Hitler and the Night of the Long Knives

By 1934 Adolf Hitler appeared to have complete control over Nazi Germany, but like most dictators, he constantly feared that he might be ousted by others who wanted his power. To protect himself from a possible coup, Hitler used the tactic of divide and rule and encouraged other leaders such as Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Röhm to compete with each other for senior positions.

Albert Speer pointed out in his book, Inside the Third Reich (1970): "After 1933 there quickly formed various rival factions that held divergent views, spied on each other, and held each other in contempt. A mixture of scorn and dislike became the prevailing mood within the party. Each new dignitary rapidly gathered a circle of intimates around him. Thus Himmler associated almost exclusively with his SS following, from whom he could count on unqualified respect... As an intellectual Goebbels looked down on the crude philistines of the leading group in Munich, who for their part made fun of the conceited academic's literary ambitions. Göring considered neither the Munich philistines nor Goebbels sufficiently aristocratic for him and therefore avoided all social relations with them; whereas Himmler, filled with the elitist missionary zeal of the SS felt far superior to all the others." (1)

Röhm complained to Herman Rauschning about not being appointed a minister in the Nazi government. Röhm told Rauschning: "Adolf is a swine... He only associates with the reactionaries now. His old friends aren't good enough for him. Getting matey with the East Prussian generals. They're his cronies now... Are we revolutionaries or aren't we? The generals are a lot of old fogies. They will never have a new idea... I don't know where he's going to get his revolutionary spirit from. They're the same old clods, and they'll certainly lose the next war." (2)

Opposition to Ernst Röhm

Industrialists such as Albert Voegler, Gustav Krupp, Alfried Krupp, Fritz Thyssen and Emile Kirdorf, who had provided the funds for the Nazi victory, were unhappy with Röhm's socialistic views on the economy and his claims that the real revolution had still to take place. Walther Funk reported that Hjalmar Schacht and his friends in big business were worried that the Nazis might begin "radical economic experiments". (3)

General Werner von Blomberg, Hitler's minister of war, and Walther von Reichenau, chief liaison officer between the German Army and the Nazi Party, became increasingly concerned about the growing power of Ernst Röhm and the Sturmabteilung (SA). They feared that the SA was trying to absorb the regular army in the same way that the SS had taken over the political police. (4) Reichenau was concerned by a letter he received from Röhm: "I regard the Reichswehr now only as a training school for the German people. The conduct of war, and therefore of mobilization as well, in the future is the task of the SA." (5)

Many people in the party disapproved of the fact that Röhm, and many other leaders of the SA, including his deputy, Edmund Heines, were homosexuals. Konrad Heiden, a German journalist who investigated these rumours later claimed that Heines was at the centre of this homosexual ring. "The perversion was wide-spread in the secret murderers' army of the post-war period, and its devotees denied that it was a perversion. They were proud, regarded themselves as 'different from the others', meaning better." (6)

Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler were all concerned with the growing power of Röhm, who continued to make speeches in favour of socialism. As Peter Padfield has pointed out, the Sturmabteilung (SA) "now a huge, heterogeneous and generally discontent army of four million, threatened the hereditary leadership of the Army, the Junker landowners, the bureaucracy, and the heavy industrialists" with talk of a second revolution. (7)

However, Hitler allowed Röhm to continue in his post. According to Ernst Hanfstaengel, during this period, Hitler was frightened of Röhm because Karl Ernst had information about the leader's sexuality: "Ernst, another homosexual SA officer, hinted in the early 1930s that a few words would have sufficed to silence Hitler had he complained about Röhm's behavior." (8)

Rudolf Diels Report

Göring suggested to Rudolf Diels, the head of the Gestapo, that he was too close to Röhm. "I warn you, Diels, you can't sit on both sides of the fence." (9) Göring ordered Diels to carry out an investigation into Röhm and the SA. He reported back with details of homosexual rings centering on Röhm and other SA leaders, and on their corruption of Hitler Youth members. Göring complained to Diels: "This whole camarilla around Chief of Staff Röhm is corrupt through and through. The SA is the pacemaker in all this filth (in the Hitler Youth movement). You should look into it more thoroughly." (10)

