Modern history





On 6 July 1933 Hitler gathered leading Nazis together for a stock-taking of the general situation. The National Socialists’ revolution had succeeded, he told them; power was theirs, and theirs alone. It was now, he said, time to stabilize the regime. There should be no more talk, of the kind that had been circulating amongst senior members of the brownshirted paramilitary wing of the Party, the Storm Division (Sturmabteilung , or SA), of a ‘second revolution’ to follow the ‘conquest of power’:

Revolution is not a permanent condition. It must not develop into a permanent condition. The stream of revolution has been undammed, but it must be channelled into the secure bed of evolution . . . The slogan of the second revolution was justified as long as positions were still present in Germany that could serve as points of crystallization for a counter-revolution. That is not the case any longer. We do not leave any doubt about the fact that if necessary we will drown such an attempt in blood. For a second revolution can only direct itself against the first one.1

This declaration was followed by numerous similar, if less overtly threatening, statements by other Nazi leaders in the following weeks. Pressure was mounting from the Reich Justice and Interior Ministries to deal with arbitrary violence, and the Reich Economics Ministry was worried that continuing unrest would give the international financial community the impression of continuing instability in Germany and so discourage economic investment and recovery. The Interior Ministry complained about arrests of civil servants, the Justice Ministry about arrests of lawyers. Brownshirt violence was continuing all over the country, most notoriously in the ‘Köpenick blood-week’ in June 1933, when a raiding party of stormtroopers had encountered resistance from a young Social Democrat in a Berlin suburb. After the Social Democrat shot three stormtroopers dead, the brownshirts mobilized en masse and arrested more than 500 local men, torturing them so brutally that ninety-one of them died. Amongst them were many well-known Social Democratic politicians, including the former Minister-President of Mecklenburg, Johannes Stelling.2 Clearly, this kind of violence had to be checked: it was no longer necessary to beat the opponents of the Nazis into submission and establish a one-party state. Moreover, Hitler was beginning to be concerned about the power that the rampages of the ever-expanding SA gave to its leader Ernst Röhm, who had declared on 30 May 1933 that its task of completing the National Socialist Revolution ‘still lies before it’. ‘Whether declarations of loyalty come every day from “co-ordinated” beekeeping or bowling clubs makes no odds,’ Röhm added, ‘nor whether a town’s streets get up-to-date names.’ Others might celebrate the Nazi victory, but the political soldiers who had fought it, he said, had to take matters in hand and carry it further.3

On 2 August 1933, worried by such declarations, Hermann Goring, acting in his capacity as Minister-President of Prussia, rescinded an order of the previous February enrolling the brownshirts as auxiliary officers of the Prussian police. The Ministries of other federated states followed suit. The established police force now had more room for manoeuvre in dealing with the stormtroopers’ excesses. The Prussian Ministry of Justice set up a central Public Prosecutor’s Office to deal with murders and other serious crimes in the concentration camps, though it also ordered the end of ongoing prosecutions of SA and SS men for crimes of violence, and the pardoning of those few who had actually been sentenced. Strict regulations were issued about who was entitled to place people in protective custody, and what procedures were to be observed in doing so. An indication of what had been the practice to date was provided by the prohibitions contained in the consolidated regulations issued in April 1934: no one was to be taken into protective custody for personal reasons such as slander, or because they had dismissed employees, or acted as legal representatives of people subsequently imprisoned, or had brought an objectionable legal action before the courts. Deprived of its initial raison d’être as the street-fighting, saloon-brawling arm of the Nazi movement, and removed from its position in charge of many small improvised prison camps and torture centres, the SA found itself suddenly without a role.4

Elections were now no longer seriously contested, so the stormtroopers were robbed of the opportunity that the constant electioneering of the early 1930s had given them to parade through the streets and break up the meetings of their opponents. Disillusion began to set in. The SA had expanded hugely in the spring of 1933, as sympathizers and opportunists from many quarters flooded in. In March 1933 Röhm had announced that any ‘patriotically minded’ German man could join. When recruitment to the Nazi Party had been halted in May 1933, because the Party leadership feared that too many opportunists were joining, and their movement was being swamped by men who were not really committed to their cause, many people had seen enrolment in the brownshirts as an alternative, thus weakening the links between the Party and its paramilitary wing. The incorporation of the huge veterans’ organization, the Steel Helmets, into the brownshirt organization, in the second half of 1933, further boosted SA numbers. At the beginning of 1934 there were six times as many stormtroopers as there had been at the beginning of the previous year. The total strength of the ‘Storm Division’ now stood at nearly three million men; four and a half million if the Steel Helmets and other incorporated paramilitary groups were counted in. This completely dwarfed the size of the German armed forces, which were legally restricted to a mere 100,000 by the Treaty of Versailles. At the same time, however, despite restrictions imposed by the Treaty, the army was by far the better equipped and better trained fighting force. The spectre of civil war that had loomed so ominously at the beginning of 1933 was beginning to raise its head once more.5

The discontents of the stormtroopers were not confined to envy of the army and impatience with the stabilization of politics after July 1933. Many ‘old fighters’ resented the newcomers who jumped onto the Nazi bandwagon early in 1933. Tension was particularly high with the former Steel Helmets who came into the organization. It increasingly found an outlet in fights and scuffles in the early months of 1934. In Pomerania the police banned former Steel Helmet units (now organized as the National Socialist German Front-Fighters’ League) after a stormtrooper leader was murdered by an ex-Steel Helmet member.6 But the resentment of old brownshirts could also be felt on a wider scale. Many had expected rich rewards on the elimination of the Nazis’ rivals, and were disappointed when established local politicians and conservative partners of the Nazis took many of the best pickings. One brownshirt activist, born in 1897, wrote in 1934:

