The darkening of the sky was due to three unresolved problems, and they were interrelated: the continued clamor of radical party and S.A. leaders for the “second revolution”; the rivalry of the S.A. and the Army; and the question of the succession to President Hindenburg, the sands of whose life at last began to run out with the coming of spring.
Roehm, the chief of staff of the S.A., now swollen to two and a half million storm troopers, had not been put off by Hitler’s gesture of appointing him to the cabinet nor by the Fuehrer’s friendly personal letter on New Year’s Day. In February he presented to the cabinet a lengthy memorandum proposing that the S.A. should be made the foundation of a new People’s Army and that the armed forces, the S.A. and S.S. and all veterans’ groups should be placed under a single Ministry of Defense, over which—the implication was clear—he should preside. No more revolting idea could be imagined by the officer corps, and its senior members not only unanimously rejected the proposal but appealed to Hindenburg to support them. The whole tradition of the military caste would be destroyed if the roughneck Roehm and his brawling Brownshirts should get control of the Army. Moreover, the generals were shocked by the tales, now beginning to receive wide circulation, of the corruption and debauchery of the homosexual clique around the S.A. chief. As General von Brauchitsch would later testify, “rearmament was too serious and difficult a business to permit the participation of peculators, drunkards and homosexuals.”
For the moment Hitler could not afford to offend the Army, and he gave no support to Roehm’s proposal. Indeed, on February 21 he secretly told Anthony Eden, who had come to Berlin to discuss the disarmament impasse, that he was prepared to reduce the S.A. by two thirds and to agree to a system of inspection to make sure that the remainder received neither military training nor arms—an offer which, when it leaked out, further inflamed the bitterness of Roehm and the S.A. As the summer of 1934 approached, the relations between the S.A. chief of staff and the Army High Command continued to deteriorate. There were stormy scenes in the cabinet between Roehm and General von Blomberg, and in March the Minister of Defense protested to Hitler that the S.A. was secretly arming a large force of special staff guards with heavy machine guns—which was not only a threat against the Army but, General von Blomberg added, an act done so publicly that it threatened Germany’s clandestine rearmament under the auspices of the Reichswehr.
It is plain that at this juncture Hitler, unlike the headstrong Roehm and his cronies, was thinking ahead to the day when the ailing Hindenburg would breathe his last. He knew that the aged President as well as the Army and other conservative forces in Germany were in favor of a restoration of the Hohenzollern monarchy as soon as the Field Marshal had passed away. He himself had other plans, and when early in April the news was secretly but authoritatively conveyed to him and Blomberg from Neudeck that the President’s days were numbered, he realized that a bold stroke must soon be made. To ensure its success he would need the backing of the officer corps; to obtain that support he was prepared to go to almost any length.
The occasion for confidential parleys with the Army soon presented itself. On April 11 the Chancellor, accompanied by General von Blomberg and the commanders in chief of the Army and the Navy, General Freiherr von Fritsch and Admiral Raeder, set out on the cruiser Deutschland from Kiel for Koenigsberg to attend the spring maneuvers in East Prussia. The Army and Navy commanders were told of Hindenburg’s worsening condition and Hitler, backed by the compliant Blomberg, bluntly proposed that he himself, with the Reichswehr’s blessing, be the President’s successor. In return for the support of the military, Hitler offered to suppress Roehm’s ambitions, drastically reduce the S.A. and guarantee the Army and Navy that they would continue to be the sole bearers of arms in the Third Reich. It is believed that Hitler also held out to Fritsch and Raeder the prospect of an immense expansion of the Army and Navy, if they were prepared to go along with him. With the fawning Raeder there was no question but that he would, but Fritsch, a tougher man, had first to consult his senior generals.
