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 military 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.

Hitler therefore devised a plan to keep the gene­rals from acting against him or his brown­shirt thugs, “storm troopers” as they were known, who were mem­bers of the Nazi Party’s Sturm­abteilung (“Storm Detach­ment” or “Assault Divi­sion”). Known by its abbre­vi­a­tion, the SA was a para­military “citi­zens’ army” led by Hitler’s long-time friend SA-Fuehrer Ernst Roehm, whom the gene­rals saw as com­manding a com­peting force (nearly 3 million strong) to theirs (about 360,000 strong). 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—chronic false­hood artist Hitler turned truth on its head to his advantage. After the mas­sacre, the army’s old guard, igno­rant of the details of the purge, lined up behind the culprit. 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, former Kai­ser Wilhelm was deeply appalled by the blood­letting: “What would peo­ple have said if I had done such a thing?” he asked. Future Axis part­ner and Italian strong­man 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 magisterial two-volume bio­graphy of Hitler (subtitled 1889–1936: Hubris and 1936–1945: Nemesis) appears in an abridged single volume, 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. British his­torian and docu­men­tary film­maker Laurence Rees’ 300-page study, Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Mil­lions into the Abyss, examines the Ger­man dicta­tor’s life against the back­drop of histori­cal, social, and psycho­logical events in Germany and Austria that con­tribu­ted to the crea­tion of a mes­sianic national leader who was hero-worshiped by mil­lions of Germans and Austrians, not to mention millions of other Europeans. Lastly, the most recent biographer of Hitler, Peter Longerich, has published Hitler: A Biography, who postulates that Hitler’s rise to, and ultimate hold on, power was more than merely a matter of charisma; rather, it was due to his ability to control the structure he created.—Norm Haskett

“Night of the Long Knives,” June 29 to July 2, 1934: Momentous Milestone on Hitler’s Rise to Power

SA-Fuehrer Ernst Roehm, 1933Hitler 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, a few weeks after Roehm’s murder, 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 insti­tu­tionalized vio­lence, chilling bru­tality, and demonic insanity that distinguished Hitler’s regime until its apocalyptic end.

“Night of the Long Knives” Unleashes Horror and Chaos