After the seizure of power, things changed dramatically. People who had hitherto scorned me were now overflowing with praises. In my family and among all the relatives I was now considered number one, after years of bitter feuding. My Storm Division grew by leaps and bounds from month to month so that (from 250 in January) by 1 October 1933, I had 2,200 members - which led to my promotion to Senior Storm Division Leader at Christmas time. The more the philistines lauded me, however, the more I came to suspect that these scoundrels thought they had me in the bag . . . After the incorporation of the Steel Helmets, when things came to a stop, I turned on the reactionary clique which was sneakily trying to make me look ridiculous before my superiors. There were all kinds of denunciations against me at the higher SA offices and with the public authorities . . . Finally, I succeeded in being appointed local mayor . . . so that I could break the necks of all the prominent philistines and the reactionary leftovers of the old times.7

Such feelings were even stronger amongst the many veteran stormtroopers who failed to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power as successfully as this man did.

As the young brownshirts found their violent energies deprived of an overtly political outlet, they became involved in increasing numbers of brawls and fights all over Germany, often without any obvious political motive. Gangs of stormtroopers got drunk, caused disturbances late at night, beat up innocent passers-by, and attacked the police if they tried to stop them. Matters were made still worse by Röhm’s attempt to remove the brownshirts from the jurisdiction of the police and the courts in December 1933; henceforth, the stormtroopers were told that all disciplinary matters had to be handled by the organization itself. This was a licence for inaction, even though prosecutions still took place. Röhm found more difficulty in establishing a separate SA jurisdiction that would deal retroactively with more than 4,000 prosecutions of SA and SS men for crimes of various kinds that were still before the courts in May 1934, mostly resulting from the early months of 1933. Many others had been quashed, and more offences still had never been prosecuted in the first place, but this was still a considerable number. Moreover, the army had its own courts-martial; by so setting up a parallel system within the SA, Röhm would obtain a large measure of equal status to it for his own organization. Privately, he had announced the previous July that an SA leader with jurisdiction over the murder of an SA man would be able to sentence to death up to twelve members of ‘the enemy organization which initiated the murder’. This gave a grim indication of the nature of the justice system he hoped to create.8 Clearly, some means had to be found of diverting all this excess energy into useful channels. But leadership of the SA only made matters worse by seeking to direct the movement’s violent activism into what a regional leader in the East, Edmund Heines, publicly described as ‘the continuation of the German revolution’. 9 As head of the SA, Ernst Röhm spoke at numerous rallies and marches in the first months of 1934, emphasizing in similar fashion the revolutionary nature of Nazism and launching open attacks on the Party leadership and in particular the German army, whose senior officers the brownshirts blamed for their temporary banning by order of former Reich Chancellor Heinrich Brüning in 1932. Röhm caused considerable alarm in the army hierarchy when he declared that he wanted the stormtroopers to form the basis of a national militia, effectively bypassing and perhaps eventually replacing the army altogether. Hitler attempted to fob him off by making him Minister without Portfolio with a seat in the cabinet in December 1933, but given the increasing redundancy of the cabinet by this stage, this meant very little in practical terms, and was no substitute for Röhm’s real ambition, which was to occupy the Ministry of Defence, held at the time by the army’s representative General Werner von Blomberg.10

Deprived of real power at the centre, Röhm began to build up a cult of his own leadership within the SA and continued to preach the need for further revolution.11 In January 1934, stormtroopers gave practical expression to their radicalism when they burst into the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin and broke up a celebration of the ex-Kaiser’s birthday being held there by a number of army officers.12 The next day, Röhm sent Blomberg a memorandum. Perhaps exaggerating its import for effect, Blomberg said that it demanded that the SA should replace the army as the country’s main fighting force and the traditional military should be restricted to training the stormtroopers to assume this role.13 To the army leadership, the brownshirts now appeared an increasingly serious threat. Since the summer of 1933, Blomberg had brought the army round from its previous formal political neutrality towards increasingly open support for the regime. Blomberg and his allies were seduced by Hitler’s promises of a massive expansion of German military strength through the resumption of conscription. They had been won over by Hitler’s assurance that he would conduct an aggressive foreign policy that would culminate in the recovery of the territories lost by the Treaty of Versailles and the launching of a new war of conquest in the east. Blomberg in turn ostentatiously demonstrated his loyalty to the Third Reich by adopting the ‘Aryan Paragraph’, which banned Jews from serving in the army, and incorporating the swastika into the army’s insignia. Although these were largely symbolic gestures - at the insistence of President Hindenburg, for example, Jewish war veterans could not be dismissed, and only some seventy soldiers were actually cashiered - they were still important concessions to Nazi ideology that indicated just how far the army had come to terms with the new political order.14

