The threat that caused Goering to throw in his lot with Himmler and give him control over the Gestapo came from Ernst Röhm and the SA. Although individual SA officers had done well out of the National Socialist takeover, tension between the organisation and the German state was increasing. While Himmler was prepared to play a long game to assert SS power over the police, Röhm had more immediate ambitions for the SA. He had been a military radical ever since his days as a company commander in the First World War. During that time, he had come to the conclusion that the great majority of professional career soldiers were hidebound reactionaries, wedded to tactics and concepts that saw their men killed in vast numbers for little gain. His post-war service with the Free Corps and Citizens’ Militia had shown him a different and, he believed, more effective way of waging war—a people’s army based on egalitarian principles of comradeship, driven by ideological nationalism.
It could be argued that Röhm’s radicalism derived, to some extent, from his personal character. He was an active homosexual who was attracted to young, working-class men—a fact that was widely known from the mid-1920s onwards—and he was regarded with considerable disgust and contempt by many of his former army colleagues: Hindenburg, for example, refused to shake his hand. For his part, Röhm returned that contempt with interest, and treated any advice from the military establishment with disdain. Since it had been unbanned in 1925, the SA had grown—particularly after the NSDAP’s spectacular success in the 1930 elections—to a strength of some 500,000 members. Röhm could genuinely foresee his organisation fulfilling a long-held ambition: for it to be the foundation of a new type of army, a fact he made no secret of. He also assumed that the whole National Socialist movement would be right behind him: it would be Röhm’s reward for all the hard work the SA had put in to facilitate Hitler’s rise to power.1
By contrast, the army planned to take over the SA. The Versailles Treaty still restricted Germany to an army of just a hundred thousand men, but its leaders were anxious to develop a framework for the future expansion that had been promised by Hitler. In order to broaden the “national defence base,” including creating a Frontier Protection Service for the eastern part of the country, they proposed that the SA should be integrated with and trained by the army as a militia. In May 1933—with both sides seeing it as a way of furthering their ambitions—the SA and army agreed on a training programme that would prepare up to 250,000 men a year for eventual entry into the army,2 while the SA would absorb the members of any other right-wing paramilitary groups that were still in existence. The largest of these was a conservative-nationalist ex-servicemen’s group called the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet), which boasted more than a million members. The group’s leader, Theodor Düsterberg, and the army’s General von Reichenau had hatched a plan to outmanoeuvre Röhm. They thought if members of Düsterberg’s organisation joined the SA en masse, and von Reichenau simultaneously appointed army officers to command positions in the militia and the Frontier Protection Service, Röhm’s whole power base would be undermined.
However, Röhm countered this plan by dividing the SA into three sections and then putting his half a million men into the most important of the three—the “active” SA. Once he had absorbed all of the right-wing paramilitaries as reserves, Röhm was able to claim a strength for the SA of 4.5 million men. Soon he was demanding that his officers must be given real roles in the new Frontier Protection Service, as well as control over its weapons. Unsurprisingly, the army’s leaders baulked at this, and from December 1933 they ceased to cooperate with Röhm’s militia training.3
All of this tension between the army and the SA was a serious problem for Hitler. He was sympathetic to Röhm’s ideas but much more realistic about the practicalities: he knew he needed the support of Germany’s professional soldiers to carry his programme forward, and he could not have the SA stirring up trouble with them. So, on 28 February 1934, he called a meeting at the Army Ministry in which he urged the military leaders and the SA to patch up their differences. His proposal was that the army would be the sole bearer of arms in the Third Reich, while the SA would assume responsibility for pre- and post-military training. With the meeting over, the two sides went for lunch at Röhm’s headquarters. What followed began the process of Röhm’s destruction and the SA’s elimination as a serious force in the Third Reich. Once the generals had departed, Röhm began a drunken tirade against Hitler: “What that ridiculous Corporal says doesn’t go for us. Hitler has no loyalty and must at least be sent on leave. If not, then we’ll manage the thing without Hitler.”4 Among those hearing this rant was SA-Obergruppenführer (Senior Group Leader) Viktor Lutze, commander of the Hannover SA, who immediately reported it to Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s party deputy, then to Hitler himself and finally to von Reichenau. At first, none of them took any action against Röhm. But now he had alienated almost every power group in the Third Reich, and they all had good reasons to want rid of him. For Goering, he was a rival whose network of highly placed SA officers within government and the police represented a threat to his authority in Prussia; for the army, he was a direct threat to their position as traditional bearer of arms for the state; for the NSDAP, he had far too much control over the party’s uniformed presence on the streets; and for the SS—which was still nominally subordinate to the SA—he was an obstacle to further expansion. So, once Himmler and Heydrich had sealed their alliance with Goering and assumed control of Germany’s political police in April 1934, it was only a matter of time before they turned their attention to eliminating Röhm.
