The greatest challenge to Hitler's survival during the early years of the Third Reich came from his own brown-shirted storm troopers, the SA (Sturmabteilung) led by Chief of Staff, Ernst Röhm.
The battle-scarred Röhm was a decorated World War I combat officer and a post-war street-brawler who had been with Hitler from the start. Röhm's jack-booted storm troopers were largely responsible for putting Hitler in power. On the front lines of the Nazi political revolution, they had risked their necks battling Communists for control of the streets and squashed anyone who stood in Hitler's way.
However, by the beginning of 1934, a full year after Hitler's seizure of power, things had changed. The SA's usefulness as a violent revolutionary force had effectively ended. To maintain his position as dictator of Germany, Hitler now needed the support of the all-powerful German General Staff with its 100,000-strong Army which had the power to crush his dictatorship whenever it pleased.
The big problem for Hitler was that Röhm and his arrogant young Brownshirts fancied themselves as the nucleus of new "people's army" that would replace the traditional Germany Army – similar to Napoleon's revolutionary army.
This put them in direct conflict with the General Staff. They were threatening to end a centuries-old way of life in Germany. The General Staff was a class unto itself, featuring men of wealth and privilege, many of whom could trace their lineages back to Germany's medieval warrior-princes. During his rise to power, Hitler had earned their support by repeatedly assuring them he would restore them to their former glory by breaking the "shackles" of the Treaty of Versailles which limited the Army to 100,000 men and prevented modernization.
And there were more problems with the SA. The anti-capitalist sentiments voiced by big-mouthed SA leaders and echoed by the restless masses of unemployed storm troopers created huge worries for the German businessmen who had bank-rolled Hitler's rise to power. Like the generals, Hitler had earned their support through repeated promises. In their case, he promised to snuff out the troublesome trade unions and Marxist agitators, which he did. But now, his own storm troopers with their talk of a Second Revolution were sounding like Marxists themselves. (The First Revolution having been the Nazi seizure of power in early 1933.)
Many of the working-class men who made up the SA truly believed in the 'socialism' of National Socialism and wanted to grab their share of Germany's wealth, at the expense of someone else, and if necessary by force. This Second Revolution was what they had been fighting for all along, or so they believed.
In addition to all this, the average German citizen truly disliked the Brownshirts with their gangster-like behaviour which included extorting money from local shop owners, driving around in fancy new cars showing off, getting drunk, beating up and even murdering innocent people for fun.
For Adolf Hitler, the SA's behavior was a problem that now threatened his political survival and the entire future of Nazi Germany.
Hitler began the process of dealing with the SA problem by holding a meeting at the end of February 1934 attended by SA and Army leaders including Röhm and German Defence Minister, General Werner von Blomberg. At that meeting, Hitler plainly informed Röhm that the SA was not going to be a military force in Germany but would instead be limited to certain political functions. Röhm, in the presence of his Führer, readily agreed to this and even put his signature to just such an agreement with Blomberg.
But immediately after the meeting, Röhm let his true feelings be known. "What that ridiculous corporal says means nothing to us," Röhm told his Brownshirt cronies. "I have not the slightest intention of keeping this agreement. Hitler is a traitor, and at the very least must go on leave...If we can't get there with him, we'll get there without him."
Those remarks were reported back to Hitler by one of the Brownshirts. Two months later, Röhm dug a deeper hole for himself by holding a press conference in Berlin attended by foreign correspondents at which he boldly proclaimed: "The SA is the National Socialist Revolution!"
At this time, within the SA was the highly disciplined SS (Schutzstaffel) organization led by Heinrich Himmler. The SS were loyal to Adolf Hitler personally and no one else.
Sensing that Röhm had dangerously over-reached and was vulnerable, the ambitious Himmler, along with his second-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, began plotting. And they were soon joined by another Nazi opportunist, Hermann Göring, who hoped to benefit from Röhm's downfall. Together, they began to feed a mix of falsified rumors and half-truths to Hitler concerning Röhm.
As a result, on June 4th, Hitler and Röhm met for a private heart-to-heart talk that lasted a full five hours. At Hitler's request, Röhm announced a few days later that he was taking a "personal illness" vacation and that the entire four million-strong SA would go on leave for the month of July.
Röhm then scheduled a conference of top SA leaders for the end of June to be held at a resort village near Munich. Hitler promised to attend that meeting to help smooth things out.
However, quite unexpectedly, Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen fouled-up everything. Papen, who had helped Hitler become Chancellor, stunned everyone by giving a speech at the University of Marburg on June 17 in which he lambasted the rowdy behavior of the SA and denounced Nazi excesses such as strict press censorship. Papen also mentioned the possibility of Röhm's Second Revolution and urged Hitler to prevent it.
"Have we experienced an anti-Marxist revolution in order to put through a Marxist program?" Papen asked those in attendance. His question was answered with roars of applause from the conservative audience.
