Night of the Long Knives (Classroom Activity)

When the Nazi Party was first formed it was an anti-capitalist movement. However, to gain power Adolf Hitler built up a close and friendly relationship with Germany's industrialists. By 1934 most of the socialists had left the party but some important figures in the hierarchy like Ernst Röhm and Gregor Strasser remained. Under pressure from industrialists, the army and the leadership of the SS, Hitler decided it was time to purge the party of its "undesirable elements".

Primary Sources

"Will the audience kindly keep their seats." Sidney Strube, Daily Express (3rd July, 1934)
(Source 1) "Will the audience kindly keep their seats."
Sidney Strube, Daily Express (3rd July, 1934)

 

(Source 2) On 24th February, 1920, the Nazi Party issued a list of policies that it intended to make law when it gained power. It included the following policy.

The nationalization of all businesses which have been formed into corporations... the confiscation of all war profits... profit-sharing in large industrial enterprises... the expropriation of land for communal purposes without compensation.

(Source 3) Debate between Otto Strasser and Adolf Hitler in 1930.

HITLER: I am a socialist... I would not allow my chauffeur to eat worse than I eat myself. But your kind of socialism is nothing more than Marxism.

STRASSER: Let us assume, Herr Hitler, that you came into power tomorrow. What would you do about Krupp's (one of the largest industrial firms in Germany)? Would you leave it alone or not?

HITLER: Of course I should leave it alone. Do you think me so crazy as to want to ruin Germany's great industry?

STRASSER: If you wish to preserve the capitalist regime, Herr Hitler, you have no right to talk of socialism.

(Source 4) Gregor Strasser, speech in the Reichstag, (May, 1934)

The rise of National Socialism is the protest of a people against a State that denies the right to work ... If the machinery for distribution in the present economic system of the world is incapable of properly distributing the productive wealth of nations, then that system is false and must be altered. The important part of the present development is the anti-capitalist sentiment that is permeating our people.

(Source 5) John Toland, Hitler (1976)

Secretly enemies of Röhm in the SS were already involved in a plot to destroy him. Himmler was then joined in the plot by Göring and Goebbels, both of whom were jealous of Röhm's growing power. They convinced Hitler that Röhm was about to stage a revolution, and so a bloody purge began, with many old scores being settled that had nothing to do with the so-called Putsch. Perhaps two hundred men - the exact number will never be known - were executed. Ironically, Röhm had no intention of revolting, and many of those murdered, including Gregor Strasser and Generals Kurt von Schleicher and Kurt von Bredow, had no connection with Röhm.

(Source 6) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998)

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.

David Low, The Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)
(Source 7) David Low, They salute with both hands now! (3rd July, 1934)

(Source 8) In his book, Years of Wrath (1949), David Low explained the background to the drawing of source 5.

Nazi Party members and S.S. men got out of hand, clamouring for jobs in a Nazified industry and in an Army under Nazi control; but Hitler had promised the Conservatives and the generals that in return for their support he would leave the economic structure and the Reichswehr alone. Not yet securely established, he had to choose between the Brownshirts and his new friends. On the night of June 30, 1934, several hundred important Nazis, including Röhm, the Brownshirt Chief of Staff, were killed under his orders.

(Source 9) Constance Fitzgibbon, A Concise History of Germany (1972)

With the great upswing in rearmament, which rapidly soaked up much and eventually all unemployment, the industrialists had little to complain of, nor did they, and the steady liquidation of Jewish businesses was acceptable to many of their non-Jewish competitors, who profited there from... Hitler had eliminated many of his Socialist extremists before he ever came to power, but by 1934 he had reason to distrust the SA as such, principally because it was too powerful. Its leader was a homosexual bravo named Ernst Röhm, the only man who was allowed to address the leader in the intimate second person singular. An utterly devoted Nazi, he had one personal ambition: to control the German army and eventually to incorporate it into his own vast, irregular, ill-trained and largely Socialist private army.

David Low, The Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)
(Source 10) František Bidlo, The Tidiest Country in the World (July, 1934)

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

According to official communiques there was no one in bed with Captain Röhm when Chancellor Hitler burst in, but in the adjoining bedroom Nazi Police Chief Edmund Heines of Breslau was nabbed with a young storm trooper between the sheets. "Certain sights were disclosed in the seizing of the rebels" read the communique "so pitiful that all feelings of compassion must end... Chief of Staff Ernst Röhm's well known unhappy malady was gradually becoming unbearable, driving him into severest conflicts with his own conscience.... Der Führer has ordered this plague ruthlessly stamped out."

