The four million brown shirted Nazi storm troopers, the
SA (Sturmabteilung), included many members who actually believed in the
'socialism' of National Socialism and also wanted to become a true revolutionary
army in place of the regular German Army.
But to the regular Army High Command and its conservative supporters,
this potential storm trooper army represented a threat to centuries old
German military traditions and the privileges of rank. Adolf Hitler had
been promising the generals for years he would restore their former military
glory and break the "shackles" of the Treaty of Versailles which
limited the Army to 100,000 men and prevented modernization.
For Adolf Hitler, the behavior of the SA was a problem that now threatened
his own political survival and the entire future of the Nazi movement.
The anti-capitalist, anti-tradition sentiments often expressed by SA
leaders and echoed by the restless masses of storm troopers also caused
great concern to big industry leaders who had helped put Hitler in power.
Hitler had promised them he would put down the trade union movement and
Marxists, which he had done. However, now his own storm troopers with their
talk of a 'second revolution' were sounding more and more like Marxists
themselves. (The first revolution having been the Nazi seizure of power
in early 1933.)
SA was headed by Ernst Röhm, a battle scarred, aggressive, highly ambitious
street brawler who had been with Hitler from the very beginning. Röhm
and the SA had been very instrumental in Hitler's rise to power by violently
seizing control of the streets and squashing Hitler's political opponents.
However, by early 1934, a year after Hitler came to power, the SA's
usefulness as a violent, threatening, revolutionary force had effectively
come to an end. Hitler now needed the support of the regular Army generals
and the big industry leaders to rebuild Germany after the Great Depression,
re-arm the military and ultimately accomplish his long range goal of seizing
more living space for the German people.
The average German also feared and disliked the SA brownshirts with
their arrogant, gangster-like behavior, such as extorting money from local
shop owners, driving around in fancy news cars showing off, often getting
drunk, beating up and even murdering innocent civilians.
At the end of February, 1934, Hitler held a meeting attended by SA and
regular Army leaders including Röhm and German Defense Minister General
Werner von Blomberg. At this meeting Hitler informed Röhm the SA would
not be a military force in Germany but would be limited to certain political
functions. In Hitler's presence, Röhm gave in and even signed an agreement
However, Röhm soon let it be know he had no intention of keeping
to the agreement. In April he even boldly held a press conference and proclaimed,
"The SA is the National Socialist Revolution!!"
Within the SA at this time was a highly disciplined organization known
as the SS (Shutzstaffel) which had been formed in 1925 as Hitler's personal
body guard. SS chief Heinrich Himmler along with his second-in-command,
Reinhard Heydrich, and Hermann Göring, began plotting against Röhm
to prod Hitler into action against his old comrade, hoping to gain from
On June 4, Hitler and Röhm had a five hour private meeting lasting
until midnight. A few days later Röhm announced he was taking a 'personal
illness' vacation and the whole SA would go on leave for the month of July.
He also convened a conference of top SA leaders for June 30 at a resort
town near Munich which Hitler promised to attend to sort things out.
On June 17, Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen, who had helped Hitler become
Chancellor, stunned everyone by making a speech criticizing the rowdy,
anti-intellectual behavior of the SA and denouncing Nazi excesses such
as strict press censorship. Papen also focused on the possibility of a
'second revolution' by Röhm and the SA and urged Hitler to put a stop
to it. "Have we experienced an anti-Marxist revolution in order to
put through a Marxist program?" Papen asked.
His speech drastically increased the tension between German Army leaders
and SA leaders and further jeopardized Hitler's position. But for the moment
Hitler hesitated to move against his old comrade Röhm.
A few days later, June 21, Hitler went to see German President Paul
von Hindenburg at his country estate. Hindenburg was in failing health
and now confined to a wheelchair. Hitler met with the Old Gentleman and
Defense Minister Blomberg and was stiffly informed the SA problem must
be solved or the president would simply declare martial law and let the
German Army run the country, effectively ending the Nazi regime.
Meanwhile, Himmler and Heydrich spread false rumors that Röhm and
the SA were planning a violent takeover of power (putsch).
On June 25, the German Army was placed on alert, leaves canceled and
the troops confined to the barracks. An agreement had been secretly worked
out between Himmler and Army generals ensuring cooperation between the
SS and the Army during the coming action against the SA. The Army would
provide weapons and any necessary support, but would remain in the barracks
and let the SS handle things.
On Thursday, June 28, Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels attended the
wedding of Gauleiter Josef Terboven in Essen. Hitler was informed by phone
that he faced the possibility of a putsch by Röhm's forces and also
faced the possibility of a revolt by influential conservative non-Nazis
who wanted Hindenburg to declare martial law and throw out Hitler and his
Hitler then sent Göring back to Berlin to get ready to put down
the SA and conservative government leaders there. The SS was put on full
Friday, June 29, Hitler made a scheduled inspection tour of a labor
service camp and then went to a hotel near Bonn for the night. He was informed
by Himmler that evening by phone that SA troops in Munich knew about the
coming action and had taken to the streets.
Hitler decided to fly to Munich to put down the SA rebellion and confront
Röhm and top SA leaders who were gathered at the resort town of Bad
Wiessee near Munich.
Arriving in Munich near dawn, Saturday, June 30, Hitler first ordered
the arrest of the SA men who were inside Munich Nazi headquarters, then
proceeded to the Ministry of the Interior building where he confronted
the top SA man in Munich after his arrest, even tearing off his insignia
in a fit of hysteria.
Next it was on to Röhm. A column of troops and cars containing
Hitler, Rudolf Hess, and others, sped off toward Röhm and his men.
