Night of the Long Knives
Night of the Long Knives (German: Nacht der langen
Messer (help·info)), also called Operation Hummingbird (German:
Unternehmen Kolibri) or, in Germany, the Röhm Putsch[a] (German
spelling: Röhm-Putsch), was a purge that took place in Nazi Germany
from June 30 to July 2, 1934, when the National Socialist German
Workers Party, or Nazis, carried out a series of political
extrajudicial executions intended to consolidate Adolf Hitler's
absolute hold on power in Germany. Many of those killed were leaders
Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazis' own paramilitary organization,
colloquially known as the "Brownshirts" due to the color of their
uniforms. The best-known victim of the purge was Ernst Röhm, the SA's
leader and one of Hitler's longtime supporters and allies. Leading
members of the left-wing Strasserist faction of the Nazi Party,
including its figurehead, Gregor Strasser, were also killed, as were
establishment conservatives and anti-Nazis, such as former Chancellor
Kurt von Schleicher
Kurt von Schleicher and Bavarian politician Gustav Ritter von Kahr,
who had suppressed Hitler's
Beer Hall Putsch
Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The
murders of SA leaders were also intended to improve the image of the
Hitler government with a German public that was increasingly critical
of thuggish Brownshirt tactics.
Hitler moved against the SA and its leader, Ernst Röhm, because he
saw the independence of the SA and the penchant of its members for
street violence as a direct threat to his newly gained political
power. Hitler also wanted to conciliate leaders of the Reichswehr, the
official German military who feared and despised the SA, in particular
Röhm's ambition to merge the
Reichswehr (German Army) and the SA
under his own leadership. Additionally, Hitler was uncomfortable with
Röhm's outspoken support for a "second revolution" to redistribute
wealth. In Röhm's view, President Hindenburg's appointing of Hitler
as German Chancellor on January 30, 1933, had accomplished the
"nationalistic" revolution but had left unfulfilled the "socialistic"
purpose of National Socialism. Finally, Hitler used the purge to
attack or eliminate German critics of his new regime, especially those
loyal to Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, as well as to settle scores
with old enemies.[b]
At least 85 people died during the purge, although the final death
toll may have been in the hundreds,[c][d][e] with high estimates
running from 700 to 1,000. More than a thousand perceived opponents
were arrested. Most of the killings were carried out by the
Schutzstaffel (SS) and the
Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei), the
regime's secret police. The purge strengthened and consolidated the
support of the
Reichswehr for Hitler. It also provided a legal
grounding for the Nazi regime, as the German courts and cabinet
quickly swept aside centuries of legal prohibition against
extrajudicial killings to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime. The
Night of the Long Knives
Night of the Long Knives was a turning point for the German
government. It established Hitler as the supreme administrator of
justice of the German people, as he put it in his July 13 speech to
Before its execution, its planners sometimes referred to the purge as
Hummingbird (German: Kolibri), the codeword used to send the execution
squads into action on the day of the purge. The codename for the
operation appears to have been chosen arbitrarily. The phrase "Night
of the Long Knives" in the
German language predates the killings and
refers generally to acts of vengeance. German historians still largely
use the term Röhm-Putsch to describe the killings, the term given to
it by the Nazi regime, despite its unproven implication that the
executions were necessary to prevent a coup. Authors often use
quotation marks or write about the sogenannter Röhm-Putsch
("so-called Röhm Putsch") for emphasis.
1 Hitler and the
2 Conflict between the army and the SA
3 Growing pressure against the SA
4 Heydrich and Himmler
5.1 Against conservatives and old enemies
5.2 Röhm's fate
7 SA leadership
8 See also
10 External links
Hitler and the
Hitler posing in
Nuremberg with SA members in 1928. Julius Streicher
is to the left of Hitler, and
Hermann Göring stands beneath Hitler
Paul von Hindenburg
Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor on January
30, 1933.[f] Over the next few months, during the so-called
Gleichschaltung, Hitler dispensed with the need for the Reichstag of
Weimar Republic as a legislative body[g] and eliminated all rival
political parties in Germany, so that by the middle of 1933 the
country had become a one-party state under his direction and control.
Hitler did not exercise absolute power, however, despite his swift
consolidation of political authority. As chancellor, Hitler did not
command the army, which remained under the formal leadership of
Hindenburg, a highly respected veteran field marshal. While many
officers were impressed by Hitler's promises of an expanded army, a
return to conscription, and a more aggressive foreign policy, the army
continued to guard its traditions of independence during the early
years of the Nazi regime.
To a lesser extent, the
Sturmabteilung (SA), a Nazi paramilitary
organisation, remained somewhat autonomous within the party. The SA
evolved out of the remnants of the
Freikorps movement of the
World War I
World War I years. The
Freikorps were nationalistic organisations
primarily composed of disaffected, disenchanted, and angry German
combat veterans founded by the government in January 1919 to deal with
the threat of a Communist revolution when it appeared that there was a
lack of loyal troops. A very large number of the
that the November Revolution had betrayed them when Germany was
alleged to be on the verge of victory in 1918. Hence, the Freikorps
were in opposition to the new Weimar Republic, which was born as a
result of the November Revolution, and whose founders were
contemptuously called "November criminals." Captain
Ernst Röhm of the
Reichswehr served as the liaison with the Bavarian Freikorps. Röhm
was given the nickname "The Machine Gun King of Bavaria" in the early
1920s, since he was responsible for storing and issuing illegal
machine guns to the Bavarian
Freikorps units. Röhm left the
Reichswehr in 1923 and later became commander of the SA. During the
1920s and 1930s, the SA functioned as a private militia used by Hitler
to intimidate rivals and disrupt the meetings of competing political
parties, especially those of the Social Democrats and the Communists.
Also known as the "brownshirts" or "stormtroopers," the SA became
notorious for their street battles with the Communists. The violent
confrontations between the two contributed to the destabilisation of
Germany's inter-war experiment with democracy, the Weimar Republic.
In June 1932, one of the worst months of political violence, there
were more than 400 street battles, resulting in 82 deaths.
