The Night of the Long Knives was Adolf Hitler’s great purge, ridding the Nazi Party of those he distrusted, together with anti-Nazi figures within Germany and members of his paramilitary wing, the SA. Its most notorious victim was Ernst Rohm, once his loyal friend and devotee. So what had brought Hitler to such a critical moment so early in his twelve-year reign?
Hitler had come to power in January 1933 and immediately started, piece by piece, tearing up the Weimar constitution, squashing opposition and ridding Germany of democracy.
The End of Democracy
In the last parliamentary elections of the Weimar Republic, in March 1933, the Nazis polled 44% of the vote – not enough for a majority but enough to squash any future political resistance. Within a fortnight Hitler proposed the Enabling Act, a temporary dissolution of the constitution whilst he dealt with the problems facing the nation. The Reichstag passed the proposal by 441 votes to 84. There would be no more elections nor a constitution to keep Hitler in check. The Reichstag had, in effect, voted away its own power.
The temporary became permanent. Within a matter of weeks it had become illegal to criticize the government. A new secret police force, the Gestapo, immediately began arresting ‘unreliable’ persons, and Dachau, the first concentration camp, was opened to cater for their custody. Trade unions were banned, freedom of the press curtailed, and all other political parties declared illegal. Germany had become a one-party state with Hitler its leader, and soon its dictator.
A year later, with Hitler’s power almost absolute, only the excesses of the SA and their bull-necked leader, Ernst Rohm (pictured), troubled the dictator. Their violence, which as a revolutionary during the 1920s, Hitler would have endorsed, had become an embarrassment to the Chancellor. Having gained power through the proper process Hitler wanted to win over the German people and international opinion through legitimate means not by force.
But Rohm and the SA felt that Hitler was going soft and had not given them their due reward for helping the Nazis into power. They started talking of a ‘second revolution’ with Rohm the leader of the People’s Party, greatly alarming the industrialists and businessmen that Hitler had managed to woo. Rohm wanted also to merge the army with the SA under his command, which, in turn, alarmed the army and its chief, Werner von Blomberg.
In April 1934, Hitler and Blomberg signed a secret pact: Hitler promised Blomberg and the army full control of the military (ahead of Rohm’s SA); and, in return, Blomberg promised Hitler the army’s support when the time came for Hitler to claim the presidency following the anticipated death of 86-year-old Paul von Hindenburg.
Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goring, who also feared Rohm, concocted false evidence that Rohm was planning a coup against Hitler. The SA’s agitation was beginning to undermine the country’s stability, and Hindenburg threatened to bring in martial law unless Hitler could bring the situation under control. In other words – deal with Rohm and the SA.
On the weekend of 30 June – 1 July 1934, in what was to become known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, Hitler acted. Members of the SS stormed a hotel in the village of Bad Wiessee where the SA had gathered for a weekend of homosexual debauchery, pulled Rohm and his henchmen from their beds and had them arrested. Most were promptly executed on the spot, except for Rohm. Hitler took it upon himself to arrest Rohm personally, marching into his hotel room and, brandishing a revolver, yelled, “You’re under arrest, you pig”.
Rohm was taken to a Munich prison, along with other SA leaders, and there awaited his fate. But Hitler, in a fit of nostalgia, found it difficult to order his murder. Instead, he offered Rohm the chance to kill himself. On 1 July, a revolver was left on the table in his cell and he was given ten minutes. Rohm refused, saying, ‘If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself’. When the ten minutes had elapsed and no shot heard, an SS officer marched in and killed the bare-chested Rohm at point blank range.
Hitler took the opportunity to purge anyone whom he disliked or had crossed him in the past, including the last Chancellor of the Weimar Republic, Kurt von Schleicher. The Night of the Long Knives claimed over 200 lives. Hindenburg congratulated his chancellor for having acted so swiftly. The army, relieved to be freed from its main rival, sided with Hitler, and Blomberg applauded “the Fuhrer’s soldierly decision and exemplary courage”.
All Hitler had to do now was to wait for old Hindenburg to die. He did not have long to wait.