Night of the Long Knives

640px-Night_lightning_2006-06The Night of the Long Knives, often referred to as the “Rohm Putsch”, was a series of politically motivated murders masterminded by the Nazi party leadership in Germany, over a three day period from June 30th – July 2nd 1934.

Factions targeted were those left wing sympathisers within the Nazi party, notably their leader, Gregor Strasser, and members of the traditional conservative elites such as Kurt Von Schleicher, Head of the German Army and Gustav Ritter Von Kahr, who had arrested Hitler during the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. But the most significant group to be targeted was the leader of the SA, Hitler’s stormtroopers, or “Brownshirts.”

By 1934, the SA had become an embarrassment and a threat to Hitler’s determination to seize power by constitutional means rather than via revolution and possible civil war. The SA, under its leader Ernst Rohn, was eager to seize power by violent means. His troops had served a useful role as Hitler’s bodyguard and as “rowdies” to beat up opponents in the early days of the Nazi’s struggle for recognition on the streets. They were, however, undisciplined and by 1934 had begun to frighten the respectable German middle class  with their all too frequent drunken brawls. Crucially, Hitler distrusted Rohn’s sympathy for the “socialist” element in National Socialism and his aggressive call for the redistribution of wealth. He was also alarmed by his insistence on the absorption of the German army into the ranks of the SA. Both these fears were shared by the army and the middle class – hence their tacit support for what was to come.

Von Scheicher and other critics of the new regime such as the Vice Chancellor, Von Papen, openly despised Hitler and his party as common upstarts, viewing him as a mob orator. They believed they could manipulate them for their own ends, though. In this, they were tragically wrong.

Lists of those to be killed were drawn up by Hitler and the Gestapo. The action came as a complete surprise to the victims, many of whom were shot in their beds or hanged.

Hitler justified his actions in a broadcast to the German people by citing the disorder on the streets and Rohn’s alleged attempt at a coup. As always, Hitler portrayed himself as the saviour of the German people.

With this murderous action, Hitler consolidated his power within the Nazi hierarchy and throughout the German state. Fascist nationalism took precedence over social economic policy and Germany was put on a war footing. Hitler earned the gratitude of the German middle class and the business community as well as the army, who believed they had ensured their integrity. The purge also provided a legal grounding for the Nazi regime as the German legal system put aside a century of legal prohibition against extra-judicial killing. From 1934, no effective opposition existed in Germany. The years of the concentration camp and the ascendency of the SS state had begun.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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