This consultation took place at Bad Nauheim on May 16, and after the “Pact of the Deutschland” had been explained to them, the highest officers of the German Army unanimously endorsed Hitler as the successor to President Hindenburg.27 For the Army this political decision was to prove of historic significance. By voluntarily offering to put itself in the unrestrained hands of a megalomaniacal dictator it was sealing its own fate. As for Hitler, the deal would make his dictatorship supreme. With the stubborn Field Marshal out of the way, with the prospect of the restoration ofthe Hohenzollerns snuffed out, with himself as head of state as well as of government, he could go his way alone and unhindered. The price he paid for this elevation to supreme power was paltry: the sacrifice of the S.A. He did not need it, now that he had all the authority. It was a raucous rabble that only embarrassed him. Hitler’s contempt for the narrow minds of the generals must have risen sharply that spring. They could be had, he must have thought, for surprisingly little. It was a judgment that he held, unaltered, except for one bad moment in June, to the end—his end and theirs.
Yet, as summer came, Hitler’s troubles were far from over. An ominous tension began to grip Berlin. Cries for the “second revolution” multiplied, and not only Roehm and the storm troop leaders but Goebbels himself, in speeches and in the press which he controlled, gave vent to them. From the conservative Right, from the Junkers and big industrialists around Papen and Hindenburg, came demands that a halt be called to the revolution, that the arbitrary arrests, the persecution of the Jews, the attacks against the churches, the arrogant behavior of the storm troopers be curbed, and that the general terror organized by the Nazis come to an end.
Within the Nazi Party itself there was a new and ruthless struggle for power. Roehm’s two most powerful enemies, Goering and Himmler, were uniting against him. On April 1 Himmler, chief of the black-coated S.S., which was still an arm of the S.A. and under Roehm’s command, was named by Goering to be chief of the Prussian Gestapo, and he immediately began to build up a secret-police empire of his own. Goering, who had been made a General der Infanterie by Hindenburg the previous August (though he was Minister of Aviation), gladly shed his shabby brownS.A. uniform for the more showy one of his new office, and the change was symbolic: as a general and a member of a family from the military caste, he quickly sided with the Army in its fight against Roehm and the S.A. To protect himself in the jungle warfare which was now going on, Goering also recruited his own personal police force, the Landespolizeigruppe General Goering, several thousand men strong, which he concentrated in the former Cadet School at Lichterfelde, where he had first entered the Army and which was strategically located on the outskirts of Berlin.
Rumors of plots and counterplots added to the tension in the capital. General von Schleicher, unable to bear a decent obscurity or to remember that he no longer enjoyed the confidence of Hindenburg, the generals or the conservatives and was therefore powerless, had begun to mix again in politics. He was in touch with Roehm and Gregor Strasser and there were reports, some of which reached Hitler, that he was busy trying to make a deal whereby he would become Vice-Chancellor in place of his old enemy, Papen, Roehm would become Minister of Defense and the S.A. would be amalgamated with the Army. Cabinet “lists” circulated by the dozen in Berlin; in some of them Bruening was to be made Foreign Minister and Strasser Minister of Economics. These reports had little foundation but they were grist to the mill of Goering and Himmler, who, desirous each for his own reasons to destroy Roehm and the S.A., and at the same time to settle accounts with Schleicher and the disgruntled conservatives, embroidered them and brought them to Hitler, who at any time needed little prodding to have his suspicions aroused. What Goering and his Gestapo chief had in mind was not only to purge the S.A. but to liquidate other opponents on the Left and Right, including some who had opposed Hitler in the past and were no longer politically active. At the end of May Bruening and Schleicher were warned that they were marked for murder. The former slipped quietly out of the country in disguise, the latter went off on a vacation to Bavaria but returned to Berlin toward the end of June.
At the beginning of June, Hitler had a showdown with Roehm which, according to his own account given to the Reichstag later, lasted for nearly five hours and which “dragged on until midnight.” It was, Hitler said, his “last attempt” to come to an understanding with his closest friend in the movement.
I informed him that I had the impression from countless rumors and numerous declarations of faithful old party members and S.A. leaders that conscienceless elements were preparing a national Bolshevist action that could bring nothing but untold misfortune to Germany … I implored him for the last time to voluntarily abandon this madness and instead to lend his authority to prevent a development that, in any event, could only end in disaster.
