter ” doesn’t explicitly mention subterfuge. This may reveal Hitler to be a leader plagued by fear of revolution rather than one acting upon valid reason.
But evidence shows Hermann Göring (himself a former leader of the SA) had become so worried by developments that he agreed to hand his control of the Prussian military police over to Himmler, centralizing it and creating a counterweight to the SA. This indicates that the SA’s threat to Hitler’s sovereignty was recognized by leading Nazis, aware that they could use it to justify intrigue and conspiracy. The political police had already begun manufacturing ‘evidence’ of a supposed uprising planned by Röhm, presented to leading SS officers on the 24th June 1934.
tabloid terror: How german press reacted to purge
Calculating Nazis of every rank abused the purges’ chaotic momentum to eradicate many in opposition to not only Hitler but themselves. Anti-Nazi ‘savages’ (including the former prime minister of Bavaria, Gustav Ritter von Kahr) were slaughtered without second thought. The killings served as stark warnings to anyone willing to conspire against Hitler and ‘demonstrate his authority’.
Hitler had built up support within the old Institutions of the Reich while failing to resolve the chaos of new Nazi politics. Following the purge, Himmler said that a second revolution could have allowed “a foreign enemy to march into Germany with the excuse of order having to be created”, clearly suggesting his willingness to manipulate the ‘Führer’.
And unscrupulous Hitler instrumentalized the purge as propaganda. Speaking to cabinet, the dictator alleged that “it was not our intention to violate the will and the right of the German Volk’s self-determination, but to drive away those who violated the nation.” The undertaking was legalized retrospectively, a cunning act that manifested the ‘Night of Long Knives’ as a success in securing him absolute power over all elements of state.
Hitler may have not shown himself to be a strong leader initially, but the Night of Long Knives in itself was an act of decisive resilience against possibly subversive forces. Albert Speer remembers that the day after, Hitler said he “alone was able to solve the problem”, asserting that the ‘Führer’ was “inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger”.
Fear had crept into German jubilation. The ‘Führerkult’ had gone from mere propaganda to dictatorial rule.
But history's darkest chapter had only just begun.