Night of the Long Knives

On 30 June 1934, Adolf Hitler led a purge against his fellow Nazi leaders. Hitler believed that the SA (Brownshirts) were becoming too powerful and threatened his leadership. Consequently, Hitler executed the leaders of the Brownshirts along with many other of his opponents. This event has come to be known as the Night of the Long Knives (1934).

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Table of contents

    The SA (Brownshirts)

    SA is an abbreviation of 'Sturmabteilung' meaning 'Assault Division'. The SA was also known as Brownshirts or Storm Troopers. The SA was a branch of the Nazi Party that used violence, intimidation, and coercion in Hitler's rise to power.

    The Night of the Long Knives Summary

    Here is a brief timeline outlining the events of the Night of the Long Knives in Germany:

    DateEvent
    1921The SA (Sturmabteilung) was formed with Ernst Rohm as its leader.
    1934FebruaryAdolf Hitler and Rohm met. Hitler told Rohm that the SA would not be a military force but a political one.
    4 JuneHitler and Rohm had a five-hour meeting. Hitler tried unsuccessfully to change Rohm's stance on removing the conservative elite from the government.
    25 JuneThe German Army was placed on high alert. A prior agreement had been worked out, ensuring cooperation between the German Army and the SS during the Night of the Long Knives.
    28 JuneHitler was informed about a possible coup by Rohm's forces.
    30 JuneHitler ordered the arrest of SA officials inside Munich's Nazi HQ. The same day, Rohm and other SA leaders were arrested and executed.
    2 JulyThe purge ended.
    13 JulyHitler addressed the German Parliament about the Night of the Long Knives.

    Origins of the SA

    The SA was founded in 1921 by Adolf Hitler. The organisation consisted of Freikorps (Free Corps) members in its early days.

    Freikorps

    Translated as "Free Corps", the Freikorps were a nationalist group of ex-soldiers who fought against Communism and Socialism.

    Utilised by Hitler, the SA threatened political opponents, guarded Nazi party meetings, intimidated voters during elections, and marched in Nazi rallies.

    Night of the Long Knives SA logo StudySmarterFig. 1 - SA Emblem

    In January 1931, Ernst Rohm became the leader of the SA. An ardent anti-capitalist, Rohm wanted the SA to become Germany's primary military force. By 1933, Rohm had somewhat achieved this. The SA grew from 400,000 members in 1932 to nearly 2 million in 1933, some twenty times larger than the German Army.

    Hitler's Obstacles

    In May 1934, four obstacles prevented Hitler from holding absolute power:

    • Ernst Rohm: Throughout 1934, there were plans to reorganise Germany's army; the Reichswehr was soon to be replaced by a new Wehrmacht. Ernst Rohm wanted to have the SA incorporated into the Wehrmacht. This would make him an incredibly powerful figure and potential rival to Hitler.
    • Tensions between the Nazi elite and the SA: Throughout the early stages of Hitler's chancellorship, there were significant tensions between the Nazi hierarchy and the SA. The SA, led by the anti-capitalist Rohm, wanted to remove the conservative elite from office. Hitler disagreed with this, believing that the transition had to be moderate, gradual, and as democratic as possible.
    • A Potential Coup: President of the Reichstag Hermann Goring and Chief of Police Heinrich Himmler believed that the SA was organising a coup against Hitler.

    Reichswehr

    This term refers to the German Army during the Weimar Republic (1919-1935).

    Wehrmacht

    This term refers to the German Army during Nazi Germany (1935-1945)

    Reichstag

    The Reichstag is the building in which the German Parliament meets.

    Night of the Long Knives Ernst Rohm StudySmarterFig. 2 - Ernst Rohm

    Night of the Long Knives 1934

    Let's examine the planning process behind the Night of the Long Knives.

    On 11 April 1934, Adolf Hitler and Minister of Defence General Werner von Blomberg met onboard the Deutschland cruise ship. They struck a deal whereby Hitler would destroy the SA in exchange for the army's support. Initially, Hitler was still unsure about sacrificing Rohm; Hitler met one final time with Rohm to try to reach an agreement regarding conservatives in government positions. After an unsuccessful five-hour meeting, Hitler finally agreed to sacrifice Rohm.

    In June 1934, Hitler and Goring drew up a list of those to be executed; the list was called the 'Reich List of Unwanted Persons' with the operation codenamed 'Hummingbird'. Hitler justified Operation Hummingbird by framing Rohm, fabricating that Rohm was planning a coup against him.

