Saturday, April 9, 2016

Night of the Long Knives

June 30, 1934

Night of the Long Knives

While not technically a part of World War II, the events before the invasion of Poland which consolidated Hitler's 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 Third Reich, but it went far beyond that.

Tiergarten SA Night of Long Knives
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 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."

Night of the Long Knives
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.

Night of the Long Knives
According to some accounts, Hitler stalked into the hotel, personally burst in on Röhm, and physically attacked him. It is politically convenient to now believe that Hitler was a bit of a poof and coward, but in fact Hitler was a roughneck. Here is an early photo showing him armed with a whip and what almost certainly is an (illegal) pistol in his pocket.

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.

Night of the Long Knives
Ernst Röhm

Hitler's following included people from across the political spectrum. The NSDAP was the "National Socialist" party, and some took the word "socialist" literally (in fact, it was sort of a euphemism for German nationalism). Leading figures of the left-wing "Strasserist" faction of the Party, along with its figurehead, Gregor Strasser, were murdered. So, too, however, were prominent people who could not even remotely be considered Left-wing or socialist. It was not a political purge except as related to people's attitudes towards Hitler - it was not, for instance, directed just at "liberals" or "conservatives" as we would understand those terms. Many of those killed were in the SA and extremely militaristic, with fervent hatred of the Soviet Union. Goering personally led an armed assault on the SA headquarters on Wilhelm Strasse.

Ernst Röhm Karl Ernst
Ernst Röhm (back left) and Karl Ernst (back right) ca. 1933 (Ang, Federal Archives).

Just to give a brief flavor of the victims, the victims 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.
It was a highly erratic process. Teams of SS killers sought out people they didn't know personally from lists that didn't include any other details. Apparently, some of the squads just looked up the victims in the phone book. A few people were killed by mistake simply because they had a similar name as an intended victim. Some victims got temporary reprieves on orders from the Third Reich hierarchy, but were shot later anyway when the person "in the know" about the change in orders left. A few originally intended victims escaped completely, such as Franz von Papen, who was on a hit list. Papen was on the outs because he had given a vaguely anti-Hitler speech at Marburg on 16 June. Arrested and held for some time, he finally was spared on Goering's direct order (some accounts say due to intercession by President Hindenburg).

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 Party members 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 big 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.

Night of the Long Knives
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 leaders even joked about offing one particular society lady whose pretensions annoyed them just to be rid of her.

David Low
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.

Night of the Long Knives


No comments:

Post a Comment