In the dark hours this date in 1934, a bargain with the devil was sealed in blood.
Months before, even mere hours before, it was still possible for longstanding adherents of the National Socialist Workers’ Party to demand the “Socialist” part of the program.
The SA and the SS will not tolerate the German revolution going to sleep and being betrayed at the half-way stage by non-combatants. … It is in fact high time the national revolution stopped and became the National Socialist one. Whether [the bourgeoisie] like it or not, we will continue our struggle — if they understand at last what it is about — with them; if they are unwilling — without them; and if necessary — against them.
Populist, not Bolshevik. (In fact, stridently anti-communist.) Nevertheless, a distinct menace by the have-nots against the haves.*
Especially so because they were the words not of some impotent scribbler but of Ernst Roehm, commander of the the Nazis’ paramilitary brownshirts. And threatening, too, for Adolf Hitler for this same reason: his ascension the previous year to the Chancellorship had entailed terms with a German elite who needed but mistrusted the man’s mass party. Something was going to have to give.
The Communist exile Leon Trotsky’s 1933 analysis of the infant Nazi Germany’s dynamics proved prescient.
The banner of National Socialism was raised by upstarts from the lower and middle commanding ranks of the old army. Decorated with medals for distinguished service, commissioned and noncommissioned officers could not believe that their heroism and sufferings for the Fatherland had not only come to naught, but also gave them no special claims to gratitude. Hence their hatred of the revolution and the proletariat. At the same time, they did not want to reconcile themselves to being sent by the bankers, industrialists, and ministers back to the modest posts of bookkeepers, engineers, postal clerks, and schoolteachers. Hence their “socialism.”
German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital. … The “socialist” revolution pictured by the petty-bourgeois masses as a necessary supplement to the national revolution is officially liquidated and condemned.
The Night of the Long Knives this date took those blades to the “socialists”, to the men like Roehm whose dreams of redistribution were reckless enough to picture his working-class militia supplanting the German army proper.
As its price of power, the Nazi leadership purged these dangerous elements.
At 2 a.m. this date, Hitler flew to Munich to personally arrest Roehm on the pretext of averting an imminent coup by Roehm’s SA.** Elsewhere in the Reich, coordinated arrests and summary executions destroyed the Nazi party’s “left”, and throughout this date, and continuing into the next, did not scruple to sweep up whatever other conservative elements Hitler considered unreliable.
Hitler was extremely excited and, as I believe to this day, inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger. … 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!”
The final death toll is uncertain. Hitler copped to 77 in a speech to the Reichstag two weeks later which chillingly claimed that “in this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge”; it is likely that the true number is much higher. But its effect went far beyond those immediately killed: it tamed the SA’s independence, and permanently subordinated it to the military; and, it brought Adolf Hitler the dictatorial power that would make the succeeding years so fruitful for this blog.
Among those known to have been seized and executed and/or murdered this date:
SA officer Edmund Heines, reportedly arrested in bed with an 18-year-old male lover and both of them summarily shot
SA officer Karl Ernst, a fellow some think might have been the actual arsonist behind the Reichstag fire
Politician Gregor Strasser, a socialistic Nazi party member since 1921 and a longtime party rival of Hitler’s
Hitler’s predecessor as Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher, along with Schleicher’s wife
Intelligence officer Ferdinand von Bredow
The former Bavarian Staatskomissar who eleven years prior had had the effrontery to quash Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch
Three different associates of Catholic Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, the latter of whom was efficiently cowed from any further anti-Nazi comments
Anti-Nazi journalist Fritz Gerlich
Music critic Willi Schmid, accidentally swept up in a case of mistaken identity. His coffin was returned to his widow with strict instructions not to open it.
Roehm himself died on July 2, initially spared for his many good offices for the Nazi cause before Hitler realized he could not leave him alive.
The armed forces, apparently the day’s big winner, would pay a price of their own for the arrangement.
“In making common cause with” the murderous purge, observed William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “the generals were putting themselves in a position in which they could never oppose future acts of Nazi terrorism.” As the quid for the quo, soldiers were soon required to swear “unconditional obedience” to Adolf Hitler, and this oath would give countless Wehrmacht officers sufficient reason or excuse to eschew resistance to their leader until much too late.
Barely a month after the Night of the Long Knives, the ancient German President Hindenburg died in office. Hitler, who now commanded the clear allegiance of his nation’s elites and had savagely mastered his own party besides, succeeded the powers of Hindenburg’s vacant office along with those of his own Chancellorship and became the German Fuehrer.
* When the Nazis were knee high to the Weimar Republic, their party program sought such radical stuff as abolition of rentier income, generous old-age pensions, and nationalizing trusts.
** The historicity of any actual coup plot is generally dismissed, although the event is still known in German by the expedient sobriquet the Nazi leadership gave it, Roehm-putsch.