The Dead

At three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, Berlin’s foreign correspondents gathered at the Reich chancellery on the Wilhelmstrasse for a press conference to be given by Hermann Göring. One witness was Hans Gisevius, who seemed to be everywhere that day.

Göring arrived late, in uniform, huge and arrogant. The room was hot and smoldered with “unbearable tension,” Gisevius wrote. Göring positioned himself at the podium. With great drama he scanned the crowd, and then, with what appeared to be a series of rehearsed gestures, placed his chin in his hand and rolled his eyes, as if what he was about to say was momentous even to him. He spoke, Gisevius recalled, “in the lugubrious tone and flat voice of a practiced funeral orator.”

Göring gave a brief account of the “action,” which he said was still under way. “For weeks we have been watching; we knew that some of the leaders of the Sturmabteilung [SA] had taken positions very far from the aims and goals of the movement, giving priority to their own interests and ambitions, indulging their unfortunate and perverse tastes.” Röhm was under arrest, he said. A “foreign power” also was involved. Everyone in the room presumed he meant France. “The Supreme Leader in Munich and I as his deputy in Berlin have struck with lightning speed without respect for persons.”

Göring took questions. One reporter asked about the deaths of Vice-Chancellor Papen’s speechwriter, Jung, and his press secretary, Herbert von Bose, and Erich Klausener, a prominent Catholic critic of the regime—what possible connection could they have had to an SA putsch?

“I expanded my task to take in reactionaries also,” Göring said, his voice as bland as if he were quoting a telephone book.

And what of General Schleicher?

Göring paused, grinned.

“Ah, yes, you journalists always like a special headline story; well, here it is. General von Schleicher had plotted against the regime. I ordered his arrest. He was foolish enough to resist. He is dead.”

Göring walked from the podium.

NO ONE KNEW EXACTLY how many people had lost their lives in the purge. Official Nazi tallies put the total at under one hundred. Foreign Minister Neurath, for example, told Britain’s Sir Eric Phipps that there had been “forty-three or forty-six” executions and claimed that all other estimates were “unreliable and exaggerated.” Dodd, in a letter to his friend Daniel Roper, wrote that reports coming in from America’s consulates in other German cities suggested a total of 284 deaths. “Most of the victims,” Dodd wrote, “were in no sense guilty of treason; merely political or religious opposition.” Other tallies by American officials put the number far higher. The consul in Brandenburg wrote that an SS officer had told him five hundred had been killed and fifteen thousand arrested and that Rudolf Diels had been targeted for death but was spared at Göring’s request. A memorandum from one of Dodd’s secretaries of embassy in Berlin also put the number of executions at five hundred and noted that neighbors in the vicinity of the Lichterfelde barracks “could hear the firing squads at work the whole night.” Diels later estimated seven hundred deaths; other insiders placed the total at over one thousand. No definitive total exists.

The death of General Schleicher was confirmed—he’d been shot seven times, his body and that of his wife discovered by their sixteen-year-old daughter. Another general, Ferdinand von Bredow, a member of Schleicher’s cabinet when he was chancellor, was also shot. Despite these killings, the army continued to stand aside, its loathing for the SA trumping its distaste for the murder of two of its own. Gregor Strasser, a former Nazi leader with past ties to Schleicher, was having lunch with his family when two Gestapo cars pulled up outside his home and six men came to his door. He was taken away and shot in a cell in the basement prison at Gestapo headquarters. Hitler was the godfather of his twins. A friend of Strasser’s, Paul Schulz, a senior SA leader, was taken into a forest and shot. As his would-be executioners went back to their car to get a sheet for his body, he got up and bolted, and survived. It was this escape, apparently, that had triggered Göring’s outburst of bloodthirsty rage. Gustav Ritter von Kahr, at seventy-three years of age hardly a threat to Hitler, was killed as well—“hacked to death,” according to historian Ian Kershaw—apparently to avenge his role in undermining a Nazi putsch attempt a decade earlier. Karl Ernst, married only two days, had no comprehension of what was occurring as he was placed under arrest in Bremen just before his honeymoon cruise. Hitler had been a guest at his wedding. When Ernst realized he was about to be shot, he cried out, “I am innocent. Long live Germany! Heil Hitler!” At least five Jews were shot for the sin of being Jews. And then there were the innumerable, nameless souls executed by firing squad at the Lichterfelde barracks. The mother of one dead Storm Trooper only received official notification of his death six months after the fact, in a curt one-paragraph letter that stated he had been shot in defense of the state and thus no further explanation was needed. The letter ended as did all letters in the new Germany: “Heil Hitler!”