Hitler's appointment as chancellor, followed by the suppression of all
political parties except the Nazis, did not end the violence of the
stormtroopers. Deprived of Communist party meetings to disrupt, the
stormtroopers would sometimes run riot in the streets after a night of
drinking. They would attack passers-by, and then attack the police who
were called to stop them. Complaints of "overbearing and loutish"
behaviour by stormtroopers became common by the middle of 1933. The
Foreign Office even complained of instances where brownshirts
manhandled foreign diplomats.
Hitler's move would be to strengthen his position with the army by
moving against its nemesis, the SA. On July 6, 1933, at a
gathering of high-ranking Nazi officials, Hitler declared the success
of the National Socialist, or Nazi, brown revolution. Now that the
NSDAP had seized the reins of power in Germany, he said, it was time
to consolidate its control. Hitler told the gathered officials, "The
stream of revolution has been undammed, but it must be channelled into
the secure bed of evolution."
Hitler's speech signalled his intention to rein in the SA, whose ranks
had grown rapidly in the early 1930s. This would not prove to be
simple, however, as the SA made up a large part of Nazism's most
devoted followers. The SA traced its dramatic rise in numbers in part
to the onset of the Great Depression, when many German citizens lost
both their jobs and their faith in traditional institutions. While
Nazism was not exclusively – or even primarily – a
working class phenomenon, the SA fulfilled the yearning of many
unemployed workers for class solidarity and nationalist fervour.[h]
Many stormtroopers believed in the socialist promise of National
Socialism and expected the Nazi regime to take more radical economic
action, such as breaking up the vast landed estates of the
aristocracy. When the Nazi regime did not take such steps, those who
had expected an economic as well as a political revolution were
Conflict between the army and the SA
Ernst Röhm in
Bavaria in 1934
No one in the SA spoke more loudly for "a continuation of the German
revolution" (as one prominent stormtrooper put it) than Röhm.[j]
Röhm, as one of the earliest members of the Nazi Party, had
participated in the
Munich Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt by Hitler to
seize power by force in 1923. A combat veteran of World War I, Röhm
had recently boasted that he would execute 12 men in retaliation for
the killing of any stormtrooper. Röhm saw violence as a means to
political ends. He took seriously the socialist promise of National
Socialism, and demanded that Hitler and the other party leaders
initiate wide-ranging socialist reform in Germany.
Not content solely with the leadership of the SA, Röhm lobbied Hitler
to appoint him Minister of Defence, a position held by the
General Werner von Blomberg. Although nicknamed the
"Rubber Lion" by some of his critics in the army for his devotion to
Hitler, Blomberg was not a Nazi, and therefore represented a bridge
between the army and the party. Blomberg and many of his fellow
officers were recruited from the Prussian nobility, and regarded the
SA as a plebeian rabble that threatened the army's traditional high
status in German society.
If the regular army showed contempt for the masses belonging to the
SA, many stormtroopers returned the feeling, seeing the army as
insufficiently committed to the National Socialist revolution. Max
Heydebreck, an SA leader in Rummelsburg, denounced the army to his
fellow brownshirts, telling them, "Some of the officers of the army
are swine. Most officers are too old and have to be replaced by young
ones. We want to wait till Papa Hindenburg is dead, and then the SA
will march against the army."
Despite such hostility between the brownshirts and the regular army,
Blomberg and others in the military saw the SA as a source of raw
recruits for an enlarged and revitalised army. Röhm, however, wanted
to eliminate the generalship of the Prussian aristocracy altogether,
using the SA to become the core of a new German military. Limited by
Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles to one hundred thousand soldiers, army
leaders watched anxiously as membership in the SA surpassed three
million men by the beginning of 1934. In January 1934, Röhm
presented Blomberg with a memorandum demanding that the SA replace the
regular army as the nation's ground forces, and that the Reichswehr
become a training adjunct to the SA.
In response, Hitler met Blomberg and the leadership of the SA and SS
on February 28, 1934. Under pressure from Hitler, Röhm reluctantly
signed a pledge stating that he recognised the supremacy of the
Reichswehr over the SA. Hitler announced to those present that the SA
would act as an auxiliary to the Reichswehr, not the other way around.
After Hitler and most of the army officers had left, however, Röhm
declared that he would not take instructions from "the ridiculous
corporal" – a demeaning reference to Hitler. While Hitler
did not take immediate action against Röhm for his intemperate
outburst, it nonetheless deepened the rift between them.
Growing pressure against the SA
Franz von Papen, the conservative vice-chancellor who ran afoul of
Hitler after denouncing the regime's failure to rein in the SA in his
Marburg speech. (Picture taken 1946 at the
Despite his earlier agreement with Hitler, Röhm still clung to his
vision of a new German army with the SA at its core. By early 1934,
this vision directly conflicted with Hitler's plan to consolidate
power and expand the Reichswehr. Because their plans for the army
conflicted, Röhm's success could only come at Hitler's expense.
Moreover, it was not just the
Reichswehr that viewed the SA as a
threat. Several of Hitler's lieutenants feared Röhm's growing power
and restlessness, as did Hitler. As a result, a political struggle
within the party grew, with those closest to Hitler, including
Prussian premier Hermann Göring, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels,
Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, and Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess,
positioning themselves against Röhm. While all of these men were
veterans of the Nazi movement, only Röhm continued to demonstrate his
independence from, rather than his loyalty to, Adolf Hitler. Röhm's
contempt for the party's bureaucracy angered Hess. SA violence in
Prussia gravely concerned Göring, Minister-President of Prussia.
