Night of the Long Knives

the Blood Purge of the SA and Röhm

Shoah |Facts and History |The Nazis |The Beerhall Putsch

Betrayal at the Heights of the Third Reich

If the Third Reich was characterized by anything internally, it was by betrayal: the formidable Nazis, or National Socialists, who to the world appeared to be a unified front, fought internal strife and petty jealousies from the beginning of the formation of the Party. The 'Brownshirts' or SA [Sturmbateilung] began as a small group of German Workers Party members who protected party leaders and members during group meetings, and grew to an armed force over 2.5 to 3 million strong.

At the head of the Party in the early thirties, two friends, Adolf Hitler and Röhm, built what seemed to many conservatives a remarkable force in German Culture, which only years before had garnered less than 3% of the vote, but by the early thirties the majority. Röhm, considered even more radical and conservative than Hitler [although Hitler would later consider him 'too' socialist'] based upon his experience in WWI and later the Freikorps, built a para-military militia to 'take back' German from the influence of communism and the Catholic Socialist Party of the Weimar Republic, in an attempt to reinstill German values and Volkische culture in a defeated Germany. The brownshirts came from police departments, the freikorps, the local populations of dissatisfied Germans, and former military men. At first they often acted as auxillaries to police departments but with their military-like precision and radical values, their number grew. They were characterized by censorship and bookburnings, random street violence, particularly against the Jews and often accompanied by humiliation, and beatings and killings: as the Nazis came into power, they were held less and less accountable for their actions which eventually gave them a severe credibility.

The SA, the Third Reich, Hitler and Röhm

After WWI, the great defeat and fracturing of Germany and German politics prevailed. While the Armistice came in 1914, a small rugged corp of men continued to fight determined not to let the German cause die. This group of men comprised of former soldiers and officers was called the Freikorps, and Röhm was a member. The corp would go on to form the core of leadership for the SA, or Sturmabteilung, from which the word 'Storm troopers' derives, coming from the meaning of "Storm Division". After even the causes of the Freikorp lessened, nationalists and socialists joined in a common German cause for the restoration of Germany though they had differences among themselves. These early meetings were often comprised of former military men, misfits, and those opposed to communism in the form of Bolshevism, with a strong focus on bringing back Nordic/Volkish ideals and archetypes to recreate a strong German nation. Those protecting the meetings in the beginning, were the root of what would become the SA, or Sturmabteilung, which would grow by the early thirties to over 2.5 million. Members of the SA were slightly different in focus from the 'Nationalists' with a focus on workers rights and socialism, and under Röhm and others spoke in growing terms of a "Second Revolution". Röhm in the early days had greater power and rank than Hitler, and it was Röhm's favor which gave momentum to Hitler's growing support.

Hitler and Röhm

Understanding the "Night of Long Knives" or "Blood Purge" at the beginning of Hitler's reign entails understanding struggles between political and military bodies but also the relationship and struggle between the two leaders, Hitler of the SS and later the Wehrmacht, and Röhm of the SA. Röhm had a strong German military background, having been a 2nd Lieutenant in WWI in the Whermacht, and later a Captain fighting at Lorraine and later Thieument and Verdun. By the end of the war, Röhm was among Freikorp members who felt the new Weimar Republic was "giving Germany away" at the Armistice, and with von Epp, fought against the Armistice. Röhm later, around 1916, joined the Bavarian Civil Guard, fighting Russian forces. by the 1920s, Röhm entered the Deutsche Arbeitswerkerspartei, or German Worker's Party, which foreshadowed the NSDAP or Nazi Party, where the two men, Hitler and Röhm, met for the first time with Röhm the senior member. Both had fought on the French front in WWI, and a friendship struck up and Hitler was appointed to the position of Party Propagandist.

The relationship remained intact over the years of the formation of the Nazi Party, and many have at least suggested a more intimate relationship between the men, with Röhm referring to Hitler as 'Du' and both being given over to sexual aberrations. The SA which became a formidable institution, both catapulted Hitler into eminence, with Röhm at the head, and eventually became the undoing of Röhm, and one of the most serious threats later to Hitler. In 1921, the men organized together a security police, and later, with the SA helping Hitler in Bavaria with his 'Beerhall Putsch', Hitler refers to the Putsch as the 'baptismal act of the SA'. In 1925, the pivotal point in the men's relationship arose, and a pivotal point also for Hitler's plans and the future of the SA, as a disagreement arose as to the nature of the SA.

