In June of 1934, Adolph Hitler ordered his troops to carry out a large-scale purge of suspected dissidents within the Nazi party.
It actually took place over the course of several days and nights.
Origin of “Night of the Long Knives”
Historians say that it began on June 29 and ended on June 30.
During that time, Hitler’s SS troopers rounded up and killed approximately 77 men belonging to Hitler’s own Nazi party. Because Hitler announced the deaths publicly, they also served as a warning to anyone considering betraying the Nazi party or its leader. In subsequent days, the SS arrested hundreds more party members, killing some of those who were taken into custody.
The night of the long knives was both a way for Hitler to strengthen his grip on power and a way for the chancellor to ensure the ongoing loyalty of the SS.
The SS, or Schutzstaffel, was a select group that initially served as Hitler’s personal bodyguard (their name translates to “Protective Echelon.”) In 1929, Heinrich Himmler assumed command of the force and began transforming it into an elite force, growing it both in size and in scope. Himmler wanted his SS to become more powerful than the Sturmabteilung, or “Assault Division” troops (they were commonly known as the SA).
The SS troops swore unconditional loyalty to Hitler, making them attractive allies for Hitler. Historians say that the night of the long knives came about partly as the result of a secret pact between Hitler and Himmler; in return for the continued loyalty of the SS, Hitler agreed to let the force stamp out the most powerful elements of the SA, including the SA’s own leader, Ernst Rohm.
In 1934 Hitler, who had been serving as chancellor for a year already, was in the process of further consolidating his power. That meant, for him, making sure that all of his followers were completely behind him and eliminating anybody who could potentially become his rival in the future. He was especially concerned about the high-ranking members of the Storm Troopers, who held a natural power within the country and could be perceived as a threat, eventually.
Hitler was also seeking to bring together his followers around a single ideology. During his initial rise to power, he had stressed a “national socialist” agenda, focused on the economic rights of workers. By 1934, he wanted to move away from that agenda. After the Night of the Long Knives, the Nazi party was solidified in its racist and anti-Semitic focus.
In the event, the arrest and subsequent murder of Ernst Rohm was presented as a triumph of Nazi strength over dissent. Hitler alleged that Rohm had been plotting a sort of coup, or putsch; this served as a further reason to purge the highest ranks of Rohm’s SA forces. It also served as a smokescreen for the murders of other political enemies.
Over the course of the night of the long knives, members of the SS arrested and shot not only SA members, but also the last chancellor of the Weimar Republic, Kurt von Schleicher, as well as a number of public critics of Nazi activities, including Gustav von Kahr, Edgar Jung, and Erich Klausener.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.