Hitler’s Purge: The Night of the Long Knives Explained

Tina Gayle

3 mins

08 Aug 2018

While the SA were dreaming about using their long knives against their hated enemies; the middle classes and the Reichswehr; it was the SS who actually used them in June 1934 to crush Ernst Röhm and his mutinous SA rabble once and for all.

Röhm’s SA was out of control

The SA under the command of Ernst Röhm were a turbulent, uncontrollable and mutinous rabble who were braying for blood with a ‘second revolution’ against conservatives and the existing German Defence Force (Reichswehr) which Hitler wanted to build into the new German Army (Wehrmacht).

Hitler tried to pacify Röhm by making him a Minister without portfolio in December 1933, but Röhm was not satisfied and wanted to destroy the existing Reichswehr and take over with his band of three million underpaid SA.

Victor Gregg is a veteran of World War Two and the Dresden Bombings, and travelled with Dan to visit Dresden last year for a documentary. In this episode, Victor talks about what it was like to be in Dresden during the bombings, and the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) he suffered as a result of his wartime experiences.Listen Now

Hitler decides to solve the problem by force

Röhm and his SA thugs were the only Nazi faction in disagreement with Hitler, so on 28 February 1934 Hitler issued a warning to the SA with the words:

The Revolution is finished and the only people entitled to bear arms are the Reichswehr.

Tensions continued until June 1934 when Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS, informed Hitler that Röhm was plotting a takeover and offered the SS to enable him to overthrow the plot. On 25 June General Werner von Fritch, the Commander in Chief of the Army, put his troops on general alert against any power struggle with the SA and announced in the German Newspapers that the Army was fully behind Hitler. Röhm agreed to meet Hitler for discussions on 30 June 1934.

The purge list is drawn up

Goering, Himmler, and Heydrich, Hitler’s new head of internal security for the SS, got together and drew up a list of opponents to Hitler’s new Government, while Goebbels publicly accused Ernst Röhm of planning a takeover or ‘Putsch’.

hitler's purge

Blomberg, Hitler and Goebbels.

Hitler travelled to Munich by plane with Sepp Dietrich and Victor Lutze. The SA had been marching through the city the previous evening, told to do so by forged handbills, while the SA leaders tried to get them off the streets.

Hitler’s SS catch SA leaders asleep

Dan Plesch is director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. He is the author of 'America, Hitler and the UN', co-editor of 'Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations', and has been a frequent contributor to the Guardian and other media. His latest book is entitled 'Human Rights After Hitler: The Lost History of Prosecuting Axis War Crimes'.Listen Now

As Hitler was landing in Munich his SS bodyguard discovered the SA leaders asleep in a hotel, some with their male lovers. They shot Edmund Heines and arrested the remainder, taking them to prison in Munich.

150 other SA leaders were executed that night with further executions taking place over the following 2 days in many other German towns and cities.

Röhm refused to commit suicide and was also shot by the SS. Everyone involved in the Röhm conspiracy was removed, their offices wrecked. Some records say 400 were assassinated and some say it was closer to 1,000 during that fateful weekend.

Victory for President Hindenburg

When it was all over, on 2 July 1934, President Hindenburg thanked Chancellor Hitler from his death bed for saving Germany from this terrible conspiracy. General Blomberg expressed his gratitude on behalf of the Reichswehr, and on the same day a Governmental decree was passed and counter-signed by the Vice Chancellor justifying the executions as self-defence and therefore making them legal.

The Night of the Long Knives was considered by Hindenburg to be a great victory over the rowdy and uncontrollable SA, a victory that he enjoyed for exactly one month until his death on 1 August 1934.