Finally in the spring of 1934, the growing rift between Röhm and
Hitler over the role of the SA in the Nazi state led the former
General Kurt von Schleicher, to start playing politics
again. Schleicher criticised the current Hitler cabinet while some
of Schleicher's followers such as
Ferdinand von Bredow
Ferdinand von Bredow and
Werner von Alvensleben
Werner von Alvensleben started passing along lists of a new Hitler
Cabinet in which Schleicher would become Vice-Chancellor, Röhm
Minister of Defence,
Heinrich Brüning Foreign Minister and Gregor
Strasser Minister of National Economy. The British historian Sir
John Wheeler-Bennett, who knew Schleicher and his circle well, wrote
that Bredow displayed a "lack of discretion" that was "terrifying" as
he went about showing the list of the proposed cabinet to anyone who
was interested. Although Schleicher was in fact unimportant by
1934, increasingly wild rumours that he was scheming with Röhm to
reenter the corridors of power helped stoke the sense of crisis.
As a means of isolating Röhm, on April 20, 1934, Göring transferred
control of the Prussian political police (Gestapo) to Himmler, who,
Göring believed, could be counted on to move against Röhm.
Himmler envied the independence and power of the SA, although by this
time he and his deputy
Reinhard Heydrich had already begun
restructuring the SS from a bodyguard formation for Nazi leaders (and
a subset of the SA) into its own independent elite corps, one loyal to
both himself and Hitler. The loyalty of the SS men would prove useful
to both when Hitler finally chose to move against Röhm and the SA. By
May, lists of those to be "liquidated" started to circulate amongst
Göring and Himmler's people, who engaged in a trade, adding enemies
of one in exchange for sparing friends of the other. At the end of
May two former Chancellors,
Heinrich Brüning and Kurt von Schleicher,
received warnings from friends in the
Reichswehr that their lives were
in danger and they should leave Germany at once. Brüning fled to
the Netherlands while Schleicher dismissed the tip-off as a bad
practical joke. By the beginning of June everything was set and
all that was needed was permission from Hitler.
Demands for Hitler to constrain the SA strengthened. Conservatives in
the army, industry, and politics placed Hitler under increasing
pressure to reduce the influence of the SA and to move against Röhm.
While Röhm's homosexuality did not endear him to conservatives, they
were more concerned about his political ambitions. Hitler for his part
remained indecisive and uncertain about just what precisely he wanted
to do when he left for Venice to meet
Benito Mussolini on June 15.
Before Hitler left, and at the request of Presidential State Secretary
Otto Meißner, Foreign Minister Baron
Konstantin von Neurath
Konstantin von Neurath ordered
the German Ambassador to Italy Ulrich von Hassell — without
Hitler's knowledge — to ask Mussolini to tell Hitler that the
SA was blackening Germany's good name. Neurath's manoeuvre to put
pressure on Hitler paid off, with Mussolini agreeing to the request
(Neurath was a former ambassador to Italy, and knew Mussolini
well). During the summit in Venice, Mussolini upbraided Hitler for
tolerating the violence, hooliganism, and homosexuality of the SA,
which Mussolini stated were ruining Hitler's good reputation all over
the world. Mussolini used the affair occasioned by the murder of
Giacomo Matteotti as an example of the kind of trouble unruly
followers could cause a dictator. While Mussolini's criticism did
not win Hitler over to acting against the SA, it helped push him in
On June 17, 1934, conservative demands for Hitler to act came to a
head when Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, confidant of the ailing
Hindenburg, gave a speech at Marburg University warning of the threat
of a "second revolution." Privately according to his memoirs, von
Papen, a Catholic aristocrat with ties to army and industry,
threatened to resign if Hitler did not act. While von Papen's
resignation as vice-chancellor would not have threatened Hitler's
position, it would have nonetheless been an embarrassing display of
independence from a leading conservative.
Heydrich and Himmler
SS-Brigadeführer Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Bavarian police and
SD, in Munich, 1934
In response to conservative pressure to constrain Röhm, Hitler left
for Neudeck to meet with Hindenburg. Blomberg, who had been meeting
with the President, uncharacteristically reproached Hitler for not
having moved against Röhm earlier. He then told Hitler that
Hindenburg was close to declaring martial law and turning the
government over to the
Reichswehr if Hitler did not take immediate
steps against Röhm and his brownshirts. Hitler had hesitated for
months in moving against Röhm, in part due to Röhm's visibility as
the leader of a national militia with millions of members. However,
the threat of a declaration of martial law from Hindenburg, the only
person in Germany with the authority to potentially depose the Nazi
regime, put Hitler under pressure to act. He left Neudeck with the
intention of both destroying Röhm and settling scores with old
enemies. Both Himmler and Göring welcomed Hitler's decision, since
both had much to gain by Röhm's downfall – the independence of
the SS for Himmler, and the removal of a rival for the future command
of the army for Göring.
In preparation for the purge, both Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich,
chief of the SS Security Service, assembled a dossier of manufactured
evidence to suggest that Röhm had been paid 12 million Reichsmark
(EUR 48.2 million in 2018) by France to overthrow Hitler. Leading
officers in the SS were shown falsified evidence on June 24 that Röhm
planned to use the SA to launch a plot against the government
(Röhm-Putsch). At Hitler's direction, Göring, Himmler, Heydrich,
and Victor Lutze drew up lists of people in and outside the SA to be
killed. One of the men Göring recruited to assist him was Willi
Gestapo official and
NKVD spy. On June 25,
von Fritsch placed the
Reichswehr on the highest level of alert.
On June 27, Hitler moved to secure the army's cooperation.
General Walther von Reichenau, the army's liaison to the
party, gave it to him by expelling Röhm from the German Officers'
League. On June 28 Hitler went to
Essen to attend a wedding
celebration and reception; from there he called Röhm's adjutant at
Bad Wiessee and ordered SA leaders to meet with him on June 30 at
11h. On June 29, a signed article in
Völkischer Beobachter by
Blomberg appeared in which Blomberg stated with great fervour that the
Reichswehr stood behind Hitler.
August Schneidhuber, the chief of the
Further information: Victims of the Night of the Long Knives
At about 04:30 on June 30, 1934, Hitler and his entourage flew into
Munich. From the airport they drove to the Bavarian Interior Ministry,
where they assembled the leaders of an SA rampage that had taken place
in city streets the night before. Enraged, Hitler tore the epaulets
off the shirt of Obergruppenführer August Schneidhuber, the chief of
Munich police, for failing to keep order in the city on the
previous night. Hitler shouted at Schneidhuber and accused him of
treachery. Schneidhuber was executed later that day. As the
stormtroopers were hustled off to prison, Hitler assembled a large
group of SS and regular police, and departed for the Hanselbauer Hotel
in Bad Wiessee, where
Ernst Röhm and his followers were staying.
