Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Adolf Hitler purged gay men from the leadership structure of the Sturmabteilung, better known as the SA, or Brown Shirts, which led to a stronger law against homosexuality in Germany, the destruction of German gay and lesbian culture, and the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power.

Summary of Event

Beginning June 30, 1934, and continuing until the following morning, German chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered the murder of Ernst Rohm and Rohm’s leadership circle of the Sturmabteilung Sturmabteilung, Nazi Germany (SA), a large quasi-military organization with some two million members. The SA, also called the Brown Shirts, was fiercely and loyally attached to National Socialism and sought to supplant the regular German army as the true military force to lead a socialist revolution. [kw]Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives (June 30-July 1, 1934) [kw]Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s (June 30-July 1, 1934) [kw]Long Knives, Hitler’s Night of the (June 30-July 1, 1934) [kw]Knives, Hitler’s Night of the Long (June 30-July 1, 1934) Night of the Long Knives, Nazi Germany Nazi Germany;persecution of homosexuals Homosexuality;and Nazi Germany[Nazi Germany] [c]Government and politics;June 30-July 1, 1934: Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives[0340] [c]Military;June 30-July 1, 1934: Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives[0340] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 30-July 1, 1934: Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives[0340] Hitler, Adolf Rohm, Ernst Goebbels, Joseph Goring, Hermann Himmler, Heinrich Heydrich, Reinhard Hindenburg, Paul von

German SA (Brown Shirts) leader Ernst Rohm, second from right, was assassinated by Hitler’s SS in the summer of 1934, allegedly because Rohm was homosexual. Hitler stands to Rohm’s right in this photograph from 1923.

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Despite Rohm’s early usefulness to Hitler’s rise to power, Rohm and the SA soon became a liability. Hitler’s growing popularity required him to think on a larger scale. He needed to build stronger support for his programs across an expanded base of traditional political elites, capitalists, and regular army generals. The SA’s violent history of extortion and intimidation scared the average German, and Rohm’s candid homosexuality opened Hitler to potential attacks from his opposition.

Hitler publicly tolerated Rohm’s sexual openness for quite some time, and he took an ambiguous public position on rumors of homosexual activity within the SA. By 1934, however, Hitler’s campaign for president of Germany demanded he take a more conformist stance, one that would appeal to broader elements of German society. In February, 1934, Hitler held a meeting with the SA and the regular German army. He announced that the SA would cede its military ambitions and limit its future political involvement to certain peripheral activities.

Rohm agreed with Hitler, but by April, 1934, Rohm’s frustration with the SA’s loss of power would become public. Rohm announced at a press conference that the SA was the true military source of the National Socialist revolution. Recognizing an opportunity to capitalize on Rohm’s eventual downfall, Schutzstaffel Schutzstaffel, Nazi Germany (SS) chief Heinrich Himmler, military officers Reinhard Heydrich and Hermann Göring, and Reich minister Joseph Goebbels devised a plan for Hitler to act against Rohm.

On June 4, Hitler and Rohm had a heated, five-hour meeting, during which Rohm had threatened to go public with Hitler’s own alleged homosexuality. Hitler calmed Rohm and then convinced him to take a vacation and send the SA on a monthlong furlough. Hitler also ordered Rohm to hold an SA conference near Munich on June 30, where Rohm and Hitler would sort out the SA’s future role in German politics.

Hitler’s true intention, however, was to isolate Rohm from his security forces. A few days after Hitler and Rohm’s meeting, the SA intelligence group was disbanded, and on June 21, Hitler obtained German president Paul von Hindenburg’s approval to proceed against the SA by force. At the same time, Himmler spread false rumors that the SA was planning a revolution, and so made a secret deal with the army generals. The army was to support the SS with equipment and weapons but was to remain off the streets while SS officers conducted their plan against the SA. On June 25, General Werner von Blomberg, Blomberg, Werner von the defense minister, placed the German army on alert after Goebbels gave a long, angry speech on German radio accusing the SA of planning a violent putsch, that is, a secretly plotted attempt to overthrow the German government.

Between June 25 and 29, SA forces took to the streets in Munich as rumors circulated of an imminent police action against them. On June 29, Hitler traveled to Munich to confront Rohm and the SA face-to-face. On the morning of June 30, Hitler arrived in Munich and ordered the arrest of the SA officers who had massed inside the Nazi Party headquarters. Then, along with several SS troops, Hitler went to the resort town of Bad Wiesse and arrested Rohm. Rohm was then transferred to Stadelheim prison outside Munich and given the choice of taking his own life or being executed. He refused to kill himself and was later shot by the SS.

Later that morning, Hitler contacted Göring in Berlin and ordered SS execution squads to capture and kill SA leaders and other political enemies of Hitler. By 4:00 a.m., July 1, the Night of the Long Knives (Nacht der langen Messer) was over. The purge had been called Nacht der langen Messer by Hitler in a speech to the Reichstag on July 13. The exact number of SA killed, estimated to have been between 150 and 1,000, has not been determined, but a large percentage of those killed were either homosexual or suspected of being homosexual.

Goebbels gave a radio speech portraying the purge as a brilliant move to suppress a dangerous conspiracy. Hitler immediately launched a public campaign to legally justify the purge and executions, a campaign that included his speech to the Reichstag. In the speech, he argued that

If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this: In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people.…Everyone must know for all future time that if he raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.

Significance

It is believed that the Night of the Long Knives, in addition to stopping enemies of Hitler and the Nazi regime, allowed Hitler to eliminate witnesses and thousands of incriminating documents regarding his alleged homosexuality: Rohm and his associates could have blackmailed Hitler about his private life.

German gay and lesbian culture, too, suffered significantly after the Night of the Long Knives, as Hitler took quick action to eliminate any possible links to his gay past. In 1937, he strengthened Paragraph 175 of the Penal Code and enabled abusive police procedures against suspected homosexuals. By 1939, thousands of homosexuals had been either under surveillance or imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. Night of the Long Knives, Nazi Germany Nazi Germany;persecution of homosexuals Homosexuality;and Nazi Germany[Nazi Germany]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beaumont, Roger. The Nazis March to Chaos: The Hitler Era Through the Lenses of Chaos-Complexity Theory. London: Praeger, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallo, Max. The Night of Long Knives. Translated by Lily Emmet. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heger, Heinz. The Men with the Pink Triangle: The True, Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps. Translated by David Fernbach. Introduction by Klaus Müller. Rev. ed. Boston: Alyson, 1994.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Machtan, Lothar. The Hidden Hitler. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plant, Richard. The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. New York: H. Holt, 1986.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waite, Robert G. L. The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wheeler-Bennett, John W. The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918-1945. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1954.

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