On June 30 and July 1, 1934, a “purge” was held in Germany within the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (MSNIP) headed by Hitler. The leaders of the SA (Sturmabteilung), one of the paramilitary wings of the party, were massacred on suspicion of plotting against Hitler. Hitler does not spare Ernst Röhm, the head of the SA, his old friend, who helped him come to power.
Reichswehr and SA conflict
The SA (Assault Squad) was formed in 1921 as the military wing of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. They were the main force in Hitler’s “Beer Rebellion” of 1923, and were banned for a while after that.
SA also played an important role in Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor in 1933. The German president at the time, Paul von Hindenburg, agreed to Hitler’s position as Reich Chancellor to avoid civil war between the Reichswehr (national army) and the SA. Because by this time SA had almost 3 million members. The Reichswehr should not have more than 100,000 soldiers due to the requirements of the Treaty of Versailles. Because of this, Hindenburg gave way to Hitler.
Although Hitler took the position of Reich Chancellor, he was still not the absolute ruler of the country. He did not have an absolute dictatorship even within his party. The head of the SA, Ernst Röhm, was a very conservative military man, and Hitler did not like this. In turn, Ryom tried to put pressure on Hitler.
After becoming Reich Chancellor, Hitler decided to unite the SA and the Reichswehr. Since he is not yet firmly established in power, he tries to get closer to Defense Minister Werner von Blomberg and promises to give him the leadership of the joint army general staff.
Ryom, however, had special plans for this. He wanted to unite the SA and the Reichswehr to form a single National-Socialist People’s Army and lead it himself. Naturally, the generals of the Reichswehr did not like this.
Hitler tries to reconcile the generals of the Reichswehr and the officers of the SA. But there is no result.
At this time, the mood of dissatisfaction with Hitler in the SA detachments, which are quite conservative, is growing. Ryom tries to use this to put pressure on Hitler.
Röhm did not want to take power from Hitler, he just wanted to force him to implement conservative reforms by putting pressure on the Führer.
However, the people around Hitler, including the leadership of the Reichswehr, Hermann Goering, SS chief Heinrich Himmler, and others, urge the Führer to put an end to the tyranny of the SA. They convince Hitler that the SA is preparing to stage a coup d’état.
During this period, it was said among the socialists that Hitler failed to fully implement the revolution and betrayed the socialist ideas. Hitler begins to doubt his old admirers.
SA has actually become an unnecessary structure. The Reichswehr was now in Hitler’s hands, and the party had another military wing – the SS (protection squads).
Thus, from April 1934, preparations for a conspiracy against the top leadership of SA began.
“Night of the Long Knives”
Serious preparations are made to deal with the largest military structure in the country. Reichswehr officers, who were in hostile relations with the SA, supplied the SS units with weapons. The SS foresees the main conflicts in Bavaria, Berlin, Silesia and Saxony and increases the number of soldiers in these areas.
On June 4, a few hours of dialogue will take place between Hitler and Röhm. After that, the head of the SA announces that starting from July 1, all SA detachments will go on a month’s leave. Röhm himself travels to the Bavarian village of Bad Wiese to recover his health. The leadership of the Reichswehr takes this as Ryom’s defeat.
Hitler seems to have calmed down a lot after this agreement, but the fact that the German conservative bourgeoisie is trying to appoint Prince August Wilhelm, son of the former Emperor Wilhelm II, an SA officer, to the Reich presidency and to cooperate with the SA forces him to make the final decision. After the death of Hindenburg, Hitler, who wanted to become an absolute dictator by assuming the presidency, decided to get rid of his opponents at once.
On June 28, Himmler falsely informs Hitler that the SA will soon revolt across the country.
Hitler tells von Blomberg to gather all SA leaders in Bad Wieszede. Then he called Rome and told that the SA members had treated foreign diplomats rudely in the Rhineland and ordered to gather all the SA officers in Bad Wiessee.
The meeting is scheduled for June 30. It was to be attended by all Obergruppenführer, Gruppenführer and inspectors of the SA structure.
On June 29, a “combat alert” will be announced in the Reichswehr and all SS units.
Hitler arrived at Munich airport at two o’clock in the morning on June 30. He walks past members of the MSNIP and SA who have come out to meet the Führer, and is accompanied by two officers of the Reichswehr.
Then he says: “This is the darkest day of my life. But I will go to Bad Wisze and pass the harshest sentence, call General Adam.”
At 6:30 in the morning, Hitler arrives at the Bad Wiessee boarding house and personally arrests Röm. All SA officers in the boarding house will be arrested and sent to prison.
The climax of the operation occurs when Hitler leaves the boarding house. Several trucks with Ryom’s personal bodyguards arrive at the boarding house from Munich. The guard group, the “headquarters,” were Ryom’s loyal soldiers who were ready to protect their leader at all costs. However, they get out of the car and are surprised to see the Führer standing in front of the boarding house.
Hitler orders them to go back and wait for further orders, but the soldiers stop a little further. Because it seems very strange to them that the Führer himself would come to Bad Wisze early in the morning surrounded by SS officers. Hitler will have to take a detour to Munich.
After the call from Munich at 9:00 a.m., Operation Long Knives begins. Himmler distributes lists of victims to SS officers in Berlin. A manhunt for the leadership of the SA begins in Berlin and across the country.
On July 1, Ryom is shot after refusing to kill himself in prison. On this day, the massacre continues all day and night. Almost all senior officers of the SA will be eliminated.
Hitler also uses the operation against the SA to destroy his political enemies. In particular, Kurt von Schleicher, the Reich Chancellor before Hitler, the head of the last government of the Weimar Republic, was shot in his home together with his wife.
Also, Hitler’s main rival in the party, Gregor Strasser, one of the founders of the party, was also killed on charges of being connected to the SA.
Why “Long knives”?
This name of the operation is related to the history of ancient Britain. The Brittish tribes living on the island of Britain call for the help of the Germanic tribes of Jutes and Saxons to fight against the Picts and Scots. However, when the Saxons find out that they have betrayed them, the Britons throw a big party and invite all the Saxon leaders to it. When the chiefs of the Saxon tribes came to the feast, the Britons killed them all with long knives placed on the table. After that, the phrase “long knives” began to be used in the sense of killing traitors.
The German military also gave the name to the operation, claiming that the SA had betrayed Hitler and the party. After the “Night of the Long Knives” was over, Goering presented long knives as a reward to the SS officers who participated in this operation.
Victims and the importance of the operation
During the “Night of Long Knives” or “Hummingbird” operation, more than two hundred SA officers and hundreds more representatives of the political opposition are destroyed. Journals published in Paris say that this number is more than 400.
In 1946, after the fall of the Nazis, more than a thousand Germans were killed in the “Night of the Long Knives”, including many members of the party who had nothing to do with the SA.
Most of the personnel of the SA detachments will be transferred to the Reichswehr. The rest will start working as a police and security guard. With the de facto destruction of the SA, the SS and its leader, Heinrich Himmler, would gain a great deal of prestige. Instead of the SA, the SS becomes the main armed support of the party.
The German Ministry of the Interior calls the massacre a legitimate act in the interests of the state, and the Reichstag approves of it.
“Night of the Long Knives” was the first bloody “cleansing” of Hitler’s supporters. After the operation, he will gain absolute power in the party. Soon, when the old president Hindenburg dies, he takes over the presidency and becomes an absolute dictator.