At the same time, however, the army was still by no means a Nazified institution. Its relative independence was underpinned by the close interest taken in its fortunes by Reich President Paul von Hindenburg, its formal Commander-in-Chief. Hindenburg indeed had refused to appoint Walther von Reichenau, the pro-Nazi choice of Hitler and Blomberg, to succeed the conservative and anti-Nazi Kurt von Hammerstein as head of the army when he retired. Instead, he had enforced the appointment of General Werner von Fritsch, a popular staff officer of strong conservative views, with a passion for horsemanship and a strict Protestant outlook on life. Unmarried, workaholic and narrowly military in outlook, Fritsch had the Prussian officer’s arrogant contempt for the vulgarity of the Nazis. His conservative influence was backed by the head of the Troop Office, General Ludwig Beck, appointed at the end of 1933. Beck was a cautious, shy and withdrawn man, a widower whose main recreation was also horse-riding. With men such as Fritsch and Beck occupying two of the senior posts in the army leadership, there was no chance of the army yielding to pressure from the SA. Blomberg secured a meeting with Hitler and the leadership of the SA and SS on 28 February 1934 at which Röhm was forced to sign an agreement that he would not try to replace the army with a brownshirt militia. Germany’s military force of the future, declared Hitler emphatically, would be a professional and well-equipped army, for which the brownshirts could only act in an auxiliary capacity. After the army officers had left the following reception, Röhm told his men that he was not going to obey the ‘ridiculous corporal’ and threatened to send Hitler ‘on leave’. Such insubordination did not go unnoticed. Indeed, aware of his attitude, Hitler had already had him put under covert surveillance by the police.15

Competition with the SA led Blomberg and the military leaders to try and win Hitler’s favour in a variety of ways. The army regarded the SA as a potential source of recruits. But it was worried by the prospect that this might lead to political infiltration, and scornful of the fact that the SA leadership included men who had been dishonourably discharged from the military. It preferred therefore to agitate for the reintroduction of conscription, embodying this in a plan drawn up by Beck in December 1933. Hitler had already promised that this would happen when he had talked to army leaders the previous February. He had told the British Minister Anthony Eden, indeed, that it would be a mistake to allow a ‘second army’ to exist, and that he intended to bring the SA under control and to reassure foreign opinion by demilitarizing it.16 Yet despite this, stories of local and regional brownshirt commanders prophesying the creation of an ‘SA state’ and a ‘night of the long knives’ began to multiply. Max Heydebreck, an SA leader in Rummelsburg, was reported as saying: ‘Some of the officers of the army were swine. Most officers were too old and had to be replaced by young ones. We want to wait till Papa Hindenburg is dead, and then the SA will march against the army. What can 100,000 soldiers do against such a greatly superior force of SA-men?’17 SA men began stopping army supplies in transit and confiscating weapons and supplies. Yet on the whole, such incidents were local, sporadic and uncoordinated. Röhm never devised any concerted plan. Contrary to later allegations by Hitler, he had no immediate intention of launching a putsch. Indeed Röhm announced at the beginning of June that he was going on a rest cure, on doctor’s orders, to Bad Wiessee, near Munich, and sent the SA on leave for the whole of July.18


The continued disturbances and radical rhetoric were enough to worry not just the army leaders, but also some of Hitler’s conservative colleagues in the cabinet. Up to the passage of the Enabling Act, the cabinet had continued to meet regularly in order to pass draft decrees for forwarding to the President. From the end of March, however, it started to be bypassed by the Reich Chancellery and the individual Ministries. Hitler did not like the extensive and sometimes critical discussions that a cabinet meeting involved. He preferred decrees to be worked out as fully as possible before they came to the full meeting of Ministers. Increasingly, therefore, the cabinet met only to rubber-stamp previously decided legislation. Up to the summer recess of 1933, it still met four or five times a month, and there were also relatively frequent meetings in September and October 1933. From November 1933, however, a distinct change could be noted. The cabinet met only once that month, three times in December, once in January 1934, twice in February and twice in March. Then it failed to convene in April 1934, met only once in May and had no sessions at all in June. By this time it had long since ceased to be dominated even numerically by the conservatives, since the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels had joined it as Reich Propaganda Minister in March 1933, to be followed by Rudolf Hess and Ernst Röhm on 1 December and another Nazi, the Education Minister Bernhard Rust, on 1 May 1934. The Nationalist Alfred Hugenberg had resigned on 29 June 1933 and been replaced as Agriculture Minister by the Nazi Walther Darré. The cabinet appointed by Hindenburg on 30 January 1933 had contained only three Nazis - Hitler himself, Wilhelm Frick, the Interior Minister, and Hermann Goring as Minister without Portfolio. Of the seventeen cabinet Ministers in office in May 1934, however, a clear majority - nine - were long-term members of the Nazi Party. It had become clear, even to a man as prone to self-deception and political blindness as the conservative Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, that the original expectations with which he and his conservative colleagues had entered the cabinet on 30 January 1933 had been completely dashed. It was not they who were manipulating the Nazis, but the Nazis who were manipulating them, and intimidating and bullying them as well.19

Yet, astonishingly, Papen had by no means abandoned his dream, articulated openly during his period of office as Chancellor in 1932, of a conservative restoration brought about with the mass support of the Nazi Party. His speechwriter Edgar Jung continued to argue in the summer of 1933 for a vision of the ‘German revolution’ that would involve ‘the depoliticization of the masses, their exclusion from the running of the state’. The rampant populism of the SA seemed a serious obstacle to the anti-democratic and elitist regime that Papen desired. Around the Vice-Chancellor there gathered a group of young conservatives who shared these views. Meanwhile the Vice-Chancellery became the destination of an increasing number of complaints from people of all kinds about Nazi violence and arbitrary behaviour, giving Papen and his staff an increasingly negative view of the effects of the ‘national revolution’ which they had so far backed, and turning his group rapidly into a focus for all kinds of discontent.20 By May 1934 Goebbels was complaining in his diary about Papen, who was rumoured to have his eye on the Presidency once the aged Hindenburg was dead. Other conservative members of the cabinet were not exempt from the Nazi propaganda chief’s scorn either (‘there has to be a real clear-up there as soon as possible’, he wrote).21 There was an obvious danger that the Papen group, already under close police surveillance, would make common cause with the army. Indeed Papen’s press secretary Herbert von Bose was beginning to establish active contact with critical generals and senior officers worried about the activities of the SA. Hindenburg, long a buffer between the army and the conservatives on the one hand, and the leading Nazis on the other, was known to have become seriously ill in April 1934. It was soon clear that he was not going to recover. He retired to his landed estate in Neudeck, East Prussia, at the beginning of June, to await the end. His passing would clearly create a moment of crisis for which the regime had to be prepared.22

