Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The 72-Hour Night of the Long Knives

"After 14 stormy years the two friends, who more than any others were responsible for the launching of the Third Reich, for its terror and degradation, who though they had often disagreed had stood together in the moments of crisis and defeats and disappointments, had come to a parting of the ways and the scar–faced, brawling battler for Hitler and Nazism had come to the end of his life."

William Manchester

Eighty years ago today, the Nazis concluded a three–day purge of their political rivals that is known to history as the "Night of the Long Knives."

Perhaps the most prominent of the victims was a man who was, at one time, regarded as not only a close associate of Adolf Hitler but also one of his closest friends, Ernst Röhm. He was killed on the last day of the purge, July 2, 1934.

Röhm was with Hitler from the earliest days of his rise to power. He and his brutal storm troopers had been largely responsible, in fact, but by 1934, the year after Hitler seized power, the storm troopers had outlived their usefulness, and Röhm was regarded with suspicion by Hitler and jealousy by Hitler's General Staff, men of affluence and a sense of entitlement.

Many of those men could trace their roots to Germany's medieval nobility; to win their support during his ascent to power, Hitler had pledged to restore them to what they saw as their rightful place by trampling the Treaty of Versailles.

He had made a similar pledge to the German businessmen who had given their financial support to national socialism. To them, he had promised to rid the country of unions and Marxists. The anti–capitalist storm troopers were bothersome; their rhetoric sounded like Marxism to the businessmen. They spoke of a "second revolution" — the socialism part of national socialism — characterized by redistribution of wealth, by force if necessary. Such talk made German capitalists uneasy.

The storm troopers' behavior thus had been causing problems for Hitler. Although all other political parties in Germany had been suppressed in his first months in power, Hitler's political survival in Germany was at risk. The thuggish Röhm and his storm troopers were perceived as a threat. They frightened Germany's middle class.

Early in 1934, Hitler met with Röhm and told him that his storm troopers would henceforth be restricted to certain political functions. Röhm agreed but later told his storm troopers that he would not keep his word.

Members of Heinrich Himmler's SS had infiltrated the group and reported to Hitler what Röhm had said. Himmler and his right–hand man, Reinhard Heydrich — along with Hermann Göring — began waging a campaign to discredit Röhm with Hitler.

That nugget of truth fueled a steady stream of rumors and half–truths that Himmler, Heydrich and Göring fed Hitler, ultimately prompting Hitler to have a long conversation with Röhm in early June 1934. A few days later, Röhm announced that he would be taking a vacation in July and his storm troopers would be inactive as well.

Röhm scheduled a conference with the leaders of the storm troopers near Munich in late June. Hitler promised to be there to oversee things.

Tensions were ratcheted up when Hitler's vice chancellor delivered a speech criticizing the storm troopers' behavior. Between that and additional rumors being spread, Hitler was being urged to take some kind of action against Röhm, but he was reluctant to do anything against his friend.

He was reluctant even at the end — 80 years ago today. Instead of immediately instructing subordinates to execute Röhm, he gave orders that a pistol should be left with Röhm so he could do it himself.
"Röhm refused to make use of it. 'If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself,' he is reported to have said. Thereupon two S.A. officers ... entered the cell and fired their revolvers at Röhm point–blank. 'Röhm wanted to say something,' said this witness, 'but the S.S. officer motioned him to shut up. Then Röhm stood at attention ... with his face full of contempt.' And so he died, violently as he had lived, contemptuous of the friend he had helped propel to heights no other German had ever reached, and, almost certainly, like hundreds of others who were slaughtered that day ... without any clear idea of what was happening or why, other than that it was an act of treachery ..."

William Manchester

Even today, 80 years later, it is unclear how many people were killed in the Night of the Long Knives. All the Gestapo documents about the purge were destroyed.

The Nazis took responsibility for 77, including the accidental killing of a music critic for a Munich newspaper who had the misfortune of having a name that was similar to someone on the hit list.

But estimates of the actual casualty count ranged from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand.

However many there were, a lot of scores were settled in the Night of the Long Knives.

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