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 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

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

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

WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on The ebook contains a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site. Featuring inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to different dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.