The moment was all the more critical for the regime because, as many people were aware, the enthusiasm of the ‘national revolution’ in 1933 had discernibly fallen off a year later. The brownshirts were not the only section of the population to feel disappointed at the results. Social Democratic agents reported to the exiled party leadership in Prague that people were apathetic, constantly complaining, and telling endless political jokes about the Nazi leaders. Nazi meetings were poorly attended. Hitler was still widely admired, but people were even beginning to direct criticisms in this quarter too. Many of the Nazis’ promises had not been kept, and fears of a new inflation or a sudden war were leading to panic buying and hoarding in some places. The educated classes feared that the disorder caused by the stormtroopers might spill over into chaos or, worse, Bolshevism.23 The leading Nazis were aware that such mutterings of discontent could be heard beneath the apparently smooth surface of political life. In answer to questions from the American journalist Louis P. Lochner, Hitler went out of his way to stress the unconditional loyalty he required of his subordinates.24

Matters were coming to a head. The Prussian Minister-President Hermann Goring, himself a former leader of the SA, was now so concerned at the drift of events that he agreed to hand over control of the Prussian political police to Heinrich Himmler on 20 April 1934, enabling the ambitious young SS leader, already in charge of the political police in all other parts of Germany, to centralize the police apparatus in his own hands. The SA, of which the SS was at this point still nominally a part, was an obvious obstacle to the achievement of Himmler’s aims.25 On a four-day cruise in the navy vessel Deutschland off Norway in mid-April, Hitler, Blomberg and top military officers seem to have reached an agreement that the SA should be curbed.26 May passed, and the first half of June, without Hitler making an open move. Not for the first time, Goebbels began to feel frustrated at his master’s seeming indecision. By late June, he was recording, ‘the situation is getting ever more serious. The Leader must act. Otherwise Reaction will become too much for us.’27

Hitler’s hand was finally forced when Papen gave a public address at Marburg University on 17 June 1934 in which he warned against a ‘second revolution’ and attacked the personality cult surrounding Hitler. It was time for the permanent upheaval of the Nazi revolution to come to an end, he said. The speech, written by Papen’s adviser Edgar Jung, mounted a strong attack on the ‘selfishness, lack of character, insincerity, lack of chivalry, and arrogance’ at the heart of the so-called ‘German revolution’. It was greeted with thunderous applause from his listeners. Shortly afterwards, appearing at a fashionable horse-racing meeting in Hamburg, Papen was greeted by cheers and shouts of ‘Hail, Marburg!’ from the crowd.28 Back from a frustrating meeting with Mussolini in Venice, Hitler vented his spleen at Papen’s activities before he had even learned of his Vice-Chancellor’s speech in Marburg. Addressing the Party faithful in Gera, Hitler attacked the ‘little pygmies’ who were trying to stop the victory of the Nazi idea. ‘It is ridiculous when such a little worm tries to fight such a powerful renewal of the people. Ridiculous, when such a little pygmy fancies himself capable of obstructing the gigantic renewal of the people with a few empty phrases.’ The clenched fist of the people, he threatened, would ‘smash anyone who dares to make even the slightest attempt at sabotage’.29 At the same time, the Vice-Chancellor’s complaint to Hitler, coupled with a threat to resign, met with a promise that the SA’s drive towards a ‘second revolution’ would be stopped and a suggestion, which Papen too readily accepted, that the whole situation should be discussed in due course with the ailing President.30 Not for the first time, Papen was lulled into a false sense of security by Hitler’s disingenuous promises and a misplaced faith in Hindenburg’s influence.

Hitler rushed off to consult with Hindenburg. Arriving at Neudeck on 21 June, he was confronted by Blomberg, who had been discussing Papen’s speech with the President. The army chief made it clear that if the brownshirts were not immediately brought to heel, Hindenburg would be prepared to declare martial law and put the government in the hands of the army.31 Hitler had no option but to act. He began planning Röhm’s overthrow. The political police, in collaboration with Himmler and his deputy Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SS Security Service, began to manufacture evidence that Röhm and his stormtroopers were planning a nationwide uprising. Leading officers in the SS were presented with the ‘evidence’ on 24 June and given instructions on how to deal with the supposed putsch. Lists of ‘politically unreliable’ people were drawn up and local SS leaders informed that they would be called upon to kill a number of them, particularly any who resisted, when the day of action came on 30 June. The army put its resources at the disposal of the SS for the eventuality of a serious conflict.32 Woe betide anyone, warned Rudolf Hess in a radio broadcast on 25 June, who thought to betray their loyalty to the Führer by carrying out revolutionary agitation from below.33

