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 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, ham­strung still by limits imposed by the 1919 Versail­les peace treaty). Roehm had even floated a hare­brained pro­posal in Febru­ary 1934 to merge the Reichs­wehr with his SA, both of course under his com­mand. Rumors of treachery and a coup swirled in the capital’s ether that spring. Hitler, former SA chief Her­mann Goering, Reichs­fuehrer of the smaller Nazi para­military organi­za­tion known as the Schutz­staffel (Protec­tion Squadron, or SS) Heinrich Himmler, and Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess—all members of the party’s inner circle—could only shudder to think where all this might lead.

And so on this night, “the blackest day of my life” Hitler told two army officers on June 29, and extending to July 2 hun­dreds of mostly SA men were butchered (along with the occa­sional wife and a smattering of Hitler’s poli­tical adver­saries); some were dragged out of their beds and shot, while others were killed by firing squads. At least one was hacked to death. Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen was placed under house arrest. Roehm was dis­posed of in his pri­son cell, shot dead by SS officers 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 ominously that in the future every­one should know that if one raises his hand against the State, then certain death was 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) 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, 1933Adolf 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. The portly storm troopers’ chief was on record, saying, “There are still men in offi­cial posi­tions today who have not the least idea of the spirit of the [Nazi] revo­lu­tion. We shall ruth­lessly get rid of them if they dare to put their reac­tion­ary ideas into prac­tice.” (Quoted in Witt­man and Kinney, The Devil’s Diary, pp. 234–35.) Roehm’s homo­sexuality did not endear him to these powerful con­ser­vatives, either. In June 1934 their demands that Hitler act against the SA leader­ship came to grisly fruition. 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 in April 1945.

“Night of the Long Knives” Unleashes Horror and Chaos