Great Blood Purge

The Great Blood Purge eliminated the Sturm Abteilung’s leadership and gained support for Adolf Hitler’s radical restructuring of German society among German military leaders and industrialists.

Summary of Event

From June 30 through July 2, 1933, members of the SS summarily executed several hundred Germans on direct orders from Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Hitler targeted the top leadership of the Sturm Abteilung, or SA (also known as the Brownshirts), including the SA chief of staff, his old friend Ernst Röhm. These murders, which were often called the Röhm Purge or the Night of the Long Knives, resulted from a series of intrigues among top leaders of the Nazi Party, members of the German general staff, and non-Nazi members of the German government. [kw]Great Blood Purge (June 30-July 2, 1934)
[kw]Blood Purge, Great (June 30-July 2, 1934)
[kw]Purge, Great Blood (June 30-July 2, 1934)
Great Blood Purge
Röhm Purge
Night of the Long Knives
Sturm Abteilung
SS (Schutzstaffel)
Nazi Germany;Great Blood Purge
[g]Germany;June 30-July 2, 1934: Great Blood Purge[08690]
[c]Terrorism;June 30-July 2, 1934: Great Blood Purge[08690]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;June 30-July 2, 1934: Great Blood Purge[08690]
[c]Government and politics;June 30-July 2, 1934: Great Blood Purge[08690]
Hitler, Adolf
[p]Hitler, Adolf;Great Blood Purge
Röhm, Ernst
Göring, Hermann
Himmler, Heinrich
Hindenburg, Paul von
Blomberg, Werner von
Salomon, Franz Pfeffer von

The origins of the purge dated to the beginnings of Hitler’s movement. Röhm, a World War I hero and career army officer, joined the fledgling Nazi Party in 1919, shortly after Hitler’s own entry. Röhm became a valuable liaison between Hitler and the German general staff during the years before Hitler’s first attempt to seize political power in Germany in 1923. During the eleven months of Hitler’s imprisonment after the failed Beer Hall Putsch Beer Hall Putsch (1923) in 1923, Röhm, with Hitler’s authorization, managed to reorganize the SA under another name and keep its members together, despite a government ban on the Nazi Party and its affiliated organizations.

Hitler had authorized the formation of the SA as the paramilitary arm of the Nazi Party in 1922. Its members had protected party meetings and rallies from being broken up by organizations affiliated with rival political parties, particularly those with Marxist orientations. Members of the SA had also broken up the rallies of other parties in bloody confrontations on the streets of many German cities.

By the time the German government released Hitler from prison in December, 1924, Röhm had built the SA into an organization with thirty thousand members. Röhm wanted to maintain the SA as an autonomous organization under his own direct command, and when Hitler insisted that the SA be subordinated to the party leadership rather than to Röhm, Röhm resigned from both the party and the SA. During the next five years, Röhm tried several jobs with little success. In 1928, he accepted a position as an instructor with the Bolivian army.

In 1930, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, Röhm’s successor as chief of staff of the SA, resigned his post after a dispute with Hitler. Röhm returned to Germany the next year to resume his command of the SA on Hitler’s personal invitation. During the next two politically turbulent years, Röhm built the SA into a private army almost a million strong (the German army, by comparison, had slightly more than one hundred thousand officers and enlisted men). The members of the organization came largely from the ranks of the unemployed, were mostly young (under twenty-five), and espoused radical solutions to Germany’s social and economic problems. Röhm himself began to envision the SA as becoming a people’s militia that would absorb the regular army once the Nazis came to power.

During the period 1931-1933, Hitler came under increasing criticism from conservative circles in German society because of Röhm’s open homosexuality and his appointment of other homosexuals to high posts in the SA. Röhm and his friends gained reputations as being corrupt and engaged in criminal activities as well as being morally dissolute. Despite this criticism, Hitler refused to replace Röhm. He argued that only Röhm could control the radicalism of the SA members and turn it to the advantage of the Nazi struggle for political power. After the parliamentary elections of March, 1933, however, Hitler’s attitude toward his old comrade began to change.

The March elections gave the Nazis and their coalition partners a slight majority in the German parliament. The parliament immediately passed the Enabling Act, Enabling Act (1933) which gave Hitler dictatorial powers to solve the problems created by the Great Depression in Germany. Rank-and-file members of the SA became uncontrollable after Hitler’s success, and many began to launch physical attacks against Germans they considered inimical to the creation of an egalitarian society. Wealthy and prominent Jews became favorite targets of SA violence. The SA membership and leadership talked openly of an imminent “second revolution” during which they would replace the old institutions of Germany with new institutions.