On 27 June, Hitler met with Blomberg and Reichenau to secure the army’s co-operation; they responded by expelling Röhm from the German Officers’ League the next day, and by putting the army on full alert. Blomberg published an article in the Nazis’ flagship daily, the Racial Observer, on 29 June declaring the army’s absolute loyalty to the new regime. Meanwhile, it seems, Hitler learned that Hindenburg had agreed to give an audience to Papen, scheduled for 30 June, the day of the planned action against the SA. This confirmed the leading Nazis in their belief that the opportunity must be used to strike against the conservatives as well.34 Nervous and apprehensive, Hitler sought to allay suspicions by going to a wedding reception in Essen, from where he telephoned Röhm’s adjutant in his vacation hotel at Bad Wiessee ordering the SA leaders to meet him there on the morning of 30 June. Hitler then organized a hurried conference in Bad Godesberg with Goebbels and Sepp Dietrich, the SS officer who commanded his personal bodyguard. He would act against Röhm the next day, he told the astonished Goebbels, who had been expecting merely a blow against the ‘reactionaries’ and had hitherto been kept in the dark about everything else.35 Goring was sent off to Berlin to take charge of the action there. Fantastic rumours began to circulate, and the SA itself began to be alarmed. Some 3,000 stormtroopers rampaged through the streets of Munich on the night of 29 June, shouting that they would crush any attempt to betray their organization and denouncing the ‘Leader’ and the army. Calm was eventually restored by Adolf Wagner, the Regional Leader of Munich; but there had been other, similar demonstrations elsewhere. When Hitler learned of these events on flying into Munich airport at 4.30 on the morning of 30 June 1934, he decided that he could not wait for the planned conference of SA leaders at which he was going to launch the purge. Now there was not a minute to lose.36


Hitler and his entourage drove first to the Bavarian Interior Ministry, where they confronted the leaders of the previous night’s brownshirt demonstration in the city streets. In a rage, he shouted at them that they would be shot. Then he tore off their epaulettes with his bare hands. As the chastened stormtroopers were taken off to Munich’s state prison at Stadelheim, Hitler assembled a group of SS bodyguards and police and drove off in a convoy of saloon cars and convertibles to Bad Wiessee, where they entered the Hanselbauer Hotel. Accompanied by his head chauffeur Julius Schreck, and followed by a group of armed detectives, Hitler marched up to the first floor. The brownshirts were still sleeping off a major drinking bout from the night before. Erich Kempka, who had driven Hitler to Wiessee, described what happened next:

Taking no notice of me, Hitler enters the room where SA-Senior Group Leader Heines is lodging. I hear him shout: ‘Heines, if you are not dressed in five minutes I’ll have you shot on the spot!’ I take a few steps back and a police officer whispers to me that Heines had been in bed with an 18-year-old SA Senior Troop Leader. Eventually Heines comes out of the room with an 18-year-old fair-haired boy mincing in front of him. ‘Into the laundry room with them!’ orders Schreck. Meanwhile, Röhm comes out of his room in a blue suit and with a cigar in the corner of his mouth. Hitler looks at him grimly but says nothing. Two detectives take Röhm to the vestibule of the hotel where he throws himself into an armchair and orders coffee from the barman. I stand in the corridor a little to the side and a detective tells me how Röhm was arrested.

Hitler had entered Röhm’s bedroom alone with a whip in his hand. Behind him had stood two detectives holding pistols with the safety catch removed at the ready. He had spat out the words: ‘Röhm, you are under arrest.’ Röhm had looked up sleepily out of the pillows on his bed. ‘Hail, my Leader.’ ‘You are under arrest’, Hitler had bawled for the second time. He had turned on his heel and left the room. Meanwhile, upstairs in the corridor things have become very lively. SA leaders are coming out of their rooms and being arrested. Hitler shouts at each one: ‘Have you had anything to do with Röhm’s machinations?’ Of course, none of them says yet, but that doesn’t help them. Hitler mostly knows the answer himself; now and then he turns to Goebbels or Lutze with question. And then comes his decision: ‘Arrested!’37

The brownshirts were locked in the hotel’s linen cupboard and shortly afterwards taken off to Stadelheim. Hitler and his party followed them back to Munich. Meanwhile leading brownshirts arriving at Munich’s main railway station en route for the planned meeting were arrested by the SS as they got off the train.38

Back in Munich, Hitler drove to Nazi Party Headquarters, which he had had sealed off by regular troops, and ranted against Röhm and the brownshirt leaders, announcing that they were dismissed and would be shot. ‘Undisciplined and disobedient characters and asocial or diseased elements’ would be annihilated. A senior brownshirt, Viktor Lutze, who had been informing on Röhm for some time and had accompanied Hitler to the Bad Wiessee hotel, was named as the new leader of the SA. Röhm, Hitler shouted, had been in the pay of the French; he was a traitor and had been conspiring against the state. The Party faithful who had gathered to hear his diatribe yelled their assent. Ever obliging, Rudolf Hess volunteered to shoot the traitors personally. Privately, Hitler was reluctant to have Röhm, one of his longest-serving supporters, put to death; eventually on 1 July he sent word to him that he could have a revolver with which to kill himself. When Röhm failed to make use of the opportunity, Hitler sent Theodor Eicke, the commandant of Dachau, and another SS officer from the camp, to Stadelheim. Entering Röhm’s cell, the two SS officers gave him a loaded Browning and told him to commit suicide; if not, they would return in ten minutes and finish him off themselves. On re-entering the cell after the time was up, they encountered Röhm standing up, facing them with his chest bared in a dramatic gesture designed to emphasize his honour and loyalty; without uttering a word they immediately shot him dead at point-blank range. In addition, Hitler ordered the Silesian brownshirt Edmund Heines, who in 1932 had led an uprising against the Nazi Party in Berlin, to be shot, along with the leaders of the Munich demonstration the night before, and three others. Other SA men were driven off to the concentration camp at Dachau, where they were badly beaten by SS guards. At six in the evening Hitler flew off to Berlin to take charge of events in the capital city, where Hermann Goring had been implementing his orders with a ruthlessness that belied his widespread reputation as a moderate.39