Hotel Lederer am See (former Kurheim Hanselbauer) in Bad Wiessee
before its planned demolition in 2017.
With Hitler's arrival in
Bad Wiessee between 06:00 and 07:00, the SA
leadership, still in bed, were taken by surprise. SS men stormed the
hotel and Hitler personally placed Röhm and other high-ranking SA
leaders under arrest. According to Erich Kempka, Hitler turned Röhm
over to "two detectives holding pistols with the safety catch
removed." The SS found
Breslau SA leader
Edmund Heines in bed with an
unidentified eighteen-year-old male SA senior troop leader.
Goebbels emphasised this aspect in subsequent propaganda justifying
the purge as a crackdown on moral turpitude. Hitler ordered both
Heines and his partner taken outside of the hotel and shot.
Meanwhile, the SS arrested the other SA leaders as they left their
train for the planned meeting with Röhm and Hitler.
Although Hitler presented no evidence of a plot by Röhm to overthrow
the regime, he nevertheless denounced the leadership of the SA.
Arriving back at party headquarters in Munich, Hitler addressed the
assembled crowd. Consumed with rage, Hitler denounced "the worst
treachery in world history." Hitler told the crowd that "undisciplined
and disobedient characters and asocial or diseased elements" would be
annihilated. The crowd, which included party members and many SA
members fortunate enough to escape arrest, shouted its approval. Hess,
present among the assembled, even volunteered to shoot the
"traitors." Joseph Goebbels, who had been with Hitler at Bad
Wiessee, set the final phase of the plan in motion. Upon returning to
Berlin, Goebbels telephoned Göring at 10:00 with the codeword Kolibri
to let loose the execution squads on the rest of their unsuspecting
Sepp Dietrich received orders from Hitler for the
Leibstandarte to form an "execution squad" and go to Stadelheim prison
where certain SA leaders were being held. There in the prison
Leibstandarte firing squad shot five SA generals and an
SA colonel. Those not immediately executed were taken back to the
Leibstandarte barracks at Lichterfelde, given one-minute "trials", and
shot by a firing squad.
Against conservatives and old enemies
General Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler's predecessor as Chancellor, in
Gregor Strasser in 1928
Willi Schmid, a mistaken victim of the purge, in 1930
The regime did not limit itself to a purge of the SA. Having earlier
imprisoned or exiled prominent Social Democrats and Communists, Hitler
used the occasion to move against conservatives he considered
unreliable. This included Vice-Chancellor Papen and those in his
immediate circle. In Berlin, on Göring's personal orders, an armed SS
unit stormed the Vice-Chancellery.
Gestapo officers attached to the SS
unit shot Papen's secretary
Herbert von Bose
Herbert von Bose without bothering to
arrest him first. The
Gestapo arrested and later executed Papen's
close associate Edgar Jung, the author of Papen's Marburg speech, and
disposed of his body by dumping it in a ditch. The
murdered Erich Klausener, the leader of Catholic Action, and a close
Papen associate. Papen was unceremoniously arrested at the
Vice-Chancellery, despite his insistent protests that he could not be
arrested in his position as Vice-Chancellor. Although Hitler ordered
him released days later, Papen no longer dared to criticise the regime
and was sent off to Vienna as German ambassador.
Hitler and Himmler unleashed the
Gestapo against old enemies, as well.
Both Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler's predecessor as Chancellor, and his
wife were murdered at their home. Others killed included Gregor
Strasser, a former Nazi who had angered Hitler by resigning from the
party in 1932, and Gustav Ritter von Kahr, the former Bavarian state
commissioner who crushed the
Beer Hall Putsch
Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Kahr's fate
was especially gruesome. His body was found in a wood outside Munich;
he had been hacked to death, apparently with pickaxes. The murdered
included at least one accidental victim: Willi Schmid, the music
critic of the Münchner Neuste Nachrichten newspaper. As
Karl Wolff later explained, friendship and personal
loyalty were not allowed to stand in the way:
Among others, a charming fellow [named] Karl von Spreti, Röhm's
personal adjutant. He held the same position with Röhm as I held with
Himmler. [He] died with words "Heil Hitler" on his lips. We were close
personal friends, we often dined together in Berlin. He lifted his arm
Nazi salute and called out "Heil Hitler, I love Germany."
Some SA members died saying "Heil Hitler" because they believed that
an anti-Hitler SS plot had led to their execution. Several leaders
of the disbanded Catholic Centre Party were also murdered in the
purge. The Party had generally been aligned with the Social Democrats
and Catholic Church during the rise of Nazism, being critical of Nazi
ideology, but voting nonetheless for the
Enabling Act of 1933
Enabling Act of 1933 which
granted Hitler dictatorial authority. 
Röhm was held briefly at Stadelheim Prison[k] in Munich, while Hitler
considered his future. In the end, Hitler decided that Röhm had to
die. On July 1, at Hitler's behest, Theodor Eicke, Commandant of the
Dachau concentration camp, and his SS adjutant Michel Lippert visited
Röhm. Once inside Röhm's cell, they handed him a Browning pistol
loaded with a single bullet and told him he had ten minutes to kill
himself or they would do it for him. Röhm demurred, telling them, "If
I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself." Having heard nothing
in the allotted time, they returned to Röhm's cell at 14:50 to find
him standing, with his bare chest puffed out in a gesture of
defiance. Eicke and Lippert then shot Röhm, killing him. In
1957, the German authorities tried Lippert in
Munich for Röhm's
murder. Until then, Lippert had been one of the few executioners of
the purge to evade trial. Lippert was convicted and sentenced to 18
months in prison.
