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Night of the Long Knives
The Night of the Long Knives (German, Nacht der langen Messer), also known as Reichsmordwoche or "the Blood Purge", was a purge ordered by Adolf Hitler of potential political rivals (who have been said to want more socialism and less nationalism in the party)in the Sturmabteilung, or S.A. The Night of the Long Knives took place during the late night of Saturday June 30 and the early morning of Sunday July 1 in 1934. Official records tally the dead at 77, though 400 are believed to have been killed.
By the summer of 1933, the S.A. had grown discontented with the progress of the Nazi regime. Many had taken seriously the "socialism" of "National Socialism", and were angry that Hitler and the other party leaders had not. As a result, they grew increasingly distant from the Nazi leadership and believed further steps needed to be taken to achieve substantive social and economic change. They also wanted to become the core of a new German army.
By 1934, Hitler dominated Germany's government, but still feared losing power in a coup d'Útat. To maintain complete control, he allowed political infighting to continue among his subordinates. As a result, a political struggle grew, with Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich on one side and Ernst Röhm, the leader of the S.A., on the other. The S.A. was the only remaining viable threat to Hitler's power.
The power of Röhm and his violent organization frightened his rivals. Goering and Himmler asked Heydrich to assemble a dossier of manufactured evidence to suggest that Röhm had been paid 12 million marks by France to overthrow Hitler. Himmler presented the "evidence" to Hitler, fuelling his suspicion that Röhm intended to use the S.A. to launch a plot against him ("Röhm-Putsch"). At the time, Himmler had nearly completed the restructuring of another Nazi organization, the SS (Schutzstaffel), from one tasked with protecting Nazi leaders into a secret police formation. The eventual marginalization of the SA removed an obstacle to Himmler's accumulation of power over the coming years.
Hitler had always liked Röhm; he was one of the first members of the Nazi Party, participating in the Beer Hall Putsch. But Hitler was under increasing pressure to reduce the S.A. influence. German military leaders were unhappy with Röhm's proposal that the German army be absorbed into the larger S.A., and the industrialists that supported Hitler were concerned over the S.A.'s socialist leanings. The regular army was also alarmed by the size of the S.A. — in early 1934 it numbered 2.5 million, while the army was limited by the Treaty of Versailles to 100,000. Some leaders of the Nazi party also joined the dislike many conservative officers expressed over the overt homosexuality of R÷hm and some other S.A. leaders. The Night of the Long Knives was a significant prelude to the dark history of Homosexuals during the Holocaust.
With all these groups aligned against Röhm, Hitler decided to act. He ordered all S.A. leaders to attend a meeting at the Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiessee near Munich. On June 30 Hitler took personal command of Röhm's arrest. Alfred Rosenberg's diary provides an account:
- With an SS escort detachment the Führer drove to Bad Wiessee and knocked softly on Röhm's door: “Message from Munich,” he said with disguised voice. “Well come in,” Röhm called to the supposed messenger, “the door is open.” Hitler tore open the door, fell on Röhm as he lay in bed, seized him by the throat and screamed, “You are under arrest, you swine.” Then he turned the traitor over to the SS. At first Röhm refused to get dressed. The SS then threw his clothes in the Chief of Staff's face until he bestirred himself to put them on. In the room next door, they found young men engaged in homosexual activity. “And these are the kind who want to be leaders in Germany,” the Führer said trembling. (Spielvogel, 78)
In the following hours other S.A. leaders were also arrested, and many were shot out of hand. Apparently Hitler intended to pardon Röhm, but eventually decided to have him executed. It is believed that Röhm was offered a chance of suicide but was eventually shot. Hitler also used this purge of the S.A. to settle old scores: Third-Positionist Gregor Strasser, former Bavarian Commissar and Triumvir Gustav von Kahr , former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and Conservative Revolutionary figure Edgar Jung, among others, were all murdered. Another former Chancellor, Franz von Papen, was put under house arrest.
On July 3, the Reich government decided upon the Law Regarding Measures of State Self-Defense, consisting of a single article simply declaring the "measures taken" to be "legal State self-defense."
Hitler announced the purge on 13 July, claiming 61 had been executed, 13 shot while resisting arrest, and 3 had committed suicide. In announcing the purge he stated, "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". - from William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1959.
As a result of the purge, Hitler gained a measure of gratitude and support from the Reichswehr. On July 26th, the S.S. was made independent of the S.A., with Himmler as its Reichsführer, answerable only to Hitler. Victor Lutze became the new leader of the S.A., and it was soon marginalized in the Nazi power structure.
- Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001.
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