Goring had not confined himself to carrying out the action against the brownshirt leaders. The atmosphere in Göring’s office, where the Prussian Minister-President was closeted with Heydrich and Himmler, was later described as one of ‘blatant bloodthirstiness’ and ‘hideous vindictiveness’ by a policeman who looked on as Goring shouted orders for people on the list to be killed (‘shoot them down . . . shoot . . . shoot at once’) and joined in bouts of raucous laughter with his companions as news of successful murder operations came in. Striding up and down the room in a white tunic, white boots and grey-blue trousers, Goring ordered the storming of the Vice-Chancellery. Entering with an armed SS unit, Gestapo agents gunned down Papen’s secretary Herbert von Bose on the spot. The Vice-Chancellor’s ideological guru Edgar Jung, arrested on 25 June, was also shot; his body was dumped unceremoniously in a ditch. Papen himself escaped death; he was too prominent a figure to be shot down in cold blood. The assassination of two of his closest associates had to be warning enough. Papen was confined to his home for the time being, under guard, while Hitler pondered what to do with him.40

Other pillars of the conservative establishment did not fare so well. General von Schleicher, Hitler’s predecessor as Reich Chancellor, and a man who had once described Hitler as unfit to hold office, was shot dead by the SS in his home, together with his wife. He was not the only army officer to be killed. Major-General Kurt von Bredow, who was thought to have published criticisms of the regime abroad, was killed at his home, shot, the newspapers reported, while resisting arrest as a partner to Röhm’s infamous conspiracy. Apart from anything else, these killings served as a warning to the army leadership that they too would have to face the consequences if they did not toe the Nazi line. The former police chief and leader of ‘Catholic Action’ Erich Klausener, now a senior civil servant in the Transport Ministry, was shot down on Heydrich’s orders as a warning to another former Chancellor, Heinrich Brüning, who had been tipped off about the purge and had left the country. Klausener’s murder sent a clear message to Catholics that a revival of independent Catholic political activity would not be tolerated. Subsequent claims by the Nazi leadership that men such as these had been involved in the Röhm ‘revolt’ were pure invention. Most of these men had been listed by Edgar Jung as possible members of a future government, without actually having agreed to it or even known about it. Their mere inclusion on the list amounted to a death-warrant for most of them .41

Gregor Strasser, the man whom many thought of as a possible figure-head for the Nazi Party in a restored conservative government, was targeted as well. A short time before Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor in January 1933, Strasser, the head of the Nazi Party’s administration and the architect of many of its principal institutions, had resigned in despair at Hitler’s refusal to enter any coalition government except as its head. Strasser had been negotiating at the time with Schleicher and there had been rumours that he had been offered a position in Schleicher’s cabinet late in 1932. Although he had lived in retirement since his resignation, Strasser continued to pose in the minds of the leading Nazis a potential threat as an acceptable coalition partner for the conservatives. He was also a long-time personal enemy of Himmler and Goring, and he had not been sparing in his criticism of them while he had been a member of the senior Party leadership. Goring had him arrested and taken to police headquarters, where he was shot dead. Strasser’s friend and collaborator Paul Schulz, a former top official in the SA, was also sought out by Göring’s emissaries and taken into a forest to be shot; on getting out of the car at the chosen place of execution, he made a dash for it and feigned dead when he was shot, though he was only lightly wounded. He made good his escape while his attackers went back to the car to get a sheet to wrap his body in, and later managed to negotiate his exile from Germany with Hitler personally. Another target who escaped was Captain Ehrhardt, the Free Corps leader in the Kapp putsch of 1920, who had helped Hitler in 1923; he fled as the police entered his home and eventually managed to cross the border into Austria .42

In Berlin, the ‘action’ took on a different character from the events in Munich, where SA leaders from all over the country had been gathering on Hitler’s orders. In Munich the brownshirts were the principal target, in Berlin the conservatives. The action was carefully planned in advance. Ernst Müller, the head of the SS Security Service in Breslau, was given a postdated sealed letter in Berlin on 29 June and sent back home on a private plane supplied by Goring. On the morning of 30 June Heydrich ordered him by telephone to open it; it contained a list of brownshirt leaders to be ‘eliminated’, along with instructions to occupy the police headquarters and summon the leading SA men to a meeting. Further orders included the seizure of SA arms stores, the securing of airports and radio transmitters, and the occupation of SA premises. He followed his instructions to the letter. By the early evening not only were the police cells at Breslau full, but also numerous other rooms were packed with bewildered brownshirted prisoners as well. Heydrich phoned Müller repeatedly to demand the execution of those men on the list who had not already been disposed of in Munich. The men were taken to SS headquarters, their epaulettes were removed, and they were driven out to a nearby forest and shot in the middle of the night.43