Hitler triumphant: The
Führer reviewing the SA in 1935. In the car
with Hitler: the Blutfahne, behind the car SS-man Jakob Grimminger
As the purge claimed the lives of so many prominent Germans, it could
hardly be kept secret. At first, its architects seemed split on how to
handle the event. Göring instructed police stations to burn "all
documents concerning the action of the past two days." Meanwhile,
Goebbels tried to prevent newspapers from publishing lists of the
dead, but at the same time used a July 2 radio address to describe how
Hitler had narrowly prevented Röhm and Schleicher from overthrowing
the government and throwing the country into turmoil. Then, on
July 13, 1934, Hitler justified the purge in a nationally broadcast
speech to the Reichstag:
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 of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the
ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterise
down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our
domestic life. Let the nation know that its existence—which depends
on its internal order and security—cannot be threatened with
impunity by anyone! And let it be known for all time to come that if
anyone raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his
Concerned with presenting the massacre as legally sanctioned, Hitler
had the cabinet approve a measure on July 3 that declared, "The
measures taken on June 30, July 1 and 2 to suppress treasonous
assaults are legal as acts of self-defence by the State." Reich
Justice Minister Franz Gürtner, a conservative who had been Bavarian
Justice Minister in the years of the Weimar Republic, demonstrated his
loyalty to the new regime by drafting the statute, which added a legal
veneer to the purge.[l] Signed into law by Hitler, Gürtner, and
Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick, the "Law Regarding Measures of
State Self-Defence" retroactively legalised the murders committed
during the purge. Germany's legal establishment further
capitulated to the regime when the country's leading legal scholar,
Carl Schmitt, wrote an article defending Hitler's July 13 speech. It
was named "The
Führer Upholds the Law."
Law Relating to National Emergency Defense Measures July 3, 1934.
Almost unanimously, the army applauded the Night of the Long Knives,
even though the generals
Kurt von Schleicher
Kurt von Schleicher and Ferdinand von Bredow
were among the victims. The ailing President Hindenburg, Germany's
highly revered military hero, sent a telegram expressing his
"profoundly felt gratitude" and congratulated Hitler for "nipping
treason in the bud."
General von Reichenau went so far as to
publicly give credence to the lie that Schleicher had been plotting to
overthrow the government. In his speech to the Reichstag on July 13
justifying his actions, Hitler denounced Schleicher for conspiring
Ernst Röhm to overthrow the government; Hitler alleged both were
traitors working in the pay of France. Since Schleicher was a good
friend of the French Ambassador André François-Poncet, and because
of his reputation for intrigue, the claim that Schleicher was working
for France had enough surface plausibility for most
Germans to accept
it. François-Poncet was not declared persona non grata as would
have been usual if an ambassador were involved in a plot against his
host government. The army's support for the purge, however, would have
far-reaching consequences for the institution. The humbling of the SA
ended the threat it had posed to the army but, by standing by Hitler
during the purge, the army bound itself more tightly to the Nazi
regime. One retired captain, Erwin Planck, seemed to realise this:
"If you look on without lifting a finger," he said to his friend,
General Werner von Fritsch, "you will meet the same fate sooner or
later." Another rare exception was Field Marshal August von
Mackensen, who spoke about the murders of Schleicher and Bredow at the
General Staff Society meeting in February 1935 after they had
been rehabilitated by Hitler in early January 1935.
Election poster for Hindenburg in 1932 (translation: "With him")
Rumours about the
Night of the Long Knives
Night of the Long Knives rapidly spread. Although
Germans approached the official news of the events as described
Joseph Goebbels with a great deal of scepticism, many others took
the regime at its word, and believed that Hitler had saved Germany
from a descent into chaos.[m] Luise Solmitz, a
echoed the sentiments of many
Germans when she cited Hitler's
"personal courage, decisiveness and effectiveness" in her private
diary. She even compared him to Frederick the Great, the 18th-century
King of Prussia.
Others were appalled at the scale of the executions and at the
relative complacency of many of their fellow Germans. "A very calm and
easy going mailman," the diarist
Victor Klemperer wrote, "who is not
at all National Socialist, said, 'Well, he simply sentenced them.'" It
did not escape Klemperer's notice that many of the victims had played
a role in bringing Hitler to power. "A chancellor," he wrote,
"sentences and shoots members of his own private army!" The extent
of the massacre and the relative ubiquity of the Gestapo, however,
meant that those who disapproved of the purge generally kept quiet
Among the few exceptions were
Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord and
Field Marshal August von Mackensen, who started a campaign to have
Schleicher rehabilitated by Hitler. Hammerstein, who was a close
friend of Schleicher, had been much offended at Schleicher's funeral
when the SS refused to allow him to attend the service and confiscated
the wreaths that the mourners had brought. Besides working for the
rehabilitation of Schleicher and Bredow, Hammerstein and Mackensen
sent a memo to Hindenburg on July 18 setting out in considerable
detail the circumstances of the murders of the two generals and noted
that Papen had barely escaped. The memo went on to demand that
Hindenburg punish those responsible, and criticised Blomberg for his
outspoken support of the murders of Schleicher and Bredow.
Finally, Hammerstein and Mackensen asked that Hindenburg reorganise
the government by firing Baron Konstantin von Neurath, Robert Ley,
Hermann Göring, Werner von Blomberg,
Joseph Goebbels and Richard
Walther Darré from the Cabinet. Instead, the memo asked that
Hindenburg create a directorate to rule Germany comprising the
Chancellor (who was not named),
Werner von Fritsch
Werner von Fritsch as
Vice-Chancellor, Hammerstein as Minister of Defense, the Minister for
National Economy (also unnamed) and
Rudolf Nadolny as Foreign
Minister. The request that Neurath be replaced by Nadolny, the
former Ambassador to Moscow who had resigned earlier that year in
protest against Hitler's anti-Soviet foreign policy, indicated that
Hammerstein and Mackensen wanted a return to the "distant
friendliness" towards the Soviet Union that existed until 1933.
Mackensen and Hammerstein ended their memo with:
Excellency, the gravity of the moment has compelled us to appeal to
you as our Supreme Commander. The destiny of our country is at stake.