Heydrich’s initial tactic was to use his control of the SS intelligence service and the Gestapo to find evidence that Röhm and his clique were plotting a coup against Hitler, but this turned out to be a chimera.5 He turned up some trivial material regarding arms caches, but, in reality, nothing was further from Röhm’s mind than a Putsch. In fact, he was trying to force Hitler to support the SA in their struggle with the army, but his tactics were clumsy, crude and open to misinterpretation. As he toured the country making rabble-rousing speeches to his men, he failed to appreciate that even ordinary Germans were becoming afraid of an SA attempt to seize power.6
The principal obstacle to the elimination of Röhm was now Hitler himself, who retained a sense of loyalty to his old colleague and the SA. This stayed his hand for some time, but eventually a visit to the moribund Hindenburg’s Neudeck estate decided the matter. On 21 June 1934, Hitler met General von Blomberg, the Minister of Defence, there. Von Blomberg forcibly stated that if Hitler wanted the army to support him in the post-Hindenburg era, which was obviously now only weeks away, he had to eliminate the army’s main rival. It seems that Hitler made the decision to make a punitive strike against the SA during the flight back to Berlin.
At that point, the SA was somewhat rudderless, as Röhm was two weeks into a spa treatment at Bad Wiessee. Hitler decided to summon the other senior SA staff to a conference there, where the SS would arrest them and “settle accounts.”7 A period of intense preparation followed, with secret orders going out to the relevant army headquarters to supply the SS troops with weapons and all the facilities they required. The SS men were drawn from Sepp Dietrich’s newly formed, militarised Leibstandarte (Life Guards Regiment) Adolf Hitler and concentration camp staff from Dachau under Theodor Eicke, who would make the assault and deal with the prisoners afterwards. Meanwhile, orders were sent to Gestapo and SD offices to keep tabs on other senior SA personnel and ensure that they did not escape the dragnet. Finally, under the supervision of Himmler and Heydrich, a welter of bogus and exaggerated reports of SA insurrectionary activity were produced and fed to the army (and to Hitler) to guarantee that there would be no turning back.8 On 28 June, Hitler telephoned Röhm at his hotel in Bad Wiessee and ordered him to muster all SA senior group leaders, group leaders and inspectors for a conference in two days’ time.9
This was the signal to begin final preparations. Heydrich and his staff sent out further orders to regional SS, SD and political police offices. Meanwhile, Hitler set off for Bad Wiessee. However, by now, rumours of the move against Röhm and the SA had started to leak out, and groups of SA men across Germany were taking part in violent, drunken rampages through towns and cities in an outpouring of despair.10 By doing so, of course, they were playing directly into their enemies’ hands.
By contrast, Röhm and his cronies at the spa still suspected nothing. They spent the night indulging in their usual routine of beer-drinking and sex until they were interrupted in the early morning of 30 June by the unexpected arrival of Hitler, revolver in hand, together with a small entourage of bodyguards. Hitler personally banged on Röhm’s door and denounced his astonished subordinate as a traitor. Röhm was then led away, protesting his innocence. Edmund Heines, chief of the Breslau SA, was found in bed with a young man and came close to being shot on the spot by a furious Hitler. All the other SA leaders were arrested and locked in a cellar while transport was organised to take them to Munich.