According to Hitler, Roehm left him with the “assurance that he would do everything possible to put things right.” Actually, Hitler later claimed, Roehm began “preparations to eliminate me personally.”
This was almost certainly untrue. Though the whole story of the purge, like that of the Reichstag fire, will probably never be known, all the evidence that has come to light indicates that the S.A. chief never plotted to put Hitler out of the way. Unfortunately the captured archives shed no more light on the purge than they do on the Reichstag fire; in both cases it is likely that all the incriminating documents were destroyed on the orders of Goering.
Whatever was the real nature of the long conversation between the two Nazi veterans, a day or two after it took place Hitler bade the S.A. go on leave for the entire month of July, during which the storm troopers were prohibited from wearing uniforms or engaging in parades or exercises. On June 7, Roehm announced that he himself was going on sick leave but at the same time he issued a defiant warning: “If the enemies of S.A. hope that the S.A. will not be recalled, or will be recalled only in part after its leave, we may permit them to enjoy this brief hope. They will receive their answer at such time and in such form as appears necessary. The S.A. is and remains the destiny of Germany.”
Before he left Berlin Roehm invited Hitler to confer with the S.A. leaders at the resort town of Wiessee, near Munich, on June 30. Hitler readily agreed and indeed kept the appointment, though not in a manner which Roehm could possibly have imagined. Perhaps not in a way, either, that Hitler himself at this moment could foresee. For, as he later admitted to the Reichstag, he hesitated “again and again before taking a final decision … I still cherished the secret hope that I might be able to spare the movement and my S.A. the shame of such a disagreement and that it might be possible to remove the mischief without severe conflicts.”
“It must be confessed,” he added, “that the last days of May continuously brought to light more and more disquieting facts.” But did they? Later Hitler claimed that Roehm and his conspirators had made preparations to seize Berlin and take him into custody. But if this were so why did all the S.A. leaders depart from Berlin early in June, and—even more important—why did Hitler leave Germany at this moment and thus provide an opportunity for the S.A. chiefs to grab control of the State in his absence?
For on June 14 the Fuehrer flew to Venice to hold the first of many conversations with his fellow fascist dictator, Mussolini. The meeting, incidentally, did not go off well for the German leader, who, in his soiled raincoat and battered soft hat, seemed ill at ease in the presence of the more experienced Duce, resplendent in his glittering, bemedaled black Fascisti uniform and inclined to be condescending to his visitor. Hitler returned to Germany in a state of considerable irritation and called a meeting of his party leaders in the little town of Gera in Thuringia for Sunday, June 17, to report on his talks with Mussolini and to assess the worsening situation at home. As fate would have it, another meeting took place on that Sunday in the old university town of Marburg which attracted much more attention in Germany and indeed in the world, and which helped bring the critical situation to a climax.
The dilettante Papen, who had been rudely shoved to the sidelines by Hitler and Goering but who was still nominally Vice-Chancellor and still enjoyed the confidence of Hindenburg, summoned enough courage to speak out publicly against the excesses of the regime which he had done so much to foist on Germany. In May he had seen the ailing President off to Neudeck—it was the last time he was to see his protector alive—and the grizzly but enfeebled old Field Marshal had said to him: “Things are going badly, Papen. See what you can do to put them right.”
