Friday Night

That Friday evening, July 29, 1934, Hitler settled in at the Hotel Dreesen, a favorite of his, in the resort of Bad Godesberg, situated along the Rhine just outside central Bonn. He had traveled here from Essen, where he had received yet another dose of troubling news—that Vice-Chancellor Papen planned to make good on his threat and meet with President Hindenburg the next day, Saturday, June 30, to persuade the Old Gentleman to take steps to rein in Hitler’s government and the SA.

This news, atop the accumulation of reports from Himmler and Göring that Röhm was planning a coup, convinced Hitler that the time had come for action. Göring left for Berlin to make ready. Hitler ordered the Reichswehr on alert, though the forces he intended to deploy were mostly SS units. Hitler telephoned one of Röhm’s key deputies and ordered all SA leaders to attend a meeting Saturday morning in Bad Wiessee, near Munich, where Röhm was already comfortably ensconced in the Hotel Hanselbauer, taking his cure, which on that Friday night involved a good deal of drinking. His aide, Edmund Heines, bedded down with a handsome eighteen-year-old Storm Trooper.

Goebbels joined Hitler at Bad Godesberg. They spoke on the hotel terrace as a parade roared below. Blue flashes of lightning lit the sky over Bonn and thunder rumbled everywhere, amplified by the strange sonic physics of the Rhine Valley.

Goebbels later gave a melodramatic account of those heady moments before Hitler made his final decision. The air had grown still as the distant storm advanced. Suddenly, heavy rain began to fall. He and Hitler remained seated a few moments longer, enjoying the cleansing downpour. Hitler laughed. They went inside. Once the storm had passed, they returned to the terrace. “The Führer seemed in a thoughtful, serious mood,” Goebbels said. “He stared out at the clear darkness of the night, which after the purification of the storm stretched peacefully across a vast, harmonious landscape.”

The crowd on the street lingered despite the storm. “Not one of the many people standing below knows what is threatening to come,” Goebbels wrote. “Even among those around the Leader on the terrace only a few have been informed. In this hour he is more than ever to be admired by us. Not a quiver on his face reveals the slightest sign of what is going on within him. Yet we few, who stand by him in all difficult hours, know how deeply he is grieved, but also how determined he is to stamp out mercilessly the reactionary rebels who are breaking their oath of loyalty to him, under the slogan of carrying out a second revolution.”

It was after midnight when Himmler telephoned with more bad news. He told Hitler that Karl Ernst, commander of the Berlin division of the SA, had ordered his forces to go on alert. Hitler cried, “It’s a putsch!”—though in fact, as Himmler surely knew, Ernst had just recently gotten married and was headed to the port of Bremen for the start of a honeymoon cruise.

AT 2:00 A.M. SATURDAY, June 30, 1934, Hitler left the Hotel Dreesen and was driven at high speed to the airport, where he boarded a Ju 52 airplane, one of two aircraft ready for his use. He was joined by two adjutants and a senior SA officer whom he trusted, Viktor Lutze. (It was Lutze who had told Hitler about Röhm’s scathing remarks after Hitler’s February 1934 speech to the leaders of the army and SA.) Hitler’s chauffeurs also climbed aboard. The second aircraft contained a squad of armed SS men. Both planes flew to Munich, where they arrived at four thirty in the morning, just as the sun was beginning to rise. One of Hitler’s drivers, Erich Kempka, was struck by the beauty of the morning and the freshness of the rain-scrubbed air, the grass “sparkling in the morning light.”

Soon after landing, Hitler received a final bit of incendiary news—the day before, some three thousand Storm Troopers had raged through Munich’s streets. He was not told, however, that this demonstration had been spontaneous, conducted by men loyal to him who were themselves feeling threatened and betrayed and who feared an attack against them by the regular army.

Hitler’s fury peaked. He declared this “the blackest day of my life.” He decided that he could not afford to wait even until the meeting of SA leaders set for later that morning at Bad Wiessee. He turned to Kempka: “To Wiessee, as fast as possible!”

Goebbels called Göring and gave him the code word to launch the Berlin phase of the operation—the innocent-sounding “Kolibri.”


IN BERLIN, THE LAST of the late northern dusk lingered on the horizon as the Dodds settled in for a peaceful Friday night. Dodd read a book and consumed his usual digestif of stewed peaches and milk. His wife allowed her thoughts to dwell for a time on the grand lawn party she and Dodd planned for July 4, less than a week away, to which they had invited all the embassy staff and several hundred other guests. Bill Jr. stayed at the house that night and planned to take the family Buick for a drive the next morning. Martha looked forward to the morning as well, when she and Boris planned to set off on another countryside excursion, this time to picnic and sunbathe on a beach in the Wannsee district. In six days she would set out for Russia.

Outside, cigarettes twinkled in the park, and now and then a large, open car whooshed past on Tiergartenstrasse. In the park, insects speckled the halos cast by lamps, and the brilliant white statues in the Siegesallee—Avenue of Victory—gleamed like ghosts. Though hotter and more still, the night was very much like Martha’s first in Berlin, peaceful, with that small-town serenity she had found so captivating.

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