On this day in 1934, Hitler completed his purge of the Sturmabteilung (SA) as part of the Night of the Long Knives with the assassination of Ernst Röhm, appeasing the army and conservatives elites as well as securing his position as Führer.
Ernst Röhm was a veteran of the Great War, fighting at Verdun during the Battle of the Somme before catching Spanish influenza but miraculously surviving, whilst his facial scars from the battles at Lorraine became a reminder of his time fighting. Initially a member of the organisation preceding the Nazis, Röhm left to Bolivia after the failure of the Munich Putsch before returning after the Bolivian Revolution in 1930 and a phone call from Hitler in which he said “I need you”. He became the Chief of Staff for the SA in 1931 and appointed friends to senior positions, entrenching his power, as well as establishing autonomous regional SA branches outside of the Nazi organisation and answerable only to himself or Hitler.
Röhm’s growing power was not the only concern for Hitler, as his homosexuality raised eyebrows and undermined the Nazis for many. Indeed, Röhm addressed Hitler in the most informal of manners of any person in the Third Reich, even referring to him as ‘Adi’, a nickname. This led to rumours regarding Hitler’s sexuality and furthermore Nazi racial ideology was completely at odds with homosexuality, creating friction within the plurality of different individuals in groups fighting to influence Hitler’s policy decisions.
By February 1934, tensions had grown significantly. The SA were seen as violent, disorderly thugs by many in the middle class, and internationally, and the neutralising of the German Communist Party (KPD) mean’t that they had little function. Hitler spoke to Anthony Eden and claimed he was to make the group smaller by two-thirds. In response, Röhm grew the armed divisions of the SA and fear of an attempted coup ran wild.
In April it was clear the only man standing between Hitler and total domination of the German nation, President Paul von Hindenburg, was not to live for long. This encouraged Hitler to form a pact with the armed forces, ensuring that the SA and Röhm would be entirely suppressed and the Reichswehr would be Germany’s only military force. By June, Hindenburg gave Hitler an ultimatum; address Germany’s rising tensions or see Martial Law enacted, where Hindenburg would take control of the army.
A tirade of falsified documentation, spearheaded by Reinhard Heydrich, was produced to implicate Röhm in an alleged coup attempt against Hitler. Heydrich worked with Göring, Himmler and Viktor Lutze to make a list of all those to be assassinated and on June 30th Hitler called on Röhm to assemble all the leading SA figures in a meeting where they were subsequently arrested and imprisoned at Stadelheim Prison.
Röhm was given a gun and told he had 10 minutes to kill himself or be killed. When the soldiers returned to his cell, they found him pushing out his bare chest and he announced; “If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself”. He was subsequently shot and executed, alongside (officially) 84 others, but as many as 200.
The Night of the Long Knives can be seen as an example of Hitler’s paranoia or his genius. It secured support from middle class individuals who wanted peace and stability, conservative elites and big business who wanted a strong, authoritarian leader to provide market stabilisation and the armed forces who had felt threatened by groups like the Freikorps and Sturmabteilung. These groups would not break links with the Nazis until the dying days of the Third Reich – if at all – showing Hitler’s effective ability to appease groups who may not appear to share a common aim, and thus securing his position. Moreover, he ensured that any challenge to his position was virtually untenable, encouraging instead the concept of ‘working towards the führer’ whereby leading figures would seek to influence Hitler, not replace him.