Thus encouraged, Papen had accepted an invitation to make an address at the University of Marburg on June 17. The speech was largely written by one of his personal advisers, Edgar Jung, a brilliant Munich lawyer and writer and a Protestant, though certain ideas were furnished by one of the Vice-Chancellor’s secretaries, Herbert von Bose, and by Erich Klausener, the leader of Catholic Action—a collaboration that soon cost all three of them their lives. It was a courageous utterance and, thanks to Jung, eloquent in style and dignified in tone. It called for an end of the revolution, for a termination of the Nazi terror, for the restoration of normal decencies and the return of some measure of freedom, especially of freedom of the press. Addressing Dr. Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, Papen said:
Open manly discussions would be of more service to the German people than, for instance, the present state of the German press. The government [must be] mindful of the old maxim, “Only weaklings suffer no criticism” … Great men are not created by propaganda … If one desires close contact and unity with the people, one must not underestimate their understanding. One must not everlastingly keep them on leading strings … No organization, no propaganda, however excellent, can alone maintain confidence in the long run. It is not by incitement … and not by threats against the helpless part of the nation but only by talking things over with people that confidence and devotion can be maintained. People treated as morons, however, have no confidence to give away … It is time to join together in fraternal friendship and respect for all our fellow countrymen, to avoid disturbing the labors of serious men and to silence fanatics.28
The speech, when it became known, was widely heralded in Germany, but it fell like a bombshell on the little group of Nazi leaders gathered at Gera, and Goebbels moved quickly to see that it became known as little as possible. He forbade the broadcast of a recording of the speech scheduled for the same evening as well as any reference to it in the press, and ordered the police to seize copies of the Frankfurter Zeitung which were on the streets with a partial text. But not even the absolute powers of the Propaganda Minister were sufficient to keep the German people and the outside world from learning the contents of the defiant address. The wily Papen had provided the foreign correspondents and diplomats in Berlin with advance texts, and several thousand copies were hastily run off on the presses of Papen’s newspaper, Germania, and secretly distributed.
On learning of the Marburg speech, Hitler was stung to fury. In a speech the same afternoon at Gera he denounced the “pygmy who imagines he can stop, with a few phrases, the gigantic renewal of a people’s life.” Papen was furious too, at the suppression of his speech. He rushed to Hitler on June 20 and told him he could not tolerate such a ban “by a junior minister,” insisted that he had spoken “as a trustee for the President,” and then and there submitted his resignation, adding a warning that he “would advise Hindenburg of this immediately.”29
This was a threat that obviously worried Hitler, for he was aware of reports that the President was so displeased with the situation that he was considering declaring martial law and handing over power to the Army. In order to size up the seriousness of this danger to the very continuance of the Nazi regime, he flew to Neudeck on the following day, June 21, to see Hindenburg. His reception could only have increased his fears. He was met by General von Blomberg and quickly saw that his Defense Minister’s usual lackeylike attitude toward him had suddenly disappeared. Blomberg instead was now the stern Prussian general and he brusquely informed Hitler that he was authorized by the Field Marshal to tell him that unless the present state of tension in Germany was brought quickly to an end the President would declare martial law and turn over the control of the State to the Army. When Hitler was permitted to see Hindenburg for a few minutes in the presence of Blomberg, the old President confirmed the ultimatum.
This was a disastrous turn of affairs for the Nazi Chancellor. Not only was his plan to succeed the President in jeopardy; if the Army took over, that would be the end of him and of Nazi government. Flying back to Berlin the same day he must have reflected that he had only one choice to make if he were to survive. He must honor his pact with the Army, suppress the S.A. and halt the continuance of the revolution for which the storm troop leaders were pressing. The Army, backed by the venerable President, it was obvious, would accept no less.
And yet, in that last crucial week of June, Hitler hesitated—as least as to how drastic to be with the S.A. chiefs to whom he owed so much. But now Goering and Himmler helped him to make up his mind. They had already drawn up the scores they wanted to settle, long lists of present and past enemies they wished to liquidate. All they had to do was convince the Fuehrer of the enormity of the “plot” against him and of the necessity for swift and ruthless action. According to the testimony at Nuremberg of Wilhelm Frick, the Minister of the Interior and one of Hitler’s most faithful followers, it was Himmler who finally succeeded in convincing Hitler that “Roehm wanted to start a putsch. The Fuehrer,” Frick added, “ordered Himmler to suppress the putsch.” Himmler, he explained, was instructed to put it down in Bavaria, and Goering in Berlin.30
The Army prodded Hitler too and thereby incurred a responsibility for the barbarity which was soon to take place. On June 25 General von Fritsch, the Commander in Chief, put the Army in a state of alert, canceling all leaves and confining the troops to barracks. On June 28 Roehm was expelled from the German Officers’ League—a plain warning that the S.A. chief of staff was in for trouble. And just to make sure that no one, Roehm above all, should have any illusions about where the Army stood, Blomberg took the unprecedented step of publishing a signed article on June 29 in the Voelkischer Beobachter, affirming that “the Army … stands behind Adolf Hitler … who remains one of ours.”