Diels presented his report to Adolf Hitler in January 1934 at his retreat at Obersalzberg. Diels provided information that Röhm had been conspiring with Gregor Strasser and Kurt von Schleicher against the government. It was also suggested that Röhm had been paid 12 million marks by the French to overthrow the Nazi government. (11) Hitler was furious and stated that "it is incomprehensible that Strasser and Schleicher, these arch-traitors, have survived to this day." After the meeting had ended Göring turned to Diels and said: "You understand what the Führer wants? These three must disappear and very soon." (12) He added that Strasser "can commit suicide - he is a chemist after all". (13)

Richard Overy has claimed that both Strasser and Von Schleicher were both politically inactive and posed no threat to Hitler. (14) Peter Stachura, the author of Gregor Strasser and the Rise of Nazism (1983) believes that Strasser was faithfully keeping a written promise to Hitler that he would renounce politics, shunning his former political associates and doing everything possible to deny rumours that he was involved in any conspiracy. (15)

Night of the Long Knives

In February, 1934, Hitler had a meeting with Group Captain Frederick Winterbotham. Hitler told him that there should be only three major powers in the world, the British empire, the American empire and the future German empire. "All we ask is that Britain should be content to look after her empire and not interfere with Germany's plans of expansion." He then went on to deal with the subject of Communism. "He stood up and, as if he was an entirely different personality, he started to yell in a high-pitched staccato voice... He ranted and raved against the Communists." It was later speculated that Hitler was letting Britain know he intended to purge the left-wing of the Nazi Party. (16)

Heinrich Himmler and Karl Wolff went to visit Ernst Röhm at the SA headquarters at the end of April. According to Wolff he "implored Röhm to dissociate himself from his evil companions, whose prodigal life, alcoholic excesses, vandalism and homosexual cliques were bringing the whole movement into disrepute". He then said with moist eyes, "do not inflict me with the burden of having to get my people to act against you". Röhm, also with tears in his eyes, thanked his old comrade for giving him this warning. (17)

On 4th June, 1934, Hitler held a five-hour meeting with Röhm. According to Hitler's account he told Röhm that he had heard that "certain conscienceless elements were preparing a Nationalist-Bolshevik revolution, which could lead only to miseries beyond description". Hitler informed Röhm that some people suspected that he was the leader of a group who "praise the Communist paradise of the future, which, in reality, would only lead to a battle for Hell." (18)

After the meeting Röhm told friends that he was convinced that he could rely on Hitler to take his side against "the gentlemen with uniforms and monocles". (19) Louis L. Snyder argues that Hitler had in fact decided to give his support to Röhm's enemies: "Hitler later alleged that his trusted friend Röhm had entered a conspiracy to take over political power. The Führer was told, possibly by one of Röhm's jealous colleagues, that Röhm intended to use the SA to bring a socialist state into existence... Hitler came to his final decision to eliminate the socialist element in the party." (20)

On 11th June 1934, Hjalmar Schacht had a private meeting with the Governor of the Bank of England, his personal friend and business associate, Montagu Norman. Both men were members of the Anglo-German Fellowship group and shared a "fundamental dislike" of the "French, Roman Catholics, Jews". (21) Schacht told Norman that there would be no "second revolution" and that the SA were about to be purged. (22)

Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Hermann Göring and Theodore Eicke worked on drawing up a list of people who were to be eliminated. It was known as the "Reich List of Unwanted Persons". (23) The list included Ernst Röhm, Edmund Heines, Karl Ernst, Hans Erwin von Spreti and Julius Uhl of the SA, Gregor Strasser, Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler's predecessor as chancellor, Gustav von Kahr, who crushed the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, Herbert von Bose and Edgar Jung, two men who worked for Franz von Papen and Fritz Gerlich, a journalist who had investigated the death of Hitler's niece, Geli Raubal. (24)

Ernst Roehm
Ernst Röhm and Hans Erwin von Spreti

Also on the list was Erich Klausener, the President of the Catholic Action movement, who had been making speeches against Hitler. It was feared that he was building up a strong following from within the Catholic Church. On 24th June, 1934, Klausener had organized a meeting held at Hoppegarten racecourse, where he spoke out against political oppression in front of an audience of 60,000. (25)