Papen's speech immediately raised the level of tension between the German Army leaders and the SA, further jeopardizing Hitler's position.
And things soon got worse. A few days later, June 21st, Hitler visited President Paul von Hindenburg at his country estate. The Old Gentleman, accompanied by General Blomberg, stiffly admonished Hitler that the SA problem must be resolved or that he, the President, would simply declare martial law and let the German Army take over the country, effectively ending the Nazi regime.
Meanwhile, Himmler and Heydrich were busy spreading rumors that Röhm and the SA were planning an outright putsch (overthrow). Himmler also met with members of the General Staff and worked out a secret agreement ensuring cooperation between the SS and the Army in any action to be taken against the SA. The Army agreed to provide weapons and transports, but would remain in their barracks and let the SS handle things.
The problem now for Himmler and Göring was that no action could be taken without Hitler's approval. And although Hitler was being urged on all sides to act against Röhm, he found it difficult to give the actual go-ahead against his old comrade-in-arms and the SA organization which had served him so well. Göring, along with Himmler and Heydrich, responded to Hitler's hesitation by spreading even more rumors to keep up the pressure.
By June 25th, the German Army had been placed on alert. All leaves were canceled and the troops were confined to barracks in accordance with the secret Himmler agreement.
Three days later, Thursday, June 28th, Hitler and Göring attended the wedding of Gauleiter Josef Terboven in the city of Essen. During the event, Hitler was called to the telephone and told by Himmler that he faced the duel threat of an imminent putsch by Röhm and a possible revolt by powerful conservatives who wanted Hindenburg to declare martial law.
Believing that he was in danger of losing everything, Hitler sent Göring back to Berlin and authorized him to begin plans to put down the SA and the conservatives. Himmler's SS was also put on full alert.
On Friday, June 29th, Hitler made a scheduled inspection tour of Labor Service camps in Westphalia and then went to a hotel near Bonn to spend the night. He received a series of late night phone calls and reports from Himmler and Göring indicating that SA troops had somehow found out about the coming action and were now preparing to strike back. Hitler left the hotel around 2 a.m. to fly to Munich in order to personally confront Röhm and the SA leaders who had gathered at the nearby Bad Wiessee resort.
Hitler landed in Munich near dawn on Saturday, June 30, and was informed by Gauleiter Adolf Wagner that some SA street demonstrations did occur overnight but had now dissipated. News of the disloyal demonstrations greatly angered Hitler. Accompanied by the SS, he was driven to the Ministry of the Interior building in Munich where he confronted three high-ranking SA men and ripped the Nazi insignia off their uniforms.
Next it was on to get Röhm. A column of cars containing Hitler and the SS sped off toward the resort hotel at Bad Wiessee to surprise him. Along the way they were joined by trucks containing Hitler's personal bodyguard, the Leibstandarte-SS, under the command of Sepp Dietrich.
Arriving about 6:30 a.m., the hotel was first secured by the SS before Hitler went inside. Accompanied by several SS men, Hitler then banged on Röhm's door and confronted the sleepy-eyed SA leader, screaming accusations of treachery at him for several minutes.
"Ernst," Hitler finally announced, "you are under arrest."
Thus ended a fifteen-year association between Hitler and one of the original members of the Nazi Party. Röhm and the other rudely awaken SA men were sent off under SS custody to Stadelheim prison outside Munich. An exception was made in the case of Edmund Heines, an SA leader who had been found in bed with a young male companion. When told of this, Hitler ordered his immediate execution.
A number of the SA leaders, including Röhm, were known homosexuals. Prior to the purge, Hitler for the most part ignored this fact because of their usefulness to him. However, their usefulness and Hitler's tolerance had now ended. Later, their homosexuality would be used as a partial excuse for their subsequent executions.
About 10 a.m. Saturday morning a phone call was placed from Hitler to Göring in Berlin giving the prearranged code word "Kolibri" (hummingbird) which signaled a full go-ahead for the purge. This unleashed a wave of murderous violence by the SS in Berlin and 20 other cities. SS execution squads along with the Gestapo and Göring's private police roared through the streets hunting down SA leaders and anyone else on the prepared enemies list (later called the Reich List of Unwanted Persons).
Included on that list:
Gregor Strasser, a founder of the Nazi Party and formerly next in importance to Hitler, who had broken with Hitler over political disagreements. Taken to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, he was shot in the back and mortally wounded.
Kurt von Schleicher, former Chancellor of Germany and one-time master of political intrigue, who had helped topple democracy in Germany and put Hitler in power. He was attempting a political comeback, possibly at Hitler's expense. He was gunned down in his home along with his recently-wed wife.
73-year-old old Gustav von Kahr, the now-retired government official who had dared to oppose Hitler during the Beer Hall Putsch back in 1923. He was found hacked to death in a swamp near Dachau.