The Army, then, was pressing for the purge, but it did not want to soil its own hands. That must be done by Hitler, Goering and Himmler, with their black-coated S.S. and Goering’s special police.
Hitler left Berlin on Thursday, June 28, for Essen to attend the wedding of a local Nazi gauleiter, Josef Terboven. The trip and its purpose hardly suggest that he felt a grave crisis to be imminent. On the same day Goering and Himmler ordered special detachments of the S.S. and the “Goering Police” to hold themselves in readiness. With Hitler out of town, they evidently felt free to act on their own. The next day, the twenty-ninth, the Fuehrer made a tour of Labor Service camps in Westphalia, returning in the afternoon to Godesberg on the Rhine, where he put up at a hotel on the riverbank run by an old war comrade, Dreesen. That evening Goebbels, who seems to have hesitated as to which camp to join—he had been secretly in touch with Roehm—arrived in Godesberg, his mind made up, and reported what Hitler later described as “threatening intelligence” from Berlin. Karl Ernst, a former hotel bellhop and ex-bouncer in a café frequented by homosexuals, whom Roehm had made leader of the Berlin S.A., had alerted the storm troopers. Ernst, a handsome but not a bright young man, believed then and for the remaining twenty-four hours or so of his life that he was faced by a putsch from the Right, and he would die shouting proudly, “Heil Hitler!”
Hitler later claimed that up to this moment, June 29, he had. decided merely to “deprive the chief of staff [Roehm] of his office and for the time being keep him in custody and arrest a number of S.A. leaders whose crimes were unquestioned … and in an earnest appeal to the others, I would recall them to their duty.”
However, [he told the Reichstag on July 13] … at one o’clock in the night I received from Berlin and Munich two urgent messages concerning alarm summonses: first, in Berlin an alarm muster had been ordered for four P.M…. and at five P.M. action was to begin with a surprise attack; the government buildings were to be occupied … Second, in Munich the alarm summons had already been given to the S.A.; they had been ordered to assemble at nine o’clock in the evening … That was mutiny! … In these circumstances I could make but one decision … Only a ruthless and bloody intervention might still perhaps stifle the spread of the revolt …
At two o’clock in the morning I flew to Munich.
Hitler never revealed from whom the “urgent messages” came but the implication is that they were sent by Goering and Himmler. What is certain is that they were highly exaggerated. In Berlin, S.A. Leader Ernst thought of nothing more drastic than to drive to Bremen that Saturday with his bride to take ship for a honeymoon at Madeira. And in the south, where the S.A. “conspirators” were concentrated?
At the moment of 2 A.M. on June 30 when Hitler, with Goebbels at his side, was taking off from Hangelar Airfield near Bonn, Captain Roehm and his S.A. lieutenants were peacefully slumbering in their beds at the Hanslbauer Hotel at Wiessee on the shores of the Tegernsee. EdmundHeines, the S.A. Obergruppenfuehrer of Silesia, a convicted murderer, a notorious homosexual with a girlish face on the brawny body of a piano mover, was in bed with a young man. So far did the S.A. chiefs seem from staging a revolt that Roehm had left his staff guards in Munich. There appeared to be plenty of carousing among the S.A. leaders but no plotting.
