June 30th in German History: The Night of the Long Knives

Ernst Rohm, leader of the SA.

The Night of the Long Knives was a purge that took place in Nazi Germany in 1934. It began on June 30th and lasted for four days, ending on July 2nd. The purge was carried out by the SS and parts of the police. The main target of the purge was the SA, a Nazi paramilitary organization. The purge consolidated Hitler’s control over Germany and further broke down institutions that had limited his power.

During the 1920s, the Nazi Party had established the SA as its paramilitary organization. The SA fought street battles against the German Communist Party and helped strengthen the Nazi Party by providing it with a core of loyal, armed, supporters. However, it had a reputation for violence and its leader, Ernst Röhm, believe strongly in the original, more socialist, message of the Nazi Party and demanded that economic revolution take place. Further, many leaders of the SA were homosexual, including Röhm, which did not endear them to Germany’s conservatives, who were generally more open to Nazi rule. The SA also engaged in a great deal of street violence; without communists to fight, drunken SA members would attack civilians and police. Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the SA had begun pushing for control over the military, which made the military hostile to the SA. Further, the SS, originally part of the SA, under it leader Heinrich Himmler, wanted it to become a powerful organization in its own right and so began pushing Hitler to take action against Röhm. Hitler ordered Röhm to acknowledge the supremacy of the army in military matters. Röhm did this, but in private began voicing opposition to Hitler. Hitler, under internal pressure from conservatives and international pressure from diplomats and leaders, including Mussolini, who argued that the SA was ruining Germany’s reputation, began orchestrating a purge. At 4:30 on June 30th, the operation, code named Operation Hummingbird, began. Men of the Gestapo stormed the houses of SA leaders, taking them by surprise and arresting them before they could martial their members to resist. Conservatives considered unreliable were also targeted for arrest and even execution, along with former Nazi Otto Strasser who espoused a more socialist form of National Socialism. Röhm was among the many killed. Officially, 85 people were killed although some estimates place the real figure at 1,000. Hitler justified the purge in a speech to the nation, and the army almost unanimously supported it. Hitler’s control was thus strengthened, and there would be little internal resistance to his rule for over a decade.

The Night of the Long Knives is not unique in history. Leaders from Lenin to Mao to Julius Cesar have violently purged their own former supporters in order to solidify their power. In order to carry out such purges, tyrants need a complicit or at least ambivalent population. Thus, it is the duty of a population to not tolerate such violent action. While the SA was a violent and immoral group, its sudden destruction would allow Hitler to inflict upon the world, and upon Germany, far worse damage than Ernst Röhm ever did.

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