Your Excellency has thrice before saved Germany from foundering, at
Tannenberg, at the end of the War and at the moment of your election
as Reich President. Excellency, save Germany for the fourth time! The
undersigned Generals and senior officers swear to preserve to the last
breath their loyalty to you and the Fatherland.
Hindenburg never responded to the memo, and it remains unclear whether
he even saw it, as Otto Meißner, who decided that his future was
aligned with the Nazis, may not have passed it along. It is
noteworthy that even those officers who were most offended by the
killings, like Hammerstein and Mackensen, did not blame the purge on
Hitler, whom they wanted to see continue as Chancellor, and at most
wanted a reorganization of the Cabinet to remove some of Hitler's more
Werner von Blomberg
Werner von Blomberg in 1934
In late 1934–early 1935,
Werner von Fritsch
Werner von Fritsch and Werner von Blomberg,
who had been shamed into joining Hammerstein and Mackensen's
rehabilitation campaign, successfully pressured Hitler into
rehabilitating Generals von Schleicher and von Bredow. Fritsch and
Blomberg suddenly now claimed at the end of 1934 that as army officers
they could not stand the exceedingly violent press attacks on
Schleicher and Bredow that had been going on since July, which
portrayed them as the vilest traitors, working against the Fatherland
in the pay of France. In a speech given on January 3, 1935 at the
Berlin State Opera, Hitler stated that Schleicher and Bredow had been
shot "in error" on the basis of false information, and that their
names were to be restored to the honour rolls of their regiments at
once. Hitler's speech was not reported in the German press, but
the army was appeased by the speech. However, despite the
rehabilitation of the two murdered officers, the Nazis continued in
private to accuse Schleicher of high treason. During a trip to Warsaw
in January 1935, Göring told Jan Szembek that Schleicher had urged
Hitler in January 1933 to reach an understanding with France and the
Soviet Union, and partition Poland with the latter, and Hitler had
Schleicher killed out of disgust with the alleged advice. During a
meeting with Polish Ambassador
Józef Lipski on May 22, 1935, Hitler
told Lipski that Schleicher was "rightfully murdered, if only because
he had sought to maintain the Rapallo Treaty." The statements that
Schleicher had been killed because he wanted to partition Poland with
the Soviet Union were later published in the Polish White Book of
1939, which was a collection of diplomatic documents detailing
German–Polish relations up to the outbreak of the war.
Former Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was in exile in Doorn, Netherlands, was
horrified by the purge. He asked, "What would people have said if I
had done such a thing?" Hearing of the murder of former Chancellor
Kurt von Schleicher
Kurt von Schleicher and his wife, he also commented, "We have ceased
to live under the rule of law and everyone must be prepared for the
possibility that the Nazis will push their way in and put them up
against the wall!"
Viktor Lutze to replace Röhm as head of the SA. Hitler
ordered him, as one prominent historian described it, to put an end to
"homosexuality, debauchery, drunkenness, and high living" in the
SA. Hitler expressly told him to stop SA funds from being spent on
limousines and banquets, which he considered evidence of SA
extravagance. Lutze did little to assert the SA's independence in
the coming years, and the SA lost its power in Germany. Membership in
the organisation plummeted from 2.9 million in August 1934 to 1.2
million in April 1938.
According to Speer, "the Right, represented by the President, the
Minister of Justice, and the generals, lined up behind Hitler ...
the strong left wing of the party, represented chiefly by the SA, was
Night of the Long Knives
Night of the Long Knives represented a triumph for Hitler, and a
turning point for the German government. It established Hitler as "the
supreme leader of the German people", as he put it in his July 13
speech to the Reichstag. Hitler formally adopted this title in April
1942, thus placing himself de jure as well as de facto above the reach
of the law. Centuries of jurisprudence proscribing extrajudicial
killings were swept aside. Despite some initial efforts by local
prosecutors to take legal action against those who carried out the
murders, which the regime rapidly quashed, it appeared that no law
would constrain Hitler in his use of power.[n] The Night of the Long
Knives also sent a clear message to the public that even the most
Germans were not immune from arrest or even summary
execution should the Nazi regime perceive them as a threat. In this
manner, the purge established a pattern of violence that would
characterise the Nazi regime.
Röhm was purged from all Nazi propaganda, such as The Victory of
Leni Riefenstahl film about the 1933
Nuremberg rally, which
showed Röhm frequently alongside of Hitler, although a copy of the
original survived and was found in the United Kingdom many years
The Damned (1969 film)
Glossary of Nazi Germany
Nazi Party leaders and officials
Der Sieg des Glaubens
Victims of the Night of the Long Knives
White Book of the Purge
^ Putsch is a German word meaning to overthrow a government by force;
^ Papen, nonetheless, remained in his position although people quite
close to him were murdered.
^ "At least eighty-five people are known to have been summarily killed
without any formal legal proceedings being taken against them. Göring
alone had over a thousand people arrested." Evans 2005, p. 39.
^ "The names of eighty-five victims [exist], only fifty of them SA
men. Some estimates, however, put the total number killed at between
150 and 200." Kershaw 1999, p. 517.
^ Johnson places the total at 150 killed. Johnson 1991, p. 298.
^ In the November 1932 parliamentary elections, the
Nazi Party won 196
seats in the Reichstag out of a possible 584. The Nazis were the
largest party in the legislature but were still considerably short of
^ Through the
Enabling Act of 1933
Enabling Act of 1933 Hitler abrogated the nation's
legislative power and was thereafter effectively able to rule through
promulgation of decrees that avoided the legislative processes of the
^ "The most general theory—that National
Socialism was a revolution
of the lower middle class—is defensible but inadequate." Schoenbaum
1997, pp. 35–42.
^ "But in origin the National Socialists had been a radical
anti-capitalist party, and this part of the National Socialist
programme was not only taken seriously by many loyal Party members but
was of increasing importance in a period of economic depression. How
seriously Hitler took the socialist character of National Socialism
was to remain one of the main causes of disagreement and division
within the Nazi party up to the summer of 1934." Bullock 1958,
^ The quote is attributed to
Breslau SA Chief Edmund Heines. Frei
1987, p. 126.