At this point, the story is often told (partly conceived by the Nazis)
of Hitler arriving at the resort hotel about 6:30 a.m. and rushing inside
with a pistol to arrest Röhm and other SA leaders.
However it is more likely the hotel was first secured by the SS before
Hitler went near it. Hitler then confronted Röhm and the others and
sent them to Stadelheim prison outside Munich to be later shot by the SS.
An exception was made in the case of Edmund Heines, an SA leader who
had been found in bed with a young man. When told of this, Hitler ordered
his immediate execution at the hotel.
A number of the SA leaders, including Röhm, were homosexuals. Prior
to the purge, Hitler for the most part ignored their behavior because of
their usefulness to him during his rise to power. However, their usefulness
and Hitler's tolerance had now come to an end. Later, their homosexual
conduct would be partly used as an excuse for the murders.
Saturday morning about 10 a.m. a phone call was placed from Hitler in
Munich to Göring in Berlin with the prearranged code word 'Kolibri'
(hummingbird) that unleashed a wave of murderous violence in Berlin and
over 20 other cities. SS execution squads along with Göring's private
police force roared through the streets hunting down SA leaders and anyone
on the prepared list of political enemies (known as the Reich List of Unwanted
Included on the list: Gustav von Kahr, who had opposed Hitler during
the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 - found hacked to death in a swamp near Dachau;
Father Bernhard Stempfle, who had taken some of the dictation for Hitler's
book Mein Kampf and knew too much about Hitler - shot and killed; Kurt
von Schleicher, former Chancellor of Germany and master of political intrigue,
who had helped topple democracy in Germany and put Hitler in power - shot
and killed along with his wife; Gregor Strasser, one of the original members
of the Nazi Party and formerly next in importance to Hitler; Berlin SA
leader Karl Ernst, who was involved in torching the Reichstag building
in February, 1933; Vice-Chancellor Papen's press secretary; Catholic leader
Dr. Erich Klausener.
Saturday evening, Hitler flew back to Berlin and was met at the airport
by Himmler and Göring in a scene later described by Hans Gisevius,
a Gestapo official, present.
"On his way to the fleet of cars, which stood several hundred yards
away, Hitler stopped to converse with Göring and Himmler. Apparently
he could not wait a few minutes until he reached the Chancellery…From one
of his pockets Himmler took out a long, tattered list. Hitler read it through,
while Göring and Himmler whispered incessantly into his ear. We could
see Hitler's finger moving slowly down the sheet of paper. Now and then
it paused for a moment at one of the names. At such times the two conspirators
whispered even more excitedly. Suddenly Hitler tossed his head. There was
so much violent emotion, so much anger in the gesture, that everybody noticed
it…Finally they moved on, Hitler in the lead, followed by Göring and
Himmler. Hitler was still walking with the same sluggish tread. By contrast,
the two blood drenched scoundrels at his side seemed all the more lively…"
As for Ernst Röhm - on Hitler's order he had been given a pistol
containing a single bullet to commit suicide, but refused to do it, saying
"If I am to be killed let Adolf do it himself." Two SS officers,
one of whom was Theodore Eicke, commander of the Totenkopf (Death's Head)
guards at Dachau, entered Röhm's cell after waiting fifteen minutes
and shot him point blank. Reportedly, Röhm's last words were "Mein
Führer, mein Führer!"
On Sunday evening, July 1, while some of the shooting was still going
on, Hitler gave a tea party in the garden of the Chancellery for cabinet
members and their families to give the appearance things were getting back
By 4 a.m., Monday, July 2, the bloody purge had ended. The exact number
of murders is unknown since all Gestapo documents relating to the purge
were destroyed. Estimates vary widely from 200 or 250, to as high as 1,000
or more. Less than half of those murdered were actually SA officers.
In one case, a man named Willi Schmidt was at home playing the cello.
Four SS men rang the doorbell, entered and took him away, leaving his wife
and three young children behind. They had mistaken Dr. Willi Schmidt, music
critic for a Munich newspaper, for another Willi Schmidt on the list. Dr.
Schmidt was assassinated and his body later returned to his family in a
sealed coffin with orders from the Gestapo that it should not be opened.
On July 13, Hitler gave a long speech to the Nazi controlled Reichstag
(Parliament) in which he announced seventy four had been shot and justified
"If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular
courts of justice, then all I can say is this: In this hour I was responsible
for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge
of the German people."
"It was no secret that this time the revolution would have to be
bloody; when we spoke of it we called it 'The Night of the Long Knives.'
Everyone must know for all future time that if he raises his hand to strike
the State, then certain death is his lot."
By proclaiming himself the supreme judge of the German people, Hitler
in effect placed himself above the law, making his word the law, and thus
instilled a permanent sense of fear in the German people.
The German Army generals, by condoning the unprecedented events of the
Night of the Long Knives, effectively cast their lot with Hitler and began
the long journey with him that would eventually lead them to the brink
of world conquest and later to the hanging docks at Nuremberg after the
A few weeks after the purge, Hitler rewarded the SS for its role by
raising the SS to independent status as an organization no longer part
of the SA. Leader of the SS, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler now answered
to Hitler and no one else. Reinhard Heydrich was promoted to SS Gruppenführer
From this time on, the SA brownshirts would be diminished and all but
disappear eventually as its members were inducted into the regular Army
after Hitler re-introduced military conscription in 1935.
The SS organization under Himmler and Heydrich would greatly expand
and become Hitler's instrument of mass murder and terror throughout the
remaining history of the Third Reich, another eleven years.