Hitler and his small party (Otto Dietrich, his press chief, and Viktor Lutze, the colorless but loyal S.A. leader of Hanover, had joined it) landed in Munich at 4 A.M. on Saturday, June 30, and found that some action already had been taken. Major Walther Buch, head of USCHLA, the party court, and Adolf Wagner, Bavarian Minister of the Interior, aided by such early cronies of Hitler as Emil Maurice, the ex-convict and rival for Geli Raubal’s love, and Christian Weber, the horse dealer and former cabaret bouncer, had arrested the Munich S.A. leaders, including Obergruppenfuehrer Schneidhuber, who was also chief of police in Munich. Hitler, who was now working himself up to a fine state of hysteria, found the prisoners in the Ministry of the Interior. Striding up to Schneidhuber, a former Army colonel, he tore off his Nazi insignia and cursed him for his “treason.”
Shortly after dawn Hitler and his party sped out of Munich toward Wiessee in a long column of cars. They found Roehm and his friends still fast asleep in the Hanslbauer Hotel. The awakening was rude. Heines and his young male companion were dragged out of bed, taken outside the hotel and summarily shot on the orders of Hitler. The Fuehrer, according to Otto Dietrich’s account, entered Roehm’s room alone, gave him a dressing down and ordered him to be brought back to Munich and lodged in Stadelheim prison, where the S.A. chief had served time after his participation with Hitler in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. After fourteen stormy years the two friends, who more than any others were responsible for the launching of the Third Reich, for its terror and its degradation, who though they had often disagreed had stood together in the moments of crisis and defeats and disappointments, had come to a parting of the ways, and the scar-faced, brawling battler for Hitler and Nazism had come to the end of his violent life.
Hitler, in a final act of what he apparently thought was grace, gave orders that a pistol be left on the table of his old comrade. Roehm refused to make use of it. “If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself,” he is reported to have said. Thereupon two S.A. officers, according to the testimony of an eyewitness, a police lieutenant, given twenty-three years later in a postwar trial at Munich in May 1957, entered the cell and fired their revolvers at Roehm point-blank. “Roehm wanted to say something,” said this witness, “but the S.S. officer motioned him to shut up. Then Roehm stood at attention—he was stripped to the waist—with his face full of contempt.”* And so he died, violently as he had lived, contemptuous of the friend he had helped propel to the heights no other German had ever reached, and almost certainly, like hundreds of others who were slaughtered that day—like Schneidhuber, who was reported to have cried, “Gentlemen, I don’t know what this is all about, but shoot straight”—without any clear idea of what was happening, or why, other than that it was an act of treachery which he, who had lived so long with treachery and committed it so often himself, had not expected from Adolf Hitler.
In Berlin, in the meantime, Goering and Himmler had been busy. Some 150 S.A. leaders were rounded up and stood against a wall of the Cadet School at Lichterfelde and shot by firing squads of Himmler’s S.S. and Goering’s special police.
Among them was Karl Ernst, whose honeymoon trip was interrupted by S.S. gunmen as his car neared Bremen. His bride and his chauffeur were wounded; he himself was knocked unconscious and flown back to Berlin for his execution.
The S.A. men were not the only ones to fall on that bloody summer weekend. On the morning of June 30, a squad of S.S. men in mufti rang the doorbell at General von Schleicher’s villa on the outskirts of Berlin. When the General opened the door he was shot dead in his tracks, and when his wife, whom he had married but eighteen months before—he had been a bachelor until then—stepped forward, she too was slain on the spot. General Kurt von Bredow, a close friend of Schleicher, met a similar fate the same evening. Gregor Strasser was seized at his home in Berlin at noon on Saturday and dispatched a few hours later in his cell in the Prinz Albrechtstrasse Gestapo jail on the personal orders of Goering.
Papen was luckier. He escaped with his life. But his office was ransacked by an S.S. squad, his principal secretary, Bose, shot down at his desk, his confidential collaborator, Edgar Jung, who had been arrested a few days earlier by the Gestapo, murdered in prison, another collaborator, Erich Klausener, leader of Catholic Action, slain in his office in the Ministry of Communications, and the rest of his staff, including his private secretary, Baroness Stotzingen, carted off to concentration camp. When Papen went to protest to Goering, the latter, who at that moment had no time for idle talk, “more or less,” he later recalled, threw him out, placing him under house arrest at his villa, which was surrounded by heavily armed S.S. men and where his telephone was cut and he was forbidden to have any contact with the outside world—an added humiliation which the Vice-Chancellor of Germany swallowed remarkably well. For within less than a month he defiled himself by accepting from the Nazi murderers of his friends a new assignment as German minister to Vienna, where the Nazis had just slain Chancellor Dollfuss.