Father Bernhard Stempfle, a priest who had helped edit Hitler's book Mein Kampf and who knew too much about Hitler's tragic relationship with Geli Raubal. He wound up in the same swamp.
Berlin's SA leader, Karl Ernst, was shot along with three other SA men involved in torching the Reichstag building back in February 1933.
Erich Klausener, a conservative Catholic activist who had prepared Papen's Marburg speech, was shot along with Edgar Jung, Papen's private secretary, who also worked on the speech. Papen himself was spared due to his close relationship with President Hindenburg.
On Saturday evening, a weary and unshaven Hitler, who had not slept for some forty hours, flew back to Berlin. He was met at the airport by Göring and Himmler in a scene later described by Hans Gisevius, a Gestapo official, who was 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, sitting in his cell inside Stadelheim prison – at first Hitler hesitated but was gradually prodded by Göring and Himmler into approving his death. Röhm was then given a pistol containing a single bullet and a time limit of ten minutes in which to commit suicide. But Röhm, arrogant to the end, refused. "If I am to be killed let Adolf do it himself."
Two SS officers, one of whom was Dachau Kommandant, Theodor Eicke, entered Röhm's cell after fifteen minutes and shot him point blank. Reportedly, Röhm's last words were: "Mein Führer, Mein Führer!" To which the brutal-minded Eicke responded: "You should have thought of that before! It's too late now."
Other high-ranking SA captives in the prison had been systematically finished-off by a firing squad composed of members of the Leibstandarte-SS under Dietrich's command. Each of the doomed SA men had been informed by Dietrich: "You have been condemned to death by the Führer for high treason. Heil Hitler!"
Another SS firing squad operated at the Lichterfelde Barracks near Berlin, home quarters of the Leibstandarte-SS. Shots rang out every twenty minutes like clockwork as SA men were put before the wall, followed by the command: "By order of the Führer. Aim. Fire!"
On Sunday evening, July 1st, while some of the shooting was still going on, Hitler hosted an innocent looking tea party in the garden of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin for cabinet members and their families to give the appearance things were getting back to normal.
At 4 a.m., Monday, July 2nd, the bloody 72-hour purge ended on Hitler's say. The exact number of murders is unknown since all Gestapo documents related to the purge were destroyed. Estimates vary widely from 200 to as high as a thousand or more. Fewer than half of those murdered were SA men. A lot of old scores had been settled by Hitler, Göring, Himmler, and Heydrich.
And a few mistakes were made. In one case, a man named Willi Schmid was at home with his family playing the cello. Four SS men rang the doorbell, entered and abruptly hauled him away, leaving his wife and three young children behind gazing in disbelief. Apparently, they had mistaken Dr. Willi Schmid, respected music critic for a Munich newspaper, for another Schmid on the enemies list. Nevertheless, they shot him anyway. The body of Dr. Schmid was later returned to his family in a sealed coffin with orders from the Gestapo that it should never be opened.
Immediately after the purge, Hitler received a congratulatory telegram from President Hindenburg commending his "decided action and gallant personal intervention which have nipped treason in the bud and rescued the German people from great danger." Likewise, the German Army generals echoed their approval.
For Hitler, the only task remaining now was to somehow explain it all to the shell-shocked German people and the incredulous foreign press corp. On July 13, he appeared before the Nazi Reichstag and gave a two-hour emotional speech which turned out to be one of the most important of his career. He justified the murders by citing the various putsch rumours as fact and then took full responsibility for his actions, announcing that seventy-seven had indeed perished.
"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!"
Not only had Hitler eliminated the Brownshirt threat, but now he proclaimed himself to be the supreme judge of the German people, in effect placing himself above the law.
The German Army generals, by condoning the purge, locked themselves in step with Hitler and began the long journey that would take them over the next eleven years to the brink of world conquest and finally to the hanging docks at Nuremberg.
A few weeks after the purge, Hitler rewarded Himmler by raising the SS to independent status. No longer part of the SA, Himmler would now answer only to Hitler. Reinhard Heydrich, co-mastermind of the purge, was promoted to SS-Gruppenführer (Lieutenant-General). Himmler rewarded the SS men who did the actual shooting by giving each one a specially inscribed SS dagger.
The Brownshirts ceased to be a threat to Hitler and over time all but disappeared into the regular Army after Hitler re-introduced military conscription. But Germany now had a new and even bigger threat, Himmler's black-coated SS. Absolutely loyal to Hitler, they would kill anyone on command and would become the Führer's personal instrument of terror on a continental scale as well as a gigantic military force.
Now, in the summer of 1934, there was only one man who stood between Adolf Hitler and absolute power in Germany. And that man, 87-year-old President Paul von Hindenburg, lay dying at his country estate. For several weeks, everyone awaited the Old Gentleman's demise with a nagging sense of uncertainty over what it might mean for Germany's future. Hitler, however, knew exactly what it would mean.