Simultaneously, Dietrich moved two companies of his unit to Munich to act as the execution detail, while Heydrich dispatched plainclothes SD men and Gestapo detectives to arrest and assassinate a long list of SA chiefs and other opponents of the regime, both real and imagined. Over the next two days, these plainclothes “death squads” and uniformed firing squads at the Lichterfelde Barracks, Berlin, and Stadelheim Prison, Munich, killed between 85 and 200 victims, the majority of whom were members of the SA. This was an episode of pure political savagery against men who had, for the most part, been comrades in arms of their executioners until just the day before. There could be no better illustration of how the SS defined its mission. Thuggery—towards Jews, communists and other enemies of National Socialism—had been a major part of the SS’s raison d’être ever since its foundation. But the members of the SS saw themselves as much more than thugs. They craved a special status within the movement, and this mass killing ofinternal opponents demonstrates just how far they and their leaders—Himmler and Heydrich—were prepared to go to achieve it. It also demonstrates how effective they had been in inculcating a specific SS ideology at all levels of the organisation: it seems that no SS men baulked at what they were being asked to do. For instance, Dietrich faithfully carried out his orders to execute six of the most senior members of the SA—most of whom were personal friends. At his trial in 1957, he did claim that he left the scene “after the fourth or fifth shooting,” as he was unable to witness any more.11 But he made no effort to prevent the rest of the murders.
Hitler took the opportunity to do away with some old political rivals while he was dealing with the SA. So Gregor Strasser was arrested and shot by Gestapo officials in his prison cell in Berlin. And Hitler’s predecessor as Chancellor, von Schleicher, who was still considered a dangerous figurehead for conservative opponents, was also gunned down, along with his wife, at their home in Neu-Babelsburg.
However, Hitler’s feelings for Röhm remained torn. At midday on 1 July, he was still inclined to let his old friend live, but Goering and Himmler finally persuaded him that the SA’s leader had to die with the rest. He was awaiting his fate in Stadelheim Prison, and Eicke was ordered to go there and give Röhm the opportunity to kill himself. If he failed to do so, then Eicke should pull the trigger. Eicke arrived at the prison with his adjutant, SS-Battalion Leader Michael Lippert, and SS-Brigadeführer (Brigade Leader) Schmauser, who was Himmler’s liaison officer with the army. They found Röhm sitting alone in his cell, stripped to the waist and sweating profusely. Eicke handed over a copy of the Folkish Observer, which detailed Röhm’s supposed coup attempt, placed a pistol containing one round on the table, and gave the prisoner ten minutes to “draw the conclusions.”12 He then left the cell. Ten minutes later, when he returned, he saw that Röhm had not moved. He and Lippert now drew their pistols and opened fire. Röhm fell to the ground, and was then finished off with a bullet to the chest.
The results of the so-called “Night of the Long Knives” were twofold. First, on 20 July 1934, the ever-loyal SS became a fully independent organisation within the framework of the NSDAP, rather than merely a component of the SA, and this allowed Himmler to tackle something that had been concerning him for some time.13 In the immediate aftermath of the NSDAP’s assumption of power, there had been a rapid increase in applications to join the SS, with the number of members doubling, on paper, from 50,000 to over 100,000 between January and May 1933.14 There was a freeze on recruitment between the end of April and November 1933, but thereafter the SS had again doubled in size, to around 200,000, by June 1934. Now, Himmler decided it was time to do some pruning. Following the 20 July proclamation, around sixty thousand undesirables were expelled from the SS.15 Mostly these comprised recent recruits, opportunists who had jumped on the National Socialist bandwagon—or “March Violets,” in National Socialist slang. But a fair few of the old guard were also told their services were no longer required. There was simply no role for them in Himmler’s upwardly mobile organisation.
Second, and more importantly, just a month after Hindenburg had finally succumbed to lung cancer on 2 August, the army kept its promise and allowed Hitler to combine the offices of Chancellor and President. In a plebiscite held two weeks later, the German people approved this move with a 90 per cent majority. The way was now clear for a complete National Socialist takeover of the German state, which meant the SS would have total authority over security and policing.16