How many were slain in the purge was never definitely established. In his Reichstag speech of July 13, Hitler announced that sixty-one persons were shot, including nineteen “higher S.A. leaders,” that thirteen more died “resisting arrest” and that three “committed suicide”—a total of seventy-seven. The White Book of the Purge, published by émigrés in Paris, stated that 401 had been slain, but it identified only 116 of them. At the Munich trial in 1957, the figure of “more than 1,000” was given.
Many were killed out of pure vengeance for having opposed Hitler in the past, others were murdered apparently because they knew too much, and at least one because of mistaken identity. The body of Gustav von Kahr, whose suppression of the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 we have already recounted, and who had long since retired from politics, was found in a swamp near Dachau hacked to death, apparently by pickaxes. Hitler had neither forgotten nor forgiven him. The body of Father Bernhard Stempfle of the Hieronymite Order, who, it will be remembered from earlier pages, helped edit Mein Kampf and later talked too much, perhaps, about his knowledge of why Hitler’s love, Geli Raubal, committed suicide, was found in the forest of Harlaching near Munich, his neck broken and three shots in the heart. Heiden says the murder gang that killed him was led by Emil Maurice, the ex-convict who had also made love to Geli Raubal. Others who “knew too much” included three S.A. men who were believed to have been accomplices of Ernst in setting the Reichstag on fire. They were dispatched with Ernst.
One other murder deserves mention. At seven-twenty on the evening of June 30, Dr. Willi Schmid, the eminent music critic of the Muenchener Neueste Nachrichten, a leading Munich daily newspaper, was playing the cello in his study while his wife prepared supper and their three children, aged nine, eight and two, played in the living room of their apartment in the Schackstrasse in Munich. The doorbell rang, four S.S. men appeared and without explanation took Dr. Schmid away. Four days later his body was returned in a coffin with orders from the Gestapo not to open it in any circumstances. Dr. Willi Schmid, who had never participated in politics, had been mistaken by the S.S. thugs for Willi Schmidt, a local S.A. leader, who in the meantime had been arrested by another S.S. detachment and shot.*
Was there a plot against Hitler at all? There is only his word for it, contained in the official communiqués and in his Reichstag speech of July 13. He never presented a shred of evidence. Roehm had made no secret of his ambition to see the S.A. become the nucleus of the new Army and to head it himself. He had certainly been in touch with Schleicher about the scheme, which they had first discussed when the General was Chancellor. Probably, as Hitler stated, Gregor Strasser “was brought in.” But such talks certainly did not constitute treason. Hitler himself was in contact with Strasser and early in June, according to Otto Strasser, offered him the post of Minister of Economics.
At first Hitler accused Roehm and Schleicher of having sought the backing of a “foreign power”—obviously France—and charged that General von Bredow was the intermediary in “foreign policy.” This was part of the indictment of them as “traitors.” And though Hitler repeated the charges in his Reichstag speech and spoke sarcastically of “a foreign diplomat [who could have been no other than François-Poncet, the French ambassador] explaining that the meeting with Schleicher and Roehm was of an entirely harmless character,” he was unable to substantiate his accusations. It was crime enough, he said lamely, for any responsible German in the Third Reich even to see foreign diplomats without his knowledge.
When three traitors in Germany arrange … a meeting with a foreign statesman … and give orders that no word of this meeting shall reach me, then I shall have such men shot dead even when it should prove true that at such a consultation which was thus kept secret from me they talked of nothing more than the weather, old coins and like topics.
When François-Poncet protested vigorously against the insinuation that he had participated in the Roehm “plot” the German Foreign Office officially informed the French government that the accusations were wholly without foundation and that the Reich government hoped the ambassador would remain in his post. Indeed, as this writer can testify, François-Poncet continued to remain on better personal terms with Hitler than any other envoy from a democratic state.
