Night of the Long Knives

By 1934 Adolf Hitler appeared to have complete control over Germany, but like most dictators, he constantly feared that he might be ousted by others who wanted his power. To protect himself from a possible coup, Hitler used the tactic of divide and rule and encouraged other leaders such as Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Roehm to compete with each other for senior positions.

One of the consequences of this policy was that these men developed a dislike for each other. Roehm was particularly hated because as leader of the Sturm Abteilung (SA) he had tremendous power and had the potential to remove any one of his competitors. Goering and Himmler asked Reinhard Heydrich to assemble a dossier on Roehm. Heydrich, who also feared him, manufactured evidence that suggested that Roehm had been paid 12 million marks by the French to overthrow Hitler.

Hitler liked Ernst Roehm and initially refused to believe the dossier provided by Heydrich. Roehm had been one of his first supporters and, without his ability to obtain army funds in the early days of the movement, it is unlikely that the Nazis would have ever become established. The SA under Roehm's leadership had also played a vital role in destroying the opposition during the elections of 1932 and 1933.

However, Adolf Hitler had his own reasons for wanting Roehm removed. Powerful supporters of Hitler had been complaining about Roehm for some time. Generals were afraid that the Sturm Abteilung (SA), a force of over 3 million men, would absorb the much smaller German Army into its ranks and Roehm would become its overall leader.

Industrialists such as Albert Voegler, Gustav Krupp, Alfried Krupp, Fritz Thyssen and Emile Kirdorf, who had provided the funds for the Nazi victory, were unhappy with Roehm's socialistic views on the economy and his claims that the real revolution had still to take place. Many people in the party also disapproved of the fact that Roehm and many other leaders of the SA were homosexuals.

Adolf Hitler was also aware that Roehm and the SA had the power to remove him. Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler played on this fear by constantly feeding him with new information on Roehm's proposed coup. Their masterstroke was to claim that Gregor Strasser, whom Hitler hated, was part of the planned conspiracy against him. With this news Hitler ordered all the SA leaders to attend a meeting in the Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiesse.

Meanwhile Goering and Himmler were drawing up a list of people outside the SA that they wanted killed. The list included Gregor Strasser, Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler's predecessor as chancellor, and Gustav von Kahr, who crushed the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Louis L. Snyder argues: "Hitler later alleged that his trusted friend Roehm had entered a conspiracy to take over political power. The Führer was told, possibly by one of Roehm's jealous colleagues, that Roehm intended to use the SA to bring a socialist state into existence... On June, 1934... Hitler came to his final decision to eliminate the socialist element in the party. A list of hundreds of victims was prepared."

On 29th June, 1934. Hitler, accompanied by Theodor Eicke and selected members of the Schutzstaffel (SS), arrived at Bad Wiesse, where he personally arrested Ernst Roehm. During the next 24 hours 200 other senior SA officers were arrested on the way to the meeting. Erich Kempka, Hitler's chauffeur, witnessed what happened: "Hitler entered Roehm's bedroom alone with a whip in his hand. Behind him were two detectives with pistols at the ready. He spat out the words; Roehm, you are under arrest. Roehm's doctor comes out of a room and to our surprise he has his wife with him. I hear Lutze putting in a good word for him with Hitler. Then Hitler walks up to him, greets him, shakes hand with his wife and asks them to leave the hotel, it isn't a pleasant place for them to stay in, that day. Now the bus arrives. Quickly, the SA leaders are collected from the laundry room and walk past Roehm under police guard. Roehm looks up from his coffee sadly and waves to them in a melancholy way. At last Roehm too is led from the hotel. He walks past Hitler with his head bowed, completely apathetic."

A large number of the SA officers were shot as soon as they were captured but Adolf Hitler decided to pardon Roehm because of his past services to the movement. However, after much pressure from Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, Hitler agreed that Roehm should die. Himmler ordered Theodor Eicke to carry out the task. Eicke and his adjutant, Michael Lipppert, travelled to Stadelheim Prison in Munich where Roehm was being held. Eicke placed a pistol on a table in Roehm's cell and told him that he had 10 minutes in which to use the weapon to kill himself. Roehm replied: "If Adolf wants to kill me, let him do the dirty work."

According to Paul R. Maracin, The author of The Night of the Long Knives: Forty-Eight Hours that Changed the History of the World (2004): "Ten minutes later, SS officers Michael Lippert and Theodor Eicke appeared, and as the embittered, scar-faced veteran of verdun defiantly stood in the middle of the cell stripped to the waist, the two SS officers riddled his body with revolver bullets." Eicke later claimed that Roehm fell to the floor moaning "Mein Führer". Three days after the purge Eicke was appointed Inspector of Concentration Camps and head of Death's Head Units. He was also promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General (SS-Gruppenfuehrer). According to Louis L. Snyder, the next day, Otto Dietrich, Press Chief of the NSDAP, "gave a blood-curdling account of the slaughter to the press. He described Hitler's sense of shock at the moral degeneracy of his oldest comrades."

David Low, The Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)
David Low, The Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)

Hitler told Albert Speer what happened at Bad Wiesse: "Hitler was extremely excited and, as I believe to this day, inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger. Again and again he described how he had forced his way into the Hotel Hanselmayer in Wiessee - not forgetting, in the telling, to make a show of his courage: We were unarmed, imagine, and didn't know whether or not those swine might have armed guards to use against us. The homosexual atmosphere had disgusted him: In one room we found two naked boys! Evidently he believed that his personal action had averted a disaster at the last minute: I alone was able to solve this problem. No one else! His entourage tried to deepen his distaste for the executed SA leaders by assiduously reporting as many details as possible about the intimate life of Roehm and his following."