On the evening of 28th June, 1934, Hitler telephoned Röhm to convene a conference of the SA leadership at Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiesse, two days later. "The call served the double purpose of gathering the SA chiefs in one out-of-the-way spot, and reassuring Röhm that, despite the rumours flying about, their mutual compact was safe. No doubt Röhm expected the discussion to centre on the radical change of government in his favour promised for the autumn." (26)

The following day Hitler held a meeting with Joseph Goebbels. He told him that he had decided to act against Röhm and the SA. Hitler felt he could not take the risk of "breaking with the conservative middle-class elements in the Reichswehr, industry, and the civil service". By eliminating Röhm he could make it clear that he rejected the idea of a "socialist revolution". Although he disagreed with the decision, Goebbels decided not to speak out against "Operation Humingbird" in case he was also eliminated. (27)

On 29th June, Karl Ernst got married and as he planned to go on his honeymoon and therefore could not attend the SA meeting at the Hanselbauer Hotel. Ernst Röhm and Hermann Göring both attended the wedding. (28) Later that day he alerted the Berlin SA that he had heard rumours that there was a danger of a putsch against Hitler by the right-wing of the party. (29)

At around 6.30 in the morning of 30th June, Hitler arrived at the hotel in a fleet of cars full of armed Schutzstaffel (SS) men. (30) Erich Kempka, Hitler's chauffeur, witnessed what happened: "Hitler entered Röhm's bedroom alone with a whip in his hand. Behind him were two detectives with pistols at the ready. He spat out the words; Röhm, you are under arrest. Röhm's doctor comes out of a room and to our surprise he has his wife with him. I hear Lutze putting in a good word for him with Hitler. Then Hitler walks up to him, greets him, shakes hand with his wife and asks them to leave the hotel, it isn't a pleasant place for them to stay in, that day. Now the bus arrives. Quickly, the SA leaders are collected from the laundry room and walk past Röhm under police guard. Röhm looks up from his coffee sadly and waves to them in a melancholy way. At last Röhm too is led from the hotel. He walks past Hitler with his head bowed, completely apathetic." (31)

Edmund Heines was found in bed with his chauffeur and along with Röhm were taken to Stadelheim Prison. At the Munich railroad station, the SA leaders were beginning to arrive. As they alighted from the incoming trains they were taken into custody by SS troops. It is estimated that about 200 senior SA officers were arrested during what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. (32)

One of Röhm's boyfriends, Karl Ernst, and the head of the SA in Berlin, had just married and was driving to Bremen with his bride to board a ship for a honeymoon in Madeira. His car was overtaken by Schutzstaffel (SS) gunman, who fired on the car, wounding his wife and his chauffeur. Ernst was taken back to SS headquarters and executed later that day. (33)

A large number of the SA officers were shot as soon as they were captured but Adolf Hitler decided to pardon Röhm because of his past services to the movement. However, after much pressure from Göring and Himmler, Hitler agreed that Röhm should die. Himmler ordered Theodor Eicke to carry out the task. Eicke and his adjutant, Michael Lippert, travelled to Stadelheim Prison in Munich where Röhm was being held. Eicke placed a pistol on a table in Röhm's cell and told him that he had 10 minutes in which to use the weapon to kill himself. Röhm replied: "If Adolf wants to kill me, let him do the dirty work." (34)

David Low, The Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)
David Low, They salute with both hands now! (3rd July, 1934)

According to Paul R. Maracin, the author of The Night of the Long Knives: Forty-Eight Hours that Changed the History of the World (2004): "Ten minutes later, SS officers Michael Lippert and Theodor Eicke appeared, and as the embittered, scar-faced veteran of verdun defiantly stood in the middle of the cell stripped to the waist, the two SS officers riddled his body with revolver bullets." Eicke later claimed that Röhm fell to the floor moaning "Mein Führer". (35)

Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary: "Executions nearly finished. A few more are necessary. That is difficult, but necessary... It is difficult, but is not however to be avoided. There must be peace for ten years. The whole afternoon with the Führer. I can't leave him alone. He suffers greatly, but is hard. The death sentences are received with the greatest seriousness. All in all about 60." (36)

David Low, The Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)
František Bidlo, The Tidiest Country in the World (1934)

Time Magazine reported that the men had been executed as a result of a conflict between the SS and SA. It claimed that Hermann Göring and Gustav Krupp had been involved in the conspiracy. It reported that "Röhm was shot in the back next day by a firing squad". The magazine also reported that the Nazi government insisted that Herbert von Bose had committed suicide "until it could no longer be concealed that his death was due to six bullets". (37)

Goebbels broadcast the Nazi account of the executions on 10th July. He thanked the German press for "standing by the government with commendable self-discipline and fair-mindedness" and accused the foreign press of issuing false reports so as to create confusion. He stated that these newspapers and magazines had been involved in a "campaign of lies" which he compared to the "atrocity-story campaign waged against Germany" during the First World War. (38)

Hitler made a speech where he stated that he acted as "the Supreme Justiciar of the German Volk" and had used this violence "to prevent a revolution". A retrospective law was passed to legitimize the murders. The German judiciary made no protest about the use of the law to legalize murder. These events, however, had a major impact on the outside world: "The killings of 30 June and succeeding days were also an important moment in the history of the Nazi movement. Before the people of Germany, and the outside world, the leaders of the Party were revealed as calculating killers." (39)


It is not known exactly how many people were murdered between 30th June and 2nd July, when Hitler called off the killings. "Bodies were found in fields and woods for weeks afterwards and files of petitions from relatives of the missing remained active for months. What seems certain is that less than half were SA officers." (40)

Herman Rauschning argued that the execution of the leaders of the SA showed that Hitler believed that the German Army posed no real threat to his government: "They had got their wish: Röhm was removed. The independence of the Reichswehr was assured. That was enough for them. They had no use for civil unrest. They reserved the right to make a special investigation into the shooting of the two generals, von Schleicher, the former Reich Chancellor, and von Bredow. They allowed their one opportunity of shaking off the National Socialist yoke to go by. Without political insight, uncertain and vacillating in everything except their military calling, they were anxious to return as quickly as possible to ordered and regular activities. This failure of the high officials and officers, and also of the big industrial and agricultural interests, was symptomatic of their further attitude. They were no longer capable of any statesmanlike action. In every crisis, they would again be in the opposition, but would always recoil before the final step, the overthrow of the regime." (41)

Hitler told Albert Speer what happened at Bad Wiesse: "Hitler was extremely excited and, as I believe to this day, inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger. Again and again he described how he had forced his way into the Hotel Hanselmayer in Wiessee - not forgetting, in the telling, to make a show of his courage: We were unarmed, imagine, and didn't know whether or not those swine might have armed guards to use against us. The homosexual atmosphere had disgusted him: In one room we found two naked boys! Evidently he believed that his personal action had averted a disaster at the last minute: I alone was able to solve this problem. No one else! His entourage tried to deepen his distaste for the executed SA leaders by assiduously reporting as many details as possible about the intimate life of Röhm and his following." (42)

The purge of the SA was kept secret until it was announced by Hitler on 13th July. It was during this speech that Hitler gave the purge its name: Night of the Long Knives (a phrase from a popular Nazi song). Hitler claimed that 61 had been executed while 13 had been shot resisting arrest and three had committed suicide. Others have argued that as many as 400 people were killed during the purge. In his speech Hitler explained why he had not relied on the courts to deal with the conspirators: "In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I become the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason."