    Night of the Long Knives National Emergency Defence Measures StudySmarterFig. 3 - National Defense Measures

    Night of the Long Knives Germany

    On 30 June 1934, the SA hierarchy was summoned to a hotel in Bad Wiesse. There, Hitler arrested Rohm and the other SA leaders, alleging that Rohm was plotting to overthrow him. Over the following days, the SA leaders were executed without trial. Despite being initially pardoned, Rohm was sentenced to death and given a choice between suicide or murder; Rohm chose murder and was swiftly executed by the SS on 1 July 1934.

    Night of the Long Knives Victims

    It was not just the SA that was purged during the Night of the Long Knives. Several other perceived political opponents were executed without trial. Other Night of the Long Knives victims include:

    • Ferdinand von Bredow, head of Germany's military intelligence services.
    • Gregor Strasser, Hitler's second-in-command in the Nazi Party until 1932.
    • Kurt von Schleicher, the former Chancellor.
    • Edgar Jung, conservative critic.
    • Erich Klausener, Catholic professor.
    • Gustav von Kahr, Bavarian ex-separatist.

    Aftermath of the Night of the Long Knives

    By 2 July 1934, the SA had collapsed, and the SS had total control of Germany. Hitler entitled the purge the 'Night of the Long Knives' – a reference to the lyrics from a popular Nazi song. He stated that 61 people had been executed and 13 had committed suicide. However, most accounts argue that as many as 1,000 deaths occurred during the Night of the Long Knives.

    "In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people," Hitler told the nation, "and thereby I become the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason." 1

    President Hindenburg congratulated the efficiency with which Hitler acted against the SA. Hindenburg died the following month, giving Hitler total control of Germany.

    Hitler Night of the Long Knives

    Soon after the execution of Rohm, Hitler tried to take control of Austria. On 25 July 1934, Austrian Nazis attempted to take over the Austrian government, murdering Chancellor Englebert Dollfuss.

    Night of the Long Knives Englebert Dollfuss StudySmarterFig. 4 - Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss

    Despite killing Dolfuss, the coup ultimately failed, gleaning widespread condemnation from the European states. Italian leader Benito Mussolini strongly criticised the actions of Germany, sending four divisions of troops to the Austrian border. Hitler denied all responsibility for the attempted coup, sending his condolences for the death of Dollfuss.

    Consequences of the Night of the Long Knives

    There were several consequences of Hitler's Night of the Long Knives:

    • The collapse of the SA: The Night of the Long Knives saw the collapse of the once-powerful SA.
    • Increased power of the SS: After the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler granted the SS independent status from the SA.
    • Hitler became judge, jury, and executioner: While justifying the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler proclaimed himself the 'supreme judge' of Germany, essentially placing himself above the law.
    • The German Army decided their allegiance: The hierarchy of the German Army condoned the actions of Hitler during the Night of the Long Knives.

    It's hard to fully comprehend how one summer's night could have such an impact on European history; within a mere matter of hours, Hitler had purged his political opponents and established himself as the 'supreme judge of Germany'. The removal of his internal enemies and the subsequent death of President Hindenburg allowed Hitler to combine the offices of the President and Chancellor. With his power consolidated and his political rivals killed, Adolf Hitler had quickly become the all-powerful dictator of Nazi Germany.

    Night of the Long Knives – Key Takeaways

    • In 1934, Hitler believed that the SA (Brownshirts) were becoming too powerful and threatened his leadership.
    • Hitler executed the leaders of the Brownshirts along with many other of his opponents.
    • Most accounts argue that as many as 1,000 people died during the Night of the Long Knives.
    • The Night of the Long Knives saw the collapse of the SA, the rise of the SS, and the increase in Hitler's control of Germany.

    References

    1. Adolf Hitler, 'Justification of the Blood Purge', 13 July 1934
    Frequently Asked Questions about Night of the Long Knives

    What is the night of the long knives?

    The Night of the Long Knives was an event in which Hitler purged SA (Brownshirts) and other political opponents.

    When was the night of the long knives?

    The Night of the Long Knives took place on 30 June 1934.

    How did the night of the long knives help Hitler?

    The Night of the Long Knives allowed Hitler to purge his political opponents, consolidate his power, and establish himself as the all-powerful dictator of Nazi Germany.

    Who died in the night of the long knives?

    The Night of the Long Knives saw the murder of SA members as well as anyone whom Hitler perceived as a political opponent. 

    How did the night of the long knives affect Germany?

    The Night of the Long Knives saw Hitler consolidate absolute power in Nazi Germany and establish himself as the supreme judge of the German people.

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