^ Coincidentally, Hitler had been incarcerated at Stadelheim Prison
for about five weeks following the Nazi's disruption of an opposing
party's political rally in January 1921.
^ Gürtner also declared in cabinet that the measure did not in fact
create any new law, but simply confirmed the existing law. If that was
indeed true then, as a legal matter, the law was entirely unnecessary
and redundant. Kershaw 1999, p. 518
^ "It was plain that there was wide acceptance of the deliberately
misleading propaganda put out by the regime." Kershaw 2001,
^ "After the 'Night of the Long Knives,' [Reich Minister for Justice
Franz Gürtner] nipped in the bud the attempts of some local state
prosecutors to initiate proceedings against the killers." Evans 2005,
^ Larson, Erik (2011)
In the Garden of Beasts
In the Garden of Beasts New York: Broadway
Paperbacks p. 314 ISBN 978-0-307-40885-3; citing:
- memoranda in the W. E. Dodd papers;
- Wheeler-Bennett, John W. (1953) The Nemesis of Power: The German
Army in Politics 1918-1945, London: Macmillan p. 323;
- Gallo, Max (1972) The
Night of the Long Knives
Night of the Long Knives New York: Harper
& Row, pp. 256, 258;
- Rürup, Reinhard (ed.) (1996) Topography of Terror: SS,
Reichssichherheitshauptamt on the "Prinz-Albrecht-Terrain", A
Documentation Berlin: Verlag Willmuth Arenhovel, pp. 53, 223;
- Kershaw Hubris p. 515;
- Evans (2005), pp. 34–36;
- Strasser, Otto and Stern, Michael (1943) Flight from Terror New
York: Robert M. McBride, pp. 252, 263;
- Gisevius, Hans Bernd (1947) To the Bitter End New York: Houghton
Mifflin, p. 153;
- Metcalfe, Phillip (1988) 1933 Sag Harbor, New York: Permanent Press,
^ a b Evans 2005, p. 39.
^ Johnson 1991, pp. 298–299.
^ Kershaw 1999, p. 515.
^ Reiche 2002, pp. 120–121.
^ Toland 1976, p. 266.
^ Shirer 1960, p. 165.
^ Evans 2005, p. 23.
^ Kershaw 1999, p. 501.
^ Kershaw 1999, p. 435.
^ Evans 2005, p. 20.
^ Frei 1987, p. 13.
^ Evans 2005, p. 24.
^ Wheeler-Bennett 2005, pp. 712–739.
^ Bessel 1984, p. 97.
^ Evans 2005, p. 22.
^ Wheeler-Bennett 2005, p. 726.
^ Evans 2005, p. 26.
^ Collier & Pedley 2005, p. 33.
^ a b Wheeler-Bennett 1967, pp. 315–316.
^ Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 316.
^ a b c d e Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 317.
^ Evans 2005, p. 29.
^ Wheeler-Bennett 1967, pp. 317–318.
^ a b c d Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 318.
^ Von Papen 1953, pp. 308–312.
^ Von Papen 1953, p. 309.
^ Wheeler-Bennett 2005, pp. 319–320.
^ a b Evans 2005, p. 31.
^ Evans 2005, p. 30.
^ Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 321.
^ O'Neill 1967, pp. 72–80.
^ Bullock 1958, p. 165.
^ Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 322.
^ a b c d Shirer 1960, p. 221.
^ Bullock 1958, p. 166.
^ Kempka 1971.
^ a b c Kershaw 1999, p. 514.
^ a b Evans 2005, p. 32.
^ Cook & Bender 1994, pp. 22, 23.
^ Cook & Bender 1994, p. 23.
^ a b c Gunther, John (1940). Inside Europe. New York: Harper &
Brothers. pp. 51, 57.
^ Evans 2005, p. 34.
^ Evans 2005, pp. 33–34.
^ Spielvogel 1996, pp. 78–79.
^ a b Evans 2005, p. 36.
^ The Waffen-SS 2002.
^ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
^ Evans 2005, p. 33.
^ Kershaw 2008, p. 312.
^ Kershaw 1999, p. 517.
^ Shirer 1960, p. 226.
^ Fest 1974, p. 469.
^ Fest 1974, p. 468.
^ Evans 2005, p. 72.
^ Kershaw 1999, p. 519.
^ Roderick Stackelberg, Sally A. Winkle, The
Nazi Germany Sourcebook:
An Anthology of Texts, p. 173
^ Fest 1974, p. 470.
^ a b c d e Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 327.
^ Collier & Pedley 2005, pp. 33–34.
^ Höhne 1970, pp. 113–118.
^ Schwarzmüller 1995, pp. 299–306.
^ Klemperer 1998, p. 74.
^ a b Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 328.
^ a b c d e f Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 329.
^ Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 330.
^ Wheeler-Bennett 1967, pp. 329–330.
^ a b Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 336.
^ a b Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 337.
^ a b Macdonogh 2001, pp. 452–53
^ a b Kershaw 1999, p. 520.
^ Evans 2005, p. 40.
^ Speer 1995, pp. 90-93.
Bessel, Richard (1984). Political Violence and the Rise of Nazism: The
Storm Troopers in Eastern Germany 1925–1934. New Haven: Yale
University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-03171-3.
Bullock, Alan (1958). Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York:
Collier, Martin; Pedley, Phillip (2005). Hitler and the Nazi State.
New York: Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-435-32709-5.
Cook, Stan; Bender, Roger James (1994).
Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler:
Uniforms, Organization, & History. San Jose, CA: James Bender
Publishing. ISBN 978-0-912138-55-8.
Evans, Richard (2005). The Third Reich in Power. New York: Penguin
Group. ISBN 978-0-14-303790-3.
Fest, Joachim (1974). Hitler. New York: Harcourt.