Röhm and Hitler had many similar objectives: both admired and were influenced by the traditional Prussian Kaiser Military system, but neither wanted a complete return, although Röhm would have been more amenable. Hitler saw Röhm as more 'socialist' in his views, a view Röhm would have probably agreed with: Röhm did not feel after 1925, that the 'Worker's Revolution', or the Putsch or March on Munich went far enough-he was deeply committed to a more trade-union orientation, with more traditional values. Hitler saw a more progressive Germany, a New Socialism to replace the weak Weimar experimental Republic, with a focus on a return to concepts of the Volk, a Nordic-Aryan mysticism, an intense focus on modern technology and social applications of Darwinism, under a far more 'idealistic' mystical nationalism which would reflect a Germany of ancient history entering the 3rd Reich, or Realm, seeing the 'new age' of Germany somewhat similar to how Christians see the Millennium, although far from having Christ as head, it would be the Führer, and Himmler (the latter even believing he was a reincarnation of Heinrich I, sovereign of the 1st 'Reich'). Because of the strong disagreement, Röhm left to become a mercenary in Bolivia, although the SA continued to grow during his absence. When he returned, in 1931, recalled by Hitler, Röhm again took the reigns of the SA, reorganizing the structure and in a new climate of rising support for the NSDAP: the SA prospered and by 1933 grew to 2.5 million.

Hitler ahd Röhm's relationship at least on the surface appears to have remained a loyal one at least until January of 1933, although there is some indication that Hitler may have begun to see 'Röhm's Army' as a threat before that- it was a well organized army of men, brutal in nature, with 'God and Country' values determined at least as much as Hitler to bring back the Old Germany for a new era. Both men appear to have grown distrustful of each other later, as Röhm saw Hitler form the SS out the SA, later to essentially replace it, and seeing Hitler as a less competent, more 'foolish' entity, referring to him in a later letter as the 'little corporal' in need of a 'vacation'. Hitler saw the older Röhm as too socialist, too 'reactionary' and too focused on a 2nd Revolution which Hitler deemed unnecessary. While the two men worked for years for similar objectives, by the end neither thought the other would coexist with their objectives, so both envisioned a econd Workers Revolution and the Blood Purge became a likely horizon.

The SA, SS, and the Nazi Party

One of the things that is often confusing to those beginning to study the Shoah, is the relationship and chronology between the SA, SS, Wehrmacht, Gestapo and Nazi Party. All had at least some similar objectives, but all also had distinctive boundaries. The Wehrmacht, or German Army was of course in existence before any of the others: most of the early members of the others first were soldiers in the Wehrmacht. The Abwehr, was the Intelligence Agency for the Wehrmacht-this distinction is important because later, both organization began to fracture into those who while forced to maintain Nazi Party Membership, did not go along with all that Hitler and his men did and believed. The fracturing became more apparent as the war progressed, as experienced military men began to discern between the grandiose goals of Hitler versus pragmatic strategic considerations. The Freikorps was a group of men many of whom were WWI war heroes who did not agree with the armistice and Versaille Treaty, in which Germany had to admit defeat and culpability for the war and make reparation. This smaller band of men devoted themselves to continuing the fight in whatever mode or form it could take. The Friekorps, then later became the core of the SA or Sturmabeiltung [Stormtroopers], and provided the guard and security for early meetings and speeches of Hitler. As numbers grew, pro-Nazi groups particularly in Bavaria and Southern Germany joined the growing ranks of the SA. The large number of men who marched with Hitler in the Beerhall Putsch in 1923 were the growing SA, and that event, referred to before has been called the 'birthplace' of the SA and Nazi Movement. Between 1923 and 1933, the primary paramilitary 'muscle' of the Nazi movement was the SA, headed by Röhm with a close association with Hitler [save for a short time], and these "Brownshirts" named for their apparel were the ones reknown for committing street violence and humiliation against the Jews, bookburnings and censorships, violence against businesses, beatings, marches and other acts exerting their growing influence. The SA comprised of many young true believers combined with older experienced German military men were willing to take Germany again by storm, with little regard for the concept of civil liberties, often even of their own German citizens. This time period in Germany is replete with eyewitness testimonies of SA marches coupled with violence, forced entries, and public displays of humiliation, as mentioned, including Jews forced to clean streets and sidewalks, epithets painted on the stores of Jewish business owners, the shaving of sidelocks of Jewish men [forbidden by the Law] and other religious affronts, displays of degradation, censorship and so forth.

