Berlin, Germany · April 11, 1934

On this date in 1934 German Chan­cellor Adolf Hitler sec­retly met with Ger­man War Minis­ter Gen. Wer­ner von Blom­berg, the un­offi­cial repre­sen­ta­tive of the officer corps of the Reichs­wehr (Ger­man armed forces), and reached an agree­ment that sealed the fate of the post-World War I Wei­mar Republic. Behind titu­lar Presi­dent Paul von Hinden­burg’s back, Hitler secured the army’s sup­port to become Ger­man pre­si­dent upon Hinden­burg’s immi­nent demise. In return Hitler promised to rein in his Nazi Party’s brown-clad prae­to­rian guard, the 400,000-strong SA (short for the German Sturm­ab­teilung, or “storm troopers”), whose thug­gery under its leader and one-time Hitler inti­mate, the portly homo­sexual Ernst Roehm, had greased Hitler’s rise to power but now threatened the Reichs­wehr’s position as the true national defense force. Roehm had always seen his SA as a peo­ple’s army and replace­ment for the Reichs­wehr (the SA also supplied him with young boys), while Hitler was favor­ably inclined to­ward the tra­di­tional power groups: the Reichs­wehr, the arist­oc­racy, and the in­dus­trial and finan­cial mag­nates. Hitler’s cyn­i­cal betrayal of the SA became known as “The Night of the Long Knives,” a decap­i­ta­tion of the SA leader­ship by another of Hitler’s crea­tions, the Schutz­staffel (Pro­tec­tion Squad), or SS, which began on June 30, 1934. Not only were Roehm and other in­fluen­tial SA officials elim­i­nated, but other mis­cel­la­neous figures such as Gen. Kurt von Schleicher, former Ger­man Chan­cellor thought to be scheming with Roehm, and Gregor Strasser, fallen leader of the left-wing faction of the Nazi Party. Hitler jus­ti­fied the mur­der of as many as 100 of his oppo­nents and the arrest of over a thou­sand “muti­neers” in a two-hour speech on July 13 to the Reichs­tag, now short thir­teen mem­bers who had been killed in the “Roehm Putsch.” The failing 86-year-old Hinden­burg was given a tele­gram drafted by Nazi Party mem­bers, which he duti­fully sent to Hitler, con­gra­tulating him on having “nipped trea­son in the bud” and saving “the Ger­man nation from serious dan­ger.” On Hinden­burg’s death on August 2, 1934, Hitler’s cabi­net appointed their leader Fuehrer und Reichs­kanzler, a mer­ger of offices con­firmed in a national pleb­i­scite (89.9 per­cent voting in favor) on August 19, 1934.

Sir Ian Kershaw is my go-to historian for al­most all things related to the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. His two-volume bio­graphy (subtitled 1889–1936: Hubris and 1936–1945: Nemesis) metic­u­lously detailed the man and the nation he led to per­dition. For people who suspect that 1,500 pages require too much arm­chair time (it did me), I suggest reading Ker­shaw’s abridged ver­sion, Hitler, at 1,000 pages. The best short bio­graphy of Hitler, at 190 pages, is by another Brit­ish his­torian, A. N. Wilson. I found his bio­graphy Hitler dead on in explaining the essen­tials of what made Hitler, Hitler. Ame­r­ican his­torian R.H.S. Stolfi’s 2011 bio­graphy, Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny, at just over 500 pages, focuses the spot­light more on the dic­tator’s per­sonality and less on his evil actions. You may wish to read an older bio­graphy of Hitler, titled Hitler, by Joachim Fest, who actually lived through the Nazi years. This probing study offers the per­spec­tive of a Ger­man his­torian on a dema­gogue who trau­ma­tized his country and the rest of Europe using state-sponsored inti­mi­dation, war, and genocide.—Norm Haskett

[amazon_carousel widget_type=”ASINList” width=”600″ height=”200″ title=”Recommended Reading” market_place=”US” shuffle_products=”False” show_border=”False” asin=”0465031285,1599210703,0230120504,1848325762,0813190983,1425102476,030740885X,1848325991,1563115956,0521524318″ /]

Rise and Fall of SA Chief Ernst Roehm (1887–1934)

SA brown shirts, 1933Hitler with SA, Nuremberg, late ‘20s

Left: Although the German public did not com­plain much when Sturm­ab­teilung (SA) acti­vi­ties were directed against Jews, com­mu­nists, and socialists, by 1934 there was gen­eral con­cern about the level of civic vio­lence for which the “brown shirts” were respon­sible. This photo shows Hitler’s thug­gish work­force in front of a Jewish shop during the boy­cott of Jewish busi­nesses in Ger­many on April 1, 1933. The sign says: “Ger­mans, Atten­tion! This shop is owned by Jews. Jews damage the Ger­man eco­nomy and pay their Ger­man em­ployees star­vation wages. The prin­ci­pal owner is the Jew Nathan Schmidt.”

Right: Hitler posing in Nurem­berg with SA mem­bers in the late 1920s. Her­mann Goering, whom Hitler named as his suc­ces­sor on Septem­ber 1, 1939, the day war broke out in Europe, is pictured beneath Hitler bedecked as usual in metals. Goering, Nazi pro­pa­ganda chief Joseph Goebbels, and Schutz­staffel (SS) head Hein­rich Himm­ler, plotted the demise of the SA. Goering per­sonally reviewed the list of detainees who were to be killed in the “Night of the Long Knives.”

Hitler with SA Chief of Staff Ernst Roehm, 1933SA parade past Hitler, Nuremberg Rally 1935

Left: Mustered out of the Kaiser’s army as a cap­tain, Ernst Roehm con­tinued his mili­tary career as an ad­ju­tant in the Reichs­wehr. In 1919 he joined what became the Nazi Party and he and Hitler became close friends. He was tried along with Hitler for par­ti­ci­pa­tion in the Novem­ber 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. From his cell in pri­son, Hitler gave Roehm per­mis­sion to rebuild the Sturm­ab­teilung in any way he saw fit. Under both men the SA grew to num­ber over one mil­lion men who en­gaged in street battles with com­mu­nists and Jews. Hitler is pictured with SA Chief of Staff Roehm at the 1933 Nurem­berg Party Rally.

Right: Hitler triumphant. SA troops parade past Hitler during the 1935 Nurem­berg Rally. Hitler admitted in the Reichs­tag on July 13, 1934, that the killings con­nected with the “Night of the Long Knives” had been il­legal, but claimed a plot had been under­way to over­throw the Reich. A tame Reichs­tag passed a mea­sure that retro­actively made the action legal.

Hitler, Roehm, and the Night of the Long Knives (You may want to mute the music)