In the first communiqués, especially in a blood-curdling eyewitness account given the public by Otto Dietrich, the Fuehrer’s press chief, and even in Hitler’s Reichstag speech, much was made of the depraved morals of Roehm and the other S.A. leaders who were shot. Dietrich asserted that the scene of the arrest of Heines, who was caught in bed at Wiessee with a young man, “defied description,” and Hitler in addressing the surviving storm troop leaders in Munich at noon on June 30, just after the first executions, declared that for their corrupt morals alone these men deserved to die.
And yet Hitler had known all along, from the earliest days of the party, that a large number of his closest and most important followers were sexual perverts and convicted murderers. It was common talk, for instance, that Heines used to send S.A. men scouring all over Germany to find him suitable male lovers. These things Hitler had not only tolerated but defended; more than once he had warned his party comrades against being too squeamish about a man’s personal morals if he were a fanatical fighter for the movement. Now, on June 30, 1934, he professed to be shocked by the moral degeneration of some of his oldest lieutenants.
Most of the killing was over by Sunday afternoon, July 1, when Hitler, who had flown back to Berlin from Munich the night before, was host at a tea party in the gardens of the Chancellery. On Monday President Hindenburg thanked Hitler for his “determined action and gallant personal intervention which have nipped treason in the bud and rescued the German people from great danger.” He also congratulated Goering for his “energetic and successful action” in suppressing “high treason.” On Tuesday General von Blomberg expressed to the Chancellor the congratulations of the cabinet, which proceeded to “legalize” the slaughter as a necessary measure “for the defense of the State.” Blomberg also issued an order of the day to the Army expressing the High Command’s satisfaction with the turn of events and promising to establish “cordial relations with the new S.A.”
It was natural, no doubt, that the Army should be pleased with the elimination of its rival, the S.A., but what about the sense of honor, let alone of decency, of an officer corps which not only condoned but openly praised a government for carrying out a massacre without precedent in German history, during which two of its leading officers, Generals von Schleicher and von Bredow, having been branded as traitors, were coldbloodedly murdered? Only the voices of the eighty-five-year-old Field Marshal von Mackensen and of General von Hammerstein, the former Commander in Chief of the Army, were raised in protest against the murder of their two fellow officers and the charges of treason which had been the excuse for it.* This behavior of the corps was a black stain on the honor of the Army; it was also a mark of its unbelievable shortsightedness.
In making common cause with the lawlessness, indeed the gangsterism, of Hitler on June 30, 1934, the generals were putting themselves in a position in which they could never oppose future acts of Nazi terrorism not only at home but even when they were aimed across the frontiers, even when they were committed against their own members. For the Army was backing Hitler’s claim that he had become the law, or, as he put it in his Reichstag speech of July 13, “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 [oberster Gerichtsherr] of the German people.” And Hitler added, for good measure, “Everyone must know for all future time that if he raises his hand to strike the State, then certain deathis his lot.” This was a warning that was to catch up with the generals in ten years almost to a day when at last the more desperate of them dared to raise their hand to strike down their “supreme judge.”
Moreover, the officer corps only deluded itself in thinking that on June 30 it got rid forever of the threat of the Nazi movement against its traditional prerogatives and power. For in the place of the S.A. came the S.S. On July 26 the S.S., as a reward for carrying out the executions, was made independent of the S.A., with Himmler—as its Reichsfuehrer—responsible only to Hitler. Soon this much-better-disciplined and loyal force would become much more powerful than the S.A. had ever been and as a rival to the Army would succeed where Roehm’s ragged Brownshirts had failed.
For the moment, however, the generals were smugly confident. As Hitler reiterated in his Reichstag address on July 13, the Army was to remain “the sole bearer of arms.” At the High Command’s bidding, the Chancellor had got rid of the S.A., which had dared to dispute that dictum. The time now came when the Army had to carry out its part of the “Pact of the Deutschland.”