In the stamping out which followed scores of Storm Troop leaders, brownshirt potentates whose word has been law in their bailiwicks, were either shot by firing squads or were left alone in prison with a revolver which they used to commit suicide. The chancellor tried his hardest to make Col. Röhm shoot himself, twice sent him a pistol which came back with the defy, "If I am shot Hitler will have to do it himself!"

"Why should I honor a traitor by shooting him!" fumed the Dictator. After long hours of bickering delay Prisoner Röhm was shot in the back next day by a firing squad...

In Berlin the pouncing of Captain Göring's Secret Police was savage in the extreme. Riot trucks bristling with rifles dashed up and down the main streets while newspapers were rigidly prevented from printing a word about what was going on. No Cabinet Minister seemed to be trusted for the offices of all were occupied by Secret Police and S. S. Storm Troops who shot an aide of Vice Chancellor von Papen as they swept in. This aide, Herr von Bose, was officially reported a suicide until it could no longer be concealed that his death was due to six bullets. With rumors crackling that the Vice Chancellor himself had been killed correspondents rushed to his home where he was said to be in "protective custody." S. S. Storm Troops guarded the house but Reichswehr soldiers, sent by President von Hindenburg to guard his favorite statesman, stood watch inside. Two days later Von Papen offered to resign. General Göring was expected to take his post if Hitler accepted the resignation.

(12) General Werner von Blomberg , the Defence Minister, made a statement to the German Army on the purge of the SA (1st July, 1934)

The Führer with soldierly decision and exemplary courage has himself attacked and crushed the traitors and murders. The German Army... will show its gratitude through devotion and loyalty.

David Low, The Salute with both hands now (3rd July, 1934)
(Source 13) Kukryniksy, Fascist Lie Gun (1942)

(Source 14) Albert Speer met Adolf Hitler the day after the Night of the Long Knives. He wrote about the meeting in his book, Inside the Third Reich (1970)

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. Bruckner showed Hitler the menus of banquets held by the Röhm clique, which had purportedly been found in the Berlin SA headquarters. The menus listed a fantastic variety of courses, including foreign delicacies such as frogs' legs, birds' tongues, shark fins, seagulls' eggs, along with vintage French wines and the best champagnes. Hitler commented sarcastically: "So, here we have those revolutionaries! And our revolution was too tame for them."

(Source 15) Joseph Goebbels, diary entry (1st July, 1934)

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.

(Source 16) Adolf Hitler, speech in the Reichstag (13th July, 1934)

The cost of these crimes has been high: nineteen superior officers and thirty-one junior officers of the Storm Troopers and members of their squads have been shot. Further, three senior officers of the SS who participated in the plot were also shot. Thirteen SA leaders or civilians lost their lives in attempting to resist arrest. Two others killed themselves. Five Party members who did not belong to the SA were shot for their participation in the plot. And finally, three more SS were shot for mistreating prisoners.

(Source 17) Peter Padfield, Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991)

How many people were liquidated between 30 June and 4.00 a.m. on 2 July, when Hitler called off the killings, can never be precisely established. Hitler admitted to 76, but the real number is probably nearer 200 or 250. 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.

(Source 18) Joseph Goebbels, diary entry (March, 1945)

I point out to the Führer at length that in 1934 we unfortunately failed to reform the Wehrmacht (German Army) 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.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Describe the kind of people who would have been attracted to Nazi Party policies included in source 2?

Question 2: How does the debate in source 3 explain the changes that took place in the Nazi Party between 1920 and 1930?

Question 3: Which powerful groups in Germany would have been hostile to Gregor Strasser and Ernst Röhm? Select passages from the sources in this unit to support your arguments.

Question 4: How does the cartoonist convey his feelings towards Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels in Source 7? Explain the significance of the caption.

Question 5: Study source 10. Why has František Bidlo called his cartoon, The Tidiest Country in the World? What mistake has the cartoonist made?

Question 6: Sources 5, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, provide evidence of how many people were killed on the Night of the Long Knives. This is an example of how it is not always possible to know exactly what has happened in the past. Explain why reports differ on the number of people killed during this period.

Question 7: How does your answer for question 6 help to explain the meaning of source 13?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.