June 30, 1934
While not technically a part of World War II, the events before the invasion of Poland which consolidated Nazi power certainly helped to assure that it would happen. Years before the war, in an effort to consolidate his power, Adolf Hitler embarked on a notorious mass killing spree of various rivals, enemies and occasional mistaken victims. The incident was later given a long-standing German expression for a purge, "The Night of the Long Knives," and ever since the expression has come to refer to this particular purge alone. The primary intended victims included Ernst Röhm, the head of the the Sturmabteilung (SA) aka the paramilitary Brownshirts, and Gustav Ritter von Kahr, who had opposed and terminated the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. The purge in general was directed at elite enemies of the Nazi state, but it went far beyond that.
|German soldiers cross the Tiergartenstrasse in front of the Berlin SA headquarters. June 30, 1934. Hermann Goering personally leads this raid.|
The purge took place in Nazi Germany from Saturday, June 30 to Monday, July 2, 1934. There remains no known exact figure for the number of people killed. Most estimates are around 100 victims, and at a minimum, it was 84 people. The Gestapo and the SS under the command of Heinrich Himmler carried out the murders, with the background support of regular Heer and Luftwaffe troops. The code word for the operation was "Hummingbird."
|Röhm and his cronies were staying at the Hotel Hanselbauer, which still stands and now is known as the Hotel Lederer am See.|
After hashing out a tentative plan with his top cronies at Hermann Goering's villa Carinhall on 20 June, Hitler flew to Munich on 29 June. He was there ostensibly to accept an invitation by Röhm to an SA conference at Bad Wiessee, but there was a heightened sense of fear that the invitation was a trap. There, Hitler was supported by both local troops and the elite SS Leibstandarte "Adolf Hitler" honor guard. Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders were known to be staying at the nearby Bad Wiessee, a resort spa south of Munich. Local Party leaders told Hitler that Röhm's men had been taking over the city, which was Hitler's original base. Himmler owned his own villa near Bad Wiessee and, dining with Ribbentrop that night, mentioned off-handedly that Röhm "was as good as dead." The final order, though, had not yet been given.
The next morning, 30 June 1934, Hitler was still somewhat uncertain. After reviewing the evidence one last time, he finally told his crony Joseph Goebbels to telephone Goering in Berlin and give him the code word "Kolibri." This was the signal to begin the purge. Hitler had given Goering complete dictatorial powers to implement the plan using all of the resources of the state. After this, Hitler himself drove out with his boys that morning to Röhm's resort hotel, where (accounts vary) Hitler walked in, found Röhm in bed, confronted Röhm personally about his disloyalty, and ordered his arrest. Another SA man at the hotel, Obergruppenfuhrer for Silesia Heines, was reportedly found in bed with another man and was shot either on the spot or in Munich. About 200 SA men in Munich were sent to Stadelheim prison.
Leading figures throughout Germany of the left-wing Strasserist faction of the Nazi Party, along with its figurehead, Gregor Strasser, were murdered, as well as prominent conservative anti-Nazis. It was not a political purge except as related to individuals' attitude towards Hitler - it was not, for instance, directed just at "liberals" or "conservatives" as we would understand those terms. Many of those killed are in the SA. Goering personally leads an armed assault on the SA headquarters on Wilhelm Strasse.
|Ernst Röhm (back left) and Karl Ernst (back right) ca. 1933 (Ang, Federal Archives).|
Just to give a brief flavor of the victims, they included:
- Former Reich Chancellor General von Schleicher (and his wife), rumored to be plotting against Hitler with French authorities;
- Journalist Fritz Gerlicht, who had betrayed the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch and with whom Goering also had a personal score to settle;
- Former head of the Prussian Police Erich Klausener, whom Goering had sacked the year earlier;
- Berlin SA commander Karl Ernst, pulled off a cruise ship on which he was about to set out on a honeymoon.
Goering ordered some killings completely without Hitler's knowledge. In one instance, Hitler tried to place a call to a Röhm deputy but then had to be told the man had been executed. Röhm himself, always disliked by other Nazis due to his high-handed attitude and feared due to his 4 million SA men, finally became a target due to German secret intelligence (the Forschungsamt) transcripts of Röhm phone calls which had arranged the Bad Wiessee meeting (which the Nazi bosses interpreted as part of planning a coup, but may just as well have been for a somewhat shady vacation together). This was the evidence that Hitler reviewed in Munich that made up his mind. Hitler originally wanted to spare Röhm for old time's sake, but Goering and the others convinced him otherwise. Röhm ended his life in a cell, shot through the heart after refusing to take his own life.
|A victim's body being removed.|
Decisions were made on the fly, many at the very last moment, and many orders were either not carried out or were willfully disobeyed. If you were owed money by Goering or had once looked at him the wrong way, you might not survive the day. Party men engage in black humor with people they want to annoy (what we would call trolling) but who hadn't targeted, such as by remarking in passing, "Oh, they haven't arrested you yet?" accompanied by a surprised face. The top Nazis even joked about offing one particular society lady whose pretensions annoyed them just to be rid of her.
|People outside the line of fire could see dark humor in the Night of the Long Knives.|
Strangely enough, the entire affair was completely legal under German law of the time. The Enabling Act of 1933 had empowered Hitler to take whatever actions he deemed necessary for the good of the state. Hitler was congratulated on his "success" by many German politicians afterwards, sometimes as the killings were still taking place. President Hindenburg, near death from old age, was kept informed throughout and even sent a telegram congratulating Hitler on his "energetic and victorious action." Only in 1945 and thereafter at the post-war tribunals did the facts come to light and was some wholly inadequate justice based on international law dispensed.