There were further arrests and shootings the next morning, on 1 July. In the general climate of violence, Hitler and his underlings took the opportunity to settle old scores or eliminate personal rivals. Some, of course, were too grand to touch, notably General Erich Ludendorff, who had been causing some headaches for the Gestapo with his far-right, anti-Freemasonry campaigns; the hero of the First World War was left alone; he was to die peacefully on 20 December 1937 and to be granted respectful obsequies by the regime. But in Bavaria, the former Minister-President Gustav Ritter von Kahr, who had played a key part in quelling the Hitler putsch in 1923, was cut to pieces by SS men. The music critic Wilhelm Eduard Schmid was also killed, in the mistaken belief that he was Ludwig Schmitt, a former supporter of Gregor Strasser’s radical brother Otto, who had been forced to resign from the Party because of his revolutionary views and had maintained a constant barrage of criticism of Hitler from the safety of exile ever since. The conservative Bavarian politician Otto Ballerstedt, who had successfully prosecuted Hitler for breaking up a political meeting at which he had been speaking in 1921, resulting in the Nazi Leader spending a month in Stadelheim, was arrested and shot in Dachau on 1 July. One senior SS officer, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, chose the moment to get rid of a hated rival, the SS Cavalry leader Anton Baron von Hohberg und Buchwald, who was duly gunned down in his home. In Silesia, the regional SS boss Udo von Woyrsch had his former rival Emil Sembach shot despite a prior agreement with Himmler that Sembach should be sent to Berlin to be dealt with. The violence spilled over into another unconnected area too. Four Jews were arrested in Hirschberg and ‘shot while trying to escape’. The leader of the Jewish veterans’ league in Glogau was taken out to a wood and shot dead.44

Despite such obviously personally motivated actions, the Nazis lost no time in pumping out propaganda justifications for the murders. Goebbels broadcast a lengthy account of the ‘action’ the next day, alleging that Röhm and Schleicher had been conspiring to bring about a ‘second revolution’ that would have plunged the Reich into chaos. ‘Every clenched fist that is raised against the Leader and his regime’, he warned, generalizing the action potentially to every kind of opposition, ‘will be prised open, if necessary by force.’45 Despite this, Hitler still had a lot of explaining to do, not least to the army, two of whose senior officers he had had killed during the purge. Addressing the cabinet on 3 July, Hitler alleged that Röhm had been plotting against him with Schleicher, Gregor Strasser and the French government for over a year. He had been forced to act as these plots threatened to culminate in a putsch on 30 June. If there were legal objections to what he had done, then his answer was that due process was not possible in such circumstances. ‘If a mutiny broke out on board a ship, the captain was not only entitled but also obliged to crush the mutiny right away.’ There was to be no trial, therefore, just a law to legalize the action retroactively, backed enthusiastically by Reich Justice Minister Gürtner. ‘The example that he has given would be a salutary lesson for the entire future. He had stabilized the authority of the Reich government for all time.’46 In the press, Goebbels concentrated on underlining the breadth and depth of support for the action, in order to reassure the public that order had been restored rather than undermined. The formal gratitude of Blomberg and Hindenburg was recorded in banner headlines, while other stories recorded ‘declarations of loyalty from all over Germany’ and ‘everywhere veneration and admiration for the Leader’. The events were generally described as a clean-up of dangerous and degenerate elements in the Nazi movement. Some of the brownshirt leaders, the press reported, had been found with ‘catamites’ and one ‘was startled from his sleep in the most disgusting situation’.47

When the Reichstag was convened on 13 July, Hitler elaborated on these remarks in a speech broadcast on the radio and blared out to the population in pubs, bars and town squares across the land. Surrounded by steel-helmeted SS men, he presented his audience with an elaborate and fantastic web of claims and assertions about the supposed conspiracy to overthrow the Reich. There were four groups of malcontents who had been involved, he said: Communist street-fighters who had infiltrated the SA, political leaders who had never reconciled themselves to the finality of 30 January 1933, rootless elements who believed in permanent revolution, and upper-class ‘drones’ who sought to fill their empty lives with gossip, rumour and conspiracy. Attempts to curb the excesses of the SA had been frustrated, he now knew, by the fact that they were all part of the mounting plot to overthrow public order. He had been forced to act without recourse to the law:

If anyone reproaches me and asks why we did not call upon the regular courts for sentencing, my only answer is this: in that hour, I was responsible for the fate of the German nation and was thus the Supreme Justiciar of the German people! . . . I gave the order to shoot those parties mainly responsible for this treason . . . The nation should know that no one can threaten its existence - which is guaranteed by inner law and order - and escape unpunished! And every person should know for all time that if he raises his hand to strike out at the State, certain death will be his lot.48

This open confession of the complete illegality of his action in formal terms did not run into any criticism from the judicial authorities. On the contrary, the Reichstag enthusiastically applauded Hitler’s justification and passed a resolution thanking him for his action. State Secretary Meissner sent a telegram in the name of the ailing President Hindenburg giving his approval. A law was quickly passed giving the action retroactive legality.49

Social Democratic agents reported that the events had initially created considerable confusion in the population. Anyone who openly criticized the action was immediately arrested. The press reported that the police had issued a ‘sharp warning to subversives and malicious agitators’. ‘Concentration camp is threatened’ for ‘rumour-mongering and offering slanderous insults of the movement itself and its Leader’. This wave of repression, which continued in the early part of August, left people apprehensive about the future, fearful of arrest. Many suspected that there was more to the events of 30 June than met the eye, and local police authorities reported an atmosphere of widespread rumour and speculation, ‘grumbling’ and ‘carping’. The Propaganda Ministry noted with alarm in an internal memorandum, the ‘innumerable nonsensical rumours that are in circulation’. The orchestrated press campaign that followed had little effect in countering such feelings. The divisions exposed by the conflict led to optimistic talk among former Social Democrats and German Nationalists that ‘Hitler will soon be finished’.50 Most people, however, were at least relieved that Hitler had acted against the ‘brown bigwigs’ and that the streets, as it seemed, would now be safe from the excesses of drunken and disorderly stormtroopers.51