Again there were moments of dark comedy. One target, Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus, a minister under General Schleicher when he was chancellor, was in the middle of a tennis game at the Wannsee Tennis Club when he spotted four SS men outside. Wisely trusting his instincts, he excused himself and ran. He scaled a wall, caught a taxi, and eventually made his way to England.

In central Berlin, the SA man moonlighting as the driver of the Hotel Adlon’s catering van found himself stopped by the SS at a checkpoint near the Brandenburg Gate, not far from the hotel. The hapless driver had made the unfortunate decision to wear his brown Storm Trooper shirt under his suit jacket.

The SS officer asked where he was going.

“To the king of Siam,” the driver said, and smiled.

The SS man took this as a wisecrack. Enraged by the driver’s impudence, he and his associates dragged the Storm Trooper out of the van and forced him to open the rear doors. The cargo space was filled with trays of food.

Still suspicious, the SS officer accused the driver of bringing the food to one of Röhm’s orgies.

The driver, no longer smiling, said, “No, it’s for the king of Siam.”

The SS still believed the driver was merely being insolent. Two SS men climbed onto the van and ordered the driver to continue to the palace where the party supposedly was being held. To their chagrin, they learned that a banquet for the king of Siam was indeed planned and that Göring was one of the expected guests.

And then there was poor Willi Schmid—Wilhelm Eduard Schmid, respected music critic for a Munich newspaper—who was playing his cello at home with his wife and three children nearby when the SS came to the door, hauled him away, and shot him.

The SS had erred. Their intended target was a different Schmid. Or rather, a Schmitt.

Hitler dispatched Rudolf Hess to make a personal apology to the dead critic’s wife.

PUTZI HANFSTAENGL, WHOSE RELATIONSHIP with Hitler had grown strained, was rumored to have been on Hitler’s list of targets. Providently, he was in America to take part in the twenty-fifth reunion of his class at Harvard. The invitation to attend had caused an outcry in America, and until the last moment Hanfstaengl had offered no indication as to whether he actually would attend. On the night of June 10, 1934, he threw a dinner party, whose timing in retrospect seemed all too convenient given that surely he knew the purge was coming. In midmeal, he stepped from the dining room, disguised himself in a raincoat and sunglasses, and left. He took a night train to Cologne, where he climbed into a mail plane that took him directly to Cherbourg, France, and there he boarded his ship, the Europa, bound for New York. He brought five suitcases and three crates containing sculptural busts meant as gifts.

The New York City police department, fearing threats to Hanfstaengl from outraged protesters, sent six young officers aboard to guide him from the ship. They were dressed in Harvard jackets and ties.

On June 30, 1934, the day of the purge, Putzi attended the Newport, Rhode Island, wedding of Ellen Tuck French and John Jacob Astor III, said to be the richest bachelor in America. His father had been lost with the Titanic. A crowd of about a thousand people gathered outside the church to catch a glimpse of the bride and groom and the arriving guests. One of the first “to cause the crowd to gasp with excitement,” wrote a gushing society reporter for the New York Times, was Hanfstaengl, “in a top hat, black coat and striped gray trousers.”

Hanfstaengl knew nothing about events back home until asked about them by reporters. “I have no comment to make,” he said. “I am here to attend the wedding of my friend’s daughter.” Later, after learning more details, he stated, “My leader, Adolf Hitler, had to act and he acted thus as always. Hitler has proven himself never greater, never more human, than in the last forty-eight hours.”

Inwardly, however, Hanfstaengl worried about his own safety and that of his wife and son back in Berlin. He sent a discreet inquiry to Foreign Minister Neurath.

HITLER RETURNED TO BERLIN that evening. Again, Gisevius stood witness. Hitler’s plane appeared “against the background of a blood-red sky, a piece of theatricality that no one had staged,” Gisevius wrote. After the plane came to a stop, a small army of men moved forward to greet Hitler, among them Göring and Himmler. Hitler was first to emerge from the aircraft. He wore a brown shirt, dark brown leather jacket, black bow tie, high black boots. He looked pale and tired and had not shaved but otherwise seemed untroubled. “It was clear that the murders of his friends had cost him no effort at all,” Gisevius wrote. “He had felt nothing; he had merely acted out his rage.”

In a radio address, propaganda chief Goebbels reassured the nation.

“In Germany,” he said, “there is now complete peace and order. Public security has been restored. Never was the Führer more completely master of the situation. May a favorable destiny bless us so that we can carry our great task to its conclusion with Adolf Hitler!”

Dodd, however, continued to receive reports that indicated the purge was far from ended. There was still no firm news as to what had happened to Röhm and Papen. Waves of gunfire continued to roll from the courtyard at Lichterfelde.

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