As his men and officers became more impatient with Hitler’s failure to elevate them to top positions in Germany and institute the “second revolution,” Röhm began to openly criticize the Nazi Party’s leaders. He also began to criticize Hitler in private, although his basic sense of loyalty remained. Still, SA violence, Röhm’s homosexuality, and his criticism of members of the party’s top hierarchy had won him the enmity of several Nazi officials by early 1934. Hermann Göring, prime minister of Prussia and the most powerful Nazi after Hitler, joined forces with Wilhelm Frick, minister of the interior. These two men began conspiring to oust Röhm from the leadership of the SA. Göring and Frick gained an important ally when Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, joined the anti-Röhm coalition. Despite the mounting criticism of Röhm, Hitler refused to dismiss the man who had been instrumental in the Nazi electoral successes of 1930-1933.

In April, 1934, Hitler met with leaders of Germany’s general staff. He needed the support of the army if his plans for a rejuvenated Germany were to succeed. The representatives of the general staff demanded that in return for their support Hitler initiate a massive expansion of the German armed forces and greatly diminish the size and power of the SA. The army leadership feared that Röhm’s plan to absorb the regular army into the SA might actually be realized. Then, on June 17, 1933, Hitler’s vice chancellor, Franz von Papen (a member of the conservative establishment of Germany who was never a Nazi Party member), delivered a speech at Marburg criticizing Röhm and the SA leadership. Hitler interpreted Papen’s speech as the official position of German conservatives, and President Paul von Hindenburg of Germany confirmed the conservatives’ determination to be rid of Röhm in a meeting with Hitler on June 21. Hindenburg and Minister of War Werner von Blomberg warned that unless Hitler dismissed Röhm and curbed the SA, they were prepared to declare martial law. Even in the face of mounting pressure from his own party leadership and the conservative circles whose support he needed, Hitler continued to vacillate about replacing Röhm. In reaction to the growing criticism of Röhm and the SA, Hitler ordered the entire membership of the SA to go on leave effective July 1. He also scheduled a meeting with Röhm for 11:00 a.m. on June 30.

Göring finally pushed Hitler into action. Göring and Himmler met with Hitler shortly after 1:00 a.m. on June 30 and gave him details of a supposed plot by Röhm and his SA officers to arrest Hitler and take control of the government. Accepting the accusations without investigation, Hitler ordered Himmler’s SS to arrest and execute the SA officers supposedly involved in the plot. Hitler personally led a detachment of SS troops in the predawn hours to arrest Röhm. Over the next three days, SS troops executed many SA officers, including Röhm, in several German cities.


Röhm and his SA leaders were not the only victims of the purge. As early as June 24, Göring and his coconspirators began drawing up lists of Germans to be eliminated. Included on the list were their own personal enemies and people they felt were dangerous to Nazi aspirations. Hitler added other names to the list on July 1 and 2. Included among the non-SA victims of the purge were individuals who had opposed Hitler during the preceding years, including Kurt von Schleicher (Hitler’s immediate predecessor as German chancellor) and his wife, and Gregor Strasser, who had once challenged Hitler for leadership of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party).

Hitler announced to the German parliament on July 13 that the SS had executed seventy-seven people during the purge, all of whom were involved in a plot to overthrow his government. The parliament immediately passed a law legalizing everything Hitler had done to protect Germany, and President Hindenburg sent him a congratulatory message. The purge won Hitler the support of the army and eliminated the primary target of domestic criticism of the Nazi party. Historians of the period put the purge’s death toll much higher; estimates range from 150 to more than 1,000. Although Hitler consolidated his position in Germany, the brutality and lawlessness of the purges revealed the true face of Nazism for the first time. Great Blood Purge
Röhm Purge
Night of the Long Knives
Sturm Abteilung
SS (Schutzstaffel)
Nazi Germany;Great Blood Purge

Further Reading

  • Bornstein, Joseph. The Politics of Murder. Toronto: George J. McLeod, 1950. Surveys political murders in the twentieth century, including the Röhm purge.
  • Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. New York: Hill & Wang, 2000. Less accessible than the Evans volume cited below. Includes an interesting and thorough analysis of the role of the purge in Nazism.
  • Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. A work of impressive and engaging scholarship on the events that led to the purge.
  • Gallo, Max. The Night of the Long Knives. Translated by Lily Emmet. Toronto: Harper & Row, 1972. The most complete account of the Röhm purge in English.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1889-1945: Hubris. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. The Rhineland rearmament is viewed as the triumphant capstone of Hitler’s early political career and the springboard for his more aggressive global initiatives.
  • Smelser, Ronald, and Rainer Zitelmann, eds. The Nazi Elite. Translated by Mary Fischer. New York: New York University Press, 1989. Biographical sketches of twenty-two leading Nazis, including Ernst Röhm. Concise account of Röhm’s life and the events of the purge.
  • Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988. Introductory college text includes a brief account of the Röhm purge.
  • Tolstoy, Nikolai. Night of the Long Knives. New York: Ballantine, 1972. Concise account of the purge, accessible to most readers. Replete with a number of rare photographs.

Beer Hall Putsch

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Reichstag Fire

Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating

Enabling Act of 1933

German Troops March into the Rhineland

The Anschluss

Munich Conference


Nazi Extermination of the Jews

Nazi-Soviet Pact