Berlin, Germany · June 29, 1934

Late on this date in 1934 German Chancellor Adolf Hitler unleashed an extraor­di­nary mur­der spree known as the Night of the Long Knives (Nacht der Langen Messer). Presi­dent Paul von Hinden­burg’s doctors had leaked the news that the 86-year-old Ger­man war hero had only months to live. Hitler feared that senior leaders in the Reichs­wehr (Ger­man army) would push hard for a return of the former Hohen­zollern monar­chy, which ended with the abdi­cation of Kaiser Wil­helm II following Germany’s defeat in World War I. Therefore, Hitler devised a plan to keep the gene­rals from acting against him or his brown­shirt SA thugs in the Sturm­abteilung (“storm troopers”). The SA was a para­military “citi­zens’ army” led by long-time friend SA-Fuehrer Ernst Roehm, whom the gene­rals saw as com­manding a com­peting force to theirs. Thus, on this night and extending to July 2 hun­dreds of mostly SA men were butchered (along with the occa­sional wife); some were dragged out of their beds and shot, while others were killed by firing squads. Roehm was dis­posed of in his pri­son cell, shot dead after refusing to com­mit sui­cide. Hitler’s press chief later opined that “the mon­strous side of Hitler’s nature for the first time broke loose and showed it­self for what it was.” When the purge was com­plete, Hitler cynically claimed in a speech to the German parlia­ment, the Reichstag, in mid-July that he had saved the nation from a Roehm putsch and further­more that in the future every­one should know that if one raises his hand against the State, then cer­tain death is his lot. As for saving the coun­try from a coup d’état—that stretched the truth. After the mas­sacre, the army old guard, igno­rant of the details of the purge, lined up behind Hitler. Even Presi­dent Hinden­burg praised Hitler for taking swift action against the “trai­tors”—which is what Hitler called his ene­mies in the Nazi Party. But with­in Ger­many and abroad, com­men­tators reacted with amaze­ment and even panic. From his exile in Holland, the former Kai­ser was deeply appalled by the blood­letting: “What would peo­ple have said if I had done such a thing?” he asked. Future Axis partner Benito Mus­so­lini wrote his sister: “Look at how vicious this man can be! Some terrible names from history come to mind: a new Attila? And he killed some of his closest colleagues.”

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

Night of the Long Knives, June 29 to July 2, 1934

SA-Fuehrer Ernst Roehm, 1933 Hitler salutes SA, Nuremberg 1935

Left: Ernst Roehm in Bavaria in February 1933, six­teen months before his mur­der. Roehm (1887–1934) was one of the ear­liest mem­bers of the Nazi Party and had partici­pated in Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in late 1923. The “Roehm Putsch” eleven years later was a fic­tion created by Hitler and his closest asso­ci­ates to win over the Reichs­wehr, power­ful indus­trialists, aris­to­crats, land­owners, and liberal bour­geoisie who were criti­cal of a national mili­tia with mil­lions of mem­bers who engaged in vio­lence and hooli­ganism. Also, Roehm’s homo­sexuality did not endear him to con­ser­vatives. In June 1934, their demands that Hitler act against the SA came to a grisly head. Pro­bably more than 1,000 lost their lives in the well-planned orgy of arrest, assas­si­nation, and execution.

Right: Storm troopers parade past Hitler in Nurem­berg, Septem­ber 1935. Member­ship in the Sturm­ab­teilung plum­meted from 2.9 mil­lion in August 1934 to 1.2 mil­lion in April 1938. The Night of the Long Knives—the term was coined by Hitler him­self—repre­sented a tri­umph for the Nazi leader, as well as a turning point for Ger­many. It estab­lished Hitler as “the su­preme judge of the Ger­man peo­ple,” as he ex­plained to Reichs­tag mem­bers on July 13, 1934. Cen­turies of Ger­man juris­pru­dence pro­scribing extra­judi­cial killings were swept away, replaced by a pat­tern of vio­lence that charac­ter­ized the Nazi regime as long as it lasted.

Night of the Long Knives Unleashes Horror and Chaos