"Will the audience kindly keep their seats." Sidney Strube, Daily Express (3rd July, 1934)
"Will the audience kindly keep their seats."
Sidney Strube, Daily Express (3rd July, 1934)

Heinrich Himmler made a speech to Gestapo officials on 11th October, 1934: "For us as Secret State Police and as members of the SS, 30 June was not - as several believe - a day of victory or a day of triumph, but it was the hardest day that can be visited on a soldier in his lifetime. To have to shoot one's own comrades, with whom one has stood side by side for eight or ten years in the struggle for an ideal, and who had then failed, is the bitterest thing which can happen to a man. For everyone who knows the Jews, freemasons and Catholics, it was obvious that these forces - who in the final analysis caused even 30 June in so much as they sent numerous individuals into the SA and the entourage of the former Chief of Staff and drove him to catastrophe - these forces were very much annoyed at the rout on 30 June. Because 30 June signified no more and no less than the detonation of the National Socialist state from within, blowing it up with its own people. There would have been chaos, and it would have given a foreign enemy the possibility of marching into Germany with the excuse that order had to be created in Germany." (43)

Joseph Goebbels later regretted the killing of Ernst Röhm: "I point out to the Führer at length that in 1934 we unfortunately failed to reform the Wehrmacht when we had an opportunity of doing so. What Röhm wanted was, of course, right in itself but in practice it could not be carried through by a homosexual and an anarchist. Had Röhm been an upright solid personality, in all probability some hundred generals rather than some hundred SA leaders would have been shot on 30 June. The whole course of events was profoundly tragic and today we are feeling its effects. In that year the time was ripe to revolutionize the Reichswehr." (44)


(1) Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (1970) page 188

(2) Herman Rauschning, Hitler Speaks (1939) page 155

(3) James Pool, Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler's Rise to Power (1979) pages 426-427

(4) Arthur Schweitzer, Big Business in the Third Reich (1964) page 37

(5) Ernst Röhm, letter to Walther von Reichenau (2nd October 1933)

(6) Konrad Heiden, Hitler: A Biography (1936) page 235

(7) Peter Padfield, Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991) page 141

(8) Lothar Machtan, The Hidden Hitler (2001) page 208

(9) Paul R. Maracin, The Night of the Long Knives: Forty-Eight Hours that Changed the History of the World (2004) page 111

(10) Rudolf Diels, Lucifer Ante Portas: From Severing to Heydrich (1950) page 379

(11) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 295

(12) Peter Padfield, Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991) page 141

(13) Rudolf Diels, Lucifer Ante Portas: From Severing to Heydrich (1950) page 386

(14) Richard Overy, Göring: The Iron Man (1984) page 30

(15) Peter Stachura, Gregor Strasser and the Rise of Nazism (1983) page 123

(16) Frederick Winterbotham, The Nazi Connection (1978) page 54

(17) Jochen von Lang, Karl Wolff: The Man between Hitler and Himmler (1985) page 31

(18) Adolf Hitler, speech at the Reichstag (13th July, 1934)

(19) Peter Padfield, Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991) page 153

(20) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 298

(21) Andrew Boyle, Montague Norman (1967) page 194

(22) Albert Grossweiler, The Röhm Affair (1983) page 451

(23) Peter Padfield, Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991) page 153

(24) Max Gallo, The Night of Long Knives (1972) page 93

(25) Anton Gill, An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler (1994) page 58

(26) Peter Padfield, Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991) page 156

(27) Ralf Georg Reuth, Joseph Goebbels (1993) page 196

(28) David Welch, The Hitler Conspiracies (2012) page 147

(29) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 302

(30) Richard Overy, The Third Reich: A Chronicle (2010) page 101

(31) Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (2005) page 32

(32) Paul R. Maracin, The Night of the Long Knives: Forty-Eight Hours that Changed the History of the World (2004) pages 120-122

(23) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 86

(34) Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (2005) page 33

(35) Paul R. Maracin, The Night of the Long Knives: Forty-Eight Hours that Changed the History of the World (2004) page 139

(36) Joseph Goebbels, diary entry (1st July, 1934)

(37) Time Magazine (9th July, 1934)

(38) Joseph Goebbels, radio broadcast (10th July, 1934)

(39) Toby Thacker, Joseph Goebbels: Life and Death (2009) page 164

(40) Peter Padfield, Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991) page 159

(41) Herman Rauschning, Hitler Speaks (1939) page 169

(42) Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (1970) page 91

(43) Heinrich Himmler, speech to Gestapo officials (11th October, 1934)

(44) Joseph Goebbels, diary entry (March, 1945)

John Simkin