The purge of the SA was kept secret until it was announced by Hitler on 13th July. It was during this speech that Hitler gave the purge its name: Night of the Long Knives (a phrase from a popular Nazi song). Hitler claimed that 61 had been executed while 13 had been shot resisting arrest and three had committed suicide. Others have argued that as many as 400 people were killed during the purge. In his speech Hitler explained why he had not relied on the courts to deal with the conspirators: "In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I become the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason."

Joseph Goebbels later regretted the killing of Ernst Roehm: "I point out to the Führer at length that in 1934 we unfortunately failed to reform the Wehrmacht when we had an opportunity of doing so. What Roehm wanted was, of course, right in itself but in practice it could not be carried through by a homosexual and an anarchist. Had Roehm been an upright solid personality, in all probability some hundred generals rather than some hundred SA leaders would have been shot on 30 June. The whole course of events was profoundly tragic and today we are feeling its effects. In that year the time was ripe to revolutionise the Reichswehr. As things were the Führer was unable to seize the opportunity. It is questionable whether today we can ever make good what we missed doing at that time. I am very doubtful of it. Nevertheless the attempt must be made."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Comments made by Ernst Roehm to Kurt Ludecke (January, 1934)

Hitler can't walk over me as he might have done a year ago; I've seen to that. Don't forget that I have three million men, with every key position in the hands of my own people, Hitler knows that I have friends in the Reichswehr, you know! If Hitler is reasonable I shall settle the matter quietly; if he isn't I must be prepared to use force - not for my sake but for the sake of our revolution.

(2) Ernst Roehm, announcement to the Sturm Abteilung (SA) (May, 1934)

1934 will require all the energies of every SA fighter. I recommend, therefore, to all SA leaders to begin organizing leave already in June. Therefore, for a limited number of SA leaders and men, June, and for the majority of the SA, July, will be a period of complete relaxation in which they can recover their strength. I expect the SA to return on 1st August completely rested and refreshed in order to serve in those honourable capacities which nation and fatherland rested and refreshed in order to serve in those honourable capacities which nation and fatherland expect of it.

"Will the audience kindly keep their seats." Sidney Strube, Daily Express (3rd July, 1934)
"Will the audience kindly keep their seats."
Sidney Strube, Daily Express (3rd July, 1934)

(3) After the war Edward von Kleist of the German Army recalled the events of June, 1934.

Round about 24 June 1934, I as the army commander in Silesia was warned by the Chief of the General Staff (Ludwig Beck) that an attack by the SA on the German Army was imminent and that I should unobtrusively keep my troops on the alert. During the tense days following, I received a flood of reports and information which gave a picture of feverish preparations on the part of the SA. In this situation, I considered that bloodshed could only be avoided by a man-to-man talk.

On the afternoon of 28 June, therefore, I asked SA Commander Heines to come and see me; I told him to his face that I knew of his preparations and I gave him a warning. He replied that he knew all about my measures and had thought that they were preparations for an attack on the SA. He had only put the SA on alert in order to resist an attack. He gave his word as an officer and SA leader that he had not planned or prepared any surprise attack upon the Army.

During the night of 28-29 June, Heines rang me up again. He had just learned that the Army throughout the Reich, was on the alert for an SA putsch. I said to him that "I have the impression that we - Army and SA - are being egged on against each other by a third party." By that I mean Himmler.

(4) Erich Kempka, was Hitler's chauffeur on 29th June, 1934. In 1946 he gave an interview where he described what happened when Hitler arrived at the Hotel Hanselmayer that night.

Hitler entered the room where Edmund Heines was staying. I heard him shout: "Heines, if you are not dressed in five minutes I'll have you shot on the spot!" I withdrew a few steps and a police officer whispers to me that Heines had been in bed with an 18 year old Obertruppfuher.

Hitler entered Roehm's bedroom alone with a whip in his hand. Behind him were two detectives with pistols at the ready. He spat out the words; "Roehm, you are under arrest."

Roehm's doctor comes out of a room and to our surprise he has his wife with him. I hear Lutze putting in a good word for him with Hitler. Then Hitler walks up to him, greets him, shakes hand with his wife and asks them to leave the hotel, it isn't a pleasant place for them to stay in, that day.

Now the bus arrives. Quickly, the SA leaders are collected from the laundry room and walk past Roehm under police guard. Roehm looks up from his coffee sadly and waves to them in a melancholy way. At last Roehm too is led from the hotel. He walks past Hitler with his head bowed, completely apathetic.

(5) Albert Speer met Adolf Hitler the day after the Night of the Long Knives. He wrote about the meeting in his book, Inside the Third Reich (1970)

Hitler was extremely excited and, as I believe to this day, inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger. Again and again he described how he had forced his way into the Hotel Hanselmayer in Wiessee - not forgetting, in the telling, to make a show of his courage: "We were unarmed, imagine, and didn't know whether or not those swine might have armed guards to use against us." The homosexual atmosphere had disgusted him: "In one room we found two naked boys!" Evidently he believed that his personal action had averted a disaster at the last minute: "I alone was able to solve this problem. No one else!"

His entourage tried to deepen his distaste for the executed SA leaders by assiduously reporting as many details as possible about the intimate life of Roehm and his following. Bruckner showed Hitler the menus of banquets held by the Roehm clique, which had purportedly been found in the Berlin SA headquarters. The menus listed a fantastic variety of courses, including foreign delicacies such as frogs' legs, birds' tongues, shark fins, seagulls' eggs, along with vintage French wines and the best champagnes. Hitler commented sarcastically: "So, here we have those revolutionaries! And our revolution was too tame for them."