Not untypical was the reaction of the conservative Hamburg schoolteacher Luise Solmitz, who had been so enthusiastic for the coalition cabinet and the Day of Potsdam in 1933 (‘that great, unforgettably beautiful German day!’), only to become worried about the possible socialist tendencies of the regime when it began to confiscate the assets of émigré Jews like Albert Einstein (‘They should not do that. Don’t confuse the concept of property; Bolshevism without it’). Like many others, she described the 30 June 1934 as ‘a day that has shattered all of us right down to our innermost heart’. Half persuaded by the ‘moral transgressions’ of some of the murdered men (‘a disgrace for the whole of Germany’), she spent her time swapping rumours with friends and listening breathlessly to the radio in a friend’s house for the latest news. As details began to emerge, she found herself overcome with admiration for Hitler’s conduct. ‘The personal courage, the decisiveness and effectiveness he showed in Munich, the decisiveness and effectiveness, that is unique.’ She compared him to Frederick the Great of Prussia or Napoleon. The fact that, as she noted, there was ‘no trial, no drumhead court-martial’ seemed only to increase her admiration. She was fully persuaded that Röhm had been planning an uprising together with Schleicher.

This was the last of the widely mistrusted former Chancellor’s many political adventures, Luise Solmitz noted. Her credulity and relief were typical of the majority of middle-class Germans after the initial hours of confusion. They had supported Hitler not least because by the middle of 1933 he had restored order on the streets and stability to the political scene, and now he had achieved this a second time. The day after the action, crowds gathered in front of the Reich Chancellery and the Propaganda Ministry, singing the Horst Wessel Song and protesting their loyalty to the Leader, though whether it was enthusiasm, nervousness or relief that prompted them to do this is uncertain. Hitler’s own standing was widely agreed to have been strengthened by his swift and decisive action. It contrasted even more sharply than before in the minds of many with the disorder and radicalism of the Party.52 Some, like the former Social Democrat Jochen Klepper, were shocked by the murder of Schleicher’s wife, who could not possibly have been suspected of anything.53 Only the more disaffected commented sourly that the only thing wrong with the purge was that too few Nazis had been executed.54

The scale of the purge had been considerable. Hitler himself told the Reichstag on 13 July 1934 that seventy-four people had been killed, while Goring alone had had over a thousand people arrested. At least eighty-five people are known to have been summarily killed without any formal legal proceedings being taken against them.55 Twelve of the dead were Reichstag deputies. The SA leaders and their men had been almost wholly unsuspecting; many of them, indeed, went to their deaths believing their arrest and execution had been ordered by the army and swearing eternal loyalty to the ‘Leader’. In the following days and weeks, arrests and dismissals continued, directed in particular against the rowdiest and most corrupt elements amongst the brownshirts. Heavy drinking, homosexuality, embezzlement, riotous behaviour, all the things that had lent the brownshirts such public notoriety over the previous months, were ruthlessly purged. Drunken brawls involving Nazi stormtroopers still occurred thereafter, but no more on the dangerous scale of the months before 30 June 1934. Disillusioned, without a role, and unable to assert themselves any more, the brownshirts began leaving the organization en masse - 100,000 in August and September 1934 alone. From a total membership of 2.9 million on August 1934, the SA declined to 1.6 million in October 1935 and 1.2 million in April 1938. Strict entry requirements and quotas limited recruitment. The decline of unemployment and, from 1935, the introduction of conscription, also took away many of the young men who might otherwise have joined.56

Yet although they no longer threatened the army or the state, the brownshirts’ potential for violence and aggression survived. A report by one SA leader of events in the brownshirts’ camp during a single night at the Nuremberg Rally in 1934 indicates this very clearly. Everyone was drunk, he noted, and a large fight between two regional groups at one in the morning left several men with knife-wounds. On their way back to the camp, stormtroopers attacked cars, threw bottles and stones at the windows and beat up their occupants. The entire Nuremberg police force was mobilized to try and stop the mayhem. A brownshirt was hauled out of the camp latrine, into which he had fallen in a drunken stupor, but he died of chlorine gas poisoning shortly afterwards. The camp was not quiet until four in the morning, by which time six men had been killed and thirty wounded, as well as another twenty who had been injured by jumping on or off cars and trucks, hanging onto the sides, or falling off the back while the vehicle was moving. Such incidents repeated themselves on other occasions. Chastened, reduced in numbers, deprived of its autonomy and - so the Nazi leaders claimed - purged of its most extreme, violent and corrupt elements, the SA nevertheless remained a source of violence whenever the regime chose to make use of it and sometimes even when it did not. 57

Meanwhile, the army breathed a sigh of relief. General Blomberg expressed his gratitude and assured Hitler of the complete devotion of the army. He congratulated Hitler on his ‘soldierly decision’ to deal with ‘traitors and murderers’. General von Reichenau quickly explained away the cold-blooded murder of one of the army’s most senior and publicly prominent officers, Kurt von Schleicher, in a communiqué that claimed he had been conspiring with Röhm and with foreign powers to overthrow the state and had been shot when he had offered armed resistance to his arrest. Whether his wife, also shot, had been involved, he did not say. Army officers uncorked bottles of champagne in the mess to celebrate. From young firebrands like Lieutenant Claus von Stauffenberg, who described the action as the lancing of a boil, to senior officers like Major-General Erwin von Witzleben, who told his fellow officers he wished he had been there to see Röhm shot, all of them rejoiced to a degree that even Blomberg found unseemly. Only one man, a retired captain and former senior civil servant in the Reich Chancellery, Erwin Planck, thought the army’s jubilation misplaced. ‘If you look on without lifting a finger,’ he told General von Fritsch, ‘you will meet the same fate sooner or later.’58

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