Night of the Long Knives (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Night of the Long Knives

Q1: Describe the kind of people who would have been attracted to Nazi Party policies included in source 2?

A1: After the First World War left-wing political parties such as the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and German Communist Party (KPD) were very popular. This was one of the reasons that Adolf Hitler called his new political party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party. His attempt to win the support of the working class and people with socialist beliefs was reflected in his policy statements. In source 2 he promises to take large corporations into government ownership and to introduce profit-sharing measures. These were the same policies as the SDP and the KPD.

Q2: How does the debate in source 3 explain the changes that took place in the Nazi Party between 1920 and 1930?

A2: In 1930 Otto Strasser, one of the original members of the Nazi Party, was still a socialist. He wanted companies such as the ones owned by Gustav Krupp to be taken into government ownership. Hitler clearly disagrees with this idea. One of the reasons for this was that Krupp was a major funder of the Nazi Party. Krupp and other industrialists were doing this because Hitler had promised them that once in government he would introduce measures that would reduce the power of trade unions by making it impossible for them to go on strike. This is a promise that he kept with the introduction of the German Labour Front.

Q3: 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.

A3: Industrialists disliked the socialism of Röhm and the Strasser brothers (sources 6, 8 and 9). Military leaders feared the power of the SA (sources 6, 8, 9 and 12).

Q4: How does the cartoonist convey his feelings towards Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels in Source 7? Explain the significance of the caption.

A4: Göring is portrayed as an overweight Viking and Goebbels as a midget. Hitler appears as a gangster with a revolver (a common image of him during the 1930s). The Hitler salute was a well-known aspect of his rule. The SA men are shown doing the salute with both hands as a sign of surrender.

Q5: Study source 10. Why has František Bidlo called his cartoon, The Tidiest Country in the World? What mistake has the cartoonist made?

A5: Bidlo shows the SA using violence to clean-out their opponents. In reality it was the SS (who wore black uniforms) who carried out the purge.

Q6: 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.

A6: The media relied at first on details provided by the German government. Adolf Hitler claimed in a speech on 13th July, 1934, that 73 people were killed (source 16). Time Magazine pointed out that government figures were unreliable and pointed out that someone who was said to have committed suicide had six bullets in his body (source 11).

Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary on 1st July, 1934, that "about 60" were executed. However, in his entry in March, 1945, this number had increased to "some hundred SA leaders" were shot. (source 18)

Historians, writing about the Night of the Long Knives, many years later, have more chance of getting more accurate information. John Toland, writing in 1976, suggested that perhaps two hundred men" were murdered. (source 5) Peter Padfield argued in 1991 that the "real number is probably nearer 200 or 250". He also points out why we will never know how many people were murdered that night: "Bodies were found in fields and woods for weeks afterwards and files of petitions from relatives of the missing remained active for months". (source 17)

Q7: How does your answer for question 6 help to explain the meaning of source 13?

A7: Kukryniksy, with his cartoon, Fascist Lie Gun, points out that Goebbels was in charge of Nazi propaganda. Goebbels strictly controlled what the German media said about events such as the Night of the Long Knives. This meant that it was very difficult for journalists to find out exactly what had happened.