85 years since the Night of the Long Knives
85 years since the Night of the Long Knives

It was 85 years ago this week that Nazi Germany perpetrated its first-ever nation-wide State-organised massacre, the massacre known as the Night of the Long Knives. Ironically, it was not a pogrom directed against the Jews of Germany, but rather against its own people: Nazis,

Nazi leaders and followers, who were suspected of being ideologically unsound, or insufficiently loyal to Hitler y”sh personally. In fact, it was a power-struggle within the Nazi Party, a power-struggle between the Sturmabteilung (SA), known as the Brownshirts, and the Schutzstaffel (SS), known as the Blackshirts.

The SA and the SS both go back to the early origins of the Nazi party:

The Sturmabteilung, the Storm-Detachment, was the original paramilitary organization of the Nazi party, going back to an ad hoc gathering on 24th February 1920, in a Nazi Party mass gathering in the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, the capital of Bavaria. Protestors heckled Hitler and other orators, attempting to disrupt the meeting, and a squad of former soldiers attacked the hecklers and evicted them violently. This group morphed into the SA, and its task was to provide security for Nazi events.

The Schutzstaffel, the Security Department, began as Hitler’s personal bodyguard. By January 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and the Nazi party ruled the country, the SS had three divisions: the Allgemeine-SS (General-SS), responsible for enforcing Nazi racial policy (and to a lesser extent enforcing law generally); the Waffen-SS (Armed-SS), combat units within the Reichswehr, later the Wehrmacht, the German Army in the Weimar Republic and later in the Third Reich; and the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-Death’s Head Units), responsible for concentration camps and extermination camps.

There was much overlap between the responsibilities of the SA and the SS: for example, the SA was responsible for guarding the concentration camps in the early months of the Third Reich, while the SS ran the camps internally. Additionally, many camps sprang up at the initiative of local police units, leading to further confusion over responsibilities.

This was fairly typical of the administration of the Third Reich, in which Hitler frequently established different departments with overlapping or conflicting responsibilities: the SA versus the SS; the SD (Sicherheitsdienst, or Intelligence Service) versus the Abwehr (Military Intelligence) versus the Ausland-SD (Foreign Intelligence Service); the Gestapo versus the SiPo (Sicherheitspolizei, or Security Police); and so forth.

This ensured that different organisations would compete with each other over “popular” tasks (persecuting Jews, for example), while trying to shift “unpopular” tasks (such as controlling the general population) onto each other. And frequently, they would have to appeal to Hitler personally to delegate tasks – guaranteeing the Führer's personal control over everyone and everything in the Reich.

In the first year-and-a-half of the Third Reich, the SA and the SS were vying for power and control. By the summer of 1934, the SA numbered some two-and-a-half million storm-troopers – bigger even than the Wehrmacht (the official German Army), which numbered slightly less than 2 million soldiers in its ranks. The SS was far smaller, at fewer than 100,000 men.

The SA was commanded by Ernst Röhm – a close political ally and personal friend of Hitler since 1920. The SS was commanded by Heinrich Himmler who would go on to become one of the chief architects of the Shoah. (He was arrested by the British immediately after the war, and committed suicide while in British custody on 23rd May 1945.)

Though the SS was far smaller than the SA, it was a far more formidable force: the black-shirted troops of the SS were highly trained and highly disciplined, and were – to a man – thoroughly indoctrinated into Nazi ideology. The brown-shirted storm-troopers of the SA, by contrast, were for the most part street-brawlers. They were useful to the Nazi party because they were tough and aggressive, but they were still an ill-disciplined rabble.

Precisely for this reason, the Nazi hierarchy trusted the SS, and not the SA, with enforcing its ideology.

Röhm wanted his SA to become the foundation of a new Volksarmee (People's Army), and that this Volksarmee, the SA, the SS, and all veterans' groups be united under a single Ministry of Defence, with himself as its commander. Indeed he had presented this plan in a memorandum to the Cabinet in February 1934.

This plan deeply perturbed the officer class of the Wehrmacht – professional soldiers who had utter contempt for the undisciplined rabble that was the SA. Particularly as the SA was gaining a widespread reputation for corruption and debauchery, its storm-troopers, from Röhm down to the common rank-and-file, steeped in homosexual promiscuity.

A violent power-struggle was developing within the Nazi hierarchy: the SA, the SS, and the Army – the most powerful institutions in the state – all desperate for Hitler's favour. This was at a time when President Paul von Hindenburg was still nominally Head of State, but already in very feeble health: the 86-year-old former Field Marshal was to die of lung cancer just a few weeks later, on the 2nd August.

The Nazi seizure of power was almost, though not entirely, completed: in the election on 5th March 1933, the last free election that Germany was to have until 1949, the Nazi Party received 17,277,180 votes, 44% of the popular vote, giving them 288 out of 647 seats in the Reichstag. Not a majority, but still the largest party. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the Enabling Act of 23rd March had enabled the German Cabinet, meaning in effect Hitler personally, to pass legislation without the approval of the Reichstag. Hitler was now unchallengeable as dictator of the Reich.

Over the next year, he passed several laws designed to eliminate any and all opposition.

But the feverish atmosphere in the new Reich, the ubiquitous web of intrigues and suspicions, the universal obsession with the occult and belief in dark forces at work everywhere, and above all Hitler's personal psychotic compulsion with conspiracies, made fertile ground for distrust.