Frei, Norbert (1987). National Socialist Rule in Germany: The Führer
State 1933–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Höhne, Heinz (1970). The Order of the Death's Head: The Story of
Hitler's SS. New York: Coward-McCann.
Johnson, Paul (1991). Modern Times – the World from the Twenties to
the Nineties. New York City: HarperCollins.
Kempka, Erich (October 15, 1971). "
Erich Kempka interview". Library of
Adolf Hitler Collection, C-89, 9376-88A-B.
Kershaw, Ian (1999). Hitler: 1889–1936 Hubris. New York: W. W.
Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-32035-0.
Kershaw, Ian (2001). The "Hitler Myth": Image and Reality in the Third
Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kershaw, Ian (2008). Hitler: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton &
Company. ISBN 978-0-393-06757-6.
Klemperer, Victor (1998). I Will Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor
Klemperer. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-679-45696-4.
Macdonogh, Giles (2001). The Last Kaiser: William the Impetuous.
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-1-84212-478-9.
O'Neill, Robert (1967). The German Army and the Nazi Party
1933–1939. New York: James H. Heineman.
Reiche, Eric G. (2002). The Development of the SA in Nürnberg,
1922–1934. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schoenbaum, David (1997). Hitler's Social Revolution: Class and Status
in Nazi Germany, 1933–1939. W. W. Norton & Company.
Schwarzmüller, Theo (1995). Zwischen Kaiser und "Führer":
Generalfeldmarschall August von Mackensen, eine politische Biographie.
Dtv (in German). Paderborn. ISBN 978-3-423-30823-6.
Shirer, William L (1960). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New
York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-72868-7.
Speer, Albert (1995). Inside the Third Reich. London: Weidenfeld &
Nicolson. ISBN 978-1-84212-735-3.
Spielvogel, Jackson J. (1996). Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History. New
York: Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-189877-6.
Toland, John (1976). Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography. New York:
Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-42053-2.
Wheeler-Bennett, John (1967). The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in
Wheeler-Bennett, John (2005). The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in
Politics 1918–1945 (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.
Von Papen, Franz (1953). Memoirs. London: Dutton.
"Röhm-Putsch" (in German). Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM),
German Historical Museum. Retrieved 2012-05-15.
"The German Churches and the Nazi State". United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum. Retrieved 2015-06-06.
The Waffen-SS. Gladiators of World War II. World Media Rights.
Evans, Richard J. (2004). The Coming of the Third Reich. New York:
Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-14-303469-8.
Maracin, Paul (2004). The Night of the Long Knives: 48 Hours that
Changed the History of the World. New York: The Lyons Press.
Mau, Herman (1972). "The 'Second Revolution'—June 30, 1934". In
Holborn, Hajo. Republic to Reich: The Making of the Nazi Revolution.
New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 978-0-394-47122-8.
Tolstoy, Nikolai (1972). Night of the Long Knives. New York:
Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0-345-02787-0.
The History Place – Triumph of Hitler – Night of the
German Culture – The Third Reich – Consolidation of
The German Embassy in the United States – The Era of National
The Holocaust Museum – The Third Reich
Access related topics
Nazi Germany portal
Criminal justice portal
Human Rights portal
Find out more on's
National Socialist German Workers' Party
Anton Drexler (1919–1921)
Adolf Hitler (1921–1945)
Martin Bormann (1945)
Germany and World War I
Treaty of Versailles
Occupation of the Ruhr
German Workers' Party
National Socialist Program
Ranks and insignia
Beer Hall Putsch
Brown House, Munich
Adolf Hitler's rise to power
Night of the Long Knives
Enabling Act of 1933
Greater German Reich
World War II
Article 21 Paragraph 2 (de facto prohibition)
Anti-Semitism in Germany
NSDAP Office of Racial Policy
NSDAP Office of Foreign Affairs
NSDAP Office of Colonial Policy
NSDAP Office of Military Policy
Nazi Party Chancellery
Das Schwarze Korps
Joachim von Ribbentrop
Houston Stewart Chamberlain
Richard Walther Darré
Baldur von Schirach
Black Front (Strasserism) / German Social Union
Deutsche Rechtspartei (through entryism) /
Deutsche Reichspartei /
National Democratic Party of Germany
Socialist Reich Party
German Workers' Party
German Workers' Party (NSDAP)
Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo)
Hitler Youth (HJ)
National Socialist Flyers Corps
National Socialist Flyers Corps (NSFK)
National Socialist Motor Corps
National Socialist Motor Corps (NSKK)
League of German Girls
League of German Girls (BDM)
National Socialist League of the Reich for Physical Exercise
National Socialist League of the Reich for Physical Exercise (NSRL)
National Socialist Women's League
National Socialist Women's League (NSF)
Reich Labour Service
Reich Labour Service (RAD)
Adolf Hitler's rise to power
Night of the Long Knives
World War II
Hitler's political views
Mein Kampf (Hitler)
Der Mythus des Zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts (Rosenberg)
National Socialist Program
Preussentum und Sozialismus
Women in Nazi Germany
Blood and Soil
Greater Germanic Reich
Heim ins Reich
American Nazi Party
German American Bund
National Socialist Movement
Arrow Cross Party
Arrow Cross Party (Hungary)
Bulgarian National Socialist Workers Party
German National Movement in Liechtenstein
Greek National Socialist Party
South African Gentile National Socialist Movement
Hungarian National Socialist Party
Nasjonal Samling (Norway)
National Movement of Switzerland
National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands
National Socialist Bloc (Sweden)
National Socialist League
National Socialist League (UK)
National Socialist Movement of Chile
National Socialist Workers' Party of Denmark
National Unity Party (Canada)
Nationalist Liberation Alliance
Nationalist Liberation Alliance (Argentina)
Nazism in Brazil
Ossewabrandwag (South Africa)
World Union of National Socialists
Books by or about Hitler
Leaders and officials
Nazi Party members
Speeches given by Hitler
Joachim von Ribbentrop
Houston Stewart Chamberlain
Richard Walther Darré
Baldur von Schirach
George Lincoln Rockwell
Glossary of Nazi Germany