While many early on objected to the SA acting in this way, few were outspoken actively intervened for fear of retribution. Paul Tillich, the great German theologian wrote of violence against dissenters on campus: one of his students was beaten openly during school hours. The SA though under Röhm, became an essential arm of the Nazi movement, as a 2.5 million person 'army' outside of the Wehrmacht, and as Hitler rose to power, Röhm became seen as a threat, since SA members were as loyal or even more loyal to him than to Hitler, and Hitler in his unilateral attempt to take power over the nation, did not spare even friends and allies in his quest. As Röhm returned to power at the head of the SA about the time Hitler was ascending to consolidating the Chancellorship and the Presidency of the Reich, the men were at odds regarding the concept of a "Second Revolution". Hitler saw the oncoming Third Reich as the culmination of the Revolution or Struggle to bring in a new Germany and new European order: Röhm believed that a second Revolution was necessary [the first attempt, the Beerhall Putsch], although with increasing paranoia, Hitler saw an independence growing and feared Röhm might with his forces instigate a Second 'Peoples' Revolution which would interfere with Hitler's consolidation of power. [See above]. Röhm did entertain Hitler's 'displacement', but Hitler saw the need to remove Röhm, and with intelligence garnered from Goering and Goebbels, regarding an impending rebellion *, Hitler declared the need for the 'Blood Purge' to root out these former friends turned insurgents.

Hitler, assuming power over the Wehrmacht, sought to integrate and delineate the power and structure of the SA with the Wehrmacht, so that in his words, there would be one 'Reich military'. At this time, there were already ranking officials within police departments and Goebbels and Himmler saw a need for a unique and elevated special forces which arose from the SA, and other law enforcement/military sectors, and hence was established the Gestapo. Additionally, out of the existing structure was born the SS, known as which would go on to be the elite Reich corp, which would further develop into special units such as the 'death-headers.' These troops such as the Waffen SS would be foremost in battle, in Einsatzgrüppen actions, and in attending posts at the Concentration Camps and Killing Centers

Part of the confusion between the SA, SS, Gestapo and Wehrmacht is that there was not a clear metamorphosis of one into another, but rather overlap and shared membership in some cases, but the groups are defined more in terms of their purpose than their history. It must be remembered that Hitler was attempting to make one unified force, under Nazi reign and philosophy, and the first three, the SA, SS, and Gestapo fit that purpose, but the Wehrmacht remained the historical German army and the Abwehr the Military intelligence unit but during the years of the Reich, Reich membership was required.

The Night of the Long Knives, or the "Blood Purge"

As tension between Hitler and Röhm grew, Hiter began to see Röhm more as a threat to his party and to the 'New' Germany. While away in Bolivia, several men in Hitler's inner circle began to counsel Hitler of the possibility that Röhm, with his 2.5million 'Brownshirts' could pose a threat to his sovereignty over Germany. At first, Hitler, (who some have even speculated may have had an intimate relationship with Röhm), was unwilling to doubt the loyalty of his friend, but over time, though some historians suggest it was a supply of purposely false information* Hitler became more and more distrustful of the man who had referred to him as 'the little corporal'.

There was some truth to the allegations: whether or not Röhm deliberately intended a future takeover or not is speculative, but Röhm's power and favor were growing among rank and file, and did not diminish during his time in Bolivia. Meanwhile, the ranks of the SA increased daily, so had Röhm intended to challenge Hitler's authority, it was very possible to do so, with a fairly large, well trained para-militia in the SA. Since Germany's population at the time was 65 million, 2.5 million 'soldiers', would be the equivalent of a para-military group in the US, apart from the Army, Navy and Air Force, of 114,000,000: it would constitute a seditious force. (note: current estimates of all 'militia-like' groups in the U.S. are estimated at 2.5 million, a far lower figure). One dissimilarity to the U.S. is that as Hitler rose to power and the SA formed, the times had been tumultuous, with riots, chaos, and very uncertain times and leaders: at one point even the Navy has disbanded post-WWI, standing in stark contrast to the traditional armed forces of the US, and the more loosely organized and fractioned 'para-military' network now.

Fearing Röhm's return and further empowerment, charges of a conspiracy were made against several key figures in the government, even those who had been loyal supporters of Hitler.