With this volatile mix, it was easy for Hermann Göring (who was Minister Without Portfolio, Minister of the Interior for Prussia, and Reich Commissioner for Aviation, and who had commanded the Gestapo until 20th April 1934), Heinrich Himmler, Generaloberst* Werner von Blomberg (Minister of Defence and Commander of the Army), and other powerful men in the Reich, to convince Hitler that his veteran friend and political ally, Ernst Röhm, and his SA were plotting a second revolution against him.

The result was the blood purge.

It began shortly after dawn on the morning of 30th June. Ernst Röhm and a party of his friends were asleep in the Hanslbauer Hotel on the shores of the Tegernsee Lake in the Bavarian mountains. Obergruppenführer** Edmund Heines, a convicted murderer, was asleep in bed with a young man; both were dragged outside and shot on Hitler's personal orders.

Ernst Röhm was arrested by Hitler personally. He entered Röhm’s room alone, gave him a dressing-gown, and had him brought to Stadelheim Prison. There he was locked in a cell, with a pistol containing one bullet. Röhm refused the “honourable” option of suicide, so two SA officers entered his cell and shot him at point-blank range.

The slaughter continued uninterrupted, day and night, for three days. No one knows, and likely never will know, how many were slaughtered. On 13th July, Hitler announced in a speech in the Reichstag that 61 were shot. “The White Book of the Purge”, published by émigrés in Paris shortly afterwards, claimed 401 killed. Wickham Steed, in “The meaning of Hitlerism” published in London a few weeks after the purge, puts the number at “some 1,200 lives” (Introduction, page xxvi).

The Nazis themselves presented this blood-purge as saving the Third Reich from a revolution: hence the name the Nazis gave, the “Röhm Putsch” rather than the “Röhm Purge”. (It is a peculiarity that until today, it is generally known in Germany as the “Röhm Putsch”: apparently the name which the Nazis gave was so entrenched that three-quarters of a century after the Third Reich was defeated, this particular detail remains).

On 1st July 1934, the Westdeutscher Beobachter, the second-largest newspaper in Germany (second only to the Völkischer Beobachter, the official newspaper of the Nazi Party), reported on the “Röhm Putsch”:

“No parallel case can be found in the whole of history! Never before has any leader submerged his personal feelings so completely, never before has there been a statesman so utterly concerned for the welfare of the nation, as the Führer… Superhuman leadership, such as we have just witnessed, can surely never be repeated.

"One needs to have followed the Führer for years, as we have done, have felt the spirit of the Movement pulsing through our veins, in order to appreciate the immensity of his sacrifice; to understand what it meant to him to order so many of his old friends, many of them with splendid pasts, to be shot. We stand in awe of this man and his unexampled self-sacrifice. In this solemn and tense moment we swear that we will also forgo all human weaknesses and errors. The blood that was shed yesterday will purify us all; it is the sacrifice…necessary to keep our magnificent Movement pure”.

The blood purge, and the Nazis’ response to it, served as a wake-up jolt to the world. As Wickham Steed (ibid.) expressed it:

“The murderous ‘clean-up’ in Germany…shocked public feeling in Great Britain and elsewhere more seriously than any intellectual exposure of Hitlerism could have done. Though rumours had spread that not all was well in the Nazi ranks, the sudden slaughtering of so many of Hitler’s intimate associates and lieutenants…startled the world into asking how the Third Reich would treat foreign enemies if its leaders were capable of destroying overnight both their own comrades and other Germans suspected of disaffection” (page xi).

But from the perspective of the Jews in Nazi Germany, this violent massacre of the SA would have looked very different. In the year-and-a-half since Hitler had become Chancellor and the Nazi Party had risen to power, some 200 Jews had been murdered – most of them in random street violence by the brown-shirted thugs of the SA.

It was, after all, the street-brawlers of the SA who beat up and murdered Jews (and others) just for fun, or on drunken rampages, or in random attacks. The much tougher, highly-trained and well-disciplined murderers of the SS rarely attacked on a whim. The mass-murders which they committed were perpetrated at State orders, following well-defined plans.

It would have been difficult, if not impossible, in the summer of 1934, to have comprehended that the SS was more of a threat to the Jews of the Third Reich than the SA. Once the SS had butchered the Brownshirts and brought the SA under tighter State control, their random violence against Jews was drastically reduced.

Indeed, over the next three-and-three-quarter years, between 20 and 50 Jews were murdered throughout the Reich (including those murdered in concentration camps, prisons, in police custody, and like) – a vast drop from the 200 murdered in that first year-and-a-half.

It was only after the Anschluß – the annexation of Austria and its incorporation into the German Reich on 12th March 1938 – that untrammelled street violence and murder against Jews began again. That time round, it began in Austria, mainly on the streets of Vienna, and from there spilled back into Germany; and reached its peak eight months later, on 9th November 1938, with Kristallnacht – which is usually reckoned as the start of the Shoah.

It is one of the supreme ironies of the Shoah that the Röhm Purge, the Nazis’ first murderous pogrom, directed against their own people in an internal power-struggle, appeared to the Jews of the Reich to be their salvation. Little could anyone have known at the time what unspeakable and unbridled savagery yet lay a few short years ahead.


Generaloberst: The highest rank in the Reichsheer (the German Army at the time: it would become the Wehrmacht less than a year later, on 16th March 1935). Generaloberst is a rank higher that a Four-Star General but lower than General of the Army in the US Army, or higher than a General but lower than a Field Marshal in the British Army.

Obergruppenführer: